Notes Of A Storyteller: The Plan Never Works

I am writing this post for the chronically unorganized. I am speaking to you writers who can never get a schedule worked out, who collapse after coming home from work only to be beseiged by small children before you can get any writing done; who open a laptop, aflame with a brilliant chapter, only to get entangled in Facebook. I know your attention span probably didn’t get you all the way through this paragraph without your mischievous little eyeballs looking at your Twitter Feed.

So I’ll make this short.

And simple.

Do you ever feel like you could write ten million Pulitzer Prize-winning novels if you could just get into a good schedule? Have you tried ten million such plans, only to fail?

Guess what. That’s exactly the way life works. Cease thy moaning, take a deep breath, and scrap the plan. It’s gone. It’s done for. It’s vaporized. You’ll waste even more writing time trying to get it back.

The moment you see a chance to write, take it even if you didn’t plan it. Jump onto your computer for those ten minutes between eating your dinner and having that date with Amanda (or Alejandro, as the case may be). Even better, skip dinner. Carve out whatever time you have at the moment.

Don’t think. Do it.

Now stop reading this blog and get to work.

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The Storyteller Reports: First Ladies and First Reporters

 

 

 

 

 

 

RANT OF THE WEEK: Could Historical Fiction Be Disrespectful?

News reached me yesterday about a new novel, and it gave me a chance to think about something.

It’s called Mrs. Nixon, a historical fiction about President Nixon’s wife. Slate’s Browbeat blog talked to a historian, Betty Boyd Caroli, about other First Ladies that could inspire some quality historical fiction. I’ll let them get into specifics.

What I want to speak of here is the nature of historical fiction itself. As a boy, I read the genre. I didn’t read much more or much less of it than any other genre, but I read it and I enjoyed it. Here, like in any good story, I found risk, adventure, and everything else that captivates a 5th-grader. I haven’t read as much of it since I got older, but after running into several indie authors who dabble in it, it is clear the appeal is just as strong for us grown-ups.

As a grown-up, and a history minor at Benedictine College, I have been confronted with the fact that history is no fairy-tale. This may or may not seem like a profound statement. If history truly happened, then the Holocaust should have the same impact on me as the remembrance of losing a relative to a car crash.

Well, it doesn’t. History still seems like a game to me at times. It seems detached from the world I live in right now, the world in which I’m typing this blog post. I think back to that historical fiction I read avidly as a child. It was thrilling stuff. So were the novels that claimed to have no ties to the world. What was the true difference? As a 5th-grade boy, there was none. I never took a moment to realize that there were event sin that historical fiction that had implications in my own world.

As a 5th-grader, that’s not as much of a problem. But it continues today. I struggle daily to realize that our history lectures truly are previous chapters in a story happening right here, right now. It is not merely a fascinating and entertaining study, but a gravely serious encounter with the story of humankind.

Considering all this, I must say that Mrs. Nixon sounds like a disrespectful idea. In fact, so does historical fiction in general, as an idea. Do we have the right to spice up these facts that form our heritage? Aren’t the facts compelling enough stories in and of themselves? Instead of embellishing what we already know, might we not set out instead to learn more, and to understand it?

STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK

It’s funny that we talk about historical fiction today. Our Storyteller of the Week also made a mark on history. This is Roger Casement, who forced the king of Belgium to his knees.

Casement was an Englishman whose eye was on the Belgian Congo. For years, King Leopold II of Belgium had run the place, and harvested an enviable amount of rubber. He trumpeted the coming of western civilization to the Congo. Apparently, the natives were being taught their manners, and virtues, and all sorts of wonderful things.

Whispers started to sneak around Europe that this wasn’t the case. Casement snuck into Africa to find the truth. He disguised himself as a deckhand on one of the steamboats, and saw everything that happened. The reality was brutal. The Belgians caused horrific violence on the natives to get their rubber.

Casement’s report in 1904 was a slap in King Leopold’s face. After Casement did more digging, it turned out that the king had taken money illegally to fund the operation in the first place. That was the end of that. The Belgian Parliament made sure the king’s authority over the Congo was ended.

That’s powerful storytelling, there. Give this man a salute.

 

Notes Of A Storyteller: A Writer’s Peace Is Only Temporary

BEFORE WE CONTINUE WITH OUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING…

I have an announcement. Some of you may be wondering when I’m planning to upload the Kindle Edition. Originally, the plan was to upload it a week after the Smashwords edition. However, I hadn’t anticipated how much time it was going to take to learn the HTML necessary. I also hadn’t anticipated that college life was going to catch up with me.

Therefore, the Kindle Edition of The Kingdom: The Quest, has been postponed to Christmas 2011. Get excited!

END OF MESSAGE. CONTINUE WITH REGULAR PROGRAMMING.

When my friends found out I was writing a novel, they did what any good friend might do. They gave me a pat on the back.

“Wow!” they would say. “I could never do that myself! You’re the best writer ever! Go for it!”

When I released the Smashwords edition in October, another round of applause followed. It got intoxicating, to be honest. I truly felt accomplished. Insecurity had been a chronic disease for me while I was editing; all this praise was refreshing. I sat back and basked in the glory of what they said to me.

A few days ago, reality hit home. I got back from a literature class, and turned on my smartphone.

“It’s about time I read this book for myself,” said I. I flipped to Stanza and got started.

“Mmmm…” I murmured, uncomfortably, a few minutes later. “I don’t think that word choice was the smartest idea…”

“Ew,” I said about halfway through. “I want to rewrite that dialogue. Needs more foreshadowing.”

“Augh!” I said by the end. “I want to rewrite this whole thing!”

