Jeremy J. Jones – Stranded in Thought

July 5, 2010

Daft About Craft: Plot

Filed under: Craft,Fiction,Writing — Jeremy @ 10:17 pm

During the past month or so, I’ve begun my study of the elements of writer’s craft. Having completed a perfunctory examination of my first chosen element, Plot, I thought it time to post some observations. This is by no means an exhaustive, end-all-be-all guide to plotting. I am working through it to learn, and encourage dissent and discussion.

First, the obvious. Plot is that mechanism that moves a story from beginning to end. But it’s also more than that. We are all taught in high school that a plot summary consists of a point by point telling of the story, such as:

  1. Henry is at work, and he’s a hardass. He’s rude to his coworkers, and somewhat unlikeable.
  2. After work, or on his lunch break, Henry feels bad for an old woman and helps carry her groceries.
  3. He meets a woman in a bookstore, and he’s smitten.

Et cetera.

But plot is so much more useful than just a telling of the tale. It creates conflict and tension, drama, and suspense. It is the element by which the writer makes the reader’s heart race. It also can be used to pull at the heartstrings, but characterization is a strong contributor there (Character is next on my list).

We use plot to grab the reader’s attention in the opening. That initial hook is plot, definitely. And in character development, which often follows the opening, we would be wise to use plot — that is, dialogue and events — to exhibit our characters’ attitudes, rather than exposition, which can put any reader to sleep.

After we’ve grabbed the reader’s attention and got her enamored with the characters, the complications begin. This is all plot. We show the problem. (Actually, it can be better to start this very early, especially in a mystery, where the “who did it” is the whole point of the story.)

And so on.

Of course, skilled writers move plot around to create new, more exciting methods. Quentin Tarentino comes to mind as one of those who masterfully alters the traditional chronological plot to wonderful effect. And literary fiction often abandons plot altogether in favor of creating a surreal setting or feeling. But that’s not the point here.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned more than I can explain at this point, because it’s all still swirling around in my head. But what I have learned, I am applying in reading some of my earlier stories, where I can see errors. Not terrible ones, but definite areas for improvement. And that is really the whole point of this exercise.

For anyone seriously considering a career in fiction writing, I strongly recommend study. You must learn your craft. Some of it you will already know, seemingly innately, though in reality you’ve just automatically attuned yourself to it. Studying it will teach you what you already know, so you can recognize it when you see it, and what you don’t know so that you can improve on it.

Growth leads to success. Apathy to failure. I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and I’m sure I will be again. But for now, I am solidly on the growth side, and plan to stay there as much as I can.

 


Copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones


June 2, 2010

New month, starting the new challenge

Filed under: Miscellaneous,Writing — Jeremy @ 5:19 pm

So last month I created a goal to surpass my highest number of posts to date. It’s not a great goal, because it’s a very good way to get a lot of crap put up on my blog this month. But I’m going to do it anyway, when something strikes my fancy.

I’m working on my craft series now, starting with plot. I need to get a couple of books on that, and really study and learn. It’s going to be great fun.

I’ve also got other ideas for posts. One thing that comes to mind is the sheer number of available markets we can submit to. It’s staggering.

Another thing is the ease with which we can find the names of editors in the field, at magazines, major New York publishers, e-zines, and so on. These people want to be found, but just not by everyone in the whole world. So they make it a little bit difficult, but not impossible. We just have to know where to look. Veteran writers tell us the right places all the time; we just have to be listening when they say it.

So I’m off to study plot for a couple of hours, with dinner somewhere in the middle, and then I have a few short stories that will be submitted before the end of tonight. They’ve all been written some time in the past two or three years, but have sat stagnant. Time to submit and see what I get. Rejections, or rather their format, will tell me what the problems are.

Of course, I could end up with the opposite problem, and they all get accepted. That’s not likely, but it’d be a nice problem to have. I’m told that writers are terrible judges of their own work, and they should let the editors decide.

So be it.

May 17, 2010

A new challenge

Filed under: Fiction,Writing — Jeremy @ 5:01 pm

So I’m reviewing my blog specs, and something occurred to me; the highest number of blog posts I’ve ever made is eight, in February of 2009. That’s embarrassing.

So I’ve set a pseudo-goal for myself. Beat that maximum.

But I can’t just do it with fluff (like this post). Most of that will be with my up-and-coming series on author’s craft, which I am beginning the research on immediately after posting this.

As with any other writing, it’s all practice. It’s said that practice makes perfect, but it’s more accurate to say that sometimes practice ends up being perfect. So we submit all our practice, to see if it’s perfect for any market out there.

My blog is my own test market. I can submit in an instant, and see what feedback I get. I also get feedback on my marketing methods through Twitter and Facebook. I believe this series will help me develop a small following, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it to learn, in detail, the elements of author’s craft.

And I don’t mean like they teach us in creative writing courses. I plan to study contemporary works and analyze those for craft elements. It should be a good time, and I should learn considerably more by writing about what I study.

And then it will be on to something else. Who knows what?

 


Copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones


April 23, 2010

The path my life takes

Filed under: Thoughts,Writing — Jeremy @ 11:37 am

I just had a realization. (I know, I have a lot of those, but bear with me.)

The less I write, the worse my life goes, and vice-versa. Why is that?

Most likely because when I’m writing, I feel like I’m in control and moving toward my goals. When I’m not, I feel out of control and hopeless. And as a result I make dumb mistakes, and life gets even more difficult than it normally is, which is difficult enough.

So there it is. Write and feel in control of your life. Writing! The magic antidote to all life’s problems.

An interesting comment was made by Dean Wesley Smith in the comments of his latest blog post, Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Researching Fiction. (In this series, Dean is striking at all the myths of writing and publishing that irritate him; definitely worth a read.) He wrote in a comment, “Early on we all start calling ourselves ‘writers’ which puts a focus on writing sentence-by-sentence when in reality what we are trying to learn is how to tell stories.”

That gave me an idea, as it made me ask a question. Why do we call ourselves writers?

That’s a stupid question. Because we write, that’s why. Well yes, but that’s not really what we do. We’re storytellers. Ask any fiction author why they’re a fiction author, and nearly all will tell you, “Because I love making up and telling stories.”

So what we really should be called are storytellers. Some storytellers sing songs or play instrumental music pieces, some tell their stories orally, some paint or take photographs or sculpt, and so on. But we’re all storytellers; we just choose different a different outlet for our stories.

So in contrast with my earlier statement, it’s actually the storytelling and creation that makes us feel energized, excited, motivated, and what-not. The writing is just the communication method.

So I revise. Tell stories and feel good and in control and happy. Fail to, and feel the opposite.

I have twenty-two minutes until my next appointment. I can write a couple pages in that time.


Copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones


January 23, 2010

Writing goals and motivation

Filed under: Writing — Jeremy @ 9:51 am

Like most writers, I have writing goals. Mine are quite specific: write at least 500 words of fiction every day, fill my fiction writing log up to 10,000 hours writing (and however many words that makes), write and submit one short story per week, write and submit three to four novels per year. (There are more of them, as well.) The first two goals are set because they help achieve the second two and are more manageable.

Image copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones

My writing goals are no different than my exercise goals or relationship goals. They become fixed in my mind and drive me accomplish them. That’s a good thing, because this is the point of setting them in the first place.

However, goals can actually get in the way a bit of anything, if we let them. Once set, the writer places a huge placard somewhere: WRITE TWO PAGES EVERY DAY! It might be pinned on a wall, the monitor, the desktop wallpaper, the mirror in the bathroom, et cetera. All these displays are intended to create a placard in one’s mind like an incessant drum beat: write, write, write, write. This is good, because the goal becomes a higher priority, and the writer will eliminate excuses for why he can’t write, and find the time to do it. Somewhere, anywhere, at all times.

But once we miss the goal, fear grabs us, but not in an obvious way. We don’t become afraid of the goal per se. Rather, this fear is manifest in the voice that says, “Well, I missed that goal. That was a pipe dream anyway. I might as well quit.”

And then the writer is done. That happened to me last year. I had many, very challenging events going on in my life due to some changes my wife and I made, not at all unlike billions of other people in the world. But that fear got me. My aforementioned writing log has a huge gap between two days of writing. I started on my “write 500 words of fiction every day” goal and successfully managed it for ten consecutive days. That was a wonderful feeling. But then I missed, for no better reason than because my niece and nephew stayed at our house and by the time they went to bed, I was too tired to write. So the last writing fiction in that log was August 5, 2009. It stayed there, mocking me, through increasingly difficult challenges, and the farther time got from that date, the more despondent I became about my writing.

I finally achieved the goal again (the first day I tried – it’s an easy goal) on January 5, 2010. Precisely five months between writing sessions. In that time, I should have finished twenty or more short stories and one novel. But instead, I didn’t write a page. Fear. Excuses. And I’ve gone nearly another six months without achieving my bigger goals. I’ve got plenty of time left, but if I allow my fear to get the best of me, I will be eighty years old wishing I had followed my dreams. (That’s a measure I always use – I don’t want to be eighty, looking back on my life at all the things I wanted to do but didn’t simply because I was afraid to try.)

Since January 5, I’ve achieved the goal on January 15, 19, and 20, and I’ve now had a gap since then. And yet I’m taking the time to write this because it’s important and I want to cement it into my own mind as well as provide it to others. In those five months not writing, I adopted a bit more of a “try, try again” model. If I don’t hit the goal one day, it’s no big deal. Things happen. Life can get in the way. On January 21, I was just too tired to do it. Last night, I actually went out with my wife and we had a great time, coming in at about 1:30 a.m. in absolutely no condition to write fiction, though it might have been interesting. But I was very tired and skipped writing, know that it only delays me one day. I can write today, and get back on the horse. And I’ll eventually achieve that goal.

One of my high-end dreams is to one day meet George Lucas and thank him. Sure, he’s entertained me for thousands of hours of my life, and my childhood officially ended when the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith, as the saga had ended. But the real reason is the mantra that I have taken with me for thirty years: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” That simple dialogue has pushed me to accomplish nearly everything I’ve wanted to in life.

Writing is no different. I don’t try to write, I do it. Or I don’t. But I no longer allow my goals to make me captive. They are my tools, to help me achieve my dreams, not to stop me.

 


Copyright © 2010 Jeremy J. Jones


 

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