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Random and Fandom, Review

Did Guardians of the Galaxy 2 jump the shark?

GOTG2**A MOSTLY SPOILER FREE REVIEW**

I sat at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, watching the credits scroll by and waiting for the bonus scenes. I glanced at my friend and he had the same puzzled expression that I did. He asked, “What did you think?” I replied, “I’m going to have to process this.”

And process it I have. My friend and I discussed our mixed feelings about the movie all the way to our homes. I realized that something was really bothering me about the movie and I made two crucial thoughts on that ride.

First, I had the distinct impression that the producers/writers/director had surveyed all of the most popular Marvel movies to date, cataloged all the most successful scenes, and developed a formula for what they thought would be the perfect Marvel movie. Then they proceeded to make GotGv2 using that formula.

Second, with the issue of escalation an all too real problem in Hollywood, especially with on-going franchises, I had a sneaking suspicion that I just watched Marvel “jump the shark.”

If you’re not familiar with that term, let me explain. It comes from a 1977 episode of Happy Days, where Fonzie proves his bravery by water skiing and ramps over a shark…all while wearing his trademark leather jacket. The term has come to refer to an instance in any TV show or recurring franchise when the show presents something utterly absurd for the sake of novelty and ratings. It’s what ultimately happens through escalation, where there’s constant pressure to “raise the stakes” in story telling. And the writers are beginning to run out of ideas.

Speaking of pressure to raise the stakes, that’s also typical of any sequel. Producers feel pressured to top the first one, bring back all of the audience’s favorite gags, but also try to force in a better sense of artistry than they did before. Often sequels crash and burn because of it. This movie could have just been a typical sequel.

So did Guardians of the Galaxy 2 jump the shark? Let me give you some of my observations:

  1. Too many layers. Every character has some kind of emotional conflict/back story and subtext that they are trying to resolve. EVERY. CHARACTER. It was just too much to keep up with. Which leads into the next point…
  2. None of those layers were executed well. Sure, if they’d stuck to one or two there would have been screen time enough for proper development. But this movie has seven or eight. Let that sink in a moment. The audience is expected to emotionally connect on the subtext of seven or eight character journeys.
  3. The formula. Remember I mentioned it felt formulaic? That’s because it did. Go cherry pick the best bits of your favorite Marvel movies and there’s probably an equivalent somewhere in this one.
  4. While we’re at it, let me repeat my other previously mentioned thoughts: pressure to raise the stakes and typical sequel problems.
  5. Weak overall plot. The whole adventure felt very forced. From the absurd opening antagonists that wouldn’t go away for the whole movie, to the primary antagonist that felt like he just showed up and said, “Hey! Let me be the bad guy!” All the different character layers, escalated stakes, forced antagonists, and horrid excuse for an inciting incident, made the plot disjointed and confusing.
  6. babygrootBaby Groot. I think the producers knew about everything I’ve already said. They knew the script had major problems. So they tried to disguise it with Baby Groot. Because who could hate a movie with Baby Groot? Don’t fall for it. It’s a sleight-of-hand gag.
  7. But Baby Groot wasn’t the only funny thing. Everything was funny. It was almost like watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. Every shtick and cliche they could find to play for a laugh, they did. Thirty seconds of screen time could hardly pass without some attempt at a joke.

But the moment that made me think they “jumped the shark” can be summed up in one word. Pacman. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. That moment was just one absurdity too much.

Bottom line, this movie felt like a money-making scam. Throw some special effects and a cute Baby Groot at the audience, play up every possible joke you can, and they’ll pay to come by the score…so why waste money on good writing?

I really wanted to like this movie. Instead, I feel like I just witnessed the beginning of the end for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I say that, because I have a horrible feeling that Thor: Ragnarok is going to be exactly the same as this.

I’m still hoping that SpidermanHomecoming will redeem Marvel for me this summer. Fingers-crossed…

-odk

(Now you may commence bashing me.)

Review

Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

gavin-stoneLast night I had the opportunity to pre-screen The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. Actually, I had the opportunity last week, but due to some technical issues I didn’t get to until last night.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is Walden Media’s and Vertical Church’s latest offering in the ever growing faith-movie industry. It’s about washed-up child star, Gavin Stone, who has become a media badboy as an adult. After a particularly wild party, Gavin is sentenced to 200 hours of community service. He serves these out at a church in his hometown, where he has no choice but to reconnect with his estranged dad. Gavin also charms himself into the church’s stage production to get out of mopping floors, and takes the role of Jesus. It stars Brett Dalton (Gavin), Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (Kelly), Neil Flynn (Waylon), D.B. Sweeney (Pastor Allen), and Shawn Michaels (Doug).

When I was asked if I’d review a movie in which Grant Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) plays Jesus and the Janitor (Scrubs) is his dad? I said, “Yes, please.”

The movie opens this Friday (Jan 20, 2017) in theaters. As a matter of full disclosure, I was provided an advanced screening from Inspire Buzz marketing. However, as I always do, I will give you a completely honest review. Continue reading “Review: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”

Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #8 – Words Are Your Trade

Dear Anne,

I realized this week that it has been a month since I’ve written, and for that I want to apologize. I’m sure you understand how crazy summer can be sometimes, even though it’s supposed to be “vacation” time. Ha!

Right now you’re starting back to high school and you’re getting ready for your Sweet 16 party. How did this happen? You make me feel old. Maybe I am. But I won’t admit it for another two years.

As you’re getting back into daily social interactions with your teenage friends, I wanted to write this letter to remind you of something very important. If you’re going to be a writer, you must embrace the fact that words are your trade. You are to become an expert at the manipulation and proper construction of words and sentences.

Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. I’m struck with this one simple fact: when an athlete keys in on who they are as an athlete, they train insanely in their chosen discipline. The announcers revealed that rhythmic gymnasts train ten hours a day, six days a week. Katie Ledecky gets up at 4am to begin her training day, putting in about eight and a half miles of swimming. Every. Day.

These athletes have embraced that thing that makes them an athlete, so they train at that thing excessively.

Words are what make you a writer. They are your tools, your friends, and sometimes your worst enemies. But without words you could never be a writer. You should thrive on words, exercise your words, train your words, and embrace words in all their complexity and mood swings. Because words are your trade.

You are an athlete of words.

darth grammarWhat does that mean? Listen to the way you speak, listen to the way others speak, and improve your words. Practice saying things the right way, rather than flippant teen-speech. When texting or posting on Facebook, write your words all the way instead of abbreviations. Vulgarity in speech could never compare to the power of a cleverly crafted comeback.

Also, listen to your English teacher intently. Absorb all you can about the construction of words into complex sentences. Understand how words interact with each other and how subtle meanings can change based on the nuances of grammatical structure. You don’t have to make English your favorite subject, but you should take it seriously.

Expand your vocabulary. Always look for new words to add to your arsenal. Make a thesaurus your best friend. But don’t just add more weapons, understand how they work and when to use them. Words are powerful and fun, but not all words are appropriate in every situation. Learn what words to use and when.

I’m not saying you have to be a perfect speller. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade. I’m not saying become a grammar nazi. I’m not. But I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m better than most people whose words are not their trade.

Words are your trade. Learn words. Embrace words. Use words properly. Become an expert with words. Train with words as if you were training for an Olympics for word-smiths.

And if I see lol or jk or idk or anything like that in any of your stories, I may just crawl through the computer, forget the fact that you’re about to be sixteen, and make you stand in the corner until you apologize.

Respect words.

-odk

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My writing journey

Planes, trains, automobiles, and feet: My Realm Makers adventure

For the first time since it began, though I remember being a part of some of the conversations that led up to its founding, I finally had the opportunity to attend Realm Makers. Realm Makers is a writer’s conference, the only one of its kind in the world, that is specifically for Christian speculative fiction. Speculative, if you don’t know, includes things like sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal. Also, not every writer who attends actually writes for the Christian market, but it most certainly is a conference where writers of the Christian faith get to spend time growing and learning with one another.

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My adventure must be told in two parts:  the actual conference and my travel adventure.

This year the conference was held on the campus of Villanova University just outside of Philadelphia, PA. The conference was awesome and the keynote speaker was Thomas Locke. But perhaps the most meaningful thing to me was finally getting to meet in person many friends that I’ve known for years but have never met in person. Authors such as Kat Heckenbach, Kristen Stieffel, Ralene Burke, Becky Minor, Randy Streu, Kerry Neitz, Avily Jerome, Heather Titus, and many others that I may not be able to remember right now. (Sorry!) I also got to meet many authors that I’ve gotten to know more recently online.

The weirdest thing, though, was that people I didn’t know at all from the writing community actually recognized my name. It was both humbling and honoring to know that on some level I’ve had a positive influence on the development of these young writers.

I was invited to be on two panels. One was a panel on self-publishing. I felt a little out of place because Splashdown Books isn’t really self-publishing though they’ve changed to a hybrid publishing style very similar. The audience, though, really just wanted to know about marketing for self-publishers…to which I told them simply that I was really bad at marketing.

On the other hand, the paranormal/horror panel I sat on was tons of fun. We could have discussed the subject for several hours if we’d had the time. It was also inspiring to know that I had things to say to those attending that they actually wanted to hear about.

chuckAttendees were also encouraged to dress in costume for the awards banquet. I was a Nerd Herder, from the TV show Chuck. In a room full of nerds, this costume was too obscure. Only a handful of people actually recognized it. Most people had to have the show meticulously explained to them, because they hadn’t even heard of it. (How is that possible, people!?)

Finally, most productive and fun for me was the time I spent volunteering to be an appointment timer for writers pitching to the publishers and agents at the conference. I enjoyed it so much that I did extra time, sending one young author back to the conference. I got to encourage and calm nervous writers who had never pitched to someone before and I got to have meaningful conversations with the publishers and agents during the in-between times.

I may or may not have successfully accidentally pitched to one of the publishers a book I wasn’t planning on writing at all for about a year and a half. I may or may not have successfully purposefully pitched my non-fiction book to an agent in less than five minutes. Requests for both. (Got to write one of them first. Ha!)

Well, enough about the conference. What you really want to hear about…what you NEED to hear about…is the adventure that was my travels.

It all started months ago when I booked my flight. I booked a cheap flight…I had a budget. My flight plan sent me from Charlotte to Newark, NJ by plane and required me to transfer to an Amtrak train to take me to Philly. From there I would take the regional rail line, right out of the train station, that would take me directly to the campus of Villanova University.

Sounds fun, right? You might be tempted to think so. Leg 1 – driving to the airport – was fine. Uneventful. Leg 2 – flying to Newark – was also fine. Uneventful. But then things begin to get weird.

Leg 3 required the transfer to the train. The Newark airport has an inter-rail system to transport passengers from the airport to the train station. At the pen-ultimate stop of the inter-rail train, the doors opened and a lady began to yell at everyone to get off, cross the platform, and get on the opposite train. We were all confused, but we complied. The original inter-train left.

We waited. The doors never closed. The new train never left. Another one showed up on the original rail opposite us. And then the lady started yelling at us to get off, cross the platform, and get on the other one. Again. Thoroughly confused, we were eventually herded back across the platform, back to where we started, and finally departed for the Amtrak station.

