Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fresh beginnings: Starting your story

So, you've got a story you want to tell. You can see the characters in your head and sense the story starting to roll around your imagination. You get out pen and paper, or fire up the computer and open your word processor, stare and that blank white space in front of you and...nothing.

A few ideas of opening lines pop out, you write them down, read them over, then erase them. You just can't seem to get this thing moving. Well, here are a few hints, tips and tricks I've learned after pounding away at four novels, a novella, and over a dozen short stories.

1. Hook your reader with the first lines.

That's right, get them started right away into the action of your story. Pull them in from the very start and don't let them go. Here are a few pretty good first lines:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

The moment one learns English, complications set in. —Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

Do you see what those first lines do? They grab your attention and make you think, "What?" And once you've thought that, you have to read on to find out just what the author is talking about.

2. Starting with that first line be active from the very beginning.

Don't start your book with descriptions or explanations to set the scene. Instead, write as if the reader has just stepped into the scene and carry on as if they can see it for themselves. This may, to a new writer, sound like hogwash.

"But don't I have to explain what is going on first so the reader knows where they're at?"

No, you don't because you are going to show them where they're at by the way the scene plays out. 
Basically the idea here is that they just turned a corner and BAM! they walked into your scene. Their imaginations can fill in a surprisingly large amount of information.

In my own novels I have started with a spaceship crashing to the earth (Karl's Last Flight), a terrorist slicing a betrayer's throat (65 Below), a POW being dragged from a prison cell (Faithful Warrior), and a CIA hit man witnessing his wife killed before his eyes (Midnight Sun). These are grabbers that make the reader go "Whoa what?" And then they want to know what happens next.

3. Introduce your main characters or set up that introduction early on.

You don't have to introduce the main good guy necessarily. You could introduce the main bad guy, but the first chapter should introduce at least one or two characters that are going to be with the reader for the entire story.

4. Try to avoid cliche starts

"It was a dark and stormy night" worked a couple centuries ago...not so much today. Most writers recommend avoiding starting your book with weather in general. But my opinion is that if the weather is part of the action, then why not. In some books, like my best selling novel 65 Below, weather is practically a character in itself. But do be careful, you don't want someone picking up a book and going "Oh, another one of those stories."

5. Hook the reader with the first lines.

What? That sounds repetitive? Well, that's because it is. The concept of hooking the reader with the first lines is of crucial importance to any story. So much so, that it bears repeating in a list like this.

So, there you go. A handful of tools and tips that might help you get started.

And now, an exercise.

For all you aspiring writers out there in the comments section below give us a few starting lines and I will critique them. How are you going to start your story?
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Warning Against Writing 2-Dimensional Cardboard Cutout Characters:

The problem with cardboard cutout characters is moisture. When the rest of the story gets soaked in the rain storms of fate and destiny, or drenched by the ship tossing waves of high adventure or swept away by the sweaty, sloppy french kisses of romance, cardboard cutout characters suck up all that moisture and, unlike their more 3-dimensional co-characters, with no life-like outlets against which to pour their rage, violence or tongue wagging horniness they end up absorbing all the rain, salt waves, saliva and any other violence based or sexually induced 'wetness'. The cardboard cutouts just suck up the moisture, absorbing it with the sucky power of those top secret NSA super-sucky paper towels(aka 'Super-Secret-Sopping-Slurper-Sucker-Upper' brand towels) Snowden tried to warn us about.

Cardboard being as cardboard is, our cardboard cutout 2-D stud and/or femme fatale absorbs the wetness, but can't be wrung out and ends up a pile gloopy, glumpy, slushy-mush that looks like oatmeal blended with mouse turds and topped with week old guacamole with a side of mold.

Therefore, having said and done and imagined all of the above we are left with only two closing conclusions:

1. Don't write cardboard cutout characters


2. Don't French Kiss cardboard don't know where that wetness actually came from...

So there... mission accomplished ... I think we've saved a life today.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Currents of Meaning: Why do you write what you write?

Theme: A unifying or dominant idea, motif, etc, as in a work of art.

As a writer I believe that my story comes from some place deeper than merely a random explosion of words that falls together and happens to turn out to be some degree of entertaining. Those kinds of tales, and I know they do exist because I’ve read some of them, seem to me to be little more different than passing someone on the street, feeling the rumble of your lunch time double bean burrito build into a pressure system and braaap!!

“Wow,” the passer-by exclaims. “It smells like cherries! Amazing! You’re so talented!”

Yeah…not. Stories, real stories, real tales worth sitting by the fire, in the park, or even on the can to read do not just pop out of nowhere and burst on the scene. They have a source, and believe it or not, even the most benign story has a meaning, purpose, and logic to it.

The stories I tell and the words I pick to tell them all come from a repository of thoughts and memories, both conscious and unconscious, stored by categories of words and groups of phrases somewhere in the soul. The warehouseman in charge of that facility is awakened and sent on a mission to locate specifically sought after information based on a database like system of shelves, drawers and boxes labeled with tags that are sometimes meaningful, sometimes confusing. While the filing system isn't always obvious in its attempts to make sense of individually remembered events and words, when he stands back and views the row upon row of shelves he can see that everything in that storage system is generally grouped by large, interlocking pools that clearly list the distinct, over-arching form and shape of the events in which that scenario played out, sharing some information and keeping some sequestered, waiting only for that special event or person to call out the deeper, more intimate details of that data.

Pulling back further those data pools are grouped into trickling streams that bubble over rocks and wind through forests as they make their way toward a much larger flow, the central channel inside the world of this mind. This gathers all the long travelled streams into one massive body, a living breathing river running its course along a path pre-determined by the weakness or strength of the various soils, bedrock, and life altering obstacles yet to be encountered. When taken as a whole, observed from high above at the end of its course, it becomes obvious that throughout the years and miles of its long run, that river...that life...had one overarching theme fed into and determined by each of those smaller streams, moments in life that in the end made the wide river that becomes me when the number of my days are fulfilled.

Now…where were we…oh yes, writing. Gotta get back into the stream there… …

Alley Oop!

Ah, now we’re swimming again…

As anyone who has read my books knows, I write decidedly not poetic, non-'literary', commercial military action thrillers. While the above paragraph may seem to indicate I have a penchant for painting beautiful words, my actual books will demonstrate that my preferred form of storytelling is to write about car chases, guns, bombs, and killing bad guys. But, and here is what I really want the reader of this blog to learn from this post, I write what I write for a reason. In all I do, everything I say and everything I write there is a purpose. There is an overarching theme.  I believe this is true for all artisans whether you write, sing, build houses, fix computers, make sandwiches or dig ditches.

Now when I say there is a theme to everything, this is not the same as saying that every word or phrase or action is calculated to touch on that theme specifically. I do not plan my days, or even my writing, by rising early and putting together a list of the people I will meet and what i will say to each one in each circumstance. Many years ago I was actually accused of doing just that, albeit not in a serious way. Back when I was a carpenter for a living I was known for being the guy with quick funny things to say at any moment. In the midst of a conversation I might bust into an impression of the boss, but using a Russian mafioso accent or I'd do an improvised song and dance to the beat of the nail guns and chop saws as we worked. These impromptu shows would make the guys howl with laughter, forcing occasional squirts of tomato soup through Clayton’s nose which made the laughter even worse. Eugene once laughed so hard a pea from his macaroni salad got lodged in his tear duct…from the inside. The staff medic eventually got it out, but only after he’d spent fifteen minutes on bottled O2 to get him to calm down. Some of the guys swore I must sit at home all night plotting the next day’s jokes and practicing potential scenes so that "if Brian says this, I'll do this and shimmy left. But if he does this instead, then I'll say this other thing and do a shimmy to the right, with a spin at the end. Yeah....perfect."

No, that’s not the kind of theme I mean. Having a theme and purpose does not mean having everything planned out in advance. It means, knowing the general theme and purpose for which you are here on earth and acting toward that end in everything you do. It means having a general big-picture attitude toward life and making your decisions based on that picture of how things should be in the context of how they are. Now that I am firmly established in middle age and can look back on over forty five years of life and see a theme that affects and impacts every part of what I have done from choice of my spouse to career choices, homes, friends, artistic expression, etc. 

In my writing I try to include that same understanding into my characters’ lives as I flesh them out. For instance in my novel 65 BELOW Marcus 'Mojo' Johnson has several minor themes, those little streams I mentioned above, including finding peace after twenty years as a Marine sniper, rebuilding his family homestead, finding something to replace the woman who rejected him. The overarching theme though, and that which drives the story, is Marcus's undeniable need to protect the innocent even when they don't know they're in trouble, and even if it costs his life and/or happiness. Through all the stories involving Mojo that is the major overlying theme that guides his life. He is the sheep dog amongst wolves.

Now is that theme of Mojo's my own theme? Is it the same theme as my other characters may have? Some parts maybe, but other characters like Kharzai and Mike Farris, and Lonnie Wyatt have other general themes toward which they are working. All of their disparate themes flow together into what I believe is my own life theme: Being a godly man trying to live a Christ-like worldview in a secular world.

Are my books therefore Christian literature? I was turned down by every Christian publisher I approached on account of the realistic violence and unrepentant warrior attitude of my characters. Those characters, retired USMC Master Sergeant Marcus ‘Mojo’ Johnson, USMC Major Mike Farris, CIA Field Agent Kharzai Ghiassi, Alaska State Trooper Lonnie Wyatt, are people like the biblical King David, who had no qualms killing when necessary, yet was able to dance with unabashed joy when worshipping before the Lord. The overall theme that is threaded through all of my books is, as far as I can see, the theme of my own life. That worldview, and the actions my characters take, the doors they chose to open and those they choose to avoid are all informed by that worldview, that meaningful motif, that direction…my theme.

 What is the theme of your story and or your life?
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, August 5, 2013

An Ancient Book, A Dream - A True Genealogy put to Story

Ma - Horse
As a writer I see the world around me in the form of stories.  Each person has a past, a present and a future. A beginning and an end. The line of time between birth and death, those latter two being like well-wrought book covers, constitutes the story of each individual that sets foot in this mortal domain. The creation of these stories forms the ever shifting web of what we call life, each strand intersecting other strands, crossing, connecting, joining, consuming. After the death of each protagonist the vast majority of those stories are quickly forgotten like a cob wed swept from the corner of a ceiling. There are some that are preserved for much longer. Those are the stories that become the history of the world as we know it. We are often told that these who are remembered were the greater beings of their particular generation, but this is not necessarily so.

Those whose tales have made their way into history were not necessarily the greater peoples who shaped history, they were merely the ones whose stories were repeated, and remembered by later generations because they were written down. Whether in words, in art or in some other type of representation, their tales were kept and remembered long beyond the point where the protagonist’s lives, loves, and struggles have ceased along this mortal strand. Not only were their stories written down, but they were repeated, translated and kept up to date to ensure future audiences would hear the story of the ones whose stories we have.

First Page from the
History of the Ma Family in Korea
I happen to own a similar tale.  I doubt anyone reading this blog has heard of this historical character, unless of course you happen to be a member of a small family in South Korea descended from a man named Ma Chun Mok. My wife, Ma Mi Kyong, happens to be a direct descendent of said famous ancestor. We know this because we are in possession of the genealogy and eulogy of Ma Chun Mok himself that has been passed down from generation to generation for nearly 700 years.  There were other parts of the family history dating back even farther, to nearly 500 AD, but those were apparently lost during the Korean War in 1951 when my wife’s father, then an eight year old boy, was running for his life from the invading North Korean and Chinese armies with a load of books entrusted to him by his grandfather. He ended up losing many of the priceless ancient books, some falling out of his pack, others traded for food to survive, the child being unaware of their real value. They may well still exist somewhere in Korea but we don’t know where. The first page of the oldest book we have is pictured on the left, the Chinese character for their name is on the right. 

General Ma Chun Mok
(c. 1400AD)
An interesting fact about their name is that there are at least eight different characters pronounced “Ma” in Chinese. Each different character has a very different meaning. 磨 means ‘mill’ or ‘grind’, a worker’s name like the English ‘Miller’. 碼 means ‘code’ or ‘counting’ and may have been a family of accountants or tax collectors. Another ‘Ma’ has a much darker meaning. 魔literally means ‘Magic’, but in a very negative sense, like black magic, evil like a dark sorcerer. My wife’s name symbol is which means ‘Horse’ and would’ve been used for royalty or high ranking military families. Ma Chun Mok was born in the city of Yangcheng, Shanxi province China in 1358. Something I have yet to discover (Mongolian invaders? War with neighboring states?) caused his family to move to Korea, then called Koguryeo, where he joined the army Taejo, the man who would bring the end of the Koguryeo Dynasty and ushered in the Joseon Dynasty that would last over five hundred years from 1392-1897. Ma Chun Mok became the supreme commander of Taejo’s army.
During General Ma’s lifetime he got to witness the introduction by the Great King Sejong of the Korean Alphabet, the first alphabet of any Asian nation designed to be easily learned by every level of society, from peasant to emperor, propelling Korea into an era of great social impact and technical advancement. This is the same Great King Sejong who still appears on Korean money and is revered throughout their culture.

A Faithful
of the
Ma Family
The title of one of the books we have is “The Faithfully Told Family History of General Ma Chun Mok”. In it there is a record of General Ma serving the first four kings of the Joseon dynasty.  Of what we’ve been able to translate, there are several specific lines that really caught my eye. In one King Taejon makes General Ma a Duke over a region of the country. In another line Great King Sejong, 4th in line after Taejon, gives him a special title of Most Honorable, True and Faithful General Ma. In the way Korean linguistics works, this is an amazingly honorific title. It signifies that as a man Ma Chun Mok was beyond reproach. He accepted no bribes, could not be swayed from his loyalty and lived an honorable life even in the face of death. His impact was so great that even today, nearly seven hundred years after his birth, a group of his descendants still holds a memorial service for him. My wife had no idea of the depth of her own past until we started researching these books.

Way back in 1988, shortly after we were married, I had a dream. The dream involved a happy little kingdom in China that was invaded by five neighboring states that drove it off the continent. They escaped the slaughter by hiding in a ring of mountains in Korea until their enemies stopped the pursuit. When I told my wife about my dream she was speechless at first. Eventually she told me about her family’s history as far as she knew, which was very little at the time. She grew up in a busy town called Dong Du Chon about an hour east of Seoul, just outside Camp Casey US Army base. Two uncles and her father and mother owned a string of shops that peddled wares to the soldiers ranging from R&B records, to 60’s & 70’s Mod-Squad clothes, to transistor radios and other trinkets and technologies any US soldier would pay cash for. One day her Harabujee (grandfather) took her on a trip to meet some other relatives. The trip involved a long train ride, followed by several hours on a bus, then a five mile hike off the road system into a mountainous area. Upon passing through a narrow valley into a place surrounded on all sides by tall jagged mountains they came to a large village. Painted on the outer walls of the vast majority of households was the name 馬or its Korean rendering ‘마‘, both of which are pronounced ‘Ma’.  At home her family were the only Ma among tens of thousands, and yet here was an entire village, over a thousand people, that shared her name. 
Map of Ma Chun Mok's tomb

Decades later, on a trip to visit her family in Korea for the first time since marrying me, my wife’s father gave her a keepsake: his copy of the family book. As I browsed through it I saw something that captured my imagination and sparked a time distant memory, the hiding place of my dream. The picture to the right is a page from the book showing the burial place of General Ma Chun Mok. Is this the location of the village where my wife’s relatives lived forty years ago? Is the place I saw in my dream a real place, and not a mere fantasy of dream webs conjured in my imagination while sleeping next to an Asian beauty I have always pictured as a Korean Princess. Were my muses awakening my mind to a memory not my own, but one which I am destined to write about. There is a story here, one which I intend to glean from these ancient texts. This is my life’s work, the story I live to write.

Sphere: Related Content