Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 1

If you’ve seen Cars 1 and 2, Toy Story 1, 2, or 3, Wall-E, or any of a number of animated films produced by Pixar, you’ve seen engaging stories that appeal to all ages. Though produced for children, Pixar’s films are equally enjoyed by adults. In some cases, the kids are just the excuse for the adults to go to a Pixar movie. (Wall-E and both Cars movies are among my DVD collection.)

In addition to its movies and its revolutionary advances in computer-generated imagery, Pixar is also famous as a Steve Jobs project–the one he joined when Apple originally kicked him out. Eventually and post-Jobs, Disney bought Pixar, and it’s been a good merger.

The computer-generated characters in Pixar movies would be nothing without a good story to showcase them, and to ensure that, we have “Pixar’s 22 Rules for Phenomenal Storytelling.” They’ve shown up on Pinterest and on other blogs, but I thought I give them a little different spin and describe the impressions these rules made on me and how I related them to my writing. I’ll do the first eleven this week, and the remainder for the August 20 writing post.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

1. You admire a character for trying more than for success.

When you think back on any Pixar movie, this is really its central theme. Perhaps it’s better phrased as “It’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters.” Of course, we all want to get to the “destination,” a completed book or story, but getting there is sometimes more important. Don’t “try” to write; just write. Don’t self-edit when you’re in the writing zone. Just write.

2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

We like to do lots of fun things as writers–twist and turn a plot, dump in a surprise ending, and so on–but we have to remember we’re readers, too. Yes, write what appeals to you, but remember you’re not the only one who’s going to read it. I hope.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about ’til you’re at the end of it. Now re-write.

I can’t count how many times this has been true for me, especially when writing a short story. I sit down with something in mind, but it goes in a completely different direction. Sometimes I think I have a whole other person inside me who just takes over, and she’s obviously a better writer.

4. Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that _____. Because of that _____, until finally, __________.

I don’t usually outline, but this is perfect to remind me of just what the writing process is–short, sweet, to the point.

5. Simply. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff, but it sets you free.

I have a work in progress whose opening scene involves a person who isn’t sure if she’s alive or dead. I really liked it when I first wrote it and after I tweaked it. Now, I realize it has nothing whatsoever to do with the work in progress, so it’s time to “hop over that detour.” I never completely delete anything. Cut and paste to a new file. You never know when it might come in handy. Recycled writing.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

How real life is this? Doing this to your characters would certainly make them real, not just shadows on a page. Just reading this rule got me thinking “What if I…?” 

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.

I agree, endings are hard, but sometimes they’re not that easy to come up with. Of course, if the ending is so divorced from the middle, there’s always that great R-word: re-write. (See Rule Number 3.)

8. Finish your story, then let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world, you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

It’s never good for the ego to go back and read stuff you’ve written 10, 20 years before. Moving on is exactly the thing to do. I’m a better writer than I was 10, 20 years ago. I’ll be a better writer 10, 20 years from now.

9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

This is another rule which made me do a forehead smack–what a great idea. I think we see now why I’m not a writer at Pixar.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you. You’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

We all know what appeals to us in a story or novel. That’s why we read an entire series by the same author or books of a similar ilk. For me, it’s strong, believable characters who struggle with their frailties. So, what kind of characters do I write? Yep, you got it. 

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

How many of us have kept our ideas for the world’s greatest short story or novel in our heads? We probably do that because our insecurity says, “Nah, it can’t be that good.” Our inner critic isn’t the best judge, after all. It won’t be the world’s greatest story unless we put it on paper.

What do you think of Pixar’s 22 Rules so far? Inspiring? Nonsense? (Just remember the writers of those multi-million-dollar grossing films followed these rules of story-telling.) I’d like to know what you think.

Tune in next week for Rules 12 – 22!

Spy Flash – Week 17

The roll of the cubes this week inspired a topic I’ve been wanting to write a story about for a long time. As the result of my research into a still-unpublished novel about political murders in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, I came across the Russian and Serbian Mafiya’s ties to human trafficking, usually of Russian women tricked into thinking they were going to Belgrade or other European cities as nannies or models.

Several years later I learned, as if the human trafficking of adult women (and men) weren’t horrific enough, of a “sub-culture” in human trafficking, that of very young girls. Even more shocking to me was that certain contractors the U.S. Government hired to do work soldiers don’t do anymore, once they were in Kosovo bought women and girls as sex slaves–using government money. Lest you think this is another of my liberal rants, Google it. Or read a detailed new book by Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military PowerThe chapter where she described this, and worse, behavior angered me and must have stayed with me, because I wrote this story to show the human trafficking of children, of anyone, has to stop.

