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A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

A Mirror for the Mind – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 
 

     One of the unique abilities humans have evolved is to mentally put ourselves in someone else’s place. We have the ability to watch someone doing a physical act and literally feel ourselves duplicating the action. It’s not a matter of saying, “I do this, and then that,” we physically fire off the proper neurons, but at a level that doesn’t produce overt movement. We are, in effect, debugging the procedure before we try it ourselves.
     It’s a handy ability, and allows us to learn quickly. And it’s so complete an ability that if the one we’re mirroring in our mind hurts themself we’ll feel that pain. Unpleasant though it might be, pain teaches us to be careful, and that mirrored pain teaches us what to avoid, just as would having made that mistake ourselves.
     So what does that have to do with writing? Everything. That ability to mirror action and emotion is what gives us the way to literally pull our reader into our stories as a participant. Done right, we can terrify our reader with a horror story, and make them afraid to turn out the lights—in spite of the fact they know it’s only a story. It’s why we weep when something terrible happens to our fictional friend, and feel triumph at the climax of the story.
     All the tools—the techniques we use—have one and only one goal, to evoke that empathetic ability that places our reader on the scene.
     Our hero is locked in combat, his sword weaving a protective shell around him. We could list each thrust and parry and leave it at that. But that won’t evoke the empathetic sense because it’s impersonal. Instead, as the fight goes on, we have our hero think, He’s better than I am.
     The character has that realization, but the reader mutters, “Oh shit now what?”
     Sure, our reader knows the protagonist isn’t going to die. If that happened the story would be over. So the question is, how can we avoid death? And with that realization, those thrusts and parries take on new meaning, because while we know things are going bad for the protagonist we need time. We need to stay alive till something presents itself as a solution. Now we focus on the events, while at the same time thinking over the possibilities—exactly-like-the-protagonist, which means we are the protagonist, and living that fight.
     Let’s assume that the reader thinks they know what stratagem can save our protagonist—will at least allow escape if victory is not possible. Now, in addition to fighting the battle we’re shouting to our avatar, trying to remind them of that solution. And when our hero is nicked on the hand we curse, and feel the pain. Done really well, we can cause the reader to have to stop and recover because it gets too real.
     And if in our brilliance we not only cause the reader to be shouting encouragement and advice, we provide a better solution, one the reader feels they should have thought of, we have a reader who saying, “I really like this book.” And what more can we ask for?
     Facts? Who cares? Facts only inform. But mirroring the action in our mind as we read—living the adventure. That entertains.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 

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Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Amazon Just Might Be Screwing You – The Grumpy Writing Coach

 
 
 
 

