Sunday, May 29, 2016

Story Ingredients: What Makes a Story Great?

As some of you may know, I’m currently a Creative Writing grad student. In the last class I attended, the focus (and indeed the title of the class) was “The Successful Story.”

The professor of this class and my fellow students were all fabulous and throughout the course had some great insights and commentary about what makes (or breaks) a good story. During this class I also had the opportunity to read more than 80+ short stories—some by established/published authors, some by fellow classmates, some by aspiring writers hoping to get published—and discuss what strengths and/or concerns each of those stories had.
Fist Full O' Short Stories

One of the key learnings for me from this class—and this quantity of short story reading—is that it is a rare thing indeed for a story to be perfect, to not have a concern or two, no matter how well written or thought out. Likewise, it is also rare to have a story with absolutely no merit—that even if there are certain glaring problems with a story—often there are good things going on in the writing as well.

Another take-away for me is that not all readers (or editors/publishers) have the same criteria for what might make them love a story vs. hate it. For instance, for some readers having grammatical problems in the prose is a “deal breaker.” For me, as a reader, I’m not as concerned about that (and can forgive it to an extent), but if I don’t feel some emotional response to the story, or like at least one of the characters, in the end I probably will not like the story—if I finish reading it at all.

Following is a list of key story components (some from my scrawled class notes) that might help make—or break—a story.

Plot structure
-           Scenario
-           En media res (start in action)
-           Strong first line, paragraph, page  (I heard author Joe Hill say recently that your most important thing that happens in the story should probably happen on page 1)
-           Strong ending? (Endings seem to be hard to get right)
-           Clear conflict? Problems stated up front to help move the story (Hook!)
-           Back-story
-           Flashbacks
-           Layering (complexity—more than one thing going on)
-           Timing
-           Twists?
-           Promises fulfilled (character earns the reward)
-           Ambitions of story achieved
-           Climax (involving key players)
-           Character change (or lack of change) during story
-           New insight or understanding by character
-           Motivation – is it clear immediately what the character wants?
-           Flawed, interesting characters
-           Indirect characterization
-           Seeing how main character interprets other characters (relationships)
-           POV (point of view)
-           Convincing dialogue
-           Empathetic characters (give me someone to care about)
Beautiful writing/prose/craft
-           Vivid, sensory details, descriptions
-           Given only details that matter
-           Strong syntax (sentences, imagery)
-           Realism or surrealism
-           Showing in writing (vs. telling)
-           Letting reader conclude what is going on (don’t over-explain)
-           Does the story take risks? Stylistic or thematic
-           What’s unique about the story?
-           Strong voice (umph! not bland)
-           NOT passive voice, vague details
-           Mastery of language, unity of purpose
World Building
-           Setting (details)
-           Strong sense of time
-           Strong sense of place
-           A reason to keep turning the pages
-           “Cliff hangers”
-           Character motivation and goals
Emotional Response
-           Menace/danger/tension
-           Good times and bad times for character
-           Does the story have deeper meanings? Does it say something about the human condition or society?
-           Is the story memorable?

So there you have it—over 40 components that an author could consider and labor over in a great story. Did I miss any?

For you as a reader or writer, what’s the most important writing component to include—or get right—in a story?

Do you have a “deal breaker(s)” where you will stop reading if the author gets it wrong?



Saturday, January 23, 2016

Writing & Rock & Roll

One thing I love about writing is that once you record your ideas somewhere they sit there until you can come back to them. I actually wrote most of this post about six months ago… and I just ran across my notes today and decided to finish it up. It involves the music groups Alice Cooper and Mötley Crüe—who I saw courtesy of a friend with an extra ticket (thanks, Chuck!) last summer. Supposedly for Crüe this was one of their last performances ever. But I know for a fact they’ve been back to Minnesota playing again within the last couple months.

The concert itself was a blast—and the reason I’m bothering to bring it up now is that for me it was something outside my norm. I think that’s important for everyone to do something outside his or her usual routine every once in a while, but especially for us writers. Not that I haven’t gone to a rock concert from time-to-time, but it’s not my usual thing. Experiencing something new or different often inspires my writer’s mind and helps me make new connections. I’m not saying I got a new character or story idea out of this particular concert—yet—but who knows? Part of the writing process includes the thinking process—and letting thoughts/ideas “compost” over time.

There’s also this quote about writing that I’ve always liked by Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”  So, in the spirit of that quote, belatedly, here is…

A Concert Guide: How to tell Alice Cooper apart from Mötley Crüe

Best in-concert upside-down drum solo/roller coaster ride:  Mötley Crüe
LargestFrankenstein Puppet: Alice Cooper (12’+)
Most worked up audience members: the row of 8th graders behind us
Most skimpily clad back-up dancers: Mötley Crüe
Tallest scaffolding: Mötley Crüe
Alice Cooper song best heard live: Billion Dollar Babies
Loudest Explosion(s): Mötley Crüe
Most predictable beheading: Alice Cooper
Light show most likely to trigger epileptic seizures: Mötley Crüe
Sharpest sword: Alice Cooper
Costliest beer: Xcel Energy Center ($9 each)
Worst/most-absent camera “close-up” operator: Alice Cooper
Three ballads that work less well as a middle-aged audience member than when I was in middle school:
I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper)
Song with the most fire/pyrotechnic accompaniment: Shout at the Devil (Mötley Crüe)
Most miraculous recovery from a guillotine wound: Alice Cooper
Most satanic symbols: Mötley Crüe (but it’s a close call)
Closest Affiliation with the Devil: Tie- Alice Cooper and Mötley Crüe
“Ear worm” that I suffered from for a few weeks after this concert: TooYoung To Fall in Love

So there you have it. For my fellow writers out there, may your New Year bring you lots of writing, rock and roll and a new experience or two for inspiration.


PS> And if you get a chance to see Alice Cooper or Mötley Crüe as they come through on their next retirement tour, I’d highly recommend it

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rejection Success!

In a previous post I  wrote about my goal to get twenty rejections before the summer was out.  I put six short story's into the submission mill and every time I got a rejection, I sent that story out again within the next day or so. I also got some nice treats from my loved ones to help ease the sting of rejection.

I found I needed those treats less and less as I went along. Maybe my skin got a little thicker. Maybe I just got too busy to treat myself to a walk in the rose garden off of Lake Harriet. Maybe the process of rejection-resubmission just became a habit.

Well, it's been about six months since I started on my goal and even though this beautiful weather may be deceptive, summer has indeed
come and gone.

I imagine you've all been on pins and needles: did she make her goal? Did she? Did she?

Indeed she did.

I logged 20 rejections on September 4th. After I had started back to teaching (my internal end of the summer marker), but well before the official end of summer.

Here's one of my favorite rejections:

Thank you for submitting "Old Glassy's Way." Although it's not quite the right fit for this issue, we very much enjoyed it. Best of luck with this piece, and please consider sending us more work in the future. (We will be guest-editing a second issue in the spring.) 

But I also like getting rejections like this one, because they help me improve the story:

I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe your story will be a good fit for our anthology. Thank you very much for your submission.

The following comments are not necessarily revision suggestions. They are intended to help you see your story from another perspective.

- What do Otha and Bernie have in common such that they are peas in a pod? They look nothing alike, they are of vastly different ages, and “even there, in the recesses where things matter, Otha was nothing like her.”
- The opening of this story is quite the info-dump. The dialog and action don’t really get underway until a third of the way through the story. My interest as a reader began waning around page 5.
- Who is the narrator? Who is the audience?

I'm up to 33 rejections. 23 form rejections and 10 personal ones. Whoo Hoo! 

I use a really nice tool to find good markets and to track my submissions: Submission Grinder. 

Check it out!  And then come join me on the rejection mill! It's really the only way to get yourself onto the acceptance wheel!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Six Years of Writing

Six years ago Lisa, Jon, Shawn and myself met up at a Science Fiction class at The Loft, taught by Lyda Morehouse. We instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits and started a writing group (I think it was Shawn’s idea, really, but as usual, we all went along with it). Because the universe can only handle so much bad grammar, it sent us Claudia to balance things out.

During that time we’ve met once or twice each month and have each grown a lot as writers (and critiquers—is that really a word, Claudia? You’ll know).  Each of us has completed at least one novel length manuscript during that time, in some cases more than one. Dozens of short stories have been written, and even a few poems and a novella. All this work has been routed and discussed through our group, novel-length revisions have been made multiple times. To say the least we work hard and are committed to our craft, despite the lack of pay.

There are rejections, sure, lots of them. Lisa has even made it a personal goal to get a bunch of them this year (20?). But there are also signs that our work is paying off. There have been promising conversations with agents and editors—and a few requests to see more. There have been some writing awards (Mark) and even some publications (Jon). We’ve even self-published a “sample book” featuring some of our writing and together gave a presentation at a Sci-Fi convention on what it is to have a great writing group. Over time all this attention to writing seems to be leading us in the right direction.

Part of our writing routine has been posting to this blog—although in the last year we really haven’t been very reliable on that front. But, in six years we’ve published 224 blog posts with over 42,000 page views and 675 comments. That’s a lot of conversation about writing!

In case you’d like to go back and see some of our more popular blog posts, here are some highlights, featuring the top two posts for each Scribblerati agent.

The Scribblerati’s Top Posts of All Time

Two Years Later by Jon Hansen
Our number one post of all time… showing what we were up to four (!) years ago. Maybe we should have Jon do an update?

Dinosaurs vs. Humans by Mark Teats (Mark’s top post)

In Praise of Big Noses by Q aka Claudia Hankin (Claudia’s top post)

The Random Post by Shawn Enderlin (Shawn’s top post)

The Great Word Debate by Claudia Hankin (tied for most commented-on post, but also a generator of a number of other 'spin-off' posts)

On Words, Big and Li'l, All Those I do not Know by Lisa Bergin (Lisa’s top post)

So happy anniversary Q, Shawn, Lisa and Jon. It’s been a great six years and I for one appreciate all the support, feedback and ideas that our group constantly gives to each other. More importantly I always look forward to reading what you’ll write next. Damn we’re good.

By the way: it’s now your turn on the blog.


Monday, June 22, 2015


Hello again!

It was supposed to be my turn to post something here at the Scribblerati blog on Friday, but it completely slipped my mind. Super disappointing, I know. My apologies. The good news is, the only reason it slipped my mind is because of my currently very full writing schedule.

For example:

1. Our next meeting is on Tuesday, so I need to finish my critique of Shawn's current WIP.

2. I'm continuing to work on my own WIP. It's an on-going process, but I'm pretty happy with it. In fact, it's coming pretty easy at the moment, at least for the next few chapters... there's a hazy part ahead, but... well, whatever, like I said: I'm continuing to work on it. I'm hoping to have a finished draft by...Mmmm... September-ish? Maybe October is a safer guess. Either way, it continues.

3. However, I've been most distracted recently by my own blog. My wife and I went to Japan last month, and I took notes. Now I'm chronicling those adventures day by day. Swing over and take a look, it's all gathered under the tag: "Japanned" to make it easy to find.

So that's where I'm at right now. Busy, busy, busy. I hope you're all still writing out there.

Later, kids,

Friday, May 29, 2015

A New Goal

Last weekend I attended Wiscon, aka The World's Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention. I picked up some tips at a session on writing while parenting. I was awed by the Sierra Nevada mountain range during a slide-show presentation by Kim Stanley Robinson about the work of nature writer/environmental activist John Muir. I was inspired by readings and speeches by this year's Guests of Honor (the aforementioned KSR and Alaya Dawn Johnson.) I had the start of my WIP critiqued by fellow writers under the guidance of the very generous Delia Sherman.  I bought a pile of books. I sold two felted creatures. I connected with Wiscon friends.

All around another grand weekend binging on science fiction and fantasy.

But by far the highlight was a workshop on submitting your short story for publication. Here's the program description:

Bring your laptop and learn how to write a query letter, format your story, and choose markets -- and submit it, right at the con! A supportive Den Parent or several will be around for hand-holding and advice. Bond with your fellow writers just starting out, and take concrete steps towards getting published.

And was I ever in need of supportive Den Parent.

Before going to this workshop I had, of course, submitted my work many, many times. To my writing group, to my best friend, to my partner, to my get the drift: not so much submitting to the publishing industry. Well, good news, that reluctance has now been tamed into submission. I sent off "Birch and the Queen of Dirt" during the session.

Excited by that first step, I decided to submit "Old Glassy's Way" over lunch.

I still hadn't gotten enough; the next day, "The River's Edge" got zipped out into the world.

So far I've gotten two form rejections. Bummer, right? Time to sit around for a couple of days moping for sure.

But no! I took those two stories and I resubmitted them as soon as I got the news.

Here's what's helping me make it through the disappointment rejections inevitably bring and still hold on to the tenacity needed to keep submitting:

  1. I've decided to make this a practice. When I get a rejection, I will find another potential market for the story and send it out again right away. I'm good with setting rules and following them.
  2. I've been inspired by writing friends who have 80-100 rejections under their belt. You can't be published if you don't send your work out, after all.
  3. I've given myself a new goal. It is not to get published; I've tried to set that target a bit to the side. Instead, my mission is to get 20 rejections by the end of the summer. If I get them, I'm calling it a success and I'm taking myself out for a fancy dinner.
  4. I've also given myself a reward system for each rejection: my best friend, my sweetie, and my mother are all in charge of coming up with 6-7 ideas for small treats. When I get a rejection, I get to ask one of them what my next treat will be. So far I've gotten an invisible love poem (with the pen/light that makes the writing glow in the dark) and I've got another treat coming in the mail. So when I get a rejection my response is "Yippee, a new surprise treat for me!" I love surprises. I love anticipation. I love little treats. I will get those treats, I tell you. I WILL GET THEM ALL! 
I admit when I got the first two rejections, there was still a bit of "Dang, why didn't they love my story as much as I do?" But so far I'm still excited to be resubmitting.

And I'm already a tenth of the way to my goal.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Two-Years Cancer-Free

