March 30, 2008

Exploring the Storytelling Paradigm

I’ve been promoting Syd Field’s storytelling paradigm, and yet I haven’t explained any of the details behind the technique. Let’s examine the components, and please share your thoughts.

The Structure

I wrote previously that Mr. Field’s plot structure revolves around four distinct segments of a story. Take a story, divide it into four evenly spaced sections, and you’ve got the basic structure of the paradigm. For a simplified example, let’s say the story is one hundred pages long. Here’s what the paradigm would look like:
  • Act 1: pg. 1 – 24 (culminating with Plot Point #1)
  • Act 2a: pg. 25 – 49 (culminating with the Midpoint)
  • Act 2b: pg. 50 – 74 (culminating with Plot Point #2)
  • Act 3: pg. 75 – 100
Outline…Paradigm…What’s the difference?

Each of these segments (along with its corresponding plot points) has a specific purpose. This is critical because it sets the stage for the story and supplies the writer with intentional guidelines in order to move the story along at the right pace.

An outline allows you to be more creative, but it lacks direction. Syd Field has examined exceptional storytelling in an effort to give writers tools that build interesting stories that engage readers.

Next post, I’ll get into more specifics surrounding each act. Do you have any initial responses to the technique? Have you used it? What do you use? I’d love to hear from all the writers out there.

Referenced in this post: The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field.

March 27, 2008

Take Syd Field’s Advice

Why do I use Syd Field’s storytelling paradigm? Several reasons:

Modern storytelling is done through visual means.

Television, film, and the Internet have become primary entertainment venues. Audiences gravitate toward these mediums and are accustomed to this form of storytelling. Syd Field’s framework is perfect for the modern day audience, even when applied to prose.

It’s where the action is.

Action/adventure stories must move quickly. Engage readers from the first letter, keep them turning pages, throw in a few twists and turns, and then wrap everything up before the reader catches his or her breath. I write a lot of adventure stories, so keeping up the pace is critical. Mr. Field’s framework fits my style.

Outlines and blueprints don’t go far enough.

An outline, or a blueprint (as a recent article in Writer’s Digest) isn’t enough for me. There aren’t enough boundaries. Syd Field’s paradigm requires storytellers to think strategically so that the reader (or viewer) doesn’t get bored.

Yes, Mr. Field’s framework is prescriptive, very much so, but to me it gives appropriate guidelines that allow me to stretch and mold the story into something more exciting for the reader. The paradigm actually facilitates my creativity. It makes the writing tighter and forces the writer to think ahead.

I would highly recommend Syd’s approach, even if it is primarily for screenwriters. But what is his exact approach? That’s another blog post…

March 21, 2008

Constructing a Story

Storytelling is about choices, and there are plenty of them. I just started a novel, and now I’m sitting in the ever-present ambiguity that is “creativity.” Every writer approaches these decisions differently, but the general question becomes: Are you a planner? Or do you just jump in?

For every writer that scrawling out extensive diagrams, there’s another that just grabs some paper and a pen before going to town. I fall somewhere in the middle. A framework helps me remember where I’m going and what the reader will find interesting.

In college, I read a book by Syd Field called The Screenwriter’s Workbook. It has been one of the most influential books in my collection. Every time I sit down to write a story, I go through the process Mr. Field discusses in this book. Yes, it is a screenwriting approach, but it supplies the principles of good storytelling, no matter the medium.

The basic element in this framework involves evenly dividing your story into four distinct pieces. Then, you interrupt those segments with three critical Plot Points. Each of the four segments develops a piece of the story, and the Plot Point reveals something that keeps the reader intrigued and interested.

It’s a pretty cool framework, and it works really well. Every now and again I revisit the book just to remind myself of how stories can be told effectively. I’ll discuss the concept more throughout the month, but in the meantime, how do you set yourself up to write? What methods do you use?

March 16, 2008

Review of Maya's Interview

As you can see, Maya is an experienced and accomplished writer. Let me summarize a few of her insights and share my reactions (I'd love to hear your's as well).

1. The writer’s skill set rests in the way they use the tools available to them.

Maya loves to interact with words. That’s her passion. Before plot, characters, setting, and dialogue (all of which she also mentioned), she talked about tinkering with words and language. All are important, and she excels at each, but the answer to that question is very telling, because it reveals so much about a writer’s style. Imagine Dan Brown answering the question... “The plot comes first.” Jane Austin? “Characters bring the story to life.” And maybe Jack London? “The setting must be realistic and believable.”

Each would answer the question differently and yet in the same breath tell you that the entire toolbox is critical to the overall story. But, when you read an artist's work, notice the details of how he or she manipulates each component, utilizing their unique skill set.

2. Creativity comes from everywhere.

Maya's first vision for The Meri came to her in a dream. Other writers eaves drop on conversations and watch people interact. Some tell about their own experience. Nothing defines creativity.

3. There’s a science to good metaphors?

I loved Maya’s advice on metaphors. How many of us sit in front of the computer wracking our brains for a metaphor? Now, sit back and follow Maya’s advice. Find parallels. Keep the parallels consistent (i.e. don't mix your metaphors). Be cautious with clichés. Don’t go overboard.

4. You mean...he didn't write that?

The Writer recently ran an article about ghostwriting. Does it hurt a writer’s brand? Help it? How does a reader feel when they learn that a book was ghostwritten? I feel like I would be reluctant ghostwrite or allow someone to ghostwrite for me. I would plant myself firmly within the “J Sherer” brand and stay there, but as Maya's experience has suggested, it can be a valuable process for both writers.

5. “Two heads are almost always better than one.”

After looking at the first point again (listed above under 1. The writer's skill set...) regarding style, it's easy to see why collaborating makes sense. Let’s say one writer’s skill is in crafting exciting, "can’t stop reading" plots. A second writer’s skill is in developing characters and defining the setting. Put those two together and you’ve got quite a combo. It's something that would allow the writers to encourage, strengthen, and learn from one another, but I think Maya's advice is well thought out: someone has to be the decision-maker.