     A large part of Amazon’s business, these days, is with self-publishers. They don’t sell a lot of books per author, but they will usually sell copies to friends, family, and coworkers. And every million self-published writers who moves twenty copies of their book is exactly equal to the one author who sells twenty million copies. There are millions of self-published writers, so that’s a nice source of income. But that being said, Amazon has a way to add to their profit that most writers aren’t aware of.
     Like Smashwords for their electronic book releases, Amazon accepts Microsoft Word files as input for a Kindle release. The only significant difference in the two files is that Smashwords requires an inside picture and a statement that they are publishing it.
     There is one more difference, though, and it’s the one making Amazon all that extra money. Unlike Smashwords, Amazon, if you take their 70% royalties offer, charges $.15 per megabyte transmitted to the customer, so if your file is just a few bytes over 1 meg in size that’s $.30 in addition to their 30% cut of the profit. Sell a million books with that extra $.15 profit and it adds up to $150,000. A nice piece of change.
     That size limit shouldn’t be a problem, because you have to get close to 135k words before you break the one meg file size in a Word file. As an example, an 85k word novel, as a Word .doc document comes in at about .75 meg, and should deliver to the customer for $.15. It should.
     That same novel, with the inside picture included, for Smashwords, weighs in at .77 meg and yields a converted epub file of .619 meg—including that that internal picture. But when Amazon gets their greedy claws on that same file it inflates to a staggering 3.05 meg. That means a $.60 delivery charge. So if you charge $2.95, which many self-pubs do, Amazon gets:
        Their 30% of the profit: $.88
        Their delivery charge: $.60
        Total paid to Amazon: $1.48 which is roughly 50% of the profit.
     That becomes more interesting when you look at most published novels on Amazon, and check their Kindle files. They nearly all have a file size of well under a meg.
     We could assume that the programmers working for Amazon are inept, compared to those at Smashwords, rather than it being a case of Amazon finding a way to chisel a lot of extra profit out of the self-publishers—while claiming to give the author 70% of the price. But it doesn’t matter because there’s a way around it:
  1. Clean up your file and get all the headers, tabs, and other crap out.
  2. Build your table of contents (more on that, below).
  3. Save the file, using Word, as an HTML file. This removes some Microsoft artifacts stored with the file that might get in the way of the conversion—and which might be part of the reason for the bloated Amazon conversion.
  4. Download a copy of Calibre. It’s a free program, though they would like, and deserve, a donation as a thank you.
  5. Reduce your front cover picture to 600 pixels in the long dimension. This will become part of the metadata.
  6. Open Calibre and paste or load that HTML file you created into it.
  7. Highlight your novel and select, Edit Metadata. In the metadata screen that opens, enter your book’s title, the picture you just created, your name, the tags for the novel, and the “sort” data fields: If your title has “The” as its first word, enter the title minus “the” and follow it with the title, a comma, a space, and “The” (or, for novels beginning with “A” it should read something like: Change of Heart, A). Your sort field entry for Author Name, is your last name, followed by a comma, a space, and your first. If you already have the piece published via Kindle, copy the publication date and the ISBN from the existing Kindle page.
  8. Highlight the file and select the Convert Books feature. Be certain that the output file (top right) is listed as MOBI.
  9. At the bottom right press Okay.
     The MOBI file that results is what you send to Amazon in place of your MS Word file, and the final size will be under the 1 meg threshold. And with a $.15 delivery fee and a $2.95 price their share of the profit drops to 34%. And, you make $.40 more per sale.
     As always, though, review the result via Amazon’s reader, and do that before you push the publish button.

° ° °

To build a table of contents for publication, we can’t use Word’s table of contents feature. Instead:
  1. Bookmark each chapter heading. Use a simple name like ch1 for chapter numbers. No spaces in the bookmark name, and don’t bother with capital letters. And while you’re doing that, you might want to center the chapter’s title and make it bold, to set it off. This makes a neater separation on smaller screen readers. Some people go up in size to 13 or 14 point, but that’s personal preference.
  2. Create the table of contents page by setting it off with a manual page break at top and bottom (Typing a Command/Enter on the Mac and Control/Enter on the PC creates a manual page break). Then, as you did with your chapter titles, center the “Table of Contents” title. Again, many also make it 14 point type, bold.
  3. Under the title, type out the chapter numbers and whatever else should be in the TOC, like samples of other books and author notes, using one line per. You can cheat and copy that text as a group from another book and paste it in, to save typing. It will come with the existing hyperlinks, but you’re going to replace that, so it doesn’t matter.
  4. Hyperlink each line in the table to the bookmark for that chapter. Don’t be surprised if, when the hyperlink is added, the paragraph mark at the end of that line vanishes, and must be added back it. It’s another of Word’s charming foibles. When you finish, you can test that the links are proper by hovering over each entry to see that the hyperlink refers to the proper bookmark. You are going to push the button to see it work for yourself, though, both to be certain it works and because it’s fun, which is the reason for the next step.
  5. Push the Add Bookmark button to get you to the bookmark page. While you’re there, find the “Hidden Bookmarks” checkbox and turn it on. If it’s already on, turn it off and back on because there’s a bug in the code and it won’t show bookmarks that have been added since the box was checked unless you turn it off and on again (don’t you just love MS Word? And people wonder why I’m so grumpy). Delete all hidden bookmarks and close the bookmarks window.
  6. You’re ready to go. Just don’t use any hyperlinks now that you’ve cleared the hidden ones or you’ll have to do it again.