       Two years ago on May 10th, I spent five hours in surgery and then the weekend in the hospital, recovering from the removal of a squamous carcinoma tumor, all the lymph nodes on the right side of my neck and my right tonsil. Recovery from surgery stretched on for five weeks, my tongue thick and bruised from where it had been clamped down during surgery, my throat burning and raw from where the tonsil had been removed.
Before my throat and neck were fully healed, a full month of radiation treatments began. A work colleague of mine, learning of what I’d be going through, correctly stated, “Today there are no good or kind treatments for cancer.” Compared to radiation treatments the surgery was nothing. 30 days of showing up for a treatment that made me feel worse and worse each day, killing my taste buds and making it painful and virtually impossible to eat anything other than liquids and ice cream. I lost close to sixty pounds during that time (about forty pounds more than I could spare to lose). Each visit to the doctor’s office brought on another discussion about how I should consider having a “permanent” feeding tube put into my stomach—and each time I resisted this idea (which is what I’d still recommend to anyone who has to make this choice. From what I understand many patients who go this route never eat normally again.) For a while the radiation treatments also stole my voice. My wife fondly refers to this time as “the month when she won all the arguments.” :-)
But this is all behind me now, past history. I’m officially two-years cancer-free. Cancer Free! That’s a big deal, and I’m happy to be here to write this. I’ve picked back up thirty pounds of weight and my taste buds have returned. As bad as the disease and the treatments of it were, I’m glad there was something that could be done to stop this terrible disease—and to reduce the likelihood that it might come back. As awful as radiation treatments were, the benefit is that they reduced my chances of a second recurrence of neck/throat cancer by about 35%. Being two years out from my diagnosis also greatly reduces the likelihood of the disease coming back. All reasons for me to celebrate.
So what else can I tell you about being a survivor of throat cancer?
I should probably tell you about HPV, the human papillomavirus. As I wasn’t a smoker, HPV is the most likely reason I got this form of cancer. From what I understand, 90% of all adults in the United States have been exposed to this virus. If you are a parent of a child ages 9 to 26, get your child vaccinated against HPV. (This vaccine didn’t exist when I was a kid, but if I’d had this vaccination, it may have prevented what I went through.) Adult males over the age of 40 are at greatest risk for neck and throat cancer. Statistics seem to vary on this, but one that sticks in my head is that this cancer is the fastest growing type of cancer for men in this age bracket, and 1 in 67 males will contract it.
Smoking: Another great way to encourage throat cancer. Don’t do it.
Health insurance: I remain thankful that my employer offers great health insurance—and that I had it when I needed it. When I finally tallied up all my bills for the time period when I was sick it was a six-figures number—almost all of which was covered by my insurance. To be uninsured at this time would have meant bankruptcy. I hear plenty of complaints about “Obamacare”—the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—but under the ACA people with cancer or a history of cancer cannot be denied health insurance coverage. Obviously as a cancer survivor I’m a fan of this idea.
After effects: I still feel the results of my cancer treatment daily, although to an outside observer I probably seem completely normal (or as normal as I get). There is always a little pain in my neck and mouth, both from the surgery and the radiation treatment. It’s usually not much, maybe a 2 on a scale of 1-10, but it’s there—and worse on days when I move wrong, sleep wrong, on the weather changes drastically. My doctor tells me this is my new normal, and is probably how it will always be. Eating/swallowing and talking are all a little more complicated for me these days. Radiation treatments have the effect of constricting/tightening all the space between tissues in the treated area—my mouth, neck and throat—meaning my “swallow” is somewhat broken, my throat a smaller space than it once was. Certain foods are harder for me to eat—for instance, I’ve given up on steak and many raw veggies just about completely—as they are more a choking hazard than nutrition (for me). I also suffer from “dry mouth”—the radiation f’d up my salivary glands, too—so that I now usually need to have a tall glass of something to drink with anything I eat to avoid choking. On the talking front, my voice had gotten a bit deeper thanks to radiation. I also don’t get a lot of volume out of my voice anymore, and yelling is just about impossible—but I think that’s OK. These side effects are all things I signed up for when I decided I wanted to take radiation treatments to prevent my cancer from coming back. Time will tell if it was all worth it—although so far it seems like it is.
My Thyroid: may it rest in peace. There was a 1 in 3 chance it would die after treatment, and it has. I now take a little pill daily (for the rest of my life) to replace what my thyroid used to do for my metabolism.
Exceptional support: I remain thankful for my support network of family, friends, work colleagues and of course my doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who helped me get through my ordeal with cancer. I was thankful for them then and am thankful now—especially for the high level of care I received when it came to my medical treatment. I remain in awe of the doctors and nurses who spend all their days helping others fight horrendous diseases like cancer.
So I think I’ve blathered on long enough in this post… mostly I’m just trying to say I’m happy and fortunate to be here, healthy and writing, but I must leave you with this final thought: Do you have a lump or bump somewhere that it shouldn’t be? Do you suspect something is wrong with your health? Then go and get checked out—NOW! (And don’t skip your routine physicals.) When it comes to cancer early diagnosis and treatment is half the battle. When I first felt a hard lump under my right jaw two years ago I’m thankful I went to see a doctor. I could have just as easily ignored it—which would have been a dreadful mistake.

Well wishes,