Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Does One Size Fit You?

You may wonder whether your literary piece would best be presented as a poem, an epic novel, or something in between.

Every format is unique, but there are some surprising similarities.  Depending on what you plan to convey to the reader, one format may appeal to you more than another.

Let's take a look at the literary spectrum and define each:
  • POEM:  Poems are often the most compact pieces in fiction.  First and foremost, the focus is on the language, its rhythm and the emotion it evokes.  Poetry is not usually about character development and plot; it's about the words.  Words that rhyme or sound a certain way can dramatically change the overall effect of a poem.
  • FLASH:  Yeah, I know what you're thinking...get your mind out of the gutter!  Flash Fiction, (or sometimes called a Short Short Story), is a story format composed in less than 1500 words.  It can be impossibly short.  Hemingway is often credited with his six word story conjured up for a wager.  "For sale:  Baby shoes, never worn."
  • SHORT STORY:  A Short Story is generally comprised of 1500-25,000 words.  Usually this type of story is centered upon one major event, few characters, and has no room for subplots.  I particularly enjoy reading short stories because they can be read in their entirely in a single sitting.  The prolific writer, Ray Bradbury offered advice to write a short story in a single sitting.  That way, even as a draft, it would have a common "skin" around it.
  • NOVELLA:  Novellas are usually between 25,000-50,000 words.  They are the Goldilocks of the literary world.  Between the length and complexity of a short story and a novel.  To some readers, they are "just right".  Novellas are popular in some genres, like Young Adult.  When I was in fifth grade, I loved The Great Brain novellas by John Dennis Fitzgerald.  Another example of a novella would be George Orwell's Animal Farm.
  • NOVEL:  Novels can be between 50,000-150,000 words in length.  A novel is a long narrative story.  Novels allow for minor characters, subplots, and backstories to be explored, sometimes for chapters at a time.  Reading a novel takes time and is an investment for the reader.  It's all about the experience.
  • EPIC:  An Epic Novel is longer than 150,000 words in length.  Its plot can span many years or require telling the stories of many, many different characters.  In some genres, such as science fiction, a novel may simply have more words because of the required "world building" in sci-fi and thus becomes an Epic Novel.  However, an epic novel is typically more complex than a novel.  Notable examples of epic novels are Moby Dick, War and Peace, and Stephen King's The Stand.
So, what do all these have in common?  Obviously, they all require words.  And the shorter the piece, the more carefully selected the words are.  But there's something else...every literary form also has a structure to it.  This is something that is as fundamental as the eight corners are to every puzzle in the picture above.

A poem has structure determined either, by lines and stanzas, or visually as it is laid out on the page.  The structure of the other literary formats tends to require the ingredients of a "story".  Where does your story fit along the spectrum above?  A story...any story, should be just long enough to convey the shorter, no longer.

Okay, that's a pretty vague answer, but what do you wish to convey to the reader?  More emotion, or more of an immersive experience?  Knowing that should help you to decide how long your piece should be and which format to use. 

Of course, it's not always cut and dry.  J.R.R. Tolkien originally wrote The Lord of the Rings as an Epic Novel, but his publisher decided to break it up into smaller chunks due to paper shortages during World War II.

The great thing about writing fiction is that similar techniques can be used and adapted for the different formats.  Look at the picture above again.  Cube enthusiasts will tell you that each of these puzzles offers a unique set of challenges, but they also share a common thread...a common approach.  You can solve the larger cubes by simplifying them until they look like a scrambled Rubik's Cube and then solve it the same way as a 3x3.  And you can do that with fiction, too.  A story is a story.  There will tend to be a protagonist, he will struggle with some type of obstacle, and the story will be resolved in some way.

A popular misconception is that "shorter" means easier and that authors "progress" from shorter to longer pieces.  One format is not superior to another.  It can tend to take more time to write a novel versus a short story, but it is not necessarily any more challenging than the shorter forms.

In fact, Blaise Pascal's quote, (translated from French,) sums it up perfectly,
"I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter."
Authors may decide to write in any part of the spectrum for a variety of reasons.  There are certainly notable examples of writers that have stayed strictly within one narrow category, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But there can also be joy in loving the uniqueness of every form.  If you learn about the structure and techniques typically applied to the different literary formats it may even help you become "unstuck" with a particular piece you might be struggling with.  But, ultimately, it's up to you to decide where you want your piece to fit.

