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Building a Better World – Or At Least A Different One

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People try to rationalize the world around them and frustration comes from the persistent irrationality other people introduce into the mix. We all do it, make mistakes, mess things up for others. The result is that we make others unhappy at least as often as we make them happy. That can’t be the way things are supposed to work. There has to be some other way to redesign things for them o work. Yeah, I’m idealistic like that.

A long time ago it occurred to me that part of the reason for being here, being alive, is to make things easier for others. Contrary to popular belief – at least what most people appear to believe in the ME generation, life is not about self, but instead it is all about others. It appears to be otherwise because that’s what we want to believe, being focused internally. After all, in an existential sense, the only person we are relatively sure exists is self, right?

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Until you start to look at those who are focused on self and see where they are headed, you will probably pursue their goals. You see their wealth, power and influence over others and it appears they have an enviable life, except it is all focused on self and, if you really get to know them they are often the most insufferable assholes you have ever met. It’s not always the case. There are some nice people who make it and somehow they aren’t corrupted. Whether it is their rearing or the integrity of their spiritual centers, they are not all about money or themselves, even though they have some wealth and appear o be as popular as even the most self driven people.

Life’s  journey is not smooth, no matter how much wealth you accumulate. Unless the selfish turn a page and begin to help others, they wind up miserable despite all their wealth and power. You may say you’d like to be that miserable, if only for a day, but wealth and power destroys people from the inside because, if their focus is on self, what else is there that can be affected?

 

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You may wonder why some people are compelled to give millions even billions away to charity. Billionaires giving away half their fortunes to benefit others. Do they achieve some sen of enlightenment? I believe there comes at point at which you realize that money is a way of keeping score between selfish people and that after you have too much – more than you can possibly ever spend on selfish pursuits – you decide to do something else with it. Maybe it’s a means of making amends for how the money was acquired, soothing a guilty conscience. Maybe it is just becoming aware of the disparity between the haves and the have nots in the world. You see, for all the good having money can do to a person, there is balance as well. Money can and does destroy lives as often as it makes them.

I’m no preacher and I’m certainly no saint. I’ve read the Scriptures, though, and the often misquoted line about the money being the root of all evil comes to mind. The actual phrase states that it is the LOVE of money that is to blame. So in the effort to satisfy self and rack up all the points in the game, drubbing the competition into submission in a way measured in dollar bills and pennies, worshipping money is what destroys relationships with others around us and the world in general.

What amazes me is that when I was in high school a general concept occurred to me. I had more in common with people who had not money than with those who had it, simply because my parents taught me to respect money but not worship it. A lot of the people around me in school strove to wear the newest clothes, and appear to be well-to-do even if they were not. For a time I fell into that trap as well, wanting to fit in. But then, I started seeing how hollow and plastic many of the cool people were. By the time I reached college, the lines between were even more clearly drawn. The egotistical, rich guys driving the fancy sports car that was a graduation present, hitting on the prettiest girls. They were cliche. The real people were the students who worked jobs to pay for expenses, had scholarships or grants and wanted to be there.

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Yes, I get it that it is easier to have money than to not have it, but the question becomes how much do you really need. The answer is just enough. Only you can define what is enough, I suppose. For me, over the course of my life, I have had money and I have not had it. In some ways life was easier when I had money, but in other ways it was not. There was a good deal more stress in my life. My wife was focused on money far more than I was and always wanted more. She needed for me to strive for a better position where I worked – even though I was relatively happy and comfortable doing what I did and made a good living at it. She wanted a better house, more things, better futures for the kids. It’s hard to argue with any of that because it is all ties into the American Dream, doesn’t it? In pursuit of satisfying her goals I became unhappy and focused on the wrong things. As a direct result our financial situation deteriorated. And eventually so did our marriage fail.

Out of tragedy comes some good though. You see, when you’re least happy with the world around you, you become compelled to reshape it in some way. With me, I started creating a fantasy world way back when I was a kid and, the more my marriage was falling apart, the more I wanted to create a fantasy world where I could find some peace of mind. I don’t know whether I started out with that as my life’s goal but it’s simple. If you’re not happy with your world, make a different one. In my case I created one with my writing. Actually just the one into which all my books fit in some way. It may be similar in some ways to the world around us but not always. That’s the beauty of fiction, you make the rules as you go.

