Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

Part II: SETTING & WORLD BUILDING

Have you ever read a novel in which setting was an afterthought? Where the sense of place, like a backdrop in a photographer’s studio, could be swapped for another without any real change in the conflict?

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How about a story in which the world was so thoroughly enmeshed with plot that no skilled surgeon could ever hope to carve the one from the other?

Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut, by D.G. Lamb is such a book, and I hope to explore some lessons about world building and setting by examining a few excerpts.

Joshua stood transfixed by the sensation of heat on his cheek from the sun! He followed the golden beam’s path back up to where it gloriously streamed down from a small patch of sapphire blue sky, the sun just peeking over the hard golden edge of the covering cloud. He marveled as the mists separated to reveal the upper slopes of Mount Lipsig looming to the north of New Cincinnati. He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts. Joshua was amazed he could actually see the train sliding up the silver monorail strand that curved above the dense jungles surrounding the colony. Several large rusty horizontal gashes in the mountainside marked the extensive mining operations, the reddish earth in sharp contrast to the surrounding verdant vegetation. But the magnificent view paled in significance to what had just happened: for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.

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What can we learn from this excerpt?

First of all, we’re getting a lot of detail here. Having read the story in its entirety, I can tell you what we’re not getting: filler. Some of the descriptions might not be strictly necessary to the story (do we need to know the dirt is red?), but here the foundation is laid for a setting that proves to be integral to the plot—even if you can’t see how yet.

So, one takeaway would be to make sure you develop plot with setting in mind (and vice versa). However, even if the plot and setting are inextricably entwined, what does any of it matter if the characters are nothing more than shifting pawns? Which brings me to my second point and my first Wired for Story quote:

Lisa Cron says, “Story is how what happens [PLOT] affects someone [CHARACTER] who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.”

With that definition in mind, never forget that any story element—be it plot or anything else—is completely irrelevant if it has no impact on the character. Lisa even goes so far as to say, “Every single thing in a story—including subplots, weather, setting, even tone—must have a clear impact on what the reader is dying to know: Will the protagonist achieve [his] goal?”

Anything that thwarts the character’s goal will certainly impact that character, but the effect doesn’t have to be external (physical). It could be emotional or mental instead.

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Now… Reread that last sentence from the excerpt: “for the first time in Joshua’s life, he had felt direct sunlight on his face.” Think on that for just a moment… Can you imagine never feeling the sun? Do you suppose Joshua was affected by that singular event? I sure do. And not in the same way you or I would be affected because—and this is important—you and I didn’t grow up on Cypress Grove. A character is, in large part, a product of his or her experience, which includes environmental factors as much as events. So, to fully explore characterization, writers need to give flesh to whatever world our protagonists inhabit. Also, to make the best use of setting, let no detail grace the page without making it integral to either character or plot.

On a final note… lest you think it’s not enough for Joshua to merely appreciate the moment, the burst of sunshine also speaks directly to his current goal of helping himself and his mother escape the pungent stink and shame of their swamp-adjacent housing. Joshua was, in fact, on a mission to win bets for his mother’s Café Fund when he witnessed the miracle—and then this: “A groan escaped Joshua as he realized… [A] man had used his sheet to video the rare direct sunshine and would now likely make… 20, no—50 times what Joshua could make from winning bets at a pickup stickball match.”

For me, that revelation was a sucker punch to the gut, drawn from a universal emotion: the if only of regret. And that scene wasn’t the last time the author achieved that particular effect—not just for Joshua, but for me as well.

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In my final comment for this excerpt, let’s have a second look at a single line: “He squinted against the sparkling explosion of sunlight reflecting off the metallic microfibers embedded in the Permacrete monorail posts.”

Sparkling explosion… Metallic microfibers… Permacrete monorail posts. Each of these descriptions is specific, concrete, and—therefore—vivid.

Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer explains how to make writing more vivid as follows: “You present your story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch… Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business. Your two key tools are nouns and verbs… The nouns you want are pictorial nouns: nouns that flash pictures, images, into your reader’s mind. The more specific, concrete, and definite…the more vivid the picture. The noun rhinoceros flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture to your reader than does the noun animal.”

