The Last Jedi: Quick Thoughts (No Spoilers)

posted in: Fantasy, Film/TV, Review, Storytelling | 2

After avoiding any potential spoilers for The Last Jedi, I was able to watch it at the end of last weekend.  There will be no spoilers here but I will make references to key plot details in a vague manner (no exact details).

Overall Plot Direction.  TLJ definitely surpassed my expectations when it came to the plot and moving things forward in this Skywalker Saga.  I had read and heard some popular theories about what could happen in the new chapter and while there were hints of these theories coming true, the story went in various directions that were both surprising and refreshing.  There were key moments that I thought to myself, “Yes!  That’s great writing!” and then there were things I had to process after watching and say, “Okay, I like that and I’m curious to see where it goes from there.”  Now, there are also elements that did not work, leaving questions and making many people (I’m sure you’ve seen the bad reviews from people you know) unhappy with the direction of the plot.

Star Wars Spectacle.  Star Wars as a property is synonymous with Jedi, Sith, The Force, etc.  It’s very much a fantasy set in space (something I’m sure that has been covered, debated, and discussed in the past by many a fanboys).  There are aspects to the Force in the film that enrich an enhance what the Force is and how it can be used as a power/weapon.  It’s very much a magic system that doesn’t always have defined lines or rules but that is why the balance between the light and dark side are so important as thematic elements.  How far can one go to either side before being able to come back?  I am excited to see more with the characters who can use the Force.  There should be some fun to be had with our Force users.

Characters.  Character motivations can make or break a story.  Too often, it feels as if a character’s choice is only meant to push the story forward.  Where TLJ works for me is the characters make choices throughout the film where their motivations are clear (after some extra thought and contemplation, there are some instances where this is not true but I’m focusing on the majority).  There is desperation and a time limit in play.  This makes the characters act and do so sometimes recklessly.  However, it felt right and there were consequences to those choices.  My writer brain was once again saying, “Yes, that worked”.

I get some of the points of dislike and contention.  There are viable gripes to some of the plot points that may not land for some.  However, it’s not enough for me to give this film a bad review.  It’s not a perfect film but it’s better than most.  Where The Force Awakens came up short, I feel like The Last Jedi exceeded my expectations.  I felt the weight of the conflict and did not mind the smaller sillier moments (Porg nation is real).

Overall, I put TLJ in my top five Star Wars films (1. The Empire Strikes Back, 2. Rogue One, 3. Return of the Jedi, 4. The Last Jedi, 5. A New Hope).

Call to Action: I’m curious to see what others think of The Last Jedi and how it stacks up against the other films in the series.  Please DO NOT post spoilers in the comments.

Reading Goal Accomplished!

posted in: Fantasy, Reading, Review, Storytelling | 2

For the second year in a row, I’ve achieved my goal to complete my reading goal on Goodreads.  Last year, I was ambitious and did 25 books.  This year, I lost my mind and doubled that, thinking I could do 50.  I did it, but it was not easy.

Let me first say that while I reached 50 books read, the majority of those were audiobooks.  To be honest, I’m not a fast reader so audiobooks definitely help me both on my commute and while at home if we’re keeping the TV off.  Now, I learned some very valuable lessons when approaching these reading challenges and finding success: don’t over-extend yourself.  What I mean by this is I got to the point where I realized I could reach my goal but only if I read or listened to shorter books.  The problem here is I had books I really wanted to read but felt they would take too long to finish.  Obviously, I knew by the end that I needed to rethink my reading goal.

So for next year, I am giving myself some leeway and going to shoot for 30 books.  I’ll very likely read more than 30 but I hated feeling the pressure of finishing a book just so I could keep on track.  Reading in general is essential for me to not only learn but keep my mind active, not depending on stimulation by screen only.  I’m not proud of it but I am one of those people that can always have the TV on.  It doesn’t bother me to have it on just for background noise (this drives my wife crazy and is why we institute “no TV nights” in our house).

If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter then you are unfamiliar with my book reviews.  I like to  write three reviews for my favorite books I read for the last four months (Newsletters are released at the end of April, August, and December).  Below you will find some recommendations not included in any of this year’s newsletters:


The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The first book of The Dark Tower series has been around for awhile and was on “To read” list for years. I finally got into it and really enjoyed the book. It’s not a tough read and establishes interesting characters in an even more interesting world. Action and conflict are not lacking here. For fantasy lovers, it’s a must.


Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

This was a fun listen since Anna reads the book. She’s the Pitch Perfect girl if you’re unfamiliar with her. She’s also full of spunk and her personality comes through as she reads. I was not aware of her background and her journey to acting and becoming an Oscar-nominated actress so this kept me interested and made me laugh a lot.


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I did a longer review of this one a few months back but with the movie adaptation coming out soon, I wanted to highlight it again. It’s a fast-paced virtual adventure with loads of geek-speak and 80s references, which is definitely trending again with Stranger Things Season 2 fresh in our minds. Check this one out even if you’re not a gamer or geek aficionado.

Call to Action: I encourage you to sign up over at Goodreads and take your own reading challenge for 2018.  It’s a lot of fun and if you’re like me, setting a challenge for yourself might get you to set aside time each day to put your nose in the pages.

December Update/Christmas Traditions

posted in: Film/TV, Life, Review, Storytelling | 0


My plan is to keep the normal schedule and format for the blog this month. 
The next flash fiction for the ongoing Shoals to the Hallowed series will be released on 30 December (this also happens to be my bday so I expect high praise in the comments section. If you don’t want to give that, I accept Amazon gift cards).  The third and last newsletter of the year will be released on the 31st.  If you want to sign up for that, please do so when prompted on the website or send me your email address and I’ll add you to the list.

For the month in general (we’re half way done already!), you’ll see a lot of Christmas themed posts.  I’m a big fan of Christmas.  The season (I prefer cold to hot always), movies and music (there’s just so many good options), food and drink (nothing like carbs, coffee, and whiskey to keep me comfortable), and traditions.   It’s these last that I want to explore a little today.


