Sunday, November 29, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 2

The image above is the header image accompanying David Farland's #WritingTips I receive weekly via email. Dave has some great advice about the process of writing and the business of writing and I love receiving these tips from him each week. If you're interested in learning more from Dave, check out his blog and subscribe to receive free weekly emails as well.

With that out of the way, let me get on to this post about my experience with Story Puzzle Part 2: Characters.

As you'll remember, Story Puzzle Part 1 was all about the setting of the story. Where is it taking place. The world the characters will occupy. Story Puzzle Part 2 is all about the characters (or so I thought).

As Dave will say, "Characters grow from their setting," and that makes a kind of sense. You don't really what kind of people are going to populate your story until you know where they come from. How can my protagonist be a mild-mannered computer geek if my setting is a secondary world that looks more like a prehistoric Amazon rain forest? I suppose it could happen, but there would need to be something in the setting to explain the hows and whys of the matter.

For this lesson's assignment we were asked to do three things. Create a page of physical description for the protagonist, down to the minutia of things like the shape of their ears, the freckle on their pelvis, and the color of their toe fungus; State what the character thinks about when he or she is alone (and presumably bored) -- basically, where do the character's thoughts go when there's nothing else driving them; Write an autobiography from the character's point-of-view.

This was not as difficult as I thought it would be. However, since I was starting from scratch and only had a wisp of an idea (and no real notion of any of my characters, or my setting) I had no idea where to start. So, I did what I've heard a lot of writers talk about ... I interviewed my characters. I acted as if I was a journalist for some magazine wanting the "full scoop" on the character's entire life and asked questions. Then I acted as the character herself and answered those questions as thoroughly and honestly as I could (as that character).

Never before had I experienced what other authors talk about when they mention their characters coming to life. This woman, my main character, was as real to me by the end of this interview as anyone I had ever met (even though I know she's completely fictional). 12,000 words later, I knew enough about my character to complete the assignment.

Here's the thing, though. I may have been able to complete the character assignment with this single interview, but I also learned so much more about my setting while interviewing this woman. She elaborated for me how her government works, the monetary system, the way the apprentice system works in her country. All manner of things I would never have thought to ask about ... all because it was important to her daily life.

I don't know if I'll ever use the description part of the assignment. Yes, it is what she looks like, and I suppose if I have multiple POV characters in the book it might come in handy, but I often feel that my protagonist should be drawn a little blank (in terms of physical description), primarily so the reader can insert his or her own imagery into that role.

The "What does she think about alone?" portion of the assignment was quite useful. It helped get into the emotional mindset of the character--to know how she feels about herself and the world in which she lives.

Finally, the autobiographical portion of the assignment is basically a shortened version of the interview I conducted to get the information I needed for this assignment. It was by far the most helpful, not only in understanding who this character is, but also in understanding the world in which she lives.

I've gone back through and completed a similar interview for the other major characters in this story (ten in total) if for no other purpose than to better understand their world and who they are as people.

If I haven't mentioned it already, I highly recommend Dave's workshops to anyone serious about perfecting their craft. Find out more at David Farland: Story Doctor

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Million Dollar Outlines

Million Dollar Outlines Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holy crap! My brain is overflowing with knowledge. David Farland's Million Dollar Outline has more information in it than I can possibly consume in a single reading. I've made bookmarks and highlighted passages which require a second pass, just to absorb the total wealth of knowledge and information provided.

This is a great book, and one I recommend to anyone serious about improving his or her craft. Normally I wouldn't have picked up this book. It's cover looks a little cheesy, the "Million Dollar" part speaks of something too-good-to-be-true, and (honestly) I'm at the end of my rope with how-to manuals for writers. I've read so many, with so many fantastic (yet surprisingly different) takes on writing, I don't want to read another for a very long time (and now that I'm done with Dave's book, I think I'll stick to that promise).

The reason I did read it was that it was provided as part of the course material for one of Dave's online workshops "Story Puzzle" (you can find out more information at The workshop is great and has forced me to look at my story in a new light. The book, however, goes hand-in-hand with the workshop and offers so many tools to help improve the overall scope of telling a good story (we're not talking about the mechanics of sentence structure and subject-verb agreement here).

There is so much great (useful, important, inspiring) information in this one volume, I don't even know where to begin with a review. Perhaps I will sum up the biggest take away for me at this moment. Toward the end of the book, Dave discusses a writing conference between George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Larry Kasdan as they discuss the story which will become Raiders of the Lost Ark. According to Dave, these three men spent 9 hours a day, over 5 days, discussing everything that could possibly happen in the story. They had so much information, they actually had enough for two films.

One point Dave makes is that many new authors start with too few ideas, and the result is a weak story. His advice: brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. Create so many ideas to choose from, and then start culling. This will help you make a rich and fascinating story--and give yourself the time to do it. This has been my problem by far. I don't allow myself the time to properly brainstorm, create characters, plot, settings, arcs. Let alone simple scenes. I fear that if I'm not writing prolifically--I try to write a novel a year, and several short stories besides--I'm not being productive. But I never take the time to do these things. Maybe that's important.

