My Love Affair With Complex Narratives

I had a revelation this week– I’m completely infatuated with complex narratives. More than infatuated, I’m like an obsessed stalker. I already knew that my WIP was a complicated son-of-a-gun, with layers upon layers of intricate plot threads. But when my “simple” rewrite of The Bardach suddenly decided to morph into a complete overhaul with an added web of complexity, I started to wonder if it was a pattern.

Every writer has their go-to storytelling device, and apparently, this is mine. Like some kind of virus viciously mutating my fluffy little ideas into beefy, hulk-like variations with mental disorders, complex narration has spread through almost all of my plot bunnies. I suppose that really shouldn’t be a surprise, given the type of entertainment I tend to gravitate toward. They do say writers should write what they love to read. But still.

Why do I feel the need to complicate everything? Is it to push myself out of my comfort zone, testing my limits as a writer and forcing myself to rise to the challenge? Or is it simply that those are the stories I most enjoy as a reader? I’m honestly not sure, but I suspect it’s a little bit of both.

I’ve been writing for a long time now– over 20 years if you count the embarrassing grade-school attempts my mom continues to mortify me with whenever she gets the chance. (Love you, Mom!) And I’ve been an avid reader for even longer. So maybe it was a natural progression that I would grow past the simple narratives and start searching for things that were more complicated and therefore interesting.

I think all of us start to feel storytelling overload in this entertainment-soaked digital age. Eventually, storylines become predictable, plot twists become stale, character archetypes become as familiar as our siblings. So when a book/movie/show/game manages to keep us on our toes with an unexpected curveball, we are instantly intrigued. I know I go from only halfway paying attention to fully engaged in T minus 2 seconds when I run into a story that is different, refreshingly intricate or surprising in some way.

Complex Narratives add that extra depth to a story, regardless of medium. When done well, they’re almost invisible. The only thing readers notice is total immersion in the experience. We’ve all felt it. It’s the difference between mildly enjoying something and being so hooked that you’re glued to the edge of your seat, riveted until it ends; finishing a book and then promptly forgetting it, or being consumed by the need to share its brilliance with everyone you know. In short, it’s exactly the kind of reaction every content creator hopes to elicit from their audience.

There are several types of complex narratives, including:

  • Flashbacks: The interjection of a past scene or memory that illuminates the current situation or provides insight into the character’s backstory.
  • Dream Sequences: Similar to flashbacks, this oft-scorned device introduces atmospheric foreshadowing, additional information or mystery for the reader.
  • Repetition: Just like it sounds; the literal repetition of a scene, clue, theme, etc.
  • Swapping POV’s: We should all recognize this one. Head-hopping has become a pretty popular method for providing readers with multiple perspectives inside one plot. Just make sure you keep the identities clearly separated, generally with a scene or chapter break. Otherwise, you just have a schizophrenic sounding narrator.
  • Converging Plotlines: Two seemingly unrelated, simultaneous plotlines converge at the end, where the connection and overall message of the piece is finally revealed.
  • Circular Plotting: The story circles back around to the beginning.
  • Backward Storytelling: The end is shown first. We then work backwards toward it, explaining how the characters got there in the process.
  • Framed Narration: A story within a story. Or in my case, a story within a story within a story. It’s up to you how many layers deep you want to make it. As long as you can keep it all straight and clear enough for the reader.

I’ve used them all in some form or other without even realizing it. You probably have too. Even my first forays into storytelling (I’m not counting those frightening grammar-school moments, no matter how much Mom insists they’re legit) contained flashbacks, dream sequences and framed narratives. Those of you who have read my short stories know that I graduated to a hybrid of backward storytelling and circular plotting with Confessions, and have now gone even further to converging plotlines in the new version of The Bardach and a combination of about 5 techniques, including repetition in Unmoving. It’s taking an exhausting toll on my muse, that’s for sure, and has me screaming, “What’s wrong with a little simplicity?”

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with it. The standard three act structure with no fancy trappings has been the traditional storytelling format for thousands of years. But complex narration builds on that, creating a richer, more engaging experience for everyone. Isn’t that what every writer wants? To connect deeply with their readers? I know I do. I want to make people feel the way I have when reading some of my favorite books. Nearly all of which utilized at least some of the techniques listed above. Maybe that’s where I learned it, emulating my favorite writers while searching for my own literary voice. In the end, who really knows? All I know is that my stories would feel extremely lacking without their complexity. And that’s as good a reason as any to keep including it, even if, as I strongly suspect, it’s at least partially responsible for my slacker status on the prolific-meter. 😉

How about you, do you have a preference for simple or complex narratives?