I thoroughly enjoyed Maya’s interview, and I’ve got two more writers lined up for interviews, so stay tuned for more thoughts and discussion points. In the meantime, how do the points above hit you?

March 14, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 6

Well, we've reached the final segment of Maya's interview. It's been great to hear her perspective, so I'm glad she had a chance to drop by Constructing Stories. If you haven't yet, please check out the previous segments of the interview (one, two, three, four, and five). And, if you're a writer and would like to be interviewed on Constructing Stories, please send e-mail to me at

Today, Maya talks about what she's working on and the present state of the publishing industry.

JS: So, after all we've talked about, what’s next for Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff? What projects are you working on and where will we see your name next?

MKB: Well, immediately will be Books Two and Three of the Mer Cycle (Taminy and The Crystal Rose). Beyond that, I have a novelette in the eZine, Helix and I'll have one coming up in Analog Magazine in the future, as well. I'm afraid the next novel I get in print will not have my name on it. It may be a Star Wars novel or an epic fantasy or ... who knows?

Most of my writing these days is freelance ghostwriting or editing so while I'm usually juggling several novels, a memoir or two, and some editing jobs, they're mostly other people's projects.

My husband and I will also be music guests of honor for Duckon SF convention in Chicago in June. We have three CDs out and available through CDBaby and iTunes, and at science fiction conventions everywhere.

The CDs are Retro Rocket Science, Manhattan Sleeps, and Aliens Ate My Homework.

JS: Are there any questions that you wish an interviewer would ask, even though they never do? If so, what is it, and what might your answer to it be?

MKB: Wow, that's a toughie. Well, they could ask "Tell me, Maya, what do you wish publishers knew?"

I wish publishers knew that they can't "only sell bestsellers" (as one publishing executive was quoted as saying) because there's no formula for a bestseller. Bestsellers can't be predicted. Just look at Harry Potter. And I don’t think they can reverse engineer success by looking at sales figures. For one thing, there are two sets of figures involved: How much did they put into the book, compared to how much they got out of it? Instead of looking at numbers, they need to talk to readers and find out why they bought a particular book, and if it was a good read and if so, why did they think so?

What causes a person to pick up a book (cover art, cover copy, blurbs, word of mouth) varies. And what happens after they buy the book also varies. I've bought any number of books by popular authors that I found barely readable. I bought them, but ended up not reading them, or reading them but not enjoying them much. Yet I continue to see them on bookshelves. Conversely, I've found amazing books by authors who seem to have disappeared from sight, despite the fact that their books are critically acclaimed and have even won awards. The last time I went to a bookstore I searched high and low to find even one of five books by different authors that had been nominated for awards, or whose other work I had enjoyed. Not one could I find. Yet I saw multiple copies of books in my Bought It Never Read it box. I get ads for those BINR books in my email, even.

If I can't find the book I want, I'll buy what's available. I'll fall for the idea that if there are twenty copies of author X's book on the shelf it must be a decent book. That doesn't mean it is a decent book. It just means it was available and my first choices weren't but by golly, I was going to come home with a new mystery to read!

I also wish publishers knew that they don't need to spend millions advertising Dean Koontz's next novel, or JK Rowling's or .... All they need to do is have Amazon drop us an email saying the book is available, and put a display in the major bookstores. The authors who need the advertising bucks are the ones who aren't getting them right now. The authors who may have just written a bestseller that will never even go into its second printing because there was no budget for promoting it.

Okay, I'll step down off my soapbox now...

JS: I think we all know a lot of writers that feel that way. Where can readers discover more about you and what you’re working on?

MKB: They can go to my website or, if they'd like to read some of my short fiction, they can go to my page at Author's Den. All of my books can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s online, or special ordered from a bookstore. I also have a story (A Cruel and Unusual Punishment) in the science fiction anthology Infinite Space, Infinite God and another short story in the Best of Jim Baen’s Universe, 2006. Those are also available from all the usual suspects.

It has been a pleasure having Maya drop by and take the time to give us her perspective. I love the insights housed in this interview, and I hope you've found it beneficial as well. As a writer and a reader, I highly recommend Maya's work, so please support her writing by purchasing one of her novels or support us both by checking out Infinite Space, Infinite God!

March 13, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 5

With parts one, two, three, and four already posted, there are only two posts left to go. In today's segment of Maya's interview, she talks about what it takes to collaborate with another author successfully, where she finds inspiration, and whether or not she intends to move into screenwriting.

JS: What was it like to collaborate with another author? How does that change the way you approach writing, both before and after you slap the words down on the page?

MKB: I love collaboration. Two heads are almost always better than one. I find it exhilarating to sit down with another person and brainstorm a plot arc. That's the biggest difference—that exchange of ideas, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to give you a reality check.

Of course there are relationship issues to work out. One writer needs to be the "senior" partner in the mix—the one who makes final decisions if disagreements come up, the one who polishes the manuscript and deals with the editor. Although Michael (Reaves) and I have also made use of our editor at Del Rey to help us resolve issues when we're really not sure which direction to take, for example.

Those issues—who decides what, etc—need to be worked out before you start writing. When I write with Michael he's the Jedi Master and I'm the Padawan. I've worked with other people in which I was the Jedi.

Often, each writer will have some area in which they're expert. So you have to work out how you want to harness that expertise. In Batman: Fear Itself, I wrote some scenes knowing that Michael, with his more expert knowledge of martial arts and Batman's weaponry, would go in and make specific references to these things where I had drafted generic terms. That worked for us. Another team might simply have had the expert writer write those scenes or had the junior writer check each factoid with the senior one as they came up.

You have to have a thick skin, be flexible and detached to be successful in a collaboration and you have to be realistic about your level of craft. If you've got all that going you can handle it when your partner points out a weakness in your plot line or a boo-boo you made in a scene. In fact, it's one of the things I love about collaborating—immediate constructive feedback. I don't have to wait until I've finished the book to find out that a plot element isn't working—my partner will catch it when he goes in to polish a chapter.

I think the single biggest concession I make to collaboration is that I let my writing be freer and "messier" in some ways. I don't sweat the details until my collaborator and I have reviewed the material and decided "it is good." Then I sweat the details.

JS: Where do you find inspiration?

MKB: Everywhere. I've written a number of stories based on dreams I've had, I've written stories because of overheard conversations, articles in trade journals or science papers, history texts, song lyrics, or just because I wanted to explore a particular idea that intrigued me, angered me, frightened me.

I read a lot in history, psychology, religion and science and have often had the experience of reading along and suddenly hitting a passage that seemed to leap off the page and proclaim: "Story here!"

Inspiration is so ever-present that I have to sometimes purposefully not "see" things because I've already got so many ideas rattling around in my head I don't know what to do with all of them. I have notebooks with ideas jotted down in them everywhere.

JS: I know you’ve written a number of articles and short stories in addition to the novels that you’ve published. Do you have any desire to pursue screenwriting?

MKB: I've actually written about half-dozen screenplays for an independent film producer in LA. Sci-fi and horror mostly. And I've committed a couple of my short stories to screenplay format just for hoots. I'd love to write a screenplay or teleplay set in the MAGIC TIME world that teleplay writer Marc Scott Zicree created. I wrote the second book in the MAGIC TIME trilogy, but the project was originally conceived as a TV series. It was Marc who first looked at my prose and said, "You should be writing screenplays. You're a natural."

To my knowledge I've only ever had one of my pieces produced, but not as a movie, but as a radio play.

There's only one more post to complete Maya's interview! Make sure you stop by tomorrow to check out the final piece. After that, I'll summarize some of the things we've learned from Maya. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

March 11, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 4

Maya's had a lot of experience, even collaborating with Emmy-winning writer, Michael Reaves. But, how does that affect the writer's work? What changes? What's more difficult? And how is it to write about Batman? Find out in the continuation of Maya's interview. And, if you haven't yet, there's still parts one, two, and three!

JS: The Meri and Batman: Fear Itself are easily contrasted and very different. Which story did you find more challenging to tell?

MKB: The Meri was my first novel, so it was a big challenge. I'd written other novel-length works, but they weren't ready for prime time, so this was the first one I'd written after I'd had some success with short fiction and half knew what I was doing.

The challenge for me was that I hadn't read that much fantasy (just Tolkien, really) and I was only writing the story because I'd dreamed it. I intentionally didn't go out and read a bunch of fantasy because I really didn't want to even be tempted to model on someone else's work. As I said, I had to make up the world, so it was tremendously challenging. I had never built an alternate world civilization from the ground up and I wanted it to be complete and realistic. In books Two and Three in the series I used the bulk of that research in the real world; in The Meri the challenge was building the magical system and religion. I've studied religion and religious history avidly, but magic wasn't something I'd dealt with before.

In Batman: Fear Itself, the challenge was in telling the story we wanted to tell without violating the publisher's sensibilities about the character. There were a number of "thou shalt nots" that I had to keep in mind as I worked. And I had to research the Batman universe. I think the best training for meeting that challenge is being an avid reader. If you can immerse yourself in someone else's universe then turn around and write in it as if it were your own, media tie-ins and shared worlds can be lots of fun.

JS: How did you prepare to write Batman: Fear Itself? Was there a lot of pressure on you to write a compelling story featuring such a famous protagonist?

MKB: Fortunately with Batman, my collaborator, Michael (Reaves), had a good first draft of an outline and has written so much in the Batman Universe (he has an Emmy for the animated series) that he's an expert. He also had written a prologue and some material for a first chapter. So my job was to learn the "language" of Batman, familiarize myself with the characters and "the story so far", and to absorb Michael's writing style.

The last one was a piece of cake—I'd already done one collaboration with him—but I did notice that there was a different ambience to the writing and I knew I'd have to adjust my style to fit it. I read a wonderful book on the forensics techniques used in Batman stories, which was of immense help, and did some additional science research on things like mass spectrometers and ballistics and neurotoxins. The next step was to nail down the outline. We brainstormed it and I committed it to paper, and then parsed the outline to get an idea of how the chapters would lay out and where key plot developments would occur.

I felt less pressure than I would have if I hadn't tried this before, but I had the benefit of having written a Riddick novel that will never see the light of day since the Chronicles of Riddick tanked. I learned a lot about working with an iconic character and discovered sneaky ways to develop new facets to a character that seemed to be set in stone.

JS: Fans have become very familiar with Batman. They’ve seen him in movies, on TV, and in the original comic books. Does that change the way you approach the writing?

MKB: Of course. As I said, you have to respect that. BUT—here's the cool thing—most people are familiar with Batman from a visual media. This means they're looking at him from the outside. Also cartoons and comics and movies are "short hand." That means I can flesh out what's behind the façade and in between the frames of cartoon or movie. I can write what the audience can't see—the thoughts inside Batman's head. So, I'll make sure he still looks the same on the outside, but inside his head I have some latitude. The fans seem to accept a certain amount of diversity of view and I think to some extent they realize that Batman and Bruce Wayne can't be on the inside what they present to the world. That would be boring. It's a challenge: How do you develop a character without seeming to change him?

There are just a couple more posts focused on Maya's interview. In the next few we'll see what inspires her, what she's working on, and where you can find her current works (and just in case you want to go buy them right now, they're on Amazon!). Don't forget to add the RSS feed for this blog!

March 10, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 3

In part three of our interview, Maya talks about her craft, something she's very passionate about. I love her advice on metaphors. If you haven't yet, please check out parts one and two!

JS: You’ve mentioned that you’re quite a “craft monkey.” When reading The Meri, I immediately noticed your exceptional choice and use of metaphor. Many writers (including myself) struggle with appropriate use of metaphor. How did you develop a talent for it?

