Archive for the ‘Just a Thought’ Category

I’m taking a slight departure from last week’s blog on Horror (which I plan to continue, but want to finish the non-fiction book I am currently reading and want to use as the basis of that blog) and approach a different subject.

Horses.

Horses and nightmares aren’t exactly two completely different things (night-“mare” anyone) but that’s not what this post is about.

Along with joining many others in Holly Lisle’s Summer of Fiction Writing, I am continuing to work on her How to Write a Novel course (yeah, I know, I already wrote a novel but there’s plenty more to learn. AND: Disclaimer: if you purchase it through that link, I will be compensated as I am an affiliate). The subject of that novel happens to be a character I’d already established (and one of my favorites), Ennid the Havoc. If you haven’t met him, you can do so via Amazon or Smashwords. He’s a mash-up kind of character in a mash-up kind of world: a fantasy version of MMA fighting, horses, angels-versus-demons-on-human-world-battlegrounds, pirates. Ennid’s got an uneasy alliance with his world, his past, but enjoys the simple things like good food and the company of his not-so-simple horse, K’zirra.

For this novel, I decided to dive into his near-past and gave him a scene in which he finds himself washed ashore, after he gets swept off of the deck of a seagoing vessel, stranded on the proverbial deserted island*. My original plan had him discovering the remains of a settlement and something very unsettling they left behind.

Then the horse showed up.

Galloping (literaturelly?) onto the shore, this magnificent golden stallion shows up and starts tossing his mane and his attitude right at Ennid. So it got me to wondering — this idea of the horse seemed so left field. Where did it come from?

Once I thought about it, not so left field. Apparently, somewhere in the back of my brain, a memory bloomed in full color after I’d had all of my words on the page. The Black Stallion. (Movie, not the book, although I did read that later in my childhood.) So that scene and the thought of a guy and a horse on a distant shore with no one but each other for company and possibly survival. There are, however, plenty of differences; Ennid isn’t a teen, the horse isn’t black (truth be told, the golden stallion’s not even a –but, wait, that would be a SPOILER) and there’s a whole different threat going on than just having to survive on the island.

Now, for you “horse purists” out there, I will warn you that you won’t find an “accurate” portrayal of a real horse in the stories, so you can save yourself the keystrokes and the electrons of sending hate mail. Sometimes my horses behave horse-like, but other times not at all like the normal equine creatures. This is completely intentional. My inspiration for K’zirra, and subsequently the golden stallion that has no name as yet, came from my love for the Ranyhyn of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. There are “normal” horses in the world, but the Ranyhyn are very special. Aside from being tied to the Earthpower of The Land in those stories, these horses possess a kind of prescience that allows them to know when their chosen rider will call them, and they respond long before the call and show up exactly when their rider calls them, even if they were hundreds of miles away. If anyone has played The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, you will understand when I say that I think Roach is a Ranyhyn, hehehe.

I hadn’t ever planned for there to be a horse in this story about Ennid, other than for a brief mention for other-story-foreshadowing purposes, but this stallion was demanding I do something with him. And he was right.

Hey you writers: have you ever had something come up while you were in that writing zone that seemed so disconnected from what was already on your page or in your plan that turned out to be better than expected?

 

*Which is actually a DESERTED island, as there was something there at one time, as opposed to the “deserted” island in which no living thing had been and established anything in order to desert it. And also as opposed to a desert island, since there’s plenty of foliage and swamp-age and all kinds of things that are pretty opposite from the concept of what a ‘desert’ is.

I got this question from a friend: Do Authors (and Artists) have competition?

My answer: They don’t.

Anyone could argue that the author is competing for the customer’s dollar. I’ve been in that position, where I only had so much to spend on a book I wanted, instead of one of everything. However, that didn’t mean I gave up on it altogether – it just went on my list for later. (I still have a long reading list, but my book collection is by no means tiny. In fact, I’m trying to find new homes for some of them, and slowly adding more to the site. Go here if you are interested.)

However, something else is regulating what those who have money to spend on books/art: taste.

Functional goods make it to magazines with comparison charts and categories like “best value” and “most efficient” and numerous other item-specific trait evaluations.

Novels and artwork can’t be classified this way. It can be marketed as “Horror” or “Fantasy” or “Romance” or “Sculpture” or “Pastels” or “Lithograph” and it can be evaluated for how well it was crafted, but, let’s face it, not every bestseller is going to appeal to every reader. Why? Taste. Aesthetics. Preferences. You either like it, or you don’t.

