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Deciphering the Unwritten (Unpublished?) Word

Finding the Hero

posted Aug 22, 2017, 7:05 AM by Ben Kreucher

It's easy to know a good hero from a poor one. The protagonist's journey defines him. If she isn't on a journey, the reader can't experience the emotional growth; there's no connection and therefore no reason to continue reading.

In a story, if a person suffers brain damage, the next scene doesn't show them recovered and giving a public speech. If a person breaks their legs, the next scene doesn't show them winning a marathon. The journey is more important than the destination.

The journey shows the heroine's heart, her character, her spirit. We want to see it. We need to see it. It helps us understand something about ourselves, something we carry yet hide from the world. It isn't that we want to remain broken, but becoming whole is a journey of many steps.

The most compelling stories don't have the protagonist overcoming every obstacle. The protagonist must wrestle with demons--in the fantasy genre, that might be taken literally--battle back from defeat, and persevere sometimes against great odds.

We want to see all that. We don't want to be told, "Percival went out to slay the dragon. On the way, he lost his squire to a hungry bear. After many days and many obstacles, finally, Percival arrived at the dragon's cave. The maiden inside screamed. The dragon roared. Percival slew the dragon. The knight returned the lady to her home." That might be the outline for a story, but it's not a story. 

There's no depth, no character. No one cares whether Percival succeeds or fails. We don't see Percival's reaction to his squire's death. We don't know how the knight slew the dragon. We don't see the journey, only the victory. It seems too easy and the story becomes a hollow shell.

We want to know how the hero grows because we want to grow. Maybe we don't all want to be knights, but everyone longs to be the hero of his own story. No woman simply wants to be the damsel in distress. She isn't content with that. No man desires to remain on the sidelines of the big game.

Yet, we allow ourselves to sit on the couch of our own lives. We've benched ourselves because of fear or insecurity or a million other reasons. We should take one step today toward the best version of ourselves. That's what our favorite heroes from literature do.

The most memorable protagonists don't follow a straight line. They falter and fumble and fall, but never give up. They keep moving forward, keep striving toward a goal no matter how far away it seems. They may be patient, they may be relentless, or they may just want to prove to themselves or someone else that they can. There are a variety of motivations that drive the heroine along her journey and sometimes they change. Additional things may become important and may be added to drive her, but always at the center is the main motivation that guides everything she does.

Nail down that and you've got the beginnings of an awesome character that will compel people to keep reading and (hopefully) inspire them.

Squeezing Out Words

posted May 22, 2017, 11:06 AM by Ben Kreucher

I often find myself sitting in front of a blank screen, staring. The cursor blinking in its vertical, accusing fashion. And I wait, knowing there's something that wants to take shape here. I just need to form it.

A potter can mold clay, a sculptor can carve wood or stone, but a writer can only crumple paper (or make airplanes {or origami [but I can't]}). So, the cursor blinks. And waits. The page speaks.

Or doesn't.

The day drifts away while I gaze into the snow. The blank wall of while. The words come when I stop caring. Stop wondering who'll read them or how they'll interpret them. I just allow myself to breath and the words flow freely like a river through a crack in a dam.  Until there's none left. 

Nothing.

Just drips from a sponge. I wring and wring, but it's gone dry.

And so, I've spent my last bit of energy. The moment passes. The story still rattles in my mind; somewhere. Running. I need to hunt it, chase it, grasp it. Control. 

Skittish stories drift away unless I'm careful, stealthy. Ideas, once caught, stay. Permanent. Ready and willing to be used. Excited, yearning for more smiling faces.

But most only see the inside of my computer. Waiting. Hoping.

A Different Spin

posted Apr 24, 2017, 7:19 AM by Ben Kreucher

I've heard and read a lot of writing advice. Haven't tried it all, but I've let it swim around in my brain and marinate. Well, recently, for Lent, I thought I'd try and finish the novel I started and let sit while I picked at its bones. As Easter approached, I begin to get queasy. Nervous I wouldn't reach the coveted "End".

