Welcome to all those who have arrived from Writing from the Peak Website! I want to get into some nitty gritty about re-writes. So, let’s begin!
Let’s Be Honest About these Re-Writes
If you’re adding a romantic subplot, like I did. Or you’re polishing some language so that story or character arcs stand out, or you’re trying to make an impact with dialogue, then go be about your business. But there should be a light at the end of the tunnel. There should be a time when you can abandon this story and move on to the next one. Your job is not to create perfection, but to create art. This is why I push the critique group so much. Everyone needs a separate set of eyes to tell you if what you’re doing is good, or not. Those additional eyes will help make your story great.
What if you need a major overhaul? Ok. We can do that. But first ask yourself why. Is your world building off? Are their historical anachronisms in your story that are essential to the plot? Did you realize you told the story from the wrong point of view? (This happens, believe me!)
Is any part of your W.I.P. salvageable? Perhaps Act 1, or the last part of act 3? Maybe the midpoint, or the romantic subplot? Whatever can be salvaged should be kept and put into separate file folders. Then start your re-writes. As you do this, think about the plot beats. Think about the protagonist’s motivation and character arc. How can you put these on a pedestal and polish them so they shine in your story?
Remember, writing a novel takes grit. If you’ve come this far, you’ve got what it takes. I know how disheartening it can feel realizing you have to write another 80,000 words before your novel is done. I have been there. My first draft of The Gallowglass was 117,000 words. It took a year to write. It was also very bad. Oh, so very bad. When I re-wrote the novel, I couldn’t even save one paragraph. But I got through it. I now have a much better story. If I can do it, I know you can too.
The Nine Questions
Ask these questions about your work before, during and after you’ve written your first draft. The answers should change as your story progresses and you polish certain scenes.
1.) Is the protagonist’s motivation painfully obvious?
2.) Is the protagonist likeable? Do you want them to be?
3.) Do you have a theme? If so, is the theme obvious to your readers?
4.) Does your protagonist have a story arc? Is it clear and obvious?
5.) Do any of your supporting characters have a story arc? Are their arcs clear and obvious?
6.) Is your protagonist the cause of at least some of his own troubles? If not, why? If so, can he fix them?
7.) Is your protagonist able to reflect upon their decisions at the midpoint? If so, is she beginning to question her decisions?
8.) Is there a whiff of death in the second half of Act 2?
9.) Is there at least a partially satisfying conclusion for your reader? Do the good guys win? If not, is there something satisfying for your reader to grab ahold of at the end of your W.I.P.?
The Story Arc
In every film, opera, play and novel there are actually two stories going on. One is motivated by the plot. The overarching story that the protagonist and her friends are reacting too. The other story is about the protagonist’s inner journey. This is this is the character arc. Questions 1, 4, 6, 7, & 8 are about your protagonist’s character arc.
In the past, genre fiction like sci-fi or paranormal romance was heavy on plot, but light on character development. That time is quickly dying. All writers need to up their game and work on the character arc for their novel, regardless of the genre. It is very important that your readers see the protagonist grow, learn and change as the story progresses. And, you get bonus points for making your character arc and plot arc intersect! All the best novels have a character arc that intersects with the story arc.
There are times in the story, like in the beginning, when we learn what the hero really wants, and at the midpoint, when we see the hero realize maybe this isn’t what they want, that intersect with the story arc. If done well, they can be seamless and poignant. The character arc should be the focus of your re-writes. Look to make your protagonist’s personality stand out in the midst’s of the story arc.
I could go on about this, but local Colorado author Stant Litore wrote a book about this called Writing Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget: a Toolbox for Emerging Writers, on Amazon now for under $10. I highly recommend it.
Next month will talk about paths to publishing, getting an agent & if you want one, and the power of self-publishing.
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Last week I got a copy of author James A. Hunter’s sci-fi novel Viridian Gate Online: Cataclycism: A LitRPG Adventure. I got to say, this one was a little out of my wheel house. However, James hit it out of the park! The characters are fleshed out, the action is non-stop, and the character development is solid.
Our story takes place in 2042. An asteroid is about to hit the Earth and our protagonist hasn’t won the lottery allowing him to survive in deep earth bunkers. He has, however, won a different kind of lottery. Thanks to a next generation virtual reality MMO, he has an opportunity to immerse himself in a digital world. After being connected for three days, his body will die, but his consciousness has a good shot of surviving the process, making him immortal. The only problem is that he would live out his existence in a fantasy MMO, fighting monsters and collecting magic items.
This is the genre of Litrpg
The protagonists are caught in a game world and have to figure out what there next step is. This kind of novel blends the sci-fi action of Tron with the specifics of MMO’s like inventory screens, digital maps, skill and class progression and money totals. All the stuff that hard core games want in their sci-fi novels. And Viridian Gate Online delivers on all of the goods.
I was surprised how rich and detailed the world was. I was also surprised how out protagonist, Grim Jack, has to balance what his MMO habits are with his desire to act humanely as he tries to figure out how to do the right thing. While he knows he’s in a video game, it’s so realistic that he can’t help but treat the people he meets as if they are real. He is humane and merciful. Surprisingly, these traits always end up benefiting him. Kindness is rewarded.
Then the girl shows up
The story hums along well until Aby, a former college friend, appears. You see Aby gave Grim Jack the equipment to get online and survive the asteroid. He now finds out why. Aby thinks there’s something rotten in Viridian Gate and she needs Jack’s help to find it. Aby explains what she knows and what she thinks it happening. She asks him to go on a quest with her, which only brings up more questions. Their quest for answers is complicated by the feelings they are just now admitting to each other.
The author breaks the team up when Aby decides she wants to be alone during her final transition. See, after three days connected to this virtual reality world, a person’s body goes into cardiac arrest – they die – in the real world. Most people survive this process with their consciousness intact, 1 in 6 do not.