I’ll skip the ticketing confusion at the Amtrak station and then again at the Philly station when trying to get on the regional rail. Let’s just say train stations aren’t as organized and obviously signed as airports.

I hopped on the regional rail moments before it closed the doors. Yes! A break. I didn’t have to wait for another. But then it stopped two stops early. The conductor came on and said, “Last stop for this train. Everyone off.”

I was a mile away from my destination. I had no idea where I was. In hindsight, I should have just called a taxi. But I didn’t. I walked the last mile.

I was 15 minutes late for the cafeteria. The doors were locked. I was hungry, tired, frustrated, and sweaty. I just wanted to sit down and give up for the day. Finally, someone came out who worked there and she let me in. I begged the cafeteria manager for something, anything to eat. She pitied me and let me have the only thing she had available…a gluten free, dairy free, turkey sandwich from the cooler. I didn’t care. I was too hungry to care. As I was eating, the manager also brought me some chips and granola bars. She really did pity me. I must have looked horrible. Did I mention I missed my afternoon coffee?

After that, everything was fine during the conference, even though I was 30 minutes late for the kick-off.

But then I had to travel home. My train left at 5:15 am from Philly to go back to Newark. And if you’re not on the platform for the train, they don’t wait on you. I wanted to be there with time to spare. So I got up at 3:30 and called an Uber at 4:00. I’ve never rode with Uber before and I had a great first experience!

But the driver almost hit a herd of deer in the middle of Lancaster Avenue on our way to downtown Philly. He said he had NEVER seen any deer on Lancaster Avenue before, and he’d lived there for 20 years. We found at least six that night. At least his brakes were fine.

Then we may or may not have driven through the middle of an active crime scene while driving through West Philly. Six police cars, no lights flashing, and a small crowd gathered around one particular part of the sidewalk…Just keep driving, just keep driving…

But I made it on time and the train to Newark was uneventful. The plane from Newark to Charlotte was also uneventful, though delayed 30 minutes because of weather. (Much better than one of my friends who had a 7 hour delay!) And I had my first experience with an over-the-top caricature of a stewardess. No one has the right to be that perky that early in the morning. No. One.

Finally, the drive back home was also uneventful, though by now I felt like a zombie. I made it with a little help from my friend Starbuck.

And that was the end of my Realm Makers adventure. It was good to be with my tribe. But it’s great to be home. Thanks to all my friends for an awesome time!

-odk

 

Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #7 – Finding Inspiration

Dear Anne,

ideaToday I want to talk to you about finding inspiration. The truth is, the firing of the synapses in your mind will only take you so far in the creative process. Your brain needs a database of inspirational input in order to come up with truly creative ideas. Think of it as putting things in a hat. If you need an idea, you simply reach into the hat for one or two. But if there are only a handful of mundane daily things in your hat, you’re not going to get a lot of great ideas to work with. So you have to fill your hat with as much random junk as you can. Pull two or three things out of the hat, and suddenly your brain has a spark of creative genius.

This is what it means when people say you have to practice being creative. Being creative is not something that just comes randomly to especially creative people, but it comes to those who have stock-piled a collection of random things that they can draw upon to be inspired in their creativity. If you don’t make it a habit to keep your collection up-to-date, your creativity will begin to stale.

So where do you get these random things that fuel your inner creative genius? Here are just a few places…

1. Other stories. Reading and watching movies are great places to find unique ideas to put into your hat. It’s okay to be inspired by other writers…chances are they were inspired by other writers too. There’s nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). The inspiration you have from other writers will come out differently with you than it did with them. You’ll have a unique spin and a unique story, even if certain elements might have been inspired by another story or movie. Take all of these stories, especially the elements you like the most, and put them into your hat.

2. Observing life. Sure you live life. You see life. You talk to people. You do things. But are you really observing what is happening? Do you listen to the subtle nuances of a conversation? Do you look for possible hidden meanings in a word or phrase? Do you speculate on the secret thoughts behind a look on someone’s face? Do you notice the variations in shadows on the wall? Do you lay on the floor or turn your head upside down just to look at things from a new perspective? Do you wonder about sounds you don’t recognize? Do you see weird things while riding down the road and try to figure out what was going on? Do you ask the question “why?” about anything and everything, not to get the real answer, but to give your creative mind a chance to fabricate an answer true or not? Never forget to take time to observe life. Watch it with all the analyzation and wonder you might new movie…always wondering what might come next and always trying to predict the most outlandish outcomes. Everything you see, everything you hear, and everything you speculate all goes into your hat.

3. Dreams. Yeah, I know. Cliche, right? But don’t knock it. Some of my favorite scenes in my books were inspired by dreams. In fact, I have an entire book in my “To Write List” that was almost 100% inspired by a particularly vivid dream. Dreams are when your brain is at its most creative and random. You might be able to use whole dream sequences or maybe just a small impression, emotion, or snippet of conversation. The point is, put these things in your hat and pull them out whenever you need inspiration. When you first wake up, take a few moments to try to remember your dreams. Think about details. Think about over-arching plot lines in the “story” of your dream. Think about the emotional affect it might have had on you. And if necessary keep a dream journal to write them down.

4. A dictionary, encyclopedia, or text book. You’ll be surprised what learning something new will do for creativity. If you read an article about the early Aztec Empire, you might find something there that you can put into your hat. Maybe a certain word in the dictionary has a sound that rolls off your tongue in just the right way to give you inspiration. Maybe a definition gives you the insight to tweak an idea a different way. As boring as it may sound, plain academic studying can sometimes inspire you in big ways. Learn random facts about history, learn new words, and put them all into your hat.