So, no, I don’t think we have competition. In fact, I think we have a sort of symbiosis: “If you like X, you’ll like Y.” And in general, readers don’t ditch an old favorite author because a new one is on the scene, but add it to an ever-growing list of beloved authors.

 

And something marginally-related to this post, based on the discussion with the friend:

Word of warning: seems to be people preying on new/wannabe authors, charging them a fortune for the writer to pitch their story at these writer symposia.

Also, if you give someone a manuscript to read, don’t format it so it looks like the novel before you hand/e-mail it to someone and then expect them to take you seriously. No, no, no.

As anyone who is Irish, or who wants to be, knows, this Sunday, 17 MAR 2019, is Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a time to turn our thoughts to Ireland, a land rich with tradition, creativity and inspiration. There are stories like The Quiet Man, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and The Crying Game. They Irish have given us the Wee Folk (see Darby O’Gill), bands like the Cranberries, (RIP Dolores O’Riordan), the Dropkick Murphys (okay, okay, they’re just a heavily-Irish-influenced band-born-in-America, but  man, they give one hell of a show!) and Flogging Molly (ditto, on both counts!). The island’s birthed horrors like banshees and U2 (okay, okay, I liked U2 up until Zooropa. But now I just run screaming). Speaking of horror, there was a particularly awesome game inspired by and taking place on the Emerald Isle, Clive Barker’s Undying (EA, if you are reading this, pull your head out of your collective rear. Single-player games are NOT dead. You’re suffering from Ford-itis: if you made something people wanted to play, they would buy it. Or let someone else finish Patrick Galloway’s story. I am sure I am not the only one with a few ideas…)

All that is just to say that it’s not just another holiday, especially not just one to tilt back plenty of emerald-tinted pints, but named for a Catholic saint (although, that’s not a bad idea…Or try a little whiskey…)

Now for the disclaimer: I am not Catholic. Not even close, and I find the word “abhorrent” to be terribly insufficient to describe the abuses and cover-ups that have occurred over the decades (probably centuries!). However, I find the whole deal with saints and their stories pretty fascinating. If you’re a regular visitor, you may have read my little spiel on Valentinus, AKA Saint Valentine, several weeks ago. First the red, and now with the Green, as I tackle Saint Patrick!

Like the rest of them, he got the rename treatment from his Latin name, Patricius. He wasn’t really even “Irish” but sent there as a missionary in the fifth century, originally coming from a place in Britain that is now known as Ravenglass (how cool is that name!?) . Among several works attributed to them, he wrote an autobiography, one in which claimed to have been kidnapped by pirates(!) and subsequently escaped, returned to his family in Britain but then ended up back in Ireland to come spread the Word and convert the Celts.

Just like Saint Valentine’s Day, there are a few symbols that evoke the holiday, but none moreso than the shamrock. Where did that come from? According to legend, Patricius himself plucked one from the ground and used it to illustrate the Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit.

And what about the whole snake thing? That one happens to be my favorite, how Patricius kicked them all (along with the other reptiles) off of the island. I imagine a reptile roundup, herding the snakes and the geckos and the komodo dragons and forcing them off of the cliff like a bunch of lemmings! Alright, so it’s far more likely that Ireland never HAD any snakes, but it’s great fodder for some good stories… I have to be fair here, too. I actually LIKE snakes, and don’t mind at all when I find a shed skin in the house, or see one slithering away just as I flip on the switch. Not really fond of finding them in the toilet bowl, still alive…

I could go on and on, but what kind of writer am if I don’t encourage you to go read about these things for yourself? Here’s a link to get you started.

And, if you’ve ever felt an “Erin go Brach” shout-it-out moment coming on, let me know below!

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

 

Or… How the Internet Killed the Intended Plot.

 

Every author, no matter if they write for profit or pleasure, faces that dreaded inky, seemingly-infinite darkness known as ‘Writer’s Block.’ We are under a great deal to come up with something new, something novel (pun intended) or we risk losing our readers for good. The pressure has only increased with the advent of self-publishing and everyone getting in on the game, on top of the literal millions of other things out there they could be reading besides fiction off of an e-book reader. Worse still are the forums.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Forums are a great place for readers to go gush about the latest book they read in a series, possibly winning over new readers for the author by word of mouth.

The problem is in the speculation.