Let’s have a look at another excerpt to see how D.G. Lamb’s mastery of sensory details accentuates his created world:

Time slowed almost to a stop. This had never happened before. The aura of an altered reality strengthened. Details shifted into clean focus: the musky odor…; the rolling sheen on the small segments of chitin that covered the main body of the spiderviper; the slow snicking sounds as they compressed together to form a locked shell; the inverted V shape of the two hind legs on each side of the animal, articulated and proportioned like a spider’s, but covered in skin with tiny tufts of hair increasing in density down to tiny paws that were covered in fur…; a large rubbery lip pulled back above a dripping circular mouth filled with teeth, revealing a black fang tipped tongue where a nose should be…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need the author to convey what Joshua’s thinking here. I can already feel it myself. The vivid details plant my feet in the same space with that deadly creature, and the slow description coupled with implicit negative expectations increases strain to the point of rupture. Which leads me to another aspect of storytelling this author excels at…

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TENSION

Janice Hardy, in her book Plotting your Novel, defines tension as “the sense of something about to happen.” K.M. Weiland differentiates between conflict and tension as follows: “Conflict indicates outright confrontation… Tension, on the other hand, is what I like to think of as the threat of conflict… Tension allows you to dial down the excitement and the altercations without losing reader attention. In fact, tension-heavy scenes can often be more gripping, simply because readers know the conflict is coming and they can’t do anything to stop it.”

Joshua happens upon that creature. Something is about to happen, but we don’t know what. The result? We’re riveted to the page with the need to know. BUT— How do we work tension into our own writing? → Drop hints to the reader about what might go wrong. Direct their attention, for example, to the shadows, the unidentified noises, the protagonist’s suspicions—to heighten foreboding and dread—as in the following examples:

As Joshua’s mother leaves to go to work: “The world felt …somehow… not quite normal, as if… it had stepped back to watch her.”

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Joshua came to a corner and looked up at the signpost across the pedway. His gut twisted as he recalled his mother’s look when she realized he had come to this place. The right half of a street sign hung on a rusty wire, occasionally tapping against a cracked security camera case that also dangled from the light pole. It stated simply: Ave. And whatever the maps said about the official name, that was what everyone called this stretch of pedway: The Avenue.

Everyone knew of the predatory spidervipers lurking in the jungle surrounding the city, but with The Avenue, the dark menace that hung in the air was personal. It came from an accumulation of the whispers and oblique hints of unspoken evil acts that had taken place there, from the look of fear and reproach that came over people’s faces when The Avenue was even mentioned.

And there Joshua stands—in the place his mother warned him against visiting. What’s going to happen? Something… Maybe not now, but eventually. Can’t you feel it in the tone?

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In a sense, these moments of tension, rich with world-building details (the mention of The Avenue and the spidervipers that serve to heighten a reader’s awareness), are nothing more than promises that whisper, “Trouble’s brewing. Are you ready?”

What do you think? How important is setting to you when you read and/or write? Are you ready to be immersed in Joshua’s world? Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a paperback (for U.S. residents only) of your choice of “Driven to the Hilt I” OR “Forging the Blade” AND a $10 Amazon gift card.

>>>>> ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE <<<<<


Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

driven-to-the-hilt-coverAlready a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld.

It is a tale of survival, a premature coming of age in an environment demanding resiliency, inventiveness, and self-reliance. But when teetering on the sharp edge of stark choices, decisions of life or death, can Joshua afford to consider questions of right and wrong, or does expediency rule the day?

Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.

(Available at Amazon. My official Goodreads review here.)

Driven to the Hilt: Forging the Blade

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An inscrutable stranger offers him a deal that seems too good to be true. And it is. Joshua soon faces new challenges to survive in a place he had not believed was even real.

Having successfully evaded the colony’s underworld and corrupt police, Joshua finds himself trapped alone in a sterile white room. But it is no ordinary room, changing and shifting in response to his reactions and behaviors. Ultimately, he will have to make a choice… one that will forever change the direction of his life.

DG Lamb creates a dynamic world full of new challenges and lessons for an endearing young hero. Lamb’s extensive experience as a clinical neuropsychologist and his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms injects psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua and a host of engaging new characters.

“I was immediately griped by the exquisite prose, the author’s ability to create vivid images in the minds of readers and to plunge them into the consciousness of the characters.” – Readers’ Favorite review

Available at Amazon.

 

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Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest Cut

driven-to-the-hilt-cover“Already a social outcast because of his father’s alleged betrayal, young Joshua finds himself trapped outside the mining colony on the planet of Cypress Grove. He faces a murky rainforest infested with a creature so deadly, it has kept all humans confined inside their only settlement for decades. If he can manage to escape these alien wilds, he must then brave the even darker dangers of the colony’s underworld…” (Full summary here.)

 


Part I: CHARACTERIZATION

I used to think of novels as being driven either by character or plot. Now I tend to think of character and plot as two interdependent cogs—interlocking gears in a whole. Characters drive plot via decision, where the choices they make are an extension of who they are. Likewise, plot affects characters: The best plots are personalized, designed (by their authors) to challenge the protagonist to their core.

