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.

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.