And, yes, I was guilty of this at one time until I realized the potential damage it could cause. (This was not for A Song of Ice and Fire*, although I have my theories there, I keep them to myself and hope to be surprised by what happens in future books**…IF Martin ever gets them out).

That damage is this: So much speculation could rob the author of the plot.

Let’s show instead of tell, and use a ridiculous scenario of a couple of rabid ASOIAF fans on a forum with a fictional Sixth Book ending:

BILL: Ohmigosh, I got so mad when I read that end! I thought we were going to learn about Jon Snow’s parentage and then *poof*.

SAMMY: Yeah, man. I have my ideas about it, and wanted to see if I was right. See, I think Jon’s Snow’s mom is actually his “sister” Sansa who was sent back into the past and impregnated by the then-younger Hound!

DAN: Nah, that’s silly! I think his dad is actually Mance and Osha and…

 

Need I go on? And it’s not about the theories being “far out there” – it’s about them being out there at all. Now say Martin comes along, and he had an idea very similar to Sammy’s that involved some kind of weird time travel injected into the plot and he stumbled onto this particular threadnow… now he could face a myriad of problems.

#1:  Someone else already thought about it, and posted it, and it could look like Martin was ripping off the idea. If he publishes with this, yeah, it may make the poster feel good by affirming his theory, but it could open up Martin to accusations of theft/plagiarism/laziness/hackishness/etc.

#2:  Someone already thought of the idea and now Martin is forced to come up with something even more novel, which means that it will take that much longer.

There’s also the danger of fan fiction, which any author of the basis of the fan fiction should avoid reading at all costs. (Is that a litmus test for having “made it”, when others spend their own time doing horrible, unmentionable things to/between your characters?)

So, not cool for the author any way around. Now, most of us don’t have nearly the following for our worlds and characters that would engender the hours of thought put into what we think is going to happen, or think has happened and are waiting for it to be affirmed. Don’t get me wrong–guessing what happens is part of the fun, and shows that an author did a great job of creating an immersive world where the readers like us get so involved in the lives of completely fictional characters. It’s just that it can cause a lot of problems for the author when they are broadcast on so public and pervasive a forum as many of them devoted to such works as ASOIAF. Readers, please remember that if you really love the author and want them to keep writing, be kind.

 

Have you had theories about characters/plots of popular series and divulged them in a public forum? Did they pan out, or were your dreams for Heroine X and Hero Y getting together dashed beyond all hope? Please share only wins/losses, no speculations on as-yet-unresolved plot points.

 

*For the curious, my theories about plot were regarding Star Wars characters in their Knights of the Old Republic, not ASOIAF. But, like I said, I do have my theories about Jon Snow’s parentage…

**AND NO, I have not watched the series beyond Season 2. Maybe I will get to the rest of it, someday…

***Note: I don’t have secret access into his mind, so maybe he isn’t even suffering from this dilemma, and I just gave him another “out” for why his books take him so long to get out there. But he COULD be facing these dilemmas.

In case you wanted an update, I’m working through several revisions of differing genres, and one new novel in the Ennid the Havoc universe, but unfortunately I have no dates on them. Sign up for my newsletter and I will send updates, and you might even get a chance to do some beta reading.

This is the second post of my Adventures in Self-Promotion. You can read the first post here.

Self-publishing used to be looked on as laughable for two main reasons. One, the author “obviously” couldn’t get their books published via the normal brick & mortar route, so it really wasn’t good enough to read, was it? Two, self-publishing meant enlisting the services of a vanity press and that meant that the author paid huge fees to have their work turned into hardcopy, with very high minimum print runs, and the author was then tasked with selling the books themselves and turning a profit in the process. With the second point, it usually meant they barely cut a profit, selling to friends and family and the occasional stranger if they took it to a book fair or somesuch.

I’d seen a lot of the latter when I worked for a brief stint dealing with the Local Authors at Borders, and much of the work was not pretty, and barely sold. They got ripped off at the vanity press, too, by the look of the reproduction methods.

Now, however, the face of self-publishing is changing. With biggies like Kindle Publishing and Smashwords, authors can get their work out there for minimal costs (nothing for the actual publishing, so maybe just the computer and internet connection, which most of us have anyway). The only problem with that is now there is so much work out there of full-spectrum levels of quality that even the really good stuff is likely to drown in the vast ocean of available reading material.

So how does one stand out?