A well crafted book
Author James Hunter has created a rich world for the reader to explore. He’s also skillfully added a mystery into an action novel. Did I mention the twist at the end? Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. Just read the book!
If you like reading new genres of fiction with lots of action and a little bit of mystery, Viridian Gate Online: Cataclysm is for you. Ebook versions are $3.99 on Amazon. Paperback is $9.99.
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Like a lot of young men, I was obsessed with sports in my teens. I watched everything except baseball and golf. (I got nothing against baseball or golf, just not my cup of tea.) Basketball, football, hockey, you name it I watched it. I would even pay attention to high school sports in Los Angeles, reading the game summaries in the Pasadena Star News, keeping track of standing and statistics. Oh, and I didn’t want to be perceived as a snob, so I watched tennis, soccer & camped out every two years to watch Olympic bobsledding, downhill skiing, cycling and track & field.
But as I got older, I realized a couple of things.
- I didn’t really care for a lot of these sports.
- I was wasting a lot of time on something that didn’t really have a direct effect on my life.
So I stopped. I turned off the NFL draft and the NBA lottery. I stopped buying season tickets for the Colorado Rapids and turned the TV off during the NFL season. It was no longer fun, so I stopped.
The One Exception was College Football. I Love College Football.
I won’t bore you with my apologia on why college football is awesome, just know that it is. When I transitioned to being an aspiring author, I began to see some parallels between professional writing and my beloved sport.
1.) It Is Easy to Get Tunnel Vision
I am a BIG Southern Cal fan. I have been for about thirty years. About six years ago USC was hailed as the premiere college football
program in the land. They whupped everybody and I loved talking crap.
But there were problems in the Land of Troy. Many of the SC football players were coming to class wearing expensive clothes and driving leased Cadillac SUV’s. Pete Carrol, the head coach, knew a lot of these kids were from poor homes and simply decided not to ask questions. That lead to the university getting sanctioned by the NCAA and Carrol’s resignation. He got tunnel vision, deciding to ignore the things he didn’t want to know about.
The same is true in writing. I see people all the time who ignore really good advice from their peers. Or they don’t want to join a critique group because “They won’t get what I’m trying to do.” Listen, Jeff Goins says “Art needs an audience.” That means you’re going to get criticized – and that’s a good thing! An inspiring writer has to put their egos on the shelf and take criticism. Remember that fiction writing is an art and a business. If you can’t prepare your work for the market, than why are you writing?
2.) There is Room Enough for Everyone
College football has a great four team playoff system. It’s really increased visibility for the game. However, every year there are thirty plus bowl games going on. This year’s national Champion was the University of Clemson. They had an awesome season and earned every accolade. My beloved Trojans won the Rose Bowl against a resurgent Penn St. in a game for the ages. USC didn’t make the college playoffs this year. That doesn’t there season was a failure. Little Western Michigan University came out of nowhere to receive an invitation to the prestigious Cotton Bowl, where they proceeded to get pounded by Wisconsin. But they won 12 games this year, got on national television and won their conference. Is there season defined by one game? Of course not!
The same thing is true in writing. Just because I don’t have the success of James Paterson or Diana Gabaldon, doesn’t mean I’m a failure. People like to spout statistics about how hard it is to be a professional writer. But success looks different to different people. Local authors Quincy J. Allen and Dave Butler both write steampunk fiction. Yet their audiences are vastly different. One’s success doesn’t mean the other is failing. The scarcity world view is a lie. There is room enough for both of them, for all of them, in the marketplace.
3.) The Details Count
Twenty years ago in college football the University of Miami was the Galactic Empire in the sport. Everyone hated them. They were brash, cocky and talented. They were 1 play away from becoming the first back-to-back national champions in twenty years. Conversely, the University of Oregon was in a wilderness of losing. Today, the Oregon Ducks are a perennial winner and Miami struggles. What happened?
See, high school kids are wowed by shiny things. Oregon built a new stadium, a new athletic facility, and made rotating special uniforms a thing. High school athletes ate it up and decided to play for the ducks. Miami thought that kids would want to go to school there because of their winning tradition, so they never upgraded their athletic buildings. Now they struggle to keep Miami kids at home. They didn’t take care of the details.
Many times writers don’t want to do anything but write. They want to immerse themselves in story. But being a professional writer is about more than your book. It’s about sales and marketing. If you want to put food on the table writing, you’ve got to sell your book. You’ve got to meet fans, put together an email list and have a decent looking website. Author Jeff Goins says you must build a tribe.
I know an author who self-published a couple of space opera style Sci-fi books. Really good stuff. I suggested he get a table at the ComicCon in his town. The guy looked at me in horror. He said “I’m not going to be around those wierdos.” I told him, “Who do you think is going to buy your book? Physics professors?”
His discomfort lead to no one reading his book. He thought all he had to do was write something awesome (and it was awesome,) and viola, instant financial success. You gotta take care of the details.
4.) There is a Community of People Who Want to Help.
Did you know that college football coaches go to clinics about coaching every year, put on by other coaches? That they actively teach and network with one another? Did you know that coaches actively mentor other coaches they compete against? Every year summer Punt, Pass & Kick clinics go on where assistant coaches from many different programs get together, teach high school kids and actively pass on recruiting information to each other. Why? Because they know mentoring is an active part of coaching. Many successful coaches want to give back to the game by taking new people under their wings.
The same is true in writing. I have many new writers seek out and receive mentoring from professional writers who simply want to help. I too, have benefited from this mentoring. Authors like Aaron Michael Ritchey, Quincy J. Allen, Mary Wine and Suzanne Spann have all mentored me and helped me along the way.
