Gathering No Moss

Lots of goings-on this month.  Random, and yet not.

I’ve moved nineteen times in my adult life.  It’s one of the curses of being born with insatiable wanderlust, I suppose.  Nineteen changes of address in eleven different cities, five counties, two states.  Packing, cleaning, movers who don’t show up, mountains of boxes to stumble over.  And books–may I point out–are goddamn heavy!  So we just done it again.  Twenty times now, and no longer counting.  Packed up the cat and moved to Des Moines, half an hour south of Seattle.  And in Washington, the “s” in Des Moines is sounded.  Just the second one though, not the first.  Des Moinez, with an emphasis on the z.  I have no idea why.

My proposal for a fiction writing practicum has been approved by Tacoma Community College’s continuing education program.  (Much closer to Des Moines than our old place in Lake Forest Park.  That’s a win for the commute!)  We will be offering the class in the spring quarter and again this fall, potentially at the Gig Harbor campus, too.  I will be teaching as well as writing the curriculum based on the “Out of My Head” posts here.  Go Titans.

“Cold Ink” sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies this week, the seventh of my Clockwork Millennials cycle to be published.  This one has lived in my head for a long time–like, a really long time.  Thirty-plus years maybe.  The narrative trappings and plot points varied over the years but the story itself–the core of it–and the girl at its center, always remained the same.  I’m glad to finally send her out into the world.

I’ve been listening to the Pippin soundtrack lately.  I always wanted to play Pippin.  I still feel like him (there’s that pesky wanderlust again) but the reality of the calendar says I’m just seven years shy of his grandmother’s age.  No idea how that happened.  Plenty of time for reflection later, though.  I just moved and have to unpack all these goddamn heavy books.

And Then This Happened…

Publisher:  “I think what you’ve got in that dream sequence is awesome.  Love it.  But as a rule I don’t like dream sequences.”

Me:  “Okay…?”

Publisher:  “So I want you to keep everything that’s in the dream, but rewrite it so that it’s not a dream.”

Me:  “But the dream is prophetic.  None of it actually happens.  Not at this stage of the story, at least.”

Publisher:  “Yeah yeah yeah.  You’ll figure it out.  Awesome, though.  Love it.”

Me:  (muttering) “Great googly moogly…”



Out of My Head 6: The Rhythm of Fiction

Narrative flow has three elements: story rhythm to separate plot from random strings of events; action and reaction in equal parts (yang and yin); and movement, either internal or external.

“Stories have to move.”  You hear that all the time.  What does it mean?  Stories are journeys.  They have to end someplace other than where they began.  Movement is what gets you there.

  1. Story Structure is rigid (the traditional pyramid):
  • First crisis
  • Exposition
  • Second crisis
  • Transition (optional)
  • Third crisis
  • Undercutting (optional)
  • Climax
  • Result
  • Close

The traditional pyramid is static.  It’s driven by the requirements of the plot, but it doesn’t flow.  One step lurches to the next: first crisis, second crisis, third, crisis, climax, resolution…  Movement is what flows between the steps.  It’s generated by the dynamic interplay between action and reaction, the give and take, the yang and yin, be it internal or external.

  1. Story Rhythm is always in motion, diagramed as a continuously expanding series of loops:
  • Goal
  • Action
  • Disaster
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

The decision leads naturally to the next goal, followed by action, disaster, reaction, and so on.  The loops get bigger with each repetition as jeopardy escalates to the story’s climax.  They’re driven by character.  This is the try/fail cycle.

ACTION (Yang): goal, action, disaster

REACTION (Yin): reaction, dilemma, decision

Story structure is the skeleton that supports rhythm’s muscles.

Plot is what drives the story.  Character is what drives the plot.

Out of My Head 5: Story and Plot

  1. Story

A character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple cycles of risk and failure (the narrative flow), before achieving a resolution.

The bigger the problem, the bigger the character has to be to solve it.  How he deals with the problem reveals who he really is.  What you do is who you are.

Whoever your attention stays focused on, that’s who the story is about.  The hero doesn’t just solve a physical problem, he’s also caught in an ethical dilemma created by his role in the situation.

Stories are journeys–not only through physical landscapes but emotional realms as well.  They’re metaphors for life, the expression of truths by means of symbolic representation.  As such, they’re hypertrue.

