Sunday, November 23, 2014

5 Things Your First Readers
Won’t Tell You (But Should)

by Art Holcomb

Writers work almost entirely in the head, isolated and alone - whether in a quiet office, a busy Starbuck’s or in the den with a four-year old playing tea party with her bear around your feet. 
It’s just the nature of the beast.
And, at some point - certainly before any given piece of writing is sent to an agent or editor -  and probably just after you have written something particularly clever – you’ll want (actually NEED) to show it to someone, and allow them to bask in the glow of your creative brilliance and remind you that you are loved and beautiful.
You’ll print the piece out or email it to the person you trust most and then smile and wait for the accolades to come in to refill your emotional tank.
Be careful.  There’s something you should know . . .
It’s may be a trap. 
Because you are probably choosing the wrong person for the wrong reasons to be your First Reader.
According to a major university study, more that 85% of all artists (including writers, painters, sculptors, etc.,) turn to a family member or loved one for the first opinion of their work, and more than 75% of those will seek out friends and loved ones exclusively.
Now, feedback comes in all kinds of sizes, shapes, colors and concentration.  Positive feedback can make you continue with a bad project or head down a dead end road.  Negative feedback can put the skids on a project that is on the verge of showing incredible promise. Either situation can be deadly.
Because there’s a lot at stake for you emotionally and professionally, consider the following possible things that these first reader might want to tell you but can’t.  This is especially true when giving the work to a loved one or friend because - the real problem is – you like these people and they would very much like that to continue:
(1)   I’m worried about your reaction and I don’t want to offend you. Young writers never react well to bad news.  They see criticism of the work as criticism of themselves – it’s only natural.  The reader may think: I don’t want you unhappy with me so I’ll be passive and will color my responses – So . . . I’ll just be encouraging!
(2)   I might not have enough time to do your piece justice and so I’ll just give it a positive review. S/he’ll be happy with that. Time can be critical – it is a major investment in time and energy to read a draft of a novel so as to offer any kind of meaningful criticism. Few people realize that when they agree to read your work. 
(3)   The subject/genre/medium doesn’t interest me – and so I can’t get deep enough into it to give a fair reaction.  Personally, I love science fiction and mysteries but don’t care for fantasies.  I always come into reviewing a new SF experience with excitement.  If I’m asked to review a fantasy novel, I’m approaching it at a deficit from the very beginning.  I’m not the right guy for the fantasy first read - if what you’re looking for is objectivity. This can be a vital piece of information that you need!
(4)   I just don’t want to read it – no matter what it is – but saying so may hurt your feeling or make me seem like a jerk. Enough said.
(5)   I might have an agenda of my own: Writers are vulnerable and it is an act of trust that we put ourselves and our work out there in another’s hands and say “Do your worst.” You need to be sure of the readers motivations. You can often find in critique groups writers that want only praise for their own work, while always having a bad thing to say about anyone else’s. Agenda are important!

So, when the time comes for a first opinion about your new work, keep in mind - the relationship between artist and critic is a powerful and oft-times fragile one.  
You should keep in mind the following:
Be sure you know what you want from your First Reader from the very beginning. If you are looking for general impressions and encouragement to go on, then someone who likes to read and enjoys books could give you what you’re looking for.  If instead you’re looking for a technical critique, you will need an experienced (and published) fellow writer or editor (and hopefully someone working in your genre).
Never let anyone read your first RAW draft! No matter how much you need technical help or validation, this work is never ready to show around until you have had some editorial passes to it for structure, characterization and story issues.  Take the time and make sure you’re giving them something that reflects your best and considered effort.  One of the worst things that can happen is to give the reader a raw draft and then several other drafts as the stories change; the mind cannot help but average them all together, making the changes harder to track and polluting their impressions of your finished work.
The real value of a First Reader is to tell you where the story LOSES HIS/HER INTEREST. That will lead you to the areas that need work. Pay very close attention to that - if you’ve lost them on page 145, you’ll lose your fans there as well, and that would be the real tragedy.

Due Diligence is the key: Take your ego out of the equations and find the best person available to give you a fair and honest appraisal. Writers and criticism circles can be great, and never have there been more professional services available to you to help develop your stories – but be careful, not everyone who advertises their services are equally qualified.  Best to stay with people you trust.  People you can develop a long term relationship with.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reflections on the writing career

Some rules to live by:

Be unrelenting in your efforts. Many people go to their graves having never had their voice really heard.  Do not take this for granted.

