Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rant, Rebellion, and Realistic Characters

Below is a work-related rant that turned toward writing and characterization, but I cut the post short back in May 2011, and never finished. This blog has lain fallow for about two months as my life has taken a few turns, and I'm only now returning to any normalcy in my writing routine; in the process of trying to come up with new material, I looked through old notes and found this.

For good or ill, the original rant is unchanged. However, I've expanded the characterization portion, and welcome your feedback.
I don't like to be controlled. Don't like to be micromanaged. Don't like someone being "all up in my business" or constantly asking questions about matters that are no business of theirs.

This is an increasingly intense battle at my day job, in which colleagues misbehave but put the burden on my shoulders. I am made responsible for their behavior, and for the morale of my fellow workers.

Funny. I thought morale started at the top. And, last time I looked, neither my paycheck nor my title reflected that kind of responsibility.

Everything comes back around to one issue: control. Who's gonna be the puppet master?

When someone says they trust me then they try to manage me, push me, pull the rug out from under me, they're saying, "I don't trust you." When someone says they appreciate all my years of service to the organization then they try to confine me rather than giving me room to do my job, they're saying, "I don't appreciate you."

Tasks that I did over a decade ago are no longer acceptable now. There's been an added position, one that's supposed to free the rest of us to do our jobs better, but the person in that role is so uncertain of his place that he's grasping control wherever he can, and in the process making life difficult for the rest of us. Commonsense has gone the way of freedom, autonomy, and trust: out the door.

Layers of bureaucracy do not produce efficiency. They do, however, produce mountains of paperwork, frustration, and demi-tyrants.

A couple weeks back, I was told by a supervisor, "I don't need any Lone Rangers." Really? It was concerning an area I had overseen since I was hired almost fourteen years ago. Suddenly, I'm a Lone Ranger.

Then, last week, I was reprimanded -- this person was shocked, shocked, I tell you -- because I didn't immediately do the first thing the boss asked, but offered an alternative that was better suited to the situation. After all, said this shocked individual, the good of the organization is superior to the good of the individual.

That's a scary notion. There's a whole lot of subtext to that statement (socialism and communism, for instance). Countless crimes and misdeeds have been carried out under the banner of the corporate good.

To my mind, the good of the individual is the good of the organization. After all, the organization cannot operate without the individual.

But what does any of this have to do with writing, other than serving as my personal rant?
Thus the soapbox is put aside, and here begins the actual writing-related portion about characters. Hope it helps!
Writers, how much control do you exert over your characters? Are they real, or are they robots?

If one is writing science fiction, robots might be expected, but even robotic characters tend to have personality i.e. C3PO or R2D2 in Star Wars, or android Mr. Data in "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; human characters, however, should not display robotic tendencies, unless the writer intends to use that stiffness or coldness to further the story somehow. (Or the "human" is a droid. That's almost always cool.)

With a change of circuitry or software, at the whim of the designer, robots can be altered, predicted, controlled.
Not so with humans. Push, prod, bully, or demand, we're stubborn, willful, changeable, foolish, scheming, proud, weak -- all sorts of traits and addictions not easily controlled by ourselves, let alone by others seeking to change us.

Why, then, do authors try to impose their wills on their characters? Granted, characters should not run amok in a story, or behave illogically (unless, of course, that plays to character or plot). However, ever read a story where the author obviously had a goal in mind for certain characters, and forced them to adhere to that plot, against the integrity of the characters?

By integrity, I mean the truth of the characters -- who they are, what they do, how they think and reason, what they believe, how they respond to authority figures, etc.

In the real world, questions don't necessarily mean disrespect for authority, though there is the assumption that questioning a command equals insubordination. Questions are a search for information, for reliability, for a reason. Authors should allow their characters to ask questions and establish realistic identities: "Why must I say that? I would never do this. I'd never hang out with that guy. Even if she's my relative, I wouldn't just excuse her behavior. If you, the author, want this from me, you must first give me a reason."

Just as valid a question in fiction as in the real world, have you earned the authority to make such demands of your characters? Are you a trustworthy storyteller? Do you keep your story's promises? Give your characters logical motivations? Allow plot twists to arise organically from the story rather than, say, including gunfire or an explosion -- or the cliched dead body -- just to jazz up boring or dead-end material?

Even if they can't always express it, readers can tell when they're reading the work of a competent and trustworthy storyteller, and when they're reading a story full of contrived circumstances and unrealistic characters.

My opinion: A tacked-on happy ending is less desirable than an organic, realistic tragic ending. (Although, to be honest, I much prefer happy endings to sad ones.) And give me a hero I can believe in, flawed or not, because he or she is written as if real. Warts, rebellion, and all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Yard Sale Stories

This weekend was the city-wide yard sale in my town. (It's more of a town than a city, but we have a population sign, a council, and a mayor, so we're technically a city.) Saturday, with all the parked cars and wandering pedestrians, my street looked like a redneck mall. There was everything from giant shop fans to delicate antiques on sale in yards, garages, and driveways, and I was one of the vendors, my carport packed with stuff I didn't want to ever bring back inside the house.

It's amazing what clutter one accumulates in a few short years. When I first moved into the house, after Dad and I and a few others did major renovations to what had been a rotting structure, the place echoed, it was so empty. But then folks started giving me kitchenware, dust-catchers (the givers called them decorations), and furniture -- often items they didn't want but didn't want to throw away, and mostly justified by the notion that "a single person must need this."

But I'll be honest: I've acquired a whole lot of stuff all on my own.

So, for the past week or more, I sorted and debated, eventually filling the dining room with piled boxes and furniture destined for the yard sale. I felt good about my decisions.

Then, Friday, there was rain. And more rain predicted for the weekend.