The bigger your hat the easier it is to find the right spark of creativity at the right time. Practice creativity, stock it with plenty of fuel, and you’ll find all the inspiration you need.

-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #6 – Dealing With Life and Motivation

Dear Anne,

Life and motivation are big problems for writers. Life will always get in the way and much of the time motivation to write will be a difficult thing for you to find. I must admit, this is how I feel most of the time. When the creative juices are flowing I can write very quickly. But when I can’t get my head in the right place it is very difficult to stay motivated. Most anything can take my mind away…church responsibilities, spending time with my family, lack of inspiration, chores, writer depression (that sagging feeling every writer gets that they are a failure at writing), accidents, unexpected expenses, unexpected trips to town, TV, internet, loss of my “want to.” The list goes on and on. But if I’m going to be a writer, I have to deal with all of that and find ways to write anyway. You’re going to need to do the same thing.

So with that introduction out of the way, here are some ways to deal with life and motivation.

waiting to write1. Life happens. It can’t be helped. Admit it. Accept it. The most well-intentioned and prolific writers in the world have been derailed by life. And there will come times in your life when you just don’t feel like or can’t emotionally handle the writing process. You lose your “want to.”

But dealing with life is a part of the reason writers write to begin with. It’s their escape from reality if only for a few minutes. It’s their creative outlet that helps them recharge. It’s their emotional expression that helps them vent. Sure you must know how to balance life with writing, but life is also the fuel for writing.

You may not be able to actually put fingers on the keyboard, but you can write in your mind. Let life be your inspiration.

2. Write in the cracks. Do you have any idea how much time we waste everyday? Ten minute here. Fifteen there. Just one more Netflix episode. I know this is a rerun, but I really like this one. Find those cracks of time that you’re wasting and find a way to use them to write. Evernote or Onenote on your phone or tablet may be perfect for this. When you have a moment and an idea, jot it down. When you have more time you can return to that idea and write it more fully. Look for those little nuggets of time you can use to write a few more words.

3. Write what you’re passionate about. In an interview with Joss Whedon, the writer and director of The Avengers, he answered the mystery of how he stayed so prolific in his work. How did he get so much done so quickly? His answer was simple…he writes what he’s “into” at the moment. In other words, if there’s a particular scene that he can’t get out of his head, he writes it. It doesn’t matter where it is in the story…he writes what he’s into. And once he gets all of those things out his system, he begins the slower process of piecing the story together with the scenes he skipped. If you’re having trouble being motivated to write that boring scene you’re just not into, skip it and write the one you’re passionate about.

one word - neil gainman4. Butt in seat. (This is actually an official battle cry of writers everywhere.) Sometimes it’s just this simple. Sit your butt down in front of your computer and start writing. You’ll be surprised at how difficult this can be. Life and everything will tell you to ignore that seat. But that seat will start staring at you…pointing its finger. You’ll begin avoiding it. You won’t even look at it. You know it wants you and you can’t ignore it forever. Just sit your butt down and write.

Because writing is a discipline.

In an earlier letter I talked about studying what you want to write by reading the things similar to what you want to write. But you must also realize that writing, like anything worth doing, requires practice. It’s a discipline that must be exercised whether you feel like it or not.

I was in the band throughout high school and college. I was a music major and a band director for a few years when I graduated. At one point I was practicing over an hour a day on my instrument. Many of those days I didn’t feel like it, but if I wanted to be an accomplished musician I had to do the work whether I felt like it or not.

Singers practice singing. Athletes practice their sports. Artists practice their art. I’m sure you know that practice is essential to getting better at anything, but the often overlooked part of practice is that you must PURPOSE to practice. A baseball player doesn’t just accidentally show up for practice. A dancer doesn’t accidentally show up for rehearsal. And you won’t accidentally write.

There are days the baseball player doesn’t want to practice. But he goes anyway. There are days when the dancer doesn’t want to rehearse. But she does anyway. There will be days when you don’t want to write. And those may be the most important days for you TO write.

Just get your butt in the seat.

one word - stephen king5. One word at a time. This is Stephen King’s secret to writing. Just write one word at a time. Neil Gaiman says to just put one word after another until it’s done.

One word leads to one sentence. One sentence leads to a paragraph. One paragraph leads to another, and so on until you’ve written a whole page. Pages lead to chapters. Chapters become books. Don’t know what to write or where to start? Try writing just one word.

6. Find your routine. Habits are habit forming. If you write every day at 4:30, then that time becomes sacred. You’ll schedule your entire day around that sacred time. You’ll feel incomplete if you miss it. Find your habit…a daily habit. Whether it’s an hour, thirty minutes, or just fifteen minutes…it doesn’t matter. Just lock it in and say, “This is MY writing time. Do not disturb.”

But no matter how good intentioned you are about writing with a routine, life happens and you’re going to drop the ball. One of your scheduled writing times will be interrupted. And the next time you’ll find it easier to be distracted, until one day you think, “Hey, I should really start writing again.” That’s when it hits you that you STOPPED writing and you’re kinda okay with that. Never be okay with that.

Find your routine and protect it like a wild animal.

7. Kill the time wasters. You can’t write if you’re letting time wasters suck all your extra time away. You may intend to sit down and write and spend all your time on Facebook instead. Then you’ve missed your writing time. Your routine becomes a Facebook routine and not a writing routine. So you must learn to recognize the time wasters and kill them.

Close Facebook. Turn the TV off. Put your phone in another room. Get rid of any and every possible distraction around you. Open your story and use your writing time to write. That’s when you have time well-spent.

