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.

 

***

 

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.

 

The Storyteller Reports: Shake Up Your Schema!

I read a fascinating interview in The New York Times two days ago. Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist who learned to play the guitar as an adult. He received some thought-provoking questions, and delivered some thought-provoking answers. You can read it here.

I won’t steal too much of his thunder, but I do want to throw in some speculation. I know little about psychology, so if I trip up, feel free to throw some virtual tomatoes.

What does this mean for writers? Let’s think about genres. If you’ve been lucky enough to spend many years writing, you may or not have settled in one genre. If you’re an avid reader, you may settled into reading historical fiction (or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time). So, after such long experience in one genre (or subject, if you write/read non-fiction), what happens when you try a new one? I wager it’s difficult.

I’m sketchy on the details, but there’s a psychological concept called the schema. Jean Piaget popularized it. Your mind takes the information that your mind takes in, and organizes it. The schema is the way it organizes. Just as we have folders with different categories (and reasons for putting different things in these categories), so our mind has different categories into which it classifies things.

After such long exposure, it might take time for the schemas to shift and get used to new information. Right? The rules for science fiction novels are a little different than literary short stories. You use different words, and even write in a different style, when it comes to French history as opposed to memoirs, or scholarly journals on astrophysics.

It seems clear that adults take more time to get used to new things than kids do, and Gary gets into more detail with that.

What the takeaway is for writers is that diversity is imperative. We can’t just stick with one genre. Those schemas could get so rigid that when something new comes along that we don’t understand, we don’t deal with it as well. I read too much highbrow fiction. I read too much fiction with dark endings, as we’ve talked about in weeks past.

That’s why, right now, I’m reading a non-fiction book about Catholicism. After that, I’m going to finish a reading a YA novel that a friend lent me a couple of weeks ago. Then I’m going to read some Elizabethan poetry. I want to shake up my schemas a little bit.

What about you?

***

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: 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: 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: 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!