I truly believe character is the lifeblood of every good story. So…

What makes a good character?

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I don’t know about you, but I find characterization to be one of the most difficult challenges of writing fiction, at least in terms of trying to describe how to do it well. Invent a world – check. Make stuff happen – check. Create a nuanced-but-not-inconsistent character with built-in experiences, fears, desires, and wounds, with whom readers can immediately sympathize – cheh—er—hmmm.

As The Deepest Cut’s back cover summary states: “Debut author D G Lamb, a clinical neuropsychologist, uses his understanding of posttraumatic stress symptoms to inject psychological authenticity and complexity into Joshua’s personality, creating a wounded, but endearing central character.”

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If that description doesn’t make you want to read this book, I suspect you might be the exception… But do we all need a degree in psychology to create good characters? Given the plethora of fantastic personalities living between the pages of a myriad of different books—and the simple fact that not all successful authors are psychologists—I’d venture to say, “No.”

Whew!

Still, we can certainly learn from this author. Have a look at the excerpts below and see if you can quantify what exactly makes the characters so compelling:

Rachel turned to her son as their household computer paused the morning playlist. His eyes spread open again, not with feigned innocence, but in apprehension. Her heart twisted at what she saw. He’s still-…so young. His eleven-year-old face was open and vulnerable, miraculously not showing the scars from all that life had already put him through. And yet, …he’s not my little boy anymore. His upright posture and tendency to meet people’s gazes with his green-grey eyes combined with an above average height and athletic build to create the impression of a 13-or 14-year-old. His short hair was mostly her auburn, but had red highlights from his father. David.

It hit her in a flash: powerful arms encompassing her from behind, gently squeezing away her self-doubt, his warm breath flowing against her neck-

“Mom?”

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A little later in the same scene:

[Pondering her son’s deceit, Rachel] had decided on an educational approach, as was so often her way.

“Lying is still wrong even if you think something valuable will come from it. You obviously thought it was acceptable to break a rule and lie to me because doing so allowed you to get me a very nice gift. That’s called… using the ends to justify the means.” She tightened her lips to prevent a smile as her son frowned in concentration and silently mouthed the phrase to himself, committing it to memory. He obviously knew what came next.

Rachel’s head tilted forward and she looked up through her eyebrows. “Instead of having free time this afternoon, you will research and write a paper on the concept of the ‘ends justify the means,’ to include its origins and ramifications for moral philosophy. Hank, you may cue Joshua with the name Machiavelli later today if he asks, but nothing else.”

“Yes ma’am, provide the name Machiavelli if requested, but otherwise render no assistance on the topic of ‘the ends justify the means.’ ”

Her son held a very neutral expression. He thinks he is getting off light. …And maybe he’s right. -But I still need to get breakfast done and not be late for my first day of work at the Silver Lining Diner. She raised an eyebrow. “We shall see what else comes of this after I read your essay and see what you’ve learned.”

Rachel distributed half of the omelet to each of the plates Joshua had already set on the counter. He carried them to the table top that slid out from the cabinet between their Vertabed couches. As had become typical for them, they both paused to savor the first bite, taking a long moment to slowly chew with half closed eyes. After swallowing, they shared a contented smile. The ritual reminded her of how much closer they had become since David’s death. Rachel was again overtaken by the sudden fear that her son was growing up and would soon be leaving her…

She had almost finished eating when the missing puzzle piece unexpectedly clicked into place. Rachel looked up at Joshua as he speared his last bite, “So, just how big was this discount The Avenue merchant gave you?”

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Joshua looked up, blinked in confusion, and frowned, “Fort-no, ah… 60 percent off.”

“Wow. 60 percent off! That’s a really good deal.”

His face relaxed, “Yep. -I thought so too.”

“Hmmm, let’s see, 60 percent off of 16, that -would… be… six UDs and -hmm -40 cents, right?”

Joshua’s eyes began darting around the room like a cornered animal, “Would it? -I… ah -16? -That sounds like a lot. I don’t think… I’m n-”

“I know how much the SlipStone pans cost, Joshua, and I know how much spending money I give you. –Where did you get the extra money?”

His face contorted in anger. “Why can’t we just eat breakfast without you giving me the fifth degree?”

“It’s the third degree and I still need to know how you made the extra money.”

“OH. -Okay, –so do I need to write something about that, too? -Hank, remind me to write an essay on the third degree.”

“OK Joshua, I’ll remind you to write an essay on ‘the third degree’ later this afternoon.”

