Sunday, October 12, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Nine

Sherry here, with another tip on how to avoid wrecking your story. This one grows out of the mildly famous "white room syndrome," possibly first mentioned in that critical manual for SF workshops, the Turkey City Lexicon. In that instance, the main character wakes up in a "white room"--largely because the writer has failed to invent the details of that setting but has forged ahead with the story anyway. This problem is even more insidious than that initial white room, however. Maybe we'll call this one the Out-of-Focus-Background.

The Problem
You know that portrait photography technique, where the focus of the picture is sharp and clear on the main subject, but all else around them is a fuzzy blur of colours? That may produce a beautiful portrait, but it doesn't work so well for stories. In a story with an Out-of-Focus-Background, we might know generally where the character or characters are situated, but there's little description or concrete detail to help ground us in the world of the tale. Characters may live in a house or work in an office, but we never find out what these places really look, smell, or sound like.

To compound the problem, characters may move through these blurry backgrounds in equally fuzzy ways. We don't know how they get from A to B, how long it takes, or what they encounter along the way.  Characters seem completely disconnected from, and unaffected by, their surroundings.

The Fix
Take some time and visualize your characters' world. Make "sensory cheat sheets" for locations in the story. Imagine you are standing in your character's place in a particular scene, and jot down a quick list of words that describe the surroundings: temperature, smells, sounds, colours, textures. What's above you? What's below? What's the light like? What objects surround you? What's the general condition of the place, and how does it make you feel?

Then use a few of these sensory impressions in every scene--choose the ones that have the greatest impact on your characters or their actions. Don't include your entire laundry-list of sensory details in your story for every setting, but have that list fixed firmly in your head, and sprinkle in the most appropriate details for the scene you're writing. Those details might change from scene to scene--for example, when your character checks in to a hotel room, she might briefly notice that the bedspread looks clean and tidy and the room smells of disinfectant. Later, when she's settling in for the night, she notices those odd stains on the carpet and the chill in the air that the heater can't banish.

Have characters interact with the objects you've placed in the scene. We touch things, pick them up, move them around, straighten them, clean them, and generally interact with items all the time, and--staying within the boundaries of what serves the story--so should your characters. We notice colours and details, pick up on scents, react to the temperature--and so should your characters.

And if characters are going from apartment to work, or castle to battlefield, or spaceship to colony planet, they have to get there somehow. Sometimes it's important to show the reader how they do that, and what happens along the way. Occasionally it's fine to say that "X arrived at the office the next morning, freshly shaved and barely hung over," but don't forget that sometimes we need to know if he drove, took the bus, or slept on the subway train.

Unlike the subject of a portrait, who comes to the forefront and is removed from their surroundings, your characters need to fully inhabit the world they live in. Don't leave the background out of focus. Make it as sharp and clear with detail as everything else, put your characters firmly in the middle of it, and your story will come to life for the reader.

Photo by artM

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Flashpoint Interview: Larry A. Gibbons

Our Flashpoint interview today is with Larry A. Gibbons, whose stories will be familiar to regular Third Person Press readers. Larry's stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and newsletters in Nova Scotia, Ontario and the United States, and a book of his short stories, White Eyes, was published by Breton Books in November, 2011. Larry's website can be found at http://www.larryagibbons.com/.

Third Person Press: Where did you grow up? Do you think your childhood influenced you to be a writer?
Larry A. Gibbons: My birth place is Kingston, Ontario and I believe my childhood days in Kingston influenced my writing. I know I had quite an imagination. I can remember, for instance, standing in the backyard peering at the sky through a prism, my mind stretching to reach out and grasp the magic I knew was inside the colors.
And in my early years our backyard bordered on massive fields which gave me lots of room to run and make up exciting adventures.

When I was young I used to hang out in the living room, sitting on an out-from-under-their-feet chair or footstool, and while the adults talked their big people talk, I’d hurriedly try to transcribe their words into my little black notepad. I wish I still had those notebooks. My mother probably caught them in one of her clean-ups.

Then high school hit me like a bomb. Partly because I was a member of a very strict church which believed many of the normal activities you might find going on in a high school to be immoral and not conducive to getting you a ticket to the heavenly big house. This didn’t help me easily find a peer group and besides all that, the classes bored me. I wanted out. One of the ways I escaped was to write stories about imaginary characters and places. That helped me deal with the school and church world.

TPP: Who were your three favorite writers when you were young? Who are three favorites now?
LAG: My three favourite writers when I was young were C.S. Lewis, Jack London and Walter Brooks.

It’s hard for me to pick my three favourite authors. I read a super good book and that writer is my favourite until another comes along. I’ve read many Stephen King books but don’t now because they began to bore me. But the three authors that have impressed me over the last while are George Eliot, Morley Callaghan and Karin Slaughter. I’m now reading George Eliot’s ‘Daniel Deronda’. I have to admit that I’ve been tempted to buy a small dictionary to keep next to my bed. She uses some mighty big words.

TPP: What are you most likely to be doing when you're not writing?
LAG: When I’m not writing I’m either reading, hiking the highlands, cycling, snow-shoeing, skiing, playing hockey, skating, splitting, chain sawing or carrying wood, bumming around Baddeck or playing shovel-the-massive-pile-of-snow game.

TPP: Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
LAG: As a rule I write for about two hours, five or six days a week. My computer is often turned on before breakfast. After breakfast I spend a half hour to an hour reading different non-fiction books along with one or two poetry books I keep on tap. I’ve almost finished wading through the Bible.

When I’m ready to write, I walk into my tiny office, pick a CD, put it into the player, beg, hit and plead with the CD player to play, and when it does, I sit down and begin to type. About an hour into it, I might do some quick exercises while a cup of milk warms up in the microwave. The milk is used to make a hot cup of Ovaltine. I then continue to write.

TPP: What's your favorite beverage while writing? While not writing?
LAG: I have two favourite beverages that I drink while I write, Ovaltine and tea. While I’m not writing, well this is rather hush hush, but besides diet Pepsi and tea, beer is a favourite, but only for medicinal purposes.

TPP: If you were a superhero, what would your name and power/ability be? Or would you be a supervillain instead?
LAG: I would be Telenviro Man - a superhero who protects the natural environments of the world. If a wild place necessary for wildlife or our earth’s health, was developed I would use the power of my mind to telepathically restore it to its original state. Thus, a golf course one day would become a nature-friendly woodland or wetland the next day. Clear-cuts one day, rejuvenated forest the next. What joy that would be! Although I believe there would be some folks who would see me as an immoral, evil super-hero and a scourge to their insane world view based solely on economics and development.

Thanks, Larry!

Remember to click over and read more about the campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flashpoint-anthology/x/1156437

Monday, October 6, 2014

Flashpoint Interview: Donald Tyson

Today's Flashpoint interviewee is Donald Tyson, a prolific author of short fiction, novels, and non-fiction on all aspects of the Western esoteric tradition. You can find out more about his writing on his website, http://www.donaldtyson.com/. His story in Flashpoint is "The Fire-Eater."

Third Person Press: Where did you grow up? Do you think your childhood influenced you to be a writer?
Donald Tyson: Halifax, Nova Scotia, is where I was born and lived most of my life. When I was young it was a quiet little city, but as I aged the city grew. All of the places that were green forest or old farms when I was a kid are subdivisions or industrial parks today. I was happy to move to Cape Breton five years ago and get back to the scale of community life that I remembered from my childhood. I like a slower place. The rush of the big city never appealed to me.

I started to read adult novels on a regular basis when I was nine years old. The very first paperback novel I read was Robert E. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. I was spellbound by it and read it in one sitting. I couldn't stop reading it until I finished it. I began to spend all my allowance money on paperback books. They were mostly science fiction novels, but there were also horror anthologies and novels, some mystery novels, and of course the classics.

I actually read Jane Eyre when I was seven. We had large hardcover editions of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the house. I remember that the quality of Charlotte Bronte's prose fascinated me. I had to stop every few sentences to look up words in the dictionary, but I loved reading it, and I finished the book. I tried Wuthering Heights at the same tender age of seven, but Emily Bronte’s story was too much for me, and it was several years later before I was able to read and understand it.

As for influences that made me a writer, there weren't any. No one on either side of my family that I was in contact with wrote or had any interest in writing. My father was a reader, which encouraged me to read at an early age, but he never suggested that I might have talent for writing. Neither did anyone else, including my teachers. I had to figure it out for myself and that took me some time. I always knew I could write. That was never a question for me. But the idea of becoming a professional writer just never occurred to me until I was in university, and I realized that I didn't want to do anything else. But I was definitely hindered as a writer by the complete and utter lack of any kind of support or encouragement.


TPP: Who were your three favourite writers when you were young? Who are three favourites now?
DT: When I was young, my favourite writers were science fiction writers. Robert A. Heinlein was far and away my favourite. He was my god. I’d have to say that these three were my favourites, in descending order of importance:

Robert A. Heinlein
Arthur C. Clark
Ray Bradbury

Presently, I read mostly horror, mystery, suspense and action-adventure fiction. I stopped reading science fiction around the age of twenty. I just lost interest in it. I’ll rank my three favourite writers that I’ve read recently as follows:

Robert Crais
Cormac McCarthy
Hunter S. Thompson

TPP: What are you most likely to be doing when you're not writing?
DT: I hike in the Cape Breton woods, and kayak on the lakes and ocean inlets. Lately I’ve taken up motorcycle riding. I got my motorcycle license last year. When I was a teenager, I rode for two summers, but I didn’t have a license at the time. I wanted to get back on two wheels while I was still young enough to enjoy it.

TPP: Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
DT: It’s always been the case that I do my best writing after midnight. When I’m working hard on something, I tend to stay awake until four in the morning, and then sleep in to noon. That’s just always been my natural creative cycle. I can write at any hour of the day or night, but when the air is still and quiet in the wee hours of the morning I probably do my best work.

When I write, I fall into a kind of trance. Even though I’m not consciously aware of this trance state, time will pass without me noticing its passage. Three hours will seem like a few minutes to me when I’m working. Often I’ll end up writing all night.

TPP: What's your favourite beverage while writing? While not writing?
DT: I drink tea, and a lot of it. This habit I picked up from my parents, who were both heavy tea drinkers. I don’t really drink much of anything else. I’m not fond of coffee because I find it too harsh on my stomach.

When I was a boy I made a conscious decision not to drink anything with alcohol in it, because I didn’t want to turn into a drunk in my later years. I’ve never drunk any hard liquor, wine, or even beer for this reason. It’s not that I don’t like these alcoholic drinks (I have tasted them out of curiosity), but I just believe that it would be too easy for me to like them too much. Around the age of nine or ten I decided to stay away from them, and I’ve done so ever since.

I also decided when I was a boy that smoking was a bad idea, and I’ve never smoked for that reason. By the same logic, I don’t take illegal drugs of any kind – I think they are bad for my brain, and I need my brain in order to write well. I even avoid prescription drugs, although I have asthma and can’t entirely keep from taking medication for it.

TPP:  If you were a superhero, what would your name and power/ability be? Or would you be a supervillain instead?
DT: If I had to pick an existing comic book hero to become, it would be Doctor Strange. I’ve always been fascinated by the occult and have made an extensive practical study of Western magic. Most of my nonfiction writing has been on various aspects of the occult. Dr. Strange is a superhero who achieves his goals with his skills in magic, which he acquired through years of intense study and the discipline of his mind and body.

TPP: What are you working on now? What's your next writing project?
DT: At present I’m working on a connected collection of contemporary occult stories that have the same central group of characters and take place in the same city. The circumstances of the characters progress over time from one story to another. What happens in earlier stories affects what happens in later stories.

It’s very similar in this regard to my collection of stories titled Tales of Alhazred which is due to be published in an illustrated edition by Dark Renaissance Books later this year or early next year. This also concerns the adventures of a single character, the poet and necromancer Abdul Alhazred, author of the infamous Necronomicon, who interacts from story to story with the same locations as a backdrop and the same general set of central characters.

I am fascinated with this creative form, which as far as I know doesn’t even have a name. I believe its potential to be enormous yet largely untapped. It is intermediate between a novel and an unconnected collection of stories. By making events progress in time from one story to another, so that the characters evolve and change from story to story, in effect the stories become chapters in an interesting kind of loose, episodic novel.

Thanks, Donald!

Remember to click over and read more about the campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flashpoint-anthology/x/1156437

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Flashpoint Interview: Sherry D. Ramsey



Sherry D. Ramsey is one of the co-editors at Third Person Press, but she can't escape the Flashpoint interrogation...er, interview. Her story in Flashpoint is an urban fantasy titled, "B.R.A.N.E., Inc."

Third Person Press: Where did you grow up? Do you think your childhood influenced you to be a writer?
Sherry D. Ramsey: I grew up in Cape Breton, and I do think my childhood influenced me as a writer. I grew up surrounded by books, especially the big wall bookcase at my grandparents' home. That treasure trove offered everything from manuals on animal husbandry and astronomy to classic literature to mystery novels and Harlequin romances. Stories were also a big part of family life, so I think the storytelling gene plays a part as well.

TPP: Who were your three favorite writers when you were young? Who are three favorites now?
SDR: When I was young, I'd usually come home from the library with something by Edward Eager, Walter Farley, or Carolyn Keene. It's difficult to choose favorites now, but I rarely miss anything by Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, or Janet Evanovich.

TPP: What are you most likely to be doing when you're not writing? 
SDR: I'm a bit of creativity addict, so I have a lot of other creative pursuits. I make jewelry and like to dabble in art, and spend summer days in the garden. I also sew, edit projects with Third Person Press, and, of course, read. I don't understand it when people say "I'm bored."

TPP: Do you have any writing habits or rituals? 
SDR: I like to clean up my office before embarking on a new writing project—or maybe that's just procrastination? I'm not sure, but it seems to help. I'm not much of an outliner or planner, but I do like to think about a story for a good while before I start writing it. I have a lot of unfinished projects that attest to the fact that I used to start writing before I'd done enough thinking, so I try not to do that any more.

TPP: What's your favorite beverage while writing? While not writing?
SDR: Coffee for writing, tea for relaxing, especially green tea or chai. Very occasionally a glass of wine, but that's about it.

TPP: If you were a superhero, what would your name and power/ability be? Or would you be a supervillain instead?
SDR: If I were a superhero, I'd be Chrono, with the ability to stretch time so that I could fit in everything I'd like to do!

TPP: What are you working on now? What's your next writing project?
SDR: I'm gearing up to write a new novel first draft for NaNoWriMo in November, and trying to plan it a little more than I usually do (not an outline, but a plan. There's a difference, right?). Before that I'm hoping to finish off a few manuscripts that suffered from that "not-enough-thinking" thing I mentioned earlier.

TPP: Bonus: Is there a question you've always wanted to answer as a writer? Pose it and then write your answer. :)
SDR: I get asked a lot of questions during school visits, so I don't think there's much that's been missed. The question I most enjoy answering in that setting is "Do you listen to music while you write?" It's funny to see the students' reactions when I name all the video game soundtracks I like for writing music. My "cool factor" gets an instant bump. ;)

Thanks, Sherry!  

Remember to click over and read more about the campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flashpoint-anthology/x/1156437

Friday, October 3, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Eight


The Encased-In-Carbonite Story

 

Nancy here, with a simple-to-fix but often ignored element in story telling: the Character Arc.

In real life, when things happen to us, we change--at least a little. Sure, maybe we make the same mistakes over and over, but some kind of change happens, even if doesn't show in our behaviour. That should be true of characters--especially the protagonist--in your stories. Having a static main character, who goes through the whole story as if she's encased in carbonite, is a good way to wreck your story.

The Problem

The story may have a perfectly good plot and interesting setting and characters. Things happen to the characters and they deal with the challenges put in front of them. But if the main character ends the story without having learned something, had an insight, an emotional reaction, grown or evolved in some way, the story will fall flat. Something will feel 'off' and your reader will wonder why they bothered to read it.

The Fix

The evolution of major characters is called the character arc or growth arc. Every story needs one, even if it's subtle. That doesn't mean that a flawed character has to become perfect, or a supervillain has to change into a superhero. Not at all.  In fact it's very interesting to read a story where the main character regresses in some way--maybe ends up more depressed or angry or cynical. It's trickier to pull off because the reader will always root for the character they identify with, but there's nothing wrong with that kind of "negative" growth arc. The character arc can consist of growth, failure, or subtle shifts in worldview, but there needs to be some kind of change.
The good news is that this is an easy fix. After the first draft, look for the growth arc as you're doing your first revision. If it's not there, put it in. Show your reader how the experiences your character went through have affected them. Does it make them want to change their life in some way? We don't necessarily have to know how, but we would like to know that the urge is there. Does it make them surrender to something they've been fighting? Show us, and give us a hint of what that means to them. Does it enliven them, or destroy them? Or perhaps it has done nothing that dramatic. That's fine. Just be clear that it's moved them one direction or another, given them a small insight or a new idea. They should look at their world differently when the story ends.


Remember this, because if it doesn't even have an effect on your character, you can't expect it to have an impact on your reader.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Flashpoint Interview: Steven Fraser MacLean

New Third Person Press contributor Steven Fraser MacLean stops by the blog to day to answer our questions. Steven's story in Flashpoint is "Burning Fear", and is his first published story.

Third Person Press: Where did you grow up? Do you think your childhood influenced you to be a writer?
Steven Fraser MacLean: I grew up in Bras d'Or and Frenchvale, Cape Breton. My High School English teacher Mr. Andrea was a positive influence - he gave my class a 15 minute writing challenge; "they call me Pops" was the title we were to wrap our vocabulary lesson into. He read just one to the class and said it was very creative. This recognition stuck with me. 

TPP: Who were your three favorite writers when you were young? Who are three favorites now?
SFM: I appreciate many writers; I would only cite one as gripping and leaving an impression on me, and that one is Stephen King. .

TPP: What are you most likely to be doing when you're not writing?
SFM: When I am not writing, I enjoy TV or entertaining people at my cottage. 

TPP:  Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
SFM: I tend to scribble some thoughts on a scrap of paper and later collect the scraps to write a story. I always hand write and then type my stories. 

TPP: What's your favorite beverage while writing?
SFM: I like coffee or a glass of red wine while I write. 

TPP: If you were a superhero, what would your name and power/ability be? Or would you be a supervillain instead?
SFM: I think I would want multiple powers if I was a super hero, like Superman. If I only had one power it would be the ability to stop time, and move through time past or future. 

TPP: What are you working on now? What's your next writing project?
SFM: I am working on two Sci-Fi stories currently. One is called "the Lucky Ones" 
Thanks, Steven!
 Remember to click over and read more about the campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flashpoint-anthology/x/1156437

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Flashpoint Interview: Stephanie Snow

Flashpoint contributor Stephanie Snow drops by the blog today to answer our questions. You might know her from her blog, Bare Knuckle Writer, or from previous stories from Third Person Press. And if not, get to know her now! Her story in Flashpoint is "A Year and A Day."

Third Person Press: Where did you grow up? Do you think your childhood influenced you to be a writer?
Stephanie Snow: I grew up all over Atlantic Canada, the result of job migration. Because of that, I read a lot; it was easy to do in the car while we drove to a new town and books kept me company until I made new friends. That had to influence me to write, because sometimes I couldn't find the town library, or it was closed, and had to make up my own stories until I found new books. I guess it became a habit.


TPP: Who were your three favorite writers when you were young? Who are three favorites now?
SS: When I was a kid, my favourites were J.R.R Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, and David Eddings. Now, Pratchett has stayed on the list, but has been joined by Stephen King and Patrick Rothfuss. But this changes day to day, depending on my mood.

TPP: What are you most likely to be doing when you're not writing?
SS: Tabletop roleplaying, working my way through my giant to-read pile, blogging over at Bare Knuckle Writer, or editing whatever the hell I just wrote until it makes sense.

TPP: Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
SS: Get up, get coffee, read over the previous day's writing while drinking it, make notes on what needs to be done today, go for a run, shower, get more coffee, start writing. Any or all of these steps may happen out of order, more than once, or not at all...I may be defining 'ritual' loosely.

TPP: What's your favorite beverage while writing?
SS: Coffee: strong as death, black as hell, and bitter as a broken heart.
TPP: Sounds...invigorating. :) While not writing?
SS: Same as above, but in a smaller cup. Or a single malt scotch so smoky it's like drinking a bonfire.

TPP: If you were a superhero, what would your name and power/ability be? Or would you be a supervillain instead?
SS: There is no universe in which I acquire superpowers and don't become a supervillain. Doesn't matter what the power is. I could spontaneously develop the ability to talk to fruit and would still use it to raise a kumquat army and overthrow the Apple Cultural Hegemony. But if I get to pick a power, then I'll take electricity and lightning. And I'd be known on Wanted Lists the world over as Lux. Except, sexism being what it is, they'd probably call me Lady Lux or some bullshit until I vapourized someone over it. This? This is why I end up a supervillain.


TPP: What are you working on now? What's your next writing project?
SS: Right now the Big Project is the re-rewrite of a novel I crapped out a zero draft of two years ago. Next project? Not sure yet, but maybe the re-re-rewrite. Or a western, because I like westerns and haven't written one yet.


Thanks, Stephanie!
 
Remember to click over and read more about the campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/flashpoint-anthology/x/1156437