Recently, I ran into an advertisement for a book cover contest. I don’t usually try entering contests. The need for structured competition feels a tad bit ridiculous to me. I have nothing against people that enjoy competition. It’s just not for me. I prefer keeping an internal tally of my improvement over what I’ve done before. Competing with people I believe are my betters in my mind, can sometimes motivate me.
Keeping up motivation through a competition is the hard part. The way it’s supposed to work, doesn’t work for me. Nonetheless, I followed the traditional structure. First, I amped myself up with the thought that I would win. Every time I wanted to stop, I braced on that mantra, I’m going to win. And there was always fear. If I didn’t win, I would be crushed, and I’d never want to do something like that again.
Anyway, I had to design a special edition book cover for Dan Brown’s next book, Origin. The rules were simple. Include some text and make it the right size. Choosing what cover design to make was the difficult thing. If I supremely made a cover of something they didn’t want, it wouldn’t matter how good it looked. I could design anything I wanted. Making something they wanted as the cover was the hardest part. I needed details on the book. Those were sparse. Origin is the sequel to Inferno. Origin was about modern art. That was everything we got.
In addition to entering the contest, I wanted to learn Adobe Illustrator. I had two months to submit a book cover. I choose what to make. I decided Origin was about something Biblical like the other books in the series. I knew the protagonist would be Robert Langdon. And modern art. I wanted to make a cubist picture of a guy for the cover. Then add the text and block out behind it, like a reversed redaction.
I started. First, I made a reference image from stock I found on Unsplash.
I drew shapes.
I merged and divided shapes so everything was at a depth of one layer.
I colored the squares.
I made shadows.
Finally, I blocked out the text.
I combined all the layers.
Ultimately, I didn’t become a finalist. I learned a lot and probably won’t enter another book cover design contest again. My cover was over-designed. I frequently over-complicate things. The focus wasn’t the legibility of the text. I focused too much of the cover picture. If I make another book cover, I’ll fix all that stuff. And my design wasn’t what they wanted.
I’ve never been drawn to reading memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, or creative non-fiction. It feels to me that people can say almost anything in those literary forms. Selectively choosing moments that fit into the conventional craft of writing fiction. It’s like those movies based on true events. The screenwriters dramatize the story and your left wondering what exactly happened and what was changed for dramatic effect. The truth is always elusive and that genre really makes it too apparent for my comfort. And anyway, my life is far from typical, muscular dystrophy, mediation, immigration, and intense emotion. Maybe that’s just a little too much ego there, but that’s the starting point.
Around a year or two ago, things started to change. I discovered Medium for the first time. Medium is this micro-blogging site taking off right at the moment. It was a hidden writing community when I first joined. A lot of things changed from that time. Getting sold to Facebook and the introduction of membership. Medium specializes in creative non-fiction, point of view pieces, and lastly, fiction. Now it’s shifting to listicles like the rest of the web, sadly. Throughout this post, I’ll link out to the best articles I’ve read on Medium.
I went there from a link on Facebook, originally. I don’t read news frequently, and Facebook mentions are what I go by. Reading the news feels too real for me. I logged in and found a few stories, not in the news like the refugee crisis in the Middle East. A POV piece by Piper Perabo visiting a midway point in the refugee’s path. That happened a few times.
Then I dived into the creative non-fiction and POV. It was a window into the life of women. Medium has a surprising number of things I had never been exposed to in my entire life. Pieces about the bad experiences that a ridiculous number of women have gone through, sexual violence. Things like rape, unwanted sexual attention, harassment, inappropriate gestures, and trouble with mostly men.
My thoughts were astonishment. For a really long time, I couldn’t figure out how women even functioned in society. How could people get out of bed with the looming threat around every corner? Knowing it was virtually impossible not to run into someone that had done something like that in the past. It was unfathomable that was the case in 21st century America. This is America. How is it possible?
Sure we could blame so many things. The over-sexualization of American culture, women, and body image. But the cause isn’t the big issue. What can we do now? How do people still function?
Simple. By accepting the condition as it is now. Continue with life as it is. And wait for change. Is that really what’s going to happen? So far it has.