They sat frozen, Rachel in disbelief and Joshua glaring, with the tension mounting in the expanding silence. Finally, Joshua looked at the speared bite of omelet and eased his fork back to the plate. With hands in his lap, he looked up, but said nothing. That, of course, would not stand. Rachel’s mouth set into a thin determined line.

“Son?”

It was her turn to be thrown by a change in topic.

“Mom. My Orson 150 is… really …old. -…The clock rate on the processor –Ok -It’s just really slow, right? …So… that’s making it harder and harder for me to compete.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “Joshua, –please, –don’t tell me you’ve been gambling with stickball again.”

His face told her before his words, “I just want to help with the Café Fund, Mom.”

“We both know that has definitely not worked out well before.” Rachel felt the flush of anger on her face. “I do not–want to come home and find you like… thatever again!

“Mom. -I’m a lot more careful now. -I never bet so much that someone would want to fight after losin-”

The flat of her palm hit the table with a smack. “Joshua! I -will -not -have this!” Rachel pushed herself up and bent closer, “You will not bet on stickball! –Ever again, Son!”

Joshua also rose in frustration, his eyes glistening and his words loud, “This is… so unfair! -You are always telling me that I have to be more grown up, to be… responsible! -And I am! -I always try to do like you say, to act like the ‘man of the house.’ ”

Rachel’s mouth went slack, her shoulders sagged, and she thumped back into her chair. “I… I have never said that, Son. -It was something your father always said when he went on deployments.” A hollow pain filled her eyes, her words were sad and wistful, “Actually, …it was one of the few things we disagreed on.”

Joshua’s eyes opened wide in rage and defiance. His words came out hot,

“Yeah? –Well, Dad was right and I wish he was here…”

Rachel stared at the unspoken words that almost shimmered in the air between them and silently finished the sentence… instead of me.

The gut punch had driven the air out of her lungs. Rachel blinked rapidly, trying to understand what had just happened, surprised when a hot tear dropped onto her cheek. Through watery eyes, she saw awareness spread across Joshua’s face and he dropped his head in shame. She forced herself to breathe and searched for something to say, something to repair the rift, praying that this would not stand between them. What came to mind did not feel adequate, but it was what she felt at that moment. She hoped it would be enough, even while she feared it would not.

“Joshua, there is no amount of money -anywhere -that is worth the risk of losing you.”

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What can we learn?

First of all, the characters don’t exist in a vacuum. Even though readers never get to meet Joshua’s dad, we see the ripples of emotion he still casts across his family. In her son’s face, Rachel sees her dead husband. Even David’s parenting style lingers, adding conflict to the scene. We feel Rachel’s loss while also understanding her marriage wasn’t perfect—which adds to the realism. The lesson is this: If you want to write believable characters, you need to give the impression of a fully-realized past.

One of the other reasons this scene works so well is that it’s not a generic interaction that could take place between any mother-son pair—it’s specific. And that, my friends, is another key to good characterization. Rachel isn’t a cardboard cut-out of the average mom. She’s a former teacher. A colonist in a harsh environment. A widow struggling through her grief. A dedicated mom. And all those attributes are reflected in the way she interacts with her world and with Joshua. She’s not simply a pawn planted in the story with the sole purpose of serving the plot. Rather, who she is (character) determines where this scene can go (plot).

Another key to characterization is likeability. While not every character in your novel needs to be well-loved, it sure doesn’t hurt if readers form a favorable bond with the main character, in this case Joshua. In my opinion, he’s a sympathetic character for the following reasons:

  1. He cares about others → He wants to help with the Café Fund. → Likeable characters won’t be completely selfish.
  2. He’s not perfect → He has real struggles that make him seem like a real person. Still, even in the face of an almost-cruel mistake (wishing his Dad were there), we see his regret. → We all have flaws, so perfect characters are unrelatable. But make sure readers can see their redeemability as well.
  3. He’s experienced loss → Because this is something we can all relate to in one form or another, we sympathize.→ Give your character a universal wound and the bond with readers is almost guaranteed.
  4. Others care about him → His mother is desperate not to lose him. That makes me care too. → Demonstrating the protagonist’s value through another character’s eyes is an effective way of inviting readers to care.
  5. The protagonist is proactive—resolute → He’s not just a boy sitting around and doing what he’s told. He’s actively trying to help his mom pursue her dream while also pursuing his own.→ Characters without agency are harder to invest in.
  6. He has interests and talents that make him uniqueRead the free sample at Amazon for more about Joshua’s stickball skills. → (a) Don’t settle for generic and (b) give your protagonist a skill.
  7. His reactions are human → He dodges questions, he shows emotion, he blurts unkind words then shows regret. Sooo human. I can’t tell you how much I love this kid. Seriously… read the book.

