It’s not every day we have a demon hunter for a friend. Not unless you are a friend of Jesse James Dawson, that is. In A Shot in the Dark, by K. A. Stewart, an annual weekend camping trip turns into a fight for survival for Jesse and his friends. Jesse must wager everything, including his soul as he faces off with an old adversary, full of new and improved deadly surprises in the remote Colorado mountain retreat.
A Shot in the Dark is an action filled story dealing in matters, not only of life and death, but of heaven and hell. In dealing with questions of good and evil, the answers aren’t always black and white, but often lie somewhere in the gray. Now the only question is, will Jesse’s friends still be his friends if they live through this supernatural wilderness adventure.
Stewart’s likable characters and unusual villains make settling in for this demon hunting tale quite enjoyable. Antagonist Jesse James Dawson and his friends pull out all the stops, combining traditional weaponry, magic and religion to battle the minions of the underworld, but can he bring all his friends home safely?
As the second book in Stewart’s Jesse James Dawson series, I give A Shot in the Dark three quills.
There are many ways to write story. In his book, On Writing, author Stephen King claims he started out as a kid, printing out stories on a drum printer in his basement, using grape jelly for ink. Some of us older generation writers remember hammering out our stories on manual or electric typewriters, whiting out the errors and going back to manually making corrections.
With the dawn of the technological revolution the way we write changed for most of us. At the 2012 Writing the Rockies Conference, author Kevin J. Anderson told how he wrote while hiking through the hills surrounding the Gunnison Valley by using a hand held digital recorder to dictate his story, then having his assistant transcribe it and type it up on the computer for him. I tried his method, but found I needed to see the words on the page, or screen in front of me.
No one way is right. Different methods work for different writers. When I first started writing I wrote everything long hand, then typed it out on an electric typewriter. The advantage to this methods was that by the time I typed it up, it was like a second draft and I could edit and make changes as I went. The downside was the enormous amount of White Out I went through, because I’m a lousy typist and the incredible amount of time it took to produce a piece of work worthy of submission. It was so bad, I actually gave up on writing for several years, until I discovered the world of computers in 2008. Computers allowed me to edit as I write, and although I’ve been cautioned against it by many of my college professors, I still do it. It works for me and produces first drafts that require minimal amount of editing.
Unfortunately, my computer recently crashed. My son, who is also my techie, has been unable to fix it. He thinks I fried my mother board. Bottom line – I need a new computer, and I’m forced to go back to writing everything long hand once more, at least until I can get a new one. But, what I’m finding, is that writing long hand requires a different mind set for me than writing on the computer. Robin touched on this, as well, in last week’s Weekly Writing Memo on Overcoming the Blank Page.
On the computer, I can multi-task, switching to online research or other activities when I get held up for words. Writing long hand, if I get held up, I find myself staring off into space to gather my thoughts. It also seems more difficult to me, but that may be because I have to transfer my words from page to screen whenever I can get access to public computers at the library.
All of this got me thinking about the different ways there are to write and what works for others. How do you like to write? Are you an old school writer who still writes long hand? Do you use more than one method, writing different stories in different ways as Robin suggested? Leave a comment and let me know. If nothing else it will be interesting.
Sometimes when it comes to writing, the hardest thing to overcome is the simplest. One such example of this is to overcome the intimidation of a blank page and to simply get started. Those first moments when you sit down in front of the page and tell yourself you’re going to write can be huge, and overwhelming. All sorts of thoughts can pass through your head that make putting the first words down on the page near impossible. Am I good enough? Do I have anything to say? How do I do this? Will anyone want to read it? Etc. These kinds of thoughts can stop your writing in its tracks before you even begin. Knowing how to overcome the blank page can be vital, and while there isn’t a method that works for everyone, there are several things that I find work well.
Free Write First
One of the easiest ways I find to get into writing is to simply allow myself to free write for a while. Even if I have a specific story idea in mind, I will sometimes think of my character or my setting and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t always flow in a pretty way, or even make sense, but it does allow me to explore the characters or setting without restrictions and it gets me writing. Once I start putting words on the page, focusing them becomes easier. I also find that just getting started on the act of writing makes some of the tension around writing dissipate. So however you do it, get started by freewriting and getting words on the page. Even if you have to start by writing about your day or something, see where the freewriting takes you. Once you no longer have a blank page, it’s easier to focus on creating something cohesive that you can turn into a story.
Copy Someone Else
This is a method that has been around for a while, and was even used in the movie Finding Forrester. When you are just getting started writing and struggling, try grabbing a random book and copying down the first paragraph of it. As you are writing, let your mind wander, and when you’re comfortable, stop copying and start making it your own. Sometimes using someone else’s work to get you started writing can help you transition into your own work. Just remember to go back once you finish and to change the beginning so it is no longer copying the original author’s work. The key to this is that it gets words on the page, and in making what you write your own.
