Friday, December 14, 2012

Deja Vu Blogfest 2012: Opposition!



Today is the 2012 Deja Vu BlogFest, hosted by DL Hammons over at Cruising Altitude 2.0

The point of this blogfest is to pick a post made earlier this year and revive it for a do-over, in order to give it another chance to be read. I decided to bring back an entry I made during the craziness of the A-to-Z Challenge back in April.  I chose this one because this is a topic I've again had on my mind as I've been writing lately -- just how much tension and opposition do I need to insert into my stories to hold a reader's interest?  I'm still trying to find the right amount -- I've gotten feedback in recent rejections that say I don't have enough and others that say I've overdone it and that the story feels forced and artificial.  So what's the right amount, and why do I even need to worry about it?  While I still don't have the subject mastered, I do I think I wrote some relevant comments on this back in April.

Thank you for stopping by and reading my revived Deja Vu post!  I really appreciate it. And HERE is the link for all of the participants taking part in the blogfest -- please stop by each of them to read and enjoy their choices for the do-over!

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2012 A-to-Z Blogfest: "O" Is For...



...Opposition!

 
For my entries in the 2012 A to Z Challenge, I will be focusing on writing elements that I find important and that I want to incorporate into my work.

Today, the topic is OPPOSITION.

As a writer who's still trying to learn all I can about writing, one of the things I keep coming across is that the basis for all effective drama is conflict. To hold my reader I have to incorporate conflict, tension, striving against outside forces or inner demons, risk, stakes, and other elements that basically boil down to the same thing – opposition. It doesn't have to be that THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE hinges on every minor detail of my story, but there better be elements of conflict and opposition, even if it's only at the inner emotional level within a single character.

OK, I get it, and actually, I agree. To make for interesting reading, I need to make characters, scenes, and plot elements that highlight tension, conflict, and opposition.

Who wants to read a story about an average guy with a happy life who does average things and everyone around him is happy, and in the end, everything turns out ordinary and happy?

Not a very interesting story idea, I'm afraid.

But sometimes, in my philosophical moods, I wonder: Why is this so? By relying on tension and conflict, am I appealing to the lower elements within us all to peddle my stories? Am I preying on that same instinct that causes us to gawk at accidents, peer out the windows at neighbors in trouble, and gossip around the water cooler over coworkers cheating on their spouses?

Maybe...But I think there's more to it than that.

We relish the drama and tension and opposition in a good story, but we also cheer for the hero who overcomes it, or at the least, sympathize with the protagonist as they sink under it.

I don't think I'm glorifying suffering and opposition – I'm helping provide readers with an escape from the struggles in their own lives, at least for a short while. Or at least I'm connecting with them on a fundamental level and giving them validation that we ALL endure opposition in some ways.

It's not only what makes a good story. It's what makes us human.

So what do you think?

Thanks for visiting -- see you the rest of this month for more alphabetical fun!

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And -- from today (12/14/12): Again, thanks for visiting as reading this revived post as part of the 2012 Deja Vu Blogfest!!!

Monday, December 10, 2012

WRiTE Club Wrap Up


Back in July, my friend Don "DL" Hammons of Cruising Altitude 2.0 kicked off his second annual anonymous writing competition -- WRiTE Club for 2012.  Don and his wife Kim received well over 100 entries for this year's event.  During the course of the 36 preliminary rounds, 71 of those anonymous entries were randomly selected to compete head-to-head (the losing entries were thrown back into the contestant pool, and one of them was re-selected to appear again for a later bout, which is why it was 71 instead of 72). During each bout, readers of DL's blog took part by commenting, critiquing, and voting for their favorites between the two contestants.

The competition went through:
  • 36 preliminary bouts
  • 18 first-round bouts between the prelim winners
  • 9 second-round bouts among first-round winners, with edited submissions from the contestants
  • 5 third-round bouts among the nine second-round winners and one wild-card, with new submissions from the 10 contestents
  • 3 quarter-final bouts among the third-round winners and one wild-card
  • 2 semi-final bouts between the quarter-final winners and one wild card, with edited second submissions.
  • 1 final bout between the semi-final winners, with new submissions, voted on by a panel of ten writers, agents, and others in the publishing world.
Some of you may remember that way back in July, I mentioned that I had decided to submit an entry to the contest.

Guess what?  I made it to the finals.

Today, the winner was announced, and it was Mark Hough, aka "Snivvy Crank."  His excellent piece was selected by a 6-to-4 vote.

I was the runner-up, "Raven Claw."

I have no regrets in losing to Mark -- in fact I'm honored, humbled, and a trifle amazed that I managed to wind up in the finals against him.  Mark's writing was humorous, gripping, and engrossing.  I was very impressed by how much story he managed to weave into 500 finely-crafted words.  He also has a tremendous talent for characterization -- his pieces were all driven by truly memorable and compelling characters.  If you haven't already, I really encourage you to check out his entries.  DL's finals post HERE gives links to each of them.

As for my own entries?  Well, here's a brief breakdown:

I.  My initial entry "Prey" appeared in Preliminary Bout #27. It was something I threw together specifically for entry into WRiTE Club.  It's from an idea I've had churning around for a while -- the hunter becomes the hunted, and a meek helpless old woman turns out to be something much more than she appears.  I also thought it might be fun to make the piece two parts, with a common ending line. It was a challenge getting it all under 500 words: Two scenes with separate PoV characters and all the paranormal groundwork needed to explain the reason behind the old lady's switcharoo. I also picked the name "Kali" intentionally -- it has both an urban, contemporary sound and the aspects of the Hindu goddess of empowerment and impending death fitted well with what I was going for in the character.  I'm not sure where this story idea may eventually lead, but I think it will need a longer piece, or at least a series of short stories, to fully flesh it out.  As for now, it's going back into the "ideas for stories" queue to stew a bit.