MKB: I have no idea. The little suckers just roll off the tip of my pen. But it may have something to do with the fact that I also write poetry and lyrics, which are metaphor intensive. And my favorite writers are Ray Bradbury and WP Kinsella, who can sling metaphors like nobody's business. I do try to observe some guidelines (rules, whatever) for metaphors:

First, I choose a metaphor that has more than one element that works with my subject. Let's say I want to create a metaphor for an orator's speaking style. It's bombastic. He roars out his words and pounds the podium, growing red in the face. The obvious choice for voice is "roar." But now I get to the pounding the podium part and no leonine images come to mind. Okay, no roaring then. But what if I realize the guy is a windbag? What if I say "He was a storm in full gale—hurricane voice howling above the erratic thunder of his fist striking the podium again, again, again, his sharp, icy words falling like hailstones over the crowd." That's going overboard, but the point is a good metaphor is one that gives you all the parallels you need. What doesn't work is if you grab "roar" and, lacking animal metaphors that work, change partners in mid-dance. Or, to use a mixed metaphor, change partners in mid-stream. Then "He was a lion—voice roaring above the hammer of his fist striking the podium like an anvil, while he sprayed the crowd with word-bullets." Conjures images of a lion packing heat and wearing a combo-holster tool-belt.

Second, I try not to succumb to the temptation to go for something that's different but not apt in an attempt to avoid clichés. If a cliché is best, do something to make it fresh or just don't use a metaphor.

Third, I ration my metaphors and similes. Rather than use one in every descriptive sentence or paragraph, I try to use them when I especially want to create a strong image with emotional overtones—a moment for the characters and reader to inhabit. A lot of "young" writers just load them up—sentence after sentence. Metaphors are like perfume—a little can create a lovely ambience; a lot can overwhelm.

JS: What other elements of the writing craft do you enjoy? What do you struggle with?

MKB: I love writing dialogue. Writing good dialogue is like riding a roller coaster (which I also love). When I'm doing it I feel exhilarated, tuned in, in synch with the universe. That's true of writing in general, but dialogue is especially exciting to me because it's where the characters come to life, where they reveal themselves.

I'm told I write very good action sequences, but that didn't come naturally to me. That was a struggle to learn. I had to think about it. I also struggle with holding a whole novel in my head while I'm trying to work out plot developments. Mostly this is because with my freelance work and all, I'm trying to hold four or five plot lines in my head all at once. I've only got so much room for information in my user-friendly warmware (brain) so I keep lots of notes.

JS: What writers have influenced you? What writers do you respect and enjoy reading? What are you reading now?

MKB: I have probably been most influenced by Ray Bradbury (especially Something Wicked This Way Comes) and WP Kinsella (Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, which became the movie Field of Dreams) and Tim Powers (Declare and a raft of other amazing books). These are writers who do amazing things with words and who have, shall we say, unique ways of looking at things.

I enjoy reading Lois McMaster Bujold—especially her fantasy—Laurie R. King, Elizabeth Peters, and Mary Stewart. I'm a sucker for mysteries and detective novels and really wish that Mary Willis Walker would write something—anything. I also read a lot of non-fiction of all kinds. Mostly history and religion and the history of religions. Science is fun to read about, too.

Right now I'm reading Star Wars novels in preparation for maybe writing one. My last "joy read" was Son of a Witch by Gregory MaGuire. My non-fic reading currently is Jews, God and History by Max Dimont, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way by Philip Jenkins and The Secret of Divine Civilization by Abdu'l-Bahá Abbas.

Tomorrow, the interview with Maya continues. I asked her a little bit more about Batman: Fear Itself and what writing a novel about such a famous detective was like. Drop back by tomorrow!

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 2

In part two of Maya's interview we delve a little further into her specific works. If you haven't yet, please read part one, and then jump back into this post!

Interview continued...

In the Mer Cycle trilogy, you created your own fictional world, but for Batman: Fear Itself you wrote in the preconceived environment of Gotham City. How is the writing experience different? How is it more enjoyable? How is it less enjoyable?

MKB: It's very different. I chose what "facts" to put into the Mer Cycle books. I had to keep track of them, keep them consistent and work out every tiny detail from language to magic to religion to monetary units, and I had free rein to do this. The characters, likewise, were mine to move and shape as I wanted (insofar as they allowed it). That's the upside of an original fantasy work—and the downside. You're out there on your own, flying by the seat of your pants and you have to make it all up. You devise the rules of the world and you have to abide by them. There's more, broader research required for a fantasy novel than for just about any other genre.

Did I say that was the downside? Not if you love research as much as I do.

With a media tie-in or any "share-cropping" book, the world and the back story are written in stone. Batman is Batman and there are some things you cannot make Batman do, not because he won't let you, but because the story canon won't. That's the downside ... and yes, it's the upside too. You've got guidelines! You've got material. Your characters are half-built and the rules of the world are in place. But of course, you have to learn them all, and your research is less the fun "ooh, what's this!" kind and more the "What would Batman use to dig a hole" variety. In other words, targeted.

What I love about making it up is the freedom and the sense of accomplishment when the Rube Goldberg machine I'm tinkering with suddenly starts to purr like a well-oiled machine and the characters make me want to kiss them or kill them. What I hate about making it up is the second-guessing: Did I do that right? Should the character be this or that? And having no one to ask if you're doing it right. (Help me, Ray Bradbury!)

What I love about share-cropping is the sheer challenge of working with someone else's tools. It's like that TV show that was all the rage a while ago—Junkyard Wars. You get to be MacGyver. Hm. I have a piece of chewed pink bubble gum and a TV remote control—what can I do with that? Start the clock, I'll think up something...

JS: The Meri (the first book in the Mer Cycle trilogy) is a book about self-discovery, character development, and change. Where did the idea for The Meri come from?

MKB: Literally a dream and a line from a Robert Silverberg novel. I dreamed a vivid, movie-like dream and knew as I was dreaming that I wanted to write it into a story. I wanted to wake up and write it, but when I managed to get one eye open (we'd gigged the night before and I was exhausted) I saw that it was 6 AM and I couldn't make myself reach for the note pad in my head board. I was afraid I'd forget the dream, so in my dream, I magicked myself up a yellow note pad and a nubby little pencil and wrote down what the characters did in a pivotal scene (it has to do with amulets). I made my dream characters perform the same scene over and over until I finally woke up and could wrap my fingers around a real pencil.

The dream sat on its notepad for months before the final two pieces of the puzzle turned up. I knew the main character was a young teen on a quest, but I didn't know what the quest really was. I had two epiphanies. One came as I was rereading my notes and realized the character that had been a boy in my dream needed to be a girl. That gave me the central conflict. I cloned the boy in my dream—he became the main character Mereddyd and her close friend Leal. I started pushing ideas around, but the final piece fell into place as I was reading one of Bob Silverberg's Gilgamesh stories and came across a phrase that made chills race up and down my spine: He was as a man on dry land and as a selkie in the sea. I knew as I read it that this was the final piece. It gave me the nature of the quest and one further plot element that I needed.

I sat down and started to write. I wrote the whole novel longhand in pencil in a series of college theme notebooks and copied the pages on the Xerox at work (with my boss' blessing) every day just in case.

JS: Mereddyd, the protagonist in The Meri, begins the story as a headstrong, often impatient, and sometimes doubtful young woman, but she develops (quite drastically) throughout the story. Do you plan for a character’s development before you begin, or does it work itself into the story as you move along?

MKB: Both. I plan how I want my character to change overall and I plan pivotal points in the story where those changes will either be catalyzed or will be put to use. But then I let the character "find" the pace of change. I try to let the changes grow out of their environment, the things that befall them, and their personalities and beliefs.

A basic element of change for a character is the type of person they are and how they regard change. Mereddyd, for example, is a person who knows she needs to change and knows she should welcome change. She's just not sure what form those changes should take or if she'll have the ability to make them—and thereby hangs the tale. Contrast her to the old Osraed, Ealad-hach, a man so afraid of change that he'll do incredible mental contortions to avoid it. People like Mereddyd bend and adapt; people like Ealad-hach don't bend, they remain staunchly rigid until they break.

JS: Mereddyd changes significantly throughout the story. Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t change much at all (he rarely does even in the comic books). How does that effect the way you approach the storytelling?

MKB: Well, therein lies one of the downsides to episodic writing. The character really can't change. It's a challenge, because in a way it goes against nature. I wrote some obvious growth into Bruce Wayne in my first draft of Batman: Fear Itself and the "powers that be" said "uh-uh". It was mildly frustrating and it caused me not to go as deeply into the character as I might have liked. I couldn't have the character forge deep relationships with other characters—especially the ones Michael [Reaves] and I created—and I had to be careful about what I revealed about him. This can be exacerbated if you're in a situation where the "owners" of the world are saying they'd like the character to grow but aren't sure how much. Also, the character's life exists on a continuum—at first, Lucius Fox doesn't know Bruce is Batman, then he suspects he is, then he knows he is. Where are we in the continuum and are the comic book people happy with the revelations in the most recent movie? The cool thing about Batman in particular though is that you're really writing two characters: Batman and Bruce Wayne. It's the points at which they come together that are tricky.

It boils down to not writing outside of what's considered canon and it does cause me to write more carefully and with less abandon. My one-time agent told me that I wrote my best when I "use the Force." Which for me means that I close my ears and eyes to anything but the internal muse and, knowing my characters as a creator knows her creation, I immerse myself in the world and write. That's not possible to any great degree with a media tie-in. But I still enjoy writing them—as I said, it's a challenge.

That concludes part two of Maya's interview. Please stop by tomorrow for the next section, and if you haven't yet, please check out part one. Thanks!

March 09, 2008

The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview, Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, today's post launches an exciting new segment for Constructing Stories. I'm very pleased to present my writer interview with Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff. I've had the pleasure of reading three of her novels, and I highly recommend each. She's talented, she has worked very hard, and it all shows. Here's part one of her interview. I'll be posting the rest of it throughout the week. Enjoy!

JS: A writer strives to engage readers and stimulate them with setting, characters, and plot. You’ve created fantasy and science fiction worlds and worked with existing comic book worlds. As a writer, what tools do you use to make these worlds come alive to the reader?

MKB: Ooh, a multifaceted question! The most basic tools are the words a writer has in her palette. I love words. I love playing with them, molding them, shaping them into sentences and paragraphs and scenes, and watching stories emerge. Writing is a lot like sculpting in that way—you have these raw materials, words, and you work them until a coherent shape emerges, then add detail upon detail until you have a complete story. It’s very tactile for me and I love the feel of words and the sound of them read aloud.

Naturally, it's important to know the tools as well as you can. A good writer can make worlds come alive by choosing the right words and arranging them so that they paint pictures, evoke emotions, excite, terrify, impassion, soothe...all that. That's where the craft comes in: knowing how to get words to evoke sadness the way the color blue or a D-minor chord evokes sadness, or spark anger or get the blood pounding with a good action sequence.

There's more to it than that, of course. One mainstream writer, whose name I've mercifully forgotten, said that there was nothing at all mystical about writing. He was one of those types that hate writing but love having written. It was just like forging horseshoes, he said. Just the iron of words and the brute strength of craft. Period. I thought about that metaphor for about two seconds before I realized he'd missed one of the most important factors: fire. If you don't have fire—inspiration, passion—AND strength, the inert material will just lie there. So, I think the tools are inspiration, passion, craft, and words. And by inspiration I mean whatever sparks you to write—a cool idea or research you've done about pre-Columbian burial mounds or a neat turn of phrase, a divine epiphany or a dream.

Now, I'm going to turn around and answer the question in a completely different way. In another sense, the tools you have are character, plot, setting, dialogue, action and writing style. These things put together combine to create stories readers want to read. But of course, underneath it all is ... words.

JS: That passion and intentionality is very apparent in your writing. Do the tools you use change based on the type of story or the type of environment with which you’re working?

MKB: Yes and no. I mean, whether I'm writing a crime novel or a fantasy novel, I still need to absorb facts, create characters, put words together in ways that are harmonious (or not) and vivid. But the type of facts I need and where I acquire them differ.

I wrote a crime novel that my agent is currently shopping for which I needed facts gleaned from the real world. I needed to understand how guns worked and what was the right weapon for a 5 foot tall, 98 pound PI. I needed to know a lot about pot hunters (archaeological looters) and Latin American ruins. I needed to know about the magic of the Russian Orthodox Church. For my MERI series, I needed a different set of fact-tools and I had to create a significant number of those tools myself. The magic, the religion, the government, the history all had to be invented.

So, as I'm working in the environment, I look at my toolkit and say, "Well, for this story I need to create a language and know how the priestly hierarchy works. And for that one, I need to know some Russian and how a police department is structured."

Obviously, the words and how I use them will also be different. I use different words trying evoke a sense of placeless wonder for a fantasy novel than I will to depict a gritty urban landscape. The type of characters I'm writing about will also cause me to handle words differently. A shy, village lass and a smart-ass Asian-American detective don't think, speak, or behave the same way. The tools change to adapt.

Having said that, there are constants. Action scenes in any genre require words to be used in a particular way. Dialogue in any genre, likewise, needs to communicate, and descriptive passages need to bring the reader into your world.

That concludes part one, but part two will be posted tomorrow. Be sure and drop back by!

March 08, 2008

Shared Passion: Writer Interviews

Let’s take a short break from the character discussion and transition into a new segment of Constructing Stories: writer interviews.

Throughout the week I’ll be posting segments of my interview with a fellow Infinite Space, Infinite God author, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff (A Cruel and Unusual Punishment). Author of six novels under her own byline, several ghostwrites, numerous short stories, and even a few articles about her craft, Maya has achieved a level of success that many authors crave (including me). From her fantasy novels (The Mer Cycle trilogy) to her collaborations with Michael Reaves (Batman: Fear Itself and Mr. Twilight), Maya has developed amazing environments for her readers to explore.

I’m really excited to kick off this new segment, and I want to make sure that you get a chance to discover how Maya approaches her craft. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to utilize an RSS feed to keep up with the posts over the coming week. I’m privileged share some of Maya’s insights with you, and I hope you’ll drop by to read more.

I’ll be posting the first segment of Maya’s interview tomorrow, March 9, 2008. Tell your friends, tell your family, and don’t forget to stop by!

And if you're a writer and would like to be considered for an interview, please submit your request to Thanks!

March 05, 2008

Characters – Part 4: Where to Start?

I’m starting a novel. It’s going to be action-adventure focused, and it’s going to require extremely unique characters. In addition to determining the traits these characters possess, I also have to imbue them with special attributes (i.e. powers). Imagine the TV show Heroes or movies (and comic books) like X-Men and you’ll get what I’m aiming for.

Following my own advice from previous posts, I’m thinking back over other characters I’ve enjoyed. What traits does my lead character possess? Do I know anyone who shares one or two of those traits so that I can dial into the characters appropriate responses? This is the hero, so he has to be relatable. People have to respond to him favorably, root for him, and even sympathize with him when he fails. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Stubborn. Head strong. Unafraid, even when he should be. Works hard, real hard, even pushing past his own personal limits when he shouldn’t. Good heart. Really wants to serve others and serve them well. If you’re on his team, his loyalty is undying, but if you’re not, you may encounter his bad temper. When his loyalties are split he struggles. He strives to do his best, but his own striving is sometimes what holds him back.

Okay. That’s a start. Now, I could use your help. Do you know any other characters like this? Do you feel that you could root for this guy? Would you enjoy reading about him and seeing what his path is?

Characters like him: Jack (from Lost), but younger.

March 04, 2008

Characters - Part 3: What Makes a Good One?

Writers, readers, and viewers love (and love to hate) characters. We interact with the story’s players as they confront the world around them, and we evaluate the players based on our own experience.

As writers, readers, and viewers, what can we take away from this knowledge?

  1. Characters should be like Kobe Bryant (see previous post)—never one-dimensional. Some things about them are good. Some aren’t. Sure, heroes should be heavily weighted towards being a “good person,” but they should also have a fatal flaw. Sometimes strengths are weaknesses in big doses (strong convictions become stubbornness). Sometimes strengths and flaws clash (like fighting addiction). Whatever the case, characters (heroes and villains) possess multiple qualities, good and bad.
  2. Strong characters = characters that we relate to. We want to be more like them. We see their traits mirrored in those around us. The things we like about our friends and family, things we disdain in our enemies (and co-workers, as the case may be).

Characters are fictional people, but they are people, so they have traits, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses.

Writers, when creating a character, look around and make notes—they're all around you. Readers and viewers, identify what it is you like or dislike about a character. Chances are, you’ve encountered it in your own life.

What else would you include in this list? What else makes a great character?

March 03, 2008

Characters - Part 2: The Kobe Bryant Syndrome

Everyone has his or her own definition of a great character, and I’m willing to bet that the things we love or hate in fictional people aren’t a whole lot different from the things we love and hate about our friends, co-workers, and associates. Not everyone is going to appreciate the same character.

This represents what I call “The Kobe Bryant Syndrome.” Let me first apologize to all of those who don’t like basketball (or sports in general). Bear with me just for one minute. Ask someone who’s passionate about basketball what they think of Kobe Bryant, and with a few exceptions you’re going to hear one of two responses:

“Best player in basketball, maybe the best ever. Great work effort, fierce competitor, he’s the guy I want on my team. Championship caliber.”

“Selfish. Not team player. Arrogant. Sure, he can score a billion points, but scoring a billion points doesn’t win championships. I wouldn’t want him on my team. I’ll take a team player, like LeBron.”

We all have things we appreciate about characters and things that we don’t. I don’t know why, but I’m sure it has something to do with Freud and our self-esteem and whatever else. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we weigh the good and bad and make our decision. Like? Love? Hate? Indifferent?

What traits do you like in a character? What traits or behaviors make you cringe? What examples from the stories you write, read, or watch could you share with us?

Characters - Part 1: Telling a Story with Fake People

Character Discussion

This week’s blog kicks off a discussion about characters. For the next few weeks we’ll study characters and determine what we like and dislike about them. Then, I’ll talk a little bit about the characters in the novel I’m writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts and get your input.