Knowing the fickleness of weather, I prepared for the sale anyway. With the carport as shelter, I could still have a sale -- and probably be the only intrepid soul to do so on my street -- so I hauled out the heaviest items, and parked the car so the driveway was blocked against possible pre-sale scouting. (Ahem, thieving.) By the time I finished the signs (I'd forgotten about them earlier in the week), prepared the starting money (forgot about that, too), and finished an inventory and price tags, the time was 3 a.m.

When the alarm blared at 5 a.m., I was so groggy I felt ill, so I reset it for 6. As a result, I was still finishing the set up when the first customer arrived around 7 a.m. He helped carry out the last piece of furniture -- an antique dresser that customers commented on, admired, stroked, tapped, examined, wanted for dirt cheap, but never purchased. It was the last piece put out in the sale, and the last piece returned to the house.

Aside from a few sprinkles mid-morning, the weather was perfect.

Not being a very social person, the sale forced me to be outgoing -- to chat. That's an uncomfortable exercise with strangers, but in an Arkansas town, just about everybody knows everybody, even if they met two seconds ago. People asked who my daddy was -- "Oh, yeah, I know him! Nice fella" -- and why there was a For Sale sign in the yard, where I worked, how much I'd be willing to take for a duffle bag, what was the story behind the little wooden table.

A tattooed, pierced, skater-goth-hip hop young man in a sideways ballcap and saggy black denim shorts -- he lives a few houses down -- stopped on the edge of the grass and yelled a question at me that I couldn't quite hear over the other conversations.


"Got any old science fiction books for sale?"

"All those are still in the house, on the shelf."

"In that case, I like you. You're cool. Never sell those books."

And he walked up the street.

In another incident, a nice lady bought a couple of old, glass-paneled exterior doors that Dad and I had modified to use as bedroom doors. However, they're a little too unconventional for most home buyers, so they had to go. The customer fell in love with them as soon as she set eyes on them. Her truck, however, was piled with a large cooler, a tall Christmas tree, a folding lounge chair, and several other items. When she tried to back into the driveway, she ran into another customer's truck.

She didn't hear our shouted warnings or see our waving arms. Her tow hitch slid right under theirs, and the bumpers kissed, but no harm was done. The other customers laughed, and ran to help, and the trucks were parted without a hitch. (chuckle) The lady, however, was distraught.

As a way to calm her, I talked about the old doors, and why I am nervous around too-perfect things. "I'm afraid to touch them or use them, and I just can't be comfortable--"

"I'm the same way!" And she ran with the conversation while I loaded the doors into her truck, in the end assuring me that they would have a good home inside a house filled with other old and imperfect things that she loves.

During the course of the sale, I met a grandmother who was raising her grandchildren, and needed a bed so they didn't have to sleep with her anymore. I had just the bed she needed. There was also a Korean War veteran who found just the right flat-billed ballcap in the box of free stuff; a young family of four who bought the dinnerware -- I tossed in the box of drinking glasses for free; a boy who wanted a stuffed bear but didn't have the money for it -- I told him to take care of it well; a woman on her way to work who saw some bowls she needed, so she had to stop before someone else snatched them; a mother and daughter shopping for items for a newlywed couple on a limited budget, and my solid-wood file cabinet was the right price.

Despite lack of sleep, lack of food, and lack of the finer conversational skills, I had a good time. When I finally shut down in the middle of the afternoon, there were only two bins of items, the television, and the antique dresser to return to the house. The place feels almost empty again, and some spaces echo.

Breathing room.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Heeeeeerrrrrre's Wanda! She's my new car, a little Kia Soul that's more fun to drive than I expected, but I still miss my old red truck.

The car's called Wanda thanks to my mother, who imitated the sound it made when I had to slow down suddenly, and the engine sounded like a toy whose rubberband was unwinding.

Mom also found it quite amusing to remind me that now I have "a tiny black Soul" -- no commentary, please, on my spiritual condition. ;)

However, the Soul does look quite dark, due to its portrait being taken at twilight, just before the family took a walk around my brother and sister-in-law's neighborhood.

I was playing with the settings on my camera, seeing which ones yielded the best shots in the low light, and this picture is an early endeavor, before I got the settings right.

Residential Aliens Blog Tour

I've been out of the loop in the last few months of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour, but I'm gonna promote the August tour for speculative fiction magazine Residential Aliens even if I'm not participating.

And the reason I'm not joining the tour is because I'm a slush reader for that magazine and for its sister publication, horror mag Fear and Trembling, and therefore biased in my views. However, below is a list of participating bloggers whose views might be a bit more balanced:

Noah Arsenault
Brandon Barr
Thomas Clayton Booher
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
CSFF Blog Tour
Carol Bruce Collett
D. G. D. Davidson
Dean Hardy
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Lyn Perry
Sarah Sawyer
Jessica Thomas
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler

And, just for kicks, here are a couple blogs written by Lyn Perry, editor of RA and F&T:
Residential Aliens
Bloggin' Out Loud


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Endings, Again

Near the beginning of the month, I wrote a post about endings -- in real life and in literature -- and included the closing paragraphs of a novel, Dragon's Rook. One of my concerns is the apparent depressing nature of the ending, because a few characters die in a short amount of time, at the end of Part 3 and Part 4, which may concern the readers about what the next book will be like.

My niece recently read the first novel in its entirety; and, like previous readers, she (who picks up on all sorts of nuances) missed what I thought was a glaringly obvious statement in this paragraph describing a king's daughter-turned-warrior and a horse bearing the body of an enemy soldier with whom the king's daughter is now allied:

Captain Gaerbith’s horse pricked his ears and danced sideways, eagerness in every line. Yanámari rose to her feet, hope surging. The horse behaved as if his master lived.
Leaping astride her mount, she grabbed Kraekor’s reins and turned toward the gates.
This is at the end of Part 3 in the manuscript. To me, the "clue" is obvious, but most readers haven't caught it. Perhaps that's because they're focused on the rest of the action. Therefore, "hope surging" and "(t)he horse behaved as if his master lived" are too quiet when compared to the noise of battle.

