Notes Of A Storyteller: Hit The Gym!

.“The rain felt so good, I felt like Mother Nature had given me a kiss on the lips.”

 

Those were the first words to come to mind when I sat down at this laptop, so I wrote them. I was casting around for words to describe what I felt like this morning.

 

At 5:45 AM Central time, I threw on shorts, a T-shirt and some polyester and went to go work out with some friends. There were push-ups, and crunches, and running, and indoor football, and other nasty things that make we Americans quiver with fear. I grunted my way through it. I sweated like a pig.

 

When I stepped outside an hour later, the rain was coming down. I can’t describe the chill to you. It didn’t cut to the bone, but it thrilled my skin. It was the perfect cld temperature for a man whose body was flaming from exercise. On a sprite-like impulse, I dashed into the rain, and ran some more. By the time I made it back to the dorm, I was a soggy mess of flesh, fabric, and hair.

 

Here’s the thing that gets me thinking. The very first thing that leapt to mind when I started writing this wasn’t that arduous, sweaty hour. It was the moment in which I was done, and reveling in the water (the shower in my dorm room couldn’t hold a candle to this). I felt new, somehow. I felt like I had squeezed something slimy and poisonous out of my blood; life ran through my veins. In that moment, I felt like I could outrun a cheetah.

 

And now here’s my question to you: if you’re a writer, do you work out on a regular basis? How do you do it? Do you watch CNN and sweat on a treadmill? Do you rise with the sun and jog 3 miles? Do you benchpress or throw dumbbells around?

 

If you’re not, I truly recommend it. Do you feel comfortable right now? You shouldn’t be. All good stories are about a man or a woman removed from his/her comfort zone. Why should you be any different?

 

There’s something about pain that makes human beings excellent at describing themselves. When you do more than you think you are able to do, you gain power and you gain insight about yourself and life in general. You defy the American “good life” of couches and beer; that perspective will be invaluable in fiction and other places.

 

Are you hitting the gym? If not, do it before today is over. If you are, push yourself even harder. I have great confidence that it will make a mark on how you write and how you think. It might even make a mark on how you live.

 

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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.

 

2012 Announcements

I don’t know if anybody told you, but we started a new year a couple weeks. In light of that, it’s time to make some huge announcements about this blog and about The Kingdom Trilogy.

1. The Kingdom: The Quest is coming out in paperback at FastPencil on January 22, 2011.

2. The Kingdom: The Stand is coming out in Summer 2012 to Smashwords and the Kindle Store.

3. While you wait, there’s at least three short stories coming out in the spring of 2012. All of them will be free.

3. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I am launching a new account on January 22, 2011. Over the next month, I will transition to doing all my tweeting on the new account.

4. This blog is moving into an even better blog. You’ll get the same weekly features on a new site that will keep you updated on not only The Kingdom Trilogy, but also everything else that I’m up to.

Over the next few weeks, I will post the weekly features on both blogs. All of the news and updates will be on the new blog. Slowly, I will begin using the new blog exclusively. I’m excited to make this change and excited for a big 2011.

What are you waiting for? Check it out!

The Storyteller Reports: Literary Fiction As A Genre

RANT OF THE WEEK: Is Literary Fiction A Genre?

According to BooksLive, and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, there is some controversy as to whether crime books constitute good literature. I’ll let them quote the talking heads. In the meantime, I want to ask some questions.

Isn’t The Brothers Karamazov a crime novel? Isn’t it one of the great literary masterpieces of Western civilization? Darn right it is. Isn’t it obvious, then, that you can have a crime novel that is literary? Why are there people condemning entire genres? All good fiction should impact us. The impact might be sadness, excitement, or joy, but there must be an impact. By literary fiction, we mean books that seek to impact readers with ideas, as well as sensations.

Genre should not be the focus, but individual books. Crime novels, thrillers, horror stories, historical romances and all the other genres are settings in which literary fiction can take place- or an entertaining story. It doesn’t provide as much meat for study, but there’s no reason to condemn it.

Take a chill pill.

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!

Notes Of A Storyteller: Love Is Not A Victory March, And Neither Is Inspiration

When I started writing The Kingdom: The Quest, I was a teenager, and I had a teenage sort of imagination. What brought me to The Kingdom Trilogy was the scale of it. The plotlines in my head were impossibly huge, and they played in my head every day like fireworks. I had to put it on the page. So I did.

The day I started writing The Kingdom: The Quest, I made a great ceremony out of it. I had my family’s “study room” all to myself: a white-walled, wooden-floored cell packed with bookshelves and a table. There was a computer on that table, and I walked up to it with the gravity of a priest about to sacrifice a ram.

