2018 Clarion West Write-a-thon

This year I’m again participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. My goal is to practice my writing craft skills on a series of short stories.

The Write-a-thon is a fundraiser for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. If you wish to donate to Clarion West in my name, go to my writer’s page and click on the Sponsor Lester D. Crawford button.

(You can also read an excerpt from my current short story project on that page.)

Clarion West Write-a-thon Badge

Bad Things Happen

Sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, many bad things happen. Sometimes, it feels like the universe is conspiring against me. At those times, it can be hard to work on writing. However, at those times, taking a moment to write can be a way to briefly escape this conspiratorial universe by visiting my universe where I am in control. That is how I feel right now. I’m going to visit my universe where dragons walk two circles and make little marching steps before lying down for the night. I will write the scene where Ladyhawk does just that.

Setup and Payoff

Tess of the Road book cover

Tess of the Road Cover

Another book that caused me to evaluate my writing is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. This story occurs in the same universe as Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale duology, but it is not a third book of a trilogy. It is the first book of a new duology centered on a new character, Tess.

Having multiple stories in the same universe is something I do, but that is not what struck me about this story. What enthralled me was Hartman’s use of setup and payoff. She introduces objects, cultures, characters, or concepts at organic moments in the story where learning about these items fits perfectly. However, the payoff is later when those items reappear at a pivotal moment in the story. Since we have already learned about them, the story charges forward without pausing to explain. I like the way Hartman does this. I, too, do this to some extent, but I could use with some improvement.

Twists that Thwart Expectations

Every Heart a Doorway book cover

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is a fascinating read, but this is not a review of the book. If you are interested in learning more about the book, look it up. I only want to mention one of many elements that made me stop and think about my own writing. This element involves expectation and making a twist that thwarts that expectation.

Trying not to be too spoilery, the scene occurs in the first act when we meet the main character. She is described as having black hair with white streaks. We learn that when she was in a magical land, a character there had run his fingers through her hair making the streaks. My immediate reaction was: Where he touched her hair, her hair had turned white. Then the narrative continues with a description of how the streaks were made: The hair that was not touched turned white with jealousy. Oh! That was an unexpected twist. It was simple, straight forward, totally violated my expectations, and it was wonderful.

I often think about the need for big twists in my stories (an example of a big twist occurs in “The Sixth Sense” (1999)), but I had not considered little twists. Is there anywhere in my writing where I make such twists that challenge my readers’ expectations in surprising ways? I fear not unless I wrote the little twists without thinking about them. Reading “Every Heart a Doorway” changed me as a writer. I learned a new skill. Now, I need to intentionally apply it to my writing.

Structured and Organized

Some writers say they simply start writing having no notion about the story. They simply let the flow of words dictate where the story goes. I do something similar when I brainstorm, but when it comes to writing a story, I’m structured and organized.

In my IT career, I was the same way. I would experiment by writing code heuristically, but when it came to creating a computer application, I performed detailed analyses and design — figuring out what the application would do, how it would do it, and what the end result would look like — before cutting code.

As I’ve developed my writing craft skills, I’ve become a strong believer in story structure. The approach I’m using on short stories is to decide on the target word count, determine the word count for each step in the story structure, and then organize an outline for the plot points. This means that at every point in the story, I know how many words are needed, which allows me to know I’m on target for staying near my word count goal.

The items in the outline can contain very little or a great deal of information, typically from my brainstorming sessions. For example, for a recent short story, the Reaction step (the first quarter of the second act) said, “Boy talks with Friend about his plan to slay dragons. Friend tries to talk Boy out of trying to slay dragons.” From that I needed to create 760 words. This is where discovery writing comes into play; and, magically, it came together. It was thrilling.

Often, as the writing progresses, more ideas reveal themselves requiring adjustments to the outline, but those normally fit. Story elements that occur in one area turn out to be useful in another. And foreshadowing events pop out to help unify the story.

I spend time every evening exploring story ideas, but once those ideas are solid, I find having structure and an organized plan makes the writing of those ideas fun, and I always know where I’m going.

Word Count Goals for a 6,000 Word Short Story

Word Count Goals for a 6,000 Word Short Story

All Writing is an Experiment

All writing is an experiment.

The judge of the success of an experiment is the reader.

The principles of storytelling have existed since the beginning of human kind. Our minds are wired for it, and some people tell well structured stories instinctively. For all of us, the quality of our stories can be improved by studying, practicing, and actively implementing those principles. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of flexibility, but the greater the outlier the greater the risk of failure. It’s also true that the greater your fan following, the more deviation editors and publishers accept.

I strongly discourage writers from harboring the idea that they don’t need to learn the craft of storytelling, that they’re free to do whatever they want, and if a reader doesn’t like how something is written, it’s the reader’s problem, not the writer’s problem because there are no rules. I say learn the craft, learn the principles, learn the rules, and then you can deviate and know that you are. Then you can experiment.

One analogy I use is photographic composition. There are rules to composing a photograph. Those rules are as old as art itself. Most people with cameras don’t know them. Some people refuse to acknowledge they even exist. But all photographers, painters, and other artists benefit by knowing and following the rules.

Image contains two pictures.  One is well composed.  On is not.

Christmas Rock

Christmas Rock
by Lester D. Crawford

My gift from Santa was a rock, a mesmerizing rock with swirling Christmas colors — silver and gold and red and green. I stared at its iridescence, drawn by desire and need and hope. The rock possessed me. The rock was all that mattered to me. Why had Santa cursed me with the rock?

Then, it hatched.

Out came a shimmering silver and gold and red and green Christmas dragon. Before he hatched he had bonded me to him, made me fall in love with him. Now I will spend the rest of my life serving him.

Thanks a lot, Santa.

This is my 100-word Christmas story for 2017.

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.