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

This is what I saw: l. to r.–flashlight; reaching/out of reach; keyhole; falling; right turn; counting money; beetle; castle/rook; scales/balance/justice.

And the story I wrote is entitled “Angel of Death.” Be warned, it contains a section of dialogue toward the end that may offend some, but it’s not prurient or gratuitous. This one is definitely not for children, and it may not be for some adults.

This story is dedicated to the men and women who fight human trafficking around the world, and, of course, to the victims. There are too many of them.

If you want to participate in the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge, use the picture above and write a story of any length, using each object or action shown. Then, post a link to your story on Jenny Coughlin’s blog.

If you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down list.

It Can’t be Friday Without the Fictioneers!

Though it’s been a rare Friday Fictioneers I’ve missed (two, I think), there’s always mixed emotions when Friday rolls around. One is joy–it’s Friday, and I’ll get to read Fictioneers’ stories. The other is sometimes terror–it’s Friday, and I haven’t written a word! Fortunately, this is a joyful week because I got inspired as soon as I saw today’s picture.

This week’s photo brought back fond memories of the various beaches I’ve walked–in the U.S. (both coasts and Hawaii, five of the islands), in Mexico, and in Europe. I’ve collected shells and beach glass from all those places and have them in a large candle holder in my bathroom. Each one has a good memory attached to it, despite the fact that I’m no longer with the person who walked those beaches with me. It’s bittersweet to look at them, and it makes me nostalgic for the man he was, but I won’t shut them away.

So, I went for the bittersweet this week, the ultimate story of unrequited love, entitled “Down by the Sea Shore.”

Yeah, I’m getting sentimental in my old age.

To read other Friday Fictioneers stories–or to add your own–click on the little frog-like icon at the bottom of the story. If you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers’ tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down list.

Navigating Your 2012 Writing Life

The Virginia Writers Club held its second annual writing conference on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA, and the aptly named conference (see the post title above) was a lot of opportunity packed into one day.

Just a little aside here. I’m ever-so-grateful that my commonwealth, Virginia, which occasionally makes me SMH over its backwardness, invested taxpayer money in our community college system. It’s second to none, in my opinion, in the nation. The VWC conference was held on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville in the Dickinson Fine and Performing Arts Center. As writers we know setting is important, but it’s also conducive to learning to be in a comfortable, modern building surrounded by an appealing, well-maintained campus. Thank you, Virginia. ‘Nuff said.

Subtitled “A Symposium for Writers of All Ages and All Stages,” the conference had two morning sessions, one afternoon session, and a keynote speaker to end the day. After the keynote, several authors who had served as panelists or presenters had a book sale and signing. From each session you could choose from three presentations. Here is what the conference offered:

1000 – 1045:

Show AND Tell – Presented by Cliff Garstang
Writing Mysteries – Presented by Alan Orloff
Contemporary Women Poets – Presented by Sara Robinson

1100 – 1145:

From Page to Screen: Turning your Book into a Movie – Presented by John Gilstrap
Charming the Gatekeeper: How to Land that Perfect Agent and Why You Will Need To – Presented by Brad Parks
Why We Chose E-Book Publishing – Brooke McGlothlin, Bill Blume, and Wayne L. White

1300 – 1345:

Publication’s First Heartbeat: Critique Groups – Presented by Tracy S. Dietz
A Way With Words: Hook Your Reader with the First 100 Words – Presented by Lauvonda Lynn Young and Linda Levokove
eBook Marketing: Strategies and More – Presented by Mary Montague Sikes

Keynote Speaker: Charles J. Shields

As you can see, quite a packed agenda for a single-day conference. I sorely wished I could defy physics and be in more than one place at a time. I started the morning with Garstang’s “Show AND Tell,” the premise of which is that the creative writing course maxim “show, don’t tell” isn’t quite right. I won’t go into much detail here because Garstang covered the presentation in one of his own blog posts, which you can see by clicking here. Of the three presentations I attended this was far and away the best, and I say that not because Cliff is a writer friend; but because he’s an incredibly good instructor.

Next I went to “Why We Chose E-Book Publishing,” the title of which shows there’s still confusion about the difference between e-book publishing and self-publishing. Not all e-books are self-published and vice versa, but this was a good insight into why three people who write different things opted to publish electronically. For Bill Blume, the choice was obvious: he publishes a comic. E-publishing is the perfect medium for graphic novels, animation, and comic strips. Brooke McGlothlin had already established a large following on her blog about being the mother of boys and heeded her fans’ call to assemble her posts into a book that might reach others. I must say her record is impressive–three book, 8,000 sales. She did, however and much to my gratitude, stress the importance of hiring people to do the things you don’t have a talent for, e.g., creating a cover, editing and proofreading. Wayne White had retired and wanted to participate in something other than the “honey-do” list his wife had made throughout their marriage. He’d been told he was a good story-teller, so he began to write, tried the agent route, got frustrated, and opted for Kindle Publishing.

In all, they covered the typical reasons why someone opts for self-publishing, including writing in a genre or a mash-up that’s not easily classifiable and the fact that traditional publishing is difficult for a new author to crack.

eBook Marketing focused heavily on social media, including several aspects I’d either never heard of (Triberr) or never looked into (Digg). There were some great tips on how to use your web site and blog to highlight your work–some of which I went home and put into place–and how to connect what you write to a specific kind of art work, which you can then use for drawing attention to your books. The presenter, Mary Montague Sikes, is writing a romance/thriller series about archeology in some fictional Mayan ruins, so she uses her personal collection of Mayan art as a marketing tool. And you got a free book, Published! Now $ell It! A “How to” Book, as well as a handout of links you can use for developing marketing materials.

As for the keynote speaker, Charles J. Shields, I’ve gushed about him before as the biographer of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, but he gave an inspiring talk about how he walked away from a teaching career to become a writer/biographer. His key point was when you tell people you’re a writer, don’t qualify it. You’re a writer; be a writer. Shields took questions from the audience, and when I asked who would be the subject of his next biography, Shields indicated he was now trying his hand at fiction. He’s an incredibly thorough biographer, so that was disappointing news in a way (He’d been thinking about taking on Maurice Sendak next.), but Shields’ fiction is something I’m definitely looking forward to reading.

It’s always a great day when you spend it among writer types, and I’ll certainly sign up to navigate my writing life next year.

A Friday Fictioneers Gross-Out

Warning – don’t look at today’s photo prompt if you have a weak stomach. It was so gross-looking Madison Woods wouldn’t even use it as a cover photo on the Friday Fictioneers Facebook page. So, eat your breakfast first, or not, before you take a peek.

When I took a look at the picture I was reminded of being sent into the corn field (not like the old Twilight Zone episode, by the way) to pull corn for dinner to find myself surrounded by ears of corn with this really icky-looking fungus called corn smut. Totally harmless to humans but just plain yucky to look at. I’d lose my appetite for fresh sweet corn every time.

Before you look at the photo, I’ll explain what it shows–a cut grapevine where the sap has oozed out and bacteria and fungi have grown in the sap, which is a really tasty growth medium for such critters. Completely natural but gross to look at. It was, however, a really inspiring photo, in an odd, warped way, but, hey, I’m a writer. These things happen.

Today’s story is called “Try Not to Notice.” If you don’t see the link on the title, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select it from the drop-down menu. At the bottom of the story itself you’ll see the link to read other Friday Fictioneers’ offerings. Just be prepared for grossness because we’re all going to go there.

And here’s a virtual sick bag, just in case.

Spy Flash – Week 16

Four months already, and I’m still amazed that I’ve kept up with this. The key thing is that the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge forces me to write something new every week. Hmm, it’s almost as if writer friend Jennie Coughlin knew I needed a kick in the butt when she came up with the challenge. I consider my butt kicked, and thankfully so.

Several regular readers (Squeee! I have regular readers!) of the series have asked if I’m going to compile the Spy Flash stories into a book, and the answer is, indeed I am. I’m going to wait until I have twenty-six stories (half a year) and publish a volume entitled, big surprise, “Spy Flash,” as an e-book for Kindle. And maybe a paperback. We’ll see.

What I saw: l. to r. – break/broken; raising hand/speaking; keyhole; crying/weeping; a die; sadness; romance/hand-in-hand/holding hands; sheep; scales/balance/justice

This week’s roll of the cubes featured a set of scales, which for me means justice. I majored in Russian history, and one of my Spy Flash characters is Russian, so something came to mind almost immediately. I did a little research to confirm my recollection of what I’d studied decades ago, and the result is this week’s story, “Prizraki.” That’s a Russian word, and I’ve defined it in an end note of the story that also provides some additional detail on the history discussed.

If you don’t see the link in the title “Prizraki” above, then hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of this page and select the story from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length then post a link to it at Jennie Coughlin’s blog.


Exciting News!

I just received an e-mail advising that my short story “Mourning” has been accepted for publication in the Blue Ridge Anthology 2013, which will be published in December 2012.

Well, I was excited! 😉