There is an old saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Sometimes you have to ask for help. This shows a humbleness and a passion for the craft. I have never met people more open, more celebratory of others, or more helpful, than my fellow writers in Denver writing community. Mentorship, guidance, community and fellowship is out there. You just have to ask.
5.) Success Entails Hard Work.
You knew I was going to end with this, right? You have to put in the work. Clemson just didn’t recruit super talented football players to win a national championship. It took years of preparation, flying all over the country and talking to skeptical parents about how the coaches were going to guide, teach and mentor their young men. It took hundreds of hours of watching film, guiding kids in the weight room, having hard conversations about dedication, keeping an eye on kids grades, and about a hundred other things I don’t have time to talk about here, before Clemson was in a position to win that championship.
The same thing is true in writing. Research, re-writes, learning grammar, going to critique group, learning marketing, doing more re-writes. It’s all part of the process. If you’re willing to do the work, eventually you will be successful.
When I wrote my first, unpublished novel, I realized that I had made a bunch of stupid mistakes. So in January of 2016 I decided to do a complete re-write from page one. It was daunting. But I did it. I then wrote a second book later that year. A lot of people would have quit, or dragged their feet.
Look, I get it. It hurts to know the labor you put in was not enough. But if you go an extra mile, write a little more, ask for a little more help, you can be successful.
In a lot of ways, it really isn’t about the extra work. It is about this question. If I work harder, will I see the success I think I deserve? I think this is the real reason why people quit. They work hard, pour their emotions into a book and take their failure personally. They give up the fight before the fight is over. But writing is a craft. It’s more about the skills you acquire than the talent you have. As you learn more, you stop making those early mistakes. Your writing gets better.
I will leave you with this. At the University of Southern California, they have a saying. Fight On! To be successful in anything, you have to keep working. When you think you’ve reached your limit and that little, cowardly voice is telling you to quit, you have to simply Fight On!
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I have been a Stant Litore fan for quite a while now. It all started when I was perusing books on my Kindle and his name kept coming up. I would read the titles of his books and then read the descriptions. Wow. Just wow. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I bought Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows.
I came away from that book with three convictions.
1.) Stant Litore is a master of sorrow and loneliness.
2.) Stant Litore has an understanding of Biblical literature that would blow the rest of us away.
3.) Stant Litore knows how to write!
Why am I telling you this?
See, the book I’m gonna review, No Lasting Burial, requires a little bit of set up.
Stant Litore writes Science Fiction (which is also awesome!) but he writes what can only be described as weird fiction. He has a whole series of books entitled The Zombie Bible.
In these books Stant takes a Biblical figure and asks the question how would a devoutly religious person from the ancient world respond to a zombie apocalypse? This is a fascinating question!
It brings up issues of culture, material culture, values, faith & identity. It also takes the question of religion very seriously.
See, I’m a devout Catholic. I have been one most of my adult life. However whenever I try to find movies or television shows that authentically lay out how a sincere Christian would act, I am left empty and hollow.
Its not that entertainment gets the Christian wrong (which they often do – but that’s another post.) For the sake of faint of heart, they get the experiences wrong.
We all know that life can be hard. It’s visceral, guttural, earthy and sometimes gross. Very rarely do movies, television & books with authentically Christian characters get their world right. The producers shy away from the heard realities of life. Everything is veiled or discussed in coded language.
Stant Litore get’s it Right.
His characters are full of rage, pride, lust. They watch their loved ones get murdered, or starve. They are hard, lean people who have gone through some tough times. In spite of those times, when their backs are against the wall, they lean on their faith to keep going. Stant’s works are visceral and gritty.
Let’s talk about No Lasting Burial.
I’ve read every Zombie Bible Story published so far. I saved this one for last because it deals with the Gospel of Luke.
Let me start out by saying Stant knows his Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic. He makes liberal use of terms and names, so that you feel like you’re visiting a foreign world. However, because he knows the Jewish Law, you quickly get the sense that his characters live with a certain amount of tension as they struggle to be faithful. The results can be both good and bad, for the characters.
Also, Stant Litore’s writing is beautiful. He has a way of describing the most basic – fish cooking on a wood fire, walking along the sea shore, or an intimate moment between a young girl and a boy – and making you feel vulnerable for witnessing it. There were times in this book I was embarrassed because the scene was so intimate, so personal, that I felt like I was eaves dropping on two lovers. When a writer can make you feel that, he’s done something.
The characters are wounded and broken people. This one can’t forgive his father. That one is full of fear for her child. This one has grown dogmatic and self-righteous because he can’t forgive himself for his cowardice years before. Yet they all go through their own growth as the story advances. Stant Litore is a master of the character arc, and it shows in this book.
Meanwhile, the dead walk the earth, consuming the living.
They have one intense moment after another. When the dead attack, most people work together to fight them. When the present danger has abated, their interpersonal problems resurface. Finally, these Iron Age Characters try to make sense of a world where the dead keep coming back, while also being good, observant Jews and dealing with the Romans.
There is a richness to Stant Litore’s prose that feels like poetry. H has woven a rich tapestry of belief, emotion, ancient history, and – dare I say it – hunger, into a wonderful book. I highly recommend all of the books in the Zombie Bible, especially No Lasting Burial. Pick it up today!
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I wrote a short story entitled Answering the Bell about a fatherless girl in high school training to be a boxer. She has all the problems of a typical student-athlete; mom, school, boys. I submitted the story to an anthology entitled, Shatter Your Image, by Thomas A. Fowler’s Nerdy Things Publishing. The story was accepted and is now available on Amazon in paperback and e-book.
