The Hero’s Journey: For Writing & Life

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You are probably on a journey; I know I am. For me, it’s a writer’s journey, but it’s a hero’s journey, too. Writers have our own battles, allies, and enemies to navigate. Whether we realize it or not, the characters we write about, and ourselves, have embarked upon The Hero’s Journey. Cinch down your cloak, replenish the ink in your sharpest quill, and let’s talk about it.

hero with a thousand faces 1.jpgThe Hero’s Journey is a concept I first read about in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell explains that there are reoccurring themes that run through almost all stories, myths, and even religious texts. The theme is The Hero’s Journey. Once it’s broken down into pieces, you can’t help but noticing it in most of the books, movies, and mediums you see everyday. Even aspects of our own lives conform to the structure.

While Campbell introduced the idea of The Hero’s Journey, Christopher Vogler does an amazing job of breaking it down into component pieces in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Campbell basically said, “There be dragons ahead,” and Vogler took that statement and wrote a book on how to slay those winged beasts.

Vogler’s step-by-step model of writing stories has been adopted by many writers working in different mediums. You’ll have a hard time finding a Pixar or Disney movie that doesn’t adopt this structure outright. The reason? Well, for one, it works. Two, this plotting method is relatable to most people, because our life experience seems to tie into the myth of the story.

Vogler explains, “The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life, especially the writer’s life. In the perilous adventure of my own writing, I found the stages of the Hero’s Journey showing up just as reliably and usefully as they did in books, myths, and movies” (p. 5).

With Vogler and Campbell’s twin stars on the horizon as our guide, lets learn about the journey. Also, let’s uncover how it applies to our writing and our lives.

hobbit holeThe Ordinary World. This is where the writer introduces the hero/heroine in their normal environment. Of course, they aren’t a hero yet. They are a street rat (Aladdin), hairy-footed Hobbit in a hole (LOTR), or girl living in the coal district (Hunger Games).

For the writer, this may be the time before you started writing. Maybe you thought about writing. There was a nagging feeling, but you ignored it. You stayed in the comfort of your Ordinary World.

The Call to Adventure.  This is when an external influence causes the hero/heroine to consider abandoning the Ordinary World.  This call to action is often times them learning of a threat to the safety of their Ordinary World.

For writers, this is the moment of inspiration.  Maybe a book, friend, teacher, movie, flash of clarity, or all of these combined, turns the nagging feeling into something more.  The words are calling to you.

refusing the call.jpgRefusal of the Call. This is the moment of doubt. The budding hero doesn’t want to leave the comfort of the Ordinary World. Family, doubt in ability, lack of incentive, and fear are often played upon refusals.

These are those first doubts you feel as a writer. “I can’t do this.  I don’t have a story to tell. I don’t even know how to write well.  Is writing worth it?”

Mentor Pops Up. Aladdin had a genie, the hobbits had Gandalf, and Katniss had Haymitch. These are their guides to push them along.  Some act as a moral compass, some simply push the hero, and some are there to meddle.

A mentor doesn’t have to be a person when it comes to writers. It can be, sure, but it can also be a book/idea/dream that inspires you. Something to guide you along your path and help you step outside of your comfort zone.

door to a new world.jpgCrossing the First Threshold. This is when the story starts getting interesting. The hero puts his/her head down and embarks on the quest.  They accept the adventure, leaving the Ordinary World and entering a special one.

For you wordsmiths, this is when you say, “Screw it – lets do this thing.” You sit down and begin the process. You exit the real world and enter the creative whirlpool. I see many authors quitting their jobs and taking up writing full-time. No doubt, they are crossing toward the First Threshold.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies.  Here we start getting elements sprinkled in. The hero/heroine meets friends, learn of and encounter enemies, and begin facing minor trials. They battle threshold guardians and sometimes, almost always, they come up short. The hero/heroine haven’t yet honed their skills. Or perhaps they haven’t built a strong enough connection with their allies to be effective.

hercules.jpgFor us scribblers, this is the beginning of the process. We seek out others like us. We deal with writers block and creativity issues. We learn that the initial fire, that spark, won’t sustain us. We need something more: dedication and habit. We often fail, but in the process, we begin to get better at the craft.

