Monday, February 27, 2017

Pixar Storytelling

In case you didn't know about this, Pixar offers a free Storytelling course in conjunction with Khan Academy. I've been recommending it to my young students and the newer members of our critique group.

The course claims "There are few organizations in the world that can claim more expertise when it comes to storytelling than Pixar. The Disney-owned animation studio is known for its ability to consistently create world-class movies with gripping narrative alongside stunning visuals. Now, Pixar is helping others learn the secrets of great storytelling – for free, in partnership with online education provider Khan Academy.
The two have teamed up to create “Pixar In A Box,” and in this third installment of the series, lessons are sourced from Pixar directors and story artists including Inside Out and Up director Pete Docter, Brave director Mark Andrews, Inside Out story artist Domee Shi, and Ratatouille animator Sanjay Patel."

The first installment, The Art of Storytelling, is available now. The course, which includes video instruction, keeps track of your progress through email. The link to the course is  Pixar in a Box.

I've been going through the course myself, and have really enjoyed it. Check it out.
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Friday, February 24, 2017

Book Review: The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen

Tosca Lee excels at submerging her readers into her story world, and her transport abilities don't fail in Sheba. But, as always, it's what she does in her story world with her characters that amazes me.

Everyone who went to Sunday school knows the basic story of Solomon and the Ethiopian queen of Sheba, but that's all we know: the basics. Tosca takes her research into the culture and history of the time and creates a feasible back story for the queen, for her rule over Sheba, and her long-distance relationship with an Israeli king that ultimately ends in marriage.

All the political-social-economic elements come into play: the clash of rulers, the threat of usurpation, the insecurities and loneliness of the monarchs, which is what attracts Solomon to her. She isn't a princess traded in marriage for political gain. She is an equal in wealth, power, and responsibility, therefore she understands the loneliness and distrust.

The story is entirely fabricated and entirely plausible. That's what I love about all of Tosca Lee's books.

By the way, if you ever get a chance to study under her, either at an ACFW conference or at Realm Makers, jump at it. You won't be sorry. In the course I took of hers, she illustrated how to draw on your own emotions for your writing to create realistic characters---a technique similar to that of Donald Maass. The reason the both teach it is because it works. It can be uncomfortable, enlightening, upsetting to dredge up memories and to re-experience the pain involved---or the happiness, whatever you're going for---and even that experience itself can be used. The point is that, while the story can be fabricated, true emotion can not.

Tosca knows this, teaches it, and employs it in her novels. The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen is no different.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Deadlines, Tweedle Dum, and Tweedle Dee

Deadlines. Depending on our perspective we either love them or hate them. They keep us on track and on our toes, or they plague us unmercifully until they've either been met or passed by in a blur of disappointment and failure. "I'm on a deadline" is a great way to deflect unwanted attention, put off other chores, or strike fear into our own hearts. But it's also a test of our organizational and time-allocation skills, and far too often we fail.

You might be thinking I'm on a deadline. If so, you're right. I've worked hard toward reaching that deadline, and I'm now in the homestretch. Unfortunately, the next few days will find me working at fever pitch to meet it even though I've done my duty by systematically working on my manuscript during the last few months. But, as usual, I'll be working overtime to slide into home because I failed to take into consideration (at least, partially) what could keep me from meeting it.

I did everything correctly. I divided up my available time, taking care to be realistic, into the number of pages I needed to edit (a whopping 450) and figured out how many pages I would need to edit per day if I wanted to reach my goal. I even padded my schedule a bit to allow some laziness on my part to throw me off schedule.


Here they are--Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum--the twin repercussions
of deadlines. Tweedle Dee (no relation to Deborah Dee by the way)
glares at me with a "I dare you to ignore me" glassy-eyed glare, and
Tweedle Dum (that would be me, I suppose) stares at me as if to say,
 "How many times do you have to endure this, you nincompoop,
before you finally learn you can never, ever correctly calculate how
much time it will take to make your deadline?" Nasty little slimy things.
(Please don't tell them I said that.)
So why am I sprinting to the finish line rather than leisurely strolling? Because I forgot--as I nearly always do--to account for things other than my own laziness (which I can always count on, thank you very much) that might waylay me on my merry way to the finish line. I forgot about life. I neglected to account for my father moving out of our house and into another and all the changes in caregiver appointments that move would entail, not to mention packing, movers, address changes, and the like. I didn't add in the time it would take for my daughter to travel out-of-state to scope out a job possibility during which I would take on the sole care of my granddaughter. I didn't make time for a visit from my sister and her husband to assist in my dad's move or the precious time I'd want to spend with her while she's here in Tennessee from Michigan.

And why didn't I? Because I had no idea any of that would be happening, that's why. Life interrupted my plans, as it has a way of doing, and stuck things into my schedule for which I had no foreknowledge. Not very polite, I know, but life is like that. Selfish, unexpected, gleeful at surprising/shocking/
impolitely sticking its nose into things it has no business sticking it into. Or does it? Isn't that what life is all about? Surprises around every turn, unexpected jigs and jogs, upheavals when we least expect it?

Yep, that's life. And it's my fault, as it usually is, for not taking those unexpected events into consideration when I scheduled just how much time it would take to make the edits on my manuscript before they were due. And why is that my fault when I did all I could to allocate my time perfectly? Because life always interrupts. It's what life does. Life's interruptions are never unexpected. The only thing unexpected would be if life didn't interfere with the way we spend our time.

If I were smart (and there's a lot of debate about that), I'd double my allocated time for editing to account for those unexpected twists and turns that life always tosses into the journey. But then I'd simply stroll along knowing I'd padded my schedule, never thinking anything will really happen, and then WHAM!--there's life, sitting right in front of me, smugly taunting me with its interruptions and nasty little blots on my perfectly-created calendar.

You'd think I'd learn.




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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Punctuating Compound Predicates

I'm recycling a previous blog because recent editing of a novel brought up something new about the subject. Here is the sentence in question:

Her blue eyes flickered in friendship, then retreated into inscrutability.

Apparently, some publishers' editing guides omit the comma:

Her blue eyes flickered in friendship then retreated into inscrutability.

The grammatical problem with omitting the comma is that dictionaries list the word "then" as an adverb or adjective but not, as that last sentence uses it, as a conjunction. Grammar requires either the conjunction "and" (or a comma plus "and") before "then"—or else just the comma to mark the omission of "and."

Researching that problem further on the internet, I found only one instance of the omitted comma. The site http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/4828/comma-in-compound-complex-sentences lists this sentence as correct:

     I picked up my paycheck then paid my bills.

However, that site concedes that "most people would instinctively add 'and' before 'then' to allow for the comma between two independent clauses."

    I picked up my paycheck, and then paid my bills.

That site also invites critiques by readers, so I submitted a comment that the sentence without comma or "and" was ungrammatical because it uses an adverb/adjective as a conjunction.

These abstruse questions of grammar will not affect the next presidential election or the price of oil on the international market, but they do affect our reputations as writers. And correct usage in this case allows writers to use punctuation of compound predicates to help dramatize the actions they describe.

Toward this end, the literary critic Stanley Fish wrote several decades ago that a sentence means everything that happens to the reader as he progresses through it. In our instance today, the writer can apply this principle to compound predicates. Here is a sentence that can be written and punctuated two ways:

The man hesitated and then spoke.

The man hesitated, then spoke.

            
The comma forces a pause, dramatizing the man’s hesitation. But that dramatization is lost if the sentence is written with the “and,” rushing the reader through to the second action. Here is another example:

The rifle held steady, then wavered.

The rifle held steady and then wavered.

The first example dramatizes the action of holding steady and the pause before wavering; the second deemphasizes the steadiness and rushes the reader through to the action of wavering.
            
The principle is this: Use the “and” to rush the reader through the sentence to suggest continuous action, but substitute the comma for “and” to make the reader pause, suggesting a time lapse or at least separation of the predicate’s two actions. Here are several examples from my novel Deadly Additive, written both ways here for comparison of effect:

Kristin and Jocelyn exchanged a questioning glance, then stared again at the door.
Kristin and Jocelyn exchanged a questioning glance and then stared again at the door.

She shivered once, then steeled herself to endure a long, cold night.
She shivered once and then steeled herself to endure a long, cold night.

After jogging half a mile he paused to catch his breath, then proceeded at a walk.
After jogging half a mile he paused to catch his breath and then proceeded at a walk.


He took a sip of his drink, then started in alarm.
He took a sip of his drink and then started in alarm.


Both forms are acceptable, but the effect is different—a matter for the writer to choose the one more appropriate for the narrative situation.

Speed readers will not notice the difference, of course, but then speed readers miss much that the text of a novel contains.



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Monday, February 13, 2017

MENTOR EXCELLENCE

Me with my mentor, Velda Brotherton

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~ William Arthur Ward


I began to seriously write in the late 1990s and joined a critique group headed by Velda Brotherton and Dusty Richards. I was one of two nonfiction writers in that group. We met weekly and since everyone else wrote fiction, I learned about scene, sense of place, point of view, showing instead of telling, and much more. This enhanced my nonfiction writing without me even realizing it because I unconsciously used the fiction techniques I heard about week after week. Later, I found there is a name for this style of writing—creative nonfiction. 

After a few years in this amazing group, I wanted to give fiction a try. Since I enjoyed historical fiction I decided on that genre and wrote about the 1850 Gold Rush, the year the Southern Route to the west opened up. I spent a year researching and then settled in to write. Wow. It was hard. Even though I had sat every week in a fiction critique group for three years, I realized I needed help. 

Thank goodness for Velda Brotherton. She was a multi-published author with major publishing houses. However, she was also a very busy lady. Still, I took a gamble and asked her to mentor me. She graciously agreed. I will always be grateful for the time she invested in me—time she would never get back. Although that book still wants a home, as many first books do, because of what I learned from Velda, I went on to write other books. Finally, my book, Women of Washington Avenue, was accepted by The Wild Rose Press and has since been turned into a series—The Moonlight Mississippi Series.  The second book in the series, Avalee's Gift, will be released March 31st.

I'm so glad I took the plunge and asked Velda to mentor me. However, it didn't end there. I am now returning the favor and investing in other writers. I enjoy encouraging, validating, and mentoring people. And you know what? I always learn when I invest through mentoring.

John Crawford Crosby writes," Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction." Simple and oh so helpful. So if you feel you need a mentor, ask someone and also be available to mentor others.

Don't feel you are unqualified. You have something to offer. We can all learn from each other. I used to tell my children, "There is always someone behind you and someone ahead of you. Learn from those ahead of you and grasp the hand of those behind you and help them catch up."

So whether you are grasping a hand for help or offering your hand to help, mentoring is an important element for excellence in writing!




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Friday, February 10, 2017

The Gilded Curse: A Book Review



Lexie Smithfield finds herself traveling back to Jekyll Island to the Millionaire's Club following the death of her older brother at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent death of her mentally ill mother. She's the sole survivor of the Smithfield family, and she's been summoned with a mysterious telegram telling her that Destiny, her family's lovely vacation home, needs her. The family accountant has warned her that it's no longer financially feasible to maintain the home, and she plans to stay on the island only long enough to make arrangements for necessary repairs and sell it. 

Her plans change, though, when she arrives and finds a childhood friend, Russell Parker, keeping alive his family's tradition of working on the island. Though he has responsibilities keeping things running smoothly around the sumptuous resort, he still finds time to show Lexie around and help her with her own duties before she can sell the house. It seems, however, that someone's been ransacking the home in the long absence since the family last visited. That, along with a bitter handyman, attacks by German U-boats against American tankers in the waters off the island, the fact that her mother always claimed the family was cursed by the island, and an overzealous suitor from Lexie's past make it impossible for her to leave before solving some mysteries. Who sent the cryptic telegram? Is the gruff handyman her worst enemy or a protective guardian? Is there more to Lexie's father's death than she was told? Is the Smithfield family cursed as her mother believed? Meanwhile, Russell and Lexie find their childhood friendship is morphing into a possible future together. 

Marilyn Turk does a fine job of taking the reader back to the early years of World War II when rumors abounded and the all-too-real dangers of war reigned supreme. The characters are nicely developed, the plot line is interesting (with a twist here and there), and the setting is beautiful. This was a relatively quick read, but it nevertheless held my attention to the end, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a wholesome historical romance. 

Marilyn Turk's roots are in the coastal South, born and raised in Louisiana, now a Florida resident. A multi-published author, she loves history and likes to put her fictional characters in real events of the past. A fascination for lighthouses spawned her popular weekly lighthouse blog @pathwayheart.com, and inspired her to write Lighthouse Devotions. She has published two historical fiction books so far - The Gilded Curse, a 1942-era suspense, and Rebel Light, a Civil War suspenseful love story and Book One of the Coastal Lights Legacy series.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Un-Characters


by Lisa Lickel

We’ve all read books where we just couldn’t get “into” the characters. Either we didn’t relate to what they were going through, we didn’t like how they acted or what they said. They did things we never would do or can't believe. Sometimes we authors or know-it-all readers will say things like the characters were “undeveloped,” as we’re prompted by Amazon reviews.

What did you do? Put down the book? Berate yourself because you didn’t read the back? Snarl at the ad or person who recommended the book? What is it with Jodi Picoult, anyway?

There is a purpose for unlikeable, unrelateable, unformed characters. Creating these fictional people has nothing to do with our maturity as writers. Their “appeal factor” is partly marketing and partly creating a circle of influence in the story via setting and scenario around the characters that is relateable to our audience.

Character-driven Fiction vs. Plot-driven Fiction

When theme of a book is a situation that makes our readers uncomfortable before they even pick up a book, there’s going to be trouble. This is what my first agent tried to get me to understand years ago when that agent suggested intelligent women don’t read issue-laden fiction. While the Best-Seller list patently disagrees, it is true that genre-based serial fiction sells better than one-offs. The lesson I eventually learned, nine years and three agents later, was that when an author sets up a situation that polarizes the audience, no character is going to come out clean.

Here’s a test: Writing a novel thriller that features the president of the United States is not a character-driven novel, because in fiction, the fictional president has a persona that can be anyone. No one can really relate to that character. It’s the situation in which the president is placed—the plot—that drives the story. In this case, the character can be disturbingly unlikeable and still get away with audience votes. The flipside is creating a character with a problem who has choices only part of your audience agrees with. These choices (not decision) drive the story. This no-win, can’t-please-everybody syndrome may work if you create enough audience tension. On the other hand, I stopped reading Ms Picoult after Handle With Care, a story about an emotionless woman who gave birth to a child with brittle bone syndrome then sued the doctor, her best friend, ruining her life. I’d read a few of Picoult's other books, and didn’t find a character I liked. I am obviously in the minority.
   


Evoking Passion

I mentioned above an experience with my first agent. The particular manuscript we’d been discussing is a book with life-size issues and characters who make choices some people can’t relate to. To be fair, I did pose the question of how you’d react in the situation I was writing about on Facebook and other places, and personally knew two people who felt and acted that same way my character did. The poll results were very mixed regarding how a person might respond. The problem? Recurrent cancer and a treatment that may have been worse than a potential cure. The choice? Pummel an already weakened family by making them watch her die, or retain her dignity by leaving and dying peacefully. See? Even my explanation is biased.

A book club recently featured the story and invited me. I like to do these things, even though it can be a field day of gleeful torture. Readers buy you, they own you. But it’s always enlightening. I admit surprise at the passionate, and yes, oh-come-on responses. I never saw it coming that someone felt strongly the dying woman shouldn’t have chosen to be a parent. Other comments were varying degrees of when and who should keep secrets. One person felt all the characters were too over the top and dismissed the story. I like to think of book clubs as microcosms of readers. It’s good to learn what they think.

Ultimately, unlikeable characters have a place in story. They don’t always have to be the villain, but they have to have a purpose that lets readers into their wounded worlds. They can stink, say all the wrong things, have really evil emotions, make poor decisions, wear cool clothes and be food snobs, but if they have a battle to win, readers will take sides. They inhabit the conflict that propels the story.

Unrelateable characters are in the eye of the beholder. For every reader who refuses to accept your character’s choices, another will passionately defend or open a discussion on alternatives. Characters may feel unformed because your audience doesn't identify with them. Not everyone likes a princess, and some people are fascinated by Hannibal Lecter.


And that’s really our goal as authors—to incite passion, conversation, and further exploration.

Which characters in fiction do you like and identify with, or have trouble accepting?

Photos courtesy of morguefile.com
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Friday, February 3, 2017

WORDS THAT CHANGE EVERYTHING: Speaking Truth to Your Soul by Karen Jordan



Book Cover: Worry, anxiety, and fear saturate our world today more than ever from acts of terrorism to economic downturns. But many women face real fears in their own homes: death, illness, job loss, betrayal, rejection, and dozens of other threats that challenge their family's well being. As women recognize and understand the warning signs of worry and negative self-talk, they can employ strategies to navigate their overwhelming anxiety and hopeless thoughts. Most Christian women know the Bible encourages them not to worry about anything, but few women know how to respond to their worries, especially in a crisis. "Words That Change Everything" offers true personal stories with biblical applications to help everyday women understand the purpose of their God-given emotions and identify biblical prayer strategies to help them confront their worries. 

My Review: I've known Karen a number of years. I've heard her speak to women about how she learned to face her fears and then share what she has learned. Therefore, I'm delighted she has finally written about the wisdom the Lord has taught her in a book. This is a great tool for anyone who struggles with fear, anger, or negativity. In it she identifies sources of negativity, how to overcome this habit, and how to maintain peace. It is an easy and honest read because she uses anecdotes from her own life. 

   
Karen Jordan: www.karenjordan.net

Karen is an author, speaker, writing instructor, and blogger. She focuses on topics about her faith, family, and writing. A native Texan, Karen and her husband, Dan, live in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, near their children and grandchildren. 

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Three Questions

James Tissot - Holyday - Google Free Images
Our critique group participated in a workshop called Using Art in Prose. The presenter showed us an Ansel Adams painting and asked three questions: 1. What do you see? 2. What do you know? and 3. What can you imagine?
Participants wrote a few paragraphs, answering those questions, in the form of fiction. The exercise is one I use often. I love to create a story using paintings.

James Tissot (Oct. 15, 1836 - August 8, 1902) most famous for his biblical paintings, is the creator of the painting shown called Holyday. It's obvious that a Victorian era picnic is happening. I can see tea, cakes, and the pond. I know that it's Fall because of the color of the leaves, and the clothing of the people in the painting indicate the weather might be chilly. If you're interested in what I imagined, click here. 

This exercise is a great one for writing practice. Who's up for imagining a story premise around this painting?

James Tissot - The Letter - Google Free Images



 Can't wait to see what you come up with.
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Monday, January 30, 2017

Recycling a Lesson from the Classics

by
Donn Taylor

            It's no surprise that we writers learn much from literary classics, but in this blog I'll look at the way one classic handles a problem we have to deal with in every story, namely, the problem of portraying evil. For even the most escapist romantic fantasy must portray some degree of evil. Without it, there can be no conflict, and conflict is the most essential ingredient of fiction.
            In Book I of his epic romance, The Fairie Queene, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) provides an astute and subtle treatment of evil. Book I tells how the Redcrosse Knight (St. George) grew to become the Knight of Holiness. His mission is to go with the lady Una (Truth, una vera fides, the One True Faith) to slay a great dragon that is terrorizing her land. In the beginning he believes his own virtues give him strength enough to cope with evil, but a series of failed encounters teach him differently.
            The figures of evil who divert Redcrosse are the woman Duessa (Falsehood) and Archimago, the Satanic maker of false images. Deceived by images of Una being unfaithful, Redcrosse deserts both her and his mission. Believing that his strength comes from his own virtue, he is led by Duessa into the House of Pride. From there he descends yet further until he encounters Despair, who shows him the half-truth of his own worthlessness, suggesting suicide. But Una (the full Truth, including redemption through Christ) reappears and leads him through repentance to redemption in The House of Holiness. What he learns there equips him to fight the dragon.
            Even then, Redcrosse falls several times during the three-day combat. But each time he falls, he comes back with greater strength until, at length, he kills the dragon. One might expect then a denouement with all problems solved and everything in harmony.
            But it is what the realistic Spenser actually does then that holds most interest for us as writers. There is no happily-ever-after. There is only better-than-things-were-before. Yes, some problems have been solved. That particular dragon is dead. The evil image-maker, Archimago, is in prison. (Internally, this allegorizes the supremacy of Reason over the false images of Imagination.) But Duessa (Falsehood) is still loose in the world. And Redcrosse must labor in that world for seven years before the marriage of Truth and Holiness can occur.
            Spenser knew that in this world our victories over particular evils are always temporary, never final. We can only beat evil back until the next encounter. To avoid giving our readers false expectations, then, we should follow Spenser's example and never portray evil as completely defeated. For evil will never suffer total defeat until the Second Coming.

            In my novel The Lazarus File, for example, the conspiracy between Colombian drug lords, guerrillas, and Soviet/Cuban subversion fails. Hero and heroine go on to new lives. But the primary drug lord remains unscathed and in full operation. In that novel's sequel, Deadly Additive, the terrorist attack is prevented, but the godfather of international black market arms sales remains at large.
            The writer's objective, then, should be to provide a satisfactory solution to the immediate problem and give the reader a sense of aesthetic closure, yet leave a thread of evil for someone to deal with in the future. For Duessa is very much loose in our world today, and Archimago has apparently escaped from prison.
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