 

In this same excerpt, we get a hint as to the theme, but that’s a topic for another day. And how about that emotion? Did you pick up on any universals? Be sure to come back next week for more writing lessons from Driven to the Hilt: The Deepest CutSETTING, WORLD BUILDING, & TENSION

Enter the Giveaways below for a chance to win a paperback copy of this spectacular novel (1 winner, U.S. residents only), a possible $10 Amazon gift card (with preorder), or an e-copy available NOW. And, as always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


GIVEAWAYS

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3 e-books, claim now:

I loved this book so much I’m offering an e-copy to the first three people who respond to this offer:

Read my Goodreads review here then email me at storystormblog@gmail.com letting me know you’re okay with the kindle edition and are unconcerned by my slight caution regarding the story. (I’ll make a note in the comments below when all three e-copies have been claimed.)

Prefer a Paperback?

Enter the Paperback Giveaway here.

$10 Gift Card

Preorder the second e-book ($4.99) between now and June 15 for a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card (to be awarded on June 17). Simply forward your preorder confirmation email to storystormblog@gmail.com, forward the e-book delivery confirmation email when you receive the e-book on June 16, and be sure visit the Paperback Giveaway link since a confirmed preorder is worth 5 entries toward the Paperback Giveaway (Winner announced on June 20 and stay tuned for another blog and more giveaways).

 

 

A Writer’s Promised Land

“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:9-10 (full chapter)

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It almost seems to me that Abraham’s encampment in the promised land is metaphorical of faith in general. He camped in that place before there was any physical evidence of the promise to come. He was looking forward to, not what he would do but, what God would do through him. He wasn’t the one who could bring the promise to pass—only God could do that.

For our writing, I think that means we give it to God…

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We camp in the place of expectation while inviting Him to join us and guide our work. We need Him to be—to build—that foundation. Like it says in Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

While that verse, in context, might be more closely related to building a family, I believe there’s a general truth there as well: Without God’s help, all our efforts are futile. But with Him, there’s no telling what impact our stories might have.

If you’re like me, maybe you need to hear that the race is as critical as the finish line. The day of small beginnings is not the end. God planted gifts within you that He intends to bring to fruition. You’re not journeying alone.

Jesus lives to carry our weakness and fill us up with His perfect strength.

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If you feel inadequate to the challenge, it’s because you are—as are we all!

We need God every step of the way: thanking Him amidst bursts of productivity; leaning into Him in the barren wilderness of doubt (and depression, too); trusting, even then, that He who filled us with the desire to write has a plan and a purpose for our creativity.

Without God, we can do nothing worth doing (John 15:5), but if we’re writing for Him, using the gifts and talents He planted in us, God will surely bring it to fruition.

Just because we can’t see the fulfilled promises yet doesn’t mean they’re not there, just beyond the next bridge…

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Any journey of faith is hard, but…

Amidst the difficulties, I’m grateful for God’s promises, for the wonderful writers He’s planted in my path. For each one of us, I thank God for His gift of creativity and pray He guides our progress from beginning to end.

How about you? Where are you on that journey right now? What struggles are you facing? Need prayer? That’s one of the greatest strengths of the Christian writing community: We’re here for one another.

 

Critiquing to Learn

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Everyone says, “If you want to write, you need to read.” This is particularly true if you hope to commercialize your story via traditional publishing. However, even if you devour novels like a starved paper shredder on steroids, your writing success isn’t a given.

Why? Because getting caught up in a good story isn’t the same thing as understanding how it came to be written. When you open a brand new book from Amazon and swipe your eager eyes over those crisp white pages, you can’t see the horrid first draft, the scathing editorial comments, or the poor writer yanking out fistfuls of hair as he or she attempts to weave their tattered story into a beautiful yarn. Oftentimes, if a writer has done their job well, you don’t even see the purposeful arrangement of key story elements. Instead, you find yourself 100 pages in, clueless as to why the story works so well… because it sucked you right in. Forget about GMC and character arcs. All you know at this point is that you must read on to see what happens next.

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Lisa Cron describes this phenomenon in her book Wired for Story. “The first job of any good story,” she says, “is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life.” And—I would add—when we force ourselves to stop and analyze a story, we risk ruining the escapist experience it was meant to inspire. How can we analyze a tale’s beauty if it disappears when we stop to look?

And how do we as writers circumvent “the Cron problem”? One option is to reread and study our favorite novels with the goal of learning from the masters. On second read, a novel’s anesthetic capabilities are lessened, though some of the original novelty and beauty is lessened as well. Another option is to spend regular time critiquing works-in-progress (WIPs) and learn from the learners. Each approach has strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) as you can see in the chart below, but only critiquing mandates a written analysis.

