Let ‘er Rip: The Archer’s Paradox and Writing

There’s a term in archery called Archer’s Paradox, which refers the effect produced by an arrow flexing as it leaves the bow. To my mind, it’s an expression that also aptly describes story as it is loosed from the author’s mind onto the page. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, the story flexes from what you planned to write before the words show up on the page.

At various writers workshops over the years, I have listened eagerly to different best-selling authors describe the point where they know they are ready to begin writing (their new novel). Some said they did all their research first. Others shared that they covered the walls of their writing studios with scene outlines. Even avowed pantsers confessed to starting out by sketching a few plot lines or writing out-of-sequence scenes. There seems to be no single method practiced by the masters in this business–nevertheless, it’s all fascinating stuff.

It was Tim Powers who confessed that he puts off the actual writing (of the novel) until the last possible moment. At a writer’s workshop several years ago, he mentioned that he spends most of the time allotted to his novel, not writing; building up the story in his head until the tension of the pent-up story is so compelling that when he does finally let fly the words, they burst forth in a torrent, and he writes as fast as he can to get them on the page. Like a taut bowstring, the story is loosed.  It doesn’t always exactly match the story originally envisioned, but it follows the path planned, flexing (with inspiration) as it travels rapidly toward completion. When I first heard him describe this process, it seemed like a rather unorthodox method to me.  Something that worked for him, not something for my writer’s toolbox; but I never forgot what he said.

As I struggled to meet a daily word quota on my latest work in progress, I eventually became discouraged and then totally blocked. I tried a number of strategies to get the story to come alive again, but it always died after I wrote the first chapter. After eight different Chapter Ones ended up in the trash,  I finally decided to try the Tim Powers approach; no words on the page until the words themselves could not be stopped.  Instead of writing chapters (plotter that I am), I went back to square one and worked on (a brand new) outline, not writing until story tension built up inside me.

It worked.

After a year of trying to force words to a story I didn’t care about onto the page, I stopped caring about word count and stopped writing for a while. I didn’t stop plotting or researching, or making notes or outlining, I just stopped trying to write anything that could be called a draft or chapter. After months of trying to force words onto the page, suddenly, I couldn’t hold them back anymore.  Today, I let my story fly.

It feels good.  Sometimes, not writing is the key. Let ‘er rip.

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Writing Dialog: Idioms & Colloquialisms

One of the secrets of writing good dialog is to make every character sound unique.  As a writer, you want your dialog (both the internal and communication between your characters) to also sound natural. And it’s got to sparkle.  To that effect, many fiction writers pepper their prose with informal expressions (often ingrained since childhood) known as Idioms & Colloquialisms. 

An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning. Idioms exist in every language. Defined as a peculiar phrase that means something very different from the literal meaning. For example, if you say someone has “kicked the bucket,” it doesn’t mean that the bucket is laying on it’s side, it means (at least in the US), that someone is dead.
– It takes two to tango
– When pigs fly
– Raining cats and dogs
– Over the moon

A colloquialism is language used in daily life, consisting of informal, non-standard phrases that rise from verbal speech. Or to quote Strunk & White, “a word or expression appropriate to informal conversation but not usually suitable for academic or business writing.”  Authors tend to use colloquialisms (including profanity, slang, jargon, and contractions) to give dialog the ring of authenticity.
– Pitching a hissy fit
– Chuffed
– Dine and Dash
– Wazzup?

But the thing is, both techniques are considered among the deadly sins in fiction. In particular, slang use tends to go in and out of fashion, and idioms or jargon can mystify the reader, who tend to skim over the phrase (and pop right out of the story). This is deadly for any writer, and most editors viciously target idioms and colloquiallisms for deletion.

That doesn’t mean that these techniques don’t belong in the writer’s toolbox.  On the contrary, the creative use of idioms and colloquialisms can liven up the text, inject humor, lock the reader into story, and above all, reveal character. Take a tip from these folks:

  • “When your mama was a geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
  • “…he ducked his head and smiled at that white man just like a salesman whose luck has gone bad.” —Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
  • “Personally, I don’t have anything against shroud eaters.” Richard Kadrey, Kill the Dead
  • “Strikes me some people’s left their eyes outside in the sun, or maybe they’re just not very bright today.” Richard Adams, Maia
  • “…what you have mostly are rich ladies come out with their little doggies to make wee-wee. I mean the doggies, not the ladies.” —Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch 

Unique?  Check. Natural-sounding?  Check. Cliche? Not on your life. Ordinary characters don’t talk this way. These characters are compelling in their language and point of view.  They sparkle. Tell me you didn’t drink up every word of every sentence and want to read more.

Next time you find yourself searching for stronger internal narrative or dialog, don’t be satisfied with mere slang or epithets. Dig deeper into your characters and their attitudes. With the proper use of idioms and colloquialisms, you’ll be  happy as a puppy with two peckers at the results.

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2018: The List and the Lessons

At the end of every year, I like to look back at the books I’ve read and share some of my favorite reads, and while I’m at it, also offer up the top lessons I’ve learned as a writer in 2018. Sort of a literary year in review.

For me, this year was one of regrouping; of getting my feet back under me after a couple of years of struggling–and I’m not alone. Seems to me that the last couple of years have been pretty harsh for a lot of folks. With the shrinking of the polar ice caps comes a polarization of minds and hearts as well. Whether you get your news from traditional media or social media, it’s hard to miss the angst and anger these days. Thank goodness there are plenty of good books to offer a bit of escape and solace.

I read 35 novels this year, but I got a late start. As I do every year, I always try to read authors I haven’t read as well as catch up with my favorites, and try a classic or two.

Favorite new (to me) authors:
RICHARD MORGAN’s Altered Carbon was recommended to me by a good friend and fellow noir genre fan, and I was not disappointed. Takeshi Kovacs is an intriguing character in a harsh and unforgiving future. Although I found a few plot elements unbelievable (surviving in the trunk of a car for hours in a southeast Asia summer), Morgan’s vision of immortality through downloadable memory stacks and progressive  human ‘sleeves’ felt more like manifest destiny than science fiction, to me. I liked it so much, I’m reading Broken Angels right now.

I also enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrian Sky. I thought the world building and ideas around super-GMO corn and the rise of the seed industry to be believable, unique and engaging.

Favorite Classic:
A tie this year, for works by authors whose writing, craft, and genre couldn’t be more different. I’d never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, but I enjoyed The Sharing Knife (Book I). A little slow for my taste, but I liked the characters enough so that I’ll probably read more in the series. On the other hand, I didn’t like any of the characters in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but it didn’t matter– I will be reading him again. Man, can that guy keep me turning the pages.  Yes,  a detective novel, but a good one, with many twists and turns. I liked the ‘esper’ (as in ESP) world he built, where those with extrasensory perception belong to a layered guild, based on ability, and all the competitive politics to go with it.

As for favorite reads by favorite authors, I gorged on more than a dozen of Robin Hobb’s novels.  And as much as I loved the Farseer Trilogy, and the Fitz & The Fool series, I thought all four volumes of the Rain Wilds Chronicles were superb; and each book in the series had a better ending than the last. The series conclusion was absolutely stunning. And that is how you write a series.

My mentor(s) have always stressed getting words written every day, whether you feel like it or not. So at the beginning of the year, I set my writing goals and made them aggressive. I would write more this year than last year, I promised myself.  I planned to write three novels this year.

And then I didn’t.

Almost from the beginning, I struggled with getting words written, and those I did write, felt wrong. I thought that maybe it was because my 10 year-old ‘writing computer’ died, and the laptop keyboard didn’t feel the same. Or maybe it was that the story I was working on felt too tame, but I couldn’t seem to give it up and write something else. Anything else.

So I didn’t make my writing goals. Or even submit anything. I’d sit down with the intention to write, but ended up shuffling pages or rereading an outline that didn’t appeal to me. Maybe, I thought, I’d lost my creativity. Maybe I don’t have any more stories in me–ugh, what a thought. Or, maybe the day job is siphoning all my energy away. Creatively speaking, the well felt empty.

I quit trying to force it. I felt like a fraud.

And then (as life and all the other things that go with it do) my dog died. Big loss. Deep sorrow. Months later, and the emotions are still pretty close to the surface. I miss her, but I feel guilty too–at the sheer relief from worry. The worry of coming home every day for the last six months of her life and putting my hand on her side to see if she was still breathing. I don’t miss that. Or getting up several times a night to check on her. I don’t miss that either.

And slowly, in the place where all that worry used to live, the story is starting to whisper to me again. I feel the flicker of inspiration coming back. And it gets stronger with every good book I read. And weird little messages from the universe seem to be pointing me back to the ‘write’ path. I made myself very modest writing goals this year. Goals I’m pretty sure I can make. And I’m giving myself permission (again) to write crap, as long as I get the words on the page. I know from experience that once I start writing, I’ll fall into the story, and the writing will take care of itself.

And thus the lesson. There are times in your life when your focus is forced away from your story. Times when what is outside your control takes over your life. Life happens.  Do what you have to do to deal with it. But don’t beat yourself up for not writing.  Give yourself a break. The story isn’t going anywhere.  There is no time limit on creativity; or success. To me, creativity is like a well: sometimes, the water is harder to reach, but it has no place else to go. Keep reading. Eventually, the well will fill up again.

Here’s wishing you a 2019 full of good stories–be they yours or someone else’s.

Posted in Sharon Joss, the list and the lessons, writing, writing a series, writing goals, writing quota | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

You Say Spaghetti Night, I say Western Noir

I confess, I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns. As a trope, it’s one of my guilty pleasures, right up there with James Bond movies. This weekend, there was a Clint Eastwood movie marathon on TV, and the feast was bountiful, including High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, The Unforgiven, and one of my all-time favorite films, Hang ‘Em High.

Of course any decent Clint Eastwood movie marathon starts with the Sergio Leone trio of films (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The scenery is gorgeous, the violence brutal, and Eastwood’s anti-hero portrayal, timeless. Even today, Rotten Tomatoes scores all three above 94% for appeal, some 50 years after release.

Then there’s Hang ‘Em High.  I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I ended up taking notes. No spoilers here, just an appreciation for plotting and subplots.

The problem the protagonist tries to solve keeps getting away from him when he’s obligated to fix someone else’s problem first. His sense of honor and justice keeps getting in the way of his sense of revenge. His sense of revenge evolves into a determination for justice (for himself), and eventually his own disillusionment with the justice system (as administered by a hanging judge), and in the end, sympathy for the last of 9 men who tried to kill him.

For the audience, there’s a shared frustration with the protag, as he is continually thwarted in his efforts by bigger, higher priority problems that need to be solved (each of which consists of several action scenes), which builds throughout the story until he FINALLY faces off against his would-be murderer, only to be thwarted yet again.

All this thwarting and action showcase his growing disillusionment with the wild west legal system, something which he knows he is a part of, yet is unable to change–the hanging judge is as much a monster as the murderers he hangs. In the end, though his decision to stay and work within it or leave and live happily ever after says everything about the protagonist’s character, and the emotion that the AUDIENCE experiences when he makes his choice is unique to each individual viewer. Wow. For me, this multi-dimensional story-telling. A story that stays with you after you walk out of the theatre.

To me, the ‘spaghetti western‘ genre branding is a misnomer. It implies a a shallow thrill that minimizes the audience experience. I prefer to think of these films as a subgenre of noir: defined as genre of fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. And lest you think I’m only interested in Eastwood films, think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Or, more recently, films like No Country for Old MenBlood Simple, Red Rock West, or Last Man Standing.

So you can keep your spaghetti westerns, I’ll have a Western Noir.
Make it a double feature.

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Dog Days Return

The dog days of summer are here. Defined as “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere,” you could say that we are smack in the middle of them. Look at the weather map for the US these days, and it’s plain to see that the heat is on. Here in Portland, Oregon, we are under a heat advisory– temps are expected to hit 99 degrees later today.

A time to turn up the air conditioner, if you’ve got one. Or fire up the fans. Hit the beach. Or go to the movies. Anything to avoid the heat.

It’s a harsh time. A time to endure.

For me, this year, it’s the dogless days of summer which must be weathered. Recently, my beloved Rowan crossed the rainbow bridge (as all good dogs eventually do) and I am bereft. Having lived nearly all my adult life in the company of dogs, I am suddenly dogless. The house is bigger for lack of dog beds scattered across the floor. Without walkies and playtime and mealtimes, and weekly grooming/brushing and the constant battle against the tide of dog hair, I am at loose ends.  I feel as if I’ve forgotten something.  Something important.

And then I remember.
And am left shorn and bereaved all over again.  Her loss brings to mind the other beloved  fur kids who preceded her: Mia, Quilly, Taz, and the rest. I remember each of them, and how, over time, the pain of loss lessens and is replaced by wonderful memories. Sometimes, even dreams.

Rowan will not be my last dog, but for now I can only endure.  Some day, I know, another dog will come into my life, and I will rejoice.

Until then, I can only imagine that wonderful day, when the dog days return.

Posted in dog hair, dogs, Sharon Joss, summer | Tagged | 1 Comment

Comic-Con Fans Rock

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a whole book.

Yes, here’s a terrific pic of the fan who found the virtual me last weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego. She’s holding a couple of trading cards I sent along with a friend as swag (including one of mine).

I’ll be sending her an autographed copy of my novel, Brothers of the Fang.

Needless to say, it made my day.


Posted in authenticity, Brothers of the Fang, Comic-Con, Sharon Joss, wowie zowie, Writers High | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Comic-Con, I Am In You

Virtually speaking, that is.

Physically speaking, I’m not going to make it to Comic-Con this year. It’s on my bucket list, but  I’ve never even managed to even get tickets for the mother-of-all Cons in San Diego.

This year, though, I have a friend who is going to be there and has kindly offered to distribute some swag for me. I gave her a few trading cards to give away, including a dozen  of mine. Two of them are autographed.

So here’s the deal, if you manage to snag one of my trading cards, or any of my books while at Comic-Con this year, snap a photo of yourself holding it at the Con and email the pic to me with your mailing address. I’ll send you an autographed copy of one of my books. Free.

Granted, finding my books or one of my trading cards in the middle of the biggest party in town might be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, but I’m confident somebody will find me.  The Force is strong in you.







Posted in AURUM, Brothers of the Fang, Chaos Karma, Comic-Con, Cosmic Jive, Destiny Blues, Sharon Joss, Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light, STEAM DOGS | Leave a comment