At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death.  The death of the body, the death of a relationship, the death of a dream or goal.  It’s the fear of loss.  If the hero doesn’t face literal death, then there must be the threat of death or a symbolic death.

What your characters are afraid of is a choice.  You choose to be afraid.  Or not.  FEAR.  False Evidence that Appears Real, or Fuck Everything And Run.  We have no control over the things that happen to us, but we do choose how we deal with them.  We decide what the consequences are going to be.  So too with our characters.

Every scene must serve a specific purpose.  Every scene should propel the story forward.  If it doesn’t move the characters closer to the resolution of the problem (or if it’s simply not interesting), cut it.

All the separate arts of the story should reveal a much larger picture that explains everything in the end.


  1. Plot

Plot is the narrative that drives the resolution of the story.  It rises from what your characters want and need.

If STORY is dropping your character into a ditch, PLOT is watching him try to climb out.

Finding plot for character-driven stories.  Ask yourself “What’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?”  Then do it.  How he overcomes the obstacle or challenge is the story’s plot.

Plotting (or outlining) – the mapping out of specific story points before the text is written.  Establishing narrative guideposts in advance.  Plotting need not be rigid or a crutch.  Be flexible.  Let the story flow where it will in unexpected directions, then recalibrate accordingly.

That said, plotting is a tool not universally employed by the writing community.  There are detractors, authors who prefer to pursue their craft by the seat of their pants.

An outline breaks the story down structurally.  A synopsis summarizes the story in a compressed narrative.

The process is highly idiosyncratic.  There is no right way to outline.  Example: mine is nonlinear.  There is only the way that works for you.

Remember the Five W’s, Plus an H

  • Who – the character
  • What – the problem
  • When and Where – the setting
  • Why – the purpose; the reason your character needs to solve the problem
  • How – the plot


  1. Backstory

What’s the point?  Your backstory exists to serve the story proper.

If story is character + setting + problem, how your character solves the problem is shaped by his backstory.  Plot rises from what your characters want and need.  Your backstory informs the characters in how they go about getting what they need, but it’s not a principal focus.

Backstory is context.  It exists to inform and give meaning to the plot.  Equal parts worldbuilding, characterization, and hindsight.  If you ignore your backstory, your character’s actions won’t feel true.

Characters in short fiction have no less backstory than do characters in novels.  You just can’t use it all.  You as the author have to be okay with that.

Backstory can–and most likely should–be cut when irrelevant to the plot.


  1. Endings

How many of you have a story and no idea how to end it?

If a story is about your character’s resolution of a problem, the ending can only go in one of two ways.  He succeeds, or he fails.  That’s it.  Everything else is a ripple or consequence of those two states.

The nature of the ending is inherent in the nature of the beginning.

The setting will inform the solution.

Knowing how your story ends in advance will help streamline your narrative flow and reduce word count, particularly in short fiction.

Ask yourself: What do you want your ending to accomplish?

The hero must end the story different than what he was when he began it.  The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for wholeness.  It’s the process of becoming a more complete human being.  The transformation of the character is the reason you’re telling the story.

If you don’t know what your ending will be, how do you know when you’ve arrived?



Orycon 38

I’ll be attending Orycon this coming Saturday and Sunday, November 19-20, with five panels and a reading.  (Friday will be spent roaming the streets of Portland looking for a protest to join, if the Trumpkins don’t outlaw them first.)  Here is my schedule:

Saturday Nov 19

1:00pm – Backstory: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right

3:00pm – Short Stories, Novelettes, Novellas, and the Markets Who Love Them (moderator)

5:30pm – Reading: “Through the Looking Glass, Darkly”

8:00pm – Star Trek: Reboot (moderator)

Sunday Nov 20

10:00am – Endings: Cuddling with the Reader (moderator)

12:00pm – Revision: Path to Better Writing or Way to Never Finish?



Out of My Head 4: The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

The storyteller only needs to answer three questions: What’s happening?  Who’s it happening to?  Why should we care?

  • What’s happening is the plot
  • Who it’s happening to is the character
  • Why we should care is the emotional heart of the story, the most important part

Identify characters right away.

Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

Use language that fits the setting.  An earthy setting needs earthy language.  A sophisticated setting needs sophisticated language.  Semantic discord happens when words and imagery don’t fit together in a natural fashion.