Talking to Niece #1 about her thoughts on that scene -- by the way, she wanted to immediately read the next book, which is still unfinished --  she said, "Well, he expected to die there, because it fits with the prophecy he was given." True, true. And there will be no fiddling with the prophecy or the circumstances, no telling the reader, "Psych! It was all just a big misunderstanding!" because that would weaken the story, the same way the "it was all just a dream" trick never really works.

Except for individual scenes, such as a character having a vivid dream that seems real, because the jolt factor can keep a story interesting and take it into new territory -- but using a dream as the whole setting for the story? That's a surefire way for me to throw the book across the room and never read anything by that author again.

And it's one reason I'm back-and-forth about whether or not I'll buy the DVDs of the American version of the TV series "Life on Mars" that aired a while back. The show was cancelled, and -- as I understand it -- the writers had to scramble to write a suitable ending for the story. What they created was a version of the "it was all a dream" scenario. It's clever, I'll admit, and it works to tie up loose ends and even makes me chuckle, but it still feels weak somehow, an easy out for all the build-up and suspense.

"Lost" is another show that was a huge let-down for me, with its variation on the dream trick: "we've been dead all along, and now it's time to go toward the light" -- a weak, empty ending that never answered the questions or took responsibility for all the story that had happened up until that point.

So, back to Captain Gaerbith being dead or alive: both are true in that instant, and the prophecy has been fulfilled. Then again, I do have a scene written where it is fulfilled again, but that is for much later in the story.

No great spoiler here: Gaerbith survives Book One, and is a vital part of the next book and what happens with the other male lead, because the two storylines eventually meet and the men join forces to find something ancient that was lost. There will be battles and journeys, and romance, too, because even battle-hardened warriors need love, and there are strong, brave women to stand at their sides. Not all the beloved characters will remain, and there will be sorrow, but hope will very much be present when "The End" is typed at the bottom of the final page. Any grief can be endured, if there is hope.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tropes and Me

Gotta love the internet (or Internet, for those who like their capitalization to be proper). This morning, I did a quick, interesting research session on reforging broken swords, and found just the bit of information necessary for one of my characters to sound like he knew what he was doing.

In the midst of that search, I encountered many references to World of Warcraft and The Lord of the Rings (the shards of Narsil, after all, were reforged by the Elves into Anduril), and was struck by the notion that the use of a broken blade in a fantasy tale might not be a good idea. It's overdone. However, the two broken swords in my novels are not magical or powerful in any way; they are just ordinary weapons damaged in battle. The first almost kills one of the heroes; the second belongs to a man killed while fighting a dragon.

Yet, as I contemplated the possibility of change, I came to the conclusion that -- just because my story has a fantasy trope or three -- I don't have to fall into any ruts or cliches.

A trope is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a word or expression used in a figurative sense" and "a common or overused theme or device" i.e. gunfights in Westerns, love triangles in soap operas, alien invasions in science fiction.

Tropes are tropes for a reason: they generally work. Yeah, we rail against them as being predictable, cliche, too easy, but they are markers, telling us what kind of story we have encountered, what we might expect if we proceed further. On the other hand, if an author knows the tropes of his genre, he can twist the story, surprise the audience, turn the cliche upside down or inside out.

I guess that's one reason I enjoyed the recent SyFy miniseries, Tin Man and Alice: the familiar, beloved The Wizard of Oz (book, movie) and Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass (AiW book, LtLG book, and various movie interpretations) retold in unexpected ways. Although the original stories were present, they did not unfold the way the audience already knew.

There's something to be said for the familiar and predictable: it can be comforting. Young children, for instance, want the story to be told, word for word, the same way every time. They might chastise or correct the adult who tries to skip ahead or change up a tale he or she finds boring.

On the other hand, we grownups have pretty much heard and seen and read it all. We tend to be on the search for something fresh, something that will keep us guessing. Still, we also have certain expectations about what makes up a particular genre -- there's generally a crime committed in a mystery novel, or something futuristic in a science fiction yarn -- and therefore, whether we like 'em or not, there are tropes.

So, alongside dragons and big battles, the broken swords will remain in my novels. They're fantasy, after all. Can't leave the audience always guessing. :) happy

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


"Don’t be daft, lad!...Ye want to leave the village? Then ye end something. Ye want a new life? Kill the old." (Father Donovan, a character in Dragon's Rook by KB)
I've been contemplating endings.

This isn't a recent activity; I've been contemplating endings for a good long while. Over the past few years, I've wanted to end my job, certain relationships, even my writing. There was a time in my youth when I wanted to end my life.

Now I'm facing endings that haven't quite arrived, but whose lanterns are gleaming far down the tracks.

This is the first week of a two-week vacation, but I'm still working, not in the office but around the house, preparing for the realtor's visit on Friday. A "For Sale" sign will be planted in the yard. I will say goodbye to the house my father and I rebuilt together. It has been my haven, my hermit cave, even -- a source of quiet and refuge -- a place I can take a certain pride in, because my sweat and bruised thumbs and broken toes helped turn a rotting old house into a snug, comfortable home.

Family has gathered here. Friends have talked here. Neighbors have stood in the front yard and traded news.

Where will I live when the house sells? I don't know.
Where will family stay when they come to town? I don't know.
Where will I go to rest and write? I don't know.

I've always been a little restless. It comes, I think, not just from my personality but from my father, who moved the family around the country often when I was young. It was a mixed blessing: we met different kinds of people, saw some awesome countryside, but never truly felt at home. Even now, fourteen years after I bought this house, the place I have felt the most "at home", there are cardboard boxes that have never been unpacked, waiting for the next move.

