Taking Inventory

black and white typewriter on table
Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Avoiding Ruts)

Writing stories is one of the best ways to get better at writing stories. Direct practice leads to better performance over time. However, there is another crucial practice that is necessary to more fully improve, and that is to take regular inventory of your work.

If all you do is write, then you will become more refined in the path that you are following, but you will not be able to correct any misalignments in that path. Your later work might be better than your first, but it will also be plowed deeper into your own personal rut.

Every one of us is going to have a personal rut in our work. We will have some tendency that is just wrong, an inherent weakness in our form. It is like running with an incorrect posture, and the more one practices running in that flawed way, the more entrenched in it they will become, the harder it will be to break the posture later on.

Sometimes the path forward requires taking a step back, then, and that is exactly what I intend to do now. I am going to take a step back from my work on Raise the Black Sun, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and consider how I would expand on it, if I were to turn it into a full-sized novel.

 

The Shape of It)

The main stand-out is the overall flow of my story, specifically the fact that its shape is so lopsided. The outline of the story can be summed up as follows: our main character is hired for a doomed venture, he embarks on a journey which is beset by numerous dangers, then arrives at a strange land and spends some time becoming familiar with the locals, he becomes enchanted with a young woman there, and finally witnesses the tragic destruction of his entire world.

Just from that description, it seems that this story wants to be an epic, a story of a long trek that takes the hero far from his home, both literally and in terms of character development. Readers should reach the end, and then look back at the beginning and be amazed at just how far they’ve come.

Given this, the correct balance would be that the bulk of the story (at least half) to take place in the journey that is beset by numerous dangers. Many changes of setting, many rises and falls in tension, and many hurdles to be overcome. Reaching the end should feel exhausting, allowing for a tapering tail until the climatic finish.

This is not the balance that I struck in my story, though. My story, when finished, will be eleven posts, each about two thousand words long, and for those eleven posts the layout is as follows.

Introduction: 1 post
Journey: 2.5 posts
Exploring the secrets of the Coventry: 3.5 posts
Conversation with Mira: 2 posts
Conclusion: 2 posts

As you can see, the journey portion, which should be the bulk of the story, is less than a quarter of the entire work! Now I’m not too surprised about this. When I was writing those portions I wasn’t expecting the scenes at the scenery to take more than another post or two. But I wanted to let things breathe as much as they wanted, and so the imbalance occurred.

This is a natural effect of writing a story without a clear structure in place. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed discovering the tale firsthand alongside my main character, but if I were ever to turn this into a full-sized novel I would now go back and expand the journey portion through more twists and turns until the balance was correct.

 

Reworking It)

Let’s get a little more specific about this, though.

If I did decide to do a second draft of this story, then before anything else I would get my outline sorted out. I would write a brief summary of the story as it exists now, and then balance it out on that blueprint level, enhancing and expanding the journey section of this story. And I do believe the story is structured in a way that it could support a great deal of development there. We’ve already seen a few strange and fantastic things, and there could surely be more.

There is one thing that gets in the way of that, though, which is the fact that our Treksmen spend the majority of their journey unconscious. I like the idea of them surrendering to the Job’s Mind and becoming automatons, and I would still want to keep that to some degree, but they would just have to lose their foreman and awaken back to full consciousness aware far sooner in their journey. Like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, I would want the audience to be keenly aware of where the party was in their world, and where they had yet to go.

Then comes the matter of how I would actually disrupt their journey. For this I would take note of the classic epic Odysseus, which laid a template for distraction and diversion that is still widely used today. As in that story, my journeyers would be pulled off on winding detours for every step forward they tried to take. Each of these diversions would be a self-contained adventure, leaving the main path, winding about, and then returning to it for the greater narrative to proceed. Sometimes my Treksmen would be returned closer to their destination than where they left it, and sometimes farther away.

And all this would play into the suspense of dwindling numbers among the Treksmen. Every side route would claim another soul or two. We would know more of these wanderer’s names, and as we said farewell to one after another, we would start to wonder if the company would make it to the end at all.

And that would establish the main theme of the journey: that the entire world was opposed to this small band, yet fate required them to prevail. The earth itself would be aware that these men were pushing to Armageddon, and would be a constant friction to stop them, but the undeniable pull of destiny would see Graye through to the end.

