Questions About Writing Stories

I received an email the other day from someone who wanted to interview me for a class project. I think he’s for real, but some of the requests I have been getting recently are questionable, so I thought I’d post my responses here to stake my claim. Feel free to respond to any of the questions. If the interviewer does, in fact, read my blog as he said he did, I’m sure he’ll be glad of the additional input.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

The most essential quality of a good story is the ability to take readers somewhere else and make them glad they went. It’s also important to make the writing easy to read, which means the writing must be grammatically correct. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than having to decipher convoluted sentences with improper punctuation. Ideally, a story should leave readers a bit better off than they were before, either because of what they learned about the world and themselves, or because of the respite from their everyday lives.

Do you keep those qualities in mind while you write?

The only one of these qualities that I keep in mind while writing is to make sure what I write is readable. Other than that, I focus on the story, setting the scene then developing plot and characters into a cohesive whole.

Which of those qualities do you think is the most important, if there is a ‘most important’ one?

Some people think character is most important, others think plot is the most important, but you really can’t separate the two. Plot is what happens to a character, what a character does, or both. You cannot have a character without a plot. To show who or what a character is, you need to show the character acting, and that is plot. You also cannot have a plot without a character. If an asteroid falls to Earth, that might be newsworthy, but it’s not a story until you have characters interacting with the asteroid. Who found it? What did they do with it? What happened to them as a consequence of their actions? That’s what makes a story.

How much of a story do you have in your head before you start writing it?

I know the main characters, I know the beginning of the story, I know the end of the story, and I know how I want the characters to develop, but I don’t flesh out the individual scenes until I start writing them.

Do you do any research for your writing? If so, how do you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

The research for Light Bringer, which will be published mid 2010, took me approximately twenty years. The research for my other novels took two to five years each. Sometimes I consulted maps or guidebooks, sometimes people told me what they knew, but mostly I read books on the various subjects.

How do you prefer to start a novel? For instance, do you try to start it out with a ‘bang’, or do you prefer to start out with a low point?

I start with a good hook, sort of a small bang, and I work up to a bigger bang.

How (or when) do you decide that you are done writing a story?

A story is done when it is published. Otherwise, it is never finished. The more one writes, the more one learns, and the more one learns, the more one sees how earlier works can be improved. The only thing that stops this cycle of learning and rewriting is getting published.

Do you have any specific pattern of writing, however subtle it may be, when you write? (Using specific plot devices consistently, for instance)

The only device I use now (though I did not do it in the beginning) is a theme. If I know the theme of a story, I can keep focused on the main concept and not go off on tangents. A story needs to be tightly constructed without extraneous scenes or exposition. If not tightly constructed, a story loses its power and impact, sort of like a comedian who tells a rambling joke without a punch line.

The term ‘well developed characters’ is extremely vague and the definition differs depending on who is asked. What, in your opinion, does it mean?

A well-developed character gives readers a sense of that character’s personality, feelings, and struggles. A well-developed character changes and matures as a result of all that the character experiences during the course of the story.

What is your goal for the story to be when you write? That is, how do you want your stories to say what they say?

My only goal is to write the stories I want to read. If my books do have a message, it’s that nothing is as it seems. We are not necessarily who we think we are, history did not necessarily happen the way we think it did, and what we see is not necessarily the truth. But all that is more of a side effect. Mostly I just want to write good stories with good characters.

Advertisements

Researching Gangster Lore for Daughter Am I

I have notebooks full of gangster lore that I collected when I researched Daughter Am I, my young woman/old gangsters coming of age novel. (I keep calling it that, but it’s so much more — a murder mystery, a treasure hunt, a romp through the middle of the United States with a young woman and a busload of irrepressible octogenarian rogues. “Snow White and the Seven Old Farts” as one of the villains called them.) As usual, I am digressing. Someday, perhaps, I will learn that just because I use parenthesis, it doesn’t give me the right to meander off topic. Or maybe it does.

Anyway, the point is, I was able to use only an iota of my notes. So many real-life characters never even got to be reborn in the person of one of my “elders.” (There’s a topic for discussion — what does one call a busload of aged men and women? I despise the term “senior citizens,” I have no fondness for “old folks” — the term, that is — and “golden- agers” is too nauseating. So I settled for “elders” with its nuance of wisdom.)

One such character I never used for my book was Jake “The Barber” Factor, who stole millions from people through stock market swindles and investment fraud. He worked as a bootblack when he was a boy, shining shoes outside of a barbershop. The price of a shine was two cents, but he’d tell unwary customers that he’d give them a “steamboat shine” for one cent. If the customer agreed, he’d polish one shoe until it gleamed, then he’d say, “There’s your steamboat shine, Mister. For a dime, I’ll shine the other shoe.” 

Oscar Wilde once said, ” The Americans are certainly great hero worshippers, and always take heros from the criminal classes.” Well, perhaps not always, but most of us bear a grudging admiration for con men and women, mostly because they seem so much smarter than the rest of us. Or maybe they just have fewer scruples.

Daughter Am I will be released by Second Wind Publishing in the middle of October. 

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

A Writer Writes. Always?

A writer writes. Always.

Or so they say. (Whoever “they” are.) Many professional authors write for six months a year and spend the other six months promoting. This does not make such writers less than those who doggedly sit down every day and churn out a quota of words. A writer writes, of course. But always? So much goes into writing — thinking, outlining, researching, learning the craft — that it’s hard to tell when a writer is not working. 

I’m one of those writers who carry on imaginary conversations with my characters. I always plan to jot  down these conversations , but I usually have them when I am out walking, and by the time I get home, most of them are out of my head. A lot comes back when I sit down to write, and some of those conversations end up in the story.  Are these conversations writing? Of course not. But they are part of the writing process.  It is the process, the focus– getting into the story and staying there, keeping it in the back of our minds when we are doing other things, filtering our lives through the mesh of the story — that makes us writers, not simply word counts. 

Does writing this article count as “a writer writes; always”? Probably not. But I am writing, and writing this blog helps me focus my thoughts. Is editing considered writing? I don’t know. Still, I’ve been going through my finished manuscripts once more, taking out all the bits that fail to support the focus of the story, and  now those novels are better focused on the theme. But that editing cuts into my writing time. Does researching book marketing techniques count as writing? I doubt it, but writers who intend to be published one day need to know how to promote their book. All these things that take me away from my work-in-progress help focus my life around writing. Help focus my attention on writing. 

Maybe a better way of describing a writer is” a writer writes, and when a writer isn’t writing, a writer is focused on writing.”

Critiquing: How to Critique Another Writer’s Story

Kim Smith, today’s guest blogger, is the author of Avenging Angel, a Shannon Wallace Mystery coming soon from Enspiren Press. Smith writes:

So you are going to critique another writer’s story? How do you feel about this?

Do you feel you have the ability to be non-personal, and give them the sort of information they will need to be a better writer? Or do you worry that you may say something that will turn them against writing for all time? It’s okay to feel all of this. Hopefully by the end of this article you will believe you can do this critique thing with no fear, or worry. 

A good first question to ask is why am I doing this? 

We all as writers need someone to look at our work and give it an overall opinion as to whether it is good or not. We all need improvement, and a helpful crit can get us to the next level with our writing.

Critting also helps the critter, too. You have an easier time seeing your own little problems when you correctly find it in another’s work. And oh yes, we all have issues. 

Of course, you want to keep your critique along the lines of helpful

A negative critique should always be directed toward the writing, not the author. Leave your personal attitude at the door, people. I mean no one wants a sarcastic, nasty crit that smacks of personal attack. No room for that at the table, not even when trying to make a valid point. It should rest with the author as to whether your advice is taken. So, in essence, critique as you would have them critique you. 

Now of course, the writer also plays a part in the critiquing effort, and that is, he or she should be willing and able to accept the critique offered.

Listen, this critiquer is giving you all of his or her knowledge, maybe your book DOES need the change. Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. 

How you go about giving a critique is as individual as the books are.

You can do a complete read through and go back and make comments. You can do a line-by-line as you read, and you can always combine those two, or come up with your own method. No one cares HOW you do it as much as the fact that it is useful and correct. 

Correctness is a matter to consider also, critiquers.

You must research your own opinions, too. Google that historical fact, make sure it is accurate. One time I had written something about a “red-light district” in a Civil War novel. Of course, that would have been completely impossible, because electric lights such as I had implied didn’t exist yet,. and my critters called me on it. 

Finally, think through your critique and put it into a good format for your writer.

If they need a line number to go to or a chapter place to go to, put it in the crit so they can find where you are telling them the problem is. A writer sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees, so it is good to have reference points. 

I hope this has helped you in your efforts to give and receive a critique of your work.

“Critiquing” by Kim Smith ©2008