So, I fell back on some advice I ready a while ago and was repeated to me during the last week leading up to Easter Sunday: write the scenes you want to write and fill in the gaps later.

The problem I kept coming back to, while writing, was that scenes would bounce into my head and distract me from the one I currently tried to write. Instead of forcing the intruding scenes onto the back burner, I wrote them. It left me with an interesting manuscript.

The rough draft was finished before Easter. I reached "The End", but the arbitrary deadline I had set for myself. Now, I just need to polish it, edit it, and connect the dots to make it into a first draft. Then, I'll consider letting it sit on a shelf, pass it along to Alpha Readers, and let my brain move away from it to focus on something else. That way, I can look on it with fresh eyes and not feel so disappointed when people criticize it.

Then, I can start the second draft and incorporate those comments with a calm mind. Hopefully, making the story better by cutting my ego out of the process.

Unblocking the Writer

posted Mar 1, 2017, 6:54 AM by Ben Kreucher

A lot of writing advice tells you to write every day or write even when you're uninspired. And that's great. You want to build a habit of writing. It should be woven into your lifestyle, that way, it's harder to break than biting your fingernails.

But some days, I just don't. I don't want to write. I'm busy. I'm lazy. Usually, it's because I lack inspiration or I'm in the dreaded "edit" phase. When that happens, I've found the best cure for me is to step away from the computer screen. Staring at the blank page all day can get frustrating (plus, there are a ton of distractions waiting for me within reach of a few keystrokes). 

Writing by hand frees my creative process from whatever blockage or chains have suppressed it. Sitting down with notebook and pen and just writing without caring what I write relieves whatever pressure I've put on myself to "be excellently creative" (whatever that means).

Even just jotting down notes or story ideas helps.

Too often, I think that I put so much pressure on myself to write a perfect first draft. Probably because then I can fool myself into thinking I won't need to edit it. But, the truth is, it's just a rough draft. Get the story out, then go back and reread it for continuity errors, spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and whatever else needs ironing out. The hardest part is reaching "The End".

...Until you have to do it 700 times for the same story. But, don't think about that. Just keep writing. Find the story you want to tell and tell it. Once you reach the end, you can start figuring out how much you hate it. (Only have celebrating that you finished.)

A Lesson Learned From the Latest Season of The Walking Dead: Character Development

posted Jan 20, 2017, 8:06 AM by Ben Kreucher

This season on The Walking Dead started with a bang...or rather a splatter. We lost some pretty long standing characters. Characters whose deaths left big impressions on the remaining Alexandrians. Unfortunately, that means that it also left large shoes to fill as far as the heavy lifting of emotions and plot.

Some of the remaining characters just haven't gotten as much screen time as others. Therefore, we, as the audience, aren't as connected with them. Their current struggles and potential deaths aren't looming in the back of our minds with any sort of dread or urgency. One character, I forgot was still alive on the show until he turned up in a later episode. 

Perhaps I'm just weary from the way the show has run us through the emotional ringer, but I don't think that's it. I honestly feel that the characters that remain (minus a select few) just don't have the weight to drag us along with them. They can. First, however, we need to learn more about them. Once we get to know them over the course of a half-season or so, they can die with appropriate gravitas.

That's why it's important to invest time and emotion into your characters. You want your readers to relate to the characters, to know them like they know their best friends, and to want them to succeed. Without that, a book, movie, show, or play will fall flat. Any story without a connection to the audience can't succeed (with, probably a few exceptions).

Your narrative, and mine, needs to draw the reader in and envelope them in the plot. We need to know why bad things are happening to this character or, at least, yearn to solve the riddle. Without a character to root for or against, the plot becomes stiff and the reader tunes out. 

With a well-developed cast of characters, killing off one or two (or a dozen, like Game of Thrones) isn't a problem. You'll still have plenty of people to continue to develop and run alongside. Without such a cast, however, readers are more likely to set aside your story for one with more engaging protagonists and antagonists.

On Reading (and Writing) Long Books

posted Nov 20, 2016, 7:25 AM by Ben Kreucher

I love long, epic sagas. Sweeping masterpieces that drew you in and take their time to delve deep into the culture and wonder of a setting. But, writing that way takes time and has many challenges. And yet, some authors make it look effortless (of course, we're only reading their final draft, not the rough draft or the nth rewrite).

Can a book be too long? Would I even be able to hold the entire Harry Potter series in my hands if it were bound as one book? It's 1,084,625 words...that's 4,338.5 pages! 

Many sagas take place over the course of a series of books. A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time, for example, and each volume is quite hefty. The first book in those each nears 300,000 words. Few authors endeavor to reach such lofty word counts. Brandon Sanderson, however, currently works on a saga, The Stormlight Chronicles, that has a 387k first book. 
In case you're unaware, most of the time the first book in a series is the shortest.

Quite the achievement, to be sure. And, the first two books are fantastic. I wait with eager anticipation for the next. However, I find myself wanting to write not 33 books, but one epic saga of witchcraft, wizardry, werewolves, vampires, angels, and demons. One saga, one book. No matter the length.

The Lord of the Rings, though broken up into three books, was originally intended to be one volume. Of course, it'd be 455,125 words long. Still, not the longest book ever. 

So, I suppose my goal is achievable, I just need to do the work. And, of course, make it an enjoyable read. Not a chore. Immersed in fantastical creatures, awe-inspiring magic, wonderful settings, and deep characters. That's a challenge I'm willing to accept.

See you at the finish line.

Live Without Regrets

posted Oct 12, 2016, 10:41 AM by Ben Kreucher   [ updated Oct 12, 2016, 10:43 AM ]

All of us have things in our past that we regret. Maybe it was not trying out for that sports team in high school or trying out for the team. Perhaps it's letting a strong friendship fizzle over the years. Or, it could just be the one that got away. If you had the chance to fix one regret, would you?

I don't know if it's possible to live without regrets, but it might just be possibly to fix some. If you're a parent, for example, you probably try to help your kids avoid making your mistakes. But is that the same?

We all wish we could have a do-over. Sadly, time machines don't exist. ...Yet. However, not every regret needs to be permanent. Are there things we can change?

Obviously, we can't go back to high school and run on the track team, but we might be able to reconnect to a long lost friend. Or take that adventure we've always wanted or write that book that constantly jostles around in our brains.

Life moves fast, if we blink we miss it. What if we slowed down a moment and realized what we truly wanted? Is there a way to make amends for a wrong committed? Can too much time elapse and our window close?

I think I'll explore this idea more fully in my writing exercise today (it might even expand into tomorrow).

One thing is for certain, we can do everything in our power to live fully in the moment today. To engage with the people around us. To be fully alive. To reach our maximum potential. To decide that this moment is the one that defines who we are, not something lurking in the past or waiting in the future, but this moment, the extreme present.

Keep Moving, Keep Writing

posted Sep 19, 2016, 7:03 AM by Ben Kreucher

Writing is hard.  More like writing well.  ...Okay, editing is hard not fun.  Putting words on the page is easy, as long as I carve out the time to do it.  I can set aside time, but something always comes along to distract me.  Whether it's a video game that just updated or someone watching TV or the neighbor's dog barking or a myriad of things.  Pretty much any excuse can and often does pop up to keep me from writing (and especially editing).

It's not because I dislike writing.  I find myself happiest when writing.  I can't help but smile (editing, revising, and rereading is a different story, but necessary).  That doesn't mean I don't allow distractions to pull me away from my joy.  Plenty of things vie for attention every day.  The struggle is shifting through those to the ones that matter.

I fail.  A lot.  But, I continue to press on.  There's always tomorrow...unless I'm working on a deadline.  I shouldn't put things off, however, that I can do today.  But one missed day won't ruin a manuscript.  One hour away from the television won't kill me.  Thirty minutes of editing can't be as painful as I imagine.

Pushing toward a goal is daunting, if the goal seems unattainable.  So, instead of trying to climb Everest, I settle for Kilimanjaro.  Wait a second...
I need to go outside in winter before I decide to climb a mountain.

Regardless of my mountaintop aspirations, the beginning is the same.  One foot in front of the other.  One step at a time, whether forward or upward.

Generating Ideas

posted Jul 25, 2016, 5:37 PM by Ben Kreucher   [ updated Jul 26, 2016, 5:34 AM ]

Where do ideas come from? Do you snare them out of the void? Is there a lure I can use?

Let's skip ahead. 

You've got an idea: Death takes a holiday. Pretty good. I'm thinking it might look something like the movie Meet Joe Black
Let's stretch the idea a bit. Death takes a holiday. Specifically, Christmas. Now, we're looking at Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas
Let's take it one step further. Death takes a holiday, specifically Christmas, because no one else will do it. Now, that sounds more like Terry Pratchett's Hogfather

See how that happened?

It doesn't matter the idea. Take it and run. Play with it. Explore. Wind. Meander. Get lost. 
Just write. Don't worry about the background, the science, the mechanics, or the magic; just write. Get the words out, find the story. Don't let the research bog you down. 

For example, when writing science fiction--you're a fan of Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation and know that many episodes begin with Picard recording a new log--you open with "Captain's log, stardate whatever" and you fully intend to fill in the stardate. But what it you don't?

"Captain's log stardate...whatever" is a line from the first movie of the new series of Star Trek movies from J.J. Abrams. It's use shows us Kirk's character and his impatience with regulations and Spock stranding him. 

Or, you could write "Captain's log, stardate ...who the heck cares ". That's a different character, but perhaps an interesting one.  A disgruntled ex-military pilot who bought his own ship, but what about the crew? Can he keep them? Can he even pay them?

Now, you've got the beginning of an idea. An inkling. Where will it lead?

Details are Everything

posted May 6, 2016, 12:14 PM by Ben Kreucher   [ updated May 6, 2016, 12:25 PM ]

I've been there, hammering away on the keyboard for hours at a time, words flowing like rain through a gutter.  It's amazing, wonderful, some of the best stuff you've ever written.  My advice: Don't look back and read it until you get to the end.

I've also been there, staring at a blank page for hours at a time, words stopped up like a clogged drain.  It's awful, depressing, everything you manage to write down, you erase because it's abyssal, shameful, terrible.  My advice: Don't look back and read until you get to the end.

Of course, there are times when that advice needs to take a backseat.  And that's when you're world-building.  Everything's going great, you're writing 10,000 words a day, and it's pure poetry.  All of a sudden, you write a line that breaks the machine.

How can that happen?  Try having your protagonist eat cheese in a world without mammals.

When you write a novel where the main fauna happens to be dinosaurs and mammals are few and far between (not to mention tiny rodents)--except humans--you need to take a step back and rethink a few of the things we take for granted every day.

Without sheep, there's no wool (or mutton)
Without cows or goats, there's no milk or cheese
Without pigs, there's no pork (or bacon!  ...not a world anyone wants to live in; but seriously, you can make bacon out of any meat.  And, there's the possibility of raptor jerky, so...the better question is, who wouldn't want to live there?)

Who could say no to that face?


In a world ruled by dinosaurs, you might consider temperature.  The weather may lean more toward Florida than Michigan, for example.  Does that limit the types of food you can grow or which flowers would bloom when?

Bottom line: world building is hard.

So, instead of fretting over the details, write without looking back.  Get the idea out.  Get to the end.  Then, get out your red pen.  If you must--like I do--take notes while writing.  Mark areas where you know you'll want to go back and substitute "mutton" for "Protoceratops steak".

The largest creatures are reptilian and avian; perhaps you find yourself wondering how people got there or perhaps you don't really care because dinosaurs are inherently cool and reading about someone riding one is a lot of wish fulfillment in one story already or perhaps you're disenchanted from the start, after all, mashing humans and dinosaurs together is too easy, too awesome and, you know, somehow the author will ruin it.

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