The Difference Between Editing & Ghostwriting

I’m sure the more astute of you already know that I moonlight as a freelance editor (there’s a handy little tab at the top of the page that will tell you about it if you missed it), as well as working on the editorial staff at REUTS Publications. But I’ve also been known to work as a ghostwriter (very infrequently; it’s not really my cup of tea). This week had me doing both. And it got me thinking about the differences between the two; how they can often be confused by those outside the literary world. So in the interest of clarity, I’m going to take a moment to break each of them down, starting with editing.

There are three types of editing a freelance editor (or an editorial staff) will perform:

  • Content Editing: This deals with the underlying structure of a piece, focusing on things like flow, POV, character consistency and plot. Sometimes called Substantive Editing, it’s usually the first part of the process, as there’s no point in fine-tuning a scene that will just get cut later on. Content Editors have a firm understanding of storytelling basics, and can rearrange a work like pieces in a puzzle, requiring dramatic changes that will ultimately make the story stronger. It’s the part that most feels like honing a diamond from a rough piece of rock and is my favorite style of editing.
  • Copy Editing: Also known as Line Editing, copy editing dissects individual sentences, working on tightening the prose and overall smoothing, as well as things like spelling and grammar. Similar to the layered approach of painting and sculpture, copy editing builds on the foundation content editing provides, focusing on the details rather than the work at large. This can be extremely painful for people that dislike dealing with minutiae, but it’s an important step in creating the final outcome.
  • Proofreading: Generally the last stage of the process, proofreading gives a manuscript a final pass, looking for any typos, misspelled words or wonky punctuation. There should be relatively few revisions made in this stage, and often, the proofreader will simply make the necessary changes without requiring the author to step in. Proofreaders are the last defense before a manuscript heads to the printer, so it’s a good idea to have them be a fresh set of eyes from the prior stages.

You’ll notice that none of those definitions included rewriting. That’s because it’s not the editor’s job to actually fix the problems. This is where the confusion kicks in. It’s a common misconception that editors help with the actual writing. But editing isn’t that kind of hands on, instant fix. In fact, most editors won’t even look at a piece that hasn’t already been completed and polished to a high standard.

An editor is like a personal trainer for words. And just like a personal trainer can’t lose weight for their client, an editor can’t rewrite a manuscript for their author. The author does all the heavy-lifting in the relationship, working out the kinks and fixing the rough spots under the editor’s guidance and moral support (even though it can feel like the complete opposite when you get your manuscript back covered in red delete suggestions). When they do their job well, the end result is like the movie star version of the original work, but it’s the author that actually gets it there.

So who, then, helps the people that can’t quite articulate their brilliant idea into words on a page?

Ghostwriters.

Ghostwriting and editing are two completely different things. Editors are passive observers, guiding the author with a hands-off approach, while ghostwriters are active, aggressively transforming the author’s thoughts into a commercial literary product. Unlike editors, a ghostwriter’s job is to actually write the manuscript. To take the vision, voice, and generalized, messy thoughts of the author and literally write in their stead. In short, ghostwriting is hard. Which is why I only do it on very rare occasions and why you won’t see it listed in the services I offer.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some small similarities between the two, though. For instance, both require the ability to see past a rough exterior to the heart of the story, to be able to understand the final vision for the piece and the best way to present that to the world. They both require a firm grasp of language and storytelling (although ghostwriting mostly happens in the non-fiction world), as well as a keen understanding of voice, so that the final product sounds like the original author, not the ghostwriter/editor.

They both have their place, but editing is more akin to reading with annotations, while ghostwriting involves the more rigorous creative process of actually putting words on paper, complete with stipulations and expectations attached. They both require someone well-versed in the craft of writing, but rarely will you find someone who likes to do both. Just like writers have preferences when it comes to style and genre, those on the book-doctoring side of the fence have preferences on the types of surgery they like to perform. So before you ask for help, make sure you’re asking the right person. If your manuscript is finished and you just need polishing, you’re looking for an editor. But if you need help constructing your idea from the ground up, you might actually be better off looking for a ghostwriter to collaborate with. Knowing the difference will save you a lot of headaches.