Fast forward with self-publishing: I used to turn my nose up at the idea of having anyone but myself publish my work. After all, the work was mine and I should realize the most profit from its success, not the pittance that I would get unless I turned out to be another Patterson or Rowling for the publishing company.

So, brick & mortars were out of the question. However… there’s something to be said for magazines, hardcopy and online.

The big point being they generally have a readership. That means that if someone bothers to read my story, and they like it, they may very well search other places for my work. Now, a lot of teachers of self-promotion–for all products, not just books and stories–talk about promoting before the product/service/book is made available by sending out teasers on mailing lists. How does one get these elusive “lists”? Cold-sending is exactly like those annoying cold calls you get from telemarketers. But if someone in a magazine reads my work and then comes to my website, they could not only buy my backlist but also sign up for my newsletter (which I really don’t have in motion just yet, but that’s one of the problems about working for myself, making the time…).

Taking the above in mind, I’ve done searches for online magazines that have rights I can live with. I’d prefer to write “throw-away” stories that have limited interest for me in their expansion (meaning I don’t plan to write any more in that world, in case there are some exclusives and rights-issues that could get in the way) and consider it the cost of doing business. Some of them have fees to submit (Submittable isn’t a free service for them like it is for those creating an account, even if the magazine charges for the submission) and some are free. Many of these are very low, so it is something to consider if you are utterly broke.

The other consideration and the main one for me is the inclusion of the bio. After all, I want them to read more of my work, and if the magazine makes that easier for them to reach my sites where I am promoting my stories and books by including a bio and a link, all the better. I would choose a magazine that had a small fee and published a bio over one that ignored the bio material but was free otherwise.

And for the pay? That’s just icing on the cake. For those who seek inclusion in the SFWA, some of them qualify. I’m not a fan of the organization because of some of their questionable expenditures with the dues, but that’s me.

NOTE: For the sake of not causing a furor over stories I may have submitted and earning even the hint of a bias toward them while they are judging my submissions, I won’t mention where I’ve entered.

If you’ve never heard of the Navy SEALs, you’re either not from America or very likely call that slab of limestone over your head “Home Sweet Home”. I’m not going to explain who they are here, but what I will say is that the perception of them as door-kickers extraordinaire is pervasive. Their entire lives overseas consist of these missions where they make terrorists and pirates snack on lead, and back in the States they party like a bunch of demons, right?

While that last bit about them partying is at least semi-factual, the truth is that they train hard and they spend a lot of time doing all the not-so-“glamorous” aspects of SEAL/Navy life. Physical Training. Duty. Watches. Briefing. Debriefing. Travel. Paperwork. LOTS of paperwork. The “hardcore” parts of the life, sold in the movies and novels, can be boiled down to a nugget in a big barrel of plain ol’ rock. (But they’re still the sexiest men ever, bar none.)(I’m going to get slammed with complaints that I ratted them out as not having a 24-7 highspeed lifestyle, I bet. I know just enough about Navy life to be dangerous, having served as a sailor myself. I just hope they stopped reading at the compliment above, which is not hollow. They’re very hot.)

What does this have to do with self-promotion, you wonder?

Not that I would ever equivocate the life and challenges of someone who trained and attained such an honor as becoming a Navy SEAL to someone who runs their own business, but think for a moment when you hear someone say “I want to be my own boss.” The thoughts, if not spoken, run along the lines of “I don’t have to work for anyone else and I can take time off and go places I want to visit and do things I want to do.” They see the glamorous side without taking into account any of the droll day-to-day activities necessary to reach that goal of working for oneself. What they really want is to be independently wealthy without all the hard work. (Not that I would ever have a problem with being independently wealthy, of course! Isn’t that the plan?)

I have a friend who runs his own business and has been doing so successfully for a very long time. But–huge “but”–it took him 20+ years to get there, and he works insanely long hours. He takes days off–sort of. Often, when I worked with him, we’d be up in the wee-est hours of the morning and would be out on the road or doing the labor of the job (yes, he got his hands very dirty along with his “wrecking crew”) and wouldn’t see a bed until close to midnight. And I thought boot camp hours were tough!