Some people publish more and better works all the time.  Hunt them down and find out how.

Don’t write for free. And when you do, do it in a venue and with fellow writers of consequence and who are making a real difference in someone’s life.

Write first to give.  You were helped along your way - this is how you repay your debt.

Write your truth as you see it.  Anything else is just a waste of karma.

There are people who take and never help anyone else. They are unimportant.  Pay them no attention.

Write as your life depends on it.  Compromise your schedule only for those you love.

Create a body of work and set it free into the world. It’s your way of saying thanks for the use of the hall.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lessons from the BBQ Pit

One of the great things about being a writer is that you can find inspiration anywhere.

The world around us and the vibrant nature of our daily lives can give you great insight into your art if you can just see the connections that exist everywhere. And as it’s been awhile since I’ve been back on these pages, and since summer is right around the corner, I thought I’d share with you some of tips that I’ve learned about writing  . . . through the fine art of BBQ:

#1: THE SWEETEST MEAT LIES NEXT TO THE BONE: The best stories I’ve ever worked on happened once I learn to dig deep into my own story.  My first success was a play years ago that was inspired through my coming to grips with my mother’s death. Through the years, I’ve explored issues of the death and the afterlife in my story 4EVER and my play AS NIGHT.  I used the nature of man’s physicality in my story SUMO DANCING, as well as my struggle with my own beliefs about God in my story THE CHRISTIAN ROOM. Writing must be about the stories that are uniquely ours.  Dig deep and don’t be afraid – the best stories come from our own fears and doubts.

#2: SEASON LIGHTLY: BBQ is best when you let the natural flavors come through.  Many of us dive headlong into the genres that we enjoy reading, and work the tropes and traditions we find there very hard.  Take a moment and freewrite every day. Try writing a piece that just flows from you – just close your eyes and “pants” your way through something basic and pure in your life.  Like the artist who paints the bowl of fruit or landscape, take a moment to describe and explore the world outside your window.  You will be surprised at the new skills you’ll develop.

#3: THE SECRET LIES IN HOW YOU CONTROL THE HEAT:  Learn to become the master of creating powerful conflicts in your stories.  All stories are about some manner of conflict – without it, it’s just typing!  Escalate the conflict in your own stories.  Raise and lower the heat.  Explore the hotspots on the grill for better control.  The more masterful your conflict-writing skills become, the better your stories shall be.
#4: KNOW WHEN THE MEAT IS DONE: Stop being so precious about your own work.  Are you rewriting the same piece over and over again, and finding less to improve after each successive pass? Life is too short!  Learn to type THE END, then just send the damn thing off and start on something new. Remember: PERFECT is the enemy of DONE.

#5: CHICKEN IS FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT THAN BEEF:  Just as each type of meat requires a different type of seasoning, temperature and technique, different genres have specific requirements that bring out the best flavor.  Learn as much as you can about the genre in which you’re writing.  Larry has some EXCELLENT sections on genre, and experts like JOHN TRUBY and MICHAEL HAUGE are considered experts on how to exploit genre for the best possible writing.  Become an expert in your own given world.  Your fans will thank you for it.

#6: THERE’S MORE TO THE MEAL THAN JUST ONE DISH: What is a BBQ without side dishes?  What is a writing career without variety?  If you’re a novelist, try your hand at a screen or stage play. The best things I learned about my own writing have come from experimenting with other forms.  For me, playwriting led to screenwriting, which lead to animation, and then to comics - and then back to playwriting.  If you need to work on your dialogue and direction, try writing a play.  If description is where you need work, try writing a short movie or comic book script.  Examples and tutorials abound on the web for each form, so instruction can often be found for free. By simply trying to write in a different form, you see things about your own writing that never occurred to you – and you might just find a new passion and a new place to shine.

So . . . saddle up and get the fire going. And let us know what you “cook up” in your writing.

Happy grilling!

How to Eat a Whale
Scriptwriting – the crafting of screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, radio plays, comic books, commercials, lyrics and the like – are some of the most powerful story forms in our lives.
These forms are created by linking a series of brief scenes of specific length together (sometimes designed to fit between commercials) like pearls on a string, individually beautiful but coming together to create something like a necklace that is more lovely than the sum of its parts.
Scenes are the way we come into the world.  Memories, one of our strongest motivators, are almost completely made up of scenes. They are stories in miniature; they are bite-sized, easy to digest, and easy to remember and retell.  They are the building blocks of all narrative writing.
It’s easy to see why:
·         scenes make up sequences,
·         sequences make up beats,
·         beats make up acts
·         and acts make up stories.