All proceeds will go to a lovely charity called Realize Your Beauty, which teaches healthy body image to girls of all ages. (www.realizeyourbeauty.org)
I’m proud of this story. It’s my first attempt at writing a female protagonist, as well as my first attempt at a literary story. (I guess I define literary as not having an obvious genre hook to hang on to.) Check it out. Thomas Fowler is planning a Denver book signing party. When it happens, I will let all of you know!
Artists have a reputation for being quite emotional. You’re either perceived as being high strung, histrionic, or bipolar. All of which may be true at one point or another. (I tend to be histrionic, myself.) I think these perceptions come from two main areas. The struggle of trying to make money from your art, and the struggle to earn the title of artist. Whenever you try to take that title for yourself, up pops imposter syndrome.
You know what I’m talking about.
That little voice in your head that says your art is a joke. It tells you that you don’t belong in this rarified world. You’re worse than an amateur, you’re a fraud. Real artists will laugh at how bad your art is. They’ll pretend not to see you in public because you embarrass them.
Imposter syndrome. It’s real. I suffer from it. Other artists I know suffer from it. It’s very common.
For me it strikes when I tell people I’m a writer and they give me that quizzical look. Like, I used the wrong word in a sentence and they’re wondering if they heard it right.
“What? You can’t make money at that.”
“Aren’t you the dreamer!”
“Oh (uncomfortable silence,) that’s interesting.”
I immediately get defensive.
I tell them I’ve been blogging for over a year now. That I was editor-in-chief of an online magazine. I tell them I’ve been traditionally published four times.
None of those things matter. And they shouldn’t.
The truth is that I shouldn’t care, but I do. I want the respect and (if I’m being honest,) adulation of all around me. When I don’t get it, Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head. Why I get upset about what a passing acquaintance says about me, I’ll never know. I think we’re all wired to want, at some level, the approval of our community, of our tribe.
The problem is that these people don’t matter. I could publish a book, invite them to my book signing, track them down when they don’t show
up, and give them a free, autographed copy and they still would be skeptical. In addition, their opinion of me still wouldn’t matter.
I define who & what I am. The same should be true for you, too.
Look, I have a secret to tell you. There are no gatekeepers anymore.
I don’t have to have a book deal with Penguin or St. Martin’s Press. I don’t have to be interviewed by the Today Show, or MSNCBC. I don’t need any of that to call myself a writer. All I need is to give myself permission to be a writer. The rest is about the work.
It’s about getting up, every day, and finding time to write, edit, & market. You gotta do the work. Eventually, people will see the work you do and acknowledge you as the artist you are – or they won’t. Either way it doesn’t matter.
Walt Disney once said “We don’t make movie to make money. We make money to make more movies.” It was always about the art.
As you explore the art you love, dig deep into to it, immerse yourself in its workings and craft, you won’t care what people think. You’ll begin to reshape your vision of yourself. You will shatter your image, pick up the shards of your former self, and recast it into something you recognize, something beautiful.
That will be all the recognition you need.
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The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
The Sapphire is one of the most enduring black stereotypes in literature, film and television. A black woman with a strong will and a strong back. She always speaks the truth – especially to the white people. She gets laughs and inspires courage. Yet her humor masks her truth telling. We love her because she is strong, courageous even, while being heartwarming. Today we see her as an equal (which is a good thing,).
So, what’s wrong with this trope and how can we fix it?
Here are the top four things wrong with the Sapphire trope and the two things we, as writers, can do to fix it.
1.) The Sapphire loves the white family – a little too much.
She cooks amazing meals, is there early and stays late & helps raise the little white children. The sapphire is more than a maid or housekeeper, she is a surrogate mother – and that is the problem.
She does everything for the white children. Literally everything. Doesn’t this woman have a family of her own? What about her kids? What about her husband & family? Yet she is always there for her white employers. Yes, it’s her hard work and nurturing that gives her the moral authority to teach wisdom to the children and her employers. However, what is her status?
The Sapphire is in some kind of limbo where the white children are concerned. Her authority comes from her white employer and not because of her own moral authority or relationships with the child.
Look at Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, the woman is shown to be hard on Scout, to help her grow up. Scout even says:
She was always ordering me out of the kitchen, asking me why
I couldn’t behave as well as Jem when she knew he was older,
and calling me home when I wasn’t ready to come. Our battles
were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because
Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem
was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could
Her authority of Scout is only because Atticus takes her side, as the white male and head of the household. The Sapphire is in a kind of limbo because she’s doing the job of a mother – without the job title.
2.) The Sapphire emasculates the black man.
Her strength, whether its moral, physical or emotional, is unquestioned. She speaks truth to power. She is a courageous woman. However, in order for the Sapphire character to shine, she has to knock some sense into somebody. In shows like Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break, it was always the white kids who got the lessons about life from the sassy housekeeper. In shows like Good Times, it was Florida’s own children who got the brunt of it.
The character of JJ Evans on Good Times was a clown of the highest order. While later seasons showed him taking his art more seriously, becoming more of a productive citizen, the character could easily be confused with a minstrel show performing jive artists. While the rest of the family struggles, JJ was shiftless, sexually obsessed, lazy and a potential con artist. He always had a plan or a scheme that his mother, Florida Evans (or his father, to be fair,) had to stop.
In many ways, you can’t have a Sapphire without emasculating a black man around him. Go back and watch Mammy and Pork from Gone with the Wind. They don’t have many scenes together, but it’s clear who’s in charge.
3.) The Sapphire is a neutered woman.
The Sapphire’s strength is unparalleled. She is virtuous and is the soft spot everyone can lean on. All great story telling. Except, who does the Sapphire lean on? Who’s shoulder does she cry on?
Because her presentation to us, as reader, usually involved her being older, with copious amounts of fat on her, she is never presented as an object of sexual desire. Her romantic desires are never discussed.
No one is that strong.