All that is just to explain that working for oneself, like I would love to do as a writer, is a goal that I am trying to achieve and I spend a lot of my time not just writing but by doing all of the rest of the work a publisher would do if I had gone the brick & mortar route. I get to do my own self-promotion, and for the next couple of blogs I am going to discuss the different methods I’ve been trying to get My Brand out there. Here are a few methods I will discuss:

Magazine Submissions

Business Cards

FanFiction (but probably not in the way you’re thinking)

P.S. I’ve been working on a project that I had been calling Dross, but has now come to be known as Ink & Sigil. Barring any emergencies, the novel, a steampunk fantasy, will be out before the end of the year.

On occasion, I experience epiphanies while I am writing fiction that I realize applies equally to “real life”, and sometimes moreso.

In this case, I sat and stared inward while trying to “get into the head” of the character from whose point of view I am wanting to experience the scene unfolding. If we had an omniscient point of view, the highest level, an essential “god over the prose”, we could just tell everything that happens, describe all points of view, convey all experiences all at once. I prefer to see things through one set of eyes. Therefore, I can only describe what that particular character is seeing, observing, feeling, sensing. What he’s guessing, too. I can only describe the scene from what he actually can KNOW.

Now, in fiction, creating assumptions and then reacting on those assumptions (especially when they are incorrect, is FABULOUS for creating misunderstandings and conflicts that complicate the characters and the story). In that sense, it’s fun.

In real life? Not so much.

Take, for example, the politically-correct “Hyphenated-American”-ism we seem to be burdened with in the day and age of this country. Instead of being able to state our observations—“she was black,” or “he was white”[1], which is closer to the truth of being what we see—we have to assume, to jump to a conclusion. Often, those conclusions are quite incorrect.

If I asked you to pick out the “African-American” from the two photographs below, if you are into using the politically-correct vernacular, you’d probably pick the gentleman on the left. You would be utterly wrong. In this case, the actual African-American is the woman on the right. Yes, she’s white, but was born in Africa and holds dual-citizenship between the US and South Africa.[2]

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So what about the man on the left? He happens to be Brazilian. One could also argue that he’s American because Brazil is in South America, but that’s getting ridiculously technical. He happens to be Anderson “the Spider” Silva.[3]

Another example is from personal experience. When I was in college forever ago, I met a young lady who was an exchange student from South Africa. She’d never be recognized as South African with her pale skin, freckles and red hair. Another student despised being mis-identified as “African-American” because he just happened to have a lot more melanin than some other human beings—he was African. Period. I have even met a young man who was very pale, with red hair and freckles who could easily have passed for white, except he was actually”African-American” by the presumptive standards.

The point of the exercise is that we apply assumptions in place of actual skills of observation. If we describe him as black or her as white, we’d paint an accurate picture of what we see. Police are trained to not make assumptions about ANYTHING (“a material that appeared to be blood”), as it could later taint the prosecution of the case.

It’s also ridiculous for having people jump through mental hoops having to describe someone else by guessing the “hyphen-du-jour”. Paraphrasing the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, whose wisdom practically slaps us in our faces, said it best: “Judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin.” Skin and race, let’s face it, are just basic descriptors, because the story really IS about the individual, not their hair color, eye color, the shape of their nose or eyes.

Hyphenation doesn’t automatically attribute a culture either. Heck, Africa is a humongous continent that encapsulates thousands of specific ethnic groups and probably just as many, if not more, cultures. The Masai warriors are very different from the Bedouins but they  When we speak of Asian influences, it includes the Middle East (Southeast Asia), who are not Japanese who are not Philippines, yet they could all be called Asian… That first factor before the hyphen only identifies a (mostly guessed) genetic history, and some of us have bloodlines so intermingled that to point out one of those aspects is just stereotyping. We CAN be more than one, happily and proudly, coexisting, you know. Hyphenation dilutes that. The individual—the strong individual, anyway—creates his own story out of his own experiences, heritage and genetics, not simply by latching onto someone else’s laurels and calling it a day. Think of it like building a house. It’s wonderful to have a good foundation to build on, but why just decorate someone else’s house when the good Lord gave you the tools to construct something wonderfully unique.

When I meet someone, and want to get to know them, I want to know THEM. I don’t care about their skin color to begin with, and couldn’t care less after I’ve learned who they are. That cannot be distilled into their melanin count, or even their family’s history. It is what they have done, are doing and will do that makes that individual worth knowing. Awesome people (and, let’s face it, assholes) come in all shapes, sizes and colors, so why worry about those merely physical traits?

