Simple, But Exciting

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Simple, But Exciting

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story forward with clear, comprehensible language, without confusing or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into a fictional realm that transcends reality.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief—nothing synopsized, summarized or truncated—but rather articulate and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialogue. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialogue.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information. Don’t stuff various, complicated ideas into a single sentence. Give yourself permission to expand complex ideas into multiple sentences or paragraphs.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled page and I may be stymied. A misplaced or badly written chapter and now I’m lost in the arid wastelands. Where am I? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through that proverbial desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with your audience. Do not withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Yes, your characters can be mysterious, but no, your prose shouldn’t be. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume readers will meticulously ponder your words attempting to comprehend your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Maintain a precise, lucid writing style. Once again—for emphasis!—write in clear, precise sentences.

Three Simple, Necessary Components

A writer will also utilize three (yet simple) necessary components to successfully navigate a successful story—and you’ll continually weave these elements throughout your writing, like the spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order:

• Scene Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon your writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive wordsI walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos went to die. — enough to impart sufficient information to identify or intuit the whereabouts of your character(s).

• Character Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens or reveals the important nuance of a character. Not all at once, of course… but bits here and there. Character development often relies on subtle nuances—physical, emotional, psychological, unusual—all appropriately placed.

• Plot Development. Give me essential information that builds or strengthens the plot. Sometimes nuanced, sometimes with the speed and intensity of a runaway train. But keep pushing the plot forward. It’s as simple as that.

In each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t A) further the plot, B) distinguish a character or, C) ground the reader in time or place, those words probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if those words somehow feel intrinsically important to the story, look closely—they’re likely one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snoring reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

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The Vision Thing

eileen-blog200x200As the author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life, and as one of the three cofounders of Muse Harbor Publishing, it falls upon me to articulate The Vision Thing. This project landed in my inbox because my life’s work focuses on the exploration of new ways for people to be in healthy relationships with one another, and – by extension – with the larger living world that connects us all.

Perhaps it’s a happy accident, but we at Muse Harbor consider ourselves to be equals. We love each other unconditionally, and we treasure our personal friendships. Above all, we each honor the crazy, flawed, wonderful, brilliant, amazing, creative and unfathomable beings we are. We’re learning how to rely with gratitude upon the unique skills and talents that each of us offers without defining whose skills should be worth more. For us, being in a healthy relationship means the love will always matter more than the work; but when it’s time for work we serve each other as well as we possibly can. We do so because we’ve come to realize we need each other if any of us are to thrive.

Being in a healthy relationship also means we’re dedicated to serving you—our authors and readers—so you can get the most out of what we’re co-creating. We want our writers to be able to afford to keep on writing, and we want our readers to be able to access as many books as they care to read. Our low prices and high author payout rates have been designed to serve that purpose. We trust that if our writers succeed and our readers enjoy their books, we’ll do just fine.

When we sign a new author we do so because we love the material. We’re acknowledging that we trust in the author’s vision and ability to refine it, and feel confident we can add value to the project. And whenever you purchase a Muse Harbor book, know that we’re committed to ensuring you’ll be getting a book worth reading.

Our favorite motto remains: “No fun, no do.” We strive to discover if the trust, friendship and openness we’re fostering in our new business model will birth a higher degree of excellence than does the decaying corporate model, which thrives by provoking fear and stress in people to induce greater productivity…but at what price? Perhaps joy, passion and gratitude will prove better fuels for the engine of human creativity over the long run.

We’ve made it our mission to build a safe harbor for authors, yet we’re conscious of the fact that we’ve plunged headlong into the oceanic abyss of a new business model without protective gear, so drowning remains a distinct possibility. We don’t pretend to have all the answers for what makes a successful company, or what compels a reader to select this book over that one. But we do love to tackle new challenges, so testing this kinder, gentler business model makes waking up every day a joy for us all (at least most of the time!)

