Sudden Inspiration

On Halloween, a news story led me to a NASA recording called “Chorus Radio Waves within Earth’s Atmosphere.” The sounds are the data recorded by the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) aboard NASA’s Van Allen Probes. It was supposed to sound spooky.

In the first book of my “The Dragon Universe” series, the protagonist is injured and abandoned in a forest, but he does not know he’s on an alien world. That first night, the forest is full of sounds the protagonist has never heard before, sounds that frighten him. This audio file flooded me with feelings of that first night. The challenge I face is capturing those feelings in words.

Talking about my Work

Some people say talking to others about your writing can be fatal to your desire to write, that your ideas will evaporate if exposed, your feelings of intimacy and revelation in the story will be lost, and you risk criticism that can have destructive effects on your desire to write.

They say you should keep your writing a secret. Tell know one you are a writer and never talk about what you are writing. And for those who do know you are a writer, when they ask what you’re working on, do not tell them anything.

The problem with the global admonition about talking about your work is each of us is an individual with our unique thoughts, motives, and inhibitions. What works for one person, may or may not work for someone else. Some people might experience the above problems. For them, keeping their work secret might be best. For me, the opposite happens. My friends know better than to ask me about what I’m writing. They know it will set me off into a long-winded presentation about everything going on in my head. I become excited. I become empowered. I become effervescent, bubbling and oozing, making a mess all over the place. Being aware of this, I try to restrain myself, but it’s difficult.

If keeping secrets helps you succeed, do that. If talking to your friends and family helps you, do that (if your friends and family can take it).

That said, when I talk about my writing and my stories, I tailor my lecture to the audience. For some people — the ones I know don’t really care or understand — I say little more than I’m writing science fiction/fantasy. For others, I give them my elevator speech (especially if we’re actually riding an elevator.) For those who already know a great deal about what I’m writing, I’ll expound on some new story world revelation or nifty scene that has occurred to me. With my first-line alpha readers, I share actual written words. Since everything I write is an experiment, I rely on their reactions to help gauge how well the experiments work.

Beyond simply talking about my writing as described above, when I’m to the point of having prose I consider to some degree finished, I trust my beta readers to help me polish the words. Instead of talking, I give them the manuscript to read and mark-up. This is an entirely different level of sharing my writing, so it does not count toward the admonition about talking about my work.

My advice: Do what works best for you.

A Cup of Water

Events early in my childhood left me with certain personality traits regarding food insecurity. I think of those traits as scars. Talking about them is intensely emotional, the memories bringing tears to my eyes.

So many memories. I’ll describe one. I remember being very hungry, sitting at the kitchen table, and being given a bowl of broken pieces of stale bread with a small amount of Karo Syrup poured over them. The bread was hard, but the syrup softened it. I vividly remember picking up the bread pieces with a fork and enjoying them greatly. I enjoyed it so much, as an adult I tried to recreate the meal. It’s not as good if you’re not famished.

I learned not to waste food. I learned to worry about not having food. I learned to take advantage of every opportunity I had to access food because I never knew when food would again be available. I learned that starving people do not waste food. I learned that starving people dig in the dirt for every last spilled grain of rice.

Where I live, the September 2016 report on food insecurity indicated 42 million people in my country were living in food insecure households with 13 million of those being children. With the political climate as it is now, I don’t know if that report will be produced again because it’s the kind of information the current administration does not want known. And when those same politicians talk about letting children go hungry because it ennobles them and makes them work harder, I become incensed.

These experiences inform my writing. All of my stories are touched. In one story about surviving the end of civilization the plot is driven by food acquisition. It’s a part of me I can’t escape.

Brandon Sanderson, in his September 16, 2017, blog post, “Robert Jordan Tenth Year Commemoration,” refers to Robert Jordan as the mentor he never met and how Jordan taught him how to describe a cup of water: “…a cup of water can be a cultural dividing line — the difference between someone who grew up between two rivers, and someone who’d never seen a river before a few weeks ago. A cup of water can be an offhand show of wealth, in the shape of an ornamented cup. It can be a mark of traveling hard, with nothing better to drink. It can be a symbol of better times, when you had something clean and pure. A cup of water isn’t just a cup of water, it’s a means of expressing character.”