So does one size fit you?  Or will you try them all out?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

10 Ways Writing is Like the Rubik's Cube

  1. Everyone thinks they can do it, but few do it really well.
  2. There is more than one way to do it.
  3. It's harder than you originally thought.
  4. It's easier than you originally thought.  (That's right!)
  5. You get a feeling of accomplishment when you finish it.
  6. It doesn't cost a lot to get started.
  7. With practice you can actually become quite fast at it.
  8. The trickiest part can be in the final stages.
  9. You can spend countless hours and feel like you never accomplished anything.
  10. It can become quite addictive.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Random Recommendation: Autocorrect

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is nearing its end.  Writers around the world join in the NaNoWriMo challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel before the end of November.

While most Americans will be sleeping off all of that extra serotonin after Thanksgiving dinner, many writers will be frantically trying to finish their Novel before month's end. 

This recommendation is dedicated to all of those NaNoWriMo writers out there:

"Autocorrect is your friend" is a wonderful blog post that explains a creative way to use the AutoCorrect feature of your word processing software.

Many of us have crutch words that we repeat while writing our pieces.  We may also overuse the dreaded "ly" words.  The author shows us how we can kick these habits as well as save some valuable keystroke time.

Great article!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Peel Off the Stickers...Nobody's Looking!

If there's one thing that I've learned in life, it's that sometimes it pays to cheat.  And before you get any sneaky ideas about your tax returns, let me explain...

Think back to your childhood:  Back to a time when Uncle Frankie could pull his index finger apart and wiggle the severed end.  Back to a time when the adults would chuckle when you struggled to figure out the complexities of the world.  Back to a time when you were just learning that certain rules were still open to interpretation.

One of the adults gives you a scrambled Rubik's Cube and explains that all of the stickers on each side need to match colors.  They think, this ought to keep you quiet.  And it does...for a while.  You leave the room and peel off the stickers and replace them in their correct location.  Now you can watch all of the adults, including Uncle Frankie, wonder how in the world you were able to solve the Rubik's Cube so fast...and at your age!

It's a wonderful thing to have the freedom and creativity of a child.  I try to take those childhood eyes and focus them on my writing process.  With all of the rigors of trying to get a story edited just so, it helps to exercise some freedom without boundaries.

One excellent way to do this is to write in a journal or do prompt exercises.  You don't have to share this with anyone...ever.  You can write anything you like without having to worry about what you come up with.  When it comes to grammar or punctuation, it doesn't matter.  It won't be perfect, but so what?  Cheat.  It's about tapping into that childhood creativity.

All writers have an inner critic like that adult hovering the child's shoulder saying, "No, that's not the right way to do it."  Your challenge as a writer is to go into another room where nobody else is looking and become that child.  You may discover something surprising and wonder, how in the world did I come up with that?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Obsession, For Me...Not Calvin Klein

We humans are a curious bunch of primates, aren't we?  Habits come pretty easily to us, even the vices.  An innocent interest can evolve into an obsession before you can say, "I'll go to bed, but after I do this just one more time..."  It happened to me with the Rubik's Cube.

I learned to solve the cube with one goal in mind, to demonstrate the power of process ("Are You Afraid Of Process?").  After countless hours of practice, I couldn't stop myself.  I would spend time searching the internet for new techniques.  How to do it faster.  What cool patterns could I create?  Then it was all about variety.  How many methods could I use to solve it?
  • Start with one layer first and build from there
  • Start with the eight corners and then fill in the twelve edges
  • Solve the first two layers simultaneously and go from there
  • Start with a small 2x2 chunk and expand from there
  • Move each piece into its correct location one piece at a time
  • And so on and so on.
It was like I was looking for that next high, a little better than the last.  Drug addicts hopelessly search for that elusive euphoria to match their first hit.  Surfers dream about and wait for that perfect tube.  Endurance athletes torment their bodies to trigger the release of endorphins so they can experience their "Runner's High."

Yes for me, the Rubik's Cube became an obsession.  But that can be such a strong word.  I hear it and I might think of the following playing out:

          "The President will see you now."
          Oh, no!  Did I turn off the iron?
          "Wow, Mr. President, it's an honor to meet you!"
          I'm pretty sure I turned off the iron.
          "I can't believe that little ole me was invited to the White House."
          Oh God!  The house is going to burn down, I know it!