II.  My second entry "Storms" first appeared in Round 3, Bout #1, and was taken from a piece I started last year, kept hitting a brick wall with, and and then stuck in my dead-idea pile.  I used this because it's neither violent nor paranormal -- some of the comments in the prelims, combined with all the wide variety of paranormal stories submitted, made me want to go with something that was entirely different from my first piece.  The original story is unfinished and builds slowly, and didn't have the pregnant girl -- I wanted something with a little more emotional impact in the ending of the WRiTE Club version.  This was a story that was also HARD to cut down to 500 words.  I think it suffered from a lot of loss of nuance.  But either way, I'm not sure if this story will ever make it to a finished state, so for now it goes back to the bone-yard...

III.  My last entry "Invaders" was in The Finals, and was a reworking of an old Avartar-ish thing I wrote for a Creative Copy Challenge 10-word prompt (HERE's the original).  I just get a kick out of the idea that a highly-advanced, ruthless and deadly invading species would accidentally pick a cat as their host form.  But it could happen.  If they were scouting us, they could clearly see that the cat is the higher species on this planet -- ours certainly rules our household.  Even our dog gives her a wide berth.  But then, what means are the invaders going to use to achieve their goals?  "The Hairball of Doom?"  Anyway, I reworked the ending of the piece because the original relied on one of the prompt words, and I didn't think it would make sense out of context.  I also moved the cat right to the lap of power, so to speak, to give it more impact.  Finally, I changed the character names to Moros and Dolos.  In Greek mythology, they are the personification of impending doom and guile.  And as usual, this entry ended up being yet another case where I really struggled to get under the word-count.

I kind of liked that my entries were a wide assortment of styles and genres.  I think it reflects who I am as a writer -- erratic, quirky, and wordy -- I'm ALWAYS struggling to stay under word limits, lol!

And so, WRiTE Club 2012 is put to bed.  I enjoyed it and learned a lot from all the comments and critiques of my anonymous work.  I would really like to thank everyone who took the time to read and respond to my entries, whether you voted for me or not.

As for next year, I will definitely be involved again in 2013 (should Don want to go with another round of it).  But likely not as a contestant.  I want to offer Don as much help as I can, and I think I'll be able to do more behind the scenes than as a writer in the contest. And that way I can vote and comment without trying to also maintain my anonymity at the same time. ;^)

I want to deeply thank Don and his wife Kim for all they did to pull off the marathon that was WRiTE Club.  If you don't follow Don, I urge you to check out his Cruising Altitude 2.0 blog -- it's consistently filled with so much wonderful stuff!

And I also again salute and congratulate Mark Hough:  Your work was wonderful!  Congratulations, again!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Quest for Story: #9 -- Seedy Language

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Seed Pod)
(This is post number nine in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest was HERE)

Wow, it must seem like I just completely forgot about this blog, doesn't it?

I really do have to apologize for my dismal job of keeping it updated. It's been a mix of the usual suspects: work, family, impending holidays, and just too little free time.  The good news is that I have been managing to at least eke out some writing, so while I deeply regret ignoring any blog-readers, if time pressures force me to choose between blogging and creative writing, I have to go with the writing.  After all, this is a blog about my writing, so it makes sense that the writing should come before it, dont'cha think?

The little blogging I've managed to do lately has pretty much been over at DL Hammons's blog, where the two finalists of WRiTE Club 2012 have been revealed (read them HERE).  Now we're waiting for DL's panel of judges to come up with the ultimate winner -- this will be posted on his blog on Monday (and I'll wrap up my own thoughts about WRiTE Club here next week).

But, um...  anyway. Let's see -- my own blog.  Now, where was I?

Oh, yeah -- some sort of series about "A Quest for a Good Story," right? Well, let's review, shall we?  It has been quite a while...

I started down this path way back when I caught an NPR blurb on the radio about submitting an entry for broadcast, and they said something along the lines of "...it doesn't matter what it's about, as long as it's a good story."  That struck a chord with me, and I started thinking about what makes a good story?  I then expanded on these thoughts and kicked off a "Quest for Story" back HERE.

In Part 1, I hit on the importance of Character.  To me, that's the logical starting point and the centerpiece -- a good story HAS to have compelling characters.

In Part 2, I talked about Plot.  A good story has to have interesting events that are chained together.

Part 3 covered Voice, that combination of the author's narrative choices and writing style that lures the reader into the world the writer is creating.

I believe that the trinity of Character, Plot, and Voice form the core tripod that all good stories rest on.  Everything else I can think of can either be considered a sub-element of one of these three central facets, or a combination of two or more of them.  And I went on to expand on some of these in the later entries in the quest:

In Part 4, I wrote about the Beginning of the story.

Part 5 covered Conflict and Tension.

Part 6 was about Setting.

In Part 7, I discussed the Middle of the story.

And in Part 8, the last entry in the Quest I posted, I touched on a story's Meaning.

...and then I more-or-less fell totally off the blogging radar for the last two months.  For that I apologize once again.  Luckily, "proper pacing" was not one of the good story elements I was going to touch on.  ;^)

But with that review I think we're up-to-date, and there are only two topics left that I want to cover.

Today, we'll talk about one of them -- the mechanics of how to write that story.  To make these wordy doohickeys all go togetherish sorta, like, you know, goodly, and stuff...

