Side stories and tangents

Yes, dear reader, I’ve been editing again. And editing has gotten me thinking.

Sometimes a book has too many b, c, d, etc. stories. If you have too many side stories and tangents, it’s easy for a reader to get lost. But sometimes there are too few. Some stories are pretty relentless in following a particular line, or heading for a particular event or ‘moral’. If you have too few, it’s easy for a reader to get bored or irritated with the story. Bored and/or irritated readers put down books and don’t pick them up again unless they have to, not a fate I’d choose for my work.

People aren’t usually ‘one note wonders’

They aren’t. Real people and believable characters have things going on in their lives, even secondary characters and the person in the drive-through window. Characters and actual people have interests and challenges. That’s part of what makes them real, believable, and engaging. We as writers benefit from this.

Depressed people often give up on pleasurable activities. You can show your characters falling into depression as he/she/whatever gives up pleasures and interactions in the story and focuses on depression. The same thing happens with your obsessive characters.

People can’t be everywhere and see everything. But sometimes your reader needs to know things that the hero or villain doesn’t (or can’t). The knowledge helps the reader feel like an insider. Sometimes it’s best delivered in a side story, something a secondary character sees, hears, or does that might not seem important now, but is vital later.

Side stories can both help and hinder. They provide opportunities for characterization and reader knowledge. They add length and depth to stories. They also add complexity, which can make them harder to read and manage.

How much is too much? How much is not enough?

The answers depend on your story, your writing style and your intended audience. The simple answers are that you want the right amount for your readers; enough side story to make the book interesting and achieve your goals in a manner that’s appropriate for your audience without confusing your audience, your story, or your own editing efforts.

As the writer/creator, it’s easier for you to keep track of all the side bits (the ones you did or didn’t write). You know the stories you write; your readers only know what you tell them. So, it helps to listen to a little feedback and advice from someone else who’s read it. It also helps to give your story a rest between writing and editing (link) and to read and edit from the perspective of a reader not an author.

Focus your wanderings

The purpose of side stories and tangents within a work of fiction (or non-fiction) is to support the major story you’re telling. You might also be supporting a larger series or world building, but the purpose of the side stories and tangents within the text you’re writing is first and foremost to support the story you’re telling in the moment. If they’re not, it’s time for a good hard think about them: how to change them to support the story you’re telling or whether it’s better to cut them (I know, it hurts). Remember, the bits you cut off from this story can be saved and reused elsewhere. They might even be the basis for a new story all by themselves!

Good luck with your stories dear reader, all your stories. I’ll be working on mine and I’ll see you next post.

Live event, laughs, and lessons

(Note this post also appears at Words Mean Stuff under a slightly different title…)

Well, I survived! Besides a family reunion, I spent a weekend at a live tabletop gaming event. I have to say it went well, but there are always interesting bits and moments.

(For those who might wonder I’ll call it ‘almost D&D’. The game ran using Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition open gaming license material and material from the world of my stories, so I’m not allowed to say it’s compatible with Dungeons and Dragons)  

Here are a few thoughts from the big game

Plans vs what actually happens

When you’re doing a live game, you might (you should) have a plan. If you’re running the game, you should have that plan before the game starts. But people and dice just don’t do what you planned on them doing.

In our live event, the least experienced player at the table cracked a mystery that had the more experienced players stumped. She put together two honestly unrelated pieces of information and came up with an answer that sent the players in a completely different direction than I’d expected. As a result, two players used magic I’d provided to cope with other situations to go prospecting on the ceiling of a giant cavern!

In reality, it was at least partly my fault. I substituted a pair of vampire spawn for a pair of other monsters because I realized the initial encounter would be too tough. That got the new player thinking about the Twilight books, and that jumped to the actual purpose of an ancient machine. And that led to ceiling prospecting…

If you’re running the game, and usually as a player, it’s good to have a plan. But like they say, you make a plan so you know what won’t happen. But therein lies the fun!

The fun and growth are in what you didn’t expect

One of our players is trying to understand improvisation, comedy, and what makes things fun and or funny. I gotta say we had a lot of laughs during the game. Much of the fun and challenge came from players looking at things differently, finding their expectations challenged and finding novel (and humorous) solutions. We had a few laughs based on stuff I threw in too, but it took us working as a group, but not agreeing or seeing things the same way, to make it successful.

Things really get going when the unexpected stacks… First one player (who really gets into character) decided she had an ethical issue with killing orcish women and children. Then, the players decide (correctly) that the only way forward is through the heart of the orc lair. Then, one player forgets a few key points in the plan… The result is most of the party hiding in a bedroom laughing and cringing at the same time while our rouge/druid is running around pretending to be an orcish child throwing smoke bombs, ticking off the adult orcs and trying to figure out how to get past orcs that now surround her to get back to the rest of the party. All the while our fighter is trying to figure out how to get to an orcish smith on the far side of all the action and everyone’s ignoring the one door that would actually lead the party out of this mess.

There were more situations like that. Our player is analyzing recordings of the session trying to figure out what happened and what made it funny. I’m not sure what he’ll do with the information but I can assure him the humor was in the players succeeding despite themselves.

Shared creation and intellectual property

The adventure was fun. It was funny. It was also built in a world I created and recorded for one of my player’s research. But, that’s where we get into problems (or we can if we’re not careful). The world, the adventure, the characters, the research: it’s all intellectual property. Some of it is mine and some of it isn’t.

As an author and researcher, I’m big on intellectual property. It takes time to create quality stuff, and it’s not right for someone else to just come in and take it. For some players that might not be a problem. But, a lot of my players are also writers, researchers, and other ‘creative types’. How do we create together (as one does in roleplaying game) without stepping on toes or stealing ideas?

Well, first we make expectations clear. My players know that my world is the one I write my stories in, and that I protect my copyright to that world and materials in it. At the same time, I set out at the forefront that I will not use their characters or ideas without permission. For my comedy researcher player, that means he can come up with ideas and theories based on what happened but he doesn’t get to borrow my material or the other player’s characters without the permission of the creator.

Second, we practice what we preach. We actually enforce the rules and expectations we set up in the beginning. People learn and follow the rules. (Note: the worky-icky parts of intellectual property and copyright aren’t the point of the post so I’ll save them for another time). We teach and practice respect for each other and our intellectual property, and handle problems before they get big.

Do it again?

Would I do it all again? Yes, I want to. There’s much more to my world that one weekend’s worth of adventure, and more to my players stories than we covered. At the moment I’m passing the mantle of DM to one of the others, who also has a bouncing baby campaign to run, and taking a break from running the world while I get some other writing done. But I will be back. The live events will be back. And I’ll be talking about them here.

One reason I do games and not just books is that stories and storytelling are not meant to be a “one person in a room” process. Playing and creating with others helps keep me in contact with the human element.

Speaking of the human element… Now that I’m home I’d better give my lawn some attention so the neighbor can stop throwing fits… Good luck with your lives and creations dear reader. Stay strong. And, I’ll see you next post!

Postscript: less than 12 hours after the initial writing of this post the group was already working on dates for next year’s live event… (Told you it would happen…)

Life happens…

I had wonderful posts planned for this week and next week, unfortunately… next week’s live event is veering dangerously off course, multiple church and family projects are going sideways, and my blood sugar is kinda like an over-caffeinated six-year-old in a bouncy castle.

I could put out the posts as planned. I can punch things through like that. What I can’t do is produce quality posts while bringing the live event under control, bringing my blood sugar under control, helping the clerks get the audits done, and handling the logistics for the family get together; while also convincing my brother-in-law that covid isn’t turning people into were-bats, convincing my sister-in-law that the covid vaccine isn’t turning people into Pakistani terrorist trained Paraguayan stormtroopers from mars, and simultaneously being part of another family member’s 12-step process.

Bring one or two of those things under control and sure, I can do the research and put out best effort posts you (my readers) deserve. But that’s not where things are at this week. So, for now dear reader enjoy the summer, enjoy the Fourth of July and the freedom our constitution promises us, and I’ll see you next post (hopefully July 9th and with no recovering-bat/stormtrooper/Martian/whatever-they-ares)

No busywork!

In my college days, I had roommates. Occasionally I learned something from them. I definitely learned that you can look very, very busy without actually doing anything….

I’ve also had my share of substitute teachers. Most of them seemed to operate under the theory of “just keep ‘em busy”. I’ve never met anyone that like a sub’s busy work. But it honestly wasn’t as bad as the busy work we give ourselves.

Busywork vs mundane work

Busywork isn’t mundane work. Mundane work is the less than exciting stuff we have to do in order to do the other stuff: the fun stuff, the exciting stuff, our real work. Busywork is working for the sake of working.

The mundane stuff isn’t exciting but at least it has a purpose. By expending time and energy doing it, we move ourselves toward our bigger goals (or at least we should do that…). Busy work doesn’t get us anywhere. Unless our goal is to look busy doing nothing worthwhile… (and why do that).

Question the mundane stuff too (being busy vs being productive)

We need to watch that mundane stuff too… Sure, it’s not overtly pointless. But is it really getting us anywhere, or are we just doing it because we usually do? Are we doing it to avoid doing something else? If we’re doing it to avoid something, or ‘just because’, we’re back in the realm of busywork and that’s not really getting us anywhere.

The mundane stuff might advance our goals but there might be a better, and faster way to do it…

Do you have to do it yourself? Many of us accept that it’s cheaper to cook at home (for a lot of things it might be). We’re paying with our time and effort rather than money. Sometimes that makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. But what about pasta?

I can get a box of spaghetti for about a buck. If all I want is one box, or less, of spaghetti noodles, the time and effort I’ll to put into making pasta probably adds up to more that a dollar. In which case, buy the box and get on with your life. On the other hand, if you love your grandma’s home-made spaghetti, you can’t buy that in a box. It may be worth the time and effort to make. (Note: This is just the pasta… Sauce is a whole ‘nother subject…)

You might hire someone to do the mundane stuff. I know a guy who loves numbers and really enjoys balancing checkbooks and what not. He’s an accountant. I like numbers, but I have other interests and skills he doesn’t have. It’s better for me to pay the accountant to do the accounting stuff and I’ll handle the world creating writing stuff and behavioral therapy with teens and tweens stuff. It works out better for both of us that way. (I don’t like the numbers that much, and he doesn’t ‘interface well’ with teenagers)

Are you using the right tool? I have a hand drill. I also have a power drill. And a drill press. And a flex shaft. And two (2) hand held micro motors. Many of their capabilities overlap. But I still have to choose the right tool for the right job. If drag out my three-inch hole saw and try to cut lath and plaster with a micro-motor, it burns out. The drill press doesn’t fit the situation either… On the other hand, I can do more precise depth cuts with the drill press and finer sanding and polishing with the micro motors. You can save a lot of time and energy just by using the right tool.

Mundane doesn’t mean busy work. But you still have to question the mundane work’s value.

Failing ‘safely’ versus succeeding

Some of us hyper-focus on mundane work, or dive into busywork, because helps avoid risk. It’s safer. Or at least it feels safer. But often the safer path doesn’t really lead anywhere. 

I’ve never gotten a date by not ‘putting myself out there’. (I wasn’t always the one to ask, but I had to at least put myself into a place to be asked) Top tier publishers aren’t breaking down my door begging to publish stuff I haven’t sent out yet. (Maybe Steven King has experienced that but I certainly haven’t) Generally, to succeed you have to risk something. There’s a cost to be paid either way; the risk is that the cost is higher than the payback. Of course, if your goal is to avoid risk, you can do that. At the cost of not achieving anything else (and you may still fail… Doing nothing entails the (fairly strong) risk that the world will move along without you!).

We need to do the mundane stuff. It helps us keep going. There’s boring stuff that’s needed for life to function. But when we focus on the mundane stuff to avoid risk, that’s a warning sign. It’s time to give thought to what we’re really doing and what our goals are.

Do what needs to be done (when it’s needed)

Sometimes we need to do the safe, boring stuff. Sometimes it’s time for excitement. Sometimes it’s time to roll the dice. Sometimes we get to do what we really want to do. Knowing when to do what is key to success.

How do we know when to do stuff? A big step is knowing why we do what we do. Why does what we’re doing matter? What benefit does it give us? How does it move our goals forward? If we don’t know, we’d better figure it out. If it doesn’t move our goals forward, we should do something else!

That’s it for this one, dear reader. Seek after your goals, dear reader. Do the stuff that really matters. And, I’ll see you next post.

Writing group: Success

This week, here and at Words Mean Stuff , I’m sharing a bit about the writing group I’m working with. In this post, we’re talking about the experience from the perspective of someone who’s work is being critiqued. Some say it’s better to give than to receive. Well, that depends on what’s being given and received. And, sometimes it’s better to do both.

The pain

We put a lot of work into our writing (if we’re serious about it at least). Often, it’s fair to call it a passion, or labor of love (for those of us who’ve moved beyond our “I have to write this paper to pass the class” days). When you love something, when you’ve really put the work into it, it’s not a lot of fun to hear that people don’t see it the way you do.

It straight up sucks when your reader isn’t getting what you meant with that masterful metaphor or perfect prose. It’s hard to hear that you’ve misspelled the word “deaf” (yes, it’s deaf not deft…) multiple times over 10 pages. It’s annoying when you hear the reader likes your villain more than your hero. (These things happened to one or more of the members of my group within the last week). But, as my partner in prose said: It’s better to hear about it in writing group than from a submission editor, or worse, from a reader after you’ve published.

We have a rule in our group that, unless you’re asked a question, the author holds his/her comments until the end, after everyone else has spoken. That’s difficult. You want to step in and defend your baby. But, in the long run, actually listening instead of arguing helps us become better writers.

We don’t have to do everything the others say. By our rules, when critiquing we speak from our reader perspective and not “you should do this because that’s what I would do.” We as authors still have the responsibility and the right to make our own decisions. But others input can be really helpful. It can also be hard to hear.

The anxiety

Sometimes that “hard to hear” material isn’t directly about the text.

Within our group, I’m one of (if not the…) most experienced. One of the people joining us next month has had a 10-year journey with the story she’s working on (so it’s not just me and a bunch of new kids…), but I have at least three books out and others submitted for publication (I’ve learned over the years too…). I also have a master’s degree in psychology. So, when others see something in my writing that I didn’t, it can be painful. But, when one of the new folks cites research, or brings up something they learned in a writing class, writing book, or some other authoritative source that I hadn’t thought about, that can really hurt.

I spent a little time this week licking my wounds over one of those. But then I remembered something a professor told me once: there is more information out there and relevant to what we’re doing than one person can read, hear, and process by him/her self!

The reality is, I’m doing this in part to help other writers in their journeys. If I do I am succeeding (and in this case I believe I am). If the person I’ve helped helps me, so much the better!

Sometimes the writing group experience can cause us to question our selves and our abilities. That’s ok, a good group should do that, constructively. What matters is that we learn from that questioning and keep improving.

The payoff

In our last meeting, I shared the prologue and first chapter of a story I’ve been working on for a while. The prologue was the last thing written. When I wrote it, I’d been striving with my characters for at least a year. I wrote a prologue that threw too many character names and too much stuff at the reader at once. It was obvious to me who everyone was. But it wasn’t obvious to the reader.

Because I practiced what I preach and listened to my group, I’m restructuring the prologue, moving some information out to other places and incorporating information from later chapters that my group hasn’t seen yet. I am making improvements to at least three parts of the work because someone spoke, and I listened.

The changes I’m making will make the book more readable and easier to publish. My group’s feedback means more work, but also mean’s I can fix the parts that are actually broken. By sharing and by receiving constructive criticism gracefully, my work becomes better. And I get to help others.

It’s not easy, dear reader. If there isn’t a group that works for you, you may need to build your own. That may mean organizing and managing, actually being a leader. It can be humbling and even intimidating. But in the end, if done with the right spirit and intent, you and yours can gain a lot from a well-run writing group.

What are your experiences with writing groups? Leave a comment and let us know. Either way, I’ll see you next post.

Space yourself

Contrary to what my friends in sci-fi gaming think, I’m not suggesting you throw yourself out an airlock…

Writing is a complex process. Technically, it’s a compound-complex process; literally a process made up of multiple complex processes. Sure, it may seem simple, if you only do a few of the steps or your goal is a C grade on a high school essay. But creating good writing takes a lot of effort, and getting it into “print”, or even read, takes multiple skill sets.

Salesmanship, negotiation, marketing, finance, resource management; they’re all part of the process. And then there are the ‘pure’ writing skills…

Among the ‘pure’ writing skills there’s still a lot to talk about. There’s outlining, vocabulary, syntax, punctuation…. Lots of things to talk about. (Diagramming sentences has a purpose, but the day I write a post about it SHOOT ME! (Or at least find me some anti-depressants…)). Among the big processes are editing (which can be broken down into sub-processes (example: the 1 ½ pass editing method)) and actually writing a draft.

While I agree with Steven King, fix those typos when you find them (don’t wait!), it’s usually a good idea to put your internal editor on hold while working on that initial draft. In fact, it might be a good idea to let a little time pass between first draft and editing push.

Drafting and editing are separate processes

Drafting is actually creating a piece of writing. It might be preceded by outlining and research, or it might not. Drafting involves initial idea formation and creation of big pieces of the story. Editing is taking your draft and shaping it. Refining bits. Filling in gaps. Removing extraneous material. And of course, the spelling/syntax/punctuation stuff known as copy editing… Editing might include outlining (sometimes re-outlining) and research, but it might not.

Actually, some parts of editing should contain research (fact checking or filling in holes) and other parts shouldn’t (If you’re down the final polish stages there shouldn’t be any (for this project at least) if there is, you have problems…). Some editing might not include the spelling/syntax/punctuation stuff (other than killing errors you spot while doing other things). Don’t let a bug hunt impede doing the big stuff.

In fact, that’s why I recommend avoiding editing while creating your first draft. Worrying about the little details; wringing your hands about exact/perfected wording, ‘Sweating the commas’ 235 words into a 50,000+ word novel, and other ‘editing stuff’ can impede doing the creative work. I’ve seen many young writers get lost in these editing issues and never finish a first draft.

There’s also a time to quit drafting and start editing. You have an end, you have a beginning, and you have something in the middle. It might not be the right end. It probably won’t be the actual beginning. And your something in the middle… only the writing gods can speak to that. But the time arrives where you need to stop creating new material. Call that first draft done. Set it down for a while. And then come back and start building your draft into a polished piece of writing. Now is the time to let your inner editor out and send the initial creator part of your mind on to some other project. Because the initial creator can get in the way to…

Sometimes forgetting is a good thing

The initial creator part of us thinks it got the whole story out. In your mind it’s clear that the reference in chapter five ties back to that witty comment in chapter one. But readers might not see it that way. When we just wrote something, the connections are clear in our minds because we remember creating it; we know why we put it there. When we set the writing down, those connections weaken. When we come back later, we can see the things that don’t connect.

We won’t forget everything. We remember the stories we create. But giving it space and time allows the connections to fade. Our experience comes closer to that of a first-time reader. And, for everyone but us, there’s still a first time reading it (we got our ‘first time’ while writing it…). Understanding how that first-time reader sees the work is one key (of many) to success in creating a piece of work that will be read (and re-read. And shared. And commented on. And…). We can get help from other readers, but not giving ourselves the opportunity to see the work from a new, or at least rested, perspective is kind of like driving with your eyes shut and hoping your passengers will warn you about problems.

Sometimes the gap will be longer than others. The differences are in the kind of writing we do and the time table you’re on (that term paper can’t wait till next semester and that blog post is comparatively short, but that 100,00-word novel… You’ve been working on that for a while. It’s rooted. You may need more than a night’s sleep or a lunch break before editing).

What to do in the meantime

There’s lots to do actually. Have you gotten exercise lately? Cleaned the house? Eaten properly? Do you remember that other project you’ve been meaning to work on? All of those are good suggestions.

The cleaning, nutrition, exercise, and having a life stuff can all help bring our bodies and minds back into alignment to continue the work. The ‘other project’ stuff can help us in the forgetting and resetting helping us look at the writing with fresh eyes. It gets our minds off what we put on that page and on to something else. That way, when we get back to editing (and please come back dear reader) we have those fresh eyes. We can find and fix our issues (or at least some of them) before we show the work to someone else. It improves our image with others and can save us time and frustration.

We need to do the drafting. We need to do the editing. And we can gain a lot by getting a little rest in-between. 

That’s it for this one dear reader (until I come back and edit tomorrow…) Develop your skills, perfect your message, and… I’ll see you next post.

My Audience versus My Audience…

Thinking about your audience is important to success as a writer. Developing an understanding of who they are can help you create content that will be interesting, energizing, and generate the responses you want. The thing is, no matter how much you know about your audience; how you think about them also matters.