My writer’s instinct had turned back on, and it taught me something. A writer’s peace never lasts. It’s our nature to always seek perfection. There’s a rhythm and a reason to good writing, and no one has ever gotten it just right. That’s why we spend all those hours hunched over a laptop. That’s why I cringed reading my published work.

I’ve been told by other people that I’m fine. But I know I never will be. If I want to be fine, I must lay down my pen and cut out my heart. Unless I do that, I will never be satisfied with my work.

Neither should you.

Monday Meditations: Adventure

Fire up your imagination today. Life is an adventure. Just ask Hans Zimmer.

SONG OF THE WEEK

“Pirates of the Caribbean Theme Song” by Hans Zimmer

Forever the anthem of the swashbuckler at heart.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Certainty of death… small chance of success… what are we waiting for?”

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Notes Of A Storyteller: Action Scenes

The following has been respectfully shanghaied from my old blog. If you saw the Monday Meditations, you know that action scenes have been on my mind in a big way. They’re some of the difficult writing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

“Ever since I got the idea for The Kingdom Trilogy, I knew there were going to be swordfights. And chases, and monsters, and fire, and jumps, and battle-cries, and everything that made Star Wars, Braveheart, and Indiana Jones beloved by audiences around the world.

Well, Indy makes it look easy. If writing action sequences is not the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do, it’s in the top three. Movies have a natural advantage over me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what kind of words you need when that picture involves a man kung-fu fighting a gang of ninjas and leaping out of an exploding submarine.

Problem is, I can only write so much. When I throw Arman off a stone tower, I only have one terse paragraph to put you in the scene. I want you to be excited. I want you to squeal as Arman plummets to certain death. Every single word has to draw you in, because when things happen this quickly, one confusing word or phrase will halt the flow.”

It’s been a few months since I wrote this. Now I want to add something. Action scenes are like writing poetry. Every phrases must burst with imagery. In this case, I must give an impression of the human body in motion, doing daring deeds at the pace of a sprinter. Connotation is vitally important. The word “dash” conveys a much more frenetic picture than the word “sprint”.

Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a paragraph from the rough draft of The Kingdom: The Quest, from when I throw Arman off that stone tower…

“His stomach smashed into his gullet as the swiftly growing earth pulled him down with a primal, roaring speed; a deathly whooshing wind reverberated through and past his ears, as he scrambled and looked about for the rope. Blurs of colours flashed down all about him: black, winds-softened cliff, grey, air-rippled tower, and a curiously brown line traveling with him that he recognized as the rope and grabbed onto just in time for an excruciating jolt to strain his suddenly aching arms and shoulders. The rope had straightened, and before he could comprehend with his eyes it had happened, he was already swinging downward at a soaringly swift rate, yelling incoherently to battle the surging wind, and clinging onto the palm-stinging fibers as he sailed rapidly over the ground, flying with a wave of exhilaration towards the tower.”

I bet you didn’t even make it through two sentences of that. Isn’t that clunky? Isn’t that boring? I’ve revised that chapter several times since. Here’s how it looks right now…

They dove straight to the earth. Arman was dimly aware of Vertaen tossing the hook, but what consumed him most was speed, and terror. Blurs of colors were all around him. Black cliff, grey tower, green earth, yellow lights. The ground swelled unnaturally fast. Hundreds of howls tore at his ears, not the least of which was the roar of the wind.

Do you see the difference? I’ll be tinkering with that passage even more in order, because even as I copied it down I recognized places where I can delete a word, or use a different word in order to increase pace and urgency. The faster, the better.

Enough about me. Have you ever written action scenes before? What works for you? What are your favorite examples in other writers? Am I spouting nonsense right now? Be a human being. Tell what you think.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Distraction Is A Good Thing

Even today, I carry on the struggle between two Seans. One Sean is intense and spends all of his time editing The Kingdom: The Quest. The other Sean is playful, lazy and loves spending time with friends and jamming out to Skrillex remixes of the Black Eyed Peas.

Can that other Sean exist if I call myself a writer? If I’m not taking every spare minute I can to devote to The Kingdom Trilogy, and to my craft in general, am I not cheating myself? Am I not showing complete devotion to what I do?

There’s a scene from Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong that illustrates what I’m thinking about. To make a long story short, a playwright is tricked into staying on board a ship with a filmmaker. While the filmmaker keeps the playwright in conversation,the captain sets sail. By the time the playwright realizes what has happened, the ship is about fifty yards away from the harbor. The next few lines of dialogue go something like this…

Filmmaker: I keep telling you, Jack, there’s no money in theater. That’s why you should stick with film.
Playwright: No Carl, it’s not about the money. I love theater.
Filmmaker: No you don’t. If you really loved it, you would’ve jumped.

Those kind of observations stick with me. All through high school, and now in college, I take time out to do other things. I lift weights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I do English and Film Club. I walk into dorm rooms to say hello. I go to Daily Mass.

I joke sometimes about being a hermit writing a novel, but it’s clear that I don’t act like one. Should I be if I want to a good writer? Should I stop doing all of these other things, and cut everyone out of my life and work on my stories? It wasn’t until recently that I decided for sure that the answer is, “No.”

I want to kick myself, because I should have realized it long ago. Writers try to convey life through words. Through stories, we ultimately seek to display the human condition. How on earth can I display the human condition if I don’t experience for myself? No, I don’t want to be a slave to my art. I won’t cut out the other people in my life. How silly of me.

If you writers are nuerotic like me, and you ever feel guilty about not spending every minute on your WiP, stop. You’re experiencing life when you go out with your friends to the local coffeeshop, instead of tinkering with your latest chapter. Ultimately, you’ll have much more to write about than if you spend your whole life hunched over a laptop.

Oh, and read The Oresteia by Aeschylus sometime. It’s a trilogy of tragic plays, and they are more than worth your time. Have a wonderful weekend.

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.