I hope this helps you when life derails you. Don’t let lack of motivation be an excuse for not writing. If you want to be a writer you’ve got to learn to write even when life gets in the way.

-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #5 – Basic Story Planning

Dear Anne,

I write this letter on basic story planning, because that’s what you need right now. We’ve had some conversations already on this very thing, so I want to give you some more basic tools to help you properly plan your story.

Simply put, you have to know your story before you can write your story. There are writers who construct a plot first and populate it with characters to act out that plot. There are writers who create characters first and then give them something to do. There are even writers who have something to say to the reader or society, and they create the plot and characters in order to say what they want to say.

I’ll talk about these three approaches in more detail later. But what I want you to know is no matter what the approach or which approach you naturally take, these writers all have the same thing in common…they have an idea of what they want to write before they write it.

Even “seat of the pantsers” (writers who write by the seat of their pants without detailed planning) have something in mind – a goal, certain characters, developments, or plot points – before they write. Writers like this are usually more character driven, and they KNOW their characters.

It may sound like knowing your story is a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done.

First, let me restate what we discussed in chat. Create timelines. This works really well when getting to know your characters. The more you know about their past, the deeper the character becomes. Your readers may not always need to know this information…but YOU know it, and it’ll help shape the personality of your characters and even help to determine their actions and motivations.

Speaking of motivations…this is essential when working on your characters. What do they want? How are they going to get it? I don’t want to get too deep into character development (that’s another letter), but you can’t plan your story if you don’t know what your characters want to get out of the story.

Next, I want to say a word about outlining. I’m a big outliner. Some writers are not. Some writers think outlining is the only responsible way to write a story. To each his/her own. But I do think that some form of outline is necessary to create a balanced story without spending months or years on rewriting. Balance is absolutely necessary, and the writer who goes into a story without some kind of plan has a difficult time creating that balance from scratch. Often they write many many drafts, just to fix the story problems they could have worked out from the beginning with an outline.

That’s my opinion though. Other writers might argue with me. (And if they’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment with your planning method!)

However, my outlines are not incredibly detailed and they are fluid. In other words, I write one or two statements about what I want to happen in a chapter. But I am open and willing to let the story change if the story wants to change. Then I adjust my outline accordingly. There have been times when I had a clear outline early in the story, but I wasn’t sure about things later. I let the story tell me what to put in those places. (Kinda having that issue with current book at the moment.)

Writing a good story is like raising a child. A good parent guides their child in the right direction and teaches them the right way to live, but allows them become who the unique person they want to be. Guide your story. Teach it how to be a good story. But let it become what it wants to be.

However, the clearer and more detailed your outline, the faster you can write your story.

snowflakeFinally, I want to talk about snowflaking. This is a method of planning developed by the godfather of story planning, Randy Ingermanson. He developed what is known as the Snowflake Method, and even has software available to help you do it. You can find out all about it here – http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/.

This gist of it is that you start small and build outward, the way a snowflake grows. First, write ONE sentence that accurately describes your story. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds! He even suggests spending an entire hour just on this one sentence.

Once you have your sentence, you then expand it into a single paragraph, of about five sentences long and covering all of the major developments. Next, you take these five sentences and you expand them into paragraphs. You’ll now have a page long summary of your story, broken into five sections, each ending with a major plot point or disaster. Then take each paragraph of this page and expand it into a full page, so that you have a 4-5 page summary of your story. From there, you’ll probably be ready to hammer out your first draft.

Ingermanson says it should take you about a week to do all of this, if you’re taking your time and really thinking it through. I do want to point out that if you read his instructions on it, you’ll see he breaks it down into four sections and I have suggested five. That’s because I use a 5-stage plot system that I’ll tell you about later.

The Snowflake Method also recommends you do this same kind of snowflaking for every major character. Start with a single sentence about the character, expand it to a paragraph, and then expand that to a page. You should include that character’s specific timeline and plot development, even if the reader never reads about it. In other words, describe the story briefly from THEIR point of view, even if that’s not how the final story will be written. Include important history, background, and training. Include the character’s goals and motivation in the story. You’ll need to do this for every protagonist and villain…any character that is important to your story.

I use a little bit of snowflaking, but I don’t do the entire Snowflake Method. I do the smaller story summaries, but I don’t go beyond the one page. Once I get my one page, I launch into my 5-stage plot system. I also do not do the detailed character writing, though a probably should. Those things don’t really work for me in my current books, but they might work for you.

And that’s really the whole trick to this. You NEED some kind of planning…whether it’s plot planning or character planning or some combination. But you have to find the planning methods that work best for YOU. What works now might not work later as you grow and learn as a writer. Keep trying and experimenting until you find that magic formula that is YOUR process, bearing in mind that as you mature in your career so will your process.

-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #4 – The Right Tools for the Job

Dear Anne,

Have you ever tried to eat spaghetti with a spoon? Dig a hole with a rake? Hammer a nail with a screwdriver? Of course not. Maybe you could accomplish those feats with those tools, but if you want to do a job well and do it timely you have to use the right tool for the job.

This week I want to tell you about the right tools for writing. Some of these may be common sense to you and some of them may be new information, but they are all extremely valuable to writers. So I’m going to make a list for you to go through and acquire what you need for the projects you’re working on.

1. A good laptop. Maybe this goes without saying, but in today’s mobile environment some people are attempting to write on tablets and such. I don’t recommend this, mostly because you’re limited in your saving/backup capability and in your software options. If you don’t have a laptop, it’s time to get one.