 

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Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Deconstructing Samantha – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 
 

Deconstructing Samantha


 

     Many people seem convinced that to learn to write, all you need do is read, and there on the pages lie the secrets of the masters, ripe for plucking. But can it be that easy? Can you learn to be a good bowler by watching an expert? Can we learn to cook by eating good foods? We all read, so it seems strange that so few of us achieve success of that level, if it’s that easy.
     Certainly, by reading we can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And we can generate benchmarks for ourselves, with which to measure the success of our own work. But any profession has trade secrets. And any profession has a body of knowledge that must be studied and mastered by practicing until it’s automatic, because those things aren’t obvious—or intuitive.
     Reading, or even closely examining any finished product tells you little about the process—unless you know that process so well, yourself, you “recognize the tool marks.” And the whys—the necessities—of a line being stated as it is, instead of another way, aren’t obvious.
     Wouldn’t you love to have a marked up copy of your favorite favorite author’s first draft, to see what was changed in editing? How about a conversation with that author on what he or she was attempting to do, and what the role of every line is, in contributing to that goal?
     I’m not your favorite writer, and I make no claim to be a writer of great skill, but none-the-less, I’m going to take the opening scene of Samanta And The Bear and deconstruct it for you, so you can see why I did certain things. I chose Samantha for this because it sold, which means I was doing at least some things right. Plus, it’s been republished, and could use a bit of shameless promotion.
     A suggestion and a challenge: Read the scene first, without referring to the notes, to get your reaction and see if the situation becomes at all real to you. Then go to the comments to learn why I did a given thing. See how often you nod and say, “I knew that.”
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Samantha and the Bear – opening scene:
 
     It was the kind of cold that bit at her face like tiny rodent teeth—so intense that the moisture in her nostrils froze each time she inhaled[1].
     As the night deepened [2] Samantha worked her way deeper and deeper into the blankets, but there was no place left to go. She woke to find herself huddled into a heat conserving ball, shivering[3].
     The breeze that huffed around the building at dusk was now the angry hiss of wind overlaid with ice crystals[4]. The cold, unbearable then, was now beyond anything she could have imagined.
     Until tonight it was an annoyance to spend her time bundled up in layer after layer of clothing. Now, as she gathered her courage to leave the bedding she was afraid.[5]
     The van? The road was impassible, but its heater could still provide warmth[6].
     But she had no confidence in its ancient battery, and if she made the attempt and was unable to start the engine there was little chance she would survive the trip back to the house.
     Bracing herself, Samantha pulled the covers from her face, opening her eyes to near darkness. The lantern had gone out so the only light came from the burners of the stove, their flames reduced to half their normal length by the chill[7]. A glance at the windows showed new snow had drifted against the wall and was covering half the glass[8]. Sometime during the night a storm-front must have passed through the area, bringing new snow and an arctic cold.
     With an effort, she slid from the table and limped toward the stove, to warm her hands enough to change the tank on the lantern[9]. The house had no functioning heater so she was forced to sleep in the kitchen, where the stove burned constantly. It helped only a little.
     She tried to read the thermometer mounted just outside the window but there was not enough light. It didn’t matter, though. It was cold enough to kill her. Nearly fifteen below when she had crawled into the blankets, it was well beyond that, now[10].
     Ten minutes later she was trying to hold back tears. She had changed the lantern’s cylinder, but the cold was so great that she was unable to get the lantern to light[11]. Back at the stove once more, she huddled herself as close to the burners as she could without setting her clothing alight, listening to the wind and assessing her chances of survival. They weren’t good. Unless she found a way to warm her feet she would soon be unable to stand, and if she fell she would die. She estimated that she had less than a half hour before that occurred[12].
     If I could curl up in a frying pan like a strip of bacon, that would be heaven. She blinked, then, as something tickled at her cold-fogged brain. It was a stupid idea—a desperate solution to a problem that had no solution.
     But, if it works…[13]…
     Praying that she was not simply hurrying her death, she extinguished all but one of the burners. Then, on legs that were numb, and as responsive as stilts, she hobbled to the table for a chair, one with arms [14] that would support her in sleep.
     It took much of her remaining strength to lift the chair to the stove-top and center it over the burner[15]. Most of the rest was spent in wrapping aluminum foil around the periphery of the chair’s legs to keep her blankets from the flame.
     The rest of the job, moving her blankets and the dragging a second chair to use as a step-stool, were tasks she could never quite recall, but in the end she was enthroned high over the kitchen floor, the burner beneath her and warming her tented bedding.
     It took nearly fifteen minutes, but it finally came: first the jangling pain that heralded a resumption of feeling in her fingers and toes, then blessed, life-restoring heat. Not just warmth, but true heat, spreading through her like a balm, thawing her bones and restoring her soul[16].
     It was an uncomfortable place to sit and a worse place to sleep, but she didn’t care, she was warm, and nothing else mattered. Slowly, her chattering jaw unclenched, and slowly the shivering of her body subsided. Slowly, she came back to life.
     Just before she drifted off to sleep she imagined a snow sprite peering in through the window, its whiskers quivering in surprise to see the queen of winter holding court in a frozen Oregon kitchen[17]. The thought pleased her very much. I may look like an idiot, Mr. Sprite, but I won for a change. This time I won!
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     The why of it:
 
