The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.

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Be Original

What to write? Sometimes we are so full of ideas that we have absolutely no idea what to write. They’re all stray ideas which don’t fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and this is frustrating! So you finally take one idea and try to wring it for all its worth. Now, you can come up with a good story like this, but here is something to keep in mind when you’re trying to craft a story with stray pieces of an idea:

  1. Is the main idea or the way the story unfolds cliché?
  2. If yes, how can you make it different?

Surprisingly, a lot of stories (films, shows, and books) ignore how unoriginal their story is almost as if hoping no one will notice, or at the very least we’re not tired of the same old storyline. Should we, as writers, settle for this? No—not if we can think for a moment longer on the plot and create a unique twist on an old element.

For instance, there is a new TV show that’s going to start up sometime next month called ‘Galavant’. It looks absolutely cheesy, full of clichés, completely predictable, but hilarious at the same time. It starts off as your typical king-steals-man’s-woman-to-marry-her-and-man-goes-to-rescue-her plot, but in the trailer there is this little twist that made me laugh because it’s about time someone did it!

Galavant: (in front of the king’s court on the day of the king’s wedding)“You can offer her great fame. You can offer her great fortune, but only I can offer her great love, and that is what she chooses.”

Woman: “Actually…I’m going to go with the fame and fortune.”

Galvant’s face drops with disbelief.

Sure, it’s not much, but it’s taking a cliché and bashing it against the rocks. I don’t know how the show will play out, but this is a simple example of taking something old and making it new again. There are a lot of parody and satire skits that do just this, and it’s what makes them funny, but you can make something new again without always being humorous. It can still have the dark, dramatic atmosphere if that is what you want your story to have.

When you’re thinking of what to write, don’t rely on the charm and wit of your characters or the vast vividness of your settings or the complex systems and worlds and creatures you’ve created to enchant your readers. If the basic plot is ‘good guy fights bad guy and good guy wins and gets the girl’, or ‘hero discovers they’re the savior of the city/kingdom/world/galaxy/universe and must fight all evil but first must train and eventually defeats the villain’, this is predictable. You might write it well and completely draw in many readers, but aren’t you the least bit curious how much better it could have been if you had just taken a moment to make it different? Take the seed of your idea and contemplate it deeply. What will make it stand out in a crowd? What will make it so unique?

I once co-wrote a story, and the basic principle was this: peasant girl discovers she has inherited an entire kingdom after her father died, and now she must learn the cultures of royalty at the hand of a prince from a neighboring land. Initially, it appears to be the same old story where a commoner suddenly rises to power, and you may predict, “Well, she’s obviously going to fall in love with the prince, and they’ll live happily ever after.” But that is far from what happens. She falls in love with someone else only to be rejected by him, and at that time the kingdom has been attacked. She has no time to entertain love but rather focuses on the defense of her kingdom, and as such she morphs into a true queen, and things get much more complicated from there. The story doesn’t have a happy ending either, and it goes on to have a much darker sequel. This is just an example.

So, when you’re contemplating your next story, think it through, imagine how it will unfold, and if you run across the usual cliché, then do the opposite of what’s expected (or at least something different). Don’t settle for the routine but venture to be distinct. If you want to stand out in the crowd, don’t run with the crowd.

Writing–It’s Our ‘Normal’

All of us have had those days when we’re just going through the motions and dragging our feet—lethargic. Dishes in the sink are piling up. You might be working two or three jobs just to keep afloat, and the drama at the office is wearing you out. Drama at the home isn’t much better. You’re pulled in a million different directions, and everyone wants your attention. You might be going through an emotional low point and can’t motivate yourself to do much, and writing is far down the to-do list. You might be sick—with a fever or something worse.

How am I supposed to write in this condition?” Because your conditions aren’t ‘normal’, you allow yourself to slack off with writing. However, we encounter a lot of difficulties in life:

  • Growing up
  • Relationship/heartbreaks
  • Going to college
  • Tests
  • FINALS
  • Performances and parades
  • Roommate drama
  • College graduation
  • Car accidents
  • Horse accident
  • Trips across the U.S.
  • Trips overseas
  • Living in a foreign land for several months
  • Living with a family of three small children
  • Having three or five children of your own plus numerous of pets and a spouse to care for
  • Fevers, colds, all sorts of illnesses
  • Work — long commute
  • House maintenance and remodeling
  • Family drama
  • Visitors—who stay a year
  • Heart surgery (or any kind of surgery)
  • Death in the family
  • Watching a loved one endure unspeakable back pain
  • Betrayal and backstabbing from those considered friends

And so on and so forth.

