Category Archives: Notes Of A Storyeller

Notes Of A Storyteller: This Is Why Writing Fiction Takes Forever

I’ve never been well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde, but there’s a quote attributed to him that floats around the Internet that says, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

I’d like to find where he said that, because it matches my own experience with The Kingdom Trilogy to a “t”. Just look at a few phrases I obsessed over during the last few weeks of writing The Stand. My writing is in quotes; my thoughts while writing them are in italics. The sentences don’t come from the same passage, FYI, so don’t try to link them together.

“The thought had come to him before.”

Hmmm… there’s something about “come to him” that just doesn’t work with the sentence. It doesn’t sound right. I want it to sound different. How can I make it sound different? What exactly should it sound like, instead of this? I’m not sure, but I know I want a change.

What about “occurred to him”? No way! I see that everywhere! I want to make it sound more original than that! No, brain, this is not an insignificant details! If I want to write good prose, I’ve got to focus on the details!

Wait a minute… how did an hour just pass by? It was 10 AM just a minute ago… oh, forget this. I have a chapter to finish.

“50,000 armored men stood in endless iron rows.”

Hold it! I need to spend some time with this sentence. Do I absolutely need the adjective “armored”? The readers already know that this is an army. Wouldn’t “armored” be redundant, then?

Maybe I should get rid of “endless iron rows”. I mean, now that I’m running that through my head, it doesn’t sound quite right. It sounds great, but it might sound better elsewhere. What do I think of when I see the phrase “endless iron rows”? Not a medieval army so much as a robot army. Heck, I could even see a steampunk politican using this to rile his audience against some authority- hey, that might be a story worth writing…

Ack! No! Don’t brainstorm! Make a note and move on! But wait- we gonna keep “armored” or not? Ummm… let’s scratch it. And we’ll circle “endless iron rows”. If I can think of something more fitting during editing, I’ll use that. Wait, what was my problem with that phrase in the first place?

“Eyes were locked forward.”

That doesn’t look grammatically correct. I know, I know; it will be clear I’m referring to the soldiers Arman’s looking at. But still. Maybe I should play by the rules and say, “Their eyes were locked forward.” That doesn’t take anything away from the sentence, though having a word that starts with “e” at the start of the sentence looks kind of cool.

I wonder if I should just get rid of the whole sentence? I’m trying to show that the soldiers look tense. But it’s hard for Arman to notice that from a difference. Maybe instead of this sentence (how is he gonna see their eyes from where he is, anyway!) I should have a sentence emphasizing why he thinks they look tense.

Come to think of it, maybe the fact that he’s noticing emotion on the faces of soldiers at attention is a stretch. I might not even keep this passage. Well, let’s think about that…

… and there goes another hour. Okay. Decision-time. We’ll add a different sentence, and save the rest of the passage for edits. Let’s move, Sean! You have got to get this chapter done!

And that’s only three sentences. Remind me why I’m doing this again?

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Notes Of A Storyteller: Why Writing “The Kingdom Trilogy” Makes Me Think Religion Is Worth A Shot

Before we get to business, let me apologize for not posting yesterday. There were Internet boo-boos on my end. This morning I was finally able to access the Internet again.

My topic today is something that’s been floating in the back of my mind for quite some time. You may have noticed the “r” word in the title, and I want to warn you two things: I am going to speak my mind, and I am not interested in bigotry.

Here’s the thing. I’m a Roman Catholic, studying literature at a Roman Catholic college. I’m writing a fantasy trilogy with themes that draw from my experience as a Roman Catholic (and a human), and I am inspired by a man who was a much more devout Roman Catholic than I probably ever will be (yes, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien). It took a while, but I have finally decided to embrace the impact of my Catholicism on my storytelling.

Here’s another thing. There are millions of people out there who do not agree with my religion. You, the reader, might be one of them. Do you think I have weakened my storytelling by using my religious worldview to shape it?