But what does this life moment have to do with writing?

I've been contemplating endings.

My science fiction serial has lost its way -- my fault -- and I'm looking at how to bring it back on track and end it well. A serial is not my usual way of writing, and I'm not quite proud of how it's working out, but it's forcing me to not linger too long, to not polish every word until the story never gets out to the reading world. Many of my missteps might be forgiven if the end is strong. It's already written; the challenge is getting there.

A number of short stories are completed and polished, but unpublished, not due to rejection but due to my own lack of action. A great many more remain unfinished or even unwritten, just existing as notes and scene ideas. In essence, ending before they've begun.

Manuscripts await completion. They pull at me, and I want to follow, because I want to see how the stories end. I want to know who wins, who loses. Does Brygid leave her sword, and does Yasha take it up? Will Gaerbith remain immortal? How does Kieran become king? Will Maggie's hand be restored, or does it remain twisted, her weakness and her strength? Will the endings be worthy of all the pages that came before?

In a recent blog post by Rebecca LuElla Miller at Rewrite, Reword, Rework, she discusses endings:
Endings are in the position to leave the greatest impression. Consequently they should be the strongest part of each story element...Whether tightly wrapped up or somewhat open-ended, stories need to bring their character arcs and plot events to powerful conclusions. Those are the books that stay on shelves and get re-read from time to time. Those are the books that make readers want to buy that author’s next novel.
Just about every writer I know wants their work to be read and re-read. It's like applause for a job well done, even if we never know, never hear that applause.

Becky's post opens with this:
When I finished the last page, I wanted to toss the book as far as I could, as hard as I could. The protagonist who I had followed for the last four hundred pages died without accomplishing his goal. No momentous lesson learned along the way, no great change to complete his character arc. Why, I wondered, had I wasted my days and hours reading about this failed adventure that led nowhere?

That got me to thinking of the first manuscript in my fantasy cycle. It ends in a dark place -- people have died, characters have left their homes, a mission appears to have failed. Despite the "to be continued" notation on the last page, I've often wondered if the hope is overwhelmed by the darkness, to the point that readers will give up on the story. Will they look forward eagerly to what happens next, or will they give up and throw the book across the room?

Honestly, that's the reaction I'm expecting from the publisher currently in possession of that manuscript: "It's too depressing! We can't print this crap."

Here is the end. Or, at least, an ending.

But if you venture beyond it and continue reading, I'd like to know your thoughts on the manuscript excerpt below. Too depressing for the first in a series?

------------------ end of Dragon's Rook by Keanan Brand ------------------

Villagers filed out of the churchyard in silent procession, the women’s heads covered in white kerchiefs. The pallor caught and reflected the last rays of sunlight, pointing the souls toward the Otherland.

Tradition dictated preparing a grief feast and telling stories about the ones just buried, but a sudden awareness had settled over the villagers, as thick as the foul black smoke still rising from the pyre. They would pay dearly for this day.

Meantime, lingering mercenaries boasted their prowess over ale at the Blue Oak. Father Donovan could hear their merriment even in the kirkyard.

Only Mother Crumb and Thryffin remained. The healer seemed suddenly withered, a bit of old root severed from its tree and left to dry above the ground. Her movements were stiff, lacking their accustomed grace, and the lines in her face were chasms to channel her tears.

"How fares Farmer Connor?" asked Father Donovan.

"I fear you will be standing over his grave on the morrow."

"What of Maggie?"

Mother Crumb wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron. "I cannot hear her."

He understood. Her Gift did not sense Maggie’s. For healers connected by their very essence, such a loss was nigh death.

"And Kieran?" As he spoke the smith’s name, Father Donovan saw Thryffin take a step then stand very still. "Does the Gift yet hear him?"

"He is gone north, I think. Perhaps west to the Ruins."

"Did he bid ye farewell?"

Mother Crumb’s glance flicked toward Thryffin, who still listened yet tried to appear as if he did not. "Kieran said nothing to anyone." She reached a hand to the boy, but he stayed where he was. "He did it to keep you safe, lad. He did it for all of us."

Thryffin turned and left the kirkyard. The priest gazed after him, wishing he had wisdom for such times.

Mother Crumb sighed. "Better for him to be with Kieran, safe or no, for now the lad cradles a great hurt. It will fester like a rotten wound."

Aye. Father Donovan knew the bitterness of cherished wrongs held tight for too long. After a silence, he said, "So it begins."

"So it begins."

The healer departed, limping as if her feet could scarce touch the ground without pain. Father Donovan quelled the sudden thought that he might soon be saying the death blessing over her.

He stood beside the new graves, his heart heavy. This day had welcomed the evil from which he so longed to protect the people, yet he could neither prevent nor alter what had been foretold.

            Risá El ethem, Mymna Tor
Risá duru Nar Cahm enkára lenë llumim
            Risá nen, o pyrvië grimladh

In Kelden, the resonating power of the words was lost in the beauty of sound and rhythm. Father Donovan repeated the ancient prayer, this time with the force of common Skardian:

Rescue Your people, Mymna Tor
Rescue from the Dark Enemy seeking our lives
Rescue us, and vanquish evil

Soon Mymna Tor and Nar Cahm would shout at one another, and all the world would hear.

to be continued…

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

A few months ago, Philip Martin, a fellow writer and editor (although he's more established and "serious" than I am in the editing realm, and he has fingers in all sorts of literary pies), asked me to read through the manuscript for How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale (128 pages, $14.95, Crickhollow Books). 

I've been writing since I was nine or ten years old -- not very well, but often and copiously -- and I've lost count of the writing conferences, seminars, and classes, and groups I've attended, but the greatest learning has come from the simple act of writing (and revising -- a lot), and the best advice has come from sitting down and talking to other and better writers. Reading How to Write Your Best Story is rather like one of those conversations: down-to-earth, intelligent, understandable, and useful. 