#fiction #philosophy #life #wealth #money #happiness

 

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Realism in Character Development and Storytelling

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Way back somewhere and some-when I had a teacher named Kristin, though I didn’t call her by her first name until a few years later. We didn’t hit it off well, but after nearly four full school years of fairly close association, whether she was my English teacher or my faculty advisor for the school newspaper, we eventually reached a point of mutual respect. At some point I told her I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, not realizing that the whole point of becoming a writer is never needing to grow up. I asked for her advice and with pity in her eyes she told me if I develop characters that feel real to the reader then I might succeed.

A lot of time was spent in college pursuing secrets insights. In the process I worked on writing, attempting to find my author’s voice and toying around with methods of storytelling. You see – I figured out that it’s better to be a good storyteller than a good writer, especially if you plan to make a living as an author – not that I have arrived there quite yet. Still, all along the way I kept focusing on my characters and making them as realistic as possible. Basically, what makes them real for a reader is not the author’s narrative descriptions but how the character is portrayed through dialogue. If the spoken words sound right, more than half the battle of selling the character to the reader is won. And so, that has always been how I have approached characters. I start with a few the main characters, at least two, and have them converse. Pretty much they tell me the story while introducing me to the other characters that populate their fictional universe. They clue me in on what’s bothering them lately (the conflicts). From there the plot (the storytelling) takes care of itself.

It is not easily accomplished. Sometimes characters misbehave and their dialogue must be tweaked for it to sound real. Also driving plot through dialogue takes a good deal of practice. You also need to pay attention to real world conversations and how people talk – not stuff you hear on TV but exchanges between family members, friends and strangers. In this I benefitted from spending so many years in retail dealing with the general public and a number of fairly diverse employees. Over my nearly thirty-year career I probably have a few thousand stories to tell just from my associations.

For dialogue to be effective in helping to create a character’s realism the writer must sell it without drawing undue attention to the written words. What I mean is this: at some point within the first two exchanges of dialogue the reader must be immersed in the scene along with the characters. Suspension of disbelief takes place almost immediately if the reader fully embraces the characters as human beings (or in the case of my fantasies, just beings). The reader cannot be cognizant of the plot elements entering into the dialogue. A test to see if you’ve gone to far as a writer is to read what you have written and actually hear the voices of the characters as if they were talking. Would they say those things you wrote? There is an art to achieving this and it is why some writers succeed at capturing a reader’s imagination while others don’t. I call it being sneaky.

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One of the best examples I can think of for realism in dialogue and character development is Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked. Her characters feel as real as the guy sitting down at the end of the bar or your aunt that no one in the family wants to invite to social gatherings. Her novel is filled with characters you can avoid noticing even though you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to talk to them. It is dialogue driven in a way that probably should be studied in school because it is done that well.

When properly written dialogue-driven plot enhances the quality of the story as well as the experience of reading. A good deal of narrative, which is inherently more boring than dialogue to a reader, can be eliminated. The story will take on a blocked format where narrative is used to frame interactions between characters, primarily setting a scene and directing a reader’s attention to characters’ actions. The result is that the author will invite the reader into the story instead of just showing or telling what happens.

In preparing to write, the more detail an author puts into a character profile the better. Think of it as writing a short biography of someone you, as the author, know extremely well. It should include the basics like date of birth, place of birth, where the character grew up, family, friends, schools and the like, but deviate from a traditional biography in giving a complete description of the character’s height, weight, skin tone, eye color, hair color, and interesting features like a mole or a proportionately large nose. You may or may not use all the information you put into the profile but you must know those details including backstories. What crushes did he or she have growing up? What became of those people – if the character knows? Such information creates depth of the character and lends realism to the person created on paper.

Some authors pattern characters after people they know. It is best to create composites of several real world people, though. You don’t want opinions of living persons to enter into a piece of fiction. However, taking four or five people and using them as a pattern to create a character that shares their attributes and background will often make for a realistic subject in a work of fiction. For The Wolfcat Chronicles I patterned many of the characters based on profiles from a role playing game in which I was involved for a time in early 2000. The character Ela’na is based on a real person with whom I became close friends. She served as a muse throughout the creative process for composing all ten books.

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For The Attributes, a science fiction environmental piece set in a colonial world in the future, the characters are based on musicians in a rock band whose work I follow. I composed the novel over the course of a summer as sort of a birthday gift for the lead singer. Although the book has not been promoted that much I consider the story one of the best science fiction pieces I’ve done. The dialogue flows very well and it was one of the first stories that I used dialogue extensively in driving the plot.

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Occasionally the main character of a book is an alter ego of the author. In my books, for example, Brent Woods, who appears in Fried Windows, serves that role to a large extent. Although he does things I would never do and is more outgoing than I ever was he shares a good deal of my background. We attended the same schools and, of course, knew some of the same people. Since Brent has some amazing abilities and visits other worlds some people have questioned just how much he is like me. I suppose that as a writer I do visit other worlds and I have special powers while there as the creator of the alternate universe.

Part of the process of making characters feel real is believing they are real. A fellow fiction writer once told me that in order to make a contrived world believable an author becomes a part of the fictional world he or she creates. While writers tend to live in the story while we write, it may seem to others that we have lost touch with reality from time to time. We may pop our heads in and out of the real world to carry on the business of being alive like eating, sleeping, paying bills, attending mandatory family things like birthdays and such, but mainly we are immersed in our creations while we are composing them.

Editing and revising the draft becomes a painful revisiting of the overall creative experience, much like reliving the events of real life – the good along with the bad. It is a necessary evil in the writing processes but much less fun that conjuring substance from nothingness. The objective of a revision is not creating as much modifying and sometimes deleting. If a writer spends too much time immersed in a story its hair grows too long,  shaggy and unkempt. Think of a good revision as basic personal grooming for the story. Professional editing is more like seeing a barber or going to a hair solon to fix a bad hair do before being seen in public.

#Writing #Realism #CharacterDevelopment #Storytelling #Fiction #Editing #Revising #FriedWindows #TheWolfcatChronicles #StephPost #ATreeBornCrooked #TheAttributes

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Don’t Mind The Labels

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In the broadest sense of the word, I think the vast majority of books are misclassified when genre is assigned to them. That’s not an indictment on the publishing industry but a simple fact that each book is unique and, though it may have some similarities to other books on the market, assigning a particular BISAC code to a book for marketing purposes may actually prevent a reader from finding a book they would enjoy very much.

Here’s a broad statement for you to consider. The majority of novels could be classified as Romance. It has nothing to do with the plethora of titles available in that popular genre or the popularity of ‘those’ kinds of books. The reason more books aren’t classified as Romance is because the authors do not like the association with what they consider pop culture or trashy books that are obsessed with sexual tensions. Yes there are Romance novels that certain go to an explicit extreme but the simple truth is that for stories to be interesting to readers there usually are elements of realistic human relationships captured in the interactions between characters – romantic relationships.

I bring the subject up not because I’m about to claim all of my books are Romance novels, though I will say there are relationships between people who are in love within their pages. What I’m getting at is more along the lines of embarrassing social stigmas of a particular genre. That includes science fiction and fantasy, two genres in which my books seems to find comfortable assignment from time to time.

Over the past few months I’ve read a variety of novels. Some were well written and others not to much. I’ve enjoyed most of the books despite the assigned genres being outside of my usual interests. Why? Because the books possessed elements of other genres like mystery, suspense, adventure in well told stories. There was a series I;d classify s historical romance that i enjoyed enough to be waiting for the next book to be published and it has been marketed as a swashbuckling adventure story. Well, yes, there is a good bit of that in the book as well.

Authors should be storytellers first and foremost. Our characters drive the events of the story and, if allowed, they will tell us of the conflicts and expose most other plot elements through their conversations and interactions with other characters. Why this works is because it is great story telling. It successfully mirrors the natural interactions readers are familiar with in their daily lives.

Genre classification exists for librarians, bookstores and readers to judge whether different books are similar enough to be associated. In truth, each book or series of books is completely unique. Each author writes exactly like himself or herself and no one else on the planet. But like looking at fingerprints, books will have similar identifying characteristics. This book may remind the reader of that book or one author might influence the style or writing that another later adopts. But it is extremely difficult to say that any two books as ‘alike’. If any two books were exactly alike then why read both?

When a reader enjoys a certain type of book he or she is inclined to sample other the other work by that author. In the absence of other books he or she may look for other similar books by different authors. That’s the value of genres. From both a reader’s as well as a marketer’s perspective Genres are labels, nothing more. And humans seem obsessed with labeling things – that is until labels are unfairly applied.

