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The Three Phases of Story

March 9, 2018

Story is a chimera. There’s the story you:

  • Write,

    See the source image

    Chimeras are kinda ugly. Stories aren’t.

  • That’s read, and
  • That’s remembered.

Each phase is distinct and wonderfully slippery. I’ve never had a story I set out to write be the same story I finish. Sometimes on purpose, and most times by accident, we map parts of our story to something in our life. We often have no idea we’re doing it, but it becomes obvious with a little analysis. As you sit and write, pliers at hand to pull teeth, something happens and you’re suddenly flying along in your story… consciously or unconsciously, you’ve just mapped your story to something internal, which acts like an accelerator, kind of like when the Enterprise goes into warp. While Sulu always knows where he’s going, your map may spin you off somewhere unexpected, and what was supposed to a simple adventure turns into an epic emotional journey.

What is a “map?” They are relationships, events or memories that serve as the bridgework under story scenes, themes, concepts. They are action progressions and emotional journeys; the linkages of the past become the accelerators of your story. They are throughout your stories and provide touchstones for readers, since proper mapping from reality means the story arc is “real.”

This is also different than the story that is read by a faithful reader. Just as the writer has structure beneath the story holding it up, a reader is hooking your story elements to their own maps, or touchstones. This happened acutely when I read my pastor’s book. His stories from early in his faith spirited me back to my own parallel memories. In Always Look for the Magic, Bonnie Manning Anderson allowed me to hook the adventures of her father to my own running around Seattle and neighborhood as a kid. The story I see is different than one written by the author. That’s the mysterious alchemy of story.

The third phase is the most interesting. Sitting on the beach with some family friends, I was discussing movies with a young man, who said he wanted a storyline from a comic book to be a movie. He described the comic book story, one I was very familiar with, and his memory of the story was completely wrong. He related sequences that weren’t there, character actions at odds with the hero’s established character, and settings that were not in the story. I suggested he hadn’t read the story in a long time, but he said he’d read it a dozen times and fairly recently.

Intrigued, I quizzed him on To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few other books, just to make sure it wasn’t a comic book phenomenon (stuff that happened between panels, maybe). His version of venerable stories was right in overall structure, but startling off in details.

So, the kid has a bad memory.  As do we all, then, because I began looking for it in later discussions with others. I know I’m not immune. It all goes back to that internal mapping done by writer and reader.

The comic he spoke of was older. In my day, heroes didn’t kill. In this kid’s day, and his favorites in particular, went on killing sprees. His version of Spider-Man was colored by his acceptance of more deadly characters. His “map” was different than mine.

While reading, the author’s words rein in the reader’s understanding (to a degree), but after reading, when thinking about it, their mapping may spin scenes a different way. Kind of like movies made from books, except the reader/director isn’t limited by technology. We do that with history, too, but that’s another story.

The three phases of story are the progression of the writer’s story becoming the reader’s story.

That’s what giving is all about.


Shhhhh! I Don’t Like Fantasy!

March 2, 2018

It was like I’d committed heresy. At my writer’s group, I mentioned that I don’t like fantasy. The genre, not the habit. I do so love stimulating discussion. When I admitted I never read the Lord of the Rings (just the Hobbit… didn’t like it) there was a loud room-engulfing gasp.

“You like science fiction!”

“That’s not fantasy,” I said.

General scoffing. Spirited discussion ensued.

A great friend and fabulous artist points out one of my screenplays is Fantasy, and he has a point. And doesn’t at the same time.

First, let me affirm that Fantasy is a valid genre. If you like it, more power to you.

Me, I like a tether to real life.

Fantasy, the kind I don’t care for, takes place removed from Earth. While I appreciate good world-building, I need a real-world tie. Sci-Fi that doesn’t involve Earth humans may as well be fantasy to me. I put up with Star Wars, love Star Trek because it’s an Earth ship with humans aboard, and while the aliens may be my favorite character, they’re still “real world” aliens.

See the source image

But it would be over in moments. Star Trek would kick robed buttocks.

Burning Meadows, my screenplay about a cop returning his wife’s remains to her native Ireland who gets twisted up in the shenanigans of the fey folk is fantasy, but note the real-world connection. This fantasy takes place on earth (or beside it). That’s important to me.

I didn’t read Lord of the Rings because I didn’t enjoy the Hobbit. I think I read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe… at least the first one. It’s real-world connection was tenuous, but I loved the Space Trilogy, all by C.S. Lewis (love his non-fiction work, too).

Magic is another annoying thing. There aren’t any rules (maybe the story establishes them, but deus ex Machina is always a possibility, and that’s cheap).  Again, no tether to real things (okay, the deflector dish on the Enterprise may as well be magic, but it isn’t! Really!).

There is a parallel to my own life, from which all this springs. I am an artist with a strong practical side, which seems antithetical (even though it not; see my next book to find out why). See the connection? No? OK, I admit it isn’t rational, but I are human and need not be rational.

If you enjoy fantasy, feel free. If you don’t, be not ashamed. I’m not.

Introducing Prevail Press

February 2, 2018


I’ve been too busy to write. I’m too busy now, but I have a story to tell…

Sitting at a book signing a few months ago, I looked down the line of fellow authors and realized none had traditional publishers. Some were self-publishers, others went the vanity press route (co-op press is their preferred name). And there I was, a micro-publisher.

I’d founded Prevail Press seven years ago for me and my ghostwriting clients. It has languished, me promising to do something with it, and unable to think of a way to make money with it.

Through a fortuitous sermon, the statement arose: “We don’t have to make profit off of EVERYTHING…”  And suddenly, I knew what I was supposed to do.

Self-publishing is complicated and most are writers who’d like to do anything but promote, but in self-publishing, that’s all it is promote, promote, promote, all by yourself. Often suffering from poor book and cover design, it is an uphill battle.

Vanity press, well that’s just darned expensive. You pay through the nose, have a giant print run, get promises of promotion, but quickly discover those cases of books are yours to sell.

Prevail Press,, is a hybrid of both and caters to author needs. I don’t fault vanity press. They have tons of overhead. I don’t. And I have a day job, so I don’t need to make a ton of money from Prevail. Yes, authors pay, a fraction of what they pay for vanity press. Just enough to cover my time, and if you need designers, they’ll work at reasonable rates, too.

The goal is to build a community of authors, who together can promote everyone’s work as they promote their own. You keep the copyright, and should a traditional publisher discover you, go with my blessing.

But we won’t take just anyone’s book.  It must be a book that is well written; an author who should have been picked up by a traditional publisher, but wasn’t. I’ll tell you the brutal truth, in all things. You won’t get rich (probably), but you’ll do better than you could on your own, and we’ll handle the complex stuff.

And because you don’t know me from Adam, I have a principled board of directors who provide accountability and oversight.  I’d never cheat anyone, and they’ll make sure I don’t.

So, do you have a good book that can’t catch a break? Let’s talk.

Your First 10 Pages Are Important! 

November 13, 2017

I’ve been noticing a common problem with novels these days. I’m guessing the old advice “Your first ten pages are the most important!” is being misinterpreted.

The advice is sound. I used to read any book I picked up, but life has gotten far too full to waste time on bad books. So how do I decide? The description grabs me. The cover is attractive, and then I read the first few pages.

Here is what I’m looking for: I’ve jumped off the diving board and I want a big splash. Drive me into the story quickly. It can be character-based, plot-based, even setting-based, but it should be quick!

What I am NOT looking for: Overwritten tripe.

Too many books I’ve grabbed recently flood me with metaphor and simile, expansive description, overwrought emotions, burdensome detail (OK! I get it, he wakes up drunk in a field. Two paragraphs, not ten freaking pages!).

The first pages tell me what to expect. If it’s all going to be like this, forget it. It’s like swimming through concrete!  (See? One simile is enough to spice the writing, 58 are too many!).

After reading a few pages, you should provide the reasons to keep reading. “What happens now???” “Ooo, I’d like to follow these characters and learn more about them!”

Detail is best sprinkled; literary power-ups strategically placed. The first pages are not a sausage skin to be stuffed with every protein, spice and filler, but an appetizer that should wet the pallet and leave the reader hungry.

Writing non-fiction? Same rule applies. Intros should be short, if included at all. If you must go into why you wrote the book, and how wonderful your kids are, do it at the back. Your first couple pages should be raising questions, challenging viewpoints and beliefs… intrigue is the goal.

A held the book written by a new friend in my hand. I had a couple moments, so I opened the book. Intro: skip it, I was looking for content. The intro was 6 pages. Then the first chapter was more like an intro… it wasn’t peaking my interest. Skip ahead to where it began, fifteen pages in, and it asked a question. One that had no meaning to me, one I had never asked before, one I had never noticed before, and if was a key to something later to make sense, then put it there.

The actual subject of the book didn’t come into it until the third chapter. Two chapters of setting and time. I know for a fact the content was amazing. It just took way too long to get there, and if he wasn’t a friend, I would never have made it that far.

So, Cover, Description, First 10 Pages. If the taste in their mouth is, “Wow, I gotta read this!” you win. If it’s, “Wow, this writer knows a lot of words,” you’ve lost

Who Decides What a Genre Encompasses?

September 5, 2017

I ask this question because I have a different spin on the genre I prefer to play in.

Genre is a marketing tool to help pigeon-hole your audience, to make you easy to find for your readers. The problem is, we may not fall into the genre people think we do.

All three of my novels are identified by more common genres than how I classify my books:  Gemini Dreams – Thriller, Do Angels Still Fall? – Christian Fantasy, Me and the Maniac in Outer Space – YA Science Fiction, yet to me they are all Mystical Realism.

The “mystical” in Mystical Realism doesn’t have to be magic, it can be anything “other.”  Realism means it takes place in the real world; no worldbuilding here, at least not at the beginning.

He isn’t only wonderful, He’s Wonder!

Critics require political commentary to be a part of it, others, heightened or lyric language. If I’m strapped to either of those, then my books aren’t Mystical Realism, but I don’t feel a need to be strapped.

Genre is for marketing – your perspective may differ.

For my existing novels, my characters are realistic people in a realistic world. Then a single thing of “other” changes everything. For Gemini Dreams, Will’s average life is invaded with dreams of someone else’s life. In Angels, Bungy’s guardian angel reveals himself. In Me and the Maniac, the boys find an alien artifact.

There is major departure from “classic” mystical realism (the genre hasn’t been around long enough to be truly classic) in each case. In the first, Will has had these dreams all his life, Angels is told from the angel’s point of view, and Me and the Maniac end up in a vastly changed world.

OK, with GD, I felt like I was writing a thriller, but with the other two, I strove for the wonder of the mystical element while retaining the real life. MatM admittedly left that real life behind mid-stream, but to me it never felt like sci-fi.  I know full-well, a traditional publisher will market it as YA Sci-Fi and I’m okay with that.

For me, “wonder” is the key element, not political upheaval (except for in the politics of the individual). In traditional worldbuilding, the characters accept their setting. In mine, they are always in awe of where they are. Even the Western I’m noodling at has wonder moments.

What’s your go-to element and genre?

Spider-Man: Marvel’s Mary Sue

July 15, 2017

Spider-Man Homecoming was a fun movie, so I kept asking myself why I was bored.


Before I begin the review and explain why I was bored, let me explain what a Mary Sue character is in literature. Mary Sue is a new single-episode character to a series who comes in and solves everyone’s problems. She is the fan’s desired role in a story: all powerful, sweet, wholesome and the problem-solver, who has no problems of her own.

Spider-Man was a good movie. The acting was great, the concepts were spot on, and they even made sense. The Vulture as villain, who picks over the scraps of alien tech and creates ultra-powerful weapons and tools to make Spider-Man’s rogues for future stories; brilliant. Mike Keaton, great. Tom Holland as Peter Parker, also great.

But like Rogue 1, Spider-Man Homecoming seemed created to tie up the plot holes of the other movies. “Hey, what happened to all that alien tech left all over New York?”

That’s not why I found it boring, though. This movie had some strikes against it. Two prior series that covered everything interesting about Spider-Man took away important story grist. Toby-Spidey, as bad as the movies were, explored webbing, web-swinging and one take on JJ Jameson. Andrew-Spidey explored, well, the same thing with different takes.

So in this movie, they skipped past the origin, didn’t include JJJ and made Peter younger. The problem is that Peter’s major character arc IS the origin story.  He did what anyone with powers would do. He cashed in on them and let the man who would be Uncle Ben’s killer go because it wasn’t his problem. Ben dies, Peter transforms into a hero.  This movie skipped over all that.

In Homecoming (a title referring less to the high school party and more to Spidey coming into the Marvel Universe), Peter Parker’s arc was “when do I get to play with the big kids?” Peter was practically perfect. No one tested his character. Flash Thompson, the perennial bully who was a constant test to Peter lashing out, in this movie was just a jerk. He called Peter names. He was smaller than Peter. There was no physical bullying, so there was not test of character (not saying name calling isn’t bullying, but there would be no justice in putting Flash through a wall). Peter was never tested.

Sure, he walked out on Liz at Homecoming. Yawn.  The Vulture threatened his family (but never put May in danger) and still Peter had no qualms about taking him down. There was never a sense of danger at all. Peter could slam through concrete and not get hurt. A building collapsed on him. Just him. Sure, he saved his friends, but that even seemed contrived. From the beginning, Spider-Man would go all out to save people. There was no character change.

Instead, the focus was on Spidey’s suit. That someone else designed.

It’s important to see through a story to the real story. There could have been an interesting core story here. Peter Parker is a tweenager going through the changes of life. Sure, it’s more than puberty, it’s super powers, but map puberty over it and you have a story. The normal adolescent’s voice cracks, he’s got emotional whipsaws, his body changes (they even alluded to this)…. mapped to Peter, maybe his powers aren’t yet reliable. Instead of a cracking voice, Peter can’t control his strength. Instead of hormonal storms, his spider-sense is haywire, making him jump at shadows. Make him think he’s going crazy, yet still has the responsibility hang-up Uncle Ben put on him.

Put the kid through impossible choices. Maybe he accidentally hurts Ned, or lashes out at Flash. A fight with a super-villain is a different story when you aren’t sure your punches would kill him. I’m reminded of some great coming-of-age stories where the poor kid does all sorts of crazy things to cope with his changes and trying to figure out who he is.

In the first two series, Peter was older. Here he’s younger. That should have been the hook. Instead, I felt like I was sleep walking through a good film. Peter and Spider-Man were the same; Peter should be quiet and brooding, Spidey, light and chatty.

And then there was Aunt May, a weird after-thought in the movie. She walks into his room and Ned is fully clothed sitting on the bed and Peter is only in his briefs. And buff. Both the nakedness and muscles should draw more of a reaction than “I know your body’s changing…. and get some clothes on.” She should have had a larger role. And not a single mention of Uncle Ben.

As they say, a great movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. This one had no bad ones, but no really great scenes. It was a good movie, but it wasn’t a great movie.

You may have a different take. I’d love to hear it.


June 29, 2017

I attend a writer’s group called the Writer’s Block (we all used to live in the same neighborhood, hence “block” as a play on words. Alas, we don’t anymore. My co-leader moved behind Publix, which makes her sound homeless, but she and her husband live in a really nice neighborhood in an even nicer house. We also have more members who joined who don’t even live in the same country, but somewhere called Lake Nona. But I digress.)

They keep me motivated, though sometimes it seems we sit around explaining why we aren’t writing, it takes the edge off the solitary nature of writing.

We had a guest speaker the other night (doesn’t that make our group sound important? Well, we are, dang it!). I won’t tell you his name, because Rick is a shy guy, but he’s phenomenal. The guy is pure talent in loafers. A journalist and college professor, even his posts on Facebook are moving. He uses language like Rembrandt used paint. Every phrase is a picture. In fact, he spoke to use about social media. But that’s not what shocked me.

Did I say this guy could write? MAN, he’s good!

Then someone asked him if he was going to write a book.

“No, I really don’t think so.”

My chin has a bruise from when it hit the floor.Image result for jaw drop

I get all tongue-tied when people ask me what I do. Bragging is not in me. Once, at work, a lady said, “I’m NOT a writer!” I felt sorry for her. Anything else is a lesser profession. I can’t imagine not wanting to write books. There are people who SUCK at writing who are convinced they have a book in them, as if they were internal organs.

“I don’t have an urge to write a book.”

That’s like Willy Wonka saying, “I don’t want to make chocolate bars.”

“I don’t think I’d be good at the long form.”

I clearly wasn’t the only one shocked, because someone said, “Then write short stories!” Maybe it was me.

Rick is a reporter. He writes articles, and lesson plans, and really great social media posts, and he doesn’t want to write a book.

I should be happy, because I’m sure any book he wrote would put ours to shame.

His response was as blithe as mine when someone says, “Hey, you wanna run a marathon?” “No thanks, I don’t have it in me.”

I don’t expect to write a best-selling novel or Oscar-worthy screenplay. Nobody is pounding on my door to write, OR ELSE!

But to me, there is no greater aspiration than writing books.

“Naw, don’t think so.”

Color me stunned.