Fictional Heroes and Villains

Think of your favorite TV show, novel, or movie. Got it? Now, think of your favorite character from that story. Take a second to think of ways that your selected character interacts with the world around her or him. How would he or she order coffee? Handle a breakup? Treat an authority figure?

If you’ve got those things in your head, then take the next step. Think of someone you know—friend, co-worker, family member, acquaintance, enemy, etc.—that behaves like the character you chose earlier.

Did you find a match? At least in a general sense (certain traits, mannerisms) I’m guessing you did. Most great characters relate to our lives. What character did you choose? Were you able to find someone you know with similar traits? What were those traits?

March 01, 2008

The New Blog!

New Name, New Face

I’d been thinking a lot about my other blog (Selling Words on a Page), it’s function in the overall world, and what I wanted it to accomplish. I struggled to find ways of making it interesting, enjoyable, and something that people want to read. It’s not just about me, it’s about creating a community of people that want to speak into things, discuss topics, and help each other learn.

So, I’m hear to announce that I'm transitioning out of Selling Words on a Page and into...Constructing Stories. It's a new, slightly more focused blog, and I think you'll enjoy it.

A Brave New World

Constructing Stories will be more focused on things writers and readers care about and enjoy discussing. As I write new material, including an upcoming novel, I’m going to blog about it, invite discussion, and absorb all of your feedback to make my works better. In the process, I’ll be interviewing other authors, sharing interesting articles, and pointing to key areas where strategy plays a huge role in what you read on a page.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be writing reviews of movies like I did on Selling Words, but I’ll be much more intentional about it. I want to focus in on the stories and how we all interact with them.

Upcoming Posts

Here are some upcoming posts that you may enjoy:
  • The Messenger Chronicles (tentatively titled) – Exploratory Ideas: I’ll be talking about a novel I intend to start writing soon.
  • The Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff Interview: In the next couple months I’ll talking to fellow Infinite Space, Infinite God alum and successful writer (she's even listed in Wikipedia!).
  • The Messenger Chronicles – Characters: Help me develop exciting, Heroes-like characters for my new novel.
  • Ending, The Shadow Phase: It’s coming to a close, and it’d be great to talk about.
I've also taken some time to populate Constructing Stories with some of the old posts from Selling Words. I hope you enjoy and appreciate the new direction. I look forward to hearing from you!


The Writer's Identity

Live It Up, Brother

A couple weeks back I wrote about "writing strategy" and talked about brand identity. It sparked a good discussion about writers and the identities that they portray both in the public and in their works of art. It's an interesting thing to me because of the implications it has, not only for the purposes of selling the work, but also for the impact that it has on the writer's legacy and the reader's perception of the writer!

Jessica commented a couple weeks ago about Edgar Alan Poe and how he wrote seemingly morbid stories while dealing with fairly morbid things in his own life. That got me thinking.

Jack London. Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway. Toni Morrison.

The writers we remember, and often times the writers that make the biggest impact on the world (not necessarily in monetary ways, but drastic social change or commentary) often live extreme lives that in almost all cases are vomited onto the page in the form of stories.

They wrote what they knew, wrapping words around personal experience coupled with a lively imagination. It just so happens that what they knew was extreme. These people didn't just sit in their living rooms putting pen to paper. They were out in the world taking in the experience.

What's my point? I don't have one. I just admire my fellow artists and consider them inspirational. And I'm not knocking the people who don't strap up a sled and have dogs pull them across the frozen Yukon (I've never done it, and it doesn't sound all that fun to me), but it is fun to see what a writer's experience can lead to.

It can build them a brand identity, and it can create a legacy. See you on the other side of the page.

Marketing and Writing

Marketing + Writing = ?

A lot of you know that I make my cash as a marketer, but that I also do this thing on the side called writing. Both have a little bit of art to them, both have a little bit of science. Let's, for the sake of this post, think a little more on the scientific end of things for a bit. Most of the writers out there are going to start cringing, but just give me a few minutes of your time...

"It's called a voice..."

Differentiation is at the core of business strategy, or said more appropriately, "Business strategy is defined by differentiation." What does differentiation mean? It's a big word that writers may understand at its root level, but how does it pertain to writing?

Well, let me propose this to you. As writers, we create what the business world would call a "brand identity." Yes, unfortunately, you are creating one...each and every one of you writers. "But I only write for art!" Good for you! You're still creating a brand identity, though. Even a brand experience. And why? Well, if you are trying to sell your work, it will come down to needing brand awareness! (If you're not, you're just creating a brand experience that you alone can enjoy with your closest friends).

How are you going to stand out in a market completely saturated with excellent, marginal, and terrible writers? (all of whom have been published). There it is. You're going to create a brand identity.

"But, you don't understand, my work is from my own writer's voice! That's what sets me apart!" True. However, that's only a piece of a much bigger pie. Understand that when you create a work of art, you're making choices. Those choices will differentiate your work. They will differentiate your life.

They will build you a brand identity.

Next time, I'll go further down this path to explain how this may affect you, the writer (and you readers as well). Stay tuned...

Why We Write

Selling Words on a Page

It occurs to me that the title of my blog has many meanings. The first is literal-exchanging thoughts typed or written onto a page for money. That's an ideal that many writers dream of. Even successful writers have limited monetary success. Published authors who write excellent books making no more than $30,000 a year (without benefits!) or less. Of course, for every billion writers in the world there's a Michael Crichton, a Dan Brown, a Stephen King, a Jeph Loeb, a J.K. Rowling, a Robert Ludlum. They sell a million books, they make movies, and they make bank.

The second meaning of my blog title is still fairly literal and relates directly to the marketing side of things. Without a strong push for people to actually read the material, it doesn't get read. And trust me, there's no lack of trying on behalf of these writers.

There's another meaning that's not so literal. It refers to getting an audience to buy into a work of art. The art of selling the words to the reader. Creating a believable world, a compelling storyline, interesting and dynamic characters, and strong emotional connections. It's putting what's in your head onto the page and eliciting a positive response from your audience.

My Writing

I write because God gave me the desire. It's that simple. When I was a kid I used to pretend I was part of movie trailers. Give me a wiffleball bat and I became a knight fighting off hordes of ogres. Eventually, I started putting the thoughts onto a blank page of paper. And I didn't always just write. Sometimes I illustrated pictures. It didn't matter as long as I had the opportunity to express what was going on inside my head.

And then a couple things happened. I started reading more. I started writing more. I studied the art of it (I still do!). All of the sudden I was a writer. I even intended to major in Creative Writing in college (fortunately, I learned just before registration that writers don't make money). I've even tried to stop over the years, but I keep coming back to it.

I've published several stories, been interviewed by a local paper, and I started with my friend, Nathan Scheck. I'm very fortunate. I consider it a gift from God, and I'm grateful that He's given it to me.

Part of what I've always hoped to do is to use writing as a means for ministry. I'm not a great evangelist, probably never will be, but I can write. So, it's with great pleasure that I am able to say that when stories like The Arena (published several years back in Dragons, Knights, and Angels Magazine) and Understanding (on sale now at as a part of the Infinite Space, Infinite God anthology) have been released to a larger audience.

It's not just about money. It's about the art itself, it's about ministry, and it's just fun. So, thanks to everybody out there who has read the anthology, and to those who have taken the time to check out I appreciate it, and I hope God continues to give me the ability to write, because I really enjoy it.

With that, I leave you with a little self-promotion (it's titled "Selling Words on a Page," okay?). Here are some reviews of Infinite Space, Infinite God (I happen to like the first one best):

Until next time...God Bless!

Science Fiction...The Future Looks Bleak

Don't look ahead.

If science fiction stories have taught us anything, it's not to travel to the future. Time travel can be a good thing, granted we go back in time, but we can't go forward. Bad things happen in the future. We can put money on the fact that the future won't look good. Take these stories, for example:

Terminator 2
When we get a glimpse at the future, it's definitely not going well for us. Robots (as always) have taken over us idiot human beings. Not only that, but as it turns out, our only hope is a baby that will eventually become some great leader.

Lesson: Don't build robots that have the capability of becoming smarter than us. Matrix? iRobot? Seriously, we don't stand a good chance. Robots should be dumb and just vacuum the carpet.

Back to the Future, Part II
In the past, Biff was a thug with a funny haircut. In the future, Biff is a billionaire that ruins your entire life. The future is not a good place to be for a McFly.

Lesson: Don't leave your time machine unattended. Your worst enemy will steal it and use it to ruin your life.

In five years the world is still recovering from a catastrophe. Peter Petrelli now has a massive scar and is dating a stripper, and the president is the most evil person on the planet. Not to mention Hiro has gone from a nice guy to a character from the Matrix.

Lesson: If you can draw the future...don't. If you can travel there, grow a soul patch and carry a sword.

Time Travel with Care

So, if you're thinking about visiting the future, please reconsider. Nothing seems to go right. Instead, visit the past. Every time someone goes back in time they introduce something amazing, like a cigarette lighter, and are suddenly nominated for regional king. Generally, kingship requires that you fight off an entire army, but let's face it, you've got a lighter!

If you're considering time travel, I would advise checking out It's a fun little adventure that Nathan Scheck and I have put together, and the best part's free! And, there's no future travel! We wouldn't want something bad to happen to our characters! (not yet, anyway)

Any other future mishaps come to mind? Let me know!

It's Crowded in Here

The Market

I write science fiction stories…just like the other billion people on the planet. As science fiction writers (and sci-fi fans, too), we live in a saturated market. Look around. Books and stories pile up around us like Starbucks bistros in Seattle. They’re everywhere. Everyone seems to be interested in science fiction. It’s become such a huge market that we’ve started categorizing it. Here are just a few:

  • The Scientists
    • Favorite phrase: “The science better be quantifiably accurate in this manuscript or my head will rotate like Jupiter’s second moon!”
    • Character profile: The Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
    • This audience group likes to ponder, likes things to make complete sense (or at least function in a way that’s probable), and they like to make the rest of us look stupid (which is probably true). These guys and gals start talking and we just keep nodding our heads. Some of them even build the things they read about in their hard core science fiction books.
  • The Adventurers
    • Favorite phrase: “What did that scientist guy just say?”
    • Character profile: Flash Gordon.
    • These guys are like the Indiana Jones’ of writers and fans. They moonlight as professors, but they never teach from the textbooks. If you ask them who Asimov is they’ll give you a confused look until you remind them that he was the bad guy from Star Wars.
  • The Imitators
    • Favorite phrase: “May the force be with you.”
    • Character profile: Dr. Spock.
    • Dressing up like their favorite characters, they attend massive conventions with other people that dress up like their favorite characters. Unlike the “scientists,” they have no idea how real science relates to their universe, but they can easily rattle off the reason why a light saber never draws blood (except in the Mos Eisley Cantina scene).
  • The Cool People
    • Favorite phrase: “Mulder’s and Scully would be like, sooo good together.”
    • Character profile: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • The first ones to make fun of “The Imitators,” this group leeches onto popular TV shows and movies without realizing they really are science fiction geeks like the rest of us. They call us losers, but deep down, they really wish they too could build a flux capacitor, dress like a Wookie, or at least jump on the latest comic book craze.

Each one of these audience groups writes science fiction, too. The Scientists write things that the rest of us don’t understand. The Adventurers start a lot of things, but never seem to finish. Fan Fiction? You guessed it, The Imitators. And The Cool People? Well, they mostly just stick to text messages.

So, as a writer, I think about all you guys in each of the groups listed here. I try to differentiate, to tweak things and make them unique. It doesn’t always work, but it pays to try. Sometimes you hit 3 out of the 4 groups and everybody is onboard. Sometimes you hit just one.

What group do I fall under? I’m one of The Adventurers who wishes he could talk to The Cool People, but really wants to hang out with The Imitators.

Which group are you a part of?