Reading is the greatest teacher

I started reading a book two weeks ago, Justin Cronin’s The Passage.  It’s the first book I’ve read in several months. Unusual for me, as I’ve usually managed to read a book every two weeks for the past couple years.  Truth is, I’ve been too focused on my own words to allow someone else to take up my free time.  I realise now that has been a considerable mistake.

You see the advice everywhere; If you want to be a writer, you need to read.  I’ve taken this to heart in the past, but I don’t think the truth of it has impacted me until this past week.

First off, let me say The Passage is quickly becoming one of my favourite books.  I’m about 200 pages from the end, and the first 500+ pages have been incredible.  It’s been inspiring reading this book, following its twists and turns, watching how relationships have been built and how shifting point of view helps to build the tension and add substance to the world.

Which is exactly what I needed, because The Veil had become stagnant.  I’ve had that little work in progress at a standstill for several weeks; partly due to family things, mainly because I just didn’t feel excited about it.  I wondered how I would fill the pages.  Now I’ve had a number of ideas.  The structure is making more sense to me.  I’ve seen how I can use and develop other characters in a manner that will not only deepen the world I’ve created, but also the story in general.  All because I decided to take a break and read something else.

Learning by doing is often my preferred manner of doing things.  But in this case, learning by having an example is doing wonders.

So if you’re like me, writing but feeling like you’re getting nowhere, watching as pages fill, but being overwhelmed by how many more remain, take a break.  Stop. Read a good book.

Still Alive

It’s been a while since I was last here.  Thanks to all those who’ve hung in there and stayed subscribed.

So far I’ve realised that having my kids home all day, every day, is the fastest way to kill any future I have in writing.  Between keeping them entertained and keeping them from killing each other, I’ve had my hands full.

Also, my wife’s photography career is taking off.  While this is fantastic news for her and our family, I’ve been really focused on helping her out with her web designs, marketing and generally being around as a sounding board.

All this, and we’ve had a recent death in the family.

In short, I’m not getting much writing done, either here on the blog, or on The Veil.  This may be the status quo until school resumes in September.  In the meantime, my mind continues to work away on ideas.  Hopefully sooner than later I’ll have something to show for it.

The Hero’s Journey Part 12 – Return with the Elixir

Now we arrive at the end of the Journey.  There’s a few important things to consider.  The first one is, how is the Hero’s return going to change his ordinary world?  Who needs to be punished and who will find freedom?  What will our hero have learned about himself and the world?  Will the elixir the hero has returned with truly do what he thought it would, or will the outcome be a surprise?

As a writer, a more important consideration, this is where you will part ways with your reader.  What do you want to leave them with?  How do you want them to feel when they close the book?  So much consideration is given to how a book begins.  We agonise over opening paragraphs and first chapters because we want to hook our reader and get them to read on.  But don’t you also want to  ensure they come back for another of your future books?  So you need to give even greater consideration to how everything ends.

There are two major forms to endings, the Cyclical and Open.  I’ll discuss those first, then talk a bit about other pitfalls and things you can do to your ending.

Cyclical Endings

The Hero’s Journey really does reinforce this sort of ending.  If we look at the journey, the hero starts in his world, and in the end, returns to it.  There is a closed cycle of events.  Sometimes this is criticised as being a “too clean” sort of end.  All the loose ends are tied up, the character’s progression is clearly visible and the hero accomplishes precisely what he set out to do.  There’s no real surprises when this one is done.  We usually get exactly what we were looking for.  This is the sort of ending most commonly found in fairy tales and happy Disney movies.

The other point to make here is that this sort of ending will leave very little, if any, room for another tale featuring the same characters.  Ever watched a movie and the end was so final, so tidy, you couldn’t think for a second how anything else even needs to be told?  Yup, that’s a cyclical ending.

Open Endings

This one should be pretty obvious.  The story ends, but there’s wiggle room.  Remember the ending of the original Star Wars: A New Hope?  It felt like the movie was over.  The heroes had won, there was joy, the threat destroyed.  But, we didn’t see the Empire destroyed completely.  In fact, we saw Darth Vader very much alive flying away to safety.  There was closure, but we knew that there was more to be done.

The ultimate pitfall of the open ending; how do you make your reader feel like they’ve reached a satisfying end, yet leave enough loose ends that they are enticed back for more?  As best as I can tell, the threat needs to be so large in part 1, that even if the story doesn’t continue, the reader can see that the hero will still succeed.  Naturally that brings you to the pitfall that future stories will need to be as big, if not bigger, in their threats as part 1.

Surprise Endings

If you’ve set up a certain ending, be very careful if you decide to pull a gotcha and surprise your reader.  While this is not always a bad thing, such as the Sixth Sense, you need to ensure everything that has happened to this point still leaves your surprise possible.  When you go back and watch the Sixth Sense knowing the ending, you realise that everything you thought you saw was a misdirection.  When Bruce Willis’s wife looks at him at the dinner table, she is in reality looking at the man coughing behind him.  Bruce wears various combinations of the clothes he was shot in, etc.  When viewed again, you realise that the truth was staring you in the face but you missed it.  Be careful to ensure the seeds of the surprise get planted along the route.  It’ll make the ending more fulfilling and make you look super clever!

Things To Avoid

Unresolved Subplots

A good story has subplots. Make sure all of these are resolved by the end of your hero’s journey.  I talked about leaving some carrots dangling if you’re writing an open ending, but you need to be very critical ,and careful, about what you leave teasing your audience.  Ask yourself, would I be angry if this subplot didn’t get resolved here and now?  Is this subplot really part of a larger story, or is it something I could, and should, wrap up now?  The items we leave an audience wondering about should make them hunger for more, not think you dropped the ball and forgot to tie a few loose ends up.

Too Many Endings

The end should be the summation of the hero’s major quest.  Subplots should be resolved, for the most part, by now.  Keep your ending simple, clear and to the point.  I recall the movie Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.  The way Peter Jackson chose to end that film, with numerous fades that suggested the film was over, only to return for more.  After about the third time, the audience started to groan.  While everything he showed was valid, and in a work so large it seemed fitting to show the end of the many characters, it was done in a way that audiences found tedious.  If you get to a point where the book could be closed with satisfaction, yet you keep writing, chances are you’ve gone too far.

Abrupt Endings

Your hero has been on a long journey.  As people who have become emotionally invested in your hero’s plight, your audience needs some time to bid your characters farewell.  Ending in a manner that seems you couldn’t be bothered to finish the character’s journey will seem ignorant and leave your audience less likely to pick up your next book.

To Sum Up

  • Your hero has returned with the elixir.  What does that mean for the world and the hero?
  • Is your ending cyclical or open? If cyclical, make sure you tie everything up. If open, ensure your open questions don’t make the current journey feel unfinished. They should only suggest future journeys.
  • Consider that this is where you and your reader part ways. How do you want them to feel?  Are there questions you want them to be wondering about?
  • Surprises are great if they make sense in context with the rest of the story.  Pulling a surprise out of thin air will make your reader feel cheated.
  • Your story should end, period. Not end, then end, then end, then end.
  • Allow your reader to say goodbye. Don’t just hang the phone up in their ear.

Thanks for following along.  This is the end of the Hero’s Journey cycle.  There’s still much to be said, but these are the main steps of the journey.  Bear in mind that not every step needs to be included and some steps can be repeated.  This is a tried and true story format that when done properly can create a satisfying tale.  Audiences relate, because so much of the Hero’s Journey is a reflection of life.  It’s one of the greatest reasons we love to see the hero win.

The Hero’s Journey Part 11 – Resurrection

Our hero is running back to his ordinary world.  Before he returns, there is one last threshold that must be crossed.

If you recall, back when our hero crossed into this mysterious world, he was another person.  Perhaps he was more naive, or weak, or egotistical.  Through the trials he has endured in the other world, he has learned valuable lessons and been transformed.  This penultimate stage is the final test of what our hero has learned.  It can be considered a form of purification, or a final shedding of what he was before.  By facing this final moment of death and rebirth, the hero transcends who he was before and can finally return to his old world.

Another consideration in regards to resurrection is what role it plays in the character arc.  In researching plot, the statement “your plot is your characters” or some version thereof, will often be encountered.  Most plot, including those based on the hero’s journey, are about a character moving from ignorance to enlightenment.  Think of the number of romantic comedies that start with a main character who is self-absorbed and a terror in relationships.  By story’s end, this character realises their faults and is “reborn” as a new man/woman who is capable of having a meaningful relationship.  The resurrection point is where the character becomes self-aware.  As an audience, we have watched the hero change.  We know who the hero has become, but for them to truly make that new persona last, the hero must become aware of it themselves.  This moment of self-awareness, where the character realises their own transformation, gives birth to the new persona that will become the hero’s truth.

Remember, there was a reason the hero set out to begin with.  In that time, the hero was not capable of achieving his goals.  He had to train, defeat threshold guardians, face ordeals and in general, transform himself to accomplish his quest.  Now that the quest has essentially been complete, the hero needs to truly realise who he has become so that he can live in the world as this new person.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow put Self-Actualisation as the highest point in his heirarchy of needs.  Resurrection is the moment of your hero’s self-actualisation.

Looking For Assistance – Haunting Dark Fairy Tales

Hello dear readers.  I post today with a small plea (I promise, more in the way of helpful posts soon).

My wife is a visual artist.  While her primary medium is photography, she is also a Photoshop guru and creates altered art.  We have talked at length about combining my love for writing and her love of art into a single project.  I would write a story, maybe 50-100 pages, and she would provide art for the work.

Here’s the thing, for what she does, I want to write something that is a haunting, ethereal, dark fairy tale type of story.  Problem being, I haven’t read much in that particular genre and as much as I have some ideas, I’m unsure of the voice for it.

So I ask for your help.  Do you have any suggestions of things I should read as research?  I appreciate anything you might be able to suggest.  I need some guidance and inspiration.

Thank you in advance.

The Hero’s Journey Part 10 – The Road Back

Our hero has crossed two major thresholds so far.  The first brought him to the other world.  The second delivered him to his ordeal.  Now, he needs to cross a third.

After the ordeal, our hero seized his reward and felt pretty good about himself.  He celebrated, became a man, found love, recounted his amazing tale to the delight of his companions and generally let himself forget that maybe, just perhaps, he wasn’t finished yet.  The third threshold that needs to be crossed here is rededicating oneself to the quest.  What our hero has endured might be believed by no one when he returns home, he might be called a liar or never have his accomplishments fully appreciated, but he set out on this course to accomplish something.  Perhaps the village is starving, or a magical illness is running its course.  The hero has the cure for what ailed his ordinary world, and now he must return with it.

So what makes this interesting?  How does this fill an entire third act of a film?  Well, if the road to hell is a downward slope, the road back is an upward climb.

Our hero’s decision to return to the ordinary world could be made for him by a vengeful force rising from the ashes of the ordeal.  Our hero might start on the road back at a healthy run, with evil in fast pursuit.

Much of what puts our hero on the road back is going to relate to a) Why he started the quest or b) How he obtained his treasure after the ordeal.

If the hero started his quest to save his ordinary world, he will take the road back because that is part of the quest.

If the hero had to steal his end goal (an elixir or treasure) chances are he needs to get back to the safety of his ordinary world to avoid the owner of said item.

Here’s some events that might kick off the road back stage.

  • The villain appears to avenge his main henchman
  • The villain was only faking death and reveals he is much stronger than thought
  • The “elixir” is stolen from the hero
  • The hero’s love interest (or loved one in general) is kidnapped
  • The owner of the “elixir” returns to take it from the hero
  • The hero receives word conditions in his ordinary world are worsening

If any single image sticks in your head about this stage, it should be of a chase.  The celebration after the ordeal has caused a lull in the action of our story and the road back hits the ground and throws evil at our backs so we get running.

Next, our hero receives a symbolic, or maybe literal, resurrection.

yWriter – Useful Writing Tool…. and it’s FREE!

OK, I’m going to admit something embarrassing…  I am lazy.

I know, I know, it’s hard for you to believe, especially when I haven’t posted a blog entry for over 5 days, but it’s true.  I fall so madly in love with ideas, but the second they require true work I buckle.  While this usually means a temporary stall in things such as cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or getting the garage cleaned out, it becomes unsettling when it prevents me from fulfilling a long-held dream.  Let’s face it, writing is work.  Especially when you create a new Word document for Plot Ideas, each character, each chapter, etc. etc.

I am happy to say I have found the answer to my problem.  Best part, it’s FREE!  Through the help of the Twitter gods, I was pointed to a program called yWriter.

yWriter allows you to do so much.  The best part is that everything is available in the assortment of tabs.  Let’s say you’re about to describe a scar belonging to a character you mentioned 100 pages ago.  The way I used to do things, I had to minimize my writing, navigate to the folder with all my notes files, open that file, find the information on that character, then close that file and return to my chapter.  With yWriter I just click on the Characters tab, find the character, and all the information I’ve created about that person is available.

yWriter also helps you keep track of whose viewpoint you’re telling the current scene from, you can create location information, item information and have it accessible the same way the character sheets are.  Each scene is created in its own RTF file so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket.  But when you’re all finished, you can export the whole thing into Word as a single document so you can do your global print settings and print the thing!

There are a ton of features to this program and I’ve only been skimming the surface so far.  I just wanted to pass along this really useful tool to anyone following the blog, because I think it is a fantastic piece of software that can only make the work of writing a novel easier.  And that’s a good thing for a lazy boy like me.