Let’s just dispense with the hyphenation altogether—it’s divisive rather than inclusive, a lazy cop-out of slapping on a label instead of defining an individual. It would be like me describing my faith as a “German-Christian.” It’s just “Christian,”[4] please and thank you. So how about we all just call ourselves “Americans” already, and leave the hyphens out of it.

 

[1] Yes, we can quite clearly argue that “white” and “black” are inaccurate too. Technically, I am a VERY pale mottled, freckled peachy-pink. My oldest and dearest friend from my Navy days just happens to be a lovely shade of chocolate brown (you know who I’m talking about). But at least it’s not making an ridiculous assumption.

[2] That, of course, is the gorgeous Charlize Theron, who played Furiosa in Mad Max:Fury Road and makes me jealous that, not only does she look better bald than I do with hair, she also got to be in a Post-Apoc movie with Tom Hardy. Not just any PA movie, either. A Mad Max movie.

[3] And he’s an absolutely amazing mixed-martial artist who holds the record for the longest undefeated streak until he was beaten by Chris Weidman during UFC 162 (and unfortunately again in UFC 168, if memory serves). He’s a figurative-artist’s dream and sports some crazy flexibility.

[4] Which is a whole different argument, splintering down into specific aspects of beliefs. I believe in Jesus as the Son of God and my Lord and Savior. Period. Everything else is just details.

squirrel

Squirrels are nifty creatures, but lately, they’ve been very distracting. My computer sits on a desk not too far from the window. This winter, I found myself staring out of the window when I should have been writing. I started seeing birds, and watching the birds (nature’s equivalent of “shiny things”) and the next thing I know, I’m concentrating on how to attract more birds instead of how to get back to my writing.

So when I put the seeds out, instead of just getting the birds*, I get…

You guessed it. Squirrels.

Now, I’ve lived in this area on/off for two decades, and have been back here in this same location for about three years. I have seen the “yard rats” do all sorts of amazing things, like team up to feed one another out of one of those so-called “squirrel-proof” feeders. So, intelligent, but they all looked alike to me. Until this winter.

This winter, I saw one of them, a scrappy fellow whose left shoulder had been ripped open, presumably by another squirrel. The wound looked pretty ugly and I didn’t think he was going to make it, seeing that he only had three legs to use, but that little sucker pulled through. He’s sporting some weird fur over the wound area, but he’s scrappy as ever.

Soon after I noticed him (I call him Paul, after my American Revolutionary Hero, Paul Revere), I noticed another smaller, sleeker male come along. I named him Sam (after Samuel Adams) and watched him and Paul take turns fighting one another.

Then another came along, only this one looked different from the other two. (Yes, you read that right–I started noticing the physical differences of these squirrels.) And this one presented itself butt-first at my window. I had a ‘she’ so I named her Rachel (after Rachel Revere). This one, well, she started coming to my window too, and her belly made it clear enough that she was a momma. I’ve even seen her dancing at the bird-feeder pole…

Not satisfied with just watching them, I decided to start feeding them, too. So I put out peanuts for them. They liked them enough, but when I accidentally picked up some “raw” peanuts at the grocery store, the little punks turned them down. They dropped them! I tried roasting the peanuts for them, and what do you know, they ate them then. Spoiled rotten little things.

Now I’ve got visitors all of the time, waking me up by scratching at the window, wanting to remind me that there aren’t any peanuts for them outside.

Like I said, nifty creatures, but distracting, indeed.

 

*I end up seeing blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, titmice (they are not mice and have no… ahem), juncos, a red-tailed hawk, a pheasant, a turkey (I call him “Future Sandwich”) and indigo buntings. At least those are the ones I can identify.

From as early an age as I can recall, languages fascinated me. I grew up in a culturally-diverse corner of town—Italian, Korean, Spanish speakers all lived on the same block, within a few houses of one another, and my own family comes from a background that would make a mutt feel like a purebred. In high school, I took up Spanish and then later took German. In college, I took Russian courses. I had also spent considerable time in places, while serving in the Navy, where Spanish and Italian were the native tongues. Later, in college, Russian. For fun, I studied French, Gaelic, Tolkien’s Elvish and I even own a Klingon Dictionary.

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Then I began creating languages of my own to use in my stories—Omen-Eyes, Ennid the Havoc, the languages for the upcoming Dross* and alien races of the SHARC series of stories. In each of these, the language provides a “flavor” to differentiate the races/species and in just about every case, creates some type of conflict because of the limits of translation.

Here are a few things I learned about language while studying them:

Languages more often than not don’t feature a one-for-one translation. If it works out that way, you’re lucky. Some drop prepositions while others adopt gendered ones. Some (including English) drop implied verbs.

Example: There is a book on the table.

In Russian, their grammar prefers: On the table, there is a book. (Which, translated with the available words, would read: “On table, book.”)

In German, their sentence structure can be even more rigid. Subject-Verb-Everything Else for a statement, Verb-Subject-Everything Else for a question. Some throw their words all over the place, using inflection more than just structure to differentiate between a statement and a question (yes, that would be English. We English-speakers are language contortionists).

You went there.

Simple statement, although why someone would have to tell someone else where they went is beyond the scope of this blog.

You went there?

Connotes the idea of surprise that the subject “you” overstepped some boundary to get to that location, like the timid librarian stepping into a biker bar, where they clearly wouldn’t be wanted.

You went there?

This one is a little more snotty, and less of a question than pure derision. They don’t want an answer, they want to mock. The subject “you” ventured into some place that the one asking the question wouldn’t have set foot simply because it is beneath them.

(There’s a great episode of Jerry Seinfeld that uses this to great effect. Why would Jerry bring anything?)

Some have few words that can say a lot, and others use a lot of words for very little, and some languages encompass both. Russian is my favorite for this. On one hand, they can say “Tim tahm.” and mean “Tim is over there”, while to say “I like pets” they have to wrap their tongues around “Menay neravidtsa domoshnie zhivotniey.” (Bugs Bunny pokes fun at this concept too, in “Wackiki Wabbit”.)

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This may arise from the need to define the concept within the sentence that you are introducing it. We could say “The clear sky” but if the one listening is not familiar with the concept of “clear”, it may have to be expressed as: “It was a sky through which light may pass so objects on the other side or within the volume of the object may be seen without hindrance.” Now imagine that some of the words in the definition had to be defined, as those concepts were unfamiliar. See where the conflict in trying to explain things can arise? (Oppressive regimes might condone destruction or redefinition of terms and concepts to prevent someone from speaking about things that the government doesn’t want discussed. Sadly, a fairly recent phenomenon in our own history is to cripple free speech, open debate and discussion by hurling the invective “racist!” or “bigot!”–the equivalent of the playground “your mom!”– when no intelligent argument can be formed or respectfully conveyed.)

Then there are the concepts. We speakers of English are all familiar with hyperbole, exaggeration, metaphors. Imagine telling someone that your heart leapt for joy when you saw them coming. If they have no experience outside of the literal realm, they may start looking around their feet for a bloody organ bouncing around in the grass.

English uses very little of the mouth. We blow air out through our lips, puff out our cheeks, touch our tongue to the roof of our mouths but we tend to use so little of it. Other languages, like Russian, use all of those and add different “depths” of the mouth and throat to create their sounds. Some, like the fascinating Khoison family of tongues from Africa even feature pops and clicks. We have a couple of equivalents in English—you’ve probably heard it as “tsk-tsk” or when someone “clucks” their tongue.

And finally, some of the translations can be… funny… when brought over into English and vice versa. A “Nova” was a car model that didn’t do well in Spanish-speaking countries because, while it’s an astrological term in English, in Spanish it translates to “no-go.” And some names are pronounced the same way as some Russian terms. I’m not sure “The Queen of Country” would want to be known as “Fish” McEntire, and that jedi-in-training would be far less heroic if he’d been known as “Onion Skywalker.”

*Title subject to change

Quite recently, a writer friend who comes to me for advice told me that he is glad I have standards. I laughed, but denied that the standards were necessarily mine. They’re not, in fact, but the culmination of millennia of oral tradition and tales of heroes. Good stories hit on touchpoints, on lows and highs as they run their characters through the wringers of conflict, and games of emotional tug-of-war.

Stories that are stories have a basic skeleton, or hangar upon which they hang. I can liken this to fashion design. At the minimum, stories consist of words strung into sentences, piled into paragraphs. Think of the words/paragraphs as the fabric. If you are making a dress, for example, you have to follow a certain format—essentially a long garment that covers some fraction of the torso with some type of bodice or halter, of varying lengths of beyond-the-ankles to just covering the crotch.1 That statement itself implies that even though there is a basic structure, the format can encompass many shapes subject only to the designer’s imagination.2 Fashion designers learn the basics of dress construction and then learn how to play with the rules and create bizarre monstrosities only appealing to Lady Gaga… but it’s still a dress. irisvanherpencapriole-0780-682x1024[1].jpg

The writer is no different. He must know the rules and know them well before he can break them.

