Duchess and the Anecdote

Duchess“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” —– Mark Rothko

They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my minds eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel toned blue stripes, greenish gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

What is that, then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply, as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogues gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the most noble of all serval cats, The Duchess.

An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing or interesting story about a person or an incident.

I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play and, without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

To tell a proper story.” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.

But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?

They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in a dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

Haven’t you sussed it out yet?

No… I’m scared!

Don’t be.” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.

Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?

Open your paws, let it fly off.

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.

Why?

Because you always simply address me Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.

Sally forth and be writeful.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

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The Island of Misfit Posts #1: Discouraged by Discouragement

When I sit down to write these posts, I never know what they’ll be about beforehand. It’s a first-thought-that-hits-me-stream-of-consciousness sort of thing. Sometimes they’re on point, other times they meander a bit, but as stated in the About This Blog section, the posts are less about me attempting to appear clever or knowledgeable (what are the odds, really?), and more about getting myself into a proper writing frame of mind with a warm up exercise. Mental calisthenics, if you will.

As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go to plan. Case in point: the post below. Inspired in part by Susannah Breslin’s Forbes article, Why You Shouldn’t Be A Writer, and Martin Levin’s, You Suck And So Does Your Writing–which is more about petty squabbles between notable literary figures (how I would have combined the two ideas is anyone’s guess)–it was meant to be a discouragement piece, you know, separating the wheat from the chaff, and all that, that started out like this:

Of All the Things You Could Do With Your Life, Why On Earth Would You Purposely Choose To Be A Writer?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question, but one you should be prepared to ask yourself and answer before undertaking writing in any fashion as a serious profession. Among the more common reasons I’ve come across in my travels are:

1. No commuting and every day is Pajama Friday!

I can’t fault your logic here because commuting is generally a nightmare and what’s better than tooling around your house in a onesie all day long like an agoraphobic superhero? Sadly, it isn’t a good enough reason to want to be a writer, especially since there other telecommuting positions that offer more stability and better chances at becoming a career.

2. What better way is there to make a ton of dough and roll around in my piles of cash?

Well, you could try your hand at playing the lottery or betting the ponies, for starters. Rich writers are the exception to the rule. The majority of people who claim writing as a profession, work their mental fingers to the bone, producing material for years before they even get a glimpse at recognition, let alone a healthy paycheck. Instead of rolling in piles of cash, you’ll most likely be rolling up your coins, praying your landlord accepts pennies for rent.

3. Nothing better than being my own boss with flexible hours!

Flexible hours? Been writing long? Writing is a huge commitment that commandeers your entire life with absolutely no guarantee of any sort of financial gain. As stated earlier, there are other work-from-home opportunities that are far more secure and come equipped with a steady payday. And being your own boss isn’t the sipping Mai Tais under a beach umbrella fantasy you imagine it to be. First off, there’s no one to delegate all the donkey work to, and your brain doesn’t simply punch out when the working day has ended. Writing–and the guilt of not writing–never leaves you in peace until the article/book/screenplay/project has been completed.

4. It would be amazing to see my best-selling book in a bookstore/my script turned into a blockbuster feature film/win the Pulitzer Prize for my groundbreaking article series.

Who wouldn’t want any of those things? While we’re daydreaming, I’d also like to be an astronaut so that I can save the planet from extraterrestrial threats, be the smartest man in any room I’m in so that I can solve all the world’s problems and become Earth President, and build a safe-box time machine–that protects me from any sort of injury–equipped with a high end movie camera in order to jump back and forth in time to make the ultimate series of historical documentaries.

Now that my feet have touched terra firma and I’m once again grounded in reality, I can tell you that while it’s great to dream big, fame is one of the worst reasons to choose writing as a profession.

But the post wasn’t really working for me because I could feel myself getting snarkier as the piece went on, which wasn’t my intent going in. So, I decided to step off my soapbox and kill the post. And there it sat in my trash for days, forgotten like Charlie-In-The-Box, Dolly, Spotted Elephant, and King Moonracer. But it miraculously survived deletion during my numerous trash emptying sessions. This had to be a sign. What sign, I hadn’t the faintest, but I decided to attempt recycling it into a less judgmental, more positive message:

Writers are born critics who will criticize any and everything that crosses their paths, especially fellow writers. They will issue their assessments and commentary with the righteousness of having had their opinions validated by the Mount Horeb burning bush. These are the writers who cut open veins and bleed for the love of the craft, whose skulls ring with haunting voices that cannot be silenced until exorcized onto the page, who believe in their heart of hearts that the only words that deserve to be written are the truths that need to be told.

I can’t lie, sometimes I feel the same way.

But I’m not as bothered by it anymore because I know first hand that the writing process has it’s own way of weeding out the fly-by-night scribblers, posers and pretenders with the obstacles it scatters on the long and winding path to a completed project. Whether your driving force is money, fame. to impress a person/people, burning need, or love of the artform, you will still experience your fair share of procrastination, anxiety, writers block, time crunches, lack of motivation, fear of rejection, judgment of peers, and impatience of selling a piece.