Approach to the Inmost  Cave. At this point, the hero/heroine (and allies if applicable) have honed their skills, and are preparing to face the enemy.  They stand at the gates, swords/wands/pens in hand with a determined look on their faces. Their scars, whether metaphorical or very real, are a testament to the journey they have taken to this point.

For writers, this when you start getting deeper into the work. You’ve knocked out a couple hundred pages, maybe told a few people what you are up to, and now the pressure is mounting. The end is in very near, but you still have work to do. You hope your resolve and skill will carry you to the end.

The Supreme Ordeal. This is the, “oh crap,” moment when the hero stares death in the face. For the reader/audience, you wonder if they will survive. The hero/heroine does survive the conflict, often barely, and realize they are more powerful/resourceful than they thought.

For the writer, this is the moment when you almost lose the writing battle. You step away for a few days, weeks, or months — sometimes longer.  You reappraise what you are doing. If you are the writing hero I know you are, you’ll return to the desk and finish.

flying carpet.jpgReward. For the hero, they seize the reward after beating the boss; the battle is won. Many times, they gain a boon, trophy, or magic item. The reward may simply be the realization of power they didn’t know existed within themselves.

My friend M.L.S. Weech always says, the more times you type, “The End,” the more confident you will be in your skill. He also says the more of them you type, the easier and quicker the next one is to get to.  This is sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many of the writers I work with, or consider to be mentors in my own journey. Needles to say, for a writer, typing The End is a major reward.  It is also the realization of hidden potential.

The Road Back. The hero begins the return journey back to the Ordinary World with the reward in hand, or inside them.

For the writer, I equate this to the real world versus fantasy world we live in while we write. You improved your skills while you wrote, you finished the work, now you must come back to the Ordinary World and edit/promote/sell it.

TheKnightAtTheCrossroads.jpgResurrection. The hero may have slain the dragon and seized the magic sword that heals the land, but now the dragon’s mother is in pursuit. Often times, the hero must deal with the consequences of their Supreme Ordeal. When power is found, unlocked, or a magic item is gained, there is often the issue of wielding this power responsibly. Sometimes, those around you become wary of what you have become, or what you are capable of.

For the writer, this is the realization that writing The End is just another beginning. There are edits, rewrites, book covers, email lists, agents, publishers, and critics to contend with now.  More ordeals spring up like weeds.

potion.jpgReturn with the Elixir. It’s all meaningless for the hero if they don’t return to the Ordinary World clutching their spoils. These spoils can by physical: an item to cleanse the blighted land, or powerful weapon to protect it. The spoils can be mental: they now have a story to share, become a mentor themselves, or offer insights to protect and enhance their Ordinary World.

For us writers, these are the moments of impact after the book, or work, is out there. The email from an appreciative reader, the five star review, the kind words from friends and family. Maybe your elixir is to compile a book to illuminate the way, much like Campbell and Vogler did for me.

That’s The Hero’s Journey.  This was a longer post, if you made it this far you’ve completed a reader’s journey.  In the future, I want to elaborate on each step, but we needed a point to jump off from – hence the length.

I hope you found this helpful. Do aspects of your life (writing life/life in general) fit The Hero’s Journey? Do you feel like steps are missing or are incorrect? I’d love to talk about it.


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Writing a World Building Style Guide

Bible_and_Key_Divination.jpgToday, I wanted to talk about style guides. No, not the Chicago Manual of Style.  I’m talking about self-generated style guides that serve as a bible for your universe(s). I’ve been working with the Human Legion recently, and I’ve spent some time organizing world building notes spanning multiple authors. Different authors, writing different series, but in the same universe.

The solution, for me, was apparent — compile the notes and make a style guide to ensure consistency. This was easier said than done. Let’s talk about how to make one, what it can do, and potential information to keep within it.

A style guide, for those of you unfamiliar, is a tool to create consistency throughout a story, world, or universe. It is tremendously helpful to an editor, because it will show them invented words, character information, and world background. We’ve talked about World Builder’s Disease before, a style guide is a great place to dump the info filling your brain.

World Builder's Disease MemeIt should be noted, some of this information is only useful if you are writing within a large world or universe. Depending on the scope of your work, you may not need an elaborate style guide. It would be useful to create a short style guide for an editor. This becomes more essential if you have created words or are utilizing an odd stylistic device.