What is the framework, or hangar, for a story? Well, they have to have beginnings, middles and ends. All good stories have them. But just having these does not a story make. I can tell you about my day, which begins with me waking up, brushing my teeth, continues to the middle where I have lunch (sometimes by myself and sometimes I go out with my co-workers), or the end where I brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that a story? Not really. Nothing exciting happens, nothing that would make anyone feel that their time wasn’t wasted by me relating nothing more than a series of events.

So what else does it need? I hinted at it already—something exciting. Let’s say that instead of waking up and continuing my routine as normal, I had to stop at the bank and on that very day, the bank was robbed while I was in it. That’s exciting, sure (not that I ever want that to happen while I am at the bank, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I was actually in one). But okay, there was a bank robbery and I was there.

The story needs something else. It needs something unexpected to happen. That element, if nothing else, can become the whole reason the story exists, the single point on which the whole story hangs. Let’s keep the above scenario and set it up. Say I am someone of strict routine, who is never late and never varies from that safe, comfortable routine. Only this morning I realized I forgot to deposit the paycheck in the bank and I wrote a check for the mortgage and mailed it yesterday, so if I don’t get funds in the account it will mess everything up. So I am irritated, because I’ve got to stop at the bank (which further messes up my routine and ticks me off even more), and then the customer in front of me is taking a while and leaning in to talk to a distraught-looking teller, and I just have to get moving, and when I vent my frustration uncharacteristically, the customer in front of me turns around just enough to show me his gun, and instead of running or screaming like a frightened little social justice snowflake at the sight of a firearm, I pick up the teller’s ten pound marble nameplate, whack the guy on the head and step over his unconscious body so I can deposit my check with the flabbergasted teller and get on my way.

Where does a story like that get started? It could start with the routine, to establish that I am a creature of habit who is likely to fly off the handle and do odd things when I experience disruptions, reiterating that the routine is tantamount to my happiness, and therefore the desire is to remain in it.3 It could start with my discovery of that item that changes the direction of my day. It has a middle where the tension builds as I come across the bank robber, which also lends itself to a hint at what the twist will be like—something going on with the money in the bank. It ends when I’ve dealt with him and taken steps to repair the normalcy I crave.

Plenty of writers and those who teach creative writing will tell me I am wrong, or I haven’t covered all of the criteria. That’s okay, we all have different ways of seeing the same thing. I will recommend several of these learned individuals who have published good frameworks for stories. They are:

  • Joseph Campbell’s works. Must-reads, all of them, for any writer.campbell-joseph-the-hero-with-a-thousand-faces[1].jpg
  • Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. Not so much for the characters, but the priceless section in the second half of the book on the Masculine (based heavily on Campbell) and Feminine Journeys.thN6LAS0EA.jpg
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Yes, it’s a book on screenwriting, but a quick, fun and informative read.save-the-cat[1].jpg

The last two especially have been priceless tools for me. I don’t necessarily write to their format, but when I’ve hit a slump or something feels like it’s missing in my story, I will hold up the scenes to their framework and I usually see that they are skewed to one end or the other (or both!) and ask myself if the “stages” they spell out lend any ideas to new scenes that would help tie the bookends together. I’ve never come away not having a new scene or two that move the story more coherently. Next time you write or read a story (or watch a movie) that seems to drag, or be too talky, or seems incoherent, it could be because it’s missing something from the framework that helps to make it a true story and not just a series of loosely-related or random events.

(By the way, years ago I ran my tied-for-first favorite movie of all time,4 The Road Warrior, through Schmidt’s/Campbell’s Masculine Journey and the story rocks it, dead on. Can’t get any better than that.)

1Originally I wanted to say that reached to the thighs but modern fashions have shortened the dress to some fairly revealing lengths… or not to length, as the case would be.

2I have to wonder from where some of their imaginations spring…

3For the record, I am not OCD. At least not most of the time. My closet is about the only place where I have standards. No wire hangers. Nothing but black hangers, all the same shape and size. Call me ‘hangerist’ if you like.

4What’s the other? Fury Road, of course. George Miller is a master director, and a lot can be learned about storytelling from him.