Make A Rough Outline
When I have a specific story idea in mind, but am struggling to get started, I find that writing down 3-5 bullet points of where I want the immediate section of story I’m working on to go helps. Usually I will do this when I start each chapter. I grab a piece of paper and jot down the 3-5 key moments of the chapter that form the arc of it, then when I write I have “goals” to write toward. It’s just enough outlining to keep the story focused while I’m writing, but not so much that people who hate outlining will feel like they’ve over planned anything.
It works for me because I prefer abbreviated outlines, and it allows me to discover how the characters get from one big moment to the next as I write. So take a few moments to create a small arc for what you want to write, and then let yourself write to those points. It’ll help you visualize what you’re planning to write, and it’ll give you points in the story to write toward. Just try not to make your bullet points too broad, or you can end up feeling lost as to where to start again.
Try a Different Medium
One of the last things I try when I’m struggling to write is to switch mediums. Sometimes I find that I just can’t write a certain story at the computer, and instead I end up writing with a notepad and pen. It seems silly, but just switching mediums like that can actually help get you started. Sometimes I think the notepad works better than the computer when I’m struggling because the notepad feels less permanent and professional. I’m just jotting down ideas! Not writing for real! Which isn’t true at all, but it feels that way. So allow yourself to try a different medium and see if it changes anything. At the very least, switching to something like a notepad where you can do things by hand can allow you to doodle and jot ideas to brainstorm while you are working on getting to the real writing. Which can be just as productive.
The final thing to remember if you are stuck on the white page is that you don’t have to start by writing right away. If writing simply isn’t working, trying outlining or researching or brainstorming for your story. If you do those things, you’ll still be working on your story in some way, and maybe it’ll help you feel more confident so you can get started. Just remember, at some point you have to stop doing these things and get to the writing, so don’t procrastinate too long!
Everything I’ve ever done in life, I’ve done my own way, usually depending on myself and no one else. One thing anyone who knows me can tell you is I’m persistent. When I set out to achieve something, I don’t stop until I do. It has been no different with writing. But I’m discovering that I need a little help with this endeavor.
I had a bad experience with a student teacher in the English department as an undergrad, so just when I was beginning to learn that I liked writing and maybe English should be my major, I was soured on the whole idea by the feeling that the field was too subjective for me, and I chose to major in psychology instead.
But after I’d been out of college for a few years, I discovered not only that I had a love for the written word, but also that I had some talent for it. I started out writing poetry, which I’ve since learned, is not my strong suit, but even there, I don’t do too bad. I sold my first poem to Dusk & Dawn Magazine in 1996 for $5. Problem was, that didn’t even cover all the postage I had spent submitting, and I couldn’t afford to play the starving artist. I had a family to help support. There were others to consider. So, writing went onto a back burner, just simmering for about twelve years.
Then, I discovered the Internet and rediscovered my abilities for writing as new opportunities presented themselves. The rise of the Web actually changed the entire publishing industry over time, opening up all kinds of new opportunities for writers, including, but not limited to, self-publishing, marketing via social media, vanity presses, and content mills. As blogs and websites grew in number, more content was needed than ever before. Problem was, I’m technologically challenged. Slowly, over time, I have learned to use social media to my advantage a little, and I’ve learned to use many of the writing sites and content mills to make minimal amounts of money.
One of the coolest things happened in my writing endeavors didn’t involve any money at all. I had one of my poems featured in a painting by artist Mitch Barrett and displayed and sold at the Kaleidoscope Gallery in Battlesea Park, London. (There’s a lengthy story behind how this came about, which I may relate in a future blog post. Anyone who knows me is surely tired of hearing it.
As a freelancer, I became the Southern Colorado Literature Examiner for Examiner.com, which didn’t really pay, but offered opportunity to meet other writers, get free books for review and obtain credits for my portfolio. I also cranked out articles for other content mills which did pay, at least a little, which added to my skill set, diversifying my writing talents, and I was published in Freeman, which was a bit more profitable.
I thought I was quite fortunate when I was able to obtain a publisher for one of my children’s stories, Heather Hummingbird Makes a New Friend. After seven wasted years, it turned out I was not so fortunate, since my book still wasn’t published. But we learn from experience.
Still struggling to launch my writing career, I discovered the low residency MFA program for Creative Writing offered by Western State and I applied. Maybe I couldn’t do it on my own, but I would learn what I needed to know, one way or another. And I have learned a lot. I’ve learned about my own writing process. When I started at Western, I’d never even thought about it. I’m not even sure I was aware I had a process, but I did and still do. Now I’m just more aware of it. I learned how to craft my words to be pleasing to the ear. I learned how to read aloud in front of an audience, and I’ve learned that I do it well.
Last summer, I completed my emphasis in genre fiction and read from my thesis novel, Playground for the Gods: Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle. I’ve learned how to treat my writing as a business, at least in theory, although I’m still trying to get it off the ground. And I’ve learned how advances and royalties work, and that you have to sell a lot of books before you will ever receive royalties.
And I learned that screenwriting is where the big money is. When I took genre screenwriting for my out of concentration class, I also learned that it was fun, it came pretty easy to me and I was fairly good at it. So, instead of graduating, I stayed in school for another year to get a second emphasis in screenwriting. What I’m learning this year, is that there’s a lot of competition on screenwriting and it’s tough to get a break. You practically have to live in L.A. to get anywhere. Yet, I am determined to make all the money I now owe for my schooling pay off. I haven’t given up yet, and I don’t intend to now.
I’m currently shopping my thesis novel and two of my children’s stories, five short stories, and various poems. I’ve also finished my western novel, Delilah. At Western, thanks to my instructor, Russell Davis drawing us out of our comfort zones, (and maintaining as much discomfort for us as possible), I discovered that I enjoy writing in the western genre, and although it is not one of the bestselling markets, I do it well. I’ve also published a western flash fiction story, I Had to Do It, on Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry.
I’m working hard, through this blog and social media, to build a writer’s platform and gain a following to make myself look more appealing to agents and publishers. Here’s where you, my readers come in, because you can help. Without my readers, my writing just sits there on the page, not doing much of anything. You are my writer’s platform. You are my following.
Many people don’t realize that liking a link on Facebook, while cool, doesn’t really help the author grow their platform unless they actually read the post and subscribe by email. What does help, is if you’ll take the time to read the post here, on my Writing to be Read site, and subscribe to the blog. That’s what shows how large my reader following is, and it does my heart good to watch as it grows.
You can also like the post below it, with all the “share” buttons, but you must have a WordPress account. If you don’t have one, you can sign up for one, but then, of course, you will have a blog to maintain, so be sure you know what you’re getting into. I’m guessing that many people just like the link on Facebook to show their support, but they don’t actually click on the link and read the post. But, if you leave a comment, I’ll be able to tell that you read it, and if you subscribe, it will show you liked what you read. You’ll make my day.
If you’d like to show even more support, you can buy my short science fiction story, Last Call. If you like it, write a review on Amazon. And, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Pintrest. Help an old writer get a break.
Your support is always appreciated. Thank you for being a reader of my work. After all, for me, it’s not really about money. It’s about Writing to be Read.
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Something that almost every story deals with is the passing of time. It’s natural, and to be expected. What every writer needs to focus on is how to show the passing of time, and when to skip time in a story. These two things can be a huge pitfall in a story. If you tell too much of the story and don’t skip time when you need to, then the story can feel sluggish and boring. If you skip too much time the audience can feel like they’re missing things, and you can take away from the tension of the action. There’s a careful balance to time in every story, so the key is finding it for yours.
When to Skip Time
In general, you should skip time when nothing is happening in the story. Any time you have huge chunks of time passing with no conflict going on, you need to get the story moving and skip ahead if possible. There should always be some form of conflict going on in your story, so whenever it’s lacking you’ve either missed a plotline, started in the wrong place, or need to find a way to skip ahead. Look at this time period and see what happens in it that you absolutely need to show your reader, then find a way to show it elsewhere or to compress it down.
Sometimes you can also skip time when you are telling a story in a nonlinear way. Some stories work better if you can jump ahead and then go back to a flashback or something, so look at your conflict and see if it is best told linearly, or if skipping around in time can help you create more tension within the story. You want to maximize the tension and conflict, so if you can do this by telling the story in a new way, then you should try.
How to Skip Time
There are endless stories to use as reference for skipping time (Time Traveler’s Wife; Looper; Lord of the Rings). One of the key things to remember when skipping time is that you need to find a way to show that time has passed. In films, this is usually done with visual elements such as scenery changes, characters aging, seasons changing, etc. In fiction, this can be shown through some of those elements as well, but you can also use words that help show this. Mention the time passing, or use cueing phrases that help guide the reader (Ex – Months later; Kiera was 16 when she finally returned to the village…). Whatever you do, always find a way to show the time change unless you have a reason not to.
Sometimes in stories the writer will skip time by using a montage to show the key moments that happen during the transition, ending with the characters at the point in time where the story continues. Other times, the writer will just skip ahead and start the story at the point in the future where they want it to be. The method to use depends on what happens during the time skip. If something vital happens, then try to find a way to show it either in a flashback later, or before skipping time. As long as there is a key story element, then it needs to be shown. So figure out what matters to the story, and where the conflict is, and you’ll know which elements to show and which to skip.
Obviously there are a lot of moments in a story where exciting action isn’t happening that are still important, so don’t think that you need to skip all these. Those moments can still have character development and conflict. Internal conflict is just as important as external conflict, so make sure you aren’t skipping all that. If you find yourself skipping a lot of time in your story, it might also be time to look at if you’re starting in the right place. If you start your story later, can you still show all the information that you’re skipping over in some way? Usually the answer is yes. Whatever you decide, just remember that you can always ask for a second opinion if needed. Overall, just remember to consider the conflict, the character development, and how your story will change if you skip time. If you do those three things, you should be able to figure out what you need to do.
Writers are problem solvers. That’s what we do. Solve problems. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fleshing out a plotline for your latest novel or working up a beat sheet for a screenplay, our job is to figure out how to avoid or circumvent any obstacles that prevent your characters from reaching their goals. Of course, we also create some of the obstacles on purpose, because that is another thing that we do. We put our main characters through hell.
But, that’s not all. I’m also talking about things like faulty logic, which makes it impossible for your characters to do something you need them to do in the story, or things that don’t make sense or pull the reader out of the story, or when there’s too big of a stretch, too much disbelief to be suspended. These are the hurdles we, as writers, must overcome to not just tell the story, but to tell the story well.
Problem solving. That’s what creating story comes down to, and it’s our job, as story creators, to shape the story to make sense, have plausibility and flow smoothly. It’s our job to think through plot lines and make the story work by our clever crafting of words. It’s our job to make sure each character completes their personal story arc, and ensure that the main story arc flows through to the desired conclusion. It’s our job to help the main characters face their fears, overcome their fatal flaws and conquer any obstacles we throw at them along the way. And, it’s our job to be sure the story is believable and makes sense.
Does a story have to have eloquent language? No, although some do. Does it have to have a happy ending? Only if it is a romance. Does it have to make us laugh? If it’s a comedy, but humor is allowed in almost every genre.
There are things a story does have to have. Every story does have to have a beginning, middle and end. At least the main story arc and those of your main characters must be completed, moving the story along and showing character growth and transformation.
A story does have to have a certain logic to it, and it has to have characters who are relatable enough to make your audience care. There are ways to do both, and so much more, if you know how to write a well-crafted story. Robin Conley has made some great suggestions on how to make your audience care in her Weekly Writing Memo, each Wednesday, (or Thursday), here on Writing to be Read.
So, the next time you’re applying for a writing gig, be sure to put down problem solver as one of your many impressive skills. You won’t be lying. Creating Story = Problem Solving.
Keepers of the Forest, by James McNally has a good plot and interesting characters. When Chris is chosen by Crispus Attuck Brown to be the Chosen One, a summer spent with Scott and Chris’ aunt and uncle takes an unexpected turn, and Chris’ swim instructor, Brian is the only who realizes something is amiss. Brian must find a way to save the two brothers and foil Brown’s evil plot to destroy the world.
Brian is a young man who is afraid of commitment and perhaps drinks a little too much. He befriends a young boy, Chris, who is a sweet kid that falls into unfortunate circumstance and becomes the victim of an evil plot. Other players on the good guy’s team are Chris’s older brother, Scott, an angry teen who works through his own issues and story arc, and Brian’s bartender friend, Nancy who has her stuff together and acts as support for Brian as he works through his personal issues and becomes the hero. One of the most colorful characters unfortunately, has only a supporting role and isn’t really involved in any of the action. Nancy’s aunt, Leah, the balding swim instructor with cancer is a strong character, and I would have liked to see more of her.
The villain, Crispus Attuck Brown is an interesting chap, who believes he can bring about the second coming of the Dryad, and he’s gathering the Keepers of the Forest to that end. I think if we’d seen more of how bad he is sooner, it would’ve helped us to fear him more. At his side is an ex-hooker named Sherry, who is a misguided pawn in Brown’s game until she removes the blinders and realizes what is really going on around her. The big guy, Mason, is the muscle for the operation. He is feared because of his size, but is shown to have a soft heart. The crew is rounded out by two gay ex-cons, Ted and Vincent, who are cold blooded killers, who kill because they like it and almost seem more to be feared than Brown.
I had a couple of problems with Keepers of the Forest. First, McNally does a bit of head hopping, which makes it confusing to the reader as to whose P.O.V. we are in at times. And second, the characters all have such clear insight into their own motivations that they can self-analyze and express exactly what they are feeling and their motivations verbally. There isn’t a lot of subtext, and real people just don’t do that.
The other thing that just didn’t sit quite right with me, was the fact that the good guys save the day, but they are lead to the solution by Sherry, after she comes to the realization that her beliefs in Brown are faulty. Brian becomes a passive protagonist, in a way, because although he has a part in saving the boys, the rescue is led by a member of the opposing side, turned defector and he just does what he is told. For me, all the characters have the potential to be really great characters, but most of them fall short of what they could be.
I give Keepers of the Forest three quills.