Before I jump into what to include, I wanted to mention how a style guide will save you time. When I first started working with the Legion, they had tons of reference documents. These documents were contained within multiple folders, spread out between authors. I’m talking about more than thirty folders, and many individual documents within.

This became a battle of navigation for me. How many arms and fingers does this alien race have?  A simple question, really. So, I would open up the shared folders, begin navigation, move from one author to another, search differently labeled folders, and maybe I would find the info…or maybe not.

Waiting for an Email

You might be saying, “Why not just contact the author?” Good point! Unless they are on a completely different timezone or work schedule. For me, the more time I spend working the manuscript and not on the phone, the faster things get done.

Usually, the info was there, I just couldn’t locate it quickly among the massive archive of folders. Plus, I have proclivity to over-organize. There is nothing wrong with organizing your files however you want. If it works for you as the writer, don’t change anything.  But as the editor, I needed a more intuitive and rapid way to find information.

While the writers and fans of the Human Legion have done an outstanding job of creating infopedias (Official Infopedia, Fan Wiki), much of the information within the style guide is secretive in nature. Hidden motivations, planet histories, and tasty spoilers. It’s intel the writers understand, but the readers don’t need to know about…not yet. As one of the editors, I needed to reference these notes to help steer the ship.

moon footprint.jpgSo began the first step: compiling all of these pertinent documents into a universal source. One that would contain all of the information hyperlinked. Now, if I need to know how many arms and fingers an alien has, I click Alien Species in the table of contents (hyperlinked), scroll the alphabetized list, click the species in question (again, hyperlinked), and viola.

Format. Much like a webpage with clickable links, if you can add navigation within the style guide, you win the prize. I use Word, which allows for linking within the document. This might seem excessive, but after compiling the needed information into a living document (i.e. it will keep growing) the word count was around 15k for the style guide.  If I relied on scrolling to navigate, it would take forever.

What should you put in the style guide?

A Refined List

Character Name List. A listing of character names, properly spelled, makes the gods of writing smile. Especially, when you have tons of characters. Non-human species seem to generate the most inconsistency — a standard helps.

Once a character name list has been generated, you can begin hyperlinking supporting documents (characters sheets, sketches, etc). This made life really easy for me.

Corey question: the character’s eye color has changed from blue to green…what is the correct color?  Answer: Table of Contents -> Character List -> Click Character (confirm spelling) -> read character sheet.

Technology List. Holy bologna, this is a massive list for the Legion (and one I need to update). Depending on your genre, you may have invented technology. If it’s military sci-fi, then the technology probably has corresponding acronyms. Some of it might be written as a proper noun, some of it might not be. Whatever you decide as the writer, there needs to be consistency. Listing how these should appear is a step in the right direction.

Science_and_Invention_Nov_1928_Cover_2.jpgLocation List. Sweet mothers milk, another sprawling list. If your story spans cities, continents, planets, or farther, it might be wise to start compiling these locations and linking supporting documents. There will always be the handful of readers who say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t Planet D’s sun too intense without the aid of an exoskeleton?” If the reader has sunk into your world well enough to notice things like this, you owe it to them to be consistent.

Invented Word List. My favorite!  Nothing will blow Word’s circuits like a ton of invented words being thrown into the mix. Invented words, within reason, are one of the spices that make a universe unique. Just be sure to list those words. It might be wise to mention if only one person, species, or planet uses these words too.

Acronym List. Holy alphabet soup, Batman! This will probably only be useful to those of you who are writing in certain genres. An alphabetical listing of acronyms, backronyms, and initialisms makes me want to river dance. It becomes ten times more important when you are inventing these.

alienSpecies List.  Have you unleashed new races and species on your manuscript? Cool. You might want to compile a list and start linking reference documents. Remember the question above about how many arms and fingers an alien would have? This list solves those problems before they begin.

Basic Grammar and Punctuation Section. This is more of an editing thing, but if you find yourself working collaboratively with someone from another country, you might want to flush out the differences. British and American styles differ. The goal, especially if you are collaborating on the same book, is to achieve consistency of style.

question-markThat’s it for today! I’m curious about what methods you all use to compile and organize your universe notes. Do they exist in a jumble of folders, or have you found a way to compile them intuitively? I’d love to talk about it and pick up some pointers. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always — stay sharp!