2. Word processors. It’s tempting to write directly into a blog or to write only on paper, but don’t. Getting to know a good word processor is absolutely essential. Microsoft Word is by far the most popular and probably the strongest as far as features. It’s available on PC, Mac, Andriod, and iOS, so that you can continue working on you mobile devices when you need to. Corel WordPerfect is also an option, though not as popular and I don’t know much about it. (I use Word.) There’s also Libre Office and Open Office, both of which are free. Libre Office is probably the more powerful and frequently updated, though Open Office is more popular. Apple also has a word processor called Pages, which is powerful enough, but if you can get Word on Mac then you might as well use Word. You can even go through Google Drive (see below) and use their line of free word processing programs that are designed to work easily with their cloud server. Save everything in .doc or .docx files, and if you are trying to share with someone who doesn’t have MS Word, use .rtf (it’s a more universal file format.)

While we’re on the subject of word processors, if you don’t already know how to type properly or haven’t yet taken a keyboarding course in school, do it as soon as possible. Sometimes your writing speed may be limited to your typing speed, because your brain will certainly outrun your fingers. And that’s very frustrating at times.

3. A back-up system. Learn to back-up everything you do with a deep sense of urgency and paranoia, as if the whole world of computers is about to crash and eat all your work at any moment. Fortunately, there are several cloud based options that will do this automatically. Google Drive and Microsoft Onedrive can both be configured to run in the background of your computer and automatically save everything you do to the cloud. Add one of them. NOW. And put all of your writing folders in it. Both of these offer online editing of your documents and sync with their own word processors. You don’t have to use their word processors to back-up files, but if you’re going to edit them remotely or with a mobile device it helps. Dropbox is also an option, though it doesn’t offer as much space in a free account as the other two and doesn’t have any built-in editing capabilities. You may want to consider more than one back-up strategy, such as having everything auto-back-up to Onedrive, but once a week or so copy everything to Google or Dropbox. You may even want to keep a flash-drive or external hard drive nearby and periodically copy your material there, too.

20111128-gremlinParanoia. The computer gremlins want to eat everything.

4. Evernote/Onenote – Both of these programs are very similar. They are digital “notebook” systems. You can setup notebooks with sections and pages, just like you might do a three-ring binder. Evernote is free. Onenote is a Microsoft program and is built into Windows now, I think. Both work really well and have mobile versions for your tablet and phone. Onenote may have the edge organizationally and Evernote is a little simpler to use, though it’s not as touch friendly. They both sync online and you can access your notes from a computer anywhere anytime. Use these to keep track of your ideas and notes for projects, and you can update them with your phone on the go if some inspiration strikes. I use both, because I can’t decide which I like best. This is where I do all my pre-writing and brainstorming before I actually get started on a project, and it’s where I keep my ever-growing list of future book ideas. (These programs are also good for school notes or any other thing you want to keep organized digitally.)

Some writers find it easier to keep a small notebook and pen with them at all times to jot down ideas. That’s fine if you like that. But I still highly recommend that you take all those ideas and put them into one of these digital programs, because notebooks get messed up…and they’ll take your ideas with them. Notebooks have gremlins, too.

5. Scrivener (and other writing software) – This is a word processing system (I put it that way because it’s so much different than a standard word processor) designed specifically for writers,  especially those working on long projects. It breaks down each chapter or section you’re working on into different “pages” that can be tabbed through easily, so that you’re not scrolling forever like you would in Word. Each of these pages can be moved around if you decide to rearrange your document, without having to do complicated copy/pasting. Each page also has a place where you can put in a description of what’s in that chapter. There’s an outline function that lays it all out so you can see exactly what your project looks like. Scrivener also auto saves, so you don’t have to worry about it…you can just concentrate on writing. When your project is ready, you can export it as a single file in Word, where you can put the finishing touches on it.

scrivener screenshotI wrote my third and fourth books in Scrivener. I also wrote a non-fiction book that I hope to release in July, and I’m writing this series of letters to you with it! Here’s a screenshot. You can see the list of chapters in the working outline on the left. I may not write all of those you see, btw. This program is NOT where I’m keeping my future letter ideas. That would be in Onenote. (Notice also that both Google Drive and Onedrive are working in the bottom corner.)

This is certainly not the only software designed with writers in mind, but it’s really the only one I know and it’s what I use. Here’s a link to several others compared side-by-side – http://creative-writing-software-review.toptenreviews.com/; and here’s a link to the snowflake software (I’ll talk a little about snowflake later) http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/products/.

Most of these things will work best and shine with long projects that need a deeper level of organization. If you’re just doing short stories, then a regular word processor will do just fine.

6. Standard tools – It should go without saying that you need to have a good dictionary and thesaurus handy. If you’ve got internet access while you’re writing, then dictionary.com/thesaurus.com (two sides of the same site) are extremely helpful. I LOVE thesaurus.com. Along with this, I recommend getting a good baby name book for coming up with character names. (Scrivener and some of the other writing software have name generators built in.) Also get The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I haven’t had this one for long, but I instantly regretted NOT having it as soon as I got it. They have two other books, The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus (I have all three), but I think The Emotion Thesaurus should become a standard tool for every writer.

7. Writing space. This isn’t exactly something you get, but something you need to create. You’ll need to talk to your parents about this and get them on board if possible…I know you have a full house! But you need to be able to get away, to focus, and to have a creative writing space that helps inspire you to put words on the paper without distraction.

That’s it for now! Time to make sure you have all the right tools to help this writing journey go a little more smoothly. If you have any questions about how to actually use some of these things when you get them, we’ll discuss it in chat.

Until next week, go write something!

-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne #3 -Types of Projects

Dear Anne,

By now you should already be writing. You’ll never be a writer if you never write! In your case, Anne, I know you’re already busy working on your first real project. I’ve been reading and nudging you in a few areas, and I’ve already begun to see some growth. Keep it up!