The point is even with all this we still write. Why? Because writing is what is ‘normal’ to us. The world can be crashing down around us. We can find ourselves sitting in the waiting room of a hospital not knowing what news we will hear next, but instead of pacing and over-thinking the unchangeable situation, we write. It brings an indescribable peace to us, and it pulls us out of ourselves and helps us see things from a different perspective. It calms us and passes the time more swiftly, so when the doctor comes in with news, we can look up expectantly but not overly anxious because you know being anxious doesn’t help the situation—having a clear mind does; at least that’s how it works in your stories, and you know your life is one big story. What kind of character do you want to be?

So, what if you’re down with a fever? The last thing you want to do is look at a computer screen—especially a blank page that won’t write itself. Not only that but your brain won’t stop thinking! You can’t complete a thought without another thought interrupting! How are you supposed to write anything that makes sense? The amazing thing is, once you focus, the thoughts seem to complete themselves, and they do make sense. As for not wanting to stare at the computer screen—well, a lot of people can type without looking at the screen—only opening their eyes when they think they’ve made a mistake and need to backspace.

A lot of people put off writing when life interrupts, but to me, writing is what is normal. When I can’t write or don’t write, something is seriously wrong—that is abnormal. Sure, I might not be able to reach my 1,000-2,000 words a day that I like, but if I can write at least 250-500 words, I’m satisfied because I tried.  Some days are harder than others. Sometimes you may suffer Writer’s Block in addition to everything happening in your life, but you need to determine where on the scale of importance does writing rank in your life.

So, is writing your normal?

Always Try To Write Your Best

I’ve discovered one unchanging fact about writing: it gets more fun the more you do it. Every time you write, it should be your best piece. You should only ever have one worry as you write it, “How am I ever going to top this?” But as quickly as you think that, dismiss it and keep on writing—laugh like a manic as you word the perfect lines and twist the events flawless to your plan.

If you give it your all, it won’t let you down. It will keep you engaged, and it will amaze you—if only given the chance.

I’ve heard writers say how it’s their goal in life to write ‘this specific story’ and that’s it. Once they write it, they would have reached their lifelong goal and their calling as a writer is over. Some reason it reminds me a lot of marriage—some people think all will be perfect and complete once they’re married, and they live their entire single life trying to find The One, and once they’re married they’re left holding the pieces and having no clue what to do from there.

To those writers to tell me that, I look at them and think, “They won’t influence the world of writing much. Their single book probably won’t stand the test of time. It’ll be lost and forgotten in the volumes and volumes of books.” This is not a concern of mine. If that is all they wish to do, that’s their business.

However, if you long to be a real writer—one who turns out lots of books every year—you need to think differently. View every book as an opportunity to get better at some aspect of writing.

For me, for the longest time I wanted to perfect a readable and enjoyable form of description and dialogue. Once I did that, I wanted to capture the essence of a unique character and portray them accurately on paper. More recently I’ve been trying to perfect the antagonist and make them realistic so that the reader can sympathize with them and maybe even view them as the protagonist. Another time I decided to see what happens with a huge cast of characters without any getting cast aside.

Sure, I haven’t perfected all of it, but because I write with that in mind rather than trying to write the most epic story of all times, the story always outdoes itself, and I’m always left to wonder, “How am I ever going to top this?” But I don’t worry about it. I just keep writing, and it keeps surprising me.

Always try to write the best you can, but keep in mind that the best will not be perfect (revision and editing are mandatory). Once you finish it then go back to it, you might groan and say, “I can’t believe I wrote that!” However, at that specific time in your life, with everything you were encountering outside of writing, it was truly the best you could have written. So keep that in mind, and do the best you can. Always try to keep writing fun for yourself because if it’s fun for you, it’ll be fun for your readers to read. 

Immortal Words

TowerFinal

Artwork by Peyop (Pierre Fabre) – contact@cartographic.fr – www.cartographic.fr

 

“All right, we’ve discussed description, dialogue, point of view, tense, characters—can we get to the actual story now?” Yes, well…kind of. Before we get to the fundamentals of the story such as plot, outlining, structuring a story, etc., let’s discuss the purpose of a story—more importantly, your purpose for writing it.