Writing for the Busy Parent

Welcome to another Feature Friday…sort of. As always, the days are just whizzing on by. I’m doing something new for this Feature Friday. It’s my first collaborative post. I’d like to welcome Dillon, from over at From Rad to Dad.

Why thank you Corey! It’s a pleasure to be here! Hi, new friends!

dillon-fam-4A little intro about my family! Korina (my wife) and I are both 26 years old, and at the time I’m jotting this down our son, Killian Jaymes, is 10 months old. I work a normal 7 to 4 Monday through Friday job while Korina runs her amazing nerdy crafting business from home while taking care of Killian, whose occupation is currently pooping his pants and chasing our dog Lupin around.

We run a small Youtube channel where we document our life in weekly videos. Korina and I also both write our parenting blogs and work on our modern fantasy stories! Well, when we find the time to write on the side, which is actually what this blog post is about.

So writing is tough, we all know that. And parenting is tough too, even folks without kids can fully acknowledge that. But what’s it like trying to be a writer and a parent at the same time? That’s what Corey and I have teamed up to shed some light on!

With that great introduction, below are the five questions we are addressing. If you are tackling the challenge of being a parent and writer, feel free to Contact Me with some answers to the questions and we will link you into this post and point people to your page. If you’d like a photo(s) included, be sure to attach them. The parenting struggle is a bit easier when it’s shared.

Now to the questions.

  1. How do you balance work, home, writing, love, and life?
  2. How has becoming a parent changed your outlook on writing and reading?
  3. What’s the biggest misconception you’ve faced with stay-at-home parenting, or parenting in general?
  4. As a parent, where do you go to write? When is the best time for you to write?  
  5. Why do you write, and how does that reason impact your writing?  

QE’s answers:

family-11.) For me, scheduling is the single most important thing I do. I’ve found I have to constantly tweak my schedule as life changes (Thor grows). Allocating my time prevents me from over-committing to a single project and leaving others lagging behind. When Thor’s awake or my wife is home, I typically don’t spend too much time writing or editing and instead try to take advantage of the time as a family.

2.) When I became a stay-at-home dad, losing my work identity was hard. As Thor grows, he’ll never look at me as “His dad who was in the military or who was a cop.” I think children having a way to identify their parents to others is important. Dedicating my time to writing and reading lets me share stories with him, but also helps me feel confident he will know his dad “does” something other than just take care of him.

3.) The biggest misconception I’ve faced is that because I’m a stay-at-home dad I have tons of time and don’t really have any commitments. Most laypeople don’t look at writing and editing as a real occupation. When people ask what I do (which inevitably comes up), I tell them I write and edit books. This is usually answered with an awkward smile and look that says, “That’s not really a job.”  

img_23344.) I have a study where I write and edit. For me, having a space dedicated to work helps me focus in on what needs to be done and not get distracted. I usually work while everyone else sleeps, or during my son’s naps. Right now, I only sleep 4-5 hours on normal days. When my wife is home for her weekends, I try to catch up on sleep and recharge.

5.) I write because I love reading stories and have always enjoyed telling them. Reading stories to my son is one of my biggest joys. Even though he’s too little to understand them (almost a year old), he still stops what he is doing and listens, as if he’s trying to understand. I write with my son and family in mind. I don’t tailor the stories to them, but knowing they will read them is very empowering. Knowing after I’m long gone my son might have a book I wrote on his own shelf is even more inspiring.

Dillon’s answers:

dillon-fam-21.) In short, an unhealthy amount of coffee. Outside of work, my schedule changes frequently and I spend as much time with my family as I can. They recharge my batteries and motivate me to be better than I am — they are my greatest inspiration. I give myself every opportunity to write, I have Google Docs on my phone, so I squeeze in a few lines, or outline points while in line at the post office or even in the bathroom. I make small time throughout my day burst-writing as much as I can, and then I spend time editing in the same fashion. Piece by piece!

2.) My outlook on everything changed the day I found out about Killian. I wanted to write, not for fame or glory, but to simply have him look up at me and say, “my dad is cool, strange, but cool.” I want to write interesting things, motivational words to help him in the future when the rain pours down and I may not be there. I want to read so I know how to answer those questions that he’s going to come at me with. I want him to know there are a million ways to be creative and he can chase any of them.

dillon-fam-33.) Parents trying to be perfect. I thought, for a brief moment, that becoming a parent would make me picture perfect. It did anything but. So many parents have picture perfect Facebook lives, and that is garbage. We fight, we cry, we make mistakes, we show up late, we forget the diaper bag, we don’t read bedtime stories every night, we forget to write, we are tired and no one ever talks about all of that being okay. And IT’S OKAY, we are not supposed to be perfect. We are supposed to be human.

4.) I don’t have a dedicated place or time, a lot of my writing is done on my phone in lines or on my lunch break at work. Even though I don’t carve out dedicated time, I still write, I still edit, and I still post. Getting something done when you can is better than not ever getting to it. If I’m gonna pick a time, I really like writing in bed later at night with my wife sitting beside me and Killian sleeping in his crib. A small cup of coffee beside me as I type and a flurry of grammatically horrible words strung together is where I always end the night. Usually followed by me saying, “I’ll fix it tomorrow!”

dillon-fam-15.) Two reasons: To motivate other parents, and to remind us all it’s okay to fail and make mistakes. We are not perfect; we are parents. I love being a dad and I want to share the stories of how it’s changed me and hopefully help at least one parent out there not feel so worried about it all. As for my personal writing: I am a genuinely curious day dreamer, and when a character walks into my head I want to chase them down the rabbit hole and see where they go and how their story unravels. I have to know how they end up. I guess I just want to share these stories on both the blog and in my personal writing. I want people to be happy and confident.

question markThat’s it for today! Again, if you’re a parent, grandparent, or parent to fur-babies—we’d love to hear from you. How do you manage the madness?  Contact Me and I’ll update this post with your answers and link your blog into the post as well. Every now and then, Dillon and I will recycle this post on our pages and put our feelers out for more struggling writers/parents. From Dillon: Thank’s for taking the time to read! Hopefully you picked up some tricks for your own crazy writing style! Thanks Corey for having me!

Until we all cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp! As Dillon likes to say on his page, “You’ve got this!”

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Rolling the Dice and Creating Chaos

predictable plot.jpgHow many books have you read where you can guess exactly what is going to happen to the characters?  I know as a reader and editor I’ve been through a few.  It’s not that the characters are bad; they just don’t follow Murphy’s Law.  I get it.  Your character is the fastest gun in the land.  He/she can outdraw and outshoot anyone.  That can get pretty boring.  Or, you have to create insanely elaborate situations for them to navigate to challenge their prowess and entertain the mob (your readers).  Here’s an idea, instead of writing what should happen, leave it to fate.

This concept is pulled from the Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) realm.  For those of you who aren’t giant nerds like me, D&D is basically a game where one person creates a story and friends come and navigate it.  Each role-player has a character they created and they use dice to determine the effectiveness of their characters actions throughout the story.

The transition into using this in your own writing is simple.  Roll a die and let that determine how effective your character is at dealing with a situation. After all, even the fastest shooter in the world is still impacted by luck.

dice.jpgTake a die.  It can be a six-sided die like you find in a board game, or go to a hobby shop and grab a 20-sided one.  If you roll a one, that’s the worst possible thing that could happen.  If you roll a six (or twenty if you are using the 20-sided beauty) that’s the best outcome that could happen.

Here’s the application.  Let’s use my own character, Drake Nelson, from my upcoming book Wastelander: The Drake Legacy.  Drake is chilling out in a settlement and needs to go to the bar to quench his thirst.  He walks in.  Sitting at a table is notorious bad guy #3.  Notorious bad guy #3 smacks women around, steals milk from babies, and once killed a man for his horse only to let it run off into the sunset for dramatic effect.  Drake looks up at me and I know—notorious bad guy #3 must die.

Now Drake has ninja speed with his pistol.  If I stuck with his character blueprint, this would be an easy confrontation for him.  Especially because bad guy #3 is just a lousy thief, not an experienced gunfighter/renegade maverick like Drake.  So instead of sticking with the boring, I let the dice decide.

Critical Hit.JPGIf I roll a high number, the normal thing would happen.  Drake doesn’t say anything, he simply shoots the man in the face and notorious bad guy #3 falls backwards out of his chair.  Everyone in the bar cheers.  Women throw panties at him.  The bartender pours him a drink.  It’s kind of funny, but it’s also kind of boring.

If I roll a middle number, it can go either way.  Drake pulls the pistol from his hip.  The iron sights flash into focus for a millisecond and he begins applying tension to the trigger.  The town drunk, Steve (it always has to be Steve doesn’t it), stumbles into the bar and bumps Drake in the back as the gun recoils.  The bullet punches a hole in the ceiling and chunks of plaster land on notorious bad guy #3’s head.

Critical Fail.JPGIf I roll a low number, (say a one) that would be a critical fail. Drake doesn’t just fail, he fails miserably.  Drake grips his pistol and pulls it from the holster.  His hand moves so fast it’s a blur of black and silver.  Unfortunately, a bird had shit on his pistol handle earlier.  The feathered feces is still glistening and fresh. The slickness causes the pistol to fly from his hand.  It sails across the bar and smacks the unaware bartender in the forehead. Worse, the bartender is the mayor’s brother.  Now Drake has revealed his intention to notorious bad guy #3, disarmed himself, and assaulted the mayors brother.

Try it out for yourself.  Mix a little luck and chaos into your writing.  While I obviously don’t recommend you use this to drive all action (or even major plot points), it is a fun way to create an unexpected turn.  It’s especially useful if you aren’t entirely sure how your character is going to deal with a situation and your writing is stalling because of it.  This tool allows you to write some potential outcomes and if you feel they are lackluster, blame the dice and bad luck.

question-markIf you give it a try, let me know how it goes.  It usually is amusing to say the least.  That’s it for today.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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The Golden Hour: For Writers

golden hour.jpg

Take a basic course in photography and you will likely learn about the Golden Hour.  It’s a special time right after sunrise, or before sunset, when the angle of the sun casts brilliant reddish hues over everything.

I remember my photography instructor gushing about the amazing possibilities this little window of time would provide.  I was attending the Defense Information School at the time learning how to be a Navy journalist.  I recall thinking, “I came to learn how to write, not take pictures of random nonsense!”  My younger self didn’t realize how much photography would grow on me, and it became more than just a part of the job—it was something to fill my free time.

camera-1240219_960_720.jpgSo when people ask me when the best time to write is, I always think of the Golden Hour. While writing is different than photography, they are both art, and they both require the artist to show up.

The thing with the Golden Hour is you can charge your batteries, pack multiple lenses and filters, strap a tripod to your back, and lug it all out to the perfect location, but there is no guarantee you will get a single usable image.  Maybe clouds roll in.  Maybe you just have a bad day and don’t get an interesting angle or inspired shot.  Maybe you just sit there and get lost in the moment and don’t take a single photograph.  But every now and then, as long as you keep trying, you will get that one photo that takes your breath away when you open it up to edit.

Writing is the same way.  While you don’t need to wait for sunrise or sun fall (or lug heavy gear), you still have to be present.  On any given day, you may find inspiration or you may flounder.  Those mental clouds can roll in and ruin even the most perfectly planned day of writing.  If you stay consistent and keep hitting those keys, eventually “it” will happen.  You will have a moment of perfect clarity.  A moment of pristine mental light.  In this Golden Writing Hour (or maybe multiple hours if you’re lucky), all those rough days will be worth it.  The result, well, it might just amaze you more than any photograph could.

The Editor[Editor’s Note]

This is one of the first posts I generated here on QE.  Since then, I’ve taken a book with a handful of chapters and finished it (and edited a couple others).  During that time, there were more cloudy days than golden ones.  The lesson I learned is bounce back.  For me, that’s the ability to forget about a lackluster day and treat a new one with an open mind.

With that being said, when those golden days shined, they changed my book in big ways.  On some of those golden days, I didn’t write within the manuscript at all but simply remapped and re-outlined sections to enhance the story.  I saw additions and concepts that weren’t fully formed solidify.  Honestly, I attribute this to simply being present.

This is why I encourage those I collaborate with to at least take a small amount of time each day and write.  Even if it isn’t to tackle the ever-looming word count, progress comes in different ways.  Sometimes, all it takes is for us to be present and willing.

question-markThat’s it for today!  It’s fun for me to re-read and give some of these older posts a second life, and it’s also interesting to think about where and what past-Corey was doing back then.  Do you have a Golden Hour in your writing life?  Do you have a method you use to help you bounce back from a rough day?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing: A Report vs a Story

DINFOS_Seal.pngThe core of my training and experience comes from my time as a military journalist.  At the Defense Information School, we were taught the “Five Ws and H,” way of approaching a news story. We were also taught something called the “Inverted Pyramid” style of structuring our stories. I now often find myself applying these methodologies to my fiction, and sometimes encourage writers I collaborate with to do the same.

First, let’s break it down a bit.  The five Ws and the H are broken down into: who, what, where, when, why, and how.  In journalism—especially military journalism—the focus seemed to be mostly on the first four.  If you could add the why and how, and still remain objective, you win the prize (M.L.S. Weech can correct me here as he teaches this stuff).

This way of thinking ensures the journalist, before they ever leave to cover the story, would remember to gather all the elements they needed to write a complete piece.  If the journalist could gather quotes from people talking about the why and how, even better.  This way of thinking organizes the journalists way of thinking.  Unlike fiction, the journalist may never get a second chance to ask the right questions to clarify their story.

Inverted Pyramid.jpgThe inverted pyramid is a means of organizing a story in order of importance.  I attached an image to illustrate this concept.  This does two things.  First, it ensures the most vital elements of the story are written first.  Secondly, it allows whoever is placing the news article into a newspaper, magazine, or periodical to have the flexibility to chop parts of the article away to fit it into the layout.  In essence, if they chop off the back-end of the news story it still delivers all of the pertinent information.

Transitioning this way of thinking to fiction isn’t too far-fetched.  Let’s start with the first concept.  We have to think of the “Five Ws and H,” in a different way.  Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writerwrote about this concept in an intuitive way.  The following excerpt is from this book on page 125.

Who becomes Character.
What becomes Action. (What happened.)
Where becomes Setting.
When become Chronology.
Why becomes Cause or Motive.
How becomes Process. (How it happened.)

Seeing it written out in this manner reveals the parallels in process between news and fiction writing.  Just like the journalist, the fiction writer must organize their piece and ensure they address most of the elements on this list.  When I do my first pass of a new manuscript, I mentally make notes of these elements as I see them.  If one element is missing, then the scene, chapter, or book will likely need some slight revision (not always).

newsboy

A newsboy circa 1912. Pulled from the NY Digital Libraries.

The inverted pyramid, transitioned to fiction, is a way of quickly organizing the content of a chapter in order of importance.  Yes, some of the information is specific to news, but it can be easily adapted to fiction. Each chapter should be written, not just as a bridge to advance the story, but as a means of revealing information about the characters, conflicts, and world.  Horizon gazing (focusing on the end) in fiction betrays one of the most important elements to the reader: the journey.

I like that background information is listed at the bottom of the pyramid.  Over reliance on background information (information dumping) and world building (when it becomes a disease and not a tool) can cause readers to feel disconnected from the characters.  If this tool is used as a plotting device, the writer can pull elements of background and world building up and into the chapter and sprinkle them in as beats.  Seeing the chapter outlined in this way ensures the author hits all of the major points.

For those of you who are meticulous outliners, this is yet another tool for you to track and plot out your story.  For those renegade maverick, seat-of-the-pants types, you will save yourselves hours of revision by simply ensuring you are covering the Five Ws and H chapter by chapter (when applicable).  Sometimes pantsers hit the wall and all it takes is for them to quickly plot a chapter for them to regain momentum.  This method of plotting may be a solution.

question-markThat’s it for today!  I hope you found some useful information here.  What method of plotting do you all use?  Do you have a pregenerated template you work from, or do you simply scribble notes? I know many of you will be taking part in NaNoWriMo here in Novemeber; have you all started the process of outlining?  I’d love to talk about it.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Free Writing: Exploring the Unknown

all work and no play.jpgSit around and talk with enough writers, bloggers, and creative types and eventually someone is going to talk about free writing.  For me, it always conjures up images of Stephen King’s The Shining and the endless iterations of, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Of course, tread in these waters long enough and sooner or later you will be getting drug advice from someone to, “Take your creativity to the next level man.”  Well, I won’t be offering any drug advice today.  Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the most common methods of free writing and give you all some pointers on what to focus on when taking advantage of this great creative tool.

Free writing is basically non-stop writing.  You set a timer, begin handwriting or typing, and do not stop moving your hands/fingers until the timer sounds. You don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or even if what you are writing makes sense. What this does is connect your minds-eye to your medium and overrides the analytical part of your brain that wants things to be structured and tidy.  Whatever thoughts come into your head go down on the paper or screen unfiltered.

The two most common types of free writing are structured and unstructured.  We’ll begin with the latter.

freewriting meme (template).jpgUnstructured free writing is a way to generate new and fresh ideas.  Maybe you just finished writing your last novel and are sitting down to begin the next. Maybe you are sitting down  to write for the first time ever (good on you). Regardless, the cursor is waiting there, blinking, winking—by God it’s mocking you!  No ideas manage to find their way to your fingers. Don’t freak out, go freestyle!

Set the timer for ten minutes (or whatever time your comfortable with) and just start writing, even if you are simply writing, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again.  Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith, explains that,”…even if you keep writing, ‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ over and over, eventually you’ll tire of this and ask why can’t I?  And then let the answer take you to a subject, which will the lead to another subject, and so on” (p. 47-48).  He continues on to say, “Or you might cheat a little and look around and see an object – a tree, anything – and start writing about it.”

Structured free writing allows you to expand or build on an idea you already have.  You have a great idea for a character, plot, world, or conflict; it just doesn’t have any depth yet. Fear not, the solution could be a few minutes away.  The only difference between unstructured and structured is this time you have a jumping-off point. Exactly like in unstructured, you set a timer and begin writing.  Again, don’t worry about spelling or if it’s making sense. Just run with it.  Run with it until your stomach churns and you begin to vomit those words onto paper straight from the creative whirlpool of you mind.

spilled ink.jpgIt’s always easiest to start structured free writing by beginning with a character, conflict, or setting in mind.  The reason for this is simple, for the most part, we enjoy stories because of the characters, conflicts, and settings.  Is it any surprise these things are typically the most enjoyable to write about?

So here’s the premise.  Take the rough image of the character you are thinking about creating, toss them into a situation, set the timer, and see where you two go together. Launch them into space; write their birth; write their death; write about what they do on the toilet; write about what they do between the sheets; write about their awkward teen years; write about that one time they ate a sandwich and got food poisoning—just write.  Set the timer and don’t stop.  

Will you get anything usable from this?  Who knows.  What it is doing is cementing in your mind who your characters are and what they are about.  We all have that friend or family member we know so well we can pretty much guess what they are going to say or do in any given situation.  If we want believable characters, then we should know them just as well (if not better).

Conflicts.  Who doesn’t love a good conflict?  So maybe you have an idea for a conflict and nothing more.  No real characters or setting.  No worries.  Set the timer, start writing about the conflict and don’t stop.

Maybe they are in space/underwater and running out of air?  Maybe they are mortally wounded?  Maybe they are navigating a particularly annoying dinner party and one of the guests is a shape shifting, man stealing, Jezebel?  Who cares?  Pick a route and run with it.  Don’t like it?  Switch.  There are no rules except that you don’t stop.  When the timer is done check out what you have written. Chances are some characters might have wormed their way into existence and some imagery related to setting can be gleaned.

self doubt.jpg

Many times the biggest issue stopping writers is self-doubt and being overly critical.  We all have story to tell that is trapped away in our heads.  Unfortunately, we stress about structure, grammar, and all those details that don’t really matter so much in the creative process (that’s why revision and editors exist).  Free writing is the heart bypass that allows nutrient rich blood to flow through your creative veins.  When you free write, you do so knowing it’s going to be choppy, sloppy, and insane—there’s no fear of judgement.

As this is a repost, I had some excellent input from past comments.  Amanda, at Mind the Dog Writing Blog, was kind enough to recommend the website Life in 10 Minutes.  Taking her suggestion, I visited the page and was greatly impressed with it.  The page has links to workshops and examples of excerpts.  If you wanted to browse some examples of what can be accomplished, this is a solid place to check out.

question markHave any of you had success with free writing?  Have you heard of or developed different methods?  I’d love to hear about it.  It’s always interesting to see what materializes when I use this technique.  If anything, it’s a nice departure from my normal analytical methods.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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