And, while there are people who show no desire to form romantic relationships out there, the Sapphire is continuously portrayed as strong enough not to need a man – or anybody.
4.) The Sapphire is All Rage
The Sapphire is righteousness personified. She has no time for foolishness or crap while she tells it like it is. While she speaks the truth her emotions range from irritated to full blown rage. From Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind, to Nell Carter’s Nellie in Gimmie a Break, this woman is angry.
A good example of this is Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia in the Color Purple. She is all rage and indignation and truth telling. Oprah gives a beautiful monologue about her abuse growing up to Whoopie Goldberg’s character Celie. It is a moving and heart wrenching scene. To Spielberg’s credit, he pushes Sofia to her natural conclusion and has her curse a white woman and slug a white man, which gets her sent to prison.
How do we avoid these stereotypes? How do we fix them?
As I have said at conferences before, fixing the stereotypes of black characters involves one major step: show agency.
If the black housekeeper loves the white children she cares for, show her choosing her own family over the people she works for. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, my own daughter is in a play tonight and I must see her. You’ll have to find someone else.”
No one will have a problem with this decision because it’s human.
If the Sapphire is emasculating the black male characters around her flip the script. Have those same men honor their mother/aunt/stepmother by taking the responsibilities away from her just once. Have her come home and dinner is cooking, the house is clean, and the men are waiting on her to show their love and respect. (This also has the added effect of eliminating the stereotype of the black male as shiftless, lazy and uncaring.)
Show the Sapphire as an object of desire. Have her talk about her lover, or husband or wife.
Let an older Sapphire have an opportunity to wax poetic about her lovers when she was younger. Let her brag about her figure and bust.
Let her break down and cry. Have her lean on her friends and get a hug. Allow people wait on her. Show her being vulnerable. Show her laughing, good naturedly. Let her have a passionate kiss.
Here is the incomparable Esther Rolle in Good Times showing a strong black woman being vulnerable.
Writing can be a solitary action. You can go to conferences (Pike’s Peak’s Conference is coming up!), join a critique group, get invited to book release parties. They are all fun. However, your job as a writer is to plant your butt in a seat and put words on the screen. For a lot of people, this can be very hard.
Today’s blog on historical fiction won’t have a lot of suggestions on how to put words on your screen. There is no secret to writing. If you say you are a writer, then you’re going to have to sit down and write.
There is a fallacy that writing requires inspiration at every turn.
There is a fallacy that writing requires lots and lots of talent.
There is a fallacy that writing requires an unburdened mind so you can concentrate.
None of these things are true.
All you need to write a book is a kernel of an idea and the intestinal fortitude to write it. Everything else you can learn along the way.
Is it going to be hard? Yes.
Will you get frustrated? Absolutely.
Will you discover knew deficiencies in your writing that you’ll have to correct? Count on it.
Will you probably poor blood, sweat and tears into a story you realize isn’t very good? Uh huh.
But that’s the process isn’t it? You have to go through this journey yourself in order to find the story that’s inside you. The only way to do it is to do it.
Enough badgering. Here is what helps me.
Because I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline, I plot out every scene I’m going to write for a novel. Those outlines show an emotional high, an emotional low, and a conflict. (Remember, every scene you write must have some sort of conflict in it.) Because I have these tools, (or crutches, depending on your point of view,) I can write out a scene. Then I can write another one. And another one. Eventually I have a book because I’ve outlined all my scenes.
I may decide to change something while I’m writing it, or I can go back and re-write. (more on that later) But at least I have something on the page.
Here’s another hint. Writing is a muscle, so use it every day.
If you can’t do this, I understand. You’ve got a life. Maybe you’re a full time student. Maybe you run a business. Maybe you’re fighting a disease like Cancer. I get it. But let me say this.
The world needs your story. Make your story a priority in your life. Carve out time, if only twenty minutes a day, and write.
Over a month, a season, or a year, you will write your novel. All you have to do is create a habit of writing. If you do that, over time, eventually you’ll have a completed manuscript. (Which is more than most writers have!)
So how do you do that?
It’s like brushing your teeth. You set a time of day and write. You make a writing place where you are in the habit of writing. The time is up to you. 4:30 in the morning or 10:00 at night. Whatever helps you. As for the place, it can be your kitchen table. It can be in your moved out kids converted bedroom. It can be in the tool shed. I once knew a college professor who had to write a book, so he would go to a set number of coffee shops and rotate. The time and place are up to you, it’s the habit that’s important.
Another hint: Flex your muscles by upping your daily word count.
When I first started writing I could barely write 1,000 words a day. It was exhausting. This was in 2013, the first time I participate in NaNoWriMo. That first week was killer! I knew I had to get to 1667 words a day, but I was exhausted! Things changed week 2.
By the end of the second week I was writing about 1700 words a day.
By the end of the third week I was averaging 2100 words a day.
By the end of the fourth week I was averaging 2300 words a day.
Now when I write, I get mental fatigue at about 3000 words, on average. So my advice to you is push yourself. Where ever you’re at when it comes to word volume. Tell yourself you will write 250 more words today than you usually write. If you average 500 words, try to write 750. If you write 2300, write 2550. Average that out for the week. Then, next week try to write 250 more words. I promise you that your daily word totals will go up.
Final hint: Write what you wanna write first.
Fellow writer and author James Vincett gets a scene in his mind. It’s like an itch he can’t reach. So he’ll put that scene down on paper. Then, he’ll get another scene in his head and write that one down, too. He’s written the fun stuff, first.
Once that is written, he’ll outline and write all the stuff that comes in between. For James, it’s an intellectual exercise in trying to connect two scenes together in a coherent and cogent way. It works for him.
