Archive for the ‘Writing’ Tag
This week I thought we’d take a look at two of the most magical, and often forgotten, words in writing: What if.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up. I’m here today to tell you about two handy dandy little words that are a sure fire cure for writer’s block, plot holes, stuck scenes, wooden characters, contrived plotting, the common cold, upset stomach, and they make a heck of a furniture polish as well.
OK. So, I lied about the cold, upset stomach and furniture polish.
Snake Oil salesman pitch aside, asking this simple question can, and often does, do all those other things I mentioned. The problem is that far too often we forget to ask it. Particularly when it comes to our babies.
As I’ve noted before, all too often we want our stories written in stone. We want them to carry the same weight as the word of God. How dare those two measly little words mess with our genius? We’ve plotted scenes and scenarios that will shake the world of anyone who reads them.
What if… that egotistical hogwash is only true in one mind? Ours. Kind of limits the readership, don’t you think?
Now, it is true that a good story needs to evolve from living characters, and follow a conceivable set of circumstances designed to make the reader forget that they are reading a story. What if should never, ever interfere with that. As Steven King says, you must write the truth, even in fiction. But, there are times when What if can be a god send. And muses are notoriously lazy creatures.
All too often we will wrestle with a scene, or a plot hole, where we have written ourselves into a corner from which there seems no escape. We panic like a little girl with a spider down the back of our dress and contrive some of the worst malarkey we can come up with.
Yours truly knows because… I’m as guilty as anyone of doing exactly that.
More often than not, the answer to our dilemma is right in front of us. Hidden within the pages of our story. All we need to unlock it are those two little words… What if.
Let’s look at a few scenarios where What if can save our bacon. And maybe keep our sunny side up eggs from turning scrambled.
Our hardboiled detective has walked into a trap set by the mysterious villain. The vile miscreant has sent a red herring letter to the detective, and now his hired assassin has our hero right where he wants him. Tied to a chair with a throw away .38 special pressed to our hero’s forehead. Our protagonist is doomed. We could suddenly reveal that he was once the student of an escape artist. That he can untie the knots holding him, then jump up and knock the bad guy out with the martial arts he learned in China before the hitman can pull the trigger. (Yeah, right.) Or…
What if… the cute secretary of our detective, who we mentioned has a habit of going through her boss’s things way back in chapter one, finds the letter the bad guy’s used to lure him into a trap. What if she followed him, and just before the hired thug can blow our hero away, puts a slug right between the goon’s shoulder blades? Problem solved by an element already in the story, and odds are the reader never saw it coming. She unties our hero, and he is free to continue the investigation to its conclusion.
Next, we have a hero who has never failed once in the story. He never gets seriously harmed. And we get him out of trouble faster than he can get into it with a series of miraculous events, and saving graces we suddenly reveal just when they are needed most. Odds are, we’re boring our reader to death with a character who is about as deep as the puddle from a spilled canteen in Death Valley. And about as believable as a politician trying to get re-elected. Need I mention anything about Superman syndrome, or deus ex machina here? Ah! But…
What if… we let him fail a few times? What if we get him into trouble where he has nothing to rely on but himself? Suddenly we have a hero the reader can empathize with, feel scared for, and we can root for him because he’s no longer surrounded by an impenetrable wall of divine protection. He’s no longer safe. The reader already knows he’ll win in the end, but they also want to know he is fallible.
Lastly, and most terrifyingly, the computer screen stares blankly back at us, echoing the empty contents of our once fertile imaginations. The dreaded horror of a writer’s worst nightmare has come a’calling. Writer’s block. We can’t think of a single thing to write about, or even more gut-churning, our story is only half way finished, and the well has gone drier than the Sahara at high noon in midsummer. We is totally screwed. Or are we?
What if… we quit worrying about what to write and just picked the first thing that comes to mind? If you’ve read Steven King’s On Writing, you may have noticed that most of his stories have come about just because he saw something and started asking himself, What if. Carrie happened because he was helping the high school janitor in the girl’s room and noticed the feminine hygiene dispenser in there. Christine, when he and Tabitha stopped to get gas on the way back from Florida. Night Shift, when he saw a big rat while helping to clean out the storage room basement in a textile mill he worked at.
