Notes Of A Storyteller: Writing Made My Day Better

I had a rough morning. I told some college friends I would wake up bright and early to exercise. My alarm blared at 5:30, and I mindlessly slept in. In my stupor, I lifted my head and 5:55 and decided I couldn’t get to the rendezvous in time.

Grunting, I translated some Latin and got on with my day. I returned to my laptop, prepared to stay on top of my coursework. A cloud still rumbled in my mind. I was frustrated. I like my days to go the way I plan them. The fact that I had chosen to derail my day was frustrating.

I don’t even remember deciding to write but I did. I kid you not. I’m not writing this to make you keep reading, or spice up my prose. My fingers instinctively moved to a short story I’ve tinkered wit now and again. Several paragraphs later, I breathed and felt slightly more complete. I still felt in a funk, but I also felt like I had done something good and natural. We’ll see how good and natural that story looks when I dive in for an edit, but I’ll dive later. I feel good.

What’s the lesson, then? Frustration, whether with little things or great, can all be pent through writing. But not pent completely. You still have to do the work to put a smile on your face and spread it around your world. But the pen is a wonderful place to put those anti-smiling forces to rest.

***

Hello! I don’t know if you heard, but this blog is moving to a new one. It’ll have all the same weekly features, and news about The Kingdom Trilogy. It will also acknowledge the other projects that I dip my toes in. Check it out here. I’ll post the weekly features on both sites for a while, but before long I’ll make the full transition to the new site.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Why Can’t You Be Artistic?

Doesn’t the phrase “literary fiction” sound prejudiced? Say that word aloud. Let it bounce off your tongue on your lips. Is it fair to set apart a genre that is supposed to intrinsically tackle higher, nobler themes than all of the others genres.

On Wednesday, I described my issues with that idea. Now I want to bring the conversation to writers. Are you a writer? Pay special attention.

I submit that every fiction writer should seek to incorporate theme in their story.

“But wait!” you might say. “I just want to entertain people.”

“You’ll do that either way,” says I. “Make sure you do it right.”

If you have a moral vision for your characters, you will have a much more clear idea of what to do with them. It is the values of the characters that determine what they do, right? If there’s something about life that you want to prove, you have a much narrower field of options to choose from. Otherwise, you’re floundering among a sea of options, many of which are entertaining- so many, I suspect, that you’ll have more trouble choosing.

Let’s be clear, though. I am not advocating propaganda. You need to learn the difference between preaching and sincerely exploring a theme. You can’t just have the hero (or heroine) punch the villain in the face and say, “See there! Capitalism will always win the day.” You need to make things a little more complicated.

Read some philosophy, or political treatises. Try Plato’s The Republic, or Aristotle’s Ethics. Read The Federalist Papers. Think about what they say, and the consequences that might result from following them. Read up on your history, too. Pay attention to the ideas that run through history. You could look at the political struggles between conservatives and liberals in 1800s Europe. Could this have led to World War One? How?

Think on that level, and you might be surprised what happens to your imagination. I bet it will change your fiction for the better. Do you think books with noble themes should be boring? Think again! With theme comes focus. With focus comes urgency. A wizard trying to save the world becomes a lot more interesting to the reader when the wizard isn’t entirely convinced the world is worth saving, or if he does something ethically wrong in order to save it.

Try it. I dare you.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Dialogue- Part Two (How TO Do It)

Did you make it over here last Friday? If so, you’ve got some laughs to catch up on. I posted the WORST dialogue you might ever see in your life. I also mentioned some things I’ve learned about avoiding bad dialogue.

But what’s the good of avoiding the bad if we just avoid the bad? Here’s my advice on how to write good dialogue…

1) Watch movies. 

Sorry. That’s no good at all.

1) Watch good movies. I have learned more from movies than anywhere else about how to make good dialouge. When you’re saying something out loud, you have a sharper sense about what words to keep and what words to throw away. It’s an art. Naturally, then, the only way to improve is to absorb the work of other artists. Check out this clip from The Princess Bride…

Here’s one from The Dark Knight. This whole movie is amazing well-written; I spent half an hour going through clips trying to pick one to demonstrate. Listen to the rhythm of the conversation.

Look for movies like these. Play through the best scenes with characters talking to each other. The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes (yes, the Robert Downey Jr. version from 2009),

2) Read good books. Obviously, screenwriters aren’t the only guys around who can turn a phrase. Read Shakespeare (in particular, read Hamlet and Julius Caesar). Read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Read Flannery O’ Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. If you don’t read anything else, please read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Read this stuff aloud. Get a feel for how the characters go back and forth. It takes time to cultivate that instinct for what sounds good.

3) Make fun of bad dialogue. This will strengthen your sense of quality, as you learnt to distinguish good dialogue from bad dialogue from reprehensibly stupid dialogue. Most importantly, make sure you have a reason for why it’s bad. That will really sharpen your mind. Make sure you have friends around you when you get confident. This is your chance to show off.

4) Practice until you go insane. Keep playing with words, catchphrases and comebacks until your fingers are numb and it’s 1 AM in the morning and your brain is a pile of slush. Then try writing one more line of dialogue. Eventually, you will break through. You’ll know it when it happens.

5) Let other people read your work. We writers can come with wonderful explanations for atrociously bad decisions. Let your unbiased friends have a peek at your dialogue. Better yet, let your savage enemies look at it, and let them tear it apart. Understand why they make the criticisms they do. If you have appropriately savage friends, your dialogue should start looking better in a hurry.

6) Don’t give up. This stuff takes time.

I didn’t give up, and somehow I improved. I’ll leave you with a passage from The Quest which is considerably improved from how it first sounded in my rough draft…

FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.

“Larsor?” called Arman.

 “You know my name!”

“W… what’s wrong? Larsor?”

“I thank you, milord!” shouted Larsor, drunk, waving his tangled hair. “For gracing this wretched, cold, filthy hall with your most comely feet and toes, and your wonderful brown hair!”

Larsor started to rise from his bow, and then toppled. Arman started towards him, but the knight only got back up, giggling. He fell again, bonking his head on the bed.

“Oh, make yourself useful and get me a brandy,” mumbled Larsor.

“You… don’t look like you need anything at the moment,” said Arman feebly.

“Arman, Heir of Broamas, I need everything at the moment! More, more, more! Where’s that dratted bottle! Oarath, you pig! You cow! You patriotic blockhead! You can’t keep me from my drink!”

“Oarath’s not here; I am.”

“Good! A captive audience! Let me tell thee of the sluggish, serious ways of the good knight Oarath! Everybody loves him, though he doesn’t do anything but bow to lords and look pretty on a horse! I make the lords laugh, but they always save their love for him! Ansfeld, can you hear me? You can back me up!”

“Who’s… who’s Ansfeld?”

“Ansfeld! Ansfeld! Son of Annarth! The best friend I ever had- dead! I can’t hold it back anymore! Cut down by arrows before he could even draw his sword!”

“At the Meras?”

“I saw the corpse myself! Piled on a horse, like a sack of dirt! Oh, Ansfeld!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re not sorry! You’ve never lost a friend! Don’t ever vomit those words at my feet again! More brandy!”

“No.”

“A beer!”

“I’m not… no!”

 “You drank once with me today. Come! The night is young! We’ll tear this town to pieces! Quaff another barrel of ale! We’ll find a Councilman’s girl and yank up her skirts in a plump feather-bed!”

“I… have other priorities at the moment.”

“Like what? The Nameless One? Nothing will dampen his spirits like a good party, don’t you think?”

“Thousands of people are counting on me to do good. I must refuse your offer. Don’t be offended.”

“I’m not offended! I’m drowning in laughter! You won’t ever be a naughty boy, will you? Ha! You’ve never done a brave thing in your life, have you?”

“I set out with Menemaeus…”

“Oh, and that was completely your own decision? A big, flaming spirit nudging you on didn’t have anything to do with it, eh?”

“He’s more than a big, flaming spirit.”

“Then what is he?”

When Arman did not answer, Larsor pressed on.

“Have you got a girl back home?” he said.

“Yes, and I would prefer not to speak of her at this-“

“You never kissed her, did you? Not even once? Ha! You couldn’t do it, could you?”

“Stop!”

FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Dialogue- Part One (How NOT To Do It)

There I was, in that stereotypical writer’s hunch at my desk. The laptop glowered at me maliciously. My weary eyebrows managed a frown in response. My wrists and fingers hardened, ready for another onslaught. My mind braced itself for a beating. Hunching over a little more, I cast out for my ideas.

“Okay,” I breathed, “What am I going to write for “Notes Of A Storyteller” this week?”

If you thought that was intense, you don’t even want to know what writing dialogue is like.

You may or may not have been down this road before. Those who have may raise their glass with me; those who haven’t may sit down and listen to me. There are two things that kill a novel quicker than anything else: your very first sentence and your dialogue. Oh, your dialogue. There are some truly horrendous examples out there. None could ever be worse than what I wrote as a wee, innocent sophomore in high school…

   “Where’s the strength in that?” jeered Mathonar when he stopped by and noted Arman’s more pale mead mug.

“Where’s the sobriety in that?” retorted Arman, observing a full mug of something that looked strong enough to craze a troll. Vertaen and some of the knights oversaw the debate with amused and grinning expressions.

   “Since when has anyone factored something stupid like that into drinking?” countered Mathonar.

    “I won’t argue with you on that point if I’ve got to explain your logical contradictions.” scored Arman, and Mathonar laughed and walked away.

    “Just what contradictions did he make that you couldn’t explain?” challenged Vertaen after he left the eye’s sight.

    “If I have to attempt telling anyone the folly behind matching up sober, stupid, and drunk the way he did, I’ve got nothing to say in the slightest.” said Arman, drawing guffaws around the group.

    “There’s a rare ‘un!” laughed one knight, “Wit and morals!”

    “Won’t see one of those again, I reckon!” said another.

I don’t care how terrible you are. If you can manage something even slightly better than this, you have hope as a novelist. If you can string together at least four lines that make a lick of sense, and that sound like things that human beings would actually say, then you just might have a future in storytelling.

Next week I’ll show you a sample from The Quest as it is today, vastly improved from what you just read. I’ll tell you then how to do good dialouge. For now, here’s a list of don’ts…

1) Don’t ever assume you are the wittiest writer ever

2) Don’t ever stop going through every line of dialouge, looking for something to edit

3) Don’t explain too much. Let your characters talk. Inserting a paragraph of facial expressions or background information will kill the rhythm of your dialogue. If you do a good job, the words your characters say will clue us in to personality, reaction, etc.

4) Don’t emulate Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas if you’re looking to connect to the readers of today. I’m terribly sorry. I know they sound wonderful. Feel free to tap into their skills of making words sound good; do not make your lines of dialogue longer than a paragraph. Readers don’t like that. They expect snappier dialogue these days (I’ll get more into that next week).

5) Don’t ever get discouraged and don’t ever stop trying. No matter how badly you screw up, there’s no way you’ll write anything as bad as The Room.

Come back in 2012 for Part Two!

The Storyteller Reports: Business Doubleheader

RANT OF THE WEEK: The Many Genres that Highly Effective People Read

My adoration for The Wall Street Journal has gone on for years. Once again they tickle my thoughts with a feature on some books that business leaders call influential. Before I go on, let me test your expectations.

Of the four titles below, what would you expect Ray Fisman (professor of social enterprise and co-director of the Social Enterprise Program, Columbia Business School) to call an influence on his view of business?

A) The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie

B) Competing for the Future by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad

C) Frog And Toad Together by Arnold Lobel

D) The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger

Believe it or not, it’s C. That’s right. The business brain in the suit names a children’s book as one of his big influences in business theory. A few others like him cite books like Henry IV, Part One by Shakespeare, and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. You can check them all out here.

In the meantime, allow me to do the commentary that the Journal didn’t do. I have never read a business advice book in my life. I probably will someday, but I received Crime and Punishment and The Faerie Queene for Christmas. Somehow The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People doesn’t seem as appealing. It will be a while yet before I read Covey’s famous book, or anything like it.

Why should I, if one of the primary influences on Mark Cuban was Ayn Rand? It seems to illustrate something that I have subconsciously held for a number of years. Business books seem to deal with business. Literature and philosophy deal with the human condition as a whole. Why should I spend my precious time with specifics when there is so much to be understood in the whole? And if I approach life, reading and improving myself as a whole, will this not trickle down to specifics like business management?

I know there’s at least a couple of my followers for whom this is relevant. I, too, am an indie author, selling fiction for money. My reading choices have higher stakes than the average American. My time with words is a powerful investment in how I look at the world. Every deposit I make must yield bountiful returns. Too many failures will ruin me not as an author, but as a human being.

Am I being snobbish? Of course I am. I needed some sort of self-confidence to start writing in the first place. Will I read a business book? Someday, if it’s truly worth it. But until then, I run to the arms of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Edmund Spenser. They will teach me more than Michael E. Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don’t Work and What to Do about It ever will.

STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK

You may or may not know E.D. Kain. He blogs for Forbes.com about “nerd culture”. Whether you’re a nerd or not, you should be interested in what he has to say about the “evil corporation” stereotype in movies. After watching the trailer for Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus (an Alien prequel that doesn’t call itself an Alien prequel), Mr. Kain commented on how it might continue the corporation stereotype.

He also comments on how we can expand on that. I won’t steal any of his thunder. Check out what he has to say. For his insightful ideas, I name him Storyteller of the Week.

Notes Of A Storyteller: The Day Notepad++ Vanquished Sean McGuire

There’s a reason I cancelled my features last week while I was coding The Quest.

HTML is not nearly as easy as it should be. I scoffed when I first found I would have to do it. After much googling, David Gaughran, The Creative Penn, and Guido Henkel convinced me to go through and code the whole novel. This meant putting paragraph codes on every single paragraph, at the beginning and the end, and taking every single quotation and inserting quotation codes, and other minutiae that I loathe and despise.

Anyone who knows me knows that I hate details. When I get the essential concept of something, I don’t like making the effort to learn about all the details that stem from that one concept. You can imagine, then, how much this task seemed like drudgery.

Well, I made it through, and if you don’t believe me, you can check out that pretty fantasy novel on the Kindle Store to find out otherwise. For those of you that also want to self-publish online, you came to the wrong post. I am not the Alpha and Omega of e-book construction. Neither is Guido Henkel, by any means, but please check out his free guide on e-book formatting. It’s the only reason I got my own book online in one piece.

The only thing I have to add is a stern lesson.  I started reading Guido’s guide… and then began to skim it. I felt brilliant. There were only certain pockets of information I needed here! I just needed to pick them out and move on and get the job done! And then I would have more writing time.

This worked out perfectly until I hit paragraph tags. The software I use (and highly recommend) for HTML formatting is Notepad++. There’s a replacement function on there that puts Microsoft Office to shame. Not only can I replace one group of words with another, I can enter in groups of words and symbols that do more advanced things.

There were two different codes that Guido recommended entering for paragraph tags. Either one would do the same thing: put paragraph codes at the beginning and the end of each paragraph… with the click of a button.

<p>It’s really cool. It makes all of the paragraphs in my document look like this.</p>

Well, turns out only one of those codes that Guido suggested actually works in Noepad++. And I was skimming through the document, and th eonly code i saw was the one that didn’t work.

3 days later, I finished manually inserting the paragraph codes for the beginning of the paragraphs. Then I went back to the website and found the regex function that actually worked. 5 minutes later all my codes were in place.

My advice to you is twofold.

1) Read David Gaughran, The Creative Penn, and Guido Henkel.

2) Read them thoroughly and do not skip a single freaking sentence.

3) I am a compulsive liar.

4) Download Notepad++, because it’s hard enough coding HTML on there without grappling with Microsoft Office Word.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Why Disaster Can Be Your Finest Muse

Before you read anything else, I want you take a deep breath. Think fondly of all those sunlit creative moments you have had. The ones where you lie in leisure, or sweat in hard work, only to be knocked off your seat by the most fantablous idea you have ever come across. Think about how you wrote it down with passion. Think about how proud you were.

Now think about something else: have you ever had to introduce a new idea to your story because you didn’t have time to write your old one?

This is perfectly normal, and if you fret about it now, you should fret no longer. This is perfectly normal for a writer. It was normal for me. As I tnkered with The Quest, I had to cut out an entire major character. I was on deadline. I could not have worked with his storyline without sacrificing time i needed to get the even bigger plotlines ready to go. So passed Hiriam the hunter, before you ever got to meet him.

Oh well. That’s life. Now before you keep reading and nodding along, go out and do it yourself. Do you have a big, sprawling story right now? Ask yourself if there’s a plotline or character of your own that’s holding you back. If it’s a time issue, cutting it won’t make you heartless. It might reveal things in your story that you never thought of before.

Stop nodding like that! Go do it! And buy a Christmas present for that one person you absolutely hate!