I would argue that it is my Catholicism precisely that helped shape the more interesting parts in The Kingdom Trilogy. Writing this trilogy, in fact, has reinforced my belief that religion is worth a shot. Is that vesting too much real-world significance in fictional plot twists? Perhaps. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

One of the most important things that I am exploring with The Kingdom Trilogy is the futility of humanity. I credit much of that to another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. When I encountered her stories, which constantly take human designs and smash them against a wall, I saw a powerful witness to real life. Does anything on this earth truly go according to plan? With that in mind, the scope of The Kingdom Trilogy began to change drastically.

For those of you who have read The Quest, you can see signs of this already, although the idea was not yet fully explored then.

(SPOILER ALERT) 

Arman thought he had time to think, time to sort through his soul and find the courage to announce his love for Lelana. Then orcs attacked his home, and Menemaeus revealed himself and sent Arman on a wholly different journey. Even then, there was a plan. Arman would warn the countries of Upper Nola about the Nameless One and then come home.

Even that plan was subverted violently. Assassins killed off most of the bodyguard, and threw Corrandar, one of the most well-fortified cities in Upper Nola, into chaos. Arman was forced to flee into the wild for his life. The only reason he is alive at the end of The Quest is because Govorro inexplicably let him live.

The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy) will be much more explicit about these themes. There is only so much I can explain; I don’t want to spoil the important stuff. However, I will say that the countries of Upper Nola are gathered into an alliance against the Nameless One at last. Arman thinks that this marks the end of the politics that he caught brief glimpses of during The Quest. He is terribly, terribly wrong.

The countries that he has helped unite have a history of tension with each other. Some of them fought wars recently enough for their grandparents to have fought it. Working together proves to be difficult. Arman reacts with anger. He thinks that if they all listened to him, things would instantly be simplified. But by the end of the novel, his own judgment proves faulty, and it will cost him a price that will cut him to the core.

Because of his futile judgement, he agrees to a secret deal at the beginning of The Stand which will also reap unintended consequences that will swallow him up. Because of his futile judgement, he underestimates his enemies, both the Nameless One and his political enemies in the Alliance. Because of his futile judgment, he alienates his friends and leaves himself much more alone than he has ever been in the trilogy.

(END OF SPOILER SECTION)

It is in writing about this futility that I am beginning to understand why I have stuck with the Catholic Church as long as I have. This summer, I learned that I cannot depend on myself to do the right thing anymore than Arman can. I also cannot depend on other people, not entirely, because they have problems of their own; Arman hasn’t learned this yet, but he will learn it unforgettably in The Crown.

The only sure guide is something that is not burdened by frailty. Not all of you may agree such a something exists. But who would dispute that no human being is perfect? Are you asking me to depend on the philosophy of a flawed human being? If that’s the best we have, I’ll take it.

But I don’t think that’s the best we have. I think that on some level, what was said in the Bible is true. Thousands of people shed their blood believing it was true. Thousands of people shed other people’s blood believing it was true, but those aren’t the Christians I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real Christians. I’m talking about privileged men like St. Paul who dropped everything to embrace the Gospel, and women like Imaculee Ilibagiza who continued to trust in Catholicism, even after her family was butchered in Rwanda.

Two mellenia of people have witnessed through intellect and sacrifice that there is more truth to the world than the judgments of flawed men like Plato and Bertrand Russell. This truth is that there is a being who is infinitely powerful, infinitely perfect, and infinitely loving. I am willing to take a chance that this being exists.

I believe that religion is plausible. I take my stand in a particular religion, Catholicism, and I’m not leaving it until I find out everything it offers. Until such a time comes, Catholicism will have a mark on my fiction and I’m proud to say it. After all, this is the same stuff that inspired Dante. I can’t be completely on the wrong track.

Notes Of A Storyteller: My Unexpected Detour Into Handwriting

Last week my laptop stopped charging. No matter how many times I jammed the power cord into it, the machine refused to acknowledge any connection to the power outlet below the table. Rage began to build. I was trying to write the latest chapter in The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy). Already that day I had met some frustrations; this was the last straw. Quietly and unexpectedly, an idea came to me.

“I say!” I thought. “Why not grab a notebook and handwrite this chapter?”

Why not, indeed? Dozens of classics were written this way before the typewriter. Shakespeare his plays and sonnets longhand. Unless I am mistaken, Dante made it through the whole Divine Comedy with a standard medieval quill pen. Monks in monasteries used pens and pigments to produce prettier books than several modern tomes I have opened. Even after the typewriter, handwriting has stuck around. Truman Capote told The Paris Review that he wrote whole drafts of stories with a pencil, and then revised them in pencil. Vladimir Nabokov even wrote on index cards!

So when I fetched a couple of notebooks out of my room, and made my way to the nearest table, I felt that I was in good company. Three hours later, I decided that I liked it. In fact, I didn’t use my laptop much over the weekend. I have two chapters with pens and pencils so far, and I started a third yesterday. Could this be an addiction?

Time will tell, but there’s one big thing I like about it so far. It reduces distraction. Do you have any idea how many things I can be doing on my laptop other than writing? With a few mouse clicks, I could be chatting on Facebook with my college friends, scrolling through Philosoraptor memes, or watching live videos of House of Heroes concerts on YouTube. Knowing that while I am trying to write literature is not a good thing.

Handwriting eliminated that mental vacuum. I can’t log on to Tumblr with a piece of paper. It’s just me, my thoughts, and my will to bring them into reality. That simplicity is refreshing.

It showed in my writing, too. This morning I transcribed one of the chapters I wrote longhand. As always, I could see things I wanted to fix, but there was a lot that I liked. There was a new spark in the prose that I hadn’t seen in the last few chapters I had typed on my laptop.

For now, I am deeply satisfied with writing longhand. I wonder if I should keep this up for the rest of my novel. I might even experiment with college papers this fall. You should give it a try, if you haven’t already!

Notes Of A Storyteller: How I Would Have Re-Told “The Dark Knight Rises” (Part 2)

For those of you who haven’t seen Part 1, I’m listing all of the things I would do differently if I had been given creative control over The Dark Knight Rises. This list is fairly long, so I only got halfway through. Here’s the second half of my suggestions, picking up at the midpoint of the film.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!

“This is simply outrageous. Is he seriously going to continue this farce?”
“Yeah, I think he is, Alfred. Should we try to stop him?”
“No, Master Wayne. Let’s watch him dig himself into a hole.”

1. I would change Bane’s ultimate motivation. He doesn’t want to blow up the city; he truly wants to subvert the powerful and corrupt and replace them with the people. He joined the League of Shadows long ago, but was kicked out because he disagreed with their aim. Bane wants to rule, not to destroy.

2. I would scrap the whole business of one ordinary citizen having the detonator with the bomb. I never understood how that worked with the rest of the film.

3. I would have John Blake enthusiastic about the new regime. He is so disillusioned when he learns the truth about Harvey Dent that he becomes a servant of Bane. When Bane gives him the opportunity to walk into a prison and shoot the Joker (off-screen), Blake readily complies. That plotline of the Joker needed to be resolved. Blake’s father could have been a cop killed during the events of The Dark Knight. This makes Blake’s character more interesting.

4. I would spend more time with Bane’s regime. We saw a montage of mansions being despoiled, a scene with a fat cat getting judged, and Anne quietly murmuring, “This was someone’s home”, but it all happened too quickly. In order to show how dark the times are, we need a few more scenes with Selina and Blake witnessing injustice. Perhaps some former criminals hurt some good people who were rich, displaying how easily the new system is corrupted by the same old forces of evil. We need to see all parts of Gotham’s society breaking down. Riots. Debris in the street. Ransacked churches. Even Dr. Crane moonlighting as Scarecrow, taking advantage of his position of power to once again terrorize people- almost a perverse Batman.