As for me, like I wrote above, I outline all my scenes before I write. There are some I dread writing and others I really look forward to. I make myself write the mundane stuff first. I then reward myself by writing the cool stuff I wanted to write all along! Try it. Maybe it will work for you.
I am sorry I wasn’t more helpful. I’m sorry that all I could do is come up with some suggestions to help you stay motivated. However, this is where your metal is tested. Are you really a writer? If so, then write. Write every day, if you can. Get some progress under your belt. Even if you only write a page a day, that is better than no pages at all. Remember, the worst page written is better than the perfect book in your head.
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If you’ve read my Pikes Peak blog this month and have come over from that site to continue our discussion of story, then welcome. Here we will get a little more in depth about the issues of story. Unfortunately, people have built entire university classes, how-to books, as well as initiating blood feuds on the proper way to right a book.
First of all, unless your name is George RR Martin, JK Rawlings, or Stephen King, you cannot sit on your high throne telling people how to write books. Please understand this is NOT what I’m doing. I just want to share some insights that I made while writing my first and second unpublished novels.
The Story Arc: Three ACT Structure
I have come to believe that the three act structure (or the five act, if you’re doing the Freytag model,) is not only logical, its biological. Our human brains just don’t want to process a story that doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why the vast majority of stories, plays and films follow it. But let’s dig deeper.
Within the three act structure are some hurdles your character must face, or else the story falls flat. Each act has these beats and your character must hit them in order to move the story along.
(Remember, I use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat organization system, so grab a copy if you want more details.)
This is that moment when the protagonists world changes. She becomes aware of an issue that will push her out of her comfort zone. For Catniss Everdeen, it was the lottery where her sister was chosen. For Luke Skywalker, it was finding the 3d video of princess Leia. The hero or heroine hasn’t decided to go at this point. All that has happened is they are presented with a glimpse into another world.
The Call to Adventure, the Debate and its Acceptance.
At some point a wise old person shows up, hints at what may happen next, and gives the call to adventure. Your protagonist isn’t really sure they want to go. They might have loved ones to take care of, or they’re scared of change. Maybe they lack self-confidence and just need to believe in themselves. Regardless of the situation, they need to think about the offer.
Eventually, they accept. (We wouldn’t have a story if they didn’t.) Whether they boldly go, or are timid, or even petrified, the protagonist must choose on their own.
I saw Suicide Squad in theatres, like a lot of people. While it was a fun romp, the story had many flaws. There’s a scene, just about at the end of Act 1 where the characters have micro bombs implanted in their necks to make them compliant.
While I know this is a trope from the comic book, it kills a lot of the story. 1.) These villains aren’t redeemable because they’re forced. 2.) There’s little tension among the team because at no point in time will anyone try to run away after Slipknot. 3.) When their second opportunity for redemption comes around after Col. Flag destroys the remote controlling the bomb, we know its hallow because you can make a pretty good guess that the real bad guy, Amanda Waller, has her own version of that box. Your protagonist has to choose on their own, to be the hero.
This is where all the marbles are. This is the point where your hero’s true character begins to show. The plot directed threat is either minimized or non-existent at this phase. Any failure is a personal failure and not directly the fault of the antagonist. Any victory is stale and leaves the tastes of ashes in her mouth.
It’s at the midpoint that Roy Hobbs, the hero in Bernard Malamud’s debut novel, The Natural, is riding high on success and fame. He’s even dating the team’s owner’s niece. But it all goes bad. The fame and celebrity turns sour as the team’s winning streak ends.
The midpoint is also where we foreshadow all the bad stuff that’s going to happen to our protagonist, very shortly. She thinks she’s figure it out. That she’s conquered her fears, her enemies and her obstacles. Heh, heh, heh! Boy is SHE IN FOR A SURPRISE!!!!!
Author James Scott Bell wrote a lovely little help-me guide called Write your Novel from the Middle. In it, he says the following:
At this point in the story the character looks at himself. He takes
stock of where he is in the conflict (and) . . . has either of two
basic thoughts. In a character driven story, he looks at himself
and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming?
If he continues the fight of Act II, how will he be different? What
will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. Its where
the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him.
At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way
to go on and not face certain death. That death can be physical,
professional, or psychological.
(Bell, p. 22-23)
Most great stories have powerful midpoints where the character is facing an internal challenge. Once the character has figured out why she is really struggling against and fighting for, then we can go back to the external challenge.
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul mirrors the midpoint in many ways. But just because it is a reflection of the inner turmoil, doesn’t mean it has to have the same structure. The midpoint, as I wrote on the Pikes Peak Blog, can either be a false victory or a false defeat. Why? Because the space between the midpoint and the Dark Night of the Soul should be real defeat of the protagonist.
With a solid loss in their column, their mentor dead or missing, the protagonist must figure out a new way to do things. She has to work it out on their own and come up with a how and a why.
Think of the Dark Night of the Soul as a mirror image of the Catalyst and Debate from Act 1.
Again there world has changed, again they have a choice to continue on or turn back. (or even die.) The must choose.
Like Act 1, Act 2 end only when the character chooses on their own to continue the struggle. Our Heroine will answer this second call to adventure with an affirmative.
WE’RE NOT DONE YET!!!!
Now our heroine has to find allies, create a new plan, attack the problem/villain, and win the day! It’s all downhill from here! This is the fun part of the story. Things are coming together. The heroine has learned her lesson and has conquered her internal problems so she can face the external.
This is where the reader gets his payoff for sticking with your story. This is where the satisfying ending comes in! This is where the heroine achieves victory – or not.
Your protagonist could still lose. Tragedies can be fun, too. Three of my favorite movies are Rocky, Glory & the Empire Strikes Back. The protagonists don’t win in any of those films. The story is better for the loss.