1. The first line is the single most important one in the story, because you only get one chance at a first impression. I added this scene as a prologue to the novel, because the original first chapter, while it ends with excitement and what I think is a really good hook, began with: “Don’t forget the newspaper, Miss Hanover.” That’s hardly impressive enough to make you say, “I have to read more.” I also wanted the readers to know that Samantha is a stronger person than she appears to be in the following few chapters, so I inserted a prologue and began with a sensation that combines the cold most people have felt—cold that bites the cheeks—with the hair freezing in their nostrils, something most haven’t, to make them feel what she’s feeling. There was also a tiny hope that if they’ve never been out in –12 or lower, they would say, “Your nostril hair freezes? That’s gross… but interesting.”
 
2. I used this term, rather then something simple, like “passed” to take advantage of the connection between “deep in the night” and depth, as in the temperature being as low as it can get.
 
3. Everyone’s been there, at least so far as huddling under the covers. Again, I’m trying to draw the reader in via shared experience.
 
4. A simple line, but I rephrased it endlessly, trying to say it in an interesting way while giving a picture of the current—and past—situation, outside.
 
5. This paragraph both sets up for the shock of cold and gives tiny bit of backstory. Note that I framed it as information on the current situation, so the reader doesn’t realize they’re being fed a bit of backstory on what happened before they arrived.
 
6. I’ve coupled her actual thought with the meaning of that thought. It’s a part of my personal writing style, to show the thought and give its meaning, as if to herself. I can’t tell if it works, it just feels right to me. Others use different techniques, and there is no right or wrong way.
 
7. I placed her action before I filled in the details on the room so they could be her observations as she sat up. Note that doing it that way removes the need for the author to give the information or even put in “she observed,” etc. A little thing like “opened her eyes to near darkness,” tells us that Samantha noted darkness. Saying it as, “It was pitch black in the cabin when Samantha opened her eyes,” puts the author into the role of reporter rather then being a kind of translator.
 
8. Again, I use her action as a way to put in more of the scene-setting detail. The trick is that she now knows of what I described, and will react to it, which pulls me further from the picture. Even though I’m telling about the storm front, she’s the one seemingly observing it, so we’re inside her head, not mine. That matters.
 
9. Seemingly a straightforward action, but in reality a setup for disappointment. The next line is pure backstory, but I could see no way out of slipping it in, so I kept it as short and as related to her present condition as possible.
 