Imagine, if you will, a time a thousand years from now. The world as you know it is gone, but some wise soul of our age built a library that went deep into the ground rather than above it. In this place, with the air properly circulating, are thousands upon thousands of thousands of books! Fiction, nonfiction, classics, modern—all are there. This library’s entrance has been sealed for a millennium, so the books have only gathered dust.

Finally, one day, the seal is broken, and a team of archeologists discover this profound well of tales and wisdom from a time so long ago. They can’t read the language because it’s an ancient and lost language, so they carefully gather a few books to take back to their experts to try and translate them.

What if your book was one of those chosen to be read? Your story stands on equal ground with the greatest pieces ever written. How will it stand? What would it say of our era? Will it have any depth to it? Any lessons? What eternal value does it have? In other words, why are you writing it? “Because the story has to be written!” That is a moderately okay answer, but as a writer, you should know it goes beyond that.

Why should your story be written? Because you’re curious how characters in a certain situation would interact and respond? Okay. Or maybe this plot is just really awesome? That can work. Maybe your story speaks of things relatable to people of all ages—such as love and hate, war and peace? That’s acceptable. But is there more?

Words and stories are powerful tools that shape the mind of the living—for good or for bad. Most writers, I find, will write on a whim because something catches their interest. That is fine and can work, but this can become a problem if stories with real meaning is overwhelmed by shallow writing. Am I saying you should never write fun stories? No—they’re fun for a reason. I wholeheartedly encourage writing them! Just…perhaps those stories should be considered the ‘Playground Experience’ because they’re helping you perfect your craft. However, as you face the prospect of publishing, think about your book being found a thousand years from now and how it would influence those who read the printed words.

As a writer, you have the chance to influence the future and history. You have the ability to make people think—to teach them how to think, so what will you do? Write for yourself? Your own enjoyment? Your own space and time in this world? Or will you go beyond yourself and write so others may learn?

“Kelly, you’re talking vaguely. What are you trying to say?” Okay, let me tell you why I’ve written and published my historical fiction novels, and maybe you’ll get a better idea of what I mean.

My stories are based on the life of King Baldwin IV—the Leper King of Jerusalem. He suffered a lot—lost his sense of touch, taste, smell, and eventually his sight, ability to hold his sword, ride his horse, or even walk. The disease decayed his face and his entire body, and he was forbidden to touch anyone. Not only was he greatly afflicted, but he had much responsibility as king of a kingdom at war, and he became king when he was thirteen though he died at age twenty-four. As you can imagine, he endured much in his short life, so why did I write his story? Why did I bother to publish it? Because his response to all his afflictions and how he never shied away from responsibility are good examples for us today—in a world where we sue someone because we spilled coffee on ourselves or how we encounter one difficulty while performing a task, and we throw our hands in the air and give up. Baldwin’s story is an example of how to respond differently and properly.

Several readers of mine who have experiences losing loved ones, hospital visits, broken bones, terrible sunburns, mental inability, and emotional drain, all tell me one thing when they reach out to me, “When I was going through that, I kept thinking of Baldwin and realized my situation could have been a lot worse. At least I wasn’t ruling a kingdom when it happened, I didn’t have leprosy, and I could actually feel what was happening.” In other words, it helped them stay calm in the situation and think through it rather than merely reacting.

Writing is powerful. Stories are powerful. That is something we have forgotten in this day and age when all we care about is recognition and fame in our time.

So why are you writing the story you are writing? Why should those words be allowed the immortality of ink? Beyond yourself, beyond your lifetime, beyond your legacy, why does your story matter? Why does the world need it?

That is something for you, and you alone, to contemplate.

Next, we’ll focus more on story.

 

The Personality of Writing

I want to write, but there’s no time!” – the most common excuse I hear from wannabe writers. Now this excuse can be twisted in other forms such as, “I can’t find the time” or “I’m going to be too busy,” and so forth.

Writing is a very unusual child. It is most patient and quiet. Oh, it will nag you with ideas and whisper pleas for you to write, but it won’t scream on top of its lungs at you forcing you to strap it down and shove food into its mouth.

No, writing is like the child at the table who wants someone to pass the salt, but instead of asking, she simply stares at the salt shaker as if willing someone to read her mind or for the salt to pass itself. That is why it is easy to ignore it and to put it on the back burner. “I’ll deal with it later.” That’s almost like saying about your child, “I’ll spend one-on-one time with her…later.” That sounds cold, doesn’t it? You’d never do that to your child because you know the impact it would have on the child’s life.

Since writing is such a patient character, it will only occasionally whisper reminders to you―maybe when you’re watching TV, reading a book, surfing the net, just hanging out with friends. “You said you want to write. Why don’t you write then?” You respond, “I don’t have time.” Writing replies, “There are twenty-four hours in a day. I just ask ten..fifteen minutes. Why don’t you give me that much of your time?” But then you ignore it because you don’t want to stop what you’re doing and pick up that old promise.

However, as silent as writing may be, it has a cruel edge to it. It rusts with time. It won’t recall all the brilliant ideas you once had. It won’t come when called when you FINALLY sit down to write. No, it will make you work for it―after all that time you made it wait, it’s only fair.

The first thing you write, you’ll hate, crumble it up and throw it away―or press the delete key. Writing wants to make sure you have the commitment because once the commitment is there, there is no turning off the writer. Ideas will download from your fingertips into the computer. You won’t be able to sleep, and even if you do, you’ll dream, and you’ll wake up and have to write down your dreams. Whenever you talk to anyone, you see everything as a story, imagine everyone as a character. It feels like a superpower, and it’s fun and exciting!

But it’s not easy. If you ignored writing for years, it could take just as long for writing to completely trust you and open its floodgates of inspiration.

Imagine a valley. When you were young, you started building a wall across the valley. A little creek ran through the valley, but you had no trouble blocking it off. As you get older, you continue building the wall, and the creek is now becoming a pool―then a majestic lake that is as deep as your wall is high. Then one day you realize it is necessary to let the water flow through the valley and replenish it. However, you know you can’t just knock down the wall all at once because you’ll suffer a tidal wave that could destroy everything. So one-by-one you remove the bricks allowing the water to flow little-by-little back into the valley.

The wall is your procrastination not to write. It holds back the desire to write, stagnating the pool of ideas, but if you are truly determined to write, that wall can come down—carefully, one brink at a time.

Practice Makes Perfect and then Publication

Among writers there is this instinctive idea that the first story you complete will be the one you must publish because it is the best story of its time! But truth be told—it’s not the best story, it’s not the most exciting one out there, or the most unique. Yeah, that hurts to hear, doesn’t it? Some people refuse to hear, and they plow ahead, going with any publisher who accepts their work without much criticism or thought. This often results in what I called on my website ‘Expedited Writing’, and this leads to a low-grade writing quality, which can overwhelm books with real potential.

“So what am I supposed to do? Why bother at all? If I can’t publish what I write, I’m just wasting my time.” Not exactly. Think of publication as the Olympics. At one point in their life, all those athletes decided, “You know what? I’m good at this. I can do it. I like doing it. If I practice and work hard enough, I bet I can go to the Olympics one day and compete!” But it’s a long road of training before they finally achieve their goal.

Writers should have the same mindset. Accept the fact that what you write while in the ‘Playground Experience’ may not be suitable for publication. Does that mean you’ll never publish that work? No—it doesn’t mean that at all. Once you’ve mastered the elements of writing, you can always go back to any story and rewrite it, crafting it much like a diamond miner cuts away at the coal to reach the precious stone and polish to make it shine. Not only that, but when you have a vast inventory of stories, since they are your stories, you can take a piece from one story and place it in another, and therefore craft an altogether unique story.

As a writer, you need to spend less time thinking about publication and more time perfecting your craft. Once you’ve mastered that, you will have the confidence you need to face rejection from publishers because you will understand it is not about your story and whether or not it is good enough, but rather it is because that agent or publisher isn’t right for you at that time.

Once we’ve reached mastery level, does that mean we don’t have to listen to critiques or constructive criticism anymore? Absolutely not. As a writer—as a human being—you should strive to always be learning. However, some criticism people give you can be wrong for you and the story, and the only way you will know that is by knowing your writing style and yourself. Some people will say something, and you will realize, “You know, I never thought of it like that before. I’ll keep that in mind!” But other times you simply have to say, “Thanks but no thanks. I have a reason for wording it exactly that way.” And that confidence comes from being mindful of every single word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene you write as I mentioned earlier in this blog.

In school, many English teachers will discuss the ‘author’s intent’ for a passage, and there is such a thing (it’s usually nothing like what the teachers say it is, but still…). It must be rediscovered, and the way to do that is by knowing your craft, and to know it, you must spend time with it. Practice makes perfect, they say, and once you’ve perfected it, publication isn’t too far away.