Remember that grandiose music from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring? It played in my head as I sat down and opened up Microsoft Word 2003. I paused to savor the moment. It was almost sacred. Then, almost of their own accord, my fingers fell to the keyboard and I began to write. I did it slowly, basking in the glow of my fantasies, and trying to sound as important as possible.

Want to know a secret? Three years later, I threw away every word I wrote that day, and in doing that I learned one of the most important things I know about writing.

There is neither romance nor glory in writing a novel until you finish it. Until then, you must roll your sleeves up. Write ravenously. Write whenever you can, however you can. Play lines in your head until you can find a napkin to scribble them down. Ceremony and self-importance will only slow you down. You can’t savor anything and risk losing another big thought.

Not until I moved towards that attitude did I begin to craft a real story. I started questioning my plot and my characters. Vertaen, one of Arman’s companions, went from a cliche gruff mentor to a charismatic bodyguard who is insufferably proud of his men. To make that change, I didn’t try to set the mood, or wait for the right inspirational moment to sweep me off my feet. I racked my brains about Vertaen’s character endlessly. I sweated, I grunted and I finally squeezed out something that I was happy with.

Dozens of writers have ranted about the day-to-day punishment of writing, and I’m not adding anything to that now. What I am saying is that they are not ignoring the beauty of writing by any means. In fact, they are being more respectful to it.

You don’t have to put yourself in the right moment to write something wonderful. In fact, if that’s your priority at all, you don’t understand writing. Just do it! You don’t take a deep breath before digging a ditch, do you? Of course not! You jab your shovel in and out of the ground until you have a neat, orderly ditch.

Writing demands the same kind of work. If you hold back anything trying to perfect your piece, you will regret it. You will see something in the final product that you know you could fixed. You’ll have a sentence you wish you had rearranged. A semi-colon where you could have put a period to make your words sound better. In these details, we learn who is a true writer and who is playing pretend.

Ponder that today.

The Storyteller Reports: A Diamond In The Rough… And A Great Big Rant

It’s that time of the week again. Hang on tight.

Rant of the Week: Another Reality Star Gets A Big Book Deal

It’s news like this that makes me very glad I’m an indie writer. I have just recieved word that Bethenny Frankel, an actress from the reality show Real Housewives of New York, gets to write three fiction books for Touchstone Fireside.

It seems we have learned nothing from Snooki’s literary reign of terror. If the publishing industry has learned anything, seemingly, it is this: if you bash in the brains of your customer once, then doing it again will make your customer even more docile and willing to give you money.

Frankel hasn’t disappointed so far. The title of her first novel blew me away. Skinny Dipping. Such a skillful display of subtlety and literary intent I have not seen in years. The level of thinking behind this title was also astounding. She tied it in with her line of food products, clothing and skin care called Skinnygirl. Deep allusions, there.

No matter how enticing this may seem to you, however, please do not purchase this novel. We don’t want to encourage this sort of behavior, do we? Seriously. Frankel won’t write anything that we haven’t already seen before. USA Today quoted her as saying, “It’s about a girl’s journey and what she wants, and trying to have it all. It’s about the lessons and the people along the way, about naysayers and rising above.”

I think I’d rather edit my book, thank you very much.

Storyteller of the Week:

James Tallett!

Say hello to James Tallett. This isn’t the first time he’s been on this blog. I reviewed his first book a while back: Tarranau.  It’s a diamond in the rough, and that’s why James is our Storyteller of the Week.

The Four Part Land has clearly been in the works for a while. One of the big pluses in Tarranau is exploring the interesting countries that Tallett has put up. I won’t spoil much for you. But Tarranau does a fair bit of exploring in the cities he visits. He gets told plenty of things, too. I wish I had more time to to tell you more, but as an English undergrad at Benedictine College, I don’t have time to do anything more than promise wonderful things.

Is Tallett a great writer? Not yet. As I explain in his writing, he has too many words and too many details. But here and there, I can tell there’s a good sense of rhythm in those words. That tells me that with time, Tallett could only get better. Considering the scope of his world and his plot (there’s six more Four Part Land books upcoming), this could be something huge.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this storyteller. I humbly urge you to do the same. His official website is lots of fun to peruse.

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Thanks for reading! Do you mind if I invite you to a contest? I’m giving a $10 Amazon gift card to one random winner who votes for their favorite cover for Die By The Sword, a short story coming September 15th. Go to this post if you want in.