Or, how about Gone with the Wind. Scarlet loses the man she loves at the end of that book. (Movie, too.) Yet we know she is stronger for it. We also know she has clarity in her life – for once she is clear that Ashley is not for her.
Or, you could give a bittersweet ending.
Roy Hobbs never plays baseball again at the end of The Natural. While we are saddened for him, we know he is content because he has won Iris and is now a family man.
Just remember, the good guys don’t always have to win.
NOW I get to impress you with my French! The Denouement is the final scene of the story, after the climax and the resolution of the external struggle, or plot. The word comes from the French word denouer, meaning to untie. It is in the final scene were the tension of the story is resolved. The loose ends are gathered. The questions answered – for good or for ill.
I have read a lot of authors who seem to mail this ending in. The Climax seems to be the real ending to a lot of stories, so this post climax scene sometimes feels awkward to me.
If you’re working on your first story, I challenge you to make this scene memorable. As memorable as the climax where the bad guys get what’s coming to them! Give the reader some peace of mind that the protagonist is finally happy & at peace.
(Unless you want a sequel.)
This entire blog post has been about the story arc. The ups and downs of your character. But I hope you noticed something. Every part of the story arc we’ve gone over today, The Catalyst, the Call to Adventure and its acceptance, the Mid-point, the Dark Night of the Soul, the move into Act 3, and the Denouement, can all be used as frameworks for your character arc.
See, a character arc is a set of scenes in your novel. They are a story within your story about how your protagonist grows as a human being. They should have weaknesses that the story exposes. Later on in your story, the bad guys or problems should force the heroine to improve herself or get lost. The six scenes I’ve mentioned earlier perfect opportunities sketch out that character arc.
Whew, we did a lot today! Before I go, I would encourage you to think about the structure of your story. Now, if you’re a pantser and not a plotter like me, it doesn’t mean you can’t use what I’ve written about in both blogs. As a seat-of-your-pants writer, your plot will be more organic, than structured and that’s OK. Just keep in mind the three act structure as you write your kick ass novel.
I do want to leave you with my bibliography of books I use to organize and write. Here they are:
|Blake Snyder||Save the Cat|
|Blake Snyder||Save the Cat goes to the Movies|
|Blake Snyder||Save the Cat Strikes Back|
|James Scott Bell||Write Your Novel from the Middle|
|Stant Litore||Write Characters your Readers won’t Forget|
Leigh Michaels On Writing Romance This book taught me the structure of Romance stories. It was clear and concise with lots of examples. Good stuff!
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This week I’ll be reviewing one of my favorite writing craft books. It’s called Write. Publish. Repeat. by authors Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, & David Wright. Maybe it’s wrong to describe this book as a craft writing book. Those books usually suggest things you can do when it comes to the specifics of your story. Lots books are about plot beats. Others are about the character arc. Some want you to write a great villain, or structure a romantic subplot. This book, however, is light on those mechanics. What this book is about is the business of being a self-published author.
See, guys like me, who are chasing a traditional publishing contract are quickly becoming a bison in a thinning herd. More and more people are self-publishing. And they’re not just doing it on Kindle. It’s an exciting time in in the publishing world – if you’re a self-motivated writer.
And that’s what these guys are. Throughout this 462 page book, you get the impression that these guys work very, very hard.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THIS BOOK
- The book is broken up into five sections with introductions and clear guidelines.
- They write argumentative essays explaining why they do what they do – and why you should do it too.
- The authors deconstruct what needs to be done, step by step, with humor and panache.
- The writing is crisp, clear, and entertaining. You’ll laugh out-loud.
HOW THE BOOK IS ORGANIZED
- An extended introduction of themselves and terms you should know.
- Explaining the Self-Publishing landscape and how it can help you.
- Creating a professional book – from story, to editing, to concerns of post-production like formatting, book covers and Pricing.
- Marketing 101. From creating an email list, to blogging, to the concept of funneling. (This is the real gem of the book. Really good stuff here.)
- Thinking like a publisher (i.e., an entrepreneur)
- An appendix with interview with successful independent authors.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT I REALLY LIKE ABOUT THIS BOOK?
There not dainty about the subject of writing and publishing. They have no problem speaking the unvarnished truth. And boy, are these guys funny! There sophomoric antics shine through the pages of this book. I sometimes mourn for their long suffering wives.
My favorite story is how they set up a giveaway for signing up for their email list. Eventually they ran a contest to determine what the subject of their new flash fiction stories. The winner? Caveman time-cop.
The information in this book is in-depth and exhausting. I read it the first time in 2014 and it scared the crap out of me. In many ways what they were talking about was overwhelming. How was I going to implement all this? How was I going to get this stuff together? How was I going to find the people I needed to help me do book covers and format and all that other stuff? It was inspiring and intimidating at the same time.
If you’re looking for a business book on writing that is going to serve you a warm cup of chamomile tea, pat you on the hand and tell you “Everything is alright dear. You just write your book and nice people will magically do all the rest of that nasty business stuff,” then this book is NOT FOR YOU!
However, if you’ve got a story you really want to tell, if you’re more than curious about self-publishing and want to try it for yourself, if you are willing to do the dirty work of marketing yourself and creating a platform, If fighting for your spot in the marketplace gets you excited in the morning, than this book is for you.
It’s not pretty at times, but it is hones.
The African-American community is large and diverse. While reading my essays & blogposts, or taking my classes at local conferences, please know that my beliefs, experiences & insights are my own. You can find ten other African-Americans and hear ten different opinions. My hope is that you glean something from my experiences which help you write Authentic African-American Characters.
When I first taught this class at Pikes Peak Write Brain, the thing that resonated the most was my discussion of the culture of poverty. It’s controversial to say this, but poverty, at least in the industrialized world, is also a set of values, assumptions and beliefs about yourself and the world around you. To understand African-American culture is to understand how the culture of poverty pervades and influences our families, our communities, and our greater culture. To do that, I am going to reflect on a personal experience from my twenties.
My mother’s name was Carolyn Ann Walker. She was born at the University of Kansas Hospital, in Kansas City, Kansas in 1942. She lived her early life in Kansas, then moved to Pasadena, Ca in the mid-1950s, along with her extended family and her local church. (Yes, the entire church migrated to California. Another blog, to be sure.)
She graduated from Cal-State Northridge with a B.A. in Psychology. She graduated from Pacific Oaks College with an M.A. in Human Development, and earned an MFCC license. She worked as child social worker for the county of Los Angeles for over twelve years before she died in 1996.
By all accounts, we should have been a well-adjusted and stable Black middle class family in the 1980s. We should have been, but we weren’t.
My mother always had money problems. She was always stressed, upset, or plain angry about something related to money. Why? Let me get to that in a moment.
Meeting People of Wealth
I have been very fortunate in my life. I have met and became friends with five millionaires. Now, I’m not talking about the superrich. I’m talking about people whose assets, in total, are worth over 1 million dollars. A couple I used to work for was the first. I met a university professor and her husband, who were the second. A dear friend of mine who I used to play Dungeons & Dragons with, was the third. A public school nurse was the fourth, and a programmer who frequents local geek conventions is the 5th. I have gotten to know these people, asked these people questions about wealth and how to acquire it. They all have one thing in common: They are really cheap.
These people don’t care about fancy cars, or clothes, or dinners out. All of them prefer to cook at home. All of them buy used cars. They are millionaires because they all had relatively high paying jobs (except the high school nurse,) and they didn’t spin their money, frivolously. They were all in their late forties or older when I met them. (Except the programmer.) They all had spent at least a decade saving their money and investing conservatively. They are all very frugal.
This was when I really discovered the difference between a culture of wealth and a culture of poverty. The poor want money to buy things, while the wealthy just want the money.
Now don’t misunderstand me! Rich people clearly buy nice things. However if they want to stay rich, they will never put themselves in a position where the things they buy effects their bottom line. The Rich people I know don’t empty the bank account for a blowout Christmas or birthday party. They don’t buy expensive gifts frivolously.
Where the Money Went
In my mother’s house however, the bank account was empty a week after payday. This was odd because she made really good money. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day we lived like kings! As soon as January 1st was over, we tightened our belts and lived hand-to-mouth.
It was very common for my mother to borrow money from friends to pay the light bill, or make rent. In Southern California we had the St. Vincent DePaul Charity, which gave out free bags of groceries to the poor. Well, we got St. Vincent DePaul at least twice a year, when she couldn’t buy groceries.
I bet you’re wondering where the money went?
My mother had an intense belief in what being middle class was supposed to look like. To her, being middle class meant driving a nice car, living in a neighborhood without violence. It meant her kids wore name brand shoes and clothes. It meant going out to dinner frequently.
Mom used to joke she was going to get me braces. My teeth have always been straight, I’ve never needed braces. Whether I needed them or not wasn’t important – the white kids had braces, so her son was going to have braces, too.
To my mother, being middle class meant have access to the possessions middle class people had. Even if it meant we did without in other areas. It was all about conspicuous consumption. She was trying to access and maintain a social status based on her spending. She was using her money to buy respectability.
Why did money run out?
- Because my mother bought a G20 Infinity in 1996. (Her car payment alone was other people’s rent.)
- Because she rented a house with four bedrooms and a swimming pool. (There were only three of us! Also, we would only go swimming in the summer – the water was too cold, otherwise.) A smaller home in a smaller neighborhood would have provided a cushion, financially. But she loved that house – we all did.
- My mother Never brown bagged lunch. When she worked, she ate lunch out. That meant a local sit down restaurant, not fast food.
A Story about School
I got accepted into UC Santa Barbara in 1994. My old Tandy computer from Radio Shak was on its last legs. I didn’t care though. I knew there were several computer labs on campus. I just figured I would write and print my papers in the labs.
I will always remember my mother coming home from work one day. She honked her horn for me to come outside. When I got there she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong. She said she had qualified for a loan to get me a computer to take to school. She thought this was a miracle.
I never asked for a computer. But that was never the issue. No son of hers was going to go to college without his own computer. Her son was going to be just as good as those white boys.
I shudder to think what the payments were on that computer.
In many ways my mother worked herself into the grave trying to pay for all of this. She died in October of 1996, a few weeks short of her 54th birthday and a few months after I walked.
The culture of poverty tells us that we must consume conspicuously. Everyone must see that new car, the diamond ring, or the 50 inch television. Being middle class, or even rich, isn’t about having the money to travel or take care of sick loved ones, or even securing the future of children. It’s about having the things they have.
- This is why poor kids will have high end smart phones.
- This is why everyone has a 40+ inch television.
- This is why kids walks around in $300+ shoes.
I have been fortunate enough not to buy into conspicuous consumption too much. I do have some nice things, but I don’t go overboard. Every day I see more African-Americans who choose not to buy into this culture, too.
I hope this has been blog has been helpful to you.
Now, I want to leave you with a little exercise. If you’re writing a novel where the protagonist or one of the supporting characters is African-American, think about the unconscious conspicuous consumption they participate in. Is it a woman who must have the latest Fendi bag? Does he buy a new $500 watch every 3 months on a teacher’s salary? Does she lease her car? Does he own three video game systems and buys new $60.00 games once a week?
Settle on a spending weakness and figure out why they spend this way. Does it make them feel better? Superior? Is it a form of affection? (Things = Love,) Is it therapy? (an entirely different subject!) Whatever the reason, figure it out and add it to your character.
See you next month.
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