But because you’re already writing, I wanted to take this letter and go over some of the different projects you may choose to do. Being a writer is a very broad term that covers many different writing disciplines. I happen to be in a somewhat unique position, in that I’ve dabbled in most of them…even the non-fiction ones. If you want to try your hand at non-fiction (things like magazine or newspaper articles, how-to blogs, academic papers, etc.), know that those things are a completely different animal than fiction disciplines. I can teach you some of that too, but it’ll be different rules and approaches to things. Just let me know, and I’ll write a letter on those things, too.

For now, I’ll just stick to fiction. The types of creative fiction you might choose to write are, in order of length: epic/series, novel, novella, short story, and flash fiction. There’s also poetry and screen-writing. Poetry I’ve done, though I’m bad at it; screen-writing I haven’t done, though I’d like to try it one day. I have a friends who do both, so if you want more info, I can get it.

I want to talk about the novel first. A novel is a lengthy work, typically between 40,000 and 200,000 words. It is a complete story, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It fully develops its main characters, settings, and major events, with a climax just before the end. I’ll talk about all of those different things in later letters, but I list them now because some of the other projects don’t always need all of those things.

Some authors can write more than one novel in a year. Those that do are very prolific at what they do. Most novelists do good to complete one in a year. A novel is a major commitment that takes a lot more time than you think. Many aspiring writers want to start with the novel, and they quickly get so bogged down in the overwhelming task of finishing it that they quit writing.

And speaking of being overwhelmed…those same aspiring writers often have grand ideas of a huge saga or series. These are multiple novels, in some ways self-contained with all the elements I listed for the novel, but they also span over huge story arcs between several books. That’s why I cut the novel off at 200k, because anything larger than that many publishers and editors would recommend splitting into multiple books. Sure, some single novels are that big or bigger. I’ll define those large single volume stories, that probably should be divided as a saga, as an epic. The saga is a multiple volume story, that follows a unified plot. A series is simply stand alone novels (or novellas) that use a recurring set of characters, settings, and/or themes. Got it?

My “novel” that I worked on in high school was supposed to be a three book saga. After college I wrote a stand-alone novel that was the prequel to that trilogy. (Your dad has read it.) But I still haven’t gone back to try that trilogy again…because it’s a huge overwhelming story that I still don’t feel ready to tackle yet.

It would probably do good for you to choose smaller projects for now. Save your grand novel, series, saga, or epic idea for later in your career. You’ll be glad you did.

A novella is simply a short novel. It follows pretty much the same rules as a novel, but on a smaller scale. A novella might range between 8k and 40k words in length. Within that, you could even break it down again, with another category called a novelette, which is even smaller than a novella. To be more specific, some literary awards define a novelette as a work between 7.5k and 18k words, and a novella between 18k and 40k words. Other awards don’t distinguish the two at all. It’s kind of arbitrary, which is why I gave you a general 8k to 40k. So if it’s between 8k and 20k, call it a novelette. If it’s between 20k and 40k, call it a novella. If it’s over 40k, then it’s a novel.

This brings us to the short story. If you’re paying attention, you saw that some works as small as 7.5k can be classified as a novelette. That’s a really small novelette. I’ve read short stories longer than that. In fact, some people just refer to novelettes as long short stories. A short story is usually between 1k and 8k (novelette size), though a short story can get longer in some cases. But at some point you just have to give up on it being a “short story” and just call it what it is…a novelette.

So what’s the difference? I’m not sure there is one, really, but in my mind I like to think of it like this. A novelette has all of the foundational elements of a novel: character development, setting, story development, tension, climax, resolution, etc; just on a smaller scale than a novel. But a short story doesn’t need all of that.

A short story is a specific scene in the life of your character. It’s a snapshot…a moment in time captured on paper. The reader doesn’t need all the exposition details you’d put in a novel…just the important ones to the story. The story doesn’t need as much development, because you’re really only developing one scene and one major character. Short stories tend to focus on emotions or morality rather than fully developing a plot.

I’ve written short stories, but I’m bad at them. I like detail too much and I write on much larger scales to ever be good at short stories. But I have a friend who is a very active short story writer, so if you want some more on that I can get her to write a letter for you.

Finally, there’s flash fiction. Flash fiction is what you call anything less than 1,000 words. At this size, you can’t help but take small snap-shots of what’s happening, and you have to be very clever to get the dramatic elements you need to keep it interesting. Flash fiction can be broken down into other categories, such as: micro-fiction (300 words or less) and nano-fiction (50 words or less). Of course, the smaller the word count, the less details you get to write, and the more clever you have to be to weave a complete story. Try writing a complete story in 50 words or less! It may not be as easy as you think!

Before I end the letter, I want to tell you about two things you might try. First, there’s a thing called fan-fic or fan-fiction. Basically you take the characters and settings of your favorite things and you write your own stories with them. It’s fun and there are entire communities online out there where fan-fic writers get together and share their stuff. You could write a Doctor Who fan-fic, where the Doctor shows up at Hogwarts and takes Dobby to his home planet (because house elves are really aliens). There are no rules on what you can do with fan-fiction! Just have fun! Well…there is one rule. You can’t publish them. 🙁 (Although, there have been cases where fan-fiction was so popular that a publisher changed all the details and published it as an original story. Fifty Shades of Gray was originally fan-fic of Twilight. How sick is that?)