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Click here for an expanded view.

In either case, whether you’re critiquing a novel or a WIP, something magical happens when you force your thoughts into words. At first, you might not know what to say. Or what you say might sound obscure… “Good characters” or “This scene drags.” But as you start to amass words on the page, you can begin to add new thoughts and also critique your critique.

“Good characters?” Too vague! What makes them good?

“This scene drags?” But why? What might make it better?

You ask yourself questions. Then you put the answers into words and critique those too. Maybe you Google-search “characterization” or “how to bring a scene to life” to help flesh out your thoughts. Maybe you think back to that awesome novel you just read that kept you turning pages for hours on end. (What kept you reading? Would that fix this current scene?)

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In the process of formulating a critique, your brain starts making connections like, “Wait. This character has no goal. And didn’t I read something in that craft book about characters needing goals?” Through time, you learn to identify common problems—then turn them in on yourself: “Do I do that in my own writing, too? How can I fix that?”

Cultivating a taste for critique might not come naturally to all writers, but it’s still a way to reinforce what you’re learning. I would say, “Practice makes perfect,” but that’s only half the story. To really excel at critiquing (writing, too) you need to do more than just practice. You need to spend time learning about the craft of writing fiction and seek feedback on your own writing.

In my experience, learning to write is a back-and-forth process much like pumping on a swing or riding a see-saw. You write some. You read some. Novels, WIPs, How-tos. You learn about story theory and elements of style. Then you attempt to implement what you’ve learned. The learning process is, in short, a see-saw action between theory and practice, and critiquing is one tool that can help you learn to hone your own creative work.

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“Learn to write a novel” mind map by Lara Storm Hitchcock via XMind

How about you? Do you find the act of critiquing to be a valuable learning tool? Are you a left-brainer like me who enjoys the challenge of diagnosing potential problems…or do you struggle with what to say? Leave a comment (and enter the giveaway HERE) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. Paperback books are for U.S. residents only, e-copy / critique for all.

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Full Table of Contents here.

 

The Goose Girl

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Have you ever dreamed of being royalty? Maybe you’re an Anglophile and enjoy a little BBC or even just a monarchic fantasy (like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings). At some point in your life—if you’re a girl—you’ve probably imagined yourself in place of one animated princess or another. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but the idea of living in a palace, surrounded by beautiful rooms (and—ahem—being married to a handsome prince) has a certain romantic appeal.

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Now imagine what your life would be like if you could communicate with animals? What would you say to your beloved canine, feline, or equine friends? What might they say back? Could be kind of amazing, don’t you think?

But what if you were a crown prince or princess who possessed the gift of “animal-speaking” in a kingdom largely suspicious of such a feat? The law might state you’re destined to rule, but your gift makes you an outcast—it works against you. People’s narrowed eyes and whispered rumors follow you around, the animals you speak to are your only friends, and—unlike your respected “people-speaking” mother—you have no skill for ruling the masses… That, in a nutshell, is Shannon Hale’s novelized version of The Goose Girl, the story of Crown Princess Anidori and her coming-of-age journey of self-discovery and fulfillment.

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It’s a clean young-adult-targeted retelling of the original brothers Grimm fairy tale, and I have to say, I was impressed. Depending on what you’re accustomed to reading, it might not be your particular blend of coffee (or tea), but for me two attributes stood out as potential lessons for aspiring authors. First, the lyrical style, rich with imagery and sensory details captivated me from the very first sentence. Second, the emotional journey grabbed hold and sucked me in—and still it resonates whenever I contemplate the basic message.

In my own words…

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Princess Anidori couldn’t succeed until she stopped trying to be her mother, and you won’t succeed either—except as yourself. As for the writing lessons, we’ll dig a little deeper into Hale’s style and emotional impact in the sections below…

The Style

What I find so fascinating about Hale’s style is that it contradicts a number of basic writing guidelines (like the sheer abundance of similes and the far narrative distance, which, on the face, appears “telling” with a shallow point of view)… and yet the overall effect is vivid, sensory, and beautiful. Take the opening, for example:

“She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days. The pacing queen directed ministers and physicians to the crib. They listened to her breathing and her hummingbird heart, felt her fierce grip and her tiny fingers soft as salamander skin. All was sound. But her eyes did not open. For three days the grave-faced attendants came and went. They prodded her, lifted her lids, slipped thick yellow syrups down her throat.”