Aside: Did I mention that my first conversation with Philip Martin was several years ago at a writers conference? Yep. I attended his session (I forget the topic), then asked him to autograph my well-read copy of his recent book, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, a Brothers Hildebrandt painting of Smaug on the cover, which just makes a good book that much cooler. I'm not usually the groupie / fanboy type, and I certainly don't go around asking other folks for their autographs, but this time, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

"Never judge a book by its cover" is old advice that isn't always true. After all, most of us have seen plenty of cheesy science fiction covers with awkward robots or scantily-clad alien women, or trashy romance novels decorated in shirtless men with impossible hair or women in torn bodices. We look at those covers, and we pretty much know what we're gonna get. (I'll take the science fiction -- hold the cheese -- over the lurid romance any day.) The whimsical cover art for How to Write Your Best Story is the reader's first clue that the contents are written by someone who knows and appreciates a good story, and probably read his share of them. (The artwork is by the late Marvin Hill.) What I like best about this book of advice is that it's less about rules and more about principles of good storytelling:
Good storytelling exists in a world outside of formal structural elements of literature. It has intangible aspects, like a beautiful melody or an appealing fragrance. It exists in imaginary worlds you know well, like the 100 Acre Woods, or Narnia, or Lake Woebegone, or in mostly real worlds, such as a humorous journey on the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson -- or in any number of great books based as much on storytelling as anything else. (p9)
(F)or a good number of years, I've pondered the question: is there a way to teach good storytelling, in the fashion of Kipling, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, O. Henry, Tolkien, or other beloved writers classic and modern -- successful authors who we'd all agree knew a good story from a hole in the ground?
What do readers look for in a good tale? What specific techniques do I find myself most often recommending to emerging writers to boost the quality of their stories? (p10)
That's what Martin endeavors to do in the rest of the book, and he does it with a whimsy to match the cover art, by telling a story interwoven with instructive chapters. After the Introduction, for instance, is the beginning of "The Princess & the Apple", followed by Part One: General Things about Good Stories, followed by the further tale of "The Princess & the Apple", which is interspersed among these chapters: The Case for Intriguing Eccentricity, The Case for Delightful Details, and The Case for Satisfying Surprises.

Included are many quotes from the works of famous authors and poets, including this quote from Joyce Carol Oates:
"Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses -- one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment." (p25)
That's a push-pull war in which I constantly engage: what to leave out, what to add, what must be spelled out, what can be implied, what's trivial, what matters.

A few more examples of advice from the book:
throw out the thesaurus (pp26-30),
juxtapose or fuse two ideas to offer a unique intersection (pp50-51),
listen (pp55-56),
use more senses (pp68-70),
ask what your characters want most (p93),
don't dodge the difficult ending (pp104-105),
and much more.

How to Write Your Best Story is chock-full of good, perennial advice, but it's also fun to read. This book will remain in my permanent library, and that's just about the best recommendation I can give.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bubba and Bubba's Wife have brought the family for a visit, and the three nieces are quite vocal. They could be the voices behind an album entitled "The Three Sopranos: The Jazz Project", in which Niece #1 provides percussion with her angst-ridden stomping up and down the hallway; Niece #2 offers the toddler equivalent of improvisational riffs in the form of random, sometimes-unintelligible commentary; and infant Niece #3 has the pipes for belting out amazing (and endless) solos.

I'm operating on Day 3 of about four hours of sleep per night, but part of the fault lies with my own irresponsibility: staying up too late to spend time with B and BW after the kids are asleep. We adults are a bit groggy and snappish -- and there's still a week and a half left.

Saturday, nobody better wake me up before noon!

Still, a week and a half is not enough time. We recently learned that Bubba is headed to Afghanistan for a year, news that sets everyone on edge, inspires additional prayers, changes the way we look at the future. Despite the dangers, though, there is opportunity for learning, experience, even adventure. How many times do we miss opportunity because it looks scary? Maybe risk is just what we need.

So we prepare ourselves to let him leave. We pray for his safety and for our peace; for those with whom he will serve, and for those too young to understand why Daddy doesn't come home every night. Bubba and I have been those kids whose father was gone for long stretches of time, but we can't transfer our knowledge to little minds. After all, the best-learned lessons are often the ones we experience for ourselves, and there are journeys we make alone. Even if someone walks beside us, our own feet must carry us.

May they carry us forward to strength, to peace, to joyful reunions.

Monday, July 4, 2011

America the Beautiful

It's late on the Fourth of July, and I've been trying to come up with something fitting, patriotic and poetic, to mark the day, but nothing comes to mind but a song.

Despite my current skeptical and less-than-enthusiastic view of the state of this nation, I'm still a citizen, and I still love my country. That's politically incorrect these days, when flying the flag, saying the pledge, wearing a flag pin, being an unabashed capitalist, believing the Constitution is still relevant, saying "under God" are activities looked down upon by many in leadership. But the first writing contest I won as a kid had the theme "What's Right with America" -- how can I give up now?

So, without further commentary, below are the lyrics to America the Beautiful, with some lines highlighted in red, simply because they hit me in the chest every time I hear or read them:

America the Beautiful
Words by Katharine Lee Bates,
Melody by Samuel Ward

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stem impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

lyrics provided by virtual songbook

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ah, there's nothin' like the non-smell of fresh-cut sun-burnt grass in the morning. June has been one of the hottest on record in my area of Arkansas, and July's shaping up to be even hotter. Guess that means less mowing. I won't complain.

After incorporating feedback from some pre-readers, I've just finished a rewrite of Episode 15 of Thieves' Honor, the science fiction serial for Ray Gun Revival (check out their short stories -- good stuff!), and have been tinkering with the modern supernatural thriller (not as thrilling as I would like -- not yet!).