Second, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo…that’s National Novel Writing Month. It happens in November, when writers all over the world, professional and amateur alike, commit to writing a complete 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. You can go to the website and officially register to participate (it’s free) and log your progress along with writers all over the world. Or just unofficially declare your participation. I’ve done the unofficial thing (as a way to try to get motivated to finish the book I was working on) but I never completed the month out. I’ve never won NaNoWriMo. To win all you have to do is finish your 50k word novel and you get to claim yourself a winner. It might be a fun thing for you to try…but it’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of pre-planning before November even gets here.

So there you have it! All kinds of exciting projects for you to try. Let me give you a quick breakdown of them. Remember, the wordcounts are only guides…there’s no definite rule…and some writers may even disagree with me on these definitions. But you’ll probably know what it is you’re trying to write, even if it doesn’t always fit into these wordcounts.

  • Epic – A fully developed stand-alone work 200k+ words.
  • Novel – A fully developed stand-alone work 40k-200k words.
  • Series – Multiple stand-alone novels that use the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that don’t necessarily depend on one another and usually tell separate stories.
  • Saga – Multiple novels with the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that depend on one another for a continuing story.
  • Novella – A fully developed stand-alone work 20k-40k words.
  • Novellete – A fully developed stand-alone work 8k-20k words.
  • Short Story – A developed “scene” 1k-8k words.
  • Flash Fiction – A developed “scene” 1k words or less.
  • Micro Fiction – A “scene” 300 words or less.
  • Nano Fiction – A “scene” 50 words or less.

Good luck and go write something!
-odk

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Tips and Hacks, Writing Tips

Dear Anne: #2 – You Are What You Read

Dear Anne,

Tennis players watch tennis on TV. Football players study tape of other teams. Musicians listen to the popular trends in music. Chefs watching cooking shows.

Writers read.

The point is that if you want to excel in anything, you not only have to devote yourself to practicing that thing, you must also study what others have done before you. It goes without saying that writers must spend an enormous time writing. I think the axiom is that you must write a million words before you actually start writing anything good. But in all of that writing, you must also balance reading.

My books are mostly paranormal/supernatural, with some fantasy and modern urban elements. What I devour the most, however, is fantasy. I also have an appetite for horror. I’m not into teen paranormals. That’s why my books don’t read like teen paranormals. How I write has become a reflection of what I read.

What you write will reflect what you read, too. So you should not just read any random thing. You need to be purposeful in your selections. I think I can break up the categories for you a little.

First, you need to read the kinds of things you want to write. If you want to write fantasy, you should read lots and lots of fantasy. If scifi, then read lots of scifi. Get to know the quirks and intricacies of the specific genre you want to specialize in. Each genre is a little different (more on genres another time). So live in what you want to write. Become a part of that world. Learn who the great authors are and what makes them great.

Maybe you’re interest is in fantasy, but you find that most fantasy books don’t fully resonate with you. Try something else. Try paranormal, scifi, horror…find what resonates, then read that. You might discover that your sweet spot in writing is a combination of elements, like I did. There are fantasy paranormals, fantasy romances, fantasy horrors, fantasy scifi…you name it, and there’s a “sub-genre” out there. When you find your sweet spot, devour it.

Somewhere you’ll find an author that is a true reflection of the writer you want to be. When you find a specific author like that, read as much of them as you can. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and in the beginning your writing will take on the tones of the author you most admire, before you eventually develop your own style and voice. So pick good favorite authors.

Don’t pick all classic authors, though. You’re a modern writer and you need a modern style. That was my problem when I was starting. I wrote like a combination of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Edgar Allen Poe. Nobody wanted to read my work until I updated my style. So I read lots of Peretti, Dekker, and good mix of independent writers you may have not heard of. My style changed, because it began to reflect elements of what I was reading.

Second, you need to read both classic and contemporary. Writing styles have changed. It’s good to know and geek out about classics like The Hobbit or The Time Machine, but as great as those books are, the sad fact remains that they probably would not have been published today in their current forms. Writing style has changed. So you must also spend a lot of time reading new stories, new authors, new writing.

Unfortunately, you may find that some of the new stuff pales in comparison to the classics…but that’s the way this animal called “publishing” works. More on that another time too. Twilight is certainly no Dracula and Eragon is certainly no Lord of the Rings. So it’s good to know the classics and the modern versions of your preferred genre. Study the classics for their story development and creativity. Study the moderns for stylistic construction.

Third, you need to at least be familiar with what’s popular right now. You don’t always have to read everything that’s popular…I mean, I don’t. Some of the popular stuff is really bad writing and honestly not worth your time. But these things are popular for a reason. These stories resonate with readers, regardless of the poor quality of the writing. And before I begin to sound too cynical, let me clarify that not all popular writing is bad writing. Some of it is quite good. The point here is that you need to familiarize yourself with the kind of writing that readers are attracted to, with the focus being on learning how story elements resonate with readers. So know what’s popular, maybe read some of it, and try to understand what makes them popular.

Things like If I Stay and The Fault in Our Stars resonate because they are honest about life. Twilight resonates because it paints a love story in a new and exciting way.

I was trying to get my first book published when Twilight was most popular. So I read Twilight. I wanted to know why it resonated with readers. Readers are fickle though. What is popular right now may change by this time next year. Most people are over sparkly vampires now.

So don’t obsess over what is popular. Don’t say, “Holy cow! Dystopian steampunk is really popular right now. I need to drop everything and write about air machines and the end of the world!” Relax. Next year paranormal martians may be popular. Just be aware of what’s going on, and if something really popular comes out that’s close to what you’re working on, it would probably do you good to take a closer look at it.

So create a “to be read” pile and fill it with a great mix of books that you know will help you better understand what you want to write and how you want to get there.

Go read something. And then go write something!

-odk

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