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First consider, “She was born…” In this opening sentence, the author is conveying facts—telling readers something they need to know. One of the biggest rules in fiction is “Show don’t tell,” and any use of the verb “to be” can indicate telling in progress.

Hale could’ve opened with the baby’s red-faced squall (or some quieter “show”). She could’ve employed dialogue to convey the same information stated via narration. Instead, she puts readers at a distance by inserting a narrator between them and the action. (And did you notice the point of view character isn’t clear?)

Even so…this style is—in my opinion—not only perfect for a fairy tale, but also—in Hale’s case—it avoids the common pitfalls of its narrative-heavy approach by incorporating sensory details through unique (cliché-free) vivid words and similes. As a reader, I might not have been much impressed if the physicians had heard Anidori’s “rapid heartbeat, felt her strong grip and little fingers as soft as a baby’s bottom” (or “as soft as silk”—take your pick). But “hummingbird heart” for a sound? And for touch, “soft as salamander skin” or “thick yellow syrups [that slip] down her throat”? Much better.

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The takeaway message is this: For anyone who’s ever tried to achieve deep point of view or “Show don’t tell” in their own writing, Hale’s style might seem to break “the rules” more often than not. But consider what Dwight Swain says in his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer: “To keep rules in proper perspective, violate them by design only. That is, make them tools for manipulation of your reader’s emotions. If that takes sentence fragments, non-punctuation, stream-of-consciousness, and one word paragraphs, by all means use them.”

If you can provoke emotion more readily by using (for example) a farther narrative distance—do it.

Emotional Impact

Is there any aspect of fiction more important than emotion? It’s true, a story with stagnant emotion can’t hold reader interest for long, but what about plot without emotion? There’s no need to debate which fictional element is most critical to success—no one aspect stands alone—BUT… I think any seasoned writer would generally agree that emotion is pretty high up on the list.

And I don’t mean the characters’ emotions, though that can be a factor.

On one extreme, characters melodramatically boo-hoo, with feelings so obvious as to bash readers over the head. Such tactics, however, are more likely to provoke eye rolls than engage reader emotion or interest. At the other end of the spectrum, a character’s emotional reaction might not be described at all and yet readers walk away with a deep sympathetic angst. The lesson? Sometimes story circumstances speak for themselves. Even when they do, there’s nothing wrong with showing a character’s realistic emotional reaction.

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Don’t let your characters emotions go up and down on a whim (like a hot air balloon).

Still, as Donald Maass says in The Emotional Craft of Fiction: “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?” He goes on to say, “What the novelist is doing…is not causing readers to feel as the novelist does, or as his characters do, but rather inducing for each reader a unique emotional journey through a story.”

So… When our hearts fist around strangled capillaries, damming up angst and blood as we read some imaginary scene, we know the author has touched us on a deep emotional level. If a scene milks our emotions, perhaps it somehow speaks to the cavernous vacancies in our own soul.

Even so, certain scenarios tend to have a universal impact: love, loss, injustice, rejection… We can put our feet in the shoes of a character who has—in a very specific and lifelike way—been subjected to these broad universals, and experience for ourselves what they might feel.

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Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith. Information and image from “The Goose Girl in Pictures”

Consider these snippets about Princess Ani from Hale’s novel (and the UNIVERSALS that describe them):

In her world of cold marble floors and aged tutors and whispering children, only the animal-speaking felt like her own thing and the [swan] pond her own place.” OSTRACISM & LONELINESS


The queen was like some terribly beautiful bird whose language [Ani] did not yet understand, and she felt her thin body fill with the desire to understand, and to please.” LONGING & FUTILITY


It is time you learn your place, Crown Princess. You will be the next queen, and your people will not trust a queen who makes up stories and seems to talk to wild beasts.” DISAPPROVAL & REJECTION


These people watch me, their future queen. I need to seem strong. She straightened and stopped her tears [at her father’s funeral], but next to her mother, she felt only half-formed.” INADEQUACY


Ani saw herself clearly in that moment, as a face in darkness gains sudden dimensions in a flash of lightning—a young girl, a silly thing, a lapdog, a broken mare. She did as she was told. She rarely gave thought to her duties or spent deep hours or acted alone. She realized she would never have been capable of taking her mother’s place. That realization did not bring relief. Instead, the thought of the journey and her unknown future chilled her skin and pricked her stomach with dread.” FAILURE & FEAR