I’ve basically gone on a rant of incredulity for the last handful of paragraphs. Let’s return to the topic. What changed after discovering Medium? Not much. I subscribed and tried writing a few things. After that nothing really changed.
Then I read Eat, Pray, Love. I’d watched the movie ten years ago when it came out. I didn’t think it was a memoir. The movie seemed too neat to be real life. Everything fit perfectly together and smoothly transitioned like fiction. I’ve seen a ton of biopics, but it was never so neat. I happily went on for years, bought the book, and eventually read it. It had always been a memoir. The book wasn’t as neat as the movie, but the events were rearranged a little, to fit conventional storytelling craft. I kept merging the images from the movie with images I constructed in my head. Reading to me isn’t a series of phrase but a series of pictures based on the written text.
Liz started in New York and her messy divorce. The book spent way more time before the travel started. The mess with her rebound relationship. Then the happenstance of finding her guru and the Balinese Medicine man. With that, her travels began.
In Italy, there was so much more than food. Learning the language and living in a city for months. I never knew so much research went into a memoir. Liz explained why Italian is such a pretty language. I fell in love with Italian through reading it. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very enthused to read my first memoir. If Liz wasn’t so funny, I wouldn’t have finished it. I found the description of tastes wanting. I haven’t eaten solid food in years and wanted to imagine the tastes of Italy. The taste should run a few paragraphs in my mind. I was glad to see she asked the locals what was good. That’s the only way.
The Thanksgiving was a big difference between the book and movie. In the movie, they fell asleep in the dining room. But in the book, the turkey took way longer to cook than they expected. Turkey was for breakfast.
Then it was off to India and the ashram of her guru. India is a very spiritual place. The saying goes, you walk a few paces and run into a guru of some kind or the other. Gurus are that plentiful in bigger cities. Liz went to a remote ashram filled with foreigners and local devotees. I don’t agree with a few things. I have never learned from a guru and figured out meditation mostly in isolation. I don’t think a guru has to bless you to have a chance at enlightenment. Learning in isolation leads to a longer, meandering, and wandering journey to the same goal. Three months isn’t enough to learn a self-guided meditation practice. I have a lot to learn about describing meditation practices. When I try to explain meditation or my deep experiences, the person listening doesn’t understand what I’m saying. I’ve spent too much time in self-monolog and isolation, that explaining things in an understandable way is really difficult at times. Before writing a memoir on me, I need to learn how of write deep things in a way that other people get.
I don’t believe a set of holy words must be used as a mantra. A mantra should have the required associations in the mind. The final description of Liz’s experience with the divinity inside her wasn’t that clear to me. Some experiences can’t be put into words even by the best. I was nice to see the ashram through the author’s eyes.
The Bali part was about balance. I would state it as filling your life based on your loves. Whether it’s meditation, writing, and thought or meditation, love, and writing. Ketut and Balinese culture were strangely familiar to Indian culture and weirdly different. Liz had so many facts and peculiarities that I enjoyed reading. Meeting Filipe was interesting. Ex-pats are a microcosm of the world writ large if everyone wanted chill above all else.
Her dealings with Wayan, another healer, and Ketut, the medicine man were interesting. Sometimes Ketut didn’t remember some things. And Wayan was a rarity there. She was divorced. The family is really important in Bali and acts like a compass to help navigate the world. Wayan and Liz were both divorced. Then Liz finds a way to help Wayan and works through the hiccup associated with it. Ketut teaches Liz a few mediations and many life lessons.
The third to last chapter felt odd to me. It was a flashback to her first trip to Bali. Liz was silent for a few weeks on a remote island. She eventually discovered that her current life wasn’t working and she needed a change. It felt like an epiphany and it came in the right place. It was placed out of time, towards the end of the novel. The sequence of events in time doesn’t matter to the sequence of the memoir. The majority of the events should be in chronological order but a scene here or there is fine.
The memoir worked like it was supposed to. Reading a genre before writing in it is essential to the craft. Not sure which ones I’m going to read. I have no idea when I’ll even write a memoir. Everything is up in the air. I’ll work towards getting my deep experiences across on the page. Sometime down the line, I’ll try writing a memoir, maybe. Experience, Write, you know the rest.
This is the fervent work of two months, 42 pages, 28,451 words. It fits into the grandiose plan I had for basically an epic. This is 1/16 of my total plan. Get the plan here as pdf. This is way too much like a documentary. It details almost everything that happens in Inslee’s life for a period of two weeks with too many flashbacks. The writing seems almost horrible to me now. Writing it felt great at the time. TL:DR Inslee wanders through life dreaming of something more but never really getting there in any true sense. If you guys get through to the end, please tell me what worked. That would really help.
I was trapped in a state between dreaming and awake. Everything felt like I was conscious, but I couldn’t exactly remember much after the fact. I woke with bits and pieces, feeling there was so much missing. He appeared in it, holding one of my near frozen hands. I pictured a bench by a duck pond, then walking around. I was so tired after, but sleep refused its company. I threw off my bed sheet and crossed my arms.
Closing my eyes for at least a few minutes changed nothing, except making me more awake. I looked up at one of the ribs surrounding the ship inside the inner hull. High tension cabling joined almost every structural element to them. Everything above — as with every other surface was coated in some impact-resistant material. The overhead skylight showed a multitude of stars appearing overhead as if still on Earth but in a configuration suited to a nearly two-thousand-year journey from home.
I pulled the covers back over, hugged them to my chest, and arose from bed, wrapping myself with the cover. A tripped over to the only window by the foot of the bed. The hunched back of the ship truncated by the med bay wall and punctured by massive windows, crossed with invisible ribs. Spare pods barnacled the ceiling. On the deck below, eighteen flesh colored pods held the next three gens.
I moved over to the door as it opened and out onto the grated walkway. This followed with the usual unpleasantness of bare feet on grated floor. I reached a space in the rail and stepped off. I floated weightless while the ship gradually lowered me down. The blanket stayed with me, unaffected by grav through everything. I landed beside the first row of illuminating pods and proceeded over to the corner most pod, the home of DB. Pressing a spot on my left shoulder, generated a set of bedding in my hand, which I laid down besides the pod. I lay down beside DB.
He looked peaceful in the pink glow of the pod with one arm under his head and the other hand at his chin. All of us on ship now pod or otherwise would’ve spent a minimum of twenty-five years dreaming life away before consciousness with a saved neural scan. Dreaming without any outside experience ended up a jumble of user generated stimuli. They were almost empty vessels awaiting a consciousness or experience. DB dreamed with his brilliantly green eyes running around behind closed lids. I remembered him best as the moody lyricist of thirty, wandering from quarters to job with notes hanging around and the occasional rendition. His hair was growing in nicely in the month it had.
I couldn’t help but think about one of my kids, Trish as she liked to be called most of her life. She inadvertently exposed herself and half the crew to radiation, myself included in one of the labs. At the time, the hands-on three-year-old required almost two weeks in pod. The consensus was consciousness in pod helped avoid developmental issues. Two weeks exceeded all known cases. We deployed a pod into the shared three cabin space for the family. Removing the pod’s outer covering allowed interaction through the confines of treatment. When everything righted, Trish couldn’t experience the biological imperative of sleep without the pod. We reintroduced the pink pod lighting, gel mattress, and soothing white noise with the plans of future dependence removal. In about ten years, everything returned to normal and pod consciousness hereby regulated to ten days max.
Looking at DB, sleeping, and thinking about Trish delivered me safely into slumber. A few sc later, the ship lights came on. The black and white clarity of darkness replaced with the multicolor coherence of day. I rewrapped myself in sheet and returned to cabin just as the Captain came around for pre-day checks with the night flight crew.
Larry Brooks is a published author that has writing classes/workshops. In Story Engineering, he shows us what he teaches his students about writing fiction. Apparently, writing a screenplay is very easy in comparison. Books out there detail the rules required in an acceptable screenplay. Larry Brooks has brought that over to fiction writing. If you ignore the condescension of organic writes, the book brings a needed insight to novel writing.
Story Engineering starts with an argument against the formulaic nature of planning out a story using his components. The difference between art and putting matching things into a formula is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant while reading it. That’s one of the few things not explained in Story Engineering. I figured out a possible explanation. The various story elements, concept, story structure, character, theme, writer’s voice, and scene construction have a synergy between them. Each element builds on another. For example, first person, solitary confinement, weak mental state, and being alone is inhumane. With first person, we are with the inmate at all times. There’s minimal interaction with other people. Add the weak mental state and there’s a compelling story. Add examples of what other inmates in solitary confinement come out as. That makes a pretty good story right?
Concept is the central question of the story. Story structure is the pacing of the story. The author does a really good job of getting this point across through the book. What plot event should happen at certain points throughout the story? Several movies and books are discussed as examples. Every book and movie I remember follows the plot events. I’m not sure about the timing yet.
Character is presented as a personality selector you would use in The Sims. Different characteristics that can be tweaked to show the universality of humanity. Figuring out how each characteristic affects the others is where the art part comes in. Then the character arc. That was completely new to me.
I use a few lines of research to understand how characters operate. First, observing people and imagining what goes through their heads. Talking to people and looking for the motivations. Deeply analyzing my psyche through meditative practice. And method acting in my head. What would this character do if that happened?
Theme is the meaning behind the story. The story can give an opinion or explore a question. Figuring out what to say helps put it into the novel.
Writer’s voice is something that needs to be discovered through writing and trying different things. Scene construction states each scene has a mission. The scene needs to be short enough to accomplish its mission.
Reading Story Engineering will forever change my novel writing. I was already close, and now I get it for the first time. Larry Brooks knows his stuff. Great book Mr. Brooks.
This is a guest post from my friend, Cori Nelson. She’s a writer of children’s books and middle-grade novels. Right now, Cori is writing her thesis. She traveled halfway around the globe to continue her writing career. Check out her WordPress blog and scroll through her tweets if you’re so inclined.
Writing is a lonely business. That seems like a pretty generic statement, but it’s true! As a writer, you sit alone with your computer or notebook and argue with yourself over and over and over about plot and grammar and spelling. Being trapped in your own head all the time is not only lonely, but it can hinder your ability to make good decisions (not to mention drive you completely crazy). This is why I think every writer should join a writing group.
This year, I’ve been studying Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. Through the course, I’ve had to share my work in progress with others and then receive instant critiques on my writing. As an introverted, I’m-fine-sitting-in-the-corner-by-myself kind of person, I was very nervous about this concept. I remember reading my first piece out, my voice and hands shaky, my brain forcing me to read at top speed to get it over with. But afterwards! After my voice faded away from the room, after the short awkward silence that follows any reading, after everyone stopped writing down their thoughts on the excerpt in front of them and looked at me, was amazing. My classmates, people I had just met for the first time a week ago, went around the room and told me all of their thoughts, good and bad.
It was incredible. And it felt so good to share my writing with others and have them not only like and understand it, but give me feedback that was helpful, too.
Receiving the feedback immediately after reading my writing out was great, too, and something that I think makes in-person writing groups better than remote. It’s nerve-racking enough to read your work in progress out in person and getting feedback right away. I can’t imagine the agony you would feel sending your work in progress to someone and having to wait weeks for their thoughts. Plus, as a children’s writer, I like to write funny. There is simply nothing better than reading something you wrote out loud and listening to your group members laugh at the moments you were hoping were actually funny. That’s something you cannot get with a remote writing group.
It can definitely be very scary to share your writing with others, as writing is a very personal thing, but there are so many things you just do not catch when reading through your own work. Your eyes glaze over a missing ‘the’ just assuming it’s there, your brain tells you that a sentence makes complete sense, when really it’s just a jumble of nonsense. Someone unfamiliar with your work, though, will catch all of those things. She’ll notice when you’ve used the same word twice within two sentences and when one character sounds the exact same as another and will ask the all-important “but why?” to a scene that actually, now that you’re thinking about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Having someone else read your work is so helpful, I can’t say it enough!
All of my classes here in Winchester were designed to have a lecture for the first half and a workshop for the second half. Eventually, I began to yearn for the workshop half of class, especially when it was my turn to read and there was something I was stuck on with my piece and needed to discuss.
Along with helping you find grammar and spelling errors, and helping you to better understand your own story by asking questions and giving suggestions, a writing group is a great support system. The group I’m in now (that I sadly have to leave in less than a month!) is amazing, to say the very least. It is made up of some of the most talented children’s writers I have ever met. Each and every one of us is devoted to each other’s writing as if it’s our own. When one member of the group has a victory (like hitting a word count goal), the entire group celebrates. When a member has a setback or is doubting themselves and their work, the entire group comes together to reassure them that they’re not a terrible writer, to offer suggestions to help stimulate new ideas, to offer the sympathetic and always appreciated “it’s going to be okay”. And when a member is having irrational thoughts about their work in progress, the entire group is there to help talk them off the ledge, to remind them that an idea had mid-dream is not always the best idea, and that “no, rewriting your entire dissertation two weeks before hand-in probably isn’t the best idea.” talking from experience, here. I honestly had a thought about rewriting my entire book even though it’s due at the end of the month. Thankfully, my writing group members stepped in with some rational thinking to save the day.
It’s important for everyone to have people like this in your life, true. But as a writer, I think it’s even more important because they’ll help you to keep going. As I said earlier, writing is a very lonely business. It is so easy to get lost in your own thoughts, especially the bad thoughts that tell you you’re not good, that your writing is awful, that you should just give up.
JK Rowling got hundreds of rejection letters when she started querying Harry Potter. As did Stephen King before he made it. As did Kate DiCamillo. As did every single author who’s ever been published. And I can guarantee you that all of them had a support system of some kind to help them get through the many rejections. If not an entire writing group, then at least someone who believed in them and their writing. At the end of the day, what more can you ask for?
Betsy Learner is a writer, editor, and agent. In The Forest for the Trees, she offers a collection of sage advice for any writer, especially when you’re questioning your ability as a writer. Reading this book helped a lot. I’m on the right path and need to wo4k more before I get there.
The first half of the book identifies several different types of writers. There’s something in there for everyone. I identified with several things that matched. When I’m the most truthful and unafraid, my writing is at its best. Very few writers are naturally successful. The vast majority need to work really hard to get in and become something. The process of writing and getting good is a long process. Write, get feedback, make improvements, write, and repeat until you arrive. Throughout there are many examples from a ton of successful writers and how they got started.
The second half of the book is about the publishing side of things. Betsy tells us how she started and moved through the publishing world. These are my biggest takeaways. Sometimes you find a person that can voice your inklings about something you wrote. A good editor should also alight on those things. Query letters are replied in several ways. The first stage is a form rejection letter. Then a form letter with a little personalization. Third a personalized response and finally an acceptance letter. Seeing the process of traditional publication was like witnessing someone else living your dream. One day, that’ll be me. I’ll get there.
Thrown papers fly at me through a slammed open door. Each one impacts with a great puff of smoke, forcing me back with each incoming blow. Eventually, I trip into a pool of paper at the end of a test wallpapered hall, flailing in the ruddy pool, and slowly sinking into black ink swirling beneath the surface. All I can see is failing grades while I drown.
I run upstairs chased by an unknown foe, into my bedroom, and try to escape. A huge dream creation of a dog confronts me with a bark, actually waiting for me to climb onto his back. We emerge through the door, land on the enemy, descend the stairs, and spot an evil accomplice. Racing back into the bedroom avoids the unsurprised wrongdoer. The dog and I jump off a diving board outside the open window, through a horizontal mullioned greenhouse roof, land on thick palm fronds growing from the ground unscathed, and make our escape.
Controlling a miniature airplane with my tech flies it around perfectly. I sit inside the tiny cockpit, soaring through the clouds, along a highway, under an overpass, and keep flying. I somehow maneuver through a bedroom window and land on the floor.