This touched me deeply and expanded my horizons. The lesson about a cup of water applies to food insecurity. The difference between someone who grew up often being hungry and someone who never missed a plentiful meal can be significant: I see the difference between my son, who I never let go hungry while growing up, and me. Attitudes toward food are a means of expressing and exploring characters.

But it goes beyond a cup of water and a meal. It applies to everything in life. The haves versus the have-nots. Variations on life experiences and expectations. Different interests, wants, and needs. I passively apply these things to my characters now, but the lesson is to actively include these character defining moments.

I am applying this lesson to my writing, expanding how I deepen characters to give them their personalities. Thanks to Sanderson’s blog post and the lesson Jordan taught him, I have grown.

The Key is to Persevere

Step by step, I’m rewriting the most difficult sequence of scenes in the entire current work-in-progress. The task is difficult; yet, with each completed step, I feel great elation.

My struggle is caused by my mind’s rebellion against the perceived complexities of capturing a pivotal character’s shift from sweet and innocent to dark and malevolent while revealing key plot elements and setting up the story’s darkest moment.

The key is to persevere by chipping away at the task until it is done. That’s my short term goal.

2017 Clarion West Write-a-thon Finished

For my 2017 Clarion West Write-a-thon goal, I finished the chapters that let up to the plot point half way through the second half of act two. When I reviewed the outline and reread the previous draft of the last quarter of act two, I was excited, but decided it needed improvements.

In this part of the story, a new character arrives to sow destruction that hits the protagonist at the darkest moment at the end of act two. The character achieves this by moving through a change arc from being sweet and innocent to being wicked and malicious.

Since I worked on the previous draft, I have gained a better understanding of the protagonist’s Lie versus the Truth and how at the midpoint he began trying to change himself. As this new character’s actions challenge him, the wrong path becomes tempting again causing him to struggle to stay on the path he knows is the right one.

I will control the flow in this sequence by using story structure and a character change arc for the new character, in a sense treating it as a standalone story. This will bond the last quarter of the second act in to a coherent theme.

This will be fun.

Character Dimensions, Story Structure, Mind Map, Outline

Character Dimensions, Story Structure, Mind Map, Outline

2017 Clarion West Write-a-thon

I’m using my on-going writing efforts for my participation in this summer’s Clarion West Write-a-thon. My goal is to finish my current work’s second act hitting and passing the story’s darkest moment as I move into the third act.

The write-a-thon is a fundraiser for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, a nonprofit literary organization based in Seattle, Washington, USA, with a mission to improve speculative fiction by providing high quality education to writers at the start of their careers.

You may sponsor me by donating to Clarion West. On the Lester D. Crawford Clarion West Write-a-thon profile page, select the “Sponsor Lester D. Crawford” button.

Tag Lines, Log Lines, and Pitches

After attending a discussion about pitching to agents and publishers, I decided it would be useful to create tag lines, log lines, and pitches for all the stories I have planned for my The Dragon Universe collection. Doing so will help me focus on what those stories are and ensure I create a coherent narrative thread throughout.

For each story, I will write a description for the elements in the narrative structure. I will then add details as they occur to me. As I do this, I will create style sheets to define the characters and locations. My current collection of notes with its hundreds of thousands of words already contains much of this information, and more is still in my head. This project will help me document and organize that information.

While I’m doing this, I will also develop ideas for short stories both within the current story universe and outside it. It would do me good to write a few short stories different from the world in which I’m currently so deeply embedded.