No difference. Stop worrying about how good it may, or may not be. Just pick something and start writing. What if… that cockroach crawling up the wall was part of a mutated hivemind creature? What if… The telephone ringing was a call to say you won the lottery, but it wasn’t the lottery you expected? What if… your barking dog suddenly began speaking English? And on, and on. Bye, bye writer’s block.
In fact, What if works better on writer’s block than it does in almost any other area of writing.
What if… this post is the biggest amount of BS I have ever concocted?
I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself. I try to avoid sounding like an authority, because I’m not. I’m just another hack trying to make my way into this business like everyone else. And I noticed a long time ago that speaking as an authority is an open invitation to cram your foot down your throat.
So, all of the above could very well be a steaming pile of horse hockey. But… What if… it isn’t?
Ah, the bane of every writer’s life; the dreaded revision. Or is it?
Truth is, whether or not a revision is a pain in the ass happens to be a matter of perspective. But, then again, so are most things we all tend to gripe about. Still let’s take a look at this necessary evil, and see what most of us are really having conniption fits about.
Most authors consider their manuscripts their ‘babies.’ OK, let’s accept that premise, and take a look at our stories from that perspective.
What would we want for our real child if we could give them anything? Would we give our sons and daughters every advantage they could have to succeed in life on their own? Sure we would. We would give them the ability to make friends easily. Captivate others with their charisma, and be popular. We’d remove every defect life hands them. Give them perfect eyesight, healthy athletic bodies, and strong personalities.
Would we piss and moan about it, if we could do that for our children? Would we complain if we had do it again, because what we thought was an advantage wasn’t? Probably not. Would we do it until we got it right for them? Damn straight we would.
That’s a revision, gang. We would do all that for our real babies without as much as a hiccup. But gripe endlessly about having to do the same thing for our ‘babies.’
The reason why is easy to understand. Our egos. We don’t really care about our ‘babies,’ we want our words to be holy writ. We want our genius set in stone, irrevocable, so it is written, so shall it be. In short we care more about ourselves than we do our stories. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be bitching about having to work to make them better.
Personally, being from the ‘story is everything’ school of thought, I don’t mind revisions. I want my stories to be the best I can turn out.
Over time, I’ve created scenes that I thought were the next best thing to Ernest Hemmingway, only to discover they fit the story about as well as your left shoe fits your right foot. They detracted from the story instead of making it stronger. I tossed them aside faster than the days trash and set to work coming up with a scene that did work. Sure it took a while, and I racked my brain for days trying to figure out what actually happened there. But, the end result was a stronger story.
Now what I mean by ‘what happened there’ is I also believe in having the story grow out of the situations that arise, instead of forcing the story to fit the situation I came up with. Which is exactly the mistake I made. I had this great idea, but it didn’t quite fit the way the story was going, so I shoehorned it in anyway. Bad idea and the result was a scene that was as awkward as a fart in a spacesuit… stunk about as bad, too.
Now, I’ll probably do the same thing again. In fact I’m sure I will. But, because I want my ‘baby’ to have every advantage I can give it, I’ll be more than happy to sit down and make any change it needs to make it in this old world.
It’s our duty, our responsibility, and more than that, should be our pleasure.
That’s actually the key to getting out of Revision Hell. Make it a pleasure instead of a chore. You’ll probably find the whole mess goes a lot faster, and is a lot less stressful.
Well hi there, brothers and sisters.
Since Aaron kick started me with the blog I did last week, I figured it might be a good idea if I got back to keeping up with my responsibilities’ around here. I mean there’s no sense in having a blog if you don’t blog, is there? The only problem is, I tend to run out of subjects to blather on about. But I’ll give it a shot and try to get at least one blog in a week… maybe two if I’m lucky.
Now you may suspect that the above title pertains to this blog, but it doesn’t. Instead the title is a paraphrased version of a question I have been asked a few times about my nearly finished novel, Wolfsong. It generally gets asked when the person posing the question discovers that I plan on giving away a novel that I’ve been working on and revising for the past three years.
Usually the actual question is, “You worked on this story for three years, and you’re going to give it away for free? For God’s sake why?” Or something along similar lines.
Putting aside the look on the questioner’s face at the moment, (The one that makes me suspect they have the local mental health clinic on speed dial and are thumbing the button.), it’s a legitimate question. Why am I basically working for free over the last three years? The truth is… I’m not.
Wolfsong actually began as something of an experiment, and a bet between my wife, Tammie, and myself. She had found a few short stories that I did ages ago and kept for sentimental reasons. She also discovered an online story I co-wrote on a renaissance festival site that encourages such things. Which prompted her to ask why I didn’t write anymore.
I went on to explain that writing was one damned hard profession to make a living at, and made certain to include all the negative things that I’d come up against back in the 80s. I might as well have been discussing advanced quantum mechanics with the Statue of Liberty. Not that she didn’t understand… she did. But, the poor dear has more faith in me than I have any right to expect.
So, just to prove my point, I went back to work and created Wolfsong. To be fair, I did my best at the time, and put every outdated thing I remembered about writing into it. Then, I tried to sabotage the whole mess by making the book a POD, (Print On Demand), and doing absolutely as little as I could to promote it. My evil plan was to be able to say, “See? I told you so.” It didn’t quite work out that way. The darn thing double crossed me and sold a few copies, (So, you see, I already did make a couple of bucks off the story.).
Ok. So she was right, and I was wrong. If I’d have known at the time such a thing would happen, I would have done a better job on the story. Now that I know, I am doing just that. I pulled the title, treating it as a rough draft, (And believe me, boys and girls… it IS a rough draft.), then set to work rewriting and revising the story. The difference now is, I want to attract some readers. To do that I need to put my A-game forward instead of just a half-hearted attempt to prove myself right and my poor wife wrong. I never win at that one, anyway. But I keep trying.
Now, I’m certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I did realize that the story had some potential to attract that many readers with no promoting. A couple even left me nice reviews. So I decided to put my blood, sweat, and soul into the story and polish it to a flawless diamond shine. Or, as close as I could get it.
I found some beta readers, a few critique partners, and let them rip into my baby with both barrels. If you happen to be a writer who hasn’t done this yet with your story; you’ll soon understand why Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a writer.
In the meanwhile, as I worked on the seemingly endless revisions, I got back into relearning the craft. My dear aforementioned wife presented my with a library of books on writing, and I began getting back into the swing of things.
All of this preamble aside; Why am I doing this? To improve my writing? Yes. In the hopes of gaining a larger readership? Yes. To have a chance of making a living? Honestly. Yes.
But most of all; I am doing this to provide what readers I can get with the best work I can possibly turn out at any given moment. I kind of think they deserve it, even if it is free. And win, lose, or draw, I will always believe that.
And now, the conclusion of The Assassin’s Daughter. I hope you like it.
The Assassin’s Daughter
A Short Story by Peter Burton
All rights reserved: No part of this story may be
reproduced, or reprinted by any means without the
written permission of the author
Sharing of this story is authorized as long as it remains
unaltered, and the author is properly credited as the author.
Ancourt arrived at the village with Galin’s warning echoing through his mind. Perhaps the similarity of the two villages played more than a small role in that. Only two features differentiated this township from the one they left a week ago. There was no tavern named The Assassin’s Daughter, and at the top of a wide knoll sat an exquisite house. Although not as grand as the home of a nobleman, its larger structure and detailed craftsmanship made it stand out against the modest dwellings below like a castle. No doubt this was the destination they sought. He brought his hand up and turned his mount to face his men.
“Take heed, you dogs,” he said as he brought his hardest gaze to bear on each one of them in turn. “Rowlan, Kynth, and Jerick will arm their bows before we enter. If this assassin moves to touch me, or picks up any item unbidden, I want to see at least six arrows in his corpse before he hits the ground. The rest will stand with me, and if necessary search the hovel for the girl should he fail to produce her.”
Ancourt paused to emphasize his next words. “Fail me in this, and before I die I’ll take as many of you to Hell with me as I can. Is this understood?”
“Yes, my lord”, they shouted in unison. Satisfied, the commander turned his horse to the road that led through the village and up to the assassin’s home. His reputation with a blade had been well earned, and his men knew it.
The richly polished door barely opened when Ancourt pushed his way inside and the serving girl found his sword pressed to her throat.
“Are you Synyata, daughter of Mordacye the assassin?” His question hissed between his clenched teeth.
“No. She is not, my lord,” the soft, deep voice came from down the white plastered hall. “My daughter is indisposed at the moment. May I be of assistance to you?”
The man standing at the end of the hall with an unnerving aura of calm looked no more the assassin than a duck did a pig. Neatly combed whitish-gray hair hung to his shoulders. The robe he wore was white and spotless, with gold trim around the cuffs and collar. His thin face sported no moustache, nor beard, and looked as beguiling as a child’s despite the age etched into it. His pale-gray eyes, however, did not match the harmless feel the rest of his body seemed to radiate. They held a steady assurance and subtle threat, like the far off dark clouds of a brewing storm.
“Mordacye Synon, I take it.” Ancourt advanced on the smaller man with deliberate slowness, his sword held loosely at his side. The assassin made no move at his approach, nor did he look anywhere except the warlord’s eyes as the soldiers surrounded him in the wide foyer. When Ancourt came within easy striking distance he raised his weapon in a flash of motion, resting the tip against Mordacye’s chest, a hand’s breadth below the neck.
“I am, my lord.” The assassin began to extend his hand, stopping in midair as the archers aimed their notched bows at him, and Ancourt’s steel inched closer to his throat. The hand lowered to its former position, lightly clasping the other in front of him. “Again, I would ask how I may be of service.”
“Your daughter has drawn the honor of serving the realm this year, old man,” Ancourt smirked. Once you knew of this assassin’s tricks, he was as helpless as any unarmed peasant from any number of villages they had conquered and sacked. Like an adder, the assassin merited caution but not fear. “You may be of service by calling her here to fulfill that duty.”
Mordacye did not hesitate. His gaze remained as calm and neutral as when the soldiers first entered his home. The man had courage, Ancourt conceded.
“Synyata. Attend me, my child, and bring my cedar chest with you,” he called out in a steady tone to the spacious, well-furnished room behind them.
A tall girl with raven black hair appeared at the far end of the room. Ancourt sucked air into his lungs through his teeth. Thin, but well-shaped with gently curving hips, and high firm breasts, he had seen daughters of noblemen who fell far short of the beauty this girl presented. Huge jade colored eyes rimmed with long dark lashes, gazed out from a flawless face, and for a moment he considered keeping this maiden for himself.
“As you wish, Father.” She moved to the old man’s side with the grace of a swan on a still lake, and set an ornate cedar chest about the size of a small market basket down beside him.
“With your permission, my lord?” Mordacye asked, indicating the chest with a slight nod of his head.
“Let the girl open it.” Ancourt edged his sword a fraction higher and took a half step away from the chest. He wanted this assassin to know beyond doubt that he was not easily fooled. He raised the sword more to see if he could shake the assassin’s calm, as for any other reason.
“Synyata,” Mordacye said without looking to see if she obeyed.
She knelt and flipped the catch on the lacquered lid. Ancourt came close to hissing with surprise a second time. The chest was filled to within a finger’s breadth of the rim. Gold coins and every type of precious gemstone known to man; diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires glistened in the light like berries in a bowl of yellow porridge. The commander almost missed Mordacye’s next words from staring at the fortune laid before him.
“All told there is a value of 300,000 gold pieces within this chest, my lord.” Mordacye’s tone neither rose, nor fell, but remained as calm as his demeanor. “It is yours in exchange for the life of my daughter.”
“Jerick, fetch a sack from one of the horses.” For the first time since they entered his home, Ancourt saw the faintest trace of a smile cross Mordacye’s lips.
The archer returned with a large leather bag that had held provisions at one time and offered it to his commander. Ancourt tossed the sack in front of the kneeling girl with a wicked grin. If what he suspected were true, this assassin would find the warlord’s sword exiting the top of his skull before he could react. Looking down at Synyata his smile took on a sadistic edge. Yes. He would enjoy training this maiden to serve him, in deed as well as bed.
“Empty the chest into the bag, girl,” he ordered. “But use your bare hands to do so.”
Ancourt tensed, waiting for Mordacye to make a move to stop his daughter from touching the treasure. A slight widening of the smile on the assassin’s face was the only change in the man. The fortune had not been poisoned. It could only mean that he thought his bribe had been accepted, and his daughter was safe. Ancourt would soon relieve him of that notion. Meanwhile he contented himself watching those delicate hands moving the contents of the chest to the sack, imagining how they would feel caressing his body instead.
As soon as the chest was emptied, he nodded to his men. While two of the archers kept their arrows centered on the old man, one picked up the full satchel. The other two soldiers took Synyata by the arms. Mordacye started forward, only to find Ancourt’s sword point pressed deeper beneath his chin, and the bows of the archers drawn to full.
“That would be a mistake, assassin. Unless, of course, you would like for your daughter’s last memory of her father to be your death.” Ancourt and his remaining troops backed towards the door. “Let me also suggest that it would be the height of foolishness to attempt a rescue of the maiden. At the first sign of an ambush, or any other treachery you can conceive of, I promise she will be the first to die.”
Ancourt had his men separate 200 gold pieces from the booty before they arrived at the door of The Assassin’s Daughter. Galin, the innkeeper, waved as they entered and hurried over to wait on the group.
“Ah, Galin, it’s good to see you again. As you can see, your information proved invaluable. Here.” Ancourt tossed the small leather bag of coins to the innkeeper. “I’m a man of my word. 200 gold pieces.”
The old tavern owner opened the small bag and whistled loudly. No doubt it was the largest sum this peasant had ever seen in his life. Ancourt continued jovially. “Now, if you would be so kind as to bring us eight flagons of your best ale while we await our dinner.”
Galin bowed repeatedly as he back away from the table. “Right away, my lord Ancourt. And thank you for your generosity.”
After Galin left for the back room, Ancourt leaned close to his captive. “Cheer up, little one. Things may not be as dire as you suspect. Some ale will calm you, and if you’re nice to me tonight, it would spare you waking up in a giant’s belly. We could always pick up another maiden on the way back to take your place.”
Synyata, drew back from him, silent tears staining her lovely white skin. She had not spoken, or eaten in the week since they had left her father’s house.
“No matter.” Ancourt straightened back up in his chair as the innkeeper brought the wooden platter of drinks to their table. “We’ve three months to travel yet, and I dare say the closer we come to your fate, the easier it will be to change your mind.”
As he expected the girl refused to touch the tankard, while he and his men drank deeply of the alcoholic amber liquid. He had to admit he’d never tasted ale quite this good, not even on their first stay. Ancourt chuckled to himself. It amazed him the hospitality a bit of gold could bring out in people. With what he had left, he could bribe his way into a baronship, with plenty to spare. He would have to rid himself of the louts accompanying him, of course, but there was time enough for that. Once they neared the safety of the capitol, he could dispose of his men and make up any story he liked. None but he and the girl would know of the treasure, and by then she would be obedient to him alone or a feast for the giants.
This was damn fine ale; he could feel the beginnings of numbness forming around his lips from the alcohol. They would have to be careful, or they’d all wind up too stinking drunk to properly watch their prize. Still, one more tankard couldn’t hurt. Ancourt tried to raise his arm to signal for another round. The limb lay lifeless on the oak table, as though it no longer belonged to him. Only his eyes remained his to command, and he glanced about, noticing that all of his soldiers sat as still as statues.
Galin came into view and held his hand out to Synyata. As she arose from the table he spoke.
“Lord Mordacye regrets that he could not offer you any refreshment while you were a guest in his home. He knew you would never accept. He also regrets that you have had to be inconvenienced with the burden of his gold, and daughter. In compensation, he sent a barrel of his best ale ahead for you to enjoy.”
As he led the girl to the door, Galin turned and smiled. “I did warn you, my lord. Mordacye is a devious man. All the members of the assassin’s guild are devious men. Even me.”