I like to think my writing spans many genres. The trouble with that is that BISAC codes are used in the publishing business to pigeonhole books, assign them shelf space in bookstores or category pages online. At some point, someone, whether it is the author, the publisher or both, has to determine which code to us for a new book. This choice is critical in how the book will be pitched to reviewers, critics, bloggers, book distributors, retailers and ultimately readers. Are there ever mistakes made in selecting the BISAC code? Sure, it happens all the time. The trouble is that it is very hard to change the BISAC code after a book is released to the public. It’s almost like publishing a new edition of a book when you’re talking about a paperback version.

And so we have a situation where readers frequently discover a book they like in a genre they ‘usually’ don’t read. They find the book because a friend referred them to it, not because of all the specific choices of those marketing the book. That’s not a bad thing, but it goes back to my point. Well written stories span many genres and therefore there is a lot to like in most every well written book. Sometimes a disservice is done to both the author and the reader in the attempt to categorize a book. Other times, because of the classification of a book, we as readers shun a book we might enjoy. As authors we may avoid allowing our books to be marketed in specific genres where they could actually find the largest audience, just because we don’t want to be associated with other authors in that genre.

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#writing #genre #fiction #publishing #BookMarketing #BISAC

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Starting Out In The Middle

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There’s a manuscript I wrote a long time ago that starts out in the middle of the story. In fact the first paragraph is about why it makes as much sense to start telling a story in the middle as it is at either the beginning or the ending. I never submitted that manuscript for publication because it just never felt quite ready to go through that level of scrutiny. As I recall the story was mainly about living and though it had its moments of excitement and resolution it seemed to begin in the middle and after several hundred pages it was still in the middle. But, because of the experience of writing it I have always thought about the concept of starting out in the middle as a commentary on real life.

You know, of course, that we all start out in the middle of something else that is going on around us. For years we play catch-up, learning and absorbing from parents and other, more experienced, family members. Then, as we mature we have teachers, clergy and bosses – pretty much everyone we meet is in influence for whatever span that is determined as appropriate for being a human sponge. At some point, though, someone decides we have become competent. Perhaps it is a degree conferred or some other credential we earn. Maybe it is simply that we have mastered doing something and others decide we are suddenly expert. Whatever and however it happens we are an adult at that point. Maybe some of never reach that point. Who knows?

My thought here is that the beginning of each of our lives is an illusion as much as the endings arbitrarily attached to death. Between times we are immersed in the world and life is a matter of sinking and drowning or swimming and surviving. Living is all about being caught up in the experience. I believe that if a writer is to imitate life, he or she needs to understand being the midst of things. For a reader being in a book world should be similar enough to real life that disbelief is suspended as the author introduces a new, surrogate world. Mainly I deal with fantasy worlds but I think it applies to all fiction.

A writer must engage the reader instantly because entering a book’s contrived universe can and perhaps should be like being born. Spend the first few chapters staking out the territory and meeting the important people who will help or hinder the experience of living. Somewhere in that process you’ll learn about the conflicts from what the characters say or how they interact. Either way, as a reader, you’ll know early on where the story is headed but probably not where it is going.

A well written book always leaves the reader wondering what will happen next because, as with real life, it is filled with challenge and mystery. There are surprises that are both good and bad. There are horrendous failures to overcome and transcending experiences of joy and ecstasy. Some other characters prove necessary or even vital to the hero or heroine in their lives. Extreme difficulty and immense pressure await and a lot of dull detail can be skipped over or summarized because those are the parts of life that are mostly tedious and routine.

At the climax something important is learned. One climax may lead to another and another, or simply a single culmination may be enough to complete the story that you began telling on page one – which was picked up, of course, in the middle of the character’s life. In conclusion, with the major difficulty resolved, doesn’t that character’s life goes on sen though the voyeurs are gone? We as readers assume that it does even if all that is said about the future has a lot to do with magic, myth and happily ever after. As authors we may decide a sequel is in order but just as likely we may never get around to writing it.

Maybe the reason I write serials is because I start in the middle more often that I begin at either end. The universe inside of me that I share in my writing is as real to me as the outside one that the rest of humanity shares with me. Its as hard for me to walk away from my characters after typing The End as it is to simply pick up and move somewhere else in town or across the country. Maybe that’s how it needs to be for characters to exist in the minds of my readers as well.

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#writing #fiction #fantasy #author #characters #beginning #ending #climax