If you can repeatedly bash your head into these walls, get up, dust yourself off and continue to write, who am I to question your motives? That, my friends, is the best I can do fer ya, today.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Stories Are the Creatures That Forage in the Wilderness of Our Minds

“Stories are the creatures that forage in the wilderness of our minds. Their claws pierce our curiosity, digging in deep to prevent our escape, as they force us into their maw, past razor sharp teeth of conflict.” —- Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Tell me a story.” the woman said, book opened to a blank page on her lap, graphite stick firmly in hand and at the ready. The reading chair in which she sat was, what appeared to my eyes, nothing more than a series of interwoven vines that had grown from the lush green carpet in the center of the room. This indoor library of hers smelled of petrichor, the scent of rain on dry earth, which would explain the moisture that dotted the spines of the books stacked in chaotic fashion on the recessed shelves lining the walls.

I — I don’t have any stories.” I shifted uncomfortably in a small puddle on the carpet—that was most assuredly grass—as the woman took in the sum of me.

Nonsense, everyone has stories, some more interesting than others, but they are stories nonetheless.” she said, gesturing with a nod for me to sit. “Everything is present for a story to exist: a teller, that would be you, and an audience, which would be me.”

My seat—a normal metal folding chair with padding—was as much out of place with the room’s décor as I. A reminder, no doubt, that although invited, I was still considered an interloper. The fact that the chair was bone dry despite the moist surroundings was of small consolation. I squirmed until I found the position that afforded the least amount of discomfort and said, “All right, then… I don’t know how to tell a story.”

Ah, a different matter altogether.” she said, placing the book and graphite aside. “The act of storytelling is as old as the creative spark that burns within us all. And though truly great storytellers are born, those lacking the unique gift may still acquire the skill.”

1. Keep it simple.

The first thing to bear in mind is if you have the choice between a complicated or simple telling, choose the simple approach. As marvelous as the brain may be, it can become overwhelmed if it attempts to process too much information at one time.

2. Open big.

Next, you mustn’t be afraid to grab your audience by the balls!” the woman smiled, amused by my unease. “And never apologize for doing so. You’re familiar with the saying, ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression,’ aren’t you? The same applies to your story. You need to carefully craft your opening line to grab your audience’s attention immediately, and represent the promise of your story by displaying a unique voice and perspective.

“There is no going soft here. Your opening line should possess the elements that make up the story as a whole, told in a distinctive voice, a point of view, a rudimentary plot and some hint of characterization. By the end of the first paragraph, your audience should know the setting and conflict… unless there is a particular reason to withhold this information.”

3. Be mindful of your story’s spine.

“Stories are the creatures that forage in the wilderness of our minds. Their claws pierce our curiosity, digging in deep to prevent our escape, as they force us into their maw, past razor sharp teeth of conflict. But despite outward appearances, these beasts are only as strong as their spine.

“Your duty is to support that spine by arranging your content in a logical order and supporting it with anecdotes that raise questions to keep up interest and moments of reflection to show your story’s appeal. We, as the audience, need a reason to care.

“And lop off the vestigial appendages of tangents where you find them. Going too far astray will only lose your audience’s attention.”

4. Don’t alienate your audience.

Some subjects require a delicate touch. You’ll know them by their appearance and the uneasy feeling they leave in your gut. By no means avoid them if they’re integral to your story, but instead find the best way to craft the tale so that you draw your audience in before revealing sensitive details. Invest them in the story before you shock them and then give them time to digest it.

5. End strong.

Whether you end your story on an upbeat note, allow your audience to fill in the blanks, come full circle with your lead, close with a relevant quote, provide a brief summary, or wrap things up with either a surprise or anecdotal ending… you need to come strong. Elevate your story’s effectiveness with a great ending and leave them with a lasting impression. The yang to your ‘first impression’ yin.

“You should also give your audience the proper space to appreciate your ending. A mere sentence or two in which you take a step back and let the story meaning steep in their mind.

And finally, allow your audience to hear the door click shut behind them, signifying that the story is well and truly over. Everything’s done and dusted. Thank you for visiting my world, now it’s time to return to your own.”

Got all that?” she asked. I nodded that I understood.

Good,” the woman rested the tip of the graphite stick on the book leaf, “now tell me a story.

Click.

Sally forth and be writeful.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

A Penny For Your Thoughts: My Two Cents on Internal Monologue

 

images

I was talking to a friend yesterday about one of the housemates in this year’s Big Brother UK (how dare you judge me!) who had the annoying nonstop habit of thinking aloud in a random, babbling manner that made me sometimes feel as if I was reading her unfiltered thoughts. This, naturally, brought the topic of internal monologue to mind.

Whether you refer to it as verbal stream of consciousness, internal speech, or inner voice, internal monologue occurs when your characters engage in conversations with themselves, thinking in words at a conscious or semi-conscious level.

When used properly, making your audience privy to your character’s thoughts and internal struggles can add levels of emotion and intrigue that deepen your story nicely. But it’s not an easy skill to master, and in the hands of an inexperienced writer, the piece can quickly become a quagmire of unnecessary narrative.

Here are a few things you might want to bear in mind:

  • Mind your thoughts. The first thing to keep in mind–which should be obvious–internal monologues are always written from a character’s point of view, and the thoughts should match their personality and speech patterns.
  • Act first, think later. Avoid the temptation of beginning your story with expositional monologue. Sure, you’re eager to set the scene and establish characters, location, time period, etc., but you should consider capturing your audience’s attention from the onset by thrusting them into a riveting bit of dialogue, intrigue or action, before introducing the necessary exposition.
  • Don’t tip your hand, but don’t wait too long, either. You should never let a character’s thoughts introduce vitals details before they’re relevant to your story. Also, make sure you’ve provided your audience with everything they need to know before any tense scenes and definitely before you reach the climax. Never put a pitstop in your action sequence to sandwich in a bit of explanatory monologuing. Ick. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.
  • Back the right horse. If you have a choice between using dialogue or internal monologue, go with the dialogue–if, of course, it can properly explain pertinent information or convey the internal battles of your character. When doing this, however, there’s a trope you need to avoid, affectionately known as the dreaded “As you know, Bob” where one character tells another character something they already know.
  • Show, don’t tell still applies… somewhat. If you utilize enough internal monologuing in your writing, you’ll come to realize that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll need to tell what a character’s thinking instead of showing it. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
  • Everything you know, not everything I know. I watch a lot of martial arts flicks, especially the old Shaw Brothers chop socky ones, and a recurrent theme was of an undeserving young student turning his newly acquired martial arts skills on the old master. I only bring this up because of a line I heard during a showdown where the young buck is boasting that he not only knows all the old man’s techniques, but he also has the advantage of youth on his side. The old master shakes his head and corrects the younger aggressor, “I taught you everything you know, not everything I know.” This should be the same with your character. There is no reason on this green earth for your audience to know everything your character knows. Everyone likes a little bit of mystery and in your audience’s case, it’s what keeps them turning pages.
  • Thoughts do not drive a story. Chiefly because they’re a poor substitute for conflict. This is another one of those things that should be evident, since I assume you’re an avid reader. So think on the last book that really held your attention, I’m talking about the one you continued to read even though your eyes were burning because you were fighting off sleep. What kept you invested in the book? The character’s thoughts? The answer you’re searching for should be conveniently located in the “Hell, no” aisle. More likely than not, the things that held your interest–writing style aside–were the story’s action and dialogue, because they’re what defines your character best.

In closing, interior monologue is one of the more useful writing tools at your disposal, and if you economically pepper it amongst action sequences and dialogue, it should serve you and your story well.

Sally forth and be internal monologue writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

An Idea is Great, But it Ain’t a Story… Yet.

idea-lightbulb

Don’t you just love the feeling when a thought or concept tickles your mind in the right way and the longer you contemplate it, the greater the potential it has for existing as a piece of writing? And it always blindsides you, doesn’t it? On some idle Thursday whilst you’re hip-deep in work or chores and too preoccupied to be overly critical of it. And in its purest form, untested by experts, it’s a thing of beauty–this idea of yours–but as the title of this post suggests… it doesn’t even live in the neighborhood of being a story.

So, despite the fact that you were clever enough to have jotted the idea down on paper–preventing it from pulling a Papillon-esque escapeand attempted to workshop it somewhat, tacking on the odd bits of reality to make it less ethereal, in the end all your efforts amounted to were pages of writing that eventually found their way into a file folder or a desk drawer.

That’s because you haven’t moved your idea into the development stage yet. What you’ve done up to this point is commonly referred to as seat-of-your-pants writing. It’s all fun and loosey-goosey and noncommittal and some writers are actually able to complete stories in this fashion with nary a problem. The rest of us, however, tend to run out of steam, write ourselves into a corner, or worse yet, discover that our idea lacks staying power.

The workaround is to create an outline for your idea. This is where some writers begin to whinge that outlining is boring, it locks the brain into rigid thinking, it creates too much anxiety, and makes your story sound just plain silly. If you’re that writer, there’s nothing more I can offer you here other than a good luck handshake and a pat on the back. I wish you well.

For everyone remaining, before we get to the outline, I’m going to tear a page out of the screenwriters’ bible and suggest you create a logline (for more details see: At Loggerheads With Loglines) which in this case will be a single sentence synopsis of your story’s plot with an emotional hook to stimulate interest.

Why a single sentence? I think Albert Einstein summed it up best, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it and to prove it to you. I’ll create loglines right here on the spot, from the first three ideas that pop into my head, so that you can better understand what I’m talking about:

“After her parents die in a tornado that destroys her isolated small farm, an agoraphobic girl struggles to survive in the harsh wilderness as the frost approaches.”

“A wife returns home from grocery shopping and finds that her husband is married to another woman and her own children no longer recognize her.”

“A twenty-something virgin with a week left to live races to fulfill her dying wish to find true love in her small town.”

These representative concepts aren’t the best, granted, but they serve their purpose in showing how your idea would look explained in a concise manner that would plant recognizable images in your audience’s mind.

The first concept sets up not only the tragedy but also the protagonist’s weakness and the ordeal she must overcome in order to survive. The second is more in the speculative fiction vein, as normal events take a sharp left turn and create a reality-bending mystery for the protagonist to solve. And the third, while seeming a bit unrealistic and extreme, introduces the notion of a ticking clock which implies a sense of urgency.

You’ll notice that character names and details are missing from the above sentences, and that’s because they have no place here. Your goal is to introduce the protagonist (by gender and sometimes following an adjective and/or job title if absolutely essential to the story), establish their goal and set up an obstacle, preferably with a hook to answer the unspoken yet ever-present audience question, “Why should I read this?

If your initial attempts fail to net the desired results, rework the sentence, and keep reworking it until your idea sounds like a solid story. Once you’re satisfied, you’re ready to begin the precursor to building an outline by examining the overall structure of your story. The easiest way to accomplish this is by answering:

  • Who is the protagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who is the antagonist and what is their goal?
  • Who are the supporting cast and what are their main wants.
  • What are the major events and sequences and in what order should they appear to properly convey the story?

With these answered, you can safely move onto plotting your concept by applying the five stages of dramatic structure (see: Climbing the Freytag Pyramid), which are:

  1. Exposition – Where you introduce the setting of your story, the characters, their situation, the atmosphere, theme, and the circumstances of the conflict.
  2. Rising action – Difficulties arise that intensifies the conflict while narrowing the possible outcomes at the same time.
  3. Climax – The turning point of your story, where your protagonist has changed and their hidden weaknesses are revealed.
  4. Falling action – The conflict finally unravels and your protagonist either wins or loses to your antagonist. Also where the final suspense is usually located when the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
  5. Dénouement – The satisfying ending to your story in which the conflict is resolved—or not.

The great thing about this stage is you don’t have to fill these stages in any particular order. Not really sure what your rising action is yet, but have a lock on your dénouement? Jot it down. In fact, feel free to move around and provide details as they come to you. And give your inner critic a little free reign as you get in the habit of asking yourself a ton of questions because each answer you give is a baby step towards fleshing the whole megillah out.

After that’s done, congratulations, your idea is now a plot. In order to turn it into a story, all you need to do is…

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

PS. For anyone still reading this that felt the off-the-cuff writers got short shrift in this post, allow me to apologize and offer this one quick piece of advice:

Start your story off with that touchstone moment–a powerful situation–something that thrusts your character(s) into the deep end of the problem pool of an injustice or imbalance, something that possibly pisses you off in real life (allowing your rage to carry you through to the end), something that signifies there’ll be plenty of conflict and tension coming down the pike. And deny your character(s). No easy solutions. Let them wrestle with the problems in their own unique manner. And toss additional problems in their path for good measure.

(This is where you accept the good luck handshake and pat on the back).

I wish you well.

Unlock Your Inner Story

Skeleton X-Ray - Locked Mind

They say, “Everyone has at least one good book in them” and while I think book might be a bit of a stretch, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone has at least one good story in them. The natural length—the pure story without padding or the encumbrance of unnecessary detail or description—of which can range from flash fiction (under 1,000 words) to short story (under 7,500 words) to novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words) to novella (17,500 to 40,000 words) to a proper novel (over 40,000 words).

No matter how non-creative you believe yourself to be, your brain is nonetheless gifted with the special ability of imagination, and regardless of how infrequently you put it to use, you still are able to dream up intricate realities, despite your age or IQ level. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, projected a new reality in our minds in the form of daydreaming our desires? And no two daydreams are exactly the same since we each possess unique preferences, points of view, wants and needs.

Yet, even armed with the knowledge of this gift, we, as writers, tend to suffer because we either do not fully believe in or properly comprehend our true nature as creators. Sure, we continue to imagine “what if” scenarios but sometimes we find it difficult to allow those thoughts to flow through us—the conduit—and blossom into the stories they need to become.

The following list isn’t a step-by-step “how to” guide, because no one can tell you precisely what you need to do to access your inner story. You are a totally unique entity, after all. View it more as a broom to help you sweep away the clutter piled up on the footpath to your personal tale.

1. Examine your self-image.

The first battle you must face is the one against your self-image. You are more than pen and paper, more than a keyboard, more than “just another writer” or more than whatever obstacle your past or conditioning has placed in your path. The main reason why most writers fail to connect with their inner story is because of their limited knowledge of who they truly are.

As flawed human beings we are so engrossed with the perceptions of who we are that we fail to see that we are usually the source for the reality we have created for ourselves. Sure, the walls of the prison may have been constructed by events of the past, by family, peers or environment, but we continue to fortify the walls and never once open the lock–the key is always in our possession–push the cell door to step out into freedom.

This in no way suggests you have to deconstruct your self-image–unless that’s your goal, then by all means, have at it. You’re merely peeling away the layers of the identity you’ve created for yourself for societal purposes and exposing your core self, the real you. Don’t worry, it’s only for the exercise of writing. You can reapply your layers once you’re done.

Your secret identity is safe with me.

2. Take note of your gifts.

Different from writer traits–talent, the hunger for knowledge, and diligence–a writer’s gift can range from an eye for detail, to a flair for description, to a talent for dialogue. Or, you might not even be aware of your talents, so I want you to grab a piece of paper and something to write with and in 60 seconds jot down a list of what you’re good at. Don’t think about it. Simply jot down, off the top of your head, the things that come easiest to you when you write.

All done? Now take a long, hard, honest look at your list. The things you don’t concentrate on, those bits and bobs that just sort of come naturally to you when you write… those are your gifts. You’d be surprised to discover how many writers aren’t aware of their innate skills because they aren’t utilized in their everyday work lives and wind up being placed in the “Hobby” category.

3. Exploit your strengths. 

Since you’re bothering to read this, my guess is that you’ve written a couple of pieces already and maybe even finished a few of them. Now, if you’re an avid reader, you will have no doubt compared your piece to your author idols, and have developed the brutally honest ability to cast a critical eye upon your own work and spot areas in your writing that aren’t as strong as others. And since the writing isn’t perfect, you are therefore a horrible writer who should no longer legally be allowed to string a sentence together in an email, let alone write a story.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe you really are a bad writer–hey, they exist–but that’s not my call to make. I don’t know you, so I’ll assume you at least have some fundamental writing potential. However, no matter how good you are, there is one basic truth you must learn to face: Your writing will never be perfect. Why? As stated in a previous post: Because wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and perfection isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time. Still, you should always strive to get your writing as close to perfection as you can manage, and accept the fact that: It. Will. Not. Be. Perfect.

Maybe you can’t write a convincing love scene. Maybe you struggle with organic dialogue. Maybe you get stumped when attempting to create a character’s internal arc. Maybe you’re rubbish at tying up all your story’s loose threads. Console yourself in the knowledge that you wouldn’t be the first. A few of these “weaknesses” and more are true for authors of published works, some of which even make bestseller lists.

And because, as a writer, you are always a student and ever pushing yourself and learning new ways to hone your craft, you will eventually learn to strengthen your weaknesses. In the meantime, put all of the aspects of your writing into perspective, make a deal to stop beating yourself up so much, and focus on your strengths. They’re your “A” game.

4. Gird your loins against the enemy.

In addition to dealing with possible self-image barriers, there are other obstacles that can block your path: Fear, intimidation, procrastination, and self-doubt. The problem with these buggers is that they often take the form of lies you tell yourself. And they happen to be effective as hell because they insulate your brain from facing unpleasantries, in this case the difficult portions of the writing process that you need to slog through in order to strike gold.

The biggest lie you can tell yourself as a writer is, “I’ll do it later.” It’s a dishonest postponement because later never comes. If you don’t confront the enemies that keep you from your writing and tamp the bastards down long enough to complete your piece, then you don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Staring into the gaping maw of the harsh realities that terrify you is one of the most important parts of the process.

Slap a “H” on your chest and “Handle” it.

5. Identify your genre.

At this point, you arch an eyebrow and ask, “Rhyan, how can anyone not know the genre of their story?”

The answer lies within the fact that writers are creators. Some are resistant to the notion of placing labels or classifications on their work. For others, classification difficulties arise when their piece contains elements from several genres as some writers disagree with the act of limiting creative freedom in order to adhere to strictly delineated genre segregation.

For your audience, knowing the genre sets not only the stage, but their expectations as well, and puts them in the proper mindset to both understand and accept the rules of your story.

At this stage in the process, the importance of identifying your genre has to do with story mechanics. Certain elements step to the forefront and operate differently depending on genre, so you should be aware of the rules of the category–even if you decide to break them because of the maverick you are–as you’re arranging your idea into the proper story structure (see: Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline).

6. Plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story.

This is your story. First and foremost, it must feel natural to you. No matter how fantastical the environment, how outrageous the yarn you’re spinning, if you don’t feel confident in the pocket dimension you’ve created, there’s little chance of you selling the story as being credible. Your job is to take utter nonsense and portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

7. Go with your gut.

Some people seek permission to write. Thinly disguised under the “Oh, it’s just an idea I’m toying with” veil, they will ask family and friends if they should write about such-and-such or if this-that-or-the-other-thing would make an interesting topic.

I urge you not to be this person.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jerome Lawrence, “The whole point of writing is to have something in your gut or in your soul or in your mind that’s burning to be written.” So, if you can actually feel inspiration or instinct churning like hot snakes in your gut to write, forget the opinions of those around you, disregard the idea of “should” and just go for it.

Never live with regret, if you can help it.

8. Do it now. No better time than the present. 

To snatch a line from Pixar’s Ratatouille “Why not here? Why not now?”

By now you know you must show up for writing everyday, and there’s no time like the present. So, why not find yourself a quiet spot, practice listening, and trust what you hear. That’s your inner story talking to you, and it not only has to be unlocked but it must be accessible at will.

I know it’s become hackneyed to instruct you to follow your bliss, but if you deny your instincts to do what you truly want to do, then the problem becomes one of trust. Do you trust the voice within you or do you trust reality as you are made to perceive it? Or, are you willing to trust the voice and write what you hear, no matter how crazy it sounds?

You have to learn to be compassionate with yourself, as well as having compassion for yourself. Especially during the vulnerable times when you’re blocked and can’t bring yourself to write because you’re scared you’ll be rejected. Take some small comfort in knowing you’re not alone in this.

Since all art must be criticized, every single published author had to overcome fear of rejection. What you need to keep in mind is that your audience–human, just the same as you–can only relate to your writing from their own experience, and sometimes their feedback will be negative. That doesn’t necessarily indicate problems in your writing, and may simply reflect a varying viewpoint.

But fear of rejection has no business rearing its ugly head right now as it’s time for you to honor your inner story by listening to the words it shares with you and writing about it. Trust me, if you’re willing to enjoy the process, you can write damn near anything.

So, why not sally forth and be inner story writeful?

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

I Feel the Need, the Need For the Careful Build of Momentum

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You’ve finally finished your latest piece of fiction. Congratulations! Once you’ve stuck a feather in your cap and given your back a big, hearty slap, you pass your gem along to a trusted reader… and the notes you get back are, “the story feels uneven/ seems melodramatic/ lacks momentum/ becomes anticlimactic” and you haven’t got the foggiest how that could be possible. You made sure your writing has all the basic components a story of this type should have, so where’s the problem?

The simple and direct answer to that would be pacing, my friend.

Proper pacing is one of the critical elements needed to keep your audience actively engaged and as a writer you must develop structural and word choice skills and use a variety of devices to control the speed and rhythm at which your plot unfolds.

Here are a few tips to start you on your journey:

1. The most obvious momentum control is length.

When writing a tense scene—filled with action, danger or crisis—you want your audience to experience feelings of speed and intensity. There’s no room for distractions here, just the meat of the nutshell, which is accomplished by keeping your descriptions and sentences concise, and if there’s any dialogue, have your characters spit it out at a rapid-fire tempo.

During the times when you need to establish a character, place or event in order to build a foundation for your story, longer scenes with more descriptive sentences, character thoughts, richer dialogue and transitions, come into play.

2. Give your audience a chance to catch their breath.

Let’s say one of your strengths is creating sharp, high-tension scenes. You trim the fat off sentences, annihilate unnecessary prepositional phrases, and swap out passive linking verbs for active ones like a pro. In fact, you’re so good at it that it becomes your default style of writing. That’s great. I’m pleased as punch for ya. Your audience—not to mention your characters—however, will need a breather between high conflict points, which means you must vary your pacing by providing a slower, more introspective scene. Balancing your story with intentional calm moments also ensures your electrifying scenes maintain their power.

3. The devil—and a slower pace—is in the details.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that you should always plant your feet firmly in the soil of your story, and if you can accomplish this, it pays off during scenes when something extremely dramatic is about to happen. This is where you take your time and describe everything in detail so that your audience feels the full impact.

4. Remember the advice, “show, don’t tell?” Well, it doesn’t always apply.

Yup, I know, it’s been drilled into your head countless times and I’ve even written about it (see: Skip The Tell And Bring On The Show) but there are always exceptions to the rules. Tedium is the primary cause for this rule break, as your intention is to keep your audience’s focused on the important and interesting matters. By telling rather than showing, you can skim over unimportant scenes that you don’t want to linger on.

5. Become a master manipulator (of word choice and sentence structure)

You don’t need me to tell you that words are the tools by which you control the worlds you create, and those same words—both singular and in groupings—are your first best means of managing your story’s pace. But the manipulation of the length of words, phrases and clauses to control the ebb and flow of sentence and paragraph structures, isn’t the only way deal with pace. You also have allies in cliffhangers and prolonged outcomes.

Now that I’ve mentioned cliffhanger, you’re no doubt thinking, “oh yeah, naturally…” because as an avid reader, you know first hand that you hate being left in the lurch and will quickly flip the page to discover what happens next. Your job as a writer will be to introduce that uncertainty in the form of an impending threat, an interruption in the action, unfinished business, or a dangling peril.

Prolonged outcomes, on first thought, might appear to require a slower pacing, but the reverse is actually true. When you prolong an event, the story speed increases because you’ve piqued your audience’s interest and they’re eager to discover how the events play out and pay off.

As with all my posts, this is simply rudimentary information, and you will come to notice that each story you write has its own unique pace. Some will speed along fast and furious, while others will make their way unhurriedly to the end. What’s important is that you’re not only aware of the message your story’s pace conveys to the audience, but are also in absolute control of it.

Sally forth–at the proper pace–and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

My Mad Fat Brain Bug: A Story Box Full of Regret

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The damnedest thing can place a bug in your brain. Rod Serling is the source of one of mine.

It happened while I was deep within my Twilight Zone infatuation phase, in the prehistoric information days before civilian access to the internet, when I devoured every Serling-related book, article or fanzine I could lay my grubby little mitts on. In one of the pieces, I read how Rod’s widow, Carol, found a number of scripts and stories amongst her late husband’s possessions that were unproduced at the time.

And thus the bug found a home in my grey matter.

I pictured Rod in the final moments before he shuffled off this mortal coil, his gaze sliding across the room until it fell on the closet door, eyes filled with that unique brand of sadness only known to writers. Carol would remember that stare and later be drawn to the closet by a mysterious force that urged her to dig out a box buried deep beneath the material remnants of Rod’s life, shed like so much old skin. A box filled with his regrets, the stories that remained untold, that never found a proper home.

You don’t have to say it, I know that’s all rubbish. Simply me fictionally placing myself in the position of a man I never met. If Rod had any regrets at all, I certainly wasn’t privy to them. But that doesn’t make my brain bug any less real.

You see, I have a box–well, it started off as a file folder and grew into a box–filled with stories in various stages of development. Ideas written on scraps of paper, composition notebooks loaded with concepts and outlines, and completed stories that only exist in paper form–written pre-computer on an Underwood typewriter, circa 1950–as I haven’t gotten down to the laborious task of transferring them to my computer.

I don’t discuss my box much and I only brought it up to respond to an email I recently received (copied and answered here with permission):

I want to write a blog but I’m scared of being exposed and having people judge or attack me because of my opinions and I don’t think I have the writing skills to get my point across in the right way. What gives you the courage to write?

Guess what? Self-doubt and anxiety regarding humiliation and criticism is all part of the process and grist for the mill, so welcome to the club. What separates writers from non-writers is that instead of running away from that fear, we invite it in for wine and cheese. Befriend the beast that frightens you most because there’s a story just waiting to be revealed in that encounter.

It’s true that honest writing takes courage, as does sharing your writing with people who may not be kind in their opinion of it, but you also have to realize that it’s not your job to make people like your writing. Some people will flat out hate it because of your views (see: The Opinions Expressed) or your writing style, and because they may not know any better, can possibly hate you because of it. Hopefully, it’ll be the minority. Accept it as an unavoidable truth and move on.

As for the question, “What gives [me] the courage to write?” Everyone has their own reason for writing, and fear of acceptance isn’t high on my list. Sure, it’d be great if the unwashed masses loved my work, but the simple truth is all writing has its audience, whether infinite or infinitesimal, and if you never put your writing out there, there’s no chance in hell of your audience ever finding it.

The real reason I write is because of the aforementioned box. I just don’t want to be lying on my deathbed–hopefully many, many, many years from now–and staring at that damned box full of unwritten stories. I no doubt will have my fair share of regrets in my final days, but I’m determined not to have that box be one of them.

And since we’re on the topic of regrets, I recently read a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who cited the most common lamentations as being:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

So, while I can’t offer you reasons why you should write, I can tell you that most of the regrets listed above factor heavily in my need to write.

In closing, someone once wrote, “writing is like getting into a small boat with a wonky paddle and busted compass and setting out on rough waters in search of unknown lands.

Paddle forth and be regret-freely writeful.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Author’s note: Since I’m never at a loss for ideas, I don’t dip into my story box as much as I’d like to, though I occasionally slip one or two of them into or in between current projects. The story idea folder on my computer… that’s a whole different story.

Writing Style Is the Dress of Thoughts

Parsing prose. Syntactical structure. Conceptual framework. Your writing style is the voice you use to speak to your audience and is more than just diction and the words you choose, as it offers a glimpse at your true personality. It takes the literal and transforms it into a subjective expression that evokes an emotional response from the reader.

As to how you develop a writing style… you write. Write what comes natural to you. Write without worrying about acceptance or being published. Write without concentrating on influences. But you’ve heard me bang on about this already, so I invited a few friends to help get you into the proper frame of mind:

1. “A good style must, first of all, be clear. It must not be mean or above the dignity of the subject. It must be appropriate.” — Aristotle

2. “Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired. Be confused. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.” — William Zinsser

3. “Carefully examined, a good–an interesting–style will be found to consist in a constant succession of tiny, unobservable surprises.” — Ford Maddox Ford

4. “A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” — W. Somerset Maugham

5. “A strict and succinct style is that, where you can take away nothing with­out loss, and that loss to be manifest.” — Ben Jonson

6. “The hardest thing about writing, in a sense, is not writing. I mean, the sentence is not intended to show you off, you know. It is not supposed to be “look at me!” “Look, no hands!” It’s supposed to be a pipeline between the reader and you. Once condition of the sentence is to write so well that no one notices that you’re writing.” — James Baldwin

7. “The greatest possible mint of style is to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

8. “When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.” — E.B. White

9. “I am well aware that an addiction to silk underwear does not necessarily imply that one’s feet are dirty. Nonetheless, style, like sheer silk, too often hides eczema.” — Albert Camus

10. “It was from Handel that I learned that style consists in force of assertion. If you can say a thing with one stroke, unanswerably you have style; if not, you are at best a marchande de plaisir, a decorative litterateur, or a musical confectioner, or a painter of fans with cupids and coquettes. Handel had power.” — George Bernard Shaw

11. “Who cares what a man’s style is, so it is intelligible, as intelligible as his thought. Literally and really, the style is no more than the stylus, the pen he writes with; and it is not worth scraping and polishing, and gilding, unless it will write his thoughts the better for it. It is something for use, and not to look at.” — Henry David Thoreau

12. “People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Matthew Arnold

13. “Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage.” — Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield

14. “A man’s style should be like his dress. It should be as unobtrusive and should attract as little attention as possible.” — C. E. M. Joad

15. “The style is the man himself.” — George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon

16. “The old saying of Buffon’s that style is the man himself is as near the truth as we can get–but then most men mistake grammar for style, as they mistake correct spelling for words or schooling for education.” — Samuel Butler

17. “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.” — Blaise Pascal

18. “Style is the hallmark of a temperament stamped upon the material at hand.” — Andre Maurois

19. “The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules–that it is a living and breathing thing with something of the devilish in it–that it fits its proprietor tightly yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as seriously an integral part of him as that skin is. . . . In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and cannot be anything else.” — H.L. Mencken

20. “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.” — Katherine Anne Porter

21. “Style is the perfection of a point of view.” — Richard Eberhart

22. “Where there is no style, there is in effect no point of view. There is, essentially, no anger, no conviction, no self. Style is opinion, hung washing, the caliber of a bullet, teething beads.” — Alexander Theroux

23. “Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” — Robert Frost

24. “What’s important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” — Federico Fellini

25. “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” — Jonathan Swift

26. “The web, then, or the pattern, a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

27. “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” — Raymond Chandler

28. “The style of an author should be the image of his mind, but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.” — Edward Gibbon

29. “One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness.” — Gustave Flaubert

30. “To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.” — Jean-Luc Godard

31. “Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language.” — Cardinal John Henry Newman

32. “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” — Oscar Wilde

33. “Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being.” — Alfred North Whitehead

34. “Style is not something applied. It is something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found, whether the poem, the manner of a god, the bearing of a man. It is not a dress.” — Wallace Stevens

35. “All my stories are webs of style and none seems at first blush to contain much kinetic matter. . . . For me ‘style’ is matter.” — Vladimir Nabokov

And if I may tack on a few extras pieces of advice: don’t forget to take risks, give voice to that quirkiness of thought that you possess, avoid clichés, if at all possible, be concise and precise, and develop a keen sense of word choice.

Oh, and be patient. Style is a thing that can’t be rushed and it might take a while for yours to become evident, but you’ll know when it finally arrives. Words will flow easier, you’ll feel more comfortable with the act of writing, and you’ll be able to recognize that identifiable cadence that belongs to only one person in the world… you.

Sally forth and be writeful… in style.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Do Your Legwork… the Proper Way

Lately I seem to be coming across more and more authors who thumb their noses up at the thought of doing research, which makes me scratch my puzzler. Not only is it a fundamental part of the process, regardless of the type of fiction you write, it is also a chance to learn and grow as a person as well as a writer. The simple fact is, if research truly is the bane of your existence, then you’re not doing it right.

Yes, you are most likely creating an entire world from scratch, in your own image and the laws of reality obey whatever rules strike your fancy, but even the most fantastical setting must have a sturdy foundation. And that foundation must be built with bricks of solid facts in order for your story to have any sort of credence.

I personally enjoy the research stage almost as much as the construction stage, but I understand how daunting a task fact-finding can be, so I’ve jotted down a few of the steps I tend to use when I’m in that researching frame of mind:

1. Pinpoint the right questions. The assumption is that you either have a strong interest in or possess a rudimentary knowledge of the story you’re attempting to pen. And that’s all you need in the beginning when you’re plucking the idea from the ether and committing it to the page in the form of an outline. But as you rearrange the story sequentially and create scenes to flesh the idea out into proper story form, you should be asking yourself how you’re going to make the story mechanics work. If your story is a period piece, you should be knowledgeable of that era, if your main characters hold down specific jobs, you should be familiar with the basics of their occupations, if the story takes place in a different part of the world… you get the point. Your research begins when you write your outline because that’s where you’ll find the questions that need answering.

2. Locate your resources. You’re probably thinking this part’s a cinch as long as you’ve got internet access, and I can’t really argue the point. As I’ve stated in a previous post, the internet is the wise sage of our virtual village (see: Applying Life Lessons To Your Writing) but, as is true with a great deal of online content, the reliability of the source material found therein can be erroneous, so verify, verify, verify as best you can in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at a later date. Myself, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned in my approach to research and armed with my trusty dusty library card I visit ye olde public bibliotheca in search of books pertaining to the various subjects in my story. I only rely on the internet as a back-up resource if I come up empty at the library.

3. Make a treasure map for your gold. What good is that golden nugget bit of research that you’ve discovered if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it? If you own the book, sure you can bookmark or dog-ear pages, underline or highlight passages–but only if you own the book, please, marking up someone else’s tome is utter book sacrilege. If the book isn’t yours to mar, you can create your own index system by jotting down the book title, page and paragraph numbers, and a few keywords on the passage’s content. Then when you’re done info-gathering, you can transfer the text to your computer (arranged by subject headings) or to a notepad if you prefer to write longhand.

4. Create a vision board. Sounds hokey, I know, but pictures have that magical ability to transport your fertile imagination to all the unfamiliar aspects within your story and adding a visual component to your research and writing can help to serve as inspiration for time periods, locales, era clothing, vehicles, weaponry, etc.

5. Walk around in your story like you own the place. Nothing worse than a writer who lacks the confidence to strut their stuff within the world they’ve created. Even if that world is rife with utter nonsense, your job is to sell that nonsense as truth. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I wore a younger man’s clothes, but I haven’t come across it in a dog’s age, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Now, this doesn’t mean you should out-and-out lie to your audience, but if the moment arrives when research fails and you need to invent something in order to make your story work, you should endeavor to portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

All the rest of the time? You live up to the trust that your audience places in your hands by checking and double-checking your sources and making sure your facts are as accurate as they can be. Also, you need to keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you aren’t ever going to get the facts correct all the time, but that doesn’t give you a reason not to do your due diligence. And should you ever deliberately decide to ignore the facts, you should alert your audience either in the author’s notes or afterword.

One of a writer’s biggest attractions to the written art form can be best summed up as, ex nihilo omnia fiunt–from nothing, everything is created–but we owe a duty to our audience to make the lie of fiction as truthful as possible.

Sally forth and be researchful.