**Just a quick reminder; this is the last weekend to enter the Two Steps Closer Giveaway over at REUTS Publications. One of the prizes is a free, full-scale editorial critique by me and the other is a custom, print-ready cover design by Ashley Ruggirello. It’s a pretty sweet deal– professional services with no strings attached. If you haven’t entered already, what are you waiting for? Go do it before you run out of time! The giveaway ends Monday, 3/25/13 at midnight. Don’t miss out!**

Memorializing Firsts: A Celebration of Author Bridget Zinn

Poison_cover640

This week I’m doing something a little different. During my weekly perusal of the blogs I regularly follow, I stumbled on a story that really moved me– the story of a girl who finally realized her dreams but was never able to see it. Her story touched me so deeply that I decided I wanted to help commemorate her accomplishment by promoting the release of her debut novel: Poison.

A fellow Portlandite, Bridget Zinn was a librarian and writer who loved making people laugh with her creations. She believed the young adult genre needed more humor, and so, created a book that she hoped would inspire, entertain and be loved by her teen audience. In 2011, two years before the release of that creation, Bridget succumbed to her battle with cancer, passing away at the much-too-early age of 33. But her legacy lives on in the form of her novel.

About the novel

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart…misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she’s certainly no damsel-in-distress—she’s the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.

I pause today to honor Bridget’s accomplishment and to feel grateful for the small successes in my own life. I have yet to publish a novel, but I still remember when I received the acceptance letter for my first short story. I stared and stared at it, in the cliché fashion of someone gaining admittance to their top college, unable to comprehend the words that very clearly said, “we’d like to publish your work.” I had to get confirmation from someone else before it really sank in; I’d finally done it. After all the rejection letters, all the failed attempts, all the years of pretending I didn’t really want to be a writer, I’d made it. Yes, it was only a short story, but that magical moment of validation is what every writer dreams of. The first toe in the door to becoming an author.

I can only imagine that Bridget felt very much the same when she finally received notice that Hyperion wanted to publish her book. It’s unfortunate that she didn’t get to experience the second burst of joy that seeing Poison on shelves, in the hands of her readers, would have brought. Thankfully, we can still give her spirit that satisfaction by spreading the word and hopefully helping Poison become a bestseller.

Sharing so many similarities with Bridget, I am saddened that I will never get to meet her. Her story of optimism in the face of adversity is an inspiring one and reminds us that every day is a gift we should be grateful for and that no victory, no matter how big or small, should ever go uncelebrated. Here’s to you, Bridget; may your book find all the success you dreamed for it.

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Bridget Zinn

You can learn more about Bridget and Poison, including how you can help, at Bridget’s Official Website.

The Pros & Cons of Posting Work Online

It’s been 6 months since I posted about my bold marketing plan involving Wattpad & Authonomy. (Yikes! Where did the time go? Feels like I blinked and it was already March!) Those of you who follow me regularly will have noticed the distinct lack of announcements pertaining to said marketing plan. Why? Because I’m afraid. Afraid of making the wrong move; afraid of ruining my chances at becoming a successful author; afraid of facing down the ultimate demon of failure. I’ve second-guessed myself into a frozen stupor instead of trusting my instincts and jumping in head-first.

This isn’t the first time I’ve shot myself in the foot, letting fear keep me from pursuing my dreams. But it will hopefully be the last. In an effort to convince myself that the naysayer in my brain needs to be duct-taped to a chair in the corner and silenced, I spent the past week revisiting the reasons I created my crazy marketing scheme in the first place. And since my OCD side loves to make lists whenever I find myself spinning in circles like a confused dog, here are my top 3 pros and cons for posting work online.
 

PROS:

 
The internet is full of horror stories about how posting online can backfire like a pipe bomb, obliterating your chances at a successful writing career. And for someone like me, with a crippling fear of failure shackled to my every move, it can be incredibly hard to see past these anecdotes. But the truth of the matter is that posting your work online can also be the best move an indie author ever makes. In fact, there are even a few hope-inspiring articles popping up about the success you can find this way, such as this one by Lindsay Buroker on the merits of Wattpad. So before we wander down the more easily traveled road of negativity, let’s explore some of the good things about posting online.

  • Exposure:

The most obvious perk is the unlimited access to potential readers. The hardest job for any author is getting their book in front of people; something that’s becoming increasingly more difficult as the market gets flooded. So why wouldn’t you want to exploit every possible avenue of exposure? Manuscript Display Sites like Wattpad, Authonomy & Figment open windows into audiences you may not have found otherwise. Similar to the library, you offer your work for free (in serialized form) and gain instant access to thousands of readers. Some of whom are bound to become fans. Right?