But as Calvin Klein has proven, Obsession can be a good thing too.

As a writer, I obsess about a lot of things.  I may spend hours upon hours researching a topic for a short story, or even a scene.  I try to get into the head of a character and wonder, is this real?  Is this accurate?  Is this really what the Florida Keys are like during a hurricane?

The fix I'm looking for is some acceptance in an ocean of self-doubt.  This sucks.  Nobody will like this.  Maybe if I change this part, someone will eventually "get it".  Someone will have the insight to see what I am trying to do as a writer.  If I strike a chord with someone, that will give me a high.

But is it good enough?  And when is the piece really done?  A story can be edited and manipulated and tweaked until the end of time.  Think about that, though.  If I waited until my post was perfectly crafted, then this would be a pretty sparse blog.  And who wants to read a blog with only one post?  Even if it were "perfect".

I can't help it.  There are always things to obsess about.  The beginning, the middle, the ending of a story.  What an English Bulldog might actually say if she were the CEO of a dog food corporation.  Am I writing enough?  Am I learning enough about writing?  Am I finishing enough stories?  Am I editing enough stories?  Does what I have to say really matter to the world?

What kind of writer are you?

Do you get coffee-type jitters if you aren't able to write something, anything at a certain time each day?  Do you obsess about word count?  Do you edit your prose endlessly?  Do you dash from your bed at night before you forget a great phrase, plot twist, or character flaw?  Does your keyboard beckon you like Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart"?

Some of the finest pieces of art were created by tormented artists obsessed with their work. Even Calvin Klein showed the world that Obsession can be quite nice.  Thank you, Mr. Klein.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Forget About the Stickers!

I love analogies.  Surprising, huh?  Especially since this blog is just one big analogy.  But as I've learned, writing a story takes more than simply stringing together a long list of witty analogies like popcorn garland.  (Yes, pun intended).

As a beginner in any endeavor, we will make fundamental mistakes.  We tend to focus on the wrong things.  I remember when I got my first Rubik's Cube.  I was so excited when I was able to solve a colored side.  On a few very rare occasions, I was even able to get two sides, usually opposites.  But I could never get the whole thing without cheating.

I wouldn't understand until years later that my whole approach was flawed.  To solve the Cube, it's a mistake to focus on just the stickers for the side you're solving.  In fact, every sticker is connected to other stickers.  Once you know that the sticker you want to move has other stickers also belonging to the same little cubie, like Siamese siblings, finding a solution becomes much easier.

When I write, I try to Forget About the Stickers.  It's a mistake to simply focus on the prose.  That would be fine for poetry, but readers of fiction don't always appreciate the literary quality of a piece of fiction.  They want a story.  And the words are connected to other things in the story, just like the stickers on the Cube.  If those other things, like character, conflict, theme, are not there then the story will be fundamentally flawed.

It's fine to have analogies in a story, but they should be chosen carefully.  I know how proud I feel when I come up with a great analogy, but if it doesn't fit with the other elements of the story, then maybe it's not so great after least for that particular story.

So, forget about the stickers, look at all of the connections.  This will help you to chose which stickers you want to work with and which ones simply come along for a ride.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Didn't Know You Could Do That!

Not too long ago, I committed myself to solving the Rubik's Cube and also to becoming a writer.

Just about the time I had finally written a story I was proud of, I was able to solve the cube in under one minute.  I meticulously followed processes and conventions only to find out that somebody had done something inexplicable.

"What do you mean he can solve the Rubik's Cube blindfolded?"  Stefan Pochmann invented the first technique to do just that.  His method was to memorize the initial scrambled state of the cube and then move each piece into the correct position one at a time.

I have had similar, perplexed reactions to something a published author has done.  "What?  I didn't know you could do that!"  Writers of fiction will tell you there are rules that must be followed.  You don't want anything to "take the reader out of the story."  One of the Golden Rules states that the author shall remain invisible.  And yet, I can think of three examples of this broken rule:

  1. In his most famous novel, "Money", Martin Amis writes himself into the story.
  2. Kurt Vonnegut also did this in "Breakfast of Champions", but in a much more intrusive manner.  The narrator/author is the godlike writer who confronts his poor character and tells him it is because of him that he has suffered so much.
  3. Though I never finished the Dark Tower series, Stephen King also wrote himself into his story.
Many writers will tell you they have had rules drilled into their heads, and you must obey!  But as I've learned with writing, rules are really just conventions and guidelines.  It's possible to break the rules for some very dramatic, fun, and even amazing results.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Because It's There...