5. I would have Fox and Gordon executed. I would have Fox give a speech denouncing Bane, calling him a fool for using violence. I want to hear him talk about good people like himself who were trying their best to change things, even if slowly and imperfectly. I want to see Fox convince Gordon, who is despairing, to hold his head high and die with pride. I want to see their deaths leave a mark on Blake and Selina, who both witness the execution.

6. If the execution is that “death by exile” thing on the ice, it needs to be booby-trapped. I think it is entirely possible that a frozen river can be traversed

7. When Bruce escapes the pit, he comes up with the idea to do it without ropes by himself; the old prisoners don’t tell him. When he gets to Gotham, he comes back as Batman. The war against Bane’s regime is slow, but steady. Batman chalk symbols start appearing everywhere. Selina reluctantly helps foment the rebellion, instead of getting out like she wanted.

8. Alfred sneaks into Gotham when Batman contacts him. Alfred used to be a mercenary himself (remember the Burma story from TDK?), so he puts his old skills to work helping the citizens/cops raid Bane’s mercenaries and slowly establish strongholds. Batman stays back in the shadows, partially because he is still sorely wounded from his last fight with Bane, and partially because he understands that the citizens must take their city back.

9. I would change the final battle scene; instead of that huge, unrealistic brawl, have the citizens and the cops fire and advance, just like a modern military platoon would do. Imagine the tension of the men advancing, block by block, silent in the shadows and the snow. Also, the final battle is occasioned by Blake finally joining Batman’s side and showing them a secret way into City Hall to take out Bane.

10. I would have Alfred take this secret way. He means to plead forgiveness from the villain. It turns out that in Alfred’s career as a mercenary, he was in the service of the warlord who ordered Ra’s al Ghul into the pit. When Ra’s lover replaced him, Alfred knew and he did nothing. Alfred devoted his life to serving the Wayne family out of remorse. He returned to protect Bruce and to convince Bane to step down; he didn’t realize immediately who Bane was, so his talk early in the film about rumors of where Bane comes from wouldn’t appear in my version. When Bane learns the truth, he breaks Alfred’s back, refusing his offer of peace and reconciliation. He announces that if Batman doesn’t come out and fight him, he’s going to kill Alfred… and then blow up the city.

11. I would have Batman come out and fight Bane, despite his wounds, and this time break Bane’s mask. I would have Selina save his life from Talia, who charges Batman while Bane convulses with pain. Selina tries offering her mercy, embracing Batman’s code, but Talia refuses, keeps fighting, and accidentally falls to her death. Selina finally admits that she loves Bruce/Batman.

12. In that moment, I would have everyone discover that Bane has pushed the trigger to the bomb. Batman takes the bomb to the sea, and then comes back and hands himself over to the power of the police. A proper court judges Bruce for his vigilantism. This is crucial, because it confirms that Bruce is handing over his power to the people, who he didn’t trust in Batman Begins (“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy”) and who he deceived in The Dark Knight. He spends a few years in jail, and then marries Selina and runs an orphanage with her for the rest of his life.

13. I would have John Blake discover the Batcave, and find a letter from Bruce saying that if the time comes again, one can use the suit and technology therein to become the next Batman- but only if he/she understands the consequences.

“There! That wasn’t so bad, was it? Don’t be spiteful in the comments! If you do, I wonder what will break first- your spirit, or your body…”

I might change my mind in the next few days, but I will let this post stand, so you can ponder the points. If you had had creative control over The Dark Knight Rises, what would you have done with it?

Notes Of A Storyteller: How I Would Have Re-Told “The Dark Knight Rises” (Part 1)

Welcome to Part One of the big double-header for Notes Of A Storyteller.

I know you’re probably sick and tired of listening to people talk about The Dark Knight Rises. However, I came up with an angle on it that I haven’t seen anyone else use when writing about this movie.

If you’re looking for commentary on Aurora, by the way, I’m not going to write it. There are people better qualified than I am to write about that. All I’m going to write about is the movie.

When I walked out the midnight premiere for TDKR, I had a big grin on my face. It was breathtaking and uplifting. However, I sensed that I would have told the story in a different way. There were certain things that didn’t satisfy me. After writing stories myself, I couldn’t resist dreaming of tinkering with the plot. After a week of discussing the film with the friends, I decided more clearly what I would have changed.

If I had written the screenplay and directed The Dark Knight Rises, this is what I would have done with the Nolan brothers’ story. Part One is today. Part Two releases tomorrow.

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

“If you make immature comments about this blogger’s post, it will be extremely painful… for you.”

1. I would have spent more time with Bruce Wayne sulking in his mansion. Our hero has been changed dramatically since we left him fleeing the police in The Dark Knight. To drive that change home, we need to spend more time with Bruce’s new persona.

2. I also would have spent more time in the beginning with Commissioner Gordon. His family has left him, and he is soon to be cast aside by the mayor. The former must be crushing him; he must have some clue of the latter. I would want a closer look at his anguish. Perhaps we see him re-reading a letter from his wife, or flashbacking to when she left (then she could say some things that haunt Gordon because they bring him back to the night of Dent’s death).

3. I would have shown more explicitly the impact of the Dent Act. I want to see some people hauled off to jail, or some people in the streets complaining about it. Maybe have Blake interrogating one of the old mob bosses, trying to find more criminals, only to have them accusing them of tyranny.

4. I would have added a coalition of citizens growing fed up with the Dent Act, and beginning to ask questions about the authorities that brought it into existence. I would have Dr. Crane emerge from the chaos, claiming to be sane, and leading this coalition hunting for answers. There should be an argument between him and Gordon, who most certainly does not trust him.

5. Bane would not have appeared in Gotham until later in the film. A character like him needs some build-up. I would keep the air raid at the beginning, because it sets the mood, and it is a chilling introduction to Bane- and it’s freaking awesome. After that I wouldn’t show him for a while. I would scrap the whole part where Gordon enters the sewers and discovers Bane’s army. Let Gordon begin to pick up the rumors of work in the sewers. Let him begin to hear whispers of a man who fears nothing, a man who even the most hardened criminals don’t dare mess with. Bane himself doesn’t appear until his attack in the stock exchange.

6. You’re probably wondering at this point about Selina Kyle. After we spend some time with apathetic Bruce, and some tense conversations with him and Alfred, then she shows up. Her theft of Bruce’s pearls has more impact when we have spent time with Bruce and realize what he is being shaken out of.

7. I would devote a whole scene to see Bruce shave off his beard. That’s such an important character transition. When he first arrives at the charity ball, he needs to be bewildered. He hasn’t been smothered by cameras for a while.

8. When Bruce loses his fortune, let him spend some more time with Selina. If they’re going to have a relationship, they need to some bonding now. I would have them both hunt for Bane. Instead of Selina fearing Bane, maybe she doesn’t entirely understand who she’s dealing with, and thinks she can double-cross him like she means to double-cross Bruce.

9. As Selina “helps” Bruce/Batman find Bane, she gets the opportunity to show Bruce the poor side of Gotham he’s been ignoring for the last 8 years. This would also give another chance to emphasize the impact of the Dent Act and the poverty problems Batman was never able to solve.

10. I would eliminate the romance with Miranda. I would keep her as Talia, who has infiltrated Wayne Enterprises as a business executive, but I would not have her born in the prison, and I would not have any bond between her and Bane. For Bane’s character to work, he has to be aloof. He has to be heartless. He is the one who is “born in the dark”, who is stronger and more cunning than any other man or woman. Talia is Ra’s adopted child, and a surviving member of the League of Shadows, who is working with Bane. She doesn’t try to kill him because she doesn’t dare.

11. When Selina double-crosses Batman, Bane doesn’t send him to the prison immediately. First, he takes over Gotham. