Friday, March 29, 2013

Forgotten Characters...

Hello everybody!

Sorry, I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been working on my manuscript—“Betrayal in the Highlands” (due out in August! *PLUG! PLUG! PLUG!*).

I’ve also been reading.

As I wrote previously, I’m trying to read more so that I can become a better writer.  I want to read not only the brilliant and the good books (to see what works), but also the “not so good” books (to see what, in my opinion, doesn’t work).  Again, we as writers can learn from everybody.

One of the books I’ve been reading seems to be falling into the second category.  It isn’t that it’s horrible. The characters are fine. The story is fine. The writing is fine…except for one thing.

Every time the writer describes the weather, it’s “bright and sunny” or the stars are “blazing in the blackness.”  And so forth. 

Now, being trapped in northeastern Ohio throughout the winter, I can appreciate nice weather.  Believe me, I’m DYING to see the sun!  But I imagine that even beautiful, sunny days wear a bit thin when they happen all the time.   I’m starting to realize how that applies to writing as well.

If I were to say that writers need to create diverse characters, you’d probably agree with me.  After all, even twins have different personalities.  And nobody wants to read a story where everybody acts and thinks and talks the same. 


The same is true for the environment or setting of the story. 

I think stories hit a rut when all the lands are beautiful and fair or have rolling hills of green wavy grass.  That’s wonderful for a scene or two. But after a while, I want to see trees. I want to see mountains. I even want to see barren wastelands.  In many ways, a forest of dead trees could be just as emotion-provoking as a forest with leaves of copper and gold.


Which gets me to the issue with the weather in the book I’m reading. 

Because the sun is always bright and the sky is always blue, the writer’s world feels forced and contrived to me. It also seems flat.  Doesn’t it rain at all???? How do the fields of wavy grass stay green without rain???  Seriously, I’ve been following these characters for several months of their lives and not once has it rained or hailed or snowed or had nasty gusts of wind that burn the characters’ cheeks. 


As an aspiring writer, I’m trying to think of the setting and the climate as characters in and of themselves, characters with different moods and personalities.

This is particularly challenging for me since my manuscript occurs during the winter in the far north— where there’s nothing but snow, snow, and more snow.  I’m trying to add variety to a climate that is dominated by white and cold.  But even snow can be beautiful and angry and peaceful and spiteful. And even in the dead of winter a little sun must break through the grayness.

I should thank the writer of the book I’m reading.  He taught me a valuable lesson that I couldn’t have learned from the brilliant books.  Now if I can just apply that lesson to my own work….

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Makes A Good Fantasy...

I want to post today, but I don't have much time.  The Penguins of Madagascar are about to come on and I have to go!

So, I want to pose a question to all of you...kind of like a discussion board, if you're willing to participate.  Perhaps you can give me some advice and suggestions that will improve my writing.

The question is this:  What makes a good fantasy?  (No dirty stuff please! Well, not too dirty:)

I've been wrestling with this issue for a while.  You see, there's so many great fantasies that I absolutely love (Tolkien for example), and so many that I just can't get into.  I literally read the first page and can't force myself to go on.

So I'm wondering...why?  What makes the great stories great?  And what makes the bad ones stink like a month old dead fish?

Yes, yes... we can talk about one has a good story and engaging characters and so forth while the others don't.

But my question is ... what SPECIFIC stuff makes the story and characters and so forth good???  And what makes them bad??

For example, I tend to get bogged down by the strange names people give their characters and places...names that are so complicated that I can't pronounce or remember (Sir Rogotheraen from Xyegenorax.  I mean, come on!  Why not Tim? Or Becky?)

Also, I get bothered when characters are all manly men, with muscles and tattoos and long, flowing hair.  

And then there's magic.  I hate it when fantasy authors have systems of magic with no counter point.  Everybody can cast ridiculously powerful spells with no downsides or repercussions.  Every point of confrontation or conflict can be settled with a magic spell that the main characters JUST HAPPEN to have!  (They’re trapped in a room.  Water is pouring in, threatening to drown Sir Rogotheraen. Then, all of a sudden, he remembers his “water be gone” spell!!!  Ugh! Kill me!)

I like it when magic takes a backseat to the story and that the best attributes a character has is their brain and heart. 

But this is just me.

What do all of you think?  What makes a good fantasy story?  What makes a bad one?

Ooops!  The Penguins are on!  Gotta run!

Thanks for stopping by (and the help)!

Friday, March 8, 2013

How It All Began: The Need For Writers To Change

A couple of you asked me to talk about how my story, Riddle in Stone, changed from the point of conception to the point of publication.

This is a long story, so bear with me.  But it also has an important morale that I think new writers need to understand.

You see, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, as I have often said. So one day, about six years ago, I decided that I was going to write AND FINISH my first novel-length manuscript.  After the better part of a year, I finished it.   YIPPIEE! 

I sent query letters to a bunch of agents and got a lot of requests to see it.   But nobody wanted to represent the manuscript. 

A few agents gave me suggestions as to how to make the story better, but I was very resistant to change anything.  The story, after all, was finished and revising it would mean making substantial changes to the characters and places—which were firmly fixed in my mind.  I loved the main characters and I could literally close my eyes and SEE the settings in which the story took place.  So I didn’t make the changes and the manuscript never saw life in publication.

At this point, I started to see the need to STUDY THE CRAFT of writing.  I read all the books I could get my hands on about how to write and learned a tremendous amount (I still am).

One of the issues that I soon saw with my writing was that my dialogue all sounded like me.  According to the books I had read, the style of dialogue should be so different that you should be able to tell who is speaking without being told.   My dialogue wasn’t like that.  All my characters sounded the same.

So I began a story at TORC ( about a guy named Edmund who literally just started walking down the road away from his home.  Every day, I spent 10-15 minutes writing a quick scene where Edmund spoke to people.  My goal was to develop a certain speaking style for him and the various characters he met.

I should point out that Edmund stutters partly to make his speech different than other characters, but also because my son, Alex, stuttered and I wanted to have a hero for him to read about who spoke just like him.

Anyway, I kept writing these little episodes…and slowly a story formed.   It was about this loser guy who liked this beautiful woman and how he wanted to become famous to win her heart.

In the first versions, which was called “All Mortals Die,” Edmund died at the end.  But that was really unrewarding.  The story just ended.  So I had to completely rework the conclusion.

In the next versions (now entitled “The Riddle of Iliandor”), a different ending occurred (the ending that it has now, so I won’t spoil it for you).  However, a publisher who wanted to read the manuscript told me that Edmund was kind of a stuck-up jackass.  He knew more than everybody and often showed it.  He also was kind of sneaky and mean. 

For example, in this version, Edmund sent a band of young adventurers on a wild goose chase through a great swamp that Edmund told them was merely a “brief wetland.”  It was a good scene and very funny.  I also loved the three young adventurers because they were so full of energy and gusto.  But in the next version of the story, the one where I wanted Edmund to be nicer, that scene had to be cut out and, consequently, those three characters disappeared.  Hopefully I can bring them back some day.  I think you’ll really like them.

So then I made Edmund kinder and more sympathetic.  He was still smart, but he was shyer and less prone to humiliate people. He was pretty much as he is now.

I sent this version of the manuscript around and another editor said that the engine of the story, the element that starts the storyline, wasn’t compelling enough.  In the previous versions, I had Edmund drinking too much and leaving home to win the heart of his one true love.  The editor didn’t like this. She said it was trite and flat.

In these versions, there was a terrific scene where Edmund wakes up the next afternoon in the middle of the road, miles from town, hung over and vomiting.  But, unfortunately, this scene had to go as well if I wanted to give Edmund a new reason for leaving home. 

I redid the first three chapters and toned down his love for the woman.  In this new version, he still loved her, but he doesn’t think that she’ll ever love him.  Also, he leaves town not to win her heart, but to find some sense of purpose.  He was bored with his life and wanted a change.

The second editor asked to see the manuscript again and read this new version with the likable Edmund who is trying to “find himself.”  She enjoyed it, but not enough to buy it.  She felt that the action didn’t start quickly enough.  She told me that Edmund has to get in “serious trouble” by page 50.

This meant that I had to delete two entire chapters and eliminate five characters and their subplots, which really weakened the ending since those characters played a big part in the revised conclusion.  I also had to take all of the backstory learned about Edmund in those two chapters and sprinkle them elsewhere.  This meant that I had to do significant revisions to beginning again.

So I now had a nicer Edmund, who loved the beautiful woman (but wasn’t obsessing over her every other page), was trying to find himself, but also ran into serious issues by page 50.   I should mention that in all of these versions, Edmund is middle aged.

My agent loved this new version and started shopping it around to more publishers.  But nobody was biting.

Then somebody suggested that I make Edmund younger. So I went through the entire manuscript and made him a teenager. 

I didn’t like this change.  I felt that part of Edmund’s charm was that he had “wasted” so much of his life and he wanted to regain his youth.  So I changed the story back to having him be middle aged.

Also, I changed the title from “The Riddle of Iliandor” (Iliandor was too hard to say and it meant nothing to anybody who didn’t read it), to “Riddle in Stone.” I thought that this title was more mysterious.  Also, the “stone” could have different meanings…literally a riddle carved “into stone” and a riddle of “permanence”—both of which apply to the story.

So my agent now pitched “Riddle in Stone.”  Edmund was nicer. He wanted this woman, but not too much.  And he was out adventuring for himself, not to win anybody.  Plus the action came faster.

The first publisher who looked at it (Diversion Books) took it and published as is. 

The morale of the story….

I think we (writers) tend to get to know our characters so well that they become more or less real to us.  We then become reluctant to make any substantial changes to our manuscripts, especially changes that will completely alter our original understanding of the characters and our story.

But we have to make changes.  Writing has to be fluid.  It has to bend and twist and mold itself into the shape that will maximize its impact.  Some characters—wonderful, lively characters—have to be cut out of the picture.  And some scenes have to disappear.  It sucks.  But that’s how it is. 


I don’t know how many times fellow writers have told me, “Well, I like it!  And if the publishers don’t, they’re crazy!!”   Or, “I’m not going to tailor my work to the tastes of the ignorant masses!”

It’s a shame.  These writers are stifling their literary growth by being enslaved to their initial vision of their characters and story.  They’re unwilling to see how changes can improve their manuscripts.  As a result, their work will probably never become exceptional or get published.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Calm after the Storm . . .

Well dear reader, a week has gone by since Riddle in Stone was released and, boy, what a week it has been!!!

I’ve been elated by good reviews and devastated by “bad” ones and afraid of what was to come. But, overall, I have to say that it’s been a good week.

The book is selling fairly well (not flying off the shelves by any means, but the numbers are apparently good enough for the publisher) and I’ve gotten more positive reviews that bad ones.  Which is wonderful!

It surprises me that some of you actually like my little story.  I honestly didn’t know if any of you would.  After so many rejections from publishers and so forth, I just figured it sucked.  But maybe there is something there that is worthwhile. 


Perhaps the most important thing that has come out of this week is that I’m starting to feel comfortable with the idea that I won’t please everybody. 

At first, it was very difficult for me to reconcile some of the comments reviewers made about the book.  Some people hated Edmund’s stutter and found it distracting, others thought it made him unique and endearing.  Some people told me to get rid of the inner dialogue.  Some people told me that they liked it.  For somebody who wants to know EXACTLY what to do, it’s enough to make me want to pull out my hair!! 


This attitude makes me a good husband (hopefully), but it hurts my development as a writer.  Evidently, there is no right way.  There are bad ways to be sure and I need to learn what those ways are.  But I can’t please everybody.  I have to do what I think is best.  I have to use my best judgment. 


Right now—at this very second—I’m actually kind of content.  I accomplished a lifelong goal.  A publisher published one of my stories and a handful of you appear to like it!  What’s not to feel good about?

I know that I’ll get more bad reviews.  And I suspect that, in the end, there will be just as many bad as good. 

But, RIGHT NOW, that’s okay.  I wrote my first book and that makes me smileJ

HOWEVER, knowing myself the way that I do, I am quite sure that as soon as I look on and find that people hate the book, my feelings will change. 

As my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Roush, said: ROBBIE IS A VERY EMOTIONAL BOY!!!

But as a depressive, I need to focus on the good days.  And today is a good day.

Once again, I want to thank you all for your support and encouragement. You’ve been incredible.  Seriously!  I love my wife and family.  But when they say, “The book is good!” I don’t believe them.  Hearing the positive comments that some of you have made about Riddle in Stone gives me some confidence that maybe I have something to offer readers.


So thank you all!  Thank you all very much!

Somebody has asked me to talk about how Riddle in Stone has changed since its first draft.  I think that’ll be my next topic.  So, until then…thanks for stopping by!