I can only speak for myself and my heart goes out to those who don’t care for the Christmas season for whatever the reason. 
I understand and get it.  However, I have pretty much nothing but good memories of the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.  My family never did anything crazy or outlandish (far from the Griswold experience).  We did the tree and lights.  Maybe a few other decorations around the house.  What I remember best was going to my grandparents’ house Christmas Eve to eat dinner and exchange gifts.  My grandpa would read the Christmas story from the Book of Luke and we’d all go on our merry way (no pun intended).  Christmas morning was getting up way too early (I was one of those kids who could not sleep no matter how late I stayed up), getting into our stockings first and waiting the appropriate amount of time before waking up my parents so we could get to the good stuff.

After we made a mess of the living room, we would eat breakfast and get ready for the day.  Usually we were out the door after noon and heading to the gift exchange locations with friends and families.  Dinner was usually at my grandparents’ house again with or without other family members who came in form out of town.  We ate, played games, and had the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story playing in the background.  All in all, it was an easy traditional holiday season that I have fond memories of.

Now that I’m married, my wife and I have our own traditions that we’ve put in place and hope to carry on the rest of the way.  Our children will grow up with these and even have a part in adding to our family’s plans and activities from December to December.  Traditions are one of those things I really enjoy and Christmas allows for them to be focused and anticipated every year.

I’ll leave you with some do’s and don’ts:

Don’t spike the eggnog

Don’t stand under icicles

Don’t sit on Santa’s lap in an alleyway

Do spike your coffee

Do bundle up if it’s snowing

Do watch Christmas Vacation with a room full of friends and strangers (if you can)

Call to Action:  My hope is that you all have a great Christmas this year.  Even if past ones have not been worth remembering, I hope this one is.  Be with the ones you love.  Make sure to let them know how much you appreciate their being a part of your life.

How Pixar and Disney Help Me Appreciate Different Cultures

Let me start by saying I don’t come from a distinct cultural background.  As far as I know, my families on both sides came from European immigrants (that’s really a best guess).  So I don’t have much to work with when it comes to traditions or heritage that I use to identify with.  What’s interesting though is I have a continuing growing interest in different cultures.

Writing fantasy is the perfect outlet for me to be creative and create new cultures and peoples, coming up with languages, cuisine, fashion, traditions, holidays, religions, etc.  All of these require some foundation of how cultures develop and evolve over generations.  Some are forgotten while others are passed on from generation to generation with little change occurring.  For example, language in the United States is constantly evolving through pop culture and technology.  A hard drive back in 1940 is not necessarily the same thing as it is now.  However, in Iceland and other countries, language has remained mostly unchanged (see https://theculturetrip.com/asia/india/articles/the-10-oldest-languages-still-spoken-in-the-world-today/).

My interest in cultures (both fictional and real) has been bumped by Pixar and Disney’s recent push to explore times and places otherwise not touched in their expansive catalog.  We have Brave and Coco (Pixar) and Frozen and Moana (Disney).  I’m going to be honest here.  I really enjoy all of these films (most of all Moana, which my wife likes to tease me about).  Why do I like them?  Because you can tell the filmmakers truly wanted to explore the cultures of these peoples and introduce them in a celebratory way.  I can’t help but be drawn to this aspect of storytelling.

In my own writing and those of fantasy books I enjoy, I love how cultures (mind you made up ones) add a layer of reality to the story that pulls me in and keeps me engaged in the story.  There’s beauty and intrigue to be shown.  As we often see in the Pixar and Disney examples, it’s heritage and tradition that drive the protagonist to see their goal completed.  A theme I often explore is identity and there’s a great focus of pride in identity when it comes to these characters and where they come from.

For a guy (myself) that feels left out when it comes to heritage and culture, I love to immerse myself in these places and peoples who have vibrant traditions founded by their ancestors.  I love seeing these stories celebrated and shared with greater audiences because the diversity of the world is worth noticing.

Call to Action: It should still be in theaters, so I encourage everyone to go see Coco.  It’s a great film about family and the importance of remembering those who came before us.  You can’t go wrong.

To Doubt is to Progress


Let’s dive in.  As I get closer to finishing my recent revision of So Speaks the Gallows, the creeping whispers of self-doubt interrupt the process.  These are not words of castigation but instead subtle pricks of critique that make my hands pull away from the keyboard and seriously consider the words on the page.

Revising is difficult.  You think just writing a full novel is hard, try going back over what you’ve spent years shaping and being excited about and then questioning why entire sections come across as borderline tissue paper in strength.  You wish it was more than single ply but instead, you get this thin sheet that could disintegrate at the first sneeze.

No, I have not given up and I have not put my toes over the ledge to look down into writer’s oblivion.  (It would take a lot for me to reach that point of disappointment.)  I think I’ve simply come to a section of the book where I’m not impressed with the writing (granted it’s my writing).  I know I am more than capable of girding up the paragraphs and dialogue where it suffers most but I find myself wondering about the strength of the writing as a whole.

What if the beginning is strong but it begins to wane and lose its clout the further we go to the right towards that back cover?  It’s an honest question and, I think, a natural one to explore.  Maybe it’s strong enough in the beginning to hold up any weaker sections.  Maybe an agent will get to these weaker sections and say, “Well, this needs to be reworked but I think you’re more than capable of doing it.”  These are the questions that like to poke at my confidence each time I return to revise.

As I’ve said, I’m okay with rewriting entire chapters (I actually did rewrite the first five chapters and feel they are extremely strong now) but I wonder if I should do it now or simply try to fix the weaker prose as is.  Either way works to be honest.

All this is to say doubt is a very natural and, I think, healthy emotion to go through as an artist.  For me, it keeps me in check and forces me to look back at certain sections of my book and ask questions like, “Can this be better?”  Most of the time the answer is a big fat “Yes!” and so I need to be willing to strip down the prose and rework.

So to any of my fellow artists who lay awake or stare blankly at the page or canvas, do not become bitter or agitated.  Embrace the pain of being mediocre (only at times, not always) and let creativity fizzle and reset.  I have no idea if this is sound or good advice but I know it works for me.

Call to Action:  Here’s a fun exercise to consider when in doubt, ask some simple questions and answer as truthfully as possible.

1)  Why do I have this sense of doubt in my work or abilities?
2)  Is there truth to this?  If not, what is the lie behind it?
3)  What can I do to strengthen confidence in myself again?

Try these out and see where it gets you.

On This Day – 18 November 1985 – Calvin and Hobbes First Published

My first exposure to Calvin and Hobbes came when I was probably around thirteen years old at my grandparent’s house.  My grandpa had recently received or bought one of the collection books and had it on the living room table.  I picked it up and was pulled into the world of the precocious six year old and his imaginary best friend/stuffed Bengal tiger.

Suffice to say, Calvin and Hobbes will always remind of my grandpa.  I have great memories of growing up and creating outlandish scenarios with him (his imagination was just as a vast a child’s).  This coincides with my love for Calvin and Hobbes because the comic strip is more about imagination than it is about a misbehaved child.  Just peruse the examples I’ve included in my post.

As a thirteen year old (I’ll remind you I was not reading a whole lot during this time of my life), I naturally gravitated more to the pictures and art of comic strips to understand Calvin’s current escapade.  As I grew up though, I began to read beyond the more minimal scenarios and found a great intellect and wonder in the kid.  His alternate personas (Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, and Stupendous Man) exemplified my own imagination as I played with action figures and created several different characters and worlds faced with conflict (a precursor to my days of writing).
We’ve been blessed with ten years of Calvin and Hobbes by the great Bill Watterson.  I continue to revert back to the comic strip whenever I need a quick laugh.  In my mind, there is no better cartoon strip for children and you can bet my kids will be introduced to it at a young age.
Call to Action: What are your memories of Calvin and Hobbes?  I’d love to know how others first encountered the strip and how it has affected them in life.  Also, check out the great documentary, “Dear Mr. Watterson,” if you can find it.  It’s a great exploration of the comic and its creator.

Stranger Things: Rewatch of Episode 7

posted in: Fantasy, Film/TV, Review, Storytelling | 0

The Bathtub

Recap:

We get a sweet moment between Mike and Eleven, finding there are growing feelings there.  Then comes Dustin to ruin their preteen romance in hilarious fashion.  No time to laugh though as they hear Lucas frantic on the other end of the walkie talkie.  They can’t figure out what he’s saying until they finally hear him say the bad men are coming.  Out the window, Mike and Dustin see vans fast approaching.  On their bikes they flee with Eleven and while we get some great action and tense moments, you can’t help but think that infamous sequence in E.T. when Eliot and his friends are riding their bikes to keep E.T. out of the hands of the government.

Then as they think they’ve escaped capture, another van turns the corner in front of them, blocking them off.  Then Eleven makes their bikes fly over the van!  Except she doesn’t!  No, instead we get our expectations subverted and Eleven launches the van over them, making it land upside down on the street to block off the pursing vans.  Another great iconic moment from this show!

The boys and Eleven get to the junkyard and hide out. Lucas joins up and apologizes to Eleven. Friends again!  As helicopters fly overhead, Lucas tells them what he saw at the Lab and they determine the gateway to the Upside Down must be there.

Hopper and Joyce show up to the police station to get Jonathan, learn from the bully whose arm was broken that Eleven is with Nancy’s brother and the group comes together.  Jonathan and Nancy explain why they have the monster hunting gear.  They all go to the Wheelers, see the Hawkins Lab folks there and then go to the Byers house to locate the boys, grabbing Will’s walkie talkie and reaching out.

We get a good moment of Stevo tired of his goober friends, ditch them, and go to the theater to help wash off the marquee.  Good on you Stevo!

Nancy makes contact with Mike on the walkies and after some back and forth, Hopper does enough to convince them to tell him where they’re at.  Somehow, Labbies show up with tranquilizer guns and just as they are about to find the boys and Eleven hiding out in a bus, the Unstoppable Hopper shows up with his fists of fury!

Everyone’s finally together (whew! It’s taken awhile) at the Byers house and after they catch each other up, Eleven tries making contact with Will or Barb in the Upside Down.  It doesn’t work and she eventually realizes she needs more than a walkie talkie.  She needs water.

Dustin comes through again when he calls Mr. Clarke, who is on a date watching John Carpenter’s The Thing (another 80s horror/sci-fi classic!), and asks about sensory deprivation.  Getting the details, they all head to the middle school to set up a kiddie pool and fill it with 15,000 lbs of salt.  Yay science!

Eleven goes in the water, floating and entering the blackness.  There, she finds Barb’s body and then finds Will hiding in his fort in the Upside Down.  After she returns from the blackness, Hop has a plan to enter the Upside Down to find Will.  Joyce goes with him where they get instantly caught by the Hawkins Lab security after getting onto the grounds.  Meanwhile, Nancy is saddened by Barb’s death and tells Jonathan she wants to finish what they started and kill the Monster.

The boys and Eleven hang out at the school and before the episode is over, we see Will in his fort and hear the Monster close by before the wall explodes and we’re left wondering what happens.

Reaction:  Another solid episode that really rides the emotion of our main characters all finally coming together.  The van launch by Eleven in the beginning is definitely a high point.  We want to see our “heroes” succeed and find Will.  Barb’s death is one of those series deaths that bummed out a lot of watchers.  She seemed to have become an instant favorite despite not being in the show very much.

80s Refs: E.T., The Thing

Call to Action:  I want to say The Thing should be revisited.  It’s a weird, crazy sci-fi flick that is in a lot of ways iconic.  I saw it as a teenager and while the practical effects don’t hold up in many cases, for the time, it was a very well done film.  Totally up to you if you want to watch it but if you’re a fan of 80s classics and haven’t seen it, you should set aside two hours, turn off the lights and chomp on some popcorn.

Why I Watched IT

posted in: Film/TV, Review, Storytelling | 2

I will start by saying this is not an open endorsement to go and watch Stephen King’s “IT” in theaters.  Instead, I want to explain why I had the desire to watch it.I watched the 1990 miniseries (more like two made-for-tv movies to be honest) back when I was probably close to ten years old.  At the time, it was creepy and definitely had moments that scared me.  However, this was back in the time when tv would edit out a lot of mature things, which is no longer the case.  Nevertheless, the miniseries still had its moments.

The book of “IT” is extremely violent and has some very mature themes that could not be put on tv.  Looking back now, the miniseries has various levels of campiness and the acting is subpar save for Tim Curry’s performance as the iconic clown, Pennywise.  His performance has remained a staple of his career and also in the horror genre.

Twenty seven years later, we are introduced to the film adaption of the novel and it is more true to the book despite many liberties being taken.  The horror and gruesome imagery in the book translate to an R-rated film much easier and the director, Andy Muschietti, did not hold back.  Believe it or not there are scenes in the book that even by today’s standards could not be filmed and put on the screen.  I won’t go into the details but King introduced some troubling things and to this day people are not keen to (as well they shouldn’t).

Now, why did I want to watch this film?  I am in no real way a horror fan.  I have tons of memories of scouring the tv as a kid and finding horror movies (all edited for general viewing, of course) and daring to watch them even though I was not allowed to.  Why?  Mostly because I was curious.  I never had nightmares from doing this but those images do stick with you.  Part of me definitely did it to get the rush of adrenaline one gets but I’m not a junkie for that sort of thing.  I’m more a fan of suspense than horror.

For “IT”, my draw was partly due to nostalgia because I remembered the mini series and I also remember reading in-depth synopses of the novel (I never dared to read it) so I was curious as to how this film was going to turn out.  I paid close attention to the trailers and tv spots whenever they were released and watched them on YouTube and I even watched the breakdowns of these clips.  Again, all out of curiosity more than anything else.  After listening to reviews from multiple critics, I gauged their response to the film as well and the high regards for it tugged at my interest more.  If they had all said it was crap and not worth their time or money, then I’d probably be like, “Eh, maybe I won’t see it then.”  Alas, that was not the case.

When it came time to watch the film, I was apprehensive but knew plenty about the source material and even heard some spoilers that I felt prepared.  Hahaha, I know, I know.  Why watch it then?

I have to say the film is well made and the acting performances by the young actors are spot on great.  Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of Pennywise the Clown was different than Tim Curry’s previous portrayal and every bit intense and scary.  A very good job.  The creepiness factor is there throughout and at times so subtle that I only knew what to look for because of some of the reviews I listened to.  Some seemed specifically aimed at the theater goers.  Was it scary?  Yes and no.  Was it violent?  Yes and yes.  Was it worth my time?  I think so.

Let me explain why.  As I’ve done this whole writing thing, I’ve been drawn into storytelling no matter the medium.  Whether its movies, television, comics, video games, etc.  If there’s a great story with even better characters, I am interested.  It doesn’t matter the genre either.  I kind of equate my experience watching “IT” to my experience of playing “The Last of Us” which I reviewed in a prior blog post.  “The Last of Us” was an intense experience!  There are so many moments where the intensity of the environment and situation have my adrenaline up and flowing.  If you’ll recall, I loved the experience of the gameplay but even more so the characters of Joel and Ellie.

For “IT”, the kids make the movie.  Yes, Pennywise and all of his eerie creepiness are more spectacle than anything else because he’s a shape shifting other worldly entity of evil that feeds on the fear of children.  What they fear, he becomes, which as you can imagine produced some frightening things.

I think what draws myself and audiences to “IT” is essentially the kids and their banding together to beat this evil that adults cannot see or even sense.  And this threat is very real since we see at the beginning that it preys on children, feeding on them once their fear meets its needs.  There is a very real sense of danger to them and we cannot help but root for their survival and defeat of evil.

Call to Action: Don’t watch “IT” unless it’s your brand of entertainment.  I can honestly say that while I enjoyed the film for some reasons, I don’t feel the need to see it again.  One and done until the sequel comes out (yeah, I forgot to mention it’s a two-parter film as well).

Dealing With Plot Holes

Have you ever been watching a movie, tv show, or even read a book and thought, “Wait what about (blank) or what happened to (blank)?”?  For example, did you ever wonder about why the eagles didn’t just take the One Ring to Mordor and drop it into the lava from on high?  Did you ever wonder why Marty McFly’s parents didn’t recognize him in the present after he impacted their lives back in the 50s?  Oh, and what about Buzz Lightyear freezing like all the other toys when humans come around?  I mean, he thinks he’s a real space marine yet he acts like a toy!  Childhood ruined…  Do these instances drive you crazy?  I can keep going if you’d like.

As a writer, this is something I often have to consider and pay close attention to while I plan, write, edit, and revise.  Early on, it’s easy to write yourself into a corner or come up with a convenient climax to force your main protagonist into success.  This is just another example of growing as a writer to be honest.  Lessons learned is the best way but you won’t get there unless you have some astute beta readers looking for these faux pas.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to find some very good beta readers myself.  In fact, I would actually encourage (I know this is weird but track with me) you to write into your story small and large plot holes (or inconsistencies), making sure you are aware of them and see if your beta readers come across and puts a big giant “?!?!” next to them.  If they do, then I think you’ve established finding a beta reader worth keeping around.  Plus, you can trust they will find the plot holes you’ve glossed over yourself.

Caution/Warning!: Make sure you go back and fix those deliberate mistakes before you send your story to an agent.  Trust me, they will pick up on it and if it’s especially glaring, they will chuck your query in the waste bin faster than a dog scarfing a burger tossed in the dirt.

How do you fix a plot hole?  By writing of course.  It may take some passes but the solution will eventually come to you.  The best thing to do is not feel overwhelmed if it takes a while.  Be willing to sit on it for awhile, letting your creativity go to work while not sitting in front of the screen.  In fact, grab a notepad and write down the plot hole.  Let yourself do some manual writing for a change and see what comes.

I ran into a minor but glaring plot hole in the first chapters of So Speaks the Gallows after my main beta reader brought it to my attention.  I actually had to talk it out with him in order to find the fix.  It was actually a simple solution that didn’t require too much rewriting but it did need to take place.  I’m glad it did because it actually allowed me to add a layer that otherwise would never have been there.  (I’ll reveal what this was later down the road once the book gets published.  I’m planning on releasing some behind the scenes/commentary posts in the future but you’ll have to wait for that.  Hopefully, not too long of a wait.)

Consider plot holes, mistakes, inaccuracies, etc. to be somewhat a natural occurrence if you’re a storyteller.  It will happen because the more complex your story is, the more likely you will forget to consider a plot, setting, or character aspect that will lead to your audience giving you a big red “?!?!”.  Try not to get upset or discouraged by these instances.  Shrug it off and begin the search for the solution.  Once it’s there, insert and revise accordingly.