Writing is making decisions.  All the time.  Every moment of every story, every chapter, every paragraph, is a decision.


Story Form

  • Long Novel – 150,000 words and up
  • Mid-Sized Novel – 75,000 to 150,000 words
  • Short Novel – 40,000 to 75,000 words
  • Novella – 17,500 to 40,000 words
  • Novelette – 7,500 to 17,500 words
  • Short story – less than 7,500 words
  • Flash – 1,000 words or less.

Short Story – a singleness of event and decision.

Novella – events build one atop another in a more layered plot, often with progressing value systems; a single principal character is featured more often than not.

Novel – the central player is the society in which the story takes place; one or more principal characters within that society carry intertwining plots.



The first line can either set the stage or hook you into the character.  (And those that hook you almost always follow with a bit of scenery.)  It should be surprising enough to tease you into reading the second line and the third and the rest.  Let your line have some mystery to it, and the reader will keep going to find out why.

The last line should imply that the story will continue, and should hopefully leave you wondering what will happen next.

Short sentences provide clarity and a crisp readable style, very useful for writing action and short fiction.  Long and involved sentences create a flowing sense of motion, but use caution: long sentences can become labored and overwrought.

A paragraph is a complete moment.  Every sentence in the paragraph is a part of that moment.  Show not only what happens but also how it feels.  A successful paragraph will evoke action, emotion, and the physical senses.

Every moment of action is an opportunity to add another line of description (just don’t overdo it).  When you’ve said everything you have to say about that specific moment, end the paragraph and start the next.

Try to capture four main thoughts per paragraph:

  • Set the scene
  • Show what’s happening
  • Color the setting and action with some description
  • Advance the plot to the next paragraph (the theme sentence).

Theme – what your story is really about.

Example:  What’s Gone with the Wind really about?  The death of a way of life and the struggle to build a new one, not just for Scarlett but an entire nation.

Ask yourself: What am I saying?  What effect do I want to produce?  Why am I writing this?



Style is the way the story is told.

Clarity requires that most of your sentences be simple and straightforward.  But storytelling also begs for vivid imagery and character, and it requires a distinctive voice to evoke that imagery.  Effectiveness vs elegance.  Decide which is best suited for the story you want to tell.

Language should always be clear.

Don’t choose frills over substance.  Don’t be pretentious.  When you focus on the language instead of the meaning, you’re putting your attention in the wrong place.  A writer’s job is to be invisible.  Focus on clarity.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip–thick paragraphs of prose that have too many words in them, or writing that’s overwrought and obvious.  Author Elmore Leonard calls this “perpetrating hoopedoodle.”

Accuracy is the most effective style of all.


Behind the Scenes

Authority – the writer’s ability to convince the reader he knows what he’s talking about.  Don’t undermine your own authority by losing the reader.

Plot Device – an element introduced into the story solely to advance or resolve the plot.  It should flow naturally from the setting or characters.  Examples: Casablanca’s letters of transit; the Death Star plans; anything Indiana Jones is looking for.

Dilemma – two different emotions in conflict with each other.

Climax – the story’s psychological turning point.

Word Echoes – the same word repeated in close proximity.  It draws attention to itself and distracts the reader.  However, there is a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.



Fairwood Writers

I’m very pleased to have been invited to join Fairwood Writers (though not without considerable self-promotion on my part.  A guy’s gotta pitch.)  They’re a critique group with a long and proud history, not the least of which is organizing Norwescon’s Writers’ Workshop every year.  Many notable authors past and present have been members and I’m fortunate to be in their company.  Good, good people.

For my audition I had to submit a new piece for review (which ultimately became “Through the Looking-Glass, Darkly”), a rewrite of that piece to show that I can utilize constructive criticism, and the beginning of a second new piece, all within a 4-week period.  Lots of stress and work, but very much worth it in the end.

My writing output has always been erratic (or shall we say nonlinear), and that’s putting it nicely.  It takes me forever to complete something new.  Fairwood will challenge and hold me accountable to improve my output, as well as point out when my narrative is less than good.  That’s exactly what I need.  The second audition piece mentioned above is now a finished work called “Cold Ink”, word count 14,500 – twice as long as it would have been without Fairwood’s critical input.  Follow-through, baby, and a commitment to get it done.