Today we'll cover:

Language

Obviously, no tale can be a 'Good Story' if a writer can't even put it together.  Nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and even -- if used sparingly -- an occasional adverb:  They all have to be strung together into coherent sentences. Punctuation needs to be used properly. A writer's vocabulary must be broad enough for the most effective words to be chosen. Rules of grammar need to be followed, or if broken, done so through a specific and conscious decision to enhance the story.

An author has to have their writing mechanics down well enough to transfer their story into the mind of the reader; to send the author's own thoughts out like seeds from a pod -- fully-formed, so that they may plant themselves into the psyche of the person reading the story.

But, while solid mechanics will form those seeds, much more is needed to make them as fertile as possible.  A writer needs to do more than construct simple "See Spot run" sentences.  A Good Story's words are musical and evocative, strung together in sentences that flow with pacing and rhythm. Simile, metaphor, dynamic adjectives, and lyrical imagery are artistically combined with alliteration, beat, meter and prosody to form sentences and passages filled with fertile and powerful messages, all working together to ultimately make the writing...

...invisible.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it?

But the best stories have wonderful writing that a reader doesn't even notice because they've become so immersed in the story.  To have that happen means that the writer has connected with that magical sweet spot that is very hard to hit.  Too clumsy and mechanically weak and the reader is put off by the pedestrian writing; too ornate and over-the-top with "Hey, lookit me -- I'm writing!" hooptidoodle, and the reader is turned off by the author's pretension and grandstanding.

Often, when I read a really good story, it's only afterwards that I realize just how skillfully the author wrote -- how every word was perfectly chosen and put precisely in its place to build passages with powerful imagery and tantalizing rhythm.  But during my first reading, I was so busy just being engrossed and enjoying the story that I wasn't even aware of the writing.

That's the best kind of writing.



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Update: Quest for Story and WRiTE Club



Hi!  Just wanted to give an update that I WILL be finishing the last two posts in my ten-part Quest For Story series, and that part Nine should be up in the next day or two.

But in the meantime, I'd like to once again plug WRiTE Club 2012 over on DL Hammons blog and encourage you to visit, read, enjoy, and vote.

DL started this contest between anonymous 500-word writing samples way back at the end of July, and it's been going ever since.  There were originally over 70 contestants who were whittled down to 36 preliminary-round winners, 18 first-round winners, and now just TEN contestants remain (9 winners and a wildcard).  These five bouts are running this week and for this round, the writers have submitted NEW 500-word entries, and it is really interesting to see the new pieces:

Bout one was Monday (HERE), bout two was yesterday (HERE), and bout three is up today (HERE).  And then you can pop into DL's Blog tomorrow and Friday to see the next two bouts -- voting on all of them ends Sunday at Noon.

This round will result in five winners and another wildcard (the highest vote-getter among the non-winners), and they will go head-to-head in three bouts next week.

Then, the week of 11/25 will see those three winners and another wildcard go through two bouts where the two finalists will be chosen.

The final winner will be selected from those two by a panel of professional agents, editors, and other writers.

If you have not been participating, I encourage you to do so -- the entries are great, and through these next few rounds where wildcard winners are chosen, every vote carries a lot of weight.

Come and join the fun!  Just click HERE!


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Resurrection Blogfest: I Am Not Unique



Welcome to the Resurrection Blogfest 2012, sponsored by Mina Lobo at Some Dark Romantic!  This is Mina's first blogfest and I'm happy to take part!

The specifics for this are pretty simple: Resurrect a blog post you created during your first year of blogging.

So, revived from 3/30/2011, just a short while after I first started blogging, I give you the post below -- discovering I am not unique.  

I hope you enjoy this blast from the past.  Be sure to see Mina's Linky-List to visit all the bloggers taking part in this blogfest!

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Thoughts at Large: I Am Not Unique 
(Slightly updated -- originally posted 3/30/2011)


After setting up this blog and working with it for a couple of months, I've confirmed something I had suspected for a while: 

I am not unique.

Not in the "Hey-I-started-a-blog" way, or even the "I'm-an-aspiring-writer" sense -- those I already knew.  There are a multitude of blogs out there, and you can't kick over any Internet rock without a horde of wannabe-writers swarming out.

No, I mean in the way that a kid christened "John Smith" encounters very early in his life: 

What the Hell are all these other people doing with my name?!?

I grew up in a small town, and while I can remember a few other kids named 'Chris,' there weren't very many people named 'Fries,' and I was definitely the only 'Chris Fries' that I knew of. 

A one-of-a-kind. 

But now, after doing some research to see if anyone who knew my name but not my blog address could find this place, I've realized there are many other people named 'Chris Fries' out there.  A whole slew of them:

  • There's a guy who does professional voice-over production (HERE).  Looks like he does some pretty cool work, and he has a very impressive resume and client list.  But he has a picture of french fries on his page, and a "you want fries with that?" blurb, so I wonder if he pronounces our last name as "Fry-es" instead of "Freeze," like my family always did (the old-country German way, evidently).
  • There's a guy in Washington, DC who has his own blogspot blog (HERE) that he evidently regularly maintained for a couple of years, although it hasn't been updated since last May.  Not sure if that's because he just decided to quit blogging or because something happened to him.  Either one is a sobering thought about the potential longevity of this blog...
  • There's a guy in Cincinnati who does real estate, although it looks like his domain name ('www.chrisfries.net') may have expired.  You can see the real estate site under the 'cached' entry in the Google search, but the live URL takes you to a 'domain available' blurb.
  • There are twenty-five other profiles for 'Chris Fries' or 'Christopher Fries' on Linked-In (HERE) besides the one I created and never completed.  Looks like I'm not even the only 'Chris Fries' who's an Engineer.
  • And I found at least thirty 'Chris Fries' pages on Facebook, and I know there are probably a ton of others, including all the versions of 'Christopher Fries'.  But I don't have my own Facebook account, so it won't show me the full list unless I create one.  No thanks.  Not today...