And finally I would want their journey to accomplish more than just provide scrying sticks to confirm what the Coventry members already know. As the story stands now, the end of the world would have still come, even if they had never arrived. I would want to change things so that the final sacrifice required their presence, and thus they would truly be the bearers of all destruction.

 

Future Plans)

So that’s how I would rewrite this story if I were to rewrite it, but do I intend to ever do so? Honestly, I would love to, but I can’t find the time for it right now. I’m already working on another novel on the side, with a few more ideas already queued up behind that.

And I don’t want to stop experimenting with new short stories here on my blog to instead do an even longer-form production. But maybe I should? I don’t know. I like sowing new seeds to see what I like, but then I also want to take the good ones to fully maturity. I’m still trying to find the right balance between my creative desires and my time constraints, but perhaps for right now it is enough to know what I would do if I could. What do you think?

Something Different

eggs in tray on white surface
Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.

I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.

Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.

 

Unhealthy Change)

I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.

Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.

Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.

 

Priorities)

But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?

Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.

I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.

First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.

One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.

If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.

 

Natural Improvement)

No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.

When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.

Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.

 

A Real-Life Example)

Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.

When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.

Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.

The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.

 

By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.

Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Critique UP

close up of text
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So here we are at the start of a new series. Each time I finish a session of stories I am well aware of all the shortcomings in my work, but they don’t bother me too much. The fact is that three days is a very quick sprint to bring a story from initial concept to polished conclusion, no matter how short it may be. Almost every Thursday morning finds me setting aside a long list of improvements for my story, just so that I can meet my deadline. Not every creative effort has to be targeting perfection, after all, and its never been my ambition for this blog to produce top-quality narratives that are ready for publishing. Really I just wanted this blog to be a constant stream of ideas and experience, knowing full well that for every nugget of gold there’s going to be a lots of dirt clods along the way.

But not all of my work is meant for practice, I do also write other stories that I am trying to polish and mold into their best possible forms. In these situations I have to seriously weigh every shortcoming and flaw that I see in my work, and even open myself up to asking others what problems they see in it as well. Opening up one’s work for critique is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it’s hard to not get emotionally wounded by the criticisms that inevitably follow. I don’t really want to focus on the proper way to receive those critiques, though, I feel there are plenty of resources available that cover that end of the exchange. Instead I’d rather take some time for the other side of things, discussing how to give helpful and nurturing feedback if ever you are asked your opinion on a piece.

We’ll begin by looking at the wrong method for providing critique. Unfortunately, it is the more common method, our culture has developed a trend for sharp and cynical put-downs whenever evaluating other people’s creative efforts. We even provide this “service” to the creator when they never even asked for our feedback. The title of “critic” is all too accurate, and many who carry this title seek nothing more than to cut stories apart for the entertainment of others. Indeed at times it seems that professional critics view themselves as performers, whose purpose has more to do with amusing the audience with their biting wit, instead of actually providing a fair and meaningful dissection of a work. With the advent of social media and a “comments sections” at the bottom of most internet articles we’ve even taken the meta a step further with the audience critiquing the work of that critic.

In addition to this penchant for snark, our culture is also very competitive. Our main method for appraising a work is to compare it to another and see which is better. Art schools and creative industries have very little patience for any but the top two percent, and cuts from the programs are quick and severe. Perhaps these methods really are the best for producing revenue, I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that they are ideal for cultivating happy and creative people.

I actually spent a short stint of college in one of those art programs, and quite frankly I did amazing. That’s not to say that I “succeeded” in the program, quite frankly I was in the bottom half of each class I took and I never had a prayer of progressing to the more specialized projects. But I say that I did amazing simply because I developed and improved. I listened to the instruction that was given and I went from drawing shapeless lumps to recognizable figures. I don’t care that no one was ever going to pay me for this stuff, I was better than before and that was enough for me.

I think that’s a fair and honest critique of myself. It doesn’t make my work out to be something more than it was, but it also doesn’t discredit the good that was accomplished. So can we develop a method for a kinder form of honest critique like this? I believe so. Really it all comes down to intent, intent of the author and intent of the reader. When we have these sorted out, nurturing feedback will follow naturally.

Appreciating the intent of the author has two branches, the first of which has to do with understanding their intent in even writing the story. When we provide feedback for a story our default metric seems to be “well do I like it.” But we all know that “liking” something is often subjective, and that there are many things which we do not like but which we can still acknowledge were well made and which seem to have accurately captured the author’s intent. Perhaps the author’s intent was even to make something which, by nature, was unlikable. Should we say they did a poor job because they succeeded in the very thing they set out to do?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what was the author’s intent in even seeking our critique? The simple truth is that not all people that request critique really want it. When my three-year-old son shows me his latest drawing he does not really want to know what I think of his picture, he just wants to know what I think of him. You might be tempted to say well that is a three-year-old and a grown adult is a very different thing. I’m afraid I would disagree. We may have learned how to be more subtle with our years of experience, but we very often play the same games we employed as children. To be clear, I am not advocating that you coddle others or give them disingenuous praise for their work, I am merely suggesting that you reflect on what their true intentions are and then use your own wisdom in choosing how to respond.

But now let’s assume a scenario where the author truly is looking for constructive criticism. More than anything they want to improve so that their work can be the best it can be, and you could do them a great favor in helping them to hone their craft. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of kindness?

As I’ve tried to find a way to express this sort of positive critique my mind settled on mathematics of all things. In order to provide any review you first have to identify three values related to it. We have to know the value of what was written, we’ll call that value 1. Next we must know the value of the ideal, or the potential of what could have been written, we’ll call that value 3. And finally we have to know the difference between those two values, obviously that is 2. Now with these three values there are two ways we can express their relations to one another. The first way follows the pattern of “This is what you should have done (3), but these are all the things you did wrong (2), and this is what we were left with as a result (1).”

3 – 2 = 1

The is the pattern of the cynical and competitive methods mentioned above. You can recognize it in a review by the abundance of that middle term “these are all the things you did wrong” in all its various forms. As the mathematical equation suggests, this sort of critique is literally a negative perspective, one that pulls a work down to a lower term.

But now for that other way of expressing these values. You could instead use the pattern of “This is what you’ve already accomplished (1), and by incorporating these other elements into that foundation (2), this is what you your work could become (3).”

1 + 2 = 3

This sort of approach is literally a positive perspective, one that looks to lift the author to a higher term. Please note that all the same information has been conveyed with this approach, we haven’t had to leave out any of our recommended improvements by expressing things more kindly. I think we sometimes forget that brutal honesty is not the only kind of honesty, and it is not a more honest form of honesty because of its brutality. Uplifting honesty is just as honest, and greatly more helpful.

I want to stress here the importance of the first term “this is what you have already accomplished.” In either form of critique we need to establish a base metric, so why not do that with the good the author has already accomplished? A truly fair analysis of a work should be willing to give equal attention both to what is good and what is lacking, not solely focused on the negative. I think you’ll find you are far less likely to convince anyone of how they can grow in their work until you first convince them that you see the work which has already occurred.

For the second term, notice how in the positive form we are stressing a relationship between what they have done and what they could do to improve. Incorporate these elements into your foundation. We are suggesting that this better form of writing belongs in their story, whereas the negative approach suggests that all those good things are apart from their story which makes their situation seem hopeless.

And of course in the third term we leave them with a vision, an invigorating glimpse of what they can become. In the negative approach we leave them at the lowest positive value of the equation. It all comes down to the direction you want your critique to flow it, are you going to use it to drag them to the lowest possible point or uplift them to the highest?

I sincerely feel that the thoughtful critique of creative work does so much more than improve the work in question, it has the potential to improve the very soul who authored it. As writers, we of all people should understand that our words can have great power, both to break and to build, it is our obligation and privilege to do the latter.

On Thursday I’d like to present a short story on which I will immediately provide a quick analysis. I will try to do so in a way that is honest and fair, which takes into account all of its flaws and shortcomings, but which presents them in a way that is kind and encouraging. Obviously that all sounds quite self-serving, but you know something? I don’t think there’s anything  wrong with that! Feel free to come back then if you want to see me be nice to myself 🙂