10. Adding in cause for her state of mind, here, and placing the reader there with her, as her hope has reason to ebb further. As a minor point, it’s bad form to start a story with only one actor on stage, for any length of time. Faced with the challenge of a single person on stage I created a second one—her enemy—the weather.
 
11. I’ve been there, too, as a scoutmaster to a troop waking up in a cabin in which the temperature was –12°f. The obvious solution is to hold the tank over the stove to warm it, but I wanted the reader to shout that to her, and realize that she was too cold to think straight. And if they didn’t think of the solution they see that she’s in trouble and say, “Oh shit,” along with her, so it still works. You need to be aware of the state of mind of your readers, both those who know less then you do about a given subject and those who know more.
 
12. The problem has been stated, and now we add in a deadline and penalty, to make it acute.
 
13. Strangely, I was painted into in a corner till she mentioned curling up in a frying pan. Samanta thought of the way out, not me—which is why you want to know your characters, and let the action flow from the way they would behave, not the way your plot seems to indicate.
 
14. A friend pointed out that she would tumble out of any chair that had no arms, so I mentioned arms on the chair to reflect that. You need readers to catch what you miss, and there will be a lot of that, because you see the scene in your mind, and know what’s supposed to happen. Unfortunately, what you typed may not be what you see.
 
15. My wife nearly killed me when I put a kitchen chair on our stove, to see if what I was having her do was possible. Pointing out that I’d put cardboard under the legs to keep from scratching the stove didn’t help much. I didn’t sit on the chair, though. A modern stove would support me but be damaged. An old time stove would handle the load easily. In any case, Samantha was past caring, at that point. Note that I didn’t dwell on the actual job of readying the chair because it has no importance to the story. It’s the result, a place to sit, that counts. I put in the aluminum foil business, though, because without it her blankets might burn—or at least some people might think so and would question that.
 
16. The pain was added because people who had been that cold complained that I didn’t mention it. And of course, it’s told from her point of view so you can feel her triumph.
 
17. This was added later, as a foreshadowing. The man is real, a neighbor, though she’s still too fogged with hypothermia to realize that.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Batman Is My Role Model – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Batman Is My Role Model


 

     People sometimes ask me what books they might read to learn the craft of fiction writing, and I usually suggest, Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, or perhaps Debra Dixon’s, GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict. But lately, I’ve been telling them to read a comic book, because everything that matters can be found there. Batman can teach you how to write.
     People often look down on comic books, and those who write them as unworthy, but many of them are master writers, who know their craft, and know what really matters, so far as getting a story told.
     So let’s look at a typical comic book and see what makes it tick:
 
