Telling a Story: A Journey Into the Dark?

Poet and author Robert Frost once said, "I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering."

It's an enlightening comment. If we scratch at it, unearthing some of the golden meaning hidden within, we could surmise that the poet felt as though expectations and goals were the death of creativity.  That by circumventing the natural exploration of the words and emotions behind them, it would somehow strip the work of life. Direction being a fungus bound to overtake and stifle the energy *POWER* of the work.  

In my own writing I've often found that I carry preconceptions about a story long before I get it drafted out.  XYZ character needs to be of a certain type.  She needs to meet certain objectives and obstacles. Readers will expect a certain amount of action.  Readers won't care for that type of dialogue. On and on it goes. 

It has left me wondering where these thoughts come from, and if they are good for storytelling at all.  

A little reflection shows that these ideas of how a story should be told come from the collected information I've gathered on the craft over the years. Listening to other writers, courses in literature in college, trial and error, or 'How To' books and articles I've read have all contributed to my understanding of how one goes about writing a story.

I've also learned (somewhat subconsciously) quite a lot from my favorite reads.  I never underestimate the influence of the words I read on the words I write.  Imitation is only flattery if you're doing so on purpose, after all, so it's something I'm mindful of.

In terms of whether the impact on my writing has been positive or negative, I'd have to say it's kind of a mixed bag.  I certainly believe there is value in understanding the basic constructs and principals of story telling.   There is worth in plotting, for every adventure has a beginning and an end.  To not know which is which can lead to waisted time and, worse still, losing the story entirely.  

Unfortunately, I also think yearning for too much structure has at times sucked some of the marrow from my creative bones.

In the end, I side with Frost.  I believe a story is truly told as you would navigate a cave with a lantern, which is to say a few steps at a time.  The shadows swaying like beckoning ghosts at the edge of your light will sometimes yield a dead end, and other times open up into a cavern of unimaginable depth and beauty. If you only follow a plotted course, you risk missing out on the true wonders of trip.  

In short: A story told can be good.  A story explored can be great.

So what about you? Have you ever worried so much about maintaining structure that creativity has taken a backseat?  Have you developed a way to have both in your writing? Do you write blind as Frost suggests?


What's Your Writing Kryptonite?

If truth serum were poured into the collective margarita glasses of all writers, I think we'd quickly learn that there is some aspect of the craft that vexes each and every one of us.  Be it an easy fix, like an unhealthy addiction to adverbs.  Or slightly(see what I did there?) more complex issues with plotting, themes, etc.  We all have the ONE thing.

My kryptonite?  Onomatopoeia ... or rather the lack there of.  I might be the worst phonetic speller in the known universe.  And by worst I mean I do it all the time.  I do many things by ear and tone that most would consider to be a blessing, like sing and play musical instruments.  Unfortunately, I also spell by ear.  Not a big thing, but a REALLY freaking annoying thing.  

That's not to say I do all of the other writing things well, I just think spelling is one of my greatest foes.  What's your thing?  Do you rip your dialog straight from bad soap operas?  Does your computer screen have more depth than your characters?  Let's vent!  :-)




"Best of Con" sounds like a rad Star Trek movie title, right?

Hey gang!  I know many of you participated in this weeks 2nd Annual Freaking-Awesome-FREE-Web-Writing-Conference-Supreme-Event, WriteOnCon.  How do I know?  Because I saw half of you poking around the live chats, and many of you said 'hello' to me on Twitter!  (Super cool of you, btw.)

At any rate, I thought a few of you might have missed out and I wanted to do you a solid.  While you can certainly mosey on over to the WriteOnCon website and look through all three days worth of awesome content at your leisure (they keep it all on the site), there's a ton of stuff to go through.  So much, in fact, that it might take you three whole days to see/read it all.

Like all conferences, I found there to be many useful sessions, but also a few (very few) that were less useful.  As such I've decided to pass on my 5 favorites to ease your already taxed schedule.  Keep in mind that these are just my favorites (I've been through everything at the Con).  There are dozens of great things I've not mentioned, so I'd recommend checking it out for yourself because, as they say, your mileage may vary.

5. PICK UP THE PACE - Author Tara Hudson offers up some straightforward tips and thoughts on story pacing.  She also discusses her revision process, which I found very informative as well.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Tara is from my home state of Oklahoma.  WINNING! Seriously, if you've ever needed a pointblank overview and understanding of what pacing is and why it works/doesn't, this is it.

QUOTE OF NOTE:  "A compelling story, relatable characters, and a bewitching voice definitely don’t hurt a book. But the thing that will make your reader say “one more chapter” at 2 a.m. is pacing. It is your novel’s balance of description and dialogue, of back story and back-breaking action"

4. SPEAKING OF REVISION: Author Carrie Ryan explains why revision is your friend.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Carrie is very convincing when she says she was someone who originally hated doing revisions.  If you've been in that boat, or if you're looking for a new way of getting it done, Carrie's got you covered.

QUOTE OF NOTE: "--some of the scenes I’d detested while drafting actually came out better than I expected and this taught me to push through the hard writing days because either (a) the writing isn’t as bad as you think or (b) you can fix it later."

3. TRADITIONAL VS SELF-PUBLISHING - AN AGENT'S TAKE: In a live chat, literary agent Sara Megibow weighs the pro/con of going it alone electronically or shacking up with a paper publisher.  The link will take you to an area where you 'replay' the chat and read all of the comments.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: This is a very touchy topic among writers, publishing business folks, agents, etc. and you just don't find many people willing to discuss it any kind of open way.  Sara not only discusses it, but offers up some candid and balanced thoughts I think you'll want to read.

QUOTE OF NOTE: "I look at it as traditioanl publishing and self publishing are two different chains of distribution. A really, "2011" marketing plan would (for me as an agent at least) be to do both."

2. YOU CAN'T QUIT WRITING. EVER: Author Beth Revis illustrates why you have to continue to write even when you feel like you've given it your best shot.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: She is a NYT bestselling debut author, and her level of sticktuitiveness is going to inspire you.

QUOTE OF NOTE: (When showing off a BIG stack of printed manuscripts.) "Here's the thing: I treated every single book like it was the one."  Not one of them is published.

1. POWERFUL MEMORIES: Author/illustrator Alan Silberberg shares a very personal experience and explains how it help to fuel his creativity.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: It'll remind you why it's so much more than writing or drawing or painting.  It'll remind you of why we call it art.

QUOTE OF NOTE: " What happened really hit me for a loop because I started to doodle a memory about my father. I remembered how different he’d become after my mom died. I thought about how (the main character) Milo would also sense that difference and would be suffering from the loss of not one, but two parents."

I leave you with Uncle Rico.  "WRITE ON, MAN.  WRITE ON"  Have a great weekend!

A Stirring of the Soul

From me to you ... One of my favorite artist ... Tonight, do something you were meant to do.

Feel it falling off like clothing
Taste it rolling on your tongue
See the lights above you glowing
Oh and breathe them deep into your lungs

It was always simple
Not hidden hard
You've been pulling at the strings
Playing puppeteer for kings
And you've had enough

But the search ends here
Where the night is totally clear
And your heart is fierce
So now you finally know
That you control where you can Steer

So hold this feeling like a newborn
Oh and freedom surging through your veins
You have opened up a new door
So bring on the wind, fire and rain

It was always simple
Not hidden hard
You've been playing at a game
Called Remembering Your Name
And you've stuffed it up

And now you finally know
That you control where you can Steer

Cause you've been listening for answers
Oh but the city screams 
And all your dreams go unheard

Get out of the box
And step into the clear

So now you finally know you can.. Steer

~Missy Higgins~

Beta Reading = Better Writing

So it ends.  I'm officially calling a halt to my summer blog slowdown.  The heat and drought is making me crazy so I'm mentally ending my summer in an attempt to trick the world into forgetting it's August.  Plus, I kind of miss all of you and your blogs!

I really appreciate those of you who've stuck around during my sporadic and infrequent postings the last couple of months.  Promise you'll see more of me here and on your own blogs in the coming weeks.

Some of the tiny bit of writing work I've gotten done this summer has been in the form of beta reading.  If you're a writer you're probably very familiar with the concept of beta reading.  For the uninitiated, it's basically the process of finding your first (or early) readers for a story.  The idea is to get feedback on the things that work--and the things that don't--and take it all back to the editing room.

It's also a means of creating a sort of 'idea trust' with a group of people who are interested in reading your work critically with the aim of making it the best it can possibly be.  In that way, it really isn't (or shouldn't be in my estimation) strictly an evaluation of the writing quality or mechanics so much as a broad conceptualization of where/what the story is and what the story COULD be.

That isn't to say that writing quality doesn't or shouldn't play a part in the beta process.  Sometimes bad writing gets in the way of a good story, plain and simple.  As a reader if you can't get beyond errors in punctuation, funky sentence structure, etc. you'll likely never stick around long enough to find out if the story actually works.