I hope these words have helped illuminate what we’re attempting to do. Perhaps, if nothing else, they may move you to check out the books we’re currently offering. For some time now we’ve been searching for a pithy way to describe who we are, and what we hope to achieve. How about this: “Buy a book; save an author. Buy two books; support a new paradigm.”

You can find more of Eileen Workman’s posts on Reality Sandwich

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Good Writing, Bad Advice

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. More good timing than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging Failure, the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” But if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to writing success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. I do have one significant bit of advice to share. My first shiny pearl isn’t a “what to do”—it’s “who not to listen to.” IMHO, it’s one of The Most Important Lessons an unpublished writer can absorb.

Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given, but I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of Internet Publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.
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Index

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when starting, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader, and what excites me as an editor who accepts or rejects manuscripts. Thus, these following notes may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice.
Rule #1: Finish your book.
Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody’s advice if that advice doesn’t resonate.

2. Simple, But Exciting
Rule #7: Write in clear, precise sentences. Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information.
Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. (Nothing else matters.)

3. Exciting, But Simple.
Rule #3. Write to please yourself, first and foremost.
If you’re not fully engaged in your writing, potentially dull and tedious prose won’t thrill readers. But excited writers tend to produce exciting prose.

4. Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice.
Rule #8: Keep characters in motion.
Either through action or dialogue, you’re continually pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away from action.

5. Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar).
Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule
(Active vs. Passive Voice).

6. Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14: Develop your story from A-to-Z.
Know where you’re going.

7. Where To Start. (Discover your core elements.)
Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story.
Rule #100: Get Over Yourself.
Creativity is often messy, incomplete and open for revision. Don’t begin to write with the assumption that you’ll immediately write a best seller. Don’t assume you’ll never change a word, a thought, a plot structure. If something’s not working, try different methods, styles, a new subplot or two. Have fun. If you’re not having fun writing, you’re doing something wrong. Perfection (as you’re about to discover) doesn’t exist.

8. Perfection.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist.
Rule #4: Do the best you can.

9. Action/Reaction.
Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

10. Show, Don’t Tell. (It’s still relevant.)

11. What’s Your Intention?
Rule #29: Your characters may remain mysterious, elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

12. Focus on the Now. (Stay in the moment.)
Rule #16: Focus on the now.

13. Hammering It Out.
Rule #28: Write one thought at a time.
(And don’t worry about the rest.)

14. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing (A personal aside.)

15. Finding Your Voice (Part 1) Find a style and stick with it.
Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

16. Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

17. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice.

18. Basic Plotting (Part 1): Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

19. Basic Plotting (Part 2): Plot Ahead.

20. Basic Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.
Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion.

21. Action vs. Information: The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts (relatively) separate.

22. Dialogue (Part 1): Writing Great Dialogue: An Absolute Necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialogue that—like narration—accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character or; 3) Moves the plot forward.

23. Dialogue (Part 2): Writing Great Dialogue: Balancing reality and fiction.
Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly.
Rule #39A: …but relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and interesting.

24. Dialogue (Part 3): Writing Great Dialogue isn’t about epic plotting. It’s simpler than that. Rule #41: Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens.’ It’s about ‘what happens to people.’ 

25. Dialogue (Part 4): Dialogue vs. Monologue. The key to precise communication with your readers is knowing when to use what.

26. Dialogue (Part 5): Writing Great Dialogue in First Person (POV).
Rule #45: First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality.

27. Dialogue (Part 6A): The Q. & A. page.
Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama.

28. Dialogue (Part 6B): The Q. & A. page (Cont’d).

29. Dialogue (Part 7): Attribution. The ‘he said/she said’ of writing dialogue.
Rule #55: Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during scenes of intense dialogue.
In other words, if you depict two characters attempting to diffuse a ticking time bomb with thirty-seconds remaining on the timer, they don’t stop diffusing the bomb to carry on a conversation.

30. Dialogue (Part 8): When not to use dialogue.

31. Confronting Criticism: Rule #99: Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and nonproductive criticism is crucial.
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