Three-Act Narrative Structure
1. Beginning
2. Inciting Incident
3. Plot Point 1
4. Pinch Point 1
5. Mid Point
6. Pinch Point 2
7. Plot Point 2
8. Climax
9. Ending

Short Story Narrative Structure
1. Action
2. Background
3. Develop
4. Climax
5. Ending

The more I think about how much fun writing is the more I forget how hard it is to write.

Symptoms Instead of Causes

When I began this chapter, I was thinking the midpoint of act two was a big event in a chapter later in the outline. As I worked, I was also studying, again, character change arc concepts. An epiphany struck: the character change arc I had designed for this story focused on symptoms instead of causes.

While the protagonist’s three character dimensions defined in the story design are correct, a reevaluation of the character change arc revealed the correct Lie the protagonist believes and the Truth he needs to accept and pointed to this chapter as being the midpoint of act two.

Now, the 53,000 words that are the first half of this draft of book 5 need to be edited to apply this new understanding. This epiphany also affects the series change arc and the change arcs in each book of the series. Therefore, the 440,000 words in the drafts of the first four books need to also be reworked.

The net effect: better stories, after a lot of editing.

“You are not the boss of me.”

I stared at the Dragon, pondering his unexpected words, and feeling his aggravation through our bond.

“No, I’m not your boss. We’re partners.”

“You do not treat me as a partner. You treat me as if you own me.”

“You’re my Dragon.”

“You are not the boss of me.”

Draft Book 5 Chapter 15 Pages and Word Cloud

Draft Book 5 Chapter 15 Pages and Word Cloud

Inspired by Uni the Unicorn

Somewhere, I don’t remember where, while wandering about in my writing community, someone recommended Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. This is a children’s book for ages 3 – 7 years. My local library system has five copies all of which are currently checked out.

Following is the publisher’s description of the story.

“Uni the unicorn is told there’s no such thing as little girls! But no matter what the grown-up unicorns say, Uni believes that little girls are REAL. Somewhere there must be a smart, strong, wonderful, magical little girl waiting to be best friends. In fact, far away (but not too far away), a real little girl believes there is a unicorn waiting for her, too. This magical story of friendship reminds believers and nonbelievers alike that sometimes wishes really can come true.”

The story is lovely, but ends shockingly.

SPOILER ALERT! Uni and the little girl do not meet.

My reaction was, “What the heck!” The ending was not what I expected.

Scheduled for release on September 5, 2017, is Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. I hope Uni and the little girl meet this time.

I requested my local library system add the book to their collection. Recently, when I checked the status of my request, I found that, on by behest, they had ordered five copies.

Rosenthal inspired within me the desire to write my own children’s book influenced by the story-world in my current work-in-progress. My mind minions are already providing me ideas for the story and the lesson it will teach.

On March 13, 2017, Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away. Rosenthal wrote more than 30 books. I, for one, had been touched by her writing. She will be missed.

Uni the Unicorn and Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True Book Covers

Uni the Unicorn and Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True Book Covers

Planning and Plotting Better

As I near the midpoint of book five, I’m evaluating what I’ve learned about the craft of writing and about my story. I had written the majority of what is now book three before I decided the story had five phases that could each stand alone. Also, by splitting the story, I could keep the word count reasonable for each book instead of having a book the size only certain authors can get away with. One result of this decision was the need to rework each book to make their structures standalone.

Years of study and practice has increased my understanding and skill with story structure and character change arcs. Redesigning my story using that knowledge will improve the story, but the skill is not necessarily reflexive. To some extent, my innate story telling ability has served me, but to do better, I must think instead of relying on instincts.

I created a chart to help me visualize my goal of creating well structured standalone books yet have them progress in an overall series structure and to prompt me to envision how character change arcs apply to the books and the series. The chart isn’t spectacular, but I find it useful to stare at as my mind explores possibilities.

This is only a beginning, though. The next step is to document what my explorations reveal and plan how to pace the plot and change arcs across the terrain of each book and the series. How I handle the next step may become a blog post in the future.

Five Book Story Structure - Chart for visualizing story structure across a five book series.

Chart for visualizing story structure across a five book series.