Call to Action: If you want to seriously treat yourself to some fun plot holes in movies and tv shows, simply go to Youtube and search “plot holes”.  You will not be disappointed.  Avoid the Disney videos though because these will inevitably ruin future watching of your favorite animated films.  But if you’re a diabolical glutton, watch with and then test your children to see how smart they are once they watch those same movies.  See if they have the beta reader/critique knack.

Plot Twists

Something we often look for (it’s probably been ingrained in us ever since reading fiction became a favorite pastime) in a story/plot is the twist–the unexpected.  We love them as an audience.  Our brains and imaginations begin to search for them both on the pages and on the screen.  Why?  Because we love to be surprised.

Warning: There could be potential spoilers in this blog post but they’ll likely be of an “older” period.  So if you see any examples that spoiled the twist, I apologize but have to wonder why you denied yourself the joy of these great stories and then ask why at least your friends and family did not expose you to the light.  Just saying.

A plot twist is an unexpected revelation.  It can be a character moment, setting, theme, etc.  All of these can be stand as the twist but more often than not, it is character-based.  For myself, the essentiality (I wasn’t sure if that was a word or not when I typed it) of a plot twist is necessary in terms of keeping the reader on their toes.  I have read several books over the years that are straight forward and don’t offer any real twist or surprise but rather a simple telling of the story presented that focuses more on the characters and the things they do and learn.  This is fine.  Nothing wrong with it and quite effective.  One that comes to mind (very random but it popped in the ole noggin’) is that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carole”.  There’s no real plot twist by the end of the story.  Scrooge just experiences some existential trips and learns that this “humbug” ways lack happiness and joy.

However, the big plot twists that we’ve come to enjoy over the years somehow enrich our experiences as partakers of fiction.  The Twilight Zone series is consistent when it comes to twists and people flock to it to see if they can guess what is coming by the end.  Then we have what is probably the most famous cinematic plot twist in that Darth Vader is in fact Luke Skywalker’s father and not just the Sith Lord bent on destroying the Rebel Alliance.  What?!  (If I spoiled that for you…well, it’s time to crawl out of the dark hole and join us sunny folks).

I say all of this in that I personally believe and feel a plot twist should only be employed for the sake of enriching the story of the characters.  A great plot twist is one that shocks the characters we are following as they navigate through their conflicts and goals.  If the protagonist is shocked and undone, then even better is the reader who shares in the revelation!

For myself, I think I write knowing that things will be revealed in due time.  I don’t think of terms of wanting to set up a huge twist.  There has to be natural progression to the story in order for these reveals to work as they should.  I could give some great examples of fantasy authors I respect and feel inspired by but I’d have to play the spoiler.  I’d hate to deny people that joy.  Some really good twists that happen in fantasy can by found in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I reviewed the first book a while back).  Sanderson does a great job of setting things up and pulling the rug just when you think something obvious is going to take place.

All of this s meant to enhance the reading experience.  There are so many aspects to great storytelling.  Many writers attempt to get there and the opportunity is always there to be grasped.  However, it is a learned art.  Like with so many aspects, including twists and reveals unexpectedly to the reader is not an easy task.  What is disappointing though is when a cheap twist is introduced.  I aim to not utilize this type of trick on the reader.

Call to Action:  Let’s see if I can get a boost of newsletter subscribers.  I’m a few days away from releasing the new one so tell your reader friends.  Thanks!

Story vs Plot: Significant Others

posted in: Fantasy, Storytelling, Writing | 0
Sometimes, as I write, I get lost between the story and the plot I’m telling.  What are the differences between the two?  Are story and plot synonyms to each other?  If not, how do you tell the difference?

I’ll do my best to explain how I view the two and how I approach both as a writer (watch it will be simpler than I expect it to be).

For myself, I view plot as the overall arc of the narrative being told, and the story is the individual journey of each character.  Yep, that’s simple.

We can easily think of a series of stories, told from the perspectives of characters–major and minor–forming a greater plot.  The challenge is always balancing the rises and falls of each smaller story and how it affects the plot.  Characters should have victories and failures (otherwise we fall into the “perfect hero” cliché).

The best thing to develop as a writer is the ability to plan enough of the story(ies) to know the ending but also give enough leeway so as not to strangle the possibility of shifts to the stories or plot itself.  These can often lead to surprises that otherwise could not be planned out.  Sometimes, these surprises are amazing and other times a bit disappointing.  Early on in my writing, I noticed that I could start the story well but without a clear plot, I did not know where to go with the characters.

It’s important not to view the characters within the narrative as plot devices themselves.  Just because their stories make up the plot does not mean they are solely in the service of serving the plot.  Yes, their decisions should add context and even provide obstacles along the way but to have characters conveniently act so the plot comes together as it needs to by the conclusion is a bit a cheat and disservice to the reader.  (Hint: twists, turns, and surprises keep the reader engaged and always questioning what could be coming next.)

I believe it’s a slight slap to the readers if they are able to figure out how the plot and/or stories will conclude.  Sometimes, this is inevitable.  How many actually thought the Lord of the Rings would not end with the one ring being destroyed?  The genius of the plot is how Frodo and Gollum’s stories take turns that affect them as characters.  What are the consequences of their handling of the one ring?  This is story whereas the plot of the one ring being destroyed to destroy absolute evil can only be done by the journey of the characters involved in the common goal.

As I write and create complex characters in worlds of equal complexity, I often have to remind myself that the plot is “x” but the variables of characters (a, b, and c) make up the equation (I’m crap at “advanced” math so if I did that wrong…well, it just goes to show why I got A’s in English and Literature and C’s in algebra and all the other evil math classes I had to take).

Call to Action: Try looking at your favorite books or movies.  Can you spot where stories and plots are different?  Are there bad examples and good examples?  Share your findings!

Also, sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t yet!  The Shoals to the Hallowed short story has a title: The Queen’s Gamble.  Really excited to share the story with everyone.

Creating an Editing/Revising Plan

I try to keep my blog informative and fun but sometimes I definitely want to write more towards fellow writers or even to those who are considering taking up writing.  Whichever you are (and maybe you’re neither but still like to come by and read my beautiful words), I hope today’s post will be beneficial.

If I had to estimate, I would say 40 percent of my writing experience is creating new content.  The other 60 percent is editing and revising.  I can often come up with new ideas quickly and hash out that first rough draft quickly with all the burrs and nicks.  In my experience, editing and revising are essential steps in the process of polishing a story to be ready to read.  Big rule for writers: Don’t let anyone read your rough draft.  Just don’t.  I know you’re excited to share your recent story and want someone else to love it as much as you.  Unlikely.  Just being honest.

In reality, your rough draft is not going to be good.  It may have parts that work really well but there will be wordiness and clunky dialogue more often than not.  Unfortunately…this goes beyond the rough draft.  For the love of all things sweet and shiny, I am seeing horrible mistakes in my fourth revision of my book!  Sometimes, it takes a few attempts to really chisel, sand, and polish before your story is ready to be read by another person.

I’ve been thinking about a system for myself and my own writing when it comes to editing and revising.  What would work best as I go through the process of making it worth reading and not come away having to answer a hundred questions of why this is that or what does that mean?  After a few questions like this, you start to question whether or not you acted prematurely in your earlier years.  So, I’ll preface this plan by saying I have not followed this yet.  This is merely my plan going forward with future books I write.  (Note: This is prone to change as I go through the process.)

Start: The rough draft is the beginning–the blank canvas.  That’s blank pages being filled in with whatever the writer’s mind is creating.  Notes and little ideas of setting and characters are implemented here depending on your level of preparation.  If you outline, then it’s easier but if you prefer the “go and flow” method, then the rough draft will have a definite coarse feel to it.

1st Edit/Revision: This should be done after you’ve finished the whole story.  Beginning and end have to be in place (write down any notes of things you want to change and plan to add, adjust, or delete after the story is done).  Resist the urge to go back and make corrections to page 10 when you are on page 230.  Until then, those changes you thought of while writing the rough draft should not be implemented.  Look for any grammatical errors as well.  Do not skip these.

2nd Edit/Revision: By this time, you know the story very well.  You could probably recite the whole thing to someone.  On this pass, I start looking at details.  Look for descriptions (characters, world, culture, themes, etc.) and make sure these are consistent throughout the story.  You are layering now.

3rd Edit/Revision: Step back and don’t look at or work on the story for at least a month.  If you are on a deadline, then I recommend some look-ahead planning.  When you come back to your story, you will see things you don’t like and will want to change.  Have at it!  One thing you may notice is wordiness.  Be willing to cut where it needs to be.  Rearrange some sentences if you need to.  Make it flow!

4th Edit/Revision: Read out loud.  I’ll be honest here.  I have not done this to a great degree but as I progress forward in my own writing, I have a plan to start reading my stories out loud to myself (not another soul in earshot!).  Why do this?  Because you will notice things.  Word flow will read bloated or stuffy.  You want flow.  Whether read in your head or out loud to a room full of listeners, you want your words to be silky smooth.

5th Edit/Revision: (I know, I know.  Almost there.)  Now, you might be tired of your story.  In fact, you are going to have doubts about it.  Before you convince yourself it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on, take a breath and relax.  You’ve put in the work and it should be ready to be read by others.  Find readers.  I would recommend friends and family who will be honest with you (not always easy to do but you should have some).  Make sure to tell them they need to be honest.  They do you no favors if they tell you you’re writing is the second coming of Tolkien, Dickens, or Milton (it likely won’t be).

Finally, take whatever feedback you get and apply those changes where you deem necessary.  Sometimes, you won’t always agree with the suggestions and that’s okay.  Preferences in readers is not gospel.  Don’t let it be.

There it is.  This is my editing and revising plan for myself.  There are other details but seeing as how this is a long blog post, I’ll leave it there.  Writing requires patience, effort, discipline, and the will to finish.  Being creative is not enough.  I did not know this when I first started and discovered it along the way.

Call to Action:  If you’re a writer or want to write, I’d suggest tucking this post away for reference.  There are plenty of other writers out there with different methods and probably even wrote books on the topic.  Find what works for you and stick with it.  Make changes along the way if you need to.  If you’re another writer and stumbled over here and have different methods, please share!  I’m always looking for ways to improve.

Writing Likable Characters

posted in: Fantasy, Storytelling, Writing | 2
As I’ve stated many times, characters drive a story.  How well the characters are written can bring life to the world and the narrative.  Elements like setting, themes, plot twists, magic systems (for fantasy), etc. are all great but cannot effectively drive a story.  Readers become attached to the characters in the world in which they’re reading but if the reader struggles to care about the characters, it has to be asked if they even care what happens by the end (assuming they even reach the end)?

I’m going to take two examples of two “main” characters and delve into their likeability.  For me as a reader, I’m immediately judging whether or not I care about the character whose journey I am following.  Their personality is being revealed to me slowly, peeling away until I see the inner workings.  What are their motivations, passions, desires, fears, weaknesses, shortcomings, etc.  If I can relate in anyway, then I am definitely hooked early on.  If not, then I am reading in search of qualities I can gravitate towards and maybe empathize with.  If the character has obvious faults (selfish, conceited, proud), then I am reading in hopes that they find redemption and become a changed person whom I’m happy to see the maturation and growth of.

I’ll start with Quentin Coldwater of Lev Grossman’s book, “The Magicians”.  Quentin is a young man, looking to graduate high school and make the next step in his educational career.  He discovers that he has been selected to take a test that would–if passed–enroll him into a secret school for young magicians to learn magic and excel in the “arts”.  It’s not a unique story in itself and Quentin is somewhat the typical main protagonist.  There’s just one problem…he’s a bit of a jerk.

Now, he has not come from a loving family; his parents are often out of the country and having no real relationship with him and that seems to be the cause for much of his attitude towards others and the struggle he has to form relationships.  In this, Quentin makes friends but he really does struggle to have healthy relationships.  Most of this is the basis for his selfishness and insecurities.  Where he does excel as a character is his believability.  I know people like him.  I’ve seen them over the years and treat others as he does, followed by having to face the consequences of his choices and more often his mistakes.

I personally struggled to like Quentin throughout the first book and series (though I did finish it and even now cannot remember if his final moments mattered to me).  He has some redeeming qualities over the course of his story but his angst and “woe is me” attitude (all brought on himself by the way) drove me crazy at times.  So often I just wanted to speak to him and tell him he’s acting like a petulant child and needs to be better at life and treat others with respect and value.  (Of course, I could not do this and therefore read on, shaking my head in continual annoyance.)

Next, let’s take Tyrion Lannister of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin or “Game of Thrones” for TV watchers.  To put it simply, he is quite the character.  There is depth to him that is revealed in such a way that you’re continually finding yourself liking him more and more despite some of his less than admirable qualities.  He’s a lecher and drunk but loyal to his friends and family despite the latter continually regarding him (sometimes quite openly) as being only of value because he bears the family name.  You sympathize with him because you recognize his ability to possess passion for others who have endured horrible hardships.  He abhors cruelty and is not prone to hurting others (cough, cough), often believing he can use his status, knowledge, and wisdom to get the upper hand.

Tyrion goes on a whirlwind of a journey that sees him rise and fall but always remaining who he is.  Specifics would lend way to spoilers so I’ll stray from those but as a storyteller and fan of a good story, Tyrion is one of the best out there in my opinion.

The more I read, the more I recognize these characters like Tyrion who I find enjoyable and surprising despite what I might personally regard as vices in their lives.  Do the virtues outweigh those vices?  In Tyrion, I actually do think this.  He has a propensity for getting out of difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations without comprising his established character.  His sometimes heartless reactions to situations make sense and not out of left field for someone of his capability.

As a writer, I am continually thinking about my characters more than the grand plot.  Do I want to make them likeable?  Yes, but I also want them to feel real to the reader.  They cannot be perfect in every way otherwise where’s the risk and danger?  Even if the reader has a sense that some character(s) won’t die, there still needs to be this burden of wonder that something bad or even horrible can happen to them either by way of outside forces or as a result of their choice whether that choice was honorable or not.

One thing I like to ask beta readers is whether or not the characters were complex, relatable, etc. or the opposite.  Getting that feedback helps me as a writer.  As I revise, I take the time to examine every thought, word, and action of the characters to make sure they are not simply doing something for the sake of the plot.  Rather, everything they do should be based on their reaction and/or response to what is happening around them.  Writing likable characters is forever an exploration and process of becoming a better writer.

Call to Action: Are there any examples of unlikable characters you’ve read?  Or maybe ones you did like in the beginning of a book and then did not by the end?

Wordiness:  Too Many Too Few

As I revise, I am becoming more aware of the things I do wrong as a writer.  Some of this is chalked up to my first draftiness (ah, fun word play) but as I work on my fifth revision, I have to consider my growth and maturing as a writer.  Today, let’s talk about my being too wordy.

First drafts (in my experience) are serious word vomit sessions where I seem to just pour it on and on because I’m still telling myself the story.  That’s what first drafts are: the writer telling the story to themselves first.  Each subsequent draft of the story should be less of this.  Those drafts need to be approached with the attitude of, “Now I know what the story is so I need to whittle it down for others.”  When I use the word “whittle”, I do not mean to dumb it down.  Far from it, since I believe when revising, the story should be sharpened.  Each sentence should be put to the whetstone until there’s a fine edge.  No burrs or dullness.

For myself, I am revising my book to the point where I am making sure redundancy and over-description are being removed.  I am looking weak verbs like: are, was, is, etc.  Why say someone is running when saying they ran or rushed is stronger?  I am looking for word flow.  As I mentioned in my previous post about word count, I can honestly say my book is not lacking in the word count department, but to cut away the fat is necessary.

C.S. Lewis said, “Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please will you do the job for me.’”  This and other quotes about writing and being a functional wordsmith continue to linger in my mind.  Writers should strive to evoke and stir the emotions of the readers, remembering to show them what is happening in the story.

Call to Action: Newsletter plug time!  If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter, definitely do so.  Not only will it have exclusive info about myself since the last newsletter and some book reviews, but you will also get the Shoals to the Hallowed short story that will close some gaps and provide context to the flash fiction series.

Stretching and Testing: Exploring Other Genres

posted in: Fantasy, Storytelling, Writing | 2
While at this time in my life as a writer I am focusing on fantasy, I often wonder what it would be like to sit down and try to write a story (at whatever length) that moves away from my preferred genre.  I dabbled in this in the past with short stories for classes and while they were definitely not fantasy, I always approached them with the desire to explore different characters who had secrets or qualities that were not revealed until the very end (I may have to dig these up and consider revising).

I blame this blog post of a rabbit trail of creativity on my attempt at reading non-fantasy books.  As I’ve stated before, I am looking for different kinds of books to read to help stretch my writing muscles.  So far, I delved into biographies and a few contemporary fiction novels.  I’ve enjoyed these books for various reasons but I can’t help but wonder, “If I were to write a satirical novel or maybe something considered horror, what kind of story would I write?”

So often, I see motivational and inspirational quotes, encouraging writers to write what they love.  I wholeheartedly agree with this but I can’t help but think there’s value in trying new things.  Obviously, my time is taken up by my devotion to my fantasy series but what’s to stop me from taking a few hours and try to write something that takes place in the late 20th century or more recent?  Nothing really to be honest.  It could serve as a simple creative exercise and there are benefits to that practice.

At this time, I think if I played with any kind of new idea, I’d have to keep it to a short story word count.  If I were to stretch myself too thin, I think I could easily become overwhelmed and that could affect my writing commitments.  This would not be good for myself in the end.  So, a short story would have to be limit.

I think writers can sometimes become distracted by fresh ideas, neglecting current stories that are further along.  I kind of attribute it to being like a new pair of shoes.  You love them when you buy them, wear them everyday, and tell yourself you don’t need another pair for years.  Then, you’re browsing online or at a store and boom!  You spot another pair of shoes that convince you immediately your current shoes are worn down too much to be worn much longer.  I would encourage all writers to watch out for this situation.  You are the best judge of your stories but do not trash something that you cherish just for the sake of something new and fresh.

Call to Action:  Does anyone have a good recommendation for a book of short stories?  I think I need to read more to get a better feel for their length and convention.

Word Count: Does It Matter?

posted in: Fantasy, Storytelling, Writing | 6
Often, writer’s (especially with their first book attempts) just write, trying to finish the book.  That’s the primary goal with dreams of publication on the horizon.  What happens (and this is my experience) is that writers begin to do research and find information on length of the book and how that may or may not affect the book being bought and published for the general public.

When I was younger, this terrified me because I realized that my first book was very large.  Mind you, I’ve decided to love and write epic fantasy because I like a good storytelling challenge.  Now, if you do any kind of quick searches for epic fantasy novel word count, you will find what is quite the endeavor.  Anywhere from 175K to 225K words seems an appropriate average.  This translates to several hundreds of pages both in hardback and paperback, which is quite the commitment for a reader.  It’s even more so for a publisher though who is putting up the money to pay for a wide release of what they hope will be a bestseller.

Publishers are in the book game to make money.  That has to be realized.  Agents are in the book game to make money as well.  They are looking for writers who write something they believe they can sell for a book deal to a major publisher so that the book will hit the shelves at Barnes and Noble and the virtual shelves at Amazon.  Writers are in the game to write.  Sure some look to make money but I’m of the opinion best selling writers have both the skill to write a great story that other people are willing to pay for to read, but also the ability to tell the story in a way only they can.  We’ve got it in us to put the words on the pages.

In the beginning, I wanted to write, get published, and make money.  Not much of a confession since I was 18 and had no idea what else to do with my life at that time.  Now, 32, I want to write and get published.  If I make money in doing so then that’s just an added bonus.  What does this have to do with word count, you might ask?  A lot actually because I cannot sacrifice my story for the sake of believing it can only be published by a major publisher if I get it under 125K words because that might be what the publisher prefers.

From a cost/profit position, I get it.  It’s not easy to sell a new epic fantasy book that stretches several hundred pages and expect a profit all the time.  It happens but there’s a lot that goes into the effort of the agent and publisher to get that money.

For me, I cannot get hung up on length when it comes to my book.  Is it long, yes.  Admittedly so, it is long.  But that is because it is epic fantasy.  It’s the nature of the beast.  My goal is to write, edit, revise, and polish it to the best of my abilities.  Not only that, but it needs to be the best it can be in order for an agent to believe it enough to invest their career, reputation, and time into it.  It’s no easy task but doable and I believe in my writing and storytelling abilities to reach this goal despite the word count.

To all other writers who may venture to read this blog post (are you out there?  I’m not quite sure to be honest), I would encourage you to tell the story from beginning to end as you see fit.  Be prepared to have to cut and revise if your beta readers make suggestions.  Be prepared to spend more time revising sections if an agent believes it will benefit the book, which will lead it to being sold.  If there’s a section that you disagree needs to be cut/revised for whatever reason, make an appeal and state your reason why.  Trust in yourself.

Call to Action: I’m curious to know if book readers turn away from books based on length.  Do you have a preference?

Recommended: The Last of Us

I’m not the biggest gamer nor would I consider myself well-informed on the great selection of games out there nowadays.  That’s not to say I haven’t wasted many a days staring at a screen and directing an avatar through a dangerous, violent adventure pursuing the ultimate goal or an achievement/trophy.  I won’t be going into a lot of detail about my experience with video games today but I do want to shine some light on a particular game that has impacted me the most in my 20+ years of playing video games across many consoles.

The Last of Us is in my opinion the best narrative of a story in video game form (based on what I’ve experienced; there could be others).  I won’t be getting into gameplay or mechanics of the game itself because I know some readers will not be familiar with that aspect (so let’s keep it general).  However, I think everyone can admire and stand with me when it comes to enjoying a well-told story.  The Last of Us does this.

The game follows Joel–one of our main protagonists–in a future that is decimated by a disease that affects people’s brains and bodies, leading to eventual violent tendencies.  He’s a survivor, suffering demons from the first days of the outbreak.  This leads to his eventual goal for the game.  His task is to escort a young girl, Ellie, to a location across the country where she can be safe from would-be antagonists who seek to do her harm.

Without going into spoilers (just in case any readers have yet to play the game and are planning to), it’s not the most embracing of relationships as Joel is worn down by the world and carries the pain of losing his own daughter years prior.  Ellie is a girl who was born into a broken world and her wonder about the world lost leads her to ask Joel lots of questions and be what a teenager might be in those circumstances: curious.

From setting to setting, the game pits Joel and Ellie against enemies in various forms and they have to do whatever they can to survive and find safety.  Woven throughout this drama and the intense gameplay, you as the player are privileged to be part of the relationship that grows between them.  Joel is a father without a daughter and Ellie quickly becomes the potential surrogate despite his wanting to be done with the mission at hand, struggling to bond with what he thinks might be stolen away from him yet again.

My love for this game comes from the dynamic between the two characters.  I have a soft spot when it comes to stories that involve a parental figure and a child who rely on each other and come out changed for the better in the end (see my review of Logan).  By the end, both Joel and Ellie are different, experiences real growth.  I can admit, but there’s a point in the game that is so emotional that I definitely teared up a little.

A minor narrative detail throughout the game is when the game slows down and Joel and Ellie are going from one place to another (or from conflict to conflict).  Here is where the casual conversations take place.  Ellie will see something or you can direct Joel to look at something in the environment and Ellie will react, asking questions that explore her thoughts, Joel’s thoughts, and end with the two talking as if the world has not gone toes up.  It’s a small detail strung throughout the game but adds a layer no other game has taken advantage of to my knowledge before it.  It’s a genius character element!

Yes, The Last of Us is a video game and while a great many lack in great storytelling, this one sets the standard.  It was funny, I found out a friend of mine recently started the game and I told him I would come and watch him play to witness his experience with the game.  It’s something I cannot go through for the first time again but I love that others can.  Even if they do not feel the same way as I do about it, to me it’s worth experiencing just as much as I think some films or TV shows should be experienced.  It’s storytelling done right and I will always be drawn to those examples.

Call to Action: It’s not a simple, “Oh you should go out, buy a Playstation and the game, and play!”  No, that’s not feasible.  Instead, I’ve attached a non-spoiler review video for your viewing pleasure.  There’s some in-game language and violence in the video so you’ve been warned.