These are the famously quoted words of George Mallory when asked, "Why climb Mount Everest?"  Personally, I have absolutely no intentions of trying to summit Mount Everest like Tenzing Norgay did.  (He's the one shown here in the picture taken by his partner Sir Edmund Hillary).  But I can appreciate a challenge for its sake alone.

I might not be quite so adventurous, but I still tend to seek out greater and greater challenges.  As such, it wasn't enough once I had mastered the Rubik's Cube; it was time to move on to other puzzles.  What about the twelve-sided Megaminx?  Would a puzzle with twice the number of faces as the Rubik's Cube be twice as difficult?

Rather than square sides, the Megaminx has twelve different colored pentagons to be solved.  Still, there are some similarities.  Both puzzles have centers on each face that cannot switch positions; they can only rotate about their fixes axes.  Could I apply what I had already learned about the Rubik's Cube?  Was there anything else I might learn in the process?

I eventually figured out a solution to the Megaminx that worked for me.  In the process, I discovered a new and intuitive lesson that I had not fully understood with the Rubik's Cube.  If I had not challenged myself, I would not have gained the true understanding I now have for the Rubik's Cube.

It's fun to take this approach with writing too.  One of my favorite exercises is the "Challenge Prompt".  This is the one where you are given a list of obscure items, characters, or situations and you must incorporate them all.  For example, write a story or scene in the next 10 minutes that incorporates the following:
  1. Bikini top
  2. Antarctica
  3. Typewriter
It is quite satisfying when you reread what you wrote and were able to weave together images, characters, and ideas that you thought should not belong together.

Occasionally, I will take myself even further out of my comfort zone.  I transform into a contrarian and write from an opposite or unexpected place.  I will imagine a character who may have political or other beliefs that are totally opposed to mine, and then try to create a likeable, sympathetic character.

Variety itself can be a fun challenge:
  • Switch from past tense to present tense
  • Try to write from the omniscient third person point of view (POV) instead of first person POV
  • Write dialogue with no speaker attributions
  • Try a different style or genre.  If you normally write romance, instead try horror
Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, a medieval fantasy, was a departure from his other horror novels up to that point in his career.  And I'm sure that he learned some things about his "normal" writing as a result.

If you challenge yourself "because it's there", it can lead you to discoveries in your writing that you might not have found otherwise.  Try it.  Challenge yourself.  See if it helps you to find new insights into your "normal" writing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Unpack Your Boxes Already!

For far too long they remained packed together in moving boxes that traveled with me from apartment to apartment and house to house.  Enigmas that were to remain untouched and cherished from afar.  Would I ever be able to unravel their mysterious ways?  Maybe someday.

I'm talking about my Rubik's Cube and my fiction.  In the box, my "manuscripts" sat amongst several Stephen King books and my cube.  The cube was already solved, but only because I had cheated and popped it apart with a screwdriver.  However, I had no screwdriver to pop apart King's stories.  I didn't have the tools to cheat at writing.

Without any shortcuts or cheat sheets, my writing remained untouched in the box as if it were paralyzed by the greatness of its box mates:  the Cube and the King.

After one too many failed New Year's Resolutions, I finally unpacked the box.  If a three year old can solve the Rubik's cube and a four year old can publish a novel, then maybe I can figure out a way to do this too.  Maybe it was a Nike ad I had seen that made my subconscious whisper, "Just Do It".  I don't know, but I was inspired.

I'm not saying that self doubt disappeared and made me ready to accomplish anything.  But I was somehow freer knowing that I didn't have to be the first or the best.  It was too late for that anyway.  However, that was the day I would start to mark milestones in my own life.  Dreams don't simply burst out of the box of potential and automatically make us successful and admired.  No, I had to get on with the "doing" myself.

It was okay that I would never get to every possible twist and turn of the cube.  It was okay that I would never become a master like the King.  It didn't matter.  The cob webs were wiped away because I had unpacked the box.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Are You Afraid of Process?

I used to consult with people who were terrified of process. So terrified in fact, that they had no defined processes at all.  I don't blame them.  Nothing stifles creativity and inventiveness like bureaucracy.  But process isn't all bad.  Imagine attempting to solve a Rubik's Cube by making random twists and turns.  It's nearly impossible.  With this approach the Universe may cease to exist long before the solution is encountered.

So I was determined to convince them that an effective process can produce astounding, even seemingly impossible results.  And what better way than to solve the Rubik's Cube blindfolded?

Now it's easy to think that the craft of writing fiction cannot be confined to a process.  Okay.  "Process" may be the wrong word.  How about guidelines?  Whether they know it or not, great writers work within guidelines to create their masterful work.  They don't leave it to blind chance.  If they did then a few of those million monkeys pecking at their keyboards would have won a Pulitzer by now.

How do you make sure your fiction ends up as a story?

There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end.  A story needs to have a plot, right?  At least one character.  Hopefully some dialogue.  A dash of narrative summary with unique and inventive prose.  And the theme of a story reveals itself in each of these elements.  Sure, the balance of each ingredient in a story may vary greatly between writers but guidelines are what makes a story a story.

How do you make sure your fiction ends up being a good story?

You can't forget about grammar, structure, and point of view.  And of course...editing.  Revisions are done in a repeatable way.  Do you edit as you go?  Or do you silence your inner critic and get the first draft down on paper no matter what?

Writers talk about the craft of writing, but creating art does have structure.  A process.  What is your routine?  Do you write at night?  Do you write everyday?  Do you write in marathons on the weekends?

Don't be afraid of process.  Like it or not, good writers surround themselves with process.  Embrace it and you may be surprised what you discover.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And Then You Think, "I'm a Genius"

I felt elated when I finally figured out how to solve the Rubik's Cube for the first time.  There are 43 quintillion (or 43 million, million, million) possible scrambled combinations.  In other words, each variation lined up end to end would be 261 light years long and I could solve any one of them you picked...assuming we didn't die of old age waiting for your selection.

Impressed with myself, I had delusions of grandeur.  Never mind that it initially took me countless hours to finally solve it.  "I'm going to break the world record."  At the time, I wasn't aware that it someone had solved it years earlier in less than 10 seconds.

We're competitive, aren't we?  Give us a challenge and suddenly we believe our personal journey will be revered by humankind.  Like me, you have probably thought, if you wanted to, that you could write the next New York Times Best Seller, win the Pulitzer Prize, and be as famous and successful as Mark Twain, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Kurt Vonnegut your first time out.

But, let's be realistic.  To be great, or even good at anything takes time and effort.  I never really set out to solve the Rubik's Cube faster than Man can run the 100 meter dash.  However, as I became more and more comfortable with my cube, the competitive streak kicked in:  2 minutes, 90 seconds, under a minute, less than 40 seconds, and so on, but not necessarily ever on to a World Record.

When I started writing fiction seriously, my first story was not good, and it certainly wasn't publishable.  But it was a story.  And it was a masterpiece to me.  It didn't matter what anyone else thought because I knew it was great.  Mozart didn't revise, why should I have to?  I was going to quit my job because my greatness as an author would be discovered and the world would soon bow down.  Yeah right!

Only a small fraction on the steep bell curve of life perform at the elite level.  Stories can be strong.  Stories can be published, but World Record material is rare.  Sure, I hope to be the next one to be squeezed into that elite company.  I hope you can be there too.  But in the meantime, I will keep solving the cube in the double digits and practicing my writing craft.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Welcome To My Blog

Hi, welcome to the Puzzling Mind of Jason Runnels.

I am a writer of fiction and a solver of puzzles.  (No, not jigsaw puzzles.)  I prefer to solve the twisty puzzles, like the Rubik's Cube.  I have always enjoyed being challenged.  Early in elementary school, I became interested in brain teasers; and, about the same time I wrote my first series of stories.

Recently, I re energized my interest in both writing and puzzling.  I quickly observed that the craft of writing can be as daunting as a scrambled Rubik's Cube.  But, once you write a good story, it can be just as rewarding as figuring out how to solve a difficult puzzle.  And if you're like me, you get hooked.

I'm here to share ideas as they relate to all things writing and all things puzzles.