This is a great read with so much information I recommend taking it in chunks and really allowing yourself to absorb every word.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm a slow reader. Maybe you couldn't tell that by my list of books read this year. I'm on track to read 30 books this year, and that's a lot for me. After reading so much dense material on the how-tos of writing, I felt I needed something light and fun, so I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the other day, and within five hours (spanning four days) I finished the book. I was amazed.

Now, it could be that with all the additional reading I've been doing lately, my reading skills have increased and my words per minute are beefing up. I do, however, tend to read everything out loud still (part of a habit I have for reviewing my own writing), and this type of reading tends to be slower than silent reading.

That being said, I don't even feel like I read a book. I feel like I watched a movie made from words. This first book is 83,000 words long, but it felt like no more than 20,000. I couldn't find a single extraneous word. Every single scene did double and triple duty, building or developing character, advancing the plot, adding humor, hinting at theme.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, I suggest reading and analyzing this first book to discover exactly how it is done. There's no wonder Rowling hit it big with this series. It's amazing.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor: Story Puzzle - Part 1

In the first lesson of David Farland's Story Puzzle (an online workshop I am taking with him -- I discuss it here), we discuss the importance of Setting in your story.

Dave has an different point of view when it comes to approaching story than any I've seen before. Since you can find this information practically anywhere online, I don't feel I am spoiling anything for Dave and his workshop by revealing that he suggests you start building your story with the setting.

Where does the story take place? What is the overall setting? Where are the smaller settings? If the story takes place on someone's farm property, will we see the hay loft as a setting, the kitchen, a horse stall? Things like this.

I took Dave's advice when I signed up for the workshop and began Story Puzzle with a fresh story -- something I had never worked before.

The approach of beginning with a setting for a story is foreign to me. I almost always begin with a character or some "wow" idea I can't shake from my brain. However, I think it's important to try new things, to break out of the box and attempt to find alternative ways to approach the same problem, so I'm glad for the challenge.

Without giving too much away, I have started with a Macro Setting (the overall world of my story) as a country called the Krása Confederacy, in which the country's capital, the city-state known also as Krása, is home to the corporatocracy government.

Like I said, this is a strange way for me to build a story. I have created all manner of micro-settings: a prison mining camp, for example, which hosts several settings itself (the prison cell in which the main character is interred, the warden's office, the bargeman's shack, the barge itself, the graveyard in the foothills above the mine, etc.). I don't honestly know if I'll use all of these micro settings, but they were fun to create.

By the end of this first lesson, I didn't feel I had a very strong grasp of the world I had created, or of the story that would come out of it. However, since Dave has written dozens of best-selling books, and helped other big name authors jump start their careers, I'm satisfied with with the knowledge he knows what he's doing, and I can trust his instincts and follow his lead for this story and this workshop.

I'll keep you posted as I follow through with the rest of the workshop over the next several weeks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting book. I read it based on recommendations from the Writing Excuses podcast. What I like about it, as the podcasters have said, it is (currently) timeless. It may have been written during the 70s, but it could have been written yesterday. The book doesn't date itself. What I also found to be interesting about it was the commentary it makes on humanity as a whole. Spoilers: we've found an alien civilization which has the potential of ... essentially ... destroying us if it is allowed to grow the way we, ourselves, have allowed ourselves to grow. Therefore, we must subjugate them or destroy them. The only other comment I have is how many adverbs stuck out at me. It could be a fad right now that writing shouldn't have adverbs, but this book seemed to use one in every sentence ... every paragraph at least.

Anyway, descent book. It ended a bit anticlimactically for me, but I still enjoyed it. It was great to read about all the different sciencey bits (that's a technical term, by the way).

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

David Farland: My Story Doctor

Based on the recommendations of Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells from Writing Excuses, I decided to take an online workshop with science fiction and fantasy great, David Farland. He runs several online and live workshops through his website at MyStoryDoctor .

As a newbie, Dave recommended I begin with his beginner level course "Story Puzzle."
The course is amazing. There are a dozen or so videos for each section of the course in which Dave discusses theory and story structure. He then assigns you homework. You complete the homework, email it directly to him, and he will critique and return your homework with notes. This is hands on stuff here.

Additionally, Dave hosts a conference call twice a week for students to log in and ask questions directly to Dave. He answers as many as he can within the hour time slot. Most of the questions, from the calls I have been on, are more related to the business of writing and very little personal assignment questions are asked. It's a great supplement to the course work.

Over the next several weeks, I will be following along with his workshop and developing a story from scratch. With each lesson, I will post my thoughts and some of the work I have completed during the lesson. I'll try to not give away too much of Dave's teaching style of the assignments he offers, as I think, if you're truly interested in learning from him, you should sign up for one of his workshops yourself. They are totally worth it.

So, stay tuned for more information about my time in this workshop. It should be fun.