  • Feedback:

The second big reason writers post their work online is for the feedback. Since you don’t need a completed manuscript to start generating interest, you can use the internet as a giant pool of beta readers. The critiques obviously range in value, but the chance to gauge reader response while your work’s still in process is pretty awesome. The trick is not to let the feedback you receive compromise your work. You can’t please everyone, after all.

  • Motivation:

Personally, I work best under a deadline. But it has to be imposed by someone else. I’m notoriously good at breaking deadlines I’ve set for myself, brushing them aside with flimsy excuses and promises to get them done later, because there are no repercussions. Aside from being a slacker and not getting my work done, that is. But as soon as you post something online, you answer to someone else. I don’t know about you, but the thought of disappointing my fans (all four of them) is a better source of motivation than caffeine. And Lord knows I could use some help in the motivational department these days.

 

CONS:

 
The world of online literature isn’t all rainbows and butterflies though. There are just as many reasons not to post your work as there are reasons to do it. In fact, I daresay there are more reasons why you shouldn’t. Here’s just a few of the major points:

  • Loss of First Publication Rights:

The biggest deterrent to posting online is the fact that you basically throw away your First Publication Rights. This doesn’t matter much to authors planning on self-publishing, but it’s death to any project trying to go the traditional route. Unfortunately, publishing online does count as being previously published. Which means that once you’ve posted online, you’ve basically committed to being an indie author. If you think your work has even a shred of marketability via traditional means, you’d be best to avoid this route like the plague.

  • Giving Work Away for Free:

It goes against most writer’s instincts to take a project they’ve invested in for so long and just give it away. It feels like you’re devaluing your time, declaring that your work isn’t good enough to deserve compensation. But is that really true?

In a market that sees thousands of books published every day, (with a majority of those being questionable in quality), it can be nearly impossible to get readers to take a chance on someone new. In this economy, consumers are appropriately stingy with their money, trusting in names and products they’ve been previously exposed to. By giving your work away for free, you offer them a chance to try something new without financial risk. If they like your work, you’re then on the list of trusted names and will likely see sales on your subsequent titles. But that still means sacrificing one of your projects to something intangible that may not ever turn into monetary reward. Like all gambles, it’s hard to tell if it’s worth it.

  • Plagiarism:

Any time you publish something online, it’s immediately exposed to the possibility of theft. That’s just the nature of the art world. Yes, there is recourse for artists/authors that have been wronged, falling victim to the pirates of plagiarism, but it doesn’t lessen the blow. Which is why you’ll see this fear thrown around in nearly every literary forum. The thing is, the likelihood of plagiarism is a lot slimmer than people think. Yes, it happens, and yes, it sucks. But the majority of people aren’t interested in stealing from you.

If you’re a creative person, then chances are good this isn’t your only project. And as much as it would suck to lose it to plagiarism, it really wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it? You could always go on to write more; create another masterpiece. The thief doesn’t have that luxury. So even though this is a definite negative to posting online, it’s also an inevitable risk that every writer will have to take if they want to become an author. Your book can’t become a bestseller if it never leaves your desk drawer.

As you can see, there are some pretty strong arguments on both sides. And, as with everything in publishing, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer, no matter how much we might wish it to be black and white. The best I can tell is that you should assess each of these points on a project by project basis. In my particular circumstance, with this particular title, posting online makes sense. I was never intending to pursue traditional publishing with this series, so why not start gaining some momentum now by getting my name out there? I’m definitely still scared of taking the leap, but no one ever found success by playing it safe.

What do you think? Do the pros outweigh the cons? How many of you have posted your work online and to what result? I’d love to hear your experiences. 🙂

Life Lessons of the Martial Arts

Last week I mentioned how I apply a tenet I learned in the martial arts to my everyday life, and since it’s about time I branched away from writing/publishing to show my other categories some love, I think that’s a topic deserving of elaboration. What I’m about to say won’t be news to any of you that have trained, but to those of you unfamiliar with the martial arts, it may be enlightening.

There are three reasons that automatically come to mind when someone says they want to start training:

  • Discipline
  • Fighting/Self-Defense
  • Exercise

And for the most part, that sums up 90% of anyone’s motivation for enrolling. But there’s a lot more to the martial arts than that. Yes, it will help your unruly child learn to respect their elders and shut their mouth without the aid of duct tape. Yes, you will learn self-defense and how to fight. And yes, you will lose weight and tone muscle from all the exercise. But you’ll also miss the much richer elements of personal growth that society never glorifies if you only focus on those three things.

I learned a long time ago that you can easily spot someone who’s made it to black belt. Partly because all martial artists have a certain way of moving; a certain poise and grounded familiarity with their body that screams “black belt” a mile away. And partly because of the way they conduct themselves. There’s a reason they say martial arts is a way of life. It’s because, by the time you reach black belt, your training has gone beyond the physical techniques and has become an ingrained part of your outlook on the world.

Every style has their own philosophies and tenets, but I think there are several that are universal. Not because they’re part of an unwritten code of martial arts brethren, but because they’re the principles that make someone a better person. Things that should be common sense but that have been lost over the years to the majority of society. What are they? Let’s take a look and find out.

Integrity:

In a world where selfishness reigns, it’s refreshing to find someone that actually understands this word. And I would bet that 9 times out of 10, that person is/was a martial artist. Why? Because this is one of the core principles instilled by training. It’s also one of the first that spills over into everyday life. Integrity can be anything from keeping your word, to doing what’s right even when it’s not easy or for your own benefit, to taking responsibility for your actions. This is an attitude that translates to success in everything from school, to personal relationships, to career. A person with integrity is someone that can be counted on, and that’s a sure-fire way to the top of any pack.

Humility:

The second tell-tale sign of someone who’s spent time in the martial arts is humility. People who have learned this have an easier time connecting with others. Nobody likes a braggart, and arrogance is a one-way ticket to alienating all your potential allies. Martial artists learn the fine line of being confident in their abilities without the need to brag. (Well, most do anyway.) And that translates into things like leadership roles, community involvement, and personal satisfaction. Just like integrity, humility is a trait that instantly earns you respect and appreciation, without having to demand it.

Perseverance:

News-flash: life’s hard. It’s all too easy to throw in the towel and just give up, becoming complacent with whatever hand you’ve been dealt. Getting a black belt isn’t easy, either. It involves dedicating yourself to intense workouts, potential injuries and having to hit the floor hard. A lot. You will get knocked down, and you will get hurt. But you also learn how to get back up, how to roll with the punches, and how to achieve any goal you put your mind to, one step at a time. I think the parallel should be obvious. You can apply that same philosophy to anything in life, be that earning a college degree, starting a successful business, or just being present for your family. With a little perseverance, anything is possible.

Situational Awareness:

Self-defense is becoming more and more important, especially for women and young people. So many horrible acts of violence could have been averted if the victim had been more aware of their surroundings, or had avoided putting themselves in danger in the first place. Yes, the martial arts are about fighting, but more importantly, they’re about learning how not to fight. They teach you the self-control to walk away from situations that are turning ugly, and they teach you not to do so many of the stupid things that get people in trouble, like going places alone in the middle of the night, taking drinks from strangers that you didn’t see mixed, or getting in random cars with people you don’t know. The first act of self-defense is knowing how to assess the risks around you; a lesson I wish we taught in schools.

Altruism:

This one may come as a little bit of a surprise to those outside of the martial arts family, but it’s actually a pretty big element in our training, especially the higher ranks. Most styles promote giving back to the community, whether that be the studio itself or the community at large. Some even use it as a criteria for advancement. Which is why you’ll find a lot of black belts volunteering in their communities. The idea of paying forward the time and effort that was given to you, of showing pride and commitment to the people and places around you, is one that translates well into other aspects of life. You don’t have to join the Red Cross, or Habitats for Humanity, or some other grand organization of do-gooders to make a difference. Simply volunteering in your child’s classroom, helping a coworker with a hefty project, or donating your time at a library/care facility will make the world a better place. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all learned that a few moments of selflessness can make all the difference to someone in need? Maybe we wouldn’t see so much violence then.

Those are just a few of the positive affects I’ve seen the martial arts have. Every student will choose the lessons that resonate most sincerely with their own lives, and may not need every one, but you can guarantee they’ll be given the tools just the same. Whether you’re thinking of enrolling your child in the local studio, or whether you’re considering it for yourself, take a moment to think about what I’ve said here. Remember that it’s not just about learning to punch, kick, yell and break things. It’s about learning to be the best version of yourself. If that doesn’t convince you the martial arts are worthwhile, then I’m not sure what will.

And to my fellow martial artists out there, what lessons have you learned in your training? Share the ones I missed in the comments below. 😉