My Audience

Sometimes we make the mistake of believing our audience belongs to us. When this happens, it becomes easy for our pride to run away with us. “Of course my audience will like this post! I’ve researched them and they love the stuff I write!” When you think that way it becomes easy to churn out some pretty useless content. You’re not concerned with serving your audience, meeting their needs and giving them a reason to read/watch/listen and respond.

Some authors think they own their audience. It’s a mistake. That kind of thinking pulls people away from you instead of toward you.

My Audience

We can seek to give to our audience. Serve them by entertaining them, helping them solve problems, and teaching them things they want or need to know. In this modality we’re offering them a service (and information). We are using the information we gather about them to give them something. And, if we’re doing it right (in the right way and the right spirit), we’ll get what we want and need.

So, what does it all mean?

We can have all the self-confidence we want. We can have faith in ourselves. But we need to get pride out of the picture. Our audience doesn’t show up because we’re so great. They show up because they want things and get something useful or desirable out of what we write. It’s a natural consequence of putting the effort of creating useful and desirable content readers will reward us with views, follows, comments, shares, and occasionally even money.

When we know who our audience is and write for our audiences (rather than just assuming they’ll read/watch/listen to it because we wrote it) we set ourselves up for success. That’s when the opportunities happen.

I haven’t always been perfect at this (has anyone ever been perfectly perfect at it?). But I’m trying and learning to do better. And I see the rewards that happen when I do.

Understand your audience. Help them. And you will see the rewards.

As usual, dear reader, I’ll see you next post.

Continuing and improving…

Six years ago, I almost died… Not as big a deal as it sounds. It’s happened before and might happen again (Heaven doesn’t want me, hell’s afraid I’ll take over, but the Grim Reaper’s convinced there’s a bounty on my head and really wants his five bucks…). My adventure six years ago did one significant thing. It convinced me to get off my butt and start writing. Since then, I’ve written a couple of books, lots of blog posts, and a few other projects. But I can do more and better.

Learning has always been something I do. Right now, I’m learning and working to make the blogs, my books, and the other things I do better. I’m planning on returning to regular posting next week (I hope) with other changes to come. It’s been a bumpy ride (if it isn’t you’ve missed something…) but things can and will get better. See you next post (hopefully next week), dear reader. And remember, things get better.

To post or not to post…

Yes, dear reader, I’ve been away from the blogs for a couple weeks and I might be gone for another week or two. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten you or the blogs; there are just a few things I need to bring under control.

Words are powerful. We as human beings and children of God are powerful. And I’ll be back to talk about those things soon. See you next post.

An update on waiting… And third dates…

Last post I talked about not hearing from a publisher when the response window ran out. I emailed (gently) asking for information. And… It turns out that there was a bit of a slowdown on the editor’s end and they’re working to catch up. I immediately thanked the editors for the information and told them I’m looking forward to hearing from them in the future.

The good news is I’m not out of the running and my story hasn’t been forgotten. I just have to wait some more. I also showed the publishers that I can behave professionally rather than acting like a jerk. Sometimes you have to take the good in a situation. I looked good in the eyes of the publisher and my stuff is getting a good hard look (Like I’ve said, they ain’t shy about tossing stuff that doesn’t fit their needs. A hard look isn’t immediate, but it means I’m close. Playing things right could tip the scales in my favor)

Yeah, delays happen. And if you deal with them in a courteous and professional manner, you may give yourself a leg up.

I’ve also been continuing with my writing group. To be honest, some of our writers are very new. So, the writing group is also a chance to do a bit of teaching. And like many teachers, I learn at least as much as those I teach, if not more.

Last meeting one of our newer writers gave me feedback. And her feedback is dead on correct. When I really thought about her advice, I discovered how to get the effect I’m looking for. In return, I helped her recognize her voice as a writer. Which helps get her story to where it needs to be.

Writing is often solitary. But we can’t do it entirely on our own. We need people and we need to learn to work with people, even when our project is personal and important to us. We need to learn to be gentle and constructive in dealing with others, even when they’ve goofed up.

Dealing with people isn’t just important, it’s vital. And how you do it can make or break you.

Be constructive with the people in your writing world, dear reader. Help them be constructive with you. And I’ll see you next post.