The scene is also a microcosm for the whole.  It has:
·         a beginning, middle, and end as well as
·         its own conflict, goals and obstacles;
·         its own tension and release through pivot points;
·         its own surprises and revelations  . . .
·         its own stakes – some stand alone to the scene, some part of the greater story;
·         Like a poem that’s crafted for maximum impact with a minimum number of words, scenes alone have the power to create moments within a story, the very moments that the audience might remember after the performance is over.

I recently heard a quote attributed to George Lucas who said that a film should consist of “sixty great two-minute scenes.” Absolutely!  Like dominoes, when lined up correctly, great scenes fall with a beauty and grace of their own, the action within one creating the power and momentum that propels itself into the next. When done right, it is seamless. When it’s not, it can be like choking on a chicken bone.
Authors like James Patterson and Robert B. Parker use the same concept in their non-scriptwriting fiction, building a novel with a hundred or more short scenes or chapters.  The length of their chapters become shorter as the pace and tension builds. Each chapter or scene is a vignette, a small chip of ceramic placed in a greater mosaic, bringing together the smallest of things to make great beauty and power.
If, as we write, our goal is to develop the above elements, we have to assemble the tools we need to make great scenes. As you write, consider these techniques:
Enter the scene as late as possible – this can maximize the time you have inside the scene; remember, if you’re shooting for two-minutes scenes, then every little bit of saved time or space can be put to better use.
Let the action inform the reader as to setting and tone.  Much of exposition in a screenplay or novel is actually reference and inferenceThere’s an old saying that the real story begins in chapter three; why not try starting there without the build-up and see how much back-story and information comes from the action?
There must be an identifiable beginning, a time before the problem or attack takes place (this is known as the Inciting Incident) Make your beginning striking. You can place readers suddenly in a situation that heightens their senses or lulls them into being comfortable before hitting them with the stark contrast of the main conflict.
Create a middle that pivots us around. The main character is fighting his way in one direction – now, spin us around! Give us something that we didn’t see coming.  Conflict us, confound us, do something bold and unexpected.  Make the decision points of the story clear. Doing this part well provides depth and roundness to the scene. Your readers will thank you for it.
End the scene.  Too many writers ignore this point.  They let the action stop, trail off, or have a character leave the room (literally or emotionally) or fail to make a decision.  These can be valid parts of a scene’s ending but by themselves are not enough to propel us into the next scene, to the next pearl in the strand.  The ends of scenes contain one of the greatest dangers a writer can face because this is a natural point for readers to decide whether they are going to continue reading.  Find a way to hook your audience so they come back.  One of my mentors in writing comics, the late Archie Goodwin of DC, advocated making the last panel in a page of a comic book (being akin to a screenplay scene) tie directly into the first panel of the next, enticing the reader to turn every page. Done right, this makes the reader need to know what comes next. Then, you do it all over again in the next scene.
Every word, every phrase, or exchange must have a purpose.  If not, you should ask yourself whether you really need it. The real estate on the page is too precious to waste with literary weeds and overgrowth.
Always know what the objective for the scene is. Every scene should have at least two:  One is the objective for the story: what the characters must accomplish or what they need to feel in order to march ever forward to their goal.  But also there is an objective for the reader.  You are the one telling the story; you are in control.  What is it that the reader wants to feel from this passage? Your skill plus their own personal experiences dictate what they get out of your tale.  You need to do your part to give them the ride they paid for.
Drive the narrative smoothly from one scene to another; each scene must make a fluid link between the scene before and the scene that follows.
Finally. try to  accomplish at least two of these three things in each scene:
·         Expand the narrative: move the story along (escalate).
·         Deepen the characterization: reveal more (give details and emotion).
·         Promote the subtext and theme.

These strategies will serve you well regardless of your story’s format. It’s simply quality storytelling.
For more information, try Larry Brook’s excellent chapter on scene development in his Story Engineering or some of the passages dedicated to scene writing on StoryFix. In addition, I recommend The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Oh, and the answer to the question in the title: how do you eat a whale?
Why, one small bite at a time . . . of course!

There’s Power in the Public Domain

Stuck for an idea to develop?

As a writer, I’m constantly looking for new approaches and new ideas to write about.  In recent years, there have been a number of books that have been written about characters developed by writers in the past – such as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide and others that are available for any writer today to use and spin off because they are in the Public Domain.  My friend Peter Clines wrote a great twisted novel entitled The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe and parodies like Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies received such some critical claims that they have been in development as motion pictures.

Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. That means that any writer can continue to tell the tales of the characters – by writing prequels or sequels to existing stories, adaptations and continuing adventures, or develop entirely new approaches using these characters – without paying for the privilege or worrying about copyright issues. Not only is this a great writing exercise, but it can also be very profitable if you can match your skills with a character the public is still interested in.

Below is just a small list of famous writers and their stories that are in the public domain.  Take a look and see if there’s anything that suits your fancy.  If interested in learning more about how to spin off public domain stories and the different approaches you can take to develop these characters, drop me a line in the Comment section here and I’ll develop the concept in a future post.

Have fun!

Horatio Alger: Novelist famous for his rags-to-riches stories. All of his work is in the public domain. Famous stories include The Store Boy and Ragged Dick.

Hans Christian Anderson: All of this famous Dane’s works are in the public domain. Famous stories include “Thumbelina “, “The Ugly Duckling “, “The Little Mermaid “, “The Emperor’s New Clothes  “, and “The Princess and the Pea

Jane Austen: Well-known novels include Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.

Honore de Balzac: Famous stories include The Girl With the Golden Eyes and Father Goriot.
Charlotte Bronte: All of her work is in the public domain including her most famous novel Jane Eyre.

Emily Bronte: Just like her sister, all of her work is in the public domain. Her only novel is the oft filmed Wuthering Heights.

Frances Hodgson Burnett: Best known for the children’s stories The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. All of her works are in the public domain.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Creator and author of Tarzan of the Apes. Only some of his work is in the public domain including the original Tarzan of the Apes and At the Earth’s Core. Please check the availability of his other stories before adapting his other works.

Lewis Carroll: Famous mathematician and author whose works include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through The Looking Glass and The Hunting Of The Snark. All of his work is in the public domain.

James Fenimore Cooper:  His more famous tales include The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer.

Daniel Defoe: All of his works are in the public domain. His most well-known stories are Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

Charles Dickens: All of Dickens’s work is in the public domain. Famous stories include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Great Expectations.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Most, but not all, of his works are in the public domain. The later Sherlock Holmes stories may not yet fall under the public domain but all of his stories before 1923 have including many involving his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes. Other well-known stories include The Poison Belt and The Lost World.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: All of his works are in the public domain including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: All of this German writer’s works are in the public domain. His most famous works include The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust.

Brothers Grimm: Two German brothers who were famous collectors of fairy tales. Their versions of the famous fairy tales are all in the public domain including such cherished gems as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: All of his writings are in the public domain so go ahead and try to make a new version of The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables.

Homer: Not Simpson, but the Greek guy who wrote the epic poems , The Odyssey and The Iliad, both of which are in the public domain.

James Joyce: You can adapt some of Joyce’s well-known works like Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Franz Kafka: This unique writer has a few stories that have fallen in the public domain. The most famous being The Metamorphosis.

Rudyard Kipling: Some, but not all, of Kipling’s work is in the public domain including The Jungle Book.

Jack London:  All of this great American writer’s body of work is in the public domain. His most famous stories include The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

H. P. Lovecraft: All of this bizarre horror writer’s work before 1923 is in the public domain.
Herman Melville: All of this author’s work is in the public domain. His most famous story is the required reading for high school students:  Moby Dick.

Edgar Allan Poe: Filmmaker Roger Corman has exploited much of Poe’s work and you can too. All of this macabre author’s work is in the public domain. His more famous works include The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mask of Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Rudolf Erich Raspe: All of his works are in the public domain including his most famous story The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

William Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s been dead for a long time; hence, all of his work is in the public domain. Try your own take on Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.

Mary Shelley: All of her writing is in the public domain including Frankenstein. Her other famous books include The Last Man and Matilda.

Robert Louis Stevenson: All of this writer’s work is in the public domain including the popular stories Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and New Arabian Nights.
Bram Stoker: All of this writer’s work is in the public domain including Dracula, The Jewel of Seven Stars, The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm.

Mark Twain: All of this great writer’s works are in the public domain. His most famous stories are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Jules Verne: All of this entertaining French writer’s work is in the public domain. His most famous works include Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and Around the World in Eighty Days.

H.G. Wells: Only some of Wells’s stories are in the public domain but they include The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds.

Oscar Wilde: All of this great playwright’s work is in the public domain. His most famous stories are The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Johann David Wyss: This writer’s most famous story The Swiss Family Robinson is in the public domain.