In the end, it's probably best to think of the beta process as if the story were a newborn foal trying to find its legs.  It can see from the other horses around it what it wants to be, which is a colt or filly running, eating, playing and doing what horses do.  Still, there is a gap between becoming the goal or vision and where the foal currently is (lying in a wet heap in the grass).  It'll need some help to get to that point--probably in the form of an encouraging nuzzle or nudge from momma and the need to stand if it wants to eat.   Just as learning to stand and walk is a fundamental part of a foal growing into a horse, getting feedback from early readers is crucial if you want the words and ideas you've slapped onto the screen to grow into a story.

Fortunately, there are lots of writers out there who've shared that essential little secret to writing success.  In fact, you'll find people asking for and extolling the virtues of beta readers all over the WWW.   What you won't find, however, are tons of people encouraging you to BE a beta reader.  Well, people that aren't looking for beta readers that is.  :-)

There are a few really good reasons why you'll find more people seeking beta readers than offering to be one, and they're things to seriously consider before you jump on board the Reading Railroad's Beta Express.

1) Beta reading is a time commitment--sometimes a big one:  Granted, you're not generally going to be making line edits and going all 8th grade English teacher as a beta reader.  However, you're going to have to read the story start to finish, and most likely twice to do it properly.  I tend to be a slow-ish reader, especially when I'm reading critically, so I usually have to factor that in.

Then there is the matter of actually giving your feedback.  Your style will largely dictate the time investment here.  Some betas write it all up in a big summary e-mail covering major points, and not really going into great detail or specifics.  That takes less time, but might not be the level of feedback desired or needed by the author.  Other betas like to comment on every paragraph and go into considerable detail, going as far as to offer re-writing suggestions and story ideas (me).  That takes much more time but can yield a more profitable experience for all of the parties involved, which I'll talk more about in a moment.

If time is an issue, you can always offer to read a few chapters at a time from a novel.  Most people are willing to take any and all help they can get.

2) Beta reading takes skill: Anyone can read a story and tell you if they like it or not.  It takes a certain level of skill and understanding of the craft to be able to articulate WHY you like it or not, especially in a way that someone else can apply.  Like any skill, it takes practice to become a good beta reader, and it isn't necessarily easy to master.

3) You risk ticking people off: Getting and giving feedback on writing is a delicate business.  Regardless of how well you gird yourself, hearing that your story isn't perfect (or maybe even good *cringe*) stings.  Chances are if you've been asked to be a beta reader you've already formed some kind of relationship with the author, probably a good one, and there is a measure of risk involved if you have to share your honest bad news.  Shoot, the news doesn't have to be THAT bad to ruffle feathers.  This factors into the skill acquisition point in #2, but even if you've mastered the art of the gentle critical analysis, you still might not be asked to help out the next time if your thoughts aren't well received.

4) It's a fine line between under and overqualified: If you beta read enough, no matter your skill as a reader or writer, you'll run into a story so awesome and well-written that you'll instantly feel you can't offer anything of substance to the author other than 'great! great! great!'  We all know that's not what the author wants to hear, because no story is perfect and they wouldn't have come to you just to get fluffy pink feedback--otherwise they'd have just had their moms read it.  Similarly, you'll read stories you'll barely be able to make it through.  The author didn't come to you be told to give up on writing, they came to you for help and growth.  Navigating the different levels of the various authors is tricky and never gets easier.


Beta reading is unquestionably demanding, but there are some big time reasons why you (the writer) should be lining up to do it outside of simply helping out a friend or cohort in need.

1) Developing a critical and understanding eye: I believe you learn how to write by reading.  Technically, every book you read for fun is going to help you become a better writer.  Even still, beta reading will allow to go to new levels of understanding.  As a beta, you try to catch all of the good and the bad.  You break a story apart instead of devouring it.  Kind of like taking a watch apart, once you see all of the pieces spread out before you you'll have a much better idea of why it works or why it doesn't.  It's a forest for the trees thing, and nothing is better at helping you develop an eye for it than being a beta.

2) Learn new tricks:  There are a lot of doggone good writers out there, and you can steal learn from every single one of them.  Some of the biggest leaps I've made in my own writing have come via critiquing others and seeing how they approach things in different ways.  From plot to characterization, I add something new to my toolbox almost every time I beta read.

3) By learning to give feedback, you also learn how apply it:  Nothing prepares you for the beta process as an author like participating as a reader.  I mentioned above that feedback stings.  As you work as a beta reader you learn to consider how feedback will be taken, and in turn how it might be applied.  At some point in the writing process you have to get feedback.  I'd suggest learning how to give it first, and THEN learning how to take it.

So what are you waiting for?  Offer to beta read for someone, and I promise you'll see positive results in your own writing.  Plus you'll get some seriously good writing karma when it comes time for you to fish for your own betas.