Hey writer: What’s more important?

I wrote this just over a year ago, when many of us were still underestimating the impact of the pandemic upon our worlds. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” to borrow George R. R. Martin’s commentary on naiveite. I found the post waiting in my drafts folder, one of a number of writing projects that got shelved due to other priorities. I share it now because it touches on an important matter for writers. Please don’t mind the dust.

A friend (Trusted Reader #12), sent me this message:

So, I have a “what’s important about writing question” for you when you have a moment.

YES! There are two surefire ways to get my attention: 1) talk about Star Wars (my wife does this) and 2) ask a question about writing.

As you can imagine, I dropped what I was doing and emphatically replied. My brain raced. Was this philosophical? Perhaps this was related to me having a writing degree in the business world. Oooh, could it pertain to the importance of reading?

What’s more important, story or character?

Uh oh.

It’s a great question, and I’m glad he asked. I had an answer, of course, but part of me wondered if I was walking into something.

It's a trap!
Narrator: It wasn’t a trap

Here’s a little back story: About six weeks before, he’d texted that he still wanted to buy a copy of my book so I could autograph it. It’s a recurring laugh we share, and I’m sure many hopeful writers hear the same. It’s a wonderful thing that I always appreciate – even when I’m searching for an agent and the publishing thing is a ways off. I responded, in that passive way writers do, something about having a few printed manuscripts on hand. Long story short, I had an inscribed copy delivered.

When I read his question about story vs. character, I expected that he felt my book focused too much on one, and this was his clever way of reminding me of the importance of both. You see, writers like me are always anticipating criticism. It’s another defense mechanism of introverts, I suppose. (Psst: we also secretly crave criticism because it can be helpful!)

You’ve probably guessed that this wasn’t what he was thinking. And because this wasn’t my first day as an introverted, insecure gumble-goo, I casually answered the story vs. character question with: “Yes LOL”.

I mean, I think everyone wants to read a book with compelling characters AND a good story. However, to me, there’s a clear winner. I quickly added, “Character dev, which is a story itself.”

Turns out he was asking about feedback his son had gotten in his first creative writing class in college. He’d been told he focused too much on story and not enough on character and language.

Oh yeah, I hear ya, man. Believe me! I told him that was common and that we all struggle with it.

I suggested looking at it like this: Focusing solely on the story is more like recounting a history (a fair amount of my brain is wired that way, which explains how I earned a second major in history). Like many writers, it’s a matter of “tell vs. show”.

Compare this fact-based approach to drawing people in a world, which character and language do. It’s one thing to say your character is reckless. It’s better to show them acting recklessly. Perhaps ideally, show why they act that way.

i.e. character development

His son was also experiencing a common struggle: forgetting that not all the stuff in your head makes it to the page. You know, things like setting and backstory, which can be so vivid in a writer’s brain, we forget that others cannot yet see them. Apparently, our audience is not made up of mind readers.

Who knew?

Not everything in our heads should make the page. The reader doesn’t need to know the minutiae. But the pertinent stuff needs to be there. If your protagonist makes a specific choice, the why might need to be understood.

The final thing we discussed was the instructor’s criticism. Whenever feedback comes up – whether giving or asking – I remind people that it’s not personal. Because creative writing is a deeply personal thing, however, it’s tough to see the feedback as anything else. I mean, we tend not to share unless it’s perfect. I’ve talked about that here and here.

But it never is. Understanding this is a tremendous part of your growth as a writer.

And that was my closing point. I probably could have continued the conversation for an hour (“conversation” in that, there were two people, though I would have done all the talking), but we’d covered the topic sufficiently.

I’m sure that most writers have a point of view on character vs. story, and many wouldn’t agree with me. That’s fine. Writing is as subjective to the creator as the person who experiences it. I think it’s more important to have an opinion, and then sticking to that decision with the content you’re creating.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

Write that down now!

This post is approximately 400 words.

Lonely stop sign

Writers: A quick plea to capture those amazing ideas immediately as they come to you lest they disappear with nary a trace. Often this has happened to me, and I have worn my soles thin from kicking myself.

I often like to let an idea run around in my head for a bit as I try to form it into something more tangible. If I can keep thinking about it as the day goes on – maybe water it, fertilize it – it starts to develop and grow. Suddenly, a day or a week later, I find myself typing away, turning thought into word and idea into story.

But that idea is very much like a cloud riding the wind at the head of a storm, and if I turn my focus away, sometimes for even a moment, those skyborne wisps will be something else by the time I look back, leaving nothing but gray thunderheads in their wake. The storm itself arrives days later when my mind gives me a little poke and says, “Hey, you had a great idea last Wednesday, but it’s soooo gone now. Just thought you’d like to know.”

So, stop whatever you are doing because that interesting idea…

The creature kept coming, inexorably, despite its ruined leg. It dragged the damaged limb along, giving no heed to the pain inflicted by my axe. Vengeance burned from its eyes, striking me like a physical blow yet holding me fast. The look I read on the pages of its face told me the creature meant to take more than my leg as recompense. And it needed no axe to collect.

…will be reduced to…

The angry creature stomped vengefully toward me.

….when you try to write it down later. That is, if you’re able to write down anything at all.

And this is why, having just written this article, I am now, at four in the morning, starting a second one. Good luck wrestling your own inspiration!

–Mike

PS: I hope you abandoned this post before getting this far, because that means you went to write something amazing of your own. If not, well, say hello to your brain next week when it reminds you that you lost a brilliant idea today.


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

Writing Exercise: Morning Routine

I have a new routine to start my work day. It’s a chance to center my mind, while doing a little mental stretching to prepare it. Sometimes, the exercise relates to the office job; others, my personal writing. On Monday, it was the latter.

It a last bit of preface, I’ll segue to a common question writers get: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, I haven’t a clue, but I know exactly where this piece originated. I looked at the window and the word “a’sliver” came to mind as a creative synonym for “ajar”. Mundane origin? Perhaps. Occasionally, the magic in writing is simply a curtained alcove in Emerald City with an old man hiding there*.

*Even then, when you look carefully, you might see the trailing remnants of real magic as they flee from prying eyes

Anyway, I challenged myself to work it into a little something, and as I sat in my office listening to the sounds of morning and watching the world through a window, the following flowed out. Less stream-of-consciousness writing….and more of a leak. (how’s that for a sales pitch?)

Window sits a’sliver just enough
For filtered birdcalls to enter the room
But perhaps not the heat

A whispered wind whistles in
Squeezing through a narrowed crack
It cannot force wider open

Sun chases behind them
Sending shadowed wings to dance upon my wall
Wafted air disturbing doldrum days

Trees glow in verdant hues
Awash with shadow and light
Dancing brightly fro and to

Asphalt rhythms drone in time
Rubbered wheels, frictioned warm
Click-kicking out stones

The staccato bark of greeting dogs
Heedless of rhyme or melody
A mixed meter only they measure

Stylistically, it’s a bit of a mess.

  • I went back and added some punctuation. Then I deleted most of it because the Reader probably doesn’t need it. There’s a reason that lonely country roads don’t have traffic signs.
  • There’s no consistency of rhyme or rhythm. I’m not talking about A-B-A-B structure or anything like that. But structure, like punctuation, is a guide to the Reader that helps make reading easier.
  • Should this piece be leading to something—does it have a point? Or is it simply a bunch of description in search of action? <shrugs>

And yet, style doesn’t matter here. It’s just an exercise. An experiment really, and one with two purposes. First, to try some interesting (to me) ways to write. There are the made-up words (a’sliver, click-kicking), the reversal of common phrases (fro and to), and alliteration (mixed meter only they measure). It’s a little like adding a new ingredient to an old recipe. Sometimes the flavor improves.

Second, provide evocative phrases that stimulate the senses: specifically sight and hearing. I wanted to see what I could accomplish in brief phrases. I particularly liked the idea of the wind failing to force a window open, as well as car tires “Click-kicking out stones”.

It’s a quick exercise, and one that brings a little peace and joy to my day. And that’s enough. I encourage you to find something similar to keep that writing brain engaged. Good luck with your writing!

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

Editing Exercise – Help that stumbling sentence

My various lives (personal, work, writing) have been busy for the last couple months, so blogging took a back seat for a bit. However, while doing some writing over lunch, I was struck by an idea that led to this post.

Many writers will tell you not to stop for proofreading or editing while you’re writing. I generally agree. It interrupts the momentum, and in many cases, drives that wonderful idea right out of your head. Anyways, a little separation from the act of writing and the act of editing is a good thing, especially when you’re looking to be more objective.

But sometimes, a clumsy sentence keeps stumbling through your brain until you put it out of its misery fix it. Today, I wrote such an example.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them forward at greater speed to the dining hall.

If that sentence were a person, it would be trying to keep its balance while blundering down a hill. Let’s take a closer look. “Forward” is redundant since in the greater context of the passage it’s clear they were going to the dining hall.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them at greater speed to the dining hall.

“Propel” indicates a force to the motion, so “at greater speed” is unnecessary.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling of people propelled them to the dining hall.

“Of” is unnecessary in this context. It reads the same without it, though changing “people” to “crowd” is more evocative.

Samor smirked, but he was unable to extricate himself as the jostling crowd propelled them to the dining hall.

Much smoother. I only eliminated 5 words, but I believe my sentence-person is now surefooted in their descent of the hill. Are there other ways to tighten up that sentence? Of course! Spending a few more minutes, I could probably rework it completely. There’s also a case to be made for the addition of words to add flourish or pizzazz! Either way, that’s what the editing process is for: get the idea out now; refine it later.

For now, I’m happy with the change and I’ll let it simmer. You can do the same. With a few simple cuts, a tortured sentence is no longer a tongue-tangled torment for your Readers. Good luck with your writing!

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2021

Word Casualties #5

A fun bit of self-deprecation based on typos I’ve found in my manuscript. Rather than immediately correct them, I’ve collected them for your enjoyment and added humorous definitions. If you can’t guess the intended word (ahem, not surprising sometimes), further down you’ll find the correct spellings. If you enjoy the list, more can be found here.

CASUALITIES

  • Enchancement – a possible improvement; a magic spell that might work.
  • Consiren – the klaxons at a prison
  • Unstanding – describes one who is sitting down
  • Diffanta – difruity soda I disometimes drink
  • Definity – the assuredness of knowing something will last forever
  • Writh – a ghost missing its front teeth (this word must have lost its E to the next entry)
  • sarcasme – the fancy British spelling of ‘sarcasm’
  • Vommunication – drenching another person with the gagging vehemence of your words
  • Catapostrophic – exceptionally poor use of apostrophes
  • Legilimate – mind reading done to determine a person’s authenticity

CORRECT SPELLINGS

  • Enhancement
  • Considering
  • Understanding
  • Different
  • Definitely
  • Writhe
  • Sarcasm
  • Communication
  • Catastrophic
  • Legitimate

Tpyos happen to the best of us. Better to have a little fun than to dwell. Good luck with your writing!

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, March 2021

Support Your Friends’ Art: Moshi Moshi

Pardon a word of preface before I get to the album I’m going to review. Few in the world are lucky enough to be recognized for the art they create, whether in paints or stone, music or poetry, or movies or books. I believe we can always use more art in the world and that each of us can do our part simply by sharing the things we like. Even if you do not do this, even if you disagree, you still benefit from the artists in the world who are working every day to do something they love. So why not make a meaningful contribution and share something you like? Even better, pay money for something you love.


Moshi Moshi by Ryan and Pony

This post is a review of the album Moshi Moshi, the debut album by Ryan and Pony, friends of ours. And while our relationship predisposes me to support them, I really do enjoy this album. It’s been in my rotation since I bought it.

They fuse dream pop, post punk, brit rock, EDM, and good ol’ fashion rock and roll for a sound all their own,” their website says. I agree. And here’s my impression: It sounds like a synthesis of all the rock and pop music I loved through the 80s and 90s, and it creates something new. The music feels like a natural evolution of that time period, both familiar and fresh. Perhaps I phrase it this way because that’s what I try to evoke in my own writing.

I enjoyed all the songs on the album, but here are the four that have stuck with me from the first spin.

Track 3: Fast As I Can – This is their first single and it tells you everything you need to know about them. Solid production, catchy-as-hell hooks, and great harmonies. It’s even got a little bit of what I affectionately call “80s sax”, which will always have a special place in my musical heart. The video is cool, too!

What really resonates with me, however, are the lyrics that tell of a protagonist who will do whatever it takes to help someone; additionally, “all the love you bring, every little thing you do: it matters.” This song is practically the anthem of my hero, Tildy, so I’ve added it to my “hero playlist”. I’ll write about that in a future post.

Track 7: First Night – Opens with a sweet bass line from Pony (we need more of this in music), and then – what is that, Ryan – surf guitar? Don’t mistake me, this isn’t a Dick Dale song, but it’s got that cool guitar sound throughout. And in the back half of the song, the guitar also evokes Tom Petty, which is an interesting thematic transition. This song drives forward relentlessly. It’s dense, in that there’s so much in here, I’m surprised it’s only 2:28 long.

Track 9: Low – Is this one pure pop, is it going to be a rock song? It’s a little of both; it’s something different than both. The thing that strikes me in this one is Ryan’s vocals: you can tell it’s him, but it’s yet another style from his repertoire. This song is a great example of how a band can deliver several different musical styles in a single album without deviating from the core of who they are.

Track 12: I Would Die 4 U – I wasn’t looking at my phone when this came on, so I didn’t know I was about to hear a cover of one of Prince’s best songs. As it opened, I found myself listening to something that was familiar, yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It turned out to be a a new arrangement that offered a fresh take on the intro of a song we all know. And in a way that some covers do so well, they’ve taken this song and made it their own. It’s got the pieces of the original we love, but with new things that keep it from feeling like just another rehash. Great example of the band’s musical chops.

I think we’re all predisposed to enjoy the things our family and friends create, but man, it is amazing when they exceed our expectations. One of the best compliments I’ve received went something like this: “I forgot that I knew the writer and just got pulled into the work.” That’s exactly how I felt with this album. Ryan and Pony know their stuff, and Moshi Moshi is a polished, professional, and – more importantly – enjoyable album.

I hope my appreciation of the passion in someone’s work will inspire you. Whether you listen to these tracks, buy the album, or simply read this post and share it, you’re helping contribute to the art of the world. If you’re an artist yourself, you can probably expect someone to do the same for you.

Good luck with your art, whatever your medium may be!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, January 2021

Project Three Begins

Waitaminute, buster. Didn’t you just tell us you were starting Project Two a year ago? Didn’t your first book take four years to write?! Is this one of those flighty writer things, where you get distracted by a new project?

There’s more to it than that, which I’ll get to in a moment. Project Two has continued to move over the course of the last year, though 2020 was rather disruptive to my writing schedule and I haven’t made the progress I wanted. I’m still discovering the characters and I’m not as invested in them as I need to be, especially when compared to Tildy and co., with whom I spent four years. Admittedly, we’re still in early draft territory and there’s lots to uncover.

Here’s why I’m not worried that this will become an abandoned project that I’ll find in a dusty hard drive ten years from now. The Lost Royals series is a tale of two siblings. Project One is the completed Tildy Silverleaf and the Starfall Omen. Project Two follows her brother Samor on a similar but separate path a continent away. Project Three returns to Tildy.

That’s a lot of words to say, “Mike is writing two separate books series concurrently with a conjoined ending. It’s probably a stupidly ambitious endeavor fraught with complexity and peril.” Way to sell it, buddy!

Anyway….the intent is to allow Readers to choose how they want to experience the series. They could only read Tildy’s storyline, read Samor’s, or to go back and forth between them. As such, I don’t need to know everything that happens in Project Two before beginning number Three.

Back to the original question about this shift in focus being a ‘flighty writer thing’, yeah, there’s a bit of that. A lot of us are distracted by shiny new projects, which results in piles of unfinished manuscripts. I have a few of those myself.

It means I’m hedging my bets a little. You see, despite being a fledgling author, I do understand that stupidly ambitious endeavors projects that break norms, such as alternating books from character to character, are rare and harder to sell to agents, publishers, and readers (e.g. if JK Rowling had decided to write a book about Harry, then Hermione, and back to Harry). Novelty in a novel can be good…to a point. It’s quite possible my series won’t find life in the order I’ve envisioned. So three years ago, I started the outline for Tildy’s second book, and I’ve been adding bits as I worked on the other projects.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN – LED ZEPPELIN

Today, rather than struggling through my few precious writing hours, I decided to tap into Tildy’s energy to see where it might take me. I’m pleased to share the first-draft opening to Tildy Silverleaf and the Dungeon of the Dreadwyrm.

Chapter One – Winter in Dappledown

Tildy Silverleaf leaned on her elbows at her bedroom window, watching the golden leaves fall. The Garden of Dappledown usually glowed like an emerald treasure well into Nordt, the first month of Winter. However, Autumn had barely started when the verdant hollow had begun to fade into yellows and oranges and reds.

It worried her adoptive mother, a woman once known as the Night Witch of the Black Garden. She’d said she had expected it because something had begun to impact the garden’s growth two Springs before. That didn’t mean she could explain it, and for a person of magicks and wonder and mystery, the witch couldn’t rest with such an unanswered question upon her lips. She’d spent long hours contemplating the surrounding trees of the Forest of Eddlweld, finding nothing in the answers of falling leaves.

Tildy counted eleven remaining leaves on the nearest tree. One shuddered and began its gentle descent. She unfurled her silver wings from beneath a hidden flap in her dress and they beat in slow rhythm to match the leaf’s fall.

She sighed. She wasn’t bored – far from it! She’d recently acquired twelve new books, which she’d managed to scatter throughout the witch’s cottage in various states of attention. But she was rather lonely. Her mother had been gone some weeks, which wasn’t unusual, even if she had been departing more regularly since their return from Southershard the previous Spring. Their friend Fietha had also not brought supplies for more than a month, which meant Tildy was responsible for stocking the pantry and stormcloset with the provisions they couldn’t grow in Dappledown.

While those two people had been her entire world for nearly fourteen years, it was a third person whose company she desired. Marklin Barrowfell had accompanied her for most of her adventure to Southershard, the infamous last of the four Shard fortresses that guarded the lands of Empyrelia. They’d developed a close, wonderful friendship that had survived the sorcerous Lady Amaranth, the misunderstood Baron Stoneward who’d been transformed into the monstrous Sarsenith, and perhaps the greatest threat: Tildy’s eavesdropping on a private confession he was making to her mother about his depression.

Whatever romantic twitterpation they might have had to begin, it had transformed into something deeper: that of comrades-in-arms who have faced deadly perils and become as close as siblings, if not closer.

Even though Marklin lived about a fortnight’s walk from Dappledown, they’d seen each other regularly through the Spring and early Summer, usually meeting at a picnic spot halfway in between their homes. Sometimes they would recount their adventure, but more often than not, they’d just chat like old friends about anything and everything. Cross-legged in the shade of aspens green, she’d re-tell stories and histories from books she’d read, while he’d share news about the rebuilding of his village Grey’therton. And the warm breezes of the grasslands would listen to them.

She also chided him mercilessly for being unable to introduce her to his famous uncle and namesake, Ser Amarcus Barrowfell, a former member of the Sentinels Grand. He was a central character in one of her favorite books and she’d grown up daydreaming about his valiant deeds. He’d risen in her estimation after she learned he’d sought Marklin to adopt him after the death of his parents, though she still didn’t understand why he couldn’t visit the Garden of Dappledown during one of his sheriff’s treks. It certainly wasn’t for fear of the haunted Forest of Eddlweld that surrounded her home.

In Azjuul, the second month of Summer, Marklin had told her he would be accompanying his uncle on a journey west, but no, there wouldn’t be time for a visit. He also apologized in advance for missing her birthday on Midden Day, but promised a special gift upon his return in early Autumn.

She hadn’t heard from him since.

The Equinox was approaching – the midpoint of Autumn – and still there was no word. Tildy sighed again. She missed her friend and she was worried.

In the garden below, she heard a bustle in the southern hedgerow that could only be her mother returning. Not wanting to wait another minute for news, she squeezed through the open window and fluttered down into the garden on gossamer wings.

I’m pleased with this draft. It came effortlessly, which is a joy to experience. I loved returning to Tildy and her mother, the notorious Night Witch. In 700 words, I’ve revisited four characters, each with some backstory. It’s also got some world-building, character development, and a nice Led Zeppelin reference (same song, different lyric), which may or may not stay.

However, this is mostly exposition, and while it provides some essential highlights from the previous book, it’s a slow start. I’d like to get Readers invested immediately in some action. The mystery of Marklin’s absence helps, albeit still at a slow pace (BTW, that was a tough section to write – it’s the only section that I rewrote, and this represents the fourth version). Despite the pacing, most of the details are pretty tight. Each memory is a couple sentences, and the excerpt is only about a page and a half in Word. I’ve begun far worse. I made asked Trusted Reader #1 (my wife, a lit teacher and voracious wolf-reader) to give it a look and it’s not as exposition-y as I feared.

Where do I go from here? I’ll probably flesh out a couple chapters with Tildy, shifting my focus between Projects Two and Three. However, I don’t recommend this approach. It works for me because I’ve already been doing it in this series for five years: leaping from book to book to book, sometimes touching six books in a writing session. I share it as an example of how I continue to write, even when inspiration isn’t at hand. I encourage you to find your own methods to exercise your writing brain!

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, December 2020

Whatcha writing during isolation?

Nothing.

I should be writing something. I always should be. But I’m not.

At least, I hadn’t been.

When Covid-19 started to get serious back in March, but before a pandemic was declared, I’d been working on agent submissions. That carried me into early April.

I don’t know whether this is the worst time or the best to query. I guess we’ll see. At the very least, maybe it will provide some interesting insight into the industry. If you’re wondering, I’m 0-2-1 right now. When the agent just stopped repping my genre, I’m counting that as a tie. Glass half-full, people!

But the stresses of two parents working from home with a special needs child began to mount. Additionally, I no longer had those simple moments where I just worked on the story in my head: the daily commute, waiting in line for lunch, boxing class, pumping gas, and so on.

I tend to be a creature of habit. I’ve created a number of different ways to get my brain ready for writing. I’ve described them here:

Unfortunately, stress, frustration, and exhaustion have been deadly foes these last eight weeks. Something had to give – or break – and it certainly wasn’t going to be me. As Clint Eastwood said in Magnum Force:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

So, I created a new tip. I took a break. In hindsight, it was 50% conscious and 50% deliberate in the way that a person stumbles down the stairs but stays on their feet.

Physically and mentally, some pressure was relieved. I didn’t attempt to write. I didn’t blog. I even paused my agent submissions. I’ve written through some tough situations – insomnia, unemployment, hangovers, work stress, death – but I knew this situation was different.

However, that small voice between my ears kept reminding me that something was missing. I listened, but knew I’d get back to it once we’d sorted out life in isolation.

And so, here and there, I’ve started working in my head again. Rolling over in bed, half asleep, to jot something down (note: that’s how the reptilian slither-withers came to life). Giving myself permission to chase a character down an unfamiliar path. Write this post. It feels good – natural. I’m not surprised, but the reassurance that your skills haven’t dulled, well, that’s a nice feeling.

A loss of momentum for writers is inevitable. Some call it writer’s block. Others, the vengeance of an angry muse. Regaining your momentum is no guarantee of success; however, giving up is certainly a guarantee of failure.

Don’t give up on your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2020