Back in May, I shared the notes on a funny bit of dialogue I was hoping to incorporate into this episode of TH; however, that scene will have to wait, due to a turn in the story. Still, I hope readers get a chuckle or two. I laughed out loud while writing the episode, but maybe that's because the material was funnier in my head than it is on paper. After all, I wake myself laughing, even when I can't recall what's so funny about the dream.

This episode has juvenile body-function humor (very mild stuff here):
"We got maybe five minutes."
Alerio could have been talking about the weather: "Then we either crack the code or run like the wind."
"If Corrigan was here, it'd be a foul wind."
"All the more reason to run." 

And it has a reference to Kung Fu, a television series my brother, cousins, and I watched "back in the day". I leave that allusion for the readers to find.

As for the supernatural thriller that's not so thrilling, I realized that it needs a sharper focus. There's a lot of cool stuff that I've described, or that the characters possess, use, or fear, but there hasn't been one of those awesome, epic action scenes that showcase the characters' skills. So far, the tension has been contained, quiet, the kind that powers a psychological thriller. What I need is something big and scary, something that shows the power of both good and evil, and then I need to pull back from the fireworks, maintaining the tension by never letting the reader forget that just because it's quiet now doesn't mean there won't be something happening any second.

Kinda like the psychology behind a "haunted house" attraction in October: the brain knows the creatures and spooks are just regular people in disguise, but the fear comes from the dark, from the unexpected, from the possibility of danger.

Speaking of scary, the clock is warning me of the time -- I have to get ready for work in five hours -- but I'm just too tired to muster a girly scream of fright. Maybe that means I'll sleep like the dead.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dad: a late Father's Day post

I love my dad. He's my dad. When I was little, he was my hero.

In later years, though, if Mom really wanted to annoy me, she would say, "You're just like your father." It was not intended as a compliment.

Dad, like all of us, is a frail human being. Despite not knowing how to swim, he joined the Navy to avoid being drafted and sent somewhere he might not want to go during the Viet Nam War. (Yes, war. There were bullets flying and people dying. "Conflict" is just semantics.) He made friends easily, could tell funny stories that were most often true, and women liked him. He liked them, too -- rather too well.

Although he is much older now, somewhat wiser, a better worker, his personality is essentially that of the young sailor who married a college co-ed in the autumn of 1970 and brought her back to California where he was stationed, and sometimes sneaked off base -- AWOL -- to go visit her in the apartment when he was supposed to be on watch.

A woman knows the face of the man she loves as a sailor knows the open sea
Honore de Balzac

An uninformed observer looking through the family photo albums can see the love through who and what this young couple chose to photograph: her in the park, him sleeping with the baby (me), her in an apron and smiling into the lens, him hiding from the camera by ducking behind a newspaper. Skip a few pages, skip a few years, and there's my fat little brother (who grew up to be bean-pole skinny) offering the photographer a jolly grin. There's me in a wide-legged stance inside Dad's giant work boots.

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.
A.A. Milne

But not every couple is allowed to grow old together. Some separate by choice, some by death, some by force or circumstance. Infidelity is the simple reason my parents separated, but there was much more festering in that wound than just my father's desperate search for something he could not quite name but thought he knew.

I learned about Dad's latest marriage when I called him to ask what he wanted to do for his birthday. For months, I wasn't sure if he was married or not, just that he was pretty much living with someone. However, I've tried to be incurious, not asking too many questions, not asking the wrong kinds of questions, waiting for Dad to talk about the situation.

Strange, that. When I was young, we sat together at the dinner table as a family, and there was conversation. Only as we slowly, slowly broke apart did the conversation cease.

And only as we slowly, slowly are coming back together has the conversation returned.

The attempt to redefine the family as a purely voluntary arrangement grows out of the modern delusion that people can keep all their options open all the time.
Christopher Lasch 

As Dad learned, one cannot repeatedly go looking for "love" far afield and expect those who love to remain unshaken, arms wide open, ready to forgive and be hurt again. Although that's how I picture Christ -- always ready to lift us up when we fall -- I am merely human, and forgiveness is not my first instinct.

There's still a certain stiffness in the dialogue sometimes, but now we can laugh together. Now we can share a family memory and not immediately clear our throats, grow quiet, change the subject.

The joke in our family is that we can cry reading the phone book.
Ron Reagan

Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.
Cary Grant

There are still inside jokes that make us laugh -- or, at the very least, smile.

A few weeks ago, Dad borrowed a book from me to share with his wife: A Six-Cylinder Courtship, a laugh-out-loud funny short novel by Edward Salsbury Field, published in 1907 and telling of a young man's love for a girl and for a not-so-reliable automobile. I'd read the book aloud to my brother, sister-in-law, and parents one afternoon many years ago, and perhaps I laughed louder and longer than they did, but Dad remembered the tale and wanted to share it with someone new.

My first reaction to his request was an internal NO! I didn't want to lend a family memory to someone else. That was our laughter. That was our time.

Then I realized that sometimes forgiveness and healing are incremental. And, just because he shares the book with his new wife, it does not lessen the value of the book nor the memory.

Besides, I like Wife #4. Other than my mom, she's the best one he's married.

Looking back, I have this to regret, that too often when I loved, I did not say so.
David Grayson
I love you, Dad.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Granfa Grig, The Hobbit, and Finding My Way: a Ramble

When it comes to writing new blog posts -- or writing fiction -- these past few weeks, I've become a sluggard.


photo by Jose L. Ramos, from
Whenever I hear, read, or (in this case) type that word, I am reminded of a "nursery rhyme" I first encountered as a little kid while reading Granfa' Grig Had a Pig and Other Rhymes Without Reason (granfa' being short for grandfather):
Slug-a-bed, slug-a-bed, Barley Butt,
Your bum's so heavy, you can't get up.
If I recall correctly, the corresponding picture was of a pig in a too-small bed.

I don't know what's happened to my well-worn, well-loved copy of that insane and happy book of Mother Goose rhymes -- the illustrations are fantastic -- but I suspect I gave it to my niece or to some other child who would appreciate the goofiness that sometimes hides a comment on life.

The publication year is 1976, the year I turned five, went to kindergarten, and started learning to read -- the year before the animated version of The Hobbit was released. (Someone later gave me a copy of the read-along record, too.) I tend to say that Tolkien's novel was my introduction to the fantasy genre but, truthfully, all the nursery rhymes, fairy tales, tall tales, myths and legends that I'd heard and read before I finally picked up The Hobbit and read it for myself, those were really the beginning for me.

Isn't all fiction fantasy? After all, unless it's somehow autobiographical, based on history, or a modified version of fact, all fiction springs from the fantasies -- be they dark, merry, extravagant, simple -- of writers who let their imaginations roam free.

I used to get irritated at my dad analyzing Westerns, telling me that a horse had the wrong saddle or that an outlaw was using a gun that wouldn't work. "A real cowboy would never treat his horse that way," or "A man trying to hide would never ride the ridge like that, " and so on. My response was always, "So? It's not real life. It's a story. Anything can happen."

Well, technically, that's true. Just a story. Just a fantasy.

All stories are fantasies -- we make them up -- but even the most improbable fantasy should make sense within the parameters of its world.

Granfa' Grig can keep his pig (in a field of clover. Piggy died, Granfa' cried, and now the fun was over), Thor can wield his hammer, the three billygoats can fend off the trolls, Raven can play his tricks, and, sure, a fairy godmother can swoop in out of nowhere and make magic -- but has anyone else but me ever wondered where she came from and why in the world she'd help a perfect stranger go to the ball to meet the prince? I mean, what's her angle?

Maybe that's just the cynic in me, but everyone -- real or imaginary -- has a motive. What they say or do, what they believe, why they change or remain the same, it all has a reason. It may not be a very good reason, but it makes sense to them if to no one else.

So, even in fantasy, writers need to keep their facts straight, and be aware of the why of things.

photo by D. Friedman, on
I'm preaching to myself here. When I'm not sure where to go next with a story, I go back and try to get back inside the characters' heads, try to view a situation from their perspectives. What do they value? What do they need? What do they hate, love, want?

That doesn't mean I don't lose my way, but losing the path is part of the journey. Wander around, check out the forest, find a new route through the city, return to the main road, continue the journey.

Maybe while I'm spending time finding out what my characters will do next and why, I'll see a previously hidden path, surprising myself and, hopefully, the reader.

Bilbo Baggins met Gollum while trying to escape the goblins, thus placing himself in new and more intense danger -- the riddle scene is one of my favorites in literature -- and leading Tolkien to write the finding of a ring capable of making Bilbo invisible. In the beginning, it was just a magical ring. Only later did it grow in Tolkien's imagination to become the center of an epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

The things we discover on the way can be treasures untold.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Funny Spoiler for Thieves' Honor

Saturday, I was generally a slug, mostly inert all day, but my mind was busy, and I've jumped from one writing project to another, pondering older projects that need new life, and progressing on more recent ones.

There's a joint project -- existing in partial scenes and handwritten notes -- that I need to start working on with my writing partner,  and an old short story idea that may need expansion because its themes are so deep and broad they may not fit into a few thousand words without making the story appear to be a giant in a clown car.

As for Thieves' Honor, the following are notes on a scene for an upcoming episode; I laughed as I wrote them, so I figured you might laugh, too:

Someone wants to join the Vega crew -- who? why?
do they follow Ezra around?
pick at him?
admire him?

Corrigan tries to discourage them: "We're men of the worst sort."
Finney raises her eyebrows.
Corrigan amends: "We're women of the worst sort."
Wyatt scowls, and sucks his teeth.
Corrigan, embarrassed: "Well, anyway, we're the worst sort."

At the moment, the scene in progress involves Kristoff being recruited to be a thief.

Reminds me of Bilbo Baggins being told to go "burgle" something.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Update on Thieves' Honor

By the way, Episode 14 of Thieves' Honor is up at Ray Gun Revival. This serial is probably the most experimental writing I've done -- and, well, experiments can be succeed wildly or fail dismally. You be the judge. This particular episode is an even further departure from my usual writing.

A friend suggested that I start taking bets or suggestions on how the lead, Captain Kristoff, is going to injure himself next. That may become a running gag in the series. This time, he's just about blown his eardrums by firing a giant gun in a confined space.

One thing I do need to keep track of, though, are all the potential plot developments. Right now, I'm deciding whether or not Kristoff gets to rid himself of the device in his head -- but the tension is richer, I think, if he has to keep it. And then has a showdown with the person who has the kill codes. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!

Also, I want to start exploring the fate of Ezra's parents, and what will be the fallout now that Lieutenant Mars and Ensign Gains have sprung Captain Zoltana from the brig?

But enough about me! My current favorite story up on the RGR site is "Suited for Command" by Adam Colston. Funny and original. Check it out.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Mighty Pen, Teaching Kids Photography, and General Rambling

At the youth organization where I work, we are hosting a regional photography contest in which entries from several states are being submitted. As I've been sorting boxes of photos, marveling at the photos taken by kids, I'm reminded of what little artistry I had when I first started taking snapshots on Mom's little point-and-shoot film camera, borrowed for a trip to Honduras when I was fifteen. Photographing people, I made them look like cons in mugshots. Landscapes were generally busy pictures with lots of stuff but no real focus.