Wow.

In some ways it's a little disappointing -- we all want to know that we're unique and special individuals, and it's a bit disheartening to realize I'm not as unique as I once thought. 

But still -- overall, it doesn't really bother me that much.  I know that what makes me special and unique is much more than just my name.  Every 'John Smith' had to learn that early in life, and it's probably a little easier for me to process at age 50 than it would have been at age 5.  So, despite being just one in a herd of people named 'Chris Fries,' I am still a totally unique person (and you can ask my wife -- she'll tell you just how frustratingly unique and quirky I can be).

Plus, in some ways it's kind of cool.  All these other 'Chris Fries'es and I may be related through some twists and turns of our family trees, and so having a sense of being connected to a larger, extended family is sort of nice. 

And I can't help but think that if we ever combined into a unified collective, we could probably conquer the world...

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Thanks for stopping by and taking part in this Resurrection Blogfest!  Remember to go HERE to see more resurrected blog posts!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Breaking Free from the Spider's Web

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Spider)

Wow!!!  Look at how long it's been since I posted here...

I REALLY have to apologize for neglecting this blog.  Life and work schedule just completely swallowed me up the last several weeks, enmeshing me in a spidery web of gotta-dos that completely engulfed me and held me captive.

And even worse than being an absent blogger, I accomplished almost no writing at all.  It's a bit late to go over them in a dedicated post, but suffice it to say that my September writing goals basically went up in flames.  But the good news is that I'm not behind on any of my October goals -- simply because I never had the time to sit down and put any together.  Aspire to nothing and you'll achieve it every time,  LOL!

About the only writing-related task I was able to (barely) stay on top of was to keep up with the voting on DL Hammond's WRiTE Club 2012 contest.  When the times force me to have to choose, I tend to focus on commitments I made to other people more so than those I made to myself, and I'd vowed to Don to take part in the contest.  Plus, while DL is an old and very good friend that I'm honored to support, I also entered the contest, so I also have a bit of a selfish reason for staying involved.  But I won't discuss my entry until the contest is over, so that's all I'm going to say about that, other than I do encourage you to visit DL's blog and take part in the fun. The prelims finish with just one more bout, and then the 36 prelim winners will go at it head-to-head in the next round beginning Monday -- spread out over three blogs: DL's, Julie Dao's, and Tiana Smith's

But, I think that while life will still continue to be a bit hectic, I think I've managed to break free of the web, at least some. I think I'll at least be able to once again be more of an active blogger moving forward.  I hope.

Still, if you ever visit here and don't see me comment or update very often, please know that I do very much appreciate your visit and always welcome your comments and input.  Or if you're one of the many fellow bloggers whose blogs I try to visit and enjoy, please don't take my absence from commenting on your blog as a sign that I no longer care -- I do.  I simply wish I had more hours in the day, and more days in the week...

So, let's see:...What else?  Oh --  I had been running my "Quest for Story" series, and while it's taken much, MUCH longer than I had planned to finish it, I do plan to do so.  There are just two posts left, after all, so I'm hoping to have them up here very soon.

Well, I think that's it for now.  Gotta keep moving lest I get snared again...  ;^)

Thanks!

Chris



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Quest for Story: #8 -- What Do You Mean by That?

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Pond Bridge)


(This is post number eight in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

It's been a while since our last stop on the quest -- time pressures forced me off schedule last week, and I took part in Alex's 'Genre' blogfest yesterday.

So to catch up, let's review the quest so far: In the first parts, I defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character), and last time, talked about maintaining the middle (the center-point of the plot, where the character faces a increasingly difficult series of mini-crises in their climb towards the finish).

We only have three more stops on this quest, and I think after seeing 'The Beginning' and 'The Middle', you can probably guess what one of them is going to be. 

But let's save that one for its appropriate spot....

Instead, today I want to hit an element that grows out of a simple question:  What is the story about? 

Because a good story has this:

Meaning

A story's meaning is often not just a single thing, and in a "good story" there are usually several layers.  There's the story's subject, probably some recurring motifs, one or more underlying themes, and perhaps even -- if the author wants to drive home a practical point for the reader to learn from -- a moral.

A compelling plot can hold us riveted, complex and engaging characters can be wonderfully entertaining, and an author's voice can be so silky smooth that we simply lose ourselves in it, but for a truly 'good story,' these elements have to do a little more.  They need to work together to give us something deeper; something that resonates within us and makes us think of that story long after we've finished reading the words.

But here's the tricky part -- often it's out of the author's hands. 

Yes, a writer can be concrete as hell about the subject ("War! Uhhnn! What is it good for?"); intentionally plant some recurring motifs which relate to the subject (death; destroyed buildings; recurring losses of loved ones; repeated bravery in the face of certain death); sculpt the plot to enhance a specific theme ("there are no real winners in war"); and maybe even go so far as to try and give a clear moral ("make peace, not war!"). 

But then a given reader -- who may or may not see all of the elements the author consciously inserted -- can read the story and end up taking their OWN meaning away from it ("Love conquers all!").

Like effective visual arts, compelling creative writing impacts each person differently. A good story requires that each reader brings a little of themselves to it, and in return, each reader gets a little something unique out of it.  The story resonates within them in a special way based on each reader's individual emotions and life experiences.

This is OK, and even desirable, I think. 

A story may begin with the elements of meaning that a skilled author inserted (subject, motif, theme, and moral), but within the reader the story grows to be more than what the writer intended.  A synergistic ignition of emotion happens within the heart and mind of the reader, and they pull a deeper meaning out of it.

And this magical bridging of the gap between what the author intended and what the reader takes away can elevate a piece of fiction into a 'good story'.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Genre Favorite Blogfest!



I'll be back tomorrow with entry #7 the continuing Quest for Story, but for today, I'm taking part in Alex Cavanaugh's Genre Favorites Blogfest!

For this blogfest, we get to name four things:

  • Our favortie genre of Move
  • Our favorite genre of Music
  • Our favorite genre of Books
  • A guilty pleasure from one of the above.
Pretty simple, huh?  Well, you can check out my blogger profile for some specific examples of my favorites from the three genres, but let me summarize here:

Movie:  I like a wide variety of films, but in general, I tend to lean towards science fiction -- "Aliens," "Blade Runner," and many others always come to mind when I think of my favorite movies.

Music: Again, I like a wide variety of music, from Jazz like Miles and Coltrane to the jaw-dropping amazing chicken-pickin' of The Hellecasters, but I definitely lean towards guitar-based music, and my favorite genre is probably Jam Band -- The Dead, Moe, The Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks, and others.

Books:  Well, again -- love a wide variety and can appreciate almost anything if it's written well, but my favorites are Mysteries, and -- again -- Science Fiction. "Dune," "A Stranger in a Strange Land," "A Clockwork Orange," "Fahrenheit 451," "Foundation," all the N-Space Niven novels, and a gazillion others.

Guilty Pleasures: Well, for a movie, I might go with "All That Jazz." It's a great movie based on the life of Bob Fosse, but it's quite a departure for me from the types of movies I generally like.  For music, I could say Supertramp or maybe Sade, both of whom I really enjoy ("Crime of the Century" is a particularly amazing album), but they're quite a bit different from the 'cooler' music I typically like.  As for a book, how about "Interview with a Vampire" by Anne Rice?  I'm no vampire fan in general, and especially dislike the "sexy, dreamy, bad-boy with fangs" variety, but this was a book I actually enjoyed quite a lot.  The sequels went from bad to worse until I finally gave up on reading them, but in this first book of the series, Anne was on the top of her game.

Thanks for stopping by, and I encourage you to check out Alex's BLOG to see all the other participants of this blogfest -- visit as many of them as you can!

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Quest for Story: #7 -- Stuck in the Middle with You

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Headstones)

(This is post #7 in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

To recap our quest so far: I've defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), and mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character).

But now, frankly, I'm not sure I can go on with the quest.

I can't think of what direction to go next.  I've run out of ideas, hit a brick wall, and everything I try seems to be falling short.  Nothing is working, and everything seems to oppose me.  At this point, it looks like the quest may have to be called off, and that I may be doomed to fail.

Know where I'm at?


The Middle

Every good story needs one. 

We've had a beginning, and at some point, we'll (hopefully) have an ending, but there has to be a separation between the two.  There has to be the point where the conflict and tension seem insurmountable. For now, we're there -- stuck at the lowest point.

The darkest hour.  Where things look their gravest.

The point in the story where a character hits rock bottom, and where the reader thinks the story might -- just maybe -- end in disaster for the character with the failure of all he was trying to obtain.

Of course, some stories do end this way.  But then, with these dark stories, their middle is usually the point at which it looks like the character will succeed, where they're riding high, and everything seems to be going their way.  With these tragic anti-stories, the middle of the plot is many times essentially just the mirror image of the traditional story's low-point middle.

The length of a story's middle-section varies, but it's typically the bulk of the story.  Using the well-known three-act structure, the beginning takes about 1/4 of the story, the ending takes another 1/4, and the middle takes 1/2 -- as much as the beginning and ending combined.  In a novel-length story, the middle can have a whole series of mini-crises and resolutions, all continuing to build tension and drama, and raising the stakes, until -- at the peak (or pit depending on how you picture the story arc), the whole plot looks like it might end with disaster. 

But it (usually) doesn't.  Somehow, through some last tiny bit of inner strength, the main character breaks through the wall, overcomes the crisis, or realizes the key piece of information that crystallizes everything, and gains new energy to charge on to the final climax. 

But the story's not over -- not by a long shot.  Just because the main character has climbed out of the pit of despair doesn't mean he's done with his quest.  The final conflict of the plot still needs to be faced, but now, with the character having made it through the challenges of the middle, the ending been unleashed and the story is racing towards it at full speed.

And we'll talk about it more in the next installment of this quest...

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Quest for Story: #6 -- A Time and a Place

(Photo by Chris J. Fries -- 2012: Reflections)
(This is post #6 in a quest to define what creates "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

In the first half of this series, we defined the three key elements that I believe must be present to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice.  Then we added in a few more details which elevates a story -- an effective beginning and emotionally compelling conflict.

For the second half of our quest, we will  continue fleshing out the elements of character, plot, and voice.  Today we cover an element that can have either a huge impact or virtually none, depending on the story.  The key is to know how much a given story needs.

Try to imagine Frank Herbert's Dune set anywhere else than on the desert planet Arrakis.  Or Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath taking place at some time other than the Great Depression. Think Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep would work as well if Phillip Marlow was a private investigator anywhere other than Los Angeles in the 1930's?  How important are the creatures and landmarks of Middle-Earth to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?

All these novels succeed in part because of another important element of a good story:

Setting

Setting is the "when" and "where" of a story.  For some stories, setting is almost insignificant. Just enough information is needed to ground the plot.  For others, it is a vital element, so much so that the setting 'becomes a character in itself', to use the old adage.  At this level, the setting affects the plot and the other characters, and the plot leads to change and consequences for the setting.

Some of the need for setting is driven by genre -- science fiction and fantasy typically requires more time establishing the setting.  The more alien the universe, the more groundwork a writer has to do to get the reader to understand that world.  But even within those genres, some stories will still really only need the level of  "modern day in a big city somewhere" setting to be entirely effective.

I think the secret is to know what's right for a given story, and for me that's driven by two things:  I want to describe the parts of the setting that are critical for the plot, and the elements that a character's POV would see, when they impact that character.  And the level of impact helps guide how much effort to put into it. 

World-building can be fun, but I think many writers can overdo it.  Perhaps they're familiar with that 'setting as character' line (and hasn't every high school English teacher rolled it out?), and so that's what they aspire to.  In every story, regardless of how important the setting really is, they'll have sweeping depictions of the landscape and the weather; rigorous establishment of historic timelines; and detailed descriptions of every item of flora and fauna.

Personally, I think setting is important (or I wouldn't be making this post), but I also tend to lean towards the 'less is more' school of thought when it comes to description and setting.  I'd just rather not risk having my readers bogged down in extraneous detail.  I also don't want them gawking at the scenery when I'm trying to get them attached to my characters or working to advance the plot.

I think setting is like Thanksgiving turkey -- just the right amount really adds to the holiday, and in the hands of a skillful cook (like my lovely wife), it can be a mouth-watering treat that I can look forward to all year.  But left to a shakier chef it can come out dry and bland, and too much of it always leaves me snoozing on the couch in a tryptophan-induced coma.

So how important is setting to you?  Is it a vital element of your own Good Story Quest?


Monday, September 3, 2012

A Pause in the Quest: September Goals

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Peony)

For this post, I'm taking a brief pause in my Quest for Story series.  It will return with part six in my next post on Wednesday or Thursday, but since this is my first post for September, it also means that the sun has set on August.

So for this post, I want to review my August writing goals and make new ones for this month.

Here are the ten goals I posted back at the beginning of August with their month-end results and grades:


1.  Give my short story “Too Quiet” a final once-over and resubmit.  Completed and submitted (result pending) -- 10 out of 10 points.

2.  Finish the editing of the revised “Waiting Backstage” short story and resubmit.  Completed and submitted (result pending) -- 10 out of 10.

3.  Complete the requested revision of “Apologies” and resubmit.  Story revised and edited, but cannot resubmit yet because publication which requested it is temporarily closed for submissions -- I'll call it 8 out of 10.

4.  Write at least one new short story or flash piece and submit.  New concept created and outlined, and the story has been started, but not yet finished -- so maybe 5 out of 10.

5.  Create at least one micro flash piece and submit.  Actually, three were written and submitted (and I've already received rejections back on them) -- 10 out of 10.

6.  Finish the outline for the revision of my WIP novel, and revise at least the first chapter.  Some work done on the outline, but nowhere near finished, and not many chapter revisions made -- Call it only 2 out of 10.

7.  Complete the post for Nicole’s Olympic Blog Relay and submit to her for posting on August 6th.  Yep, did this -- 10 out of 10.

8.  Vote on each entry in DL’s WRiTE CLUB 2012 competition (twice per week).  I've voted on every one (and they've expanded to three each week), with long posts offered as feedback like I'd want to hear -- 10 out of 10.

9.  Add a new post on this blog at least once each week (preferably twice).  Posted twice each week in August -- 10 out of 10.

10. Read and comment on at least ten blogs I follow each week.  I've commented on way over 10 blogs each week, so this is definitely 10 out of 10.

So all together, this adds up to 84 out of 100 -- a solid "B" if I'm grading it.  Not perfect, but solid.  However, I am  a little disappointed that more new writing wasn't done.  Items 4, 5, and 6 were the goals that focused on this and I only made 17 out of 30 in these, a clear FAIL.  So this month I plan to emphasize this area a little more in my goals.

With that in mind, here are my writing goals for September:

1.  Finish the short story I began in August and submit.
2.  Come up with at least five other new story ideas.
3.  Create story outlines for at least two of those ideas.
4.  Write and submit at least one story from those outlines.
5.  Write and submit at least one piece of micro-fiction.
6.  Complete the overall outline revision for my WIP novel.
7.  Revise at least the first chapter of my WIP novel.
8.  Vote on each entry in DL's WRiTE Club 2012 competition.
9.  Take part in Alex Cavanaugh's Genre Favorites blogfest on September 17th
10.  Finish my Quest for Story blog series, posting preferably twice a week.

Because I only want ten goals, I haven't included one about visiting and commenting on at least 10 blogs a week, but that is something I will also certainly try to do. I'm also going to submit the re-written "Apologies" as soon as the publication reopens for submissions, but I didn't make that a specific goal.

So with this new set of goals for September, I'm hoping to get some solid writing done.  Wish me luck!




Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Quest for Story: #5 -- A Con Artist

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Roadblock)

(This is post #5 in a quest to define what creates "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

In earlier posts in this series, I hit the three key elements that must be developed to create a good story: Character, Plot, and Voice.  Now we're expanding some of those elements.

But, before I get into today's stop on the quest, I think there might be one question that arises during this series:

So what the hell do I know about all this, anyway? 

It's not like I've got a huge track record of published success, or years of experience in the publishing industry, or an MFA in Creative Writing from a well-respected university, or even a thick catalog of completed works under my belt.  So to anyone who wonders let me say, you're right -- it's a very valid question.  But it's also an easy one to answer:

Not much, really.  

I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination, so don't take what you read in this series as anything more than one guy's opinion.

I've only acquired what I know about writing from a few college classes here and there, a lot of personal research, a commitment to learning all I can about writing, 45 years of avid fiction readership, and -- in the end -- a gut feeling about what seems "right," even if I'm still struggling to pull it off.

This series isn't meant to be a lecture from my blogging podium, and I hope it never comes across that way.   This is supposed to be a sharing of the things I think make up a good story, as I'm still learning about them. Basically, I'm a rookie writer still on my own personal quest for story, not a wizened old veteran pontificating about the vast experience I've gained from a lifetime of publishing. But I still think the quest is worth talking about, even if I'm not an expert.

Plus I'm always open to feedback, thoughts, debate, and any other enlightenment you might care to add. If you have experience in any of this, feel free to share it.  Correct me if I'm wrong, Fill me in if I'm missing something. Give me a well-deserved kick in the pants if I ever come across as sanctimonious or snobbish in anything I write.

So, with that out of the way, let's get on to stop #5 of the quest:

I think in order to write a good story, an author must be a skilled Con Artist.

No, not "con" as in "confidence", although there is certainly a need to be able to get your readers to trust you and to suspend their disbelief as they read your words.

What I mean is "con" as in

Conflict

A good story must have conflict, opposition, and tension or it simply fails.  There doesn't have to be epic battles or global strife, and a good story certainly doesn't have to be depressing or dark.  But there needs to be at least something that is opposing the main character.  Something that they are struggling against, something that is trying to prevent them from going or getting where thy want, something that they must overcome.

Conflict and opposition are at the core of the plot. A plot with no challenges for the characters isn't really a plot.  It's just a series of events -- dull and lifeless.  There has to be roadblocks for the characters to overcome, or to at least struggle against.

Conflict can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Struggles of one character against another.  "Man vs man" or "The Hero against The Villain" in all its variety, like Beowulf vs Grendel, Sherlock vs Moriarty, Ripley vs the Alien, or the Roadrunner vs the Coyote.
  • Struggles of a character against outside forces.  Some sources may break this one down into subcategories like "Man vs Nature," "Man vs Society," "Man vs Technology,"  and "Man vs Fate,"  but essentially it's any form of conflict where a character deals with opposition from some faceless force much larger than any specific antagonist.
  • A character's own inner struggles. "Man vs Himself."  A battle with inner demons, or a fight to resist the lure of something that will lead to significant consequences.  The inner struggle can often be the most dramatic conflict, and is a key part of effective characterization. But it is also the hardest to 'show' without resorting to 'telling' and exposition.
These three buckets are pretty wide, and yet there can still be overlap, and frankly -- there should be. Moby Dick might involve Ahab vs the Whale, but that whale can just as easily represent the force of Nature, God, or Fate. The same for Ripley fighting against that multi-jawed, acid-slobbering alien.  Luke vs Darth Vader succeeds because it also features the struggles of Luke vs the Evil Empire and Luke vs the inner pull of the power of the dark side.

An author must become a skilled artist at creating conflict within their own work, and the richer and deeper the conflicts involved, the more likely a piece of fiction is to elevate to "Good Story."

======

And a few other Blogging tidbits to share:

Milo James Fowler is holding  a contest at his blog In Media Res.  Visit to enter for a chance to win the latest edition of Bardic Tales and Sage Advice, which contains his story "The Second Option."

Milo is a very talented author whose stories I greatly admire.  His ever-growing body of work has featured such iconic characters as Captain Quasar, Mercer (seen again in "The Second Option"), and Coyote Cal.  Milo is also one of the lynchpins behind the Write 1 Sub 1 writer's group.

If you're unfamiliar with Milo's fiction, I encourage you to pay him a visit.  If nothing else, stop by for a chance to win a wonderful collection of great writing.

* * * * *

DL Hammond's WRiTE Club 2012 is going strong!  Having expanded the preliminaries to 36 rounds this year, DL is putting up a new bout each and every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So far the quality of the entries has been fabulous. 

Each bout in WRiTE CLub lasts a week and feature two anonymous 500-word writing samples going head-to-head. Blog visitors vote for their favorite in the comments.  In October the preliminaries will finish and the next rounds will begin, pitting earlier winners against each other, with the final goal to come away with just ONE final winner.  The finals will be judged by an esteemed group of writers, agents, and others in the publishing profession. The list of  the preliminary winners so far is HERE.

Be sure to visit DL's blog Cruising Altitude 2.0 to read the entries and to vote for your own favorites.


Monday, August 27, 2012

The Quest for Story: #4 -- In the Beginning...

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Smokestack Sunrise)

(This is post #4 in a quest to define what creates "a good story."  The kickoff of this quest is HERE.)

In the last post, we completed the holy trinity of story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  These three are like the body, mind, and soul of a good story, and so in a way, our quest is really complete.  Almost any other element of a good story can be considered a subset or a combination of these three.

And yet there is still much we could add.  Heck, if we wanted to, we could probably go on forever in an eternal quest, dissecting and detailing the minutia of each of these three core components and mapping out the multitude of ways they can interact.  

Thus is the career of a writer -- each new piece written adds another step in an author's own personal quest to use each of these elements to make a better story.  Not many writers reach a point where they say, "that's it -- the perfect story!  Now I never need to write another thing!" (The closest example I can think of might be Harper Lee -- after her masterwork of "To Kill a Mockingbird," she never released another novel.)

But I think for this series, it feels incomplete to quit now, and yet I'm sure no-on wants me to drone on endlessly about this stuff, so I'll be content to add another six or seven stops on the quest -- hitting some of what I consider the more important elements.  That seems to be about right...

So today, let's start at the logical place:  

The Beginning

Every story needs one.  Like the dawn of a new day brings boundless possibilities, the beginning of a story should also be filled with promise and potential.  It is the opening of the plot, the introduction of the characters, and the first exposure of the writer's voice.

Writers, editors, and publishers all speak of how important the beginning of a story is -- with a novel, a writer usually has a page or less to snag a new reader.  Every word has to shine, and by the end, the reader needs to be involved enough to wonder, "what happens next?" or they'll never turn that page.

Truthfully, the beginning of the story does not have to coincide with the beginning of the plot, and many times it's not.  The story introduction can be used to establish setting and characters, but even then, I think there should be hints of the underlying plot.  Story questions should be established that begin to intrigue the reader -- readers don't have endless patience, and even if you initially pull them in with voice and character, you soon need to establish the plot or you'll lose them.   

Whether it happens at the start of the story, or after an introduction to character and setting, the beginning of the plot typically is the "Inciting Incident".  What event happens to your character to incite them to action?  What forces them to begin down the path of your plot?  What is the 'call to action' that propels them forward, for good or ill? 

Some genre fiction often starts with the plot very quickly  -- or at least much more obviously. Think of how many mysteries begin with the BOPO opening ("Body On Page One").  That's a pretty clear inciting incident.  On the other hand, many fantasy stories spend a lot of time world-building before establishing the plot.  In my opinion, sometimes too long.  I love to know the details of the world I'm entering, but I also like to have at least a few clues that suggest why I'm there.

It doesn't have to be as graphic as a murdered corpse sprawled out before the detective, and sometimes the best inciting incidents seem small and inconsequential until story events unfold that reveal them as the 'key moment' that initiated the plot.   

But whatever it is, that beginning of plot needs to have at least enough force to spur the main character into motion.  It arouses questions that must be answered, presents challenges that must be faced, hints at rewards that must be pursued, or reveals dangers that must be avoided.  It should also be something that catches the reader's interest and pulls them into the story along with your character.

It begins the story.  And the better the beginning, the better the story.

* * *

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome!  Be sure to check back on Thursday for the next stop on our quest...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Quest for Story: #3 -- Whisper, Growl, or Bark?

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Seal Bark)

(This is post #3 in a quest to define what creates "a good story."  The kickoff of this quest was HERE.)

In our last stop of the quest, we added character and plot together to make the foundation of a good story. To me, these are the two interlocked aorta of the heart that beats at the core of a story, or to use my analogy from last time, they're the two lobes of the lungs that give the story breath.

Either way, with character and plot, a story begins to live.  It may lack all the details required to elevate it to 'a good story,' but if there is a compelling character and an interesting plot, then the story should succeed with readers at least on some level.

But for story to be 'good', more is needed.  The story may have lungs and a beating heart, but it still lacks a soul.

The third element of our quest must be added:

Voice

Like a soul, voice is elusive and ethereal. Ask ten authors what it is, and you'll likely get ten different answers. 

To use the picture at the top of this post, I think voice is how the writer puts his own seal on the story; how he entices it to whisper, growl or bark; how he encourages the reader to become a page-flipper; how he whisk-ers them along through the plot; how he...

Alright, I'll quit.  ;^)

Anyway...

To me, voice is style, both in terms of an author's conscious story structure decisions, and in that author's innate writing style.  It comes down to what the writer wants to do with the story, and how the writer carries out those decisions.

Story structure choices are things like:  
  • Should a story be written in first-person to intimately bond a reader to a character?  Or should it be written in third-person to provide some distance?  
  • Does the writer want to stay close to a single character through the entire story, or should different characters be used for sections, chapters, or scenes?  Which character?  Voice is heavily influenced by the character -- the voice used to tell the story of a hardened street thug will be different than that used for a cookie-baking grandmother.
  • Who is the writer's target audience? A story written for children will be structured differently than one written for adults, and the voice will be different too.  
  • Is there a particular genre the story falls into? For example, mystery and romance have some established conventions, so a story might be structured differently depending on which genre the writer wants to target, if any, or how closely he wants to follow those conventions, and again -- the voice will be different also.
Each decision the author consciously makes about story structure gives rise to its voice.

And yet there's more -- give Stephen King and Neil Gaiman the exact same characters, the exact same plot, and the exact same story structure down to every detail, and you will still get two distinct stories.  

Their voices will still be unique.

They will not choose the same things to describe or emphasize in a scene, even if they are describing the same scene. They will make different word choices.  They will have unique rhythms in their sentences. The way the story flows will not be the same.

Just because that's the way they write.  Their innate, inner voices are distinct and unique, and their stories will be too.

And they should be.  

In the hands of a confident author who is fully in the moment of the creative act of writing, voice will naturally come through.  It does take a while to develop, and that's why I say a 'confident' author.  Like confidence, voice only comes from practice and experimentation, but it does strengthen with every word a writer creates.

Voice develops as a deeply personal part of a writer. Because it comes from their soul.

And that's the only place that the soul of a good story can be created.

* * * 

Compelling character, intriguing plot, and a beguiling voice.  Put those three together, and you will surely get a good story, right?

Yes.  I think these are the three magical components -- the body, mind, and soul of a truly 'good' story.

But yet I feel our quest is not complete.  I think we need to delve deeper into these elements.  Just how do I know my character is compelling?  How can I make my plot intriguing? Is my voice really beguiling?

So for the next seven stops on this quest, we will peel back the layers of this holy triumvirate of good story.  Check back on Monday for the next stop, and in the meantime, your thoughts and comments are always welcome!