     When we enter the story things are going well. Our hero, Atomic Wedgie-Man, has a nice supply of criminals to thwart, who never seem to wise up to the fact that they can’t win. So, life is good. This is pretty much what you can expect at the beginning of any novel. We meet and get to know the characters. They have dreams and plans for a predictable future, but we know that’s not to be. Things will go to hell pretty rapidly, because it’s the nature of stories to have that happen.
     And sure enough, on a routine patrol Wedgie-Man encounters a problem, the foe who refuses to be classified. Our hero tries the usual things, but they prove ineffective, and because of some unexpected ability or device, the criminal escapes. It’s more annoying than troublesome. But still, our protagonist seems to have lost the skirmish. He needs to treat his wounds, salve his damaged pride, and decide what to do next.
     In a novel, we often call that the inciting incident. Your protagonist’s comfortable and stable world has been knocked over. Perhaps he’s just met the woman who makes him say “wow!” and she seems uninterested. Perhaps the pilot of an airliner has just learned that one of his passengers is a madman. Whatever it is, uncertainty has just entered the story and a new long-term goal has been introduced. It might be revenge, survival, or a date for the prom. But no matter what it is, it’s something the protagonist both wants and needs. And, it’s something with just a bit of urgency to it, which brings with it what the reader feeds on: tension.
     So, with a new plan and renewed dedication, Wedgie-Man reenters the fray. But, victory is not his, and his nemesis not only wins again, our hero must retire from the field or lose everything. Things have just gotten a whole lot more serious. Our protagonist may be wounded. He may escape thru some “just in case,” contingency he carried into battle. But make no mistake, he has lost the battle, and knows it.
     As in our novel, despite everything our hero has done, the girl he favors still thinks him a fool. Worse, she’s showing interest in the man who wants her only to thwart our hero.
     And that sequence continues: regroup and rethink, try the new plan and fail again—in scene after scene, as the stakes are raised and the focus inexorably narrows. One by one the options fall away. In fact, things become so serious, and so personal, that Wedgie-man questions his own dedication, and the need to continue—as do we. As readers, we may even suggest he say to hell with it. Yet, what choice does he have? One by one, as we watch, his options disappear, till all that’s left is to run or risk all in a hopeless final confrontation. But flight, while it may be attractive, isn’t one of his options. Perhaps the city is held hostage, endangering many lives. Perhaps a woman who Wedgie-man loves or respects will be harmed if he fails to act. Whatever the reason, he has no choice but to continue, though the situation appears hopeless.
     And so we have the black moment, when the climactic battle has been joined, and our hero is on the threshold of defeat. In that moment, in desperation, our hero looks around seeking something, anything, that might be used to turn the tables. And there it is, the lucky break that poetic justice says must be there. It may be a piece of discarded chain lying within reach. It might be a handful of dust snatched from the floor. It could be the admission or compromise the protagonist swore never to make, thus changing his definition of what he will and will not permit himself to do. For Wedgie-man, it might be a chance glimpse of the antagonist’s waistband protruding at the back of his pants as he bends over to administer the death-blow. But whatever it is, we take advantage of the hero’s one true and reliable weapon, dumb luck, in order to snatch victory away from the antagonist. A reach, a grab, a quick pull and Atomic Wedgie-Man is once again victorious.
     And that climactic moment, as always, brings us to our feet, cheering. Our hero has prevailed, and all that remains is the denouement, where the hero learns what the prize is, for having been steadfast and heroic.
     Okay, laugh if you will, but that sequence encapsulates humanity’s hopes and dreams, and has been bringing cheers from listeners, viewers, and readers for thousands of years. It’s what made the movie Rocky so memorable, and it fueled every Batman film. It played out in The Devil Wears Prada, and in every Nora Roberts novel.
     But is it simply a formula? Is it, “Do this,” followed by “Next, do that,” with no talent or creativity involved?” Does it reduce our writing to a sheeplike, “me too,” status? Of course not. Godzilla and Changeling both follow that same path, as did, Lord of the Rings, and, Harry Potter. Does that mean there’s no creativity that went in their creation? No. A great deal of creativity is required to convince the reader that this story is unique, and not at all like those they’ve already read.
     Are they simply different tellings of the same story? Yes, they are, in the respect that there is constantly rising tension, interrupted by places where a reader can “catch their breath,” followed by the climax and the denouement, playing out as they always have. But are they lifeless retellings because of that? Of course not. They’re a recognition of human nature, and desire. They’re what has often been called the hero’s journey.
     Can we vary from the formula? Sure, if we do it knowingly and with purpose. But would you want to invest hours in following a protagonist who, in the end, turns out to be unworthy of the time you’ve spent with him/her? Do you want the story to end, after the hero has been steadfast and resourceful, in defeat with no hope of redemption, and the hero unchanged from when we met him/her? Maybe, as a change of pace, and if the author can deliver an exciting and satisfying reading experience. But, read that as a steady diet? Absolutely not.
     So what should you be looking at to learn how to write? I’ll still go with the two I usually recommend, first, but for a good overview of how and why it works, go read a comic book.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.
 
 

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Am I A Writer? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Am I A Writer? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer
 

Am I A Writer?
 

     You love to read or you wouldn’t be here thinking about writing and selling your work. And one of the things you love about it is the feeling that you are right there on the scene, sharing the adventure, and the moment-by-moment problems. At times you may stop and think of how you might have handled the situation differently than the protagonist, and what the result of that would have been. You are, in effect, writing your own version of the story as you play, “what if.” You are, in that moment, as much a writer—in the creative sense—as is the person who wrote that story.
If you’re like most people, you believe you have at least one novel within you—characters who reside in your mind, just waiting to be given liberty, via the keyboard and the word processor.
     Perhaps you’ve acted on that idea, and turned out a few paragraphs, a chapter, or maybe even an entire novel. And if you have, the all-important question occurs: Would someone be interested in publishing those words? It’s that question that I’m addressing today, in my role as The Grumpy Old Writing Coach, a position I play with enthusiasm and great skill—at least the grumpy part of the job. Hell, I have people who hate me all over the globe. Helps me sleep better.
 
So, do you have what it takes? Let’s look at the possibilities:
     First, there’s the idea that the ability to write on a professional level is God-given, an inherent condition of birth, or a chance alignment of the planets that uniquely affects the chosen person. Lots of people believe that. But if they’re right, you’re well and truly screwed. You don’t have it and nothing you can do will change that.
     But neither you nor I believe that, if for no other reason than that we’ve both proven too many people wrong, by doing what they said we couldn’t do. And the good news is that the people who sell novel after novel don’t believe it, either. Let’s look at a few who succeeded: On that subject Ernest Hemingway said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.” Stephen King’s view is, “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” And, Larry Brown’s comment was, “There’s no such thing as a born writer. It’s a skill you’ve got to learn, just like learning how to be a bricklayer or a carpenter.”
     So the good news is that you and I… or at least I, can learn the skills of the professional writer. I’m not too sure about you as yet, but we’ll work on it.
     Next is the idea that we can take the writing skills we learn in high school, add a bit of practice and a story idea, and there we are, writing like a pro. I’m damn glad we don’t train brain surgeons and bridge designers that way.
     “Just keep writing,” our friends tell us, “Do that and your writing muscles will get stronger with every word.” Yeah, sure, I believe that. We spent twelve years having teachers try to beat the techniques of office-writing into our heads without too much success, and we’re going to raise that to a professional level of fiction-writing by doing nothing more than writing exactly as we’ve been taught—over, and over, and over…
     If you believe that one, then the successful authors I’ve quoted above are dead wrong on how to become a writer. And given that they seem to have had some success, just maybe they know something we don’t. In fact, my favorite quotation comes from Mark Twain, who observed, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
     There’s also the school of thought that says to read, and read, and to analyze your favorite authors to see how they do it. Can that be done? Sure. It works at least as well as using Tarot cards to know when you have it right. It’s kind of like expecting to become a great chef by eating in a fine restaurant, then going home and reaching for your spatula. But what cook, good or bad, can call themselves a chef without having worked with one, or at least owning a set of cookbooks to act as guides? What engineer can design and complete a project without having learned the necessary engineering practices? Can a wanna-be doctor learn to take your blood pressure by wrapping the cuff around your neck and then pumping it up to see what happens? Hell no. In the words of Rosanne Cash, “Self-expression without craft is for toddlers.”
     And finally, there’s the belief that you can turn to one of the many writing sites on the Internet and get good sound advice from others who’ve been unable to sell their work. After all, who better to commiserate with? Who understands your situation better? Who will never make you feel bad by telling you that the rejections you receive are anything but bad luck?
     So, who’s right? Everyone is—at least a little. You do need a God given talent for telling a story. What good are all the skills without that golden voice to give it wings? But on the flip side, what good is that golden voice when using a media where the reader can neither see nor hear you? Craft is the horse your talent must ride. Given that, it makes more sense to capture and bridle Pegasus than plod onward on the back of the sturdy dray horse we’re issued in school.

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Author’s note:
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

 

 

 
 

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