Many years later, I have a much better camera, more experience looking at the world with a photographer's eye, but am still nowhere near being an expert. I teach the very basics to kids -- the goal is to interest them in photography, not teach a college course -- and try to help them see the world around them as full of picture potential, but I cannot make them creative. That's gotta come from inside their own minds.

After showing kids the "rule of thirds" or why it's important to be aware of light sources, shadows, clutter, it's always interesting -- and occasionally frustrating -- to observe how some young photographers will only pay attention to the rules, producing technical but uninteresting shots, and some will consistently toss the rules out the window, regardless of how many sloppy, unfocused, or just plain bad shots they produce.
after the storm                       c. April 2011, KB

The best students know there's a time to follow the rules -- "use a tripod for night shots", for instance -- and then there's a time to just go with your gut, take a shot for the fun of it, for the experiment of it, for the moment before the light fades completely, the basketball swooshes through the hoop, or the dancing stops. Y'never know what'll happen.

That's how a lot of my poetry has been written: not because I intended it and followed some rules -- "Today I am writing a poem, and it will be a sonnet" -- but because the words were there and must be recorded before the moment disappeared. Same with essays: I have something to say, it must be said now, and the structure of the essay is dictated by the theme or the subject. Even feature articles and interviews have rules, but those can be tossed to the winds when formality would kill the piece.

Speaking of kill -- in a purely lighthearted sense, of course (laugh) -- here's one of my favorite Geico commercials, probably because it appeals to literature, martial arts, and the absurd little humor gremlin inside my head:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Christ - An Easter Musical Celebration

(click for Christ - Random Thoughts, Part 1 or Part 2)

Unlike the previous two, today's post is composed not so much random thoughts as it is the story of the Cross, comprised of videos of songs that have influenced and encouraged my faith. They remind me of the hope that awaits, that death is nothing to fear, that there is a love that surpasses any human emotion, that Life has conquered the grave.

So, in honor of Jesus Christ--

Video remix of Secret Ambition by Michael W. Smith,
or catch the original video here (complete with mullets, 'cause, hey, this was the 1980s).

Judas Kiss by Petra
(song only, no video montage, but the words are enough)

Watch the Lamb by Don Francisco

Rise Again by Dallas Holm

It Is Finished by Petra

In movies or church cantatas, the story usually ends there, but the songs below speak of the life we can have as a result of the death He died and the life He now lives:

Clean by Petra

Bound to Come Some Trouble by Rich Mullins
(This song literally saved my life during a dark, suicidal stretch of time when the cliff often looked more appealing than the road.) 

Love That Will Not Let Me Go by Steve Camp
(just the song, but what a song)

Road to Zion by Petra

Grave Robber by Petra

It is finished.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Christ - Random Thoughts, Part 2

Jesus told His disciples:
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."  -Matthew 5:14-16
I fall far short of that, my light often being only an uncertain flicker in the winds of impatience, selfishness, and other ugliness that obscures the flame. I am thankful, though, that -- despite human frailty, rebellion, and outright disbelief -- He will never be truly obscured. Like the moon to the sun, we can only reflect His light; we will never diminish it.

Recently, I went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, home of The Great Passion Play, and the site of the Christ of the Ozarks, a blockish and simple-looking statue that can -- despite a controversial history -- move a person to deep reflection. The power is in the eyes, a gaze that's almost alive.

The day I took the photo below, the wind was tossing the trees, but I kept fiddling with the camera, trying (unsuccessfully) for an artistic shot. However, despite the wind, the branches parted long enough to frame the statue's face.

Christ of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, Arkansas                        c. 2011, KB
No, I do not worship an image, nor do I know the actual features in the face of Christ. Yet, sitting on the bench under the awning, and gazing up the slope directly into that impassive and yet challenging visage, I felt a lump rise up in my throat, and tears gathered at the corners of my eyes.

Christ of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, Arkansas                        c. 2011, KB
In line of that gaze, I sensed a little of what Peter must have felt, looking into the face of Jesus after denying -- even cursing -- Him. Yet He looked on him with compassion.

I am forever amazed at the cross, at what He did for me. I, a coward when it comes to pain I know is on the way, cannot fathom His choosing to go through such agony that I might be free.
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."  -Romans 8:1,2
Todd Burrows posted this awesome video using scenes from The Passion of the Christ to illustrate the song Didn't He, performed by Geoff Moore, an artist whose songs the teenaged and twenty-something me belted out while listening to them on the radio. Didn't He still gets me every time, with good reason:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Christ - Random Thoughts, Part 1

It's coming on Easter. While the thoughts of some turn toward chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chickens, mine turn toward the cross, Christ's crucifixion, His resurrection -- the hope of His return.

"I thought this was a blog about writing!" and you can stop reading now, groan, and say, "Ugh, yet another fool proselytizing for a non-existent deity." Free will, dude.

But what does this writer believe about Him, the great Storyteller whose wisdom and parables are still life-changing?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...Through Him all things were made...In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.   -John 1:1-6
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."  -John 14:6
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"  -John 11:25,26
Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."  -Matthew 11:4-6
"...(S)urely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."  -Matthew 28:20
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.  -John21:25
And, as the late Larry Norman wrote and the late Dana Key sang, He was -- and is -- an outlaw:

Although Key's version is more singable, and sticks in my head, this powerful video features scenes from The Gospel of John (Lost fans will recognize "Desmond" as Jesus), and the unmistakeable voice of Larry Norman singing the 1970s version of his own song:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Images from My Retreat

Went on what was supposed to be a writing retreat this past weekend, but ended up wandering around and taking far more photos than writing.

I'm such a slacker. 

Just want to say, "Thanks again, Bubba and Bubba's Wife, for the camera. It's been getting a lot of use in the past year and a half."

As for the writing that was done, however, and the writing that is planned -- a collaboration with a friend -- I think my mind and skills are about to be stretched and challenged. I'm looking forward to it.