The aunt pointed north, where few people lived and trees grew thick and prickly green all year, and where the girl could not follow. “I’m going home,” she said. She kissed Ani’s forehead, but her eyes did not leave the purple horizon. “Don’t forget all you have learned. If your mother discovers what I have taught you, she will take it away. I know her. The only thing she has ever wanted is shiny and fits around her brow. Still, you are better off with her, gosling. I would not wish my solitude on you. Stay and learn to be happy.” The princess sat on a stone, rested her arm on the back of a swan, and thought how her chest felt like a gutted walnut shell, and wondered if that sensation might last forever. She watched her aunt walk away, disappearing into a tiny spot of green that the eye tricked into a shadow of a rock a long way in the distance.” ABANDONMENT & LOSS

 

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What do you think? Can you relate to these excerpts? Do you agree there’s power in the universal? For a chance to win your choice of a paperback* or e-copy of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, leave a comment below. Double your chances by sharing this article on Facebook and pasting the link below. If I get more than 20 different commenters, I’ll give away two copies instead of just one. (*Physical copies for U.S. residents only.)

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Walter Crane, watercolor sketch for 1882 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Information and image from “The Goose Girl in Pictures”

Learning to Write a Novel

I spent the first year of my writing career hammering out the 600,000-word monstrosity that was the first draft of my then work-in-progress (WIP). Over the course of the following year, I whittled the verbiage down to 300k, the first two novels in a series. Filled with delusions of grandeur, I assumed I would write the next Harry Potter without reading a single how-to or getting feedback of any kind (except from my mother).

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I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. I knew my story had some problems, but stubbornly, like a stomping two year old, I wanted to do it myself. I resisted feedback. I waited an eternity to join an organization and network with other writers. I can’t say I wasted all that time writing alone, but I definitely missed the fast track.

I wonder how many writers start out that way. Loners. Determined to do it on their own. They’ve read a few good novels. They have some good ideas. What more does a writer need, after all, than a paper and pencil (or a word processor)—and a brain? Input a little time and creativity and voila! Out pops the great American novel.

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If only.

Writing a novel is hard. Writing a good novel in isolation is impossible. (I know. I tried.) And then, little by little, I opened up to the community around me. I joined a critique group… and gave up on my first novel after only 5 chapters of their critique. I started new stories and gave up on those as well after a little input. I found an online community of writers at Seekerville… and, for the first time, learned of things like pansters, plotters, and GMC. I participated in Speedbo (writing, in a single month, 50k words with no plot). I joined American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), dragged my feet a bit, then finally signed up for their online critique group, “Scribes.”

Over the course of the next several months, in 2500-word increments, I submitted the entirety of another novel I’d written earlier and set aside. During those months, I made life-long friends and learned valuable lessons about my writing strengths and weaknesses… which finally convinced me to get serious about reading craft books and helped me focus on the content I needed most: PLOT.

Now I can look back at my own personal graveyard of unfinished manuscripts and abandoned rewrites and understand a little better why they needed to be laid to rest. Now I have a basic understanding of the craft as I move forward with my new project, and a greater hope for future success.

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How about you? Where are you on the learning curve? Are you hesitant to step out and join the community? Leave a comment below for a chance to win your choice of a $10 Amazon gift card (for my reader friends especially) or a 2500-word critique (more geared toward my writing friends). (Please specify which draw you’d like to enter. The winner will be announced in one week in the comments below and on the giveaways page.) Also, on May 15th I’ll be offering an analysis and a giveaway of Shannon Hale’s award-winning novel, The Goose Girl… So stay tuned!

The Journey Begins

Writing a novel is an act of faith. Even starting a blog can feel like stepping out to walk on water. Today, I write. Today, I publish my first Story Storming article in hopes of continuing month to month, year to year… in hopes of helping others who have begun a journey like mine. It’s as much an act of faith as it is of writing.

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What can I say that others have not already said? What unique words do I have to offer? Writers everywhere ask similar questions loaded with self-doubt. Maybe that’s the point.

Whoever you are, you’re not alone out there.

I may not have all the answers, but in my years of reading, writing, and critiquing fiction, I’ve learned a few lessons I’d like to share. More than that, I have a passion for mentoring. Optimistically, I’m past the midpoint of my writer-to-author journey, but I took an inordinate amount of time getting here. My sincere hope is that I might spare other writers the same agony of wandering through their own wilderness.

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So, whether you sit back, invisible, reading the blogs from afar… or delve in and interact—maybe even partaking of a free critique, when offered—I hope you’ll find some help here.

Sincerely,

Lara… Storm

P.S. Stay tuned for a new blog the first of each month, complete with a related giveaway! Leave a comment below for a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card. I’ll be giving one away for every fifty commenters (each new name counted once), so spread the word! The more the merrier! (Winners will be announced on Saturday April 21st.)


*The above is a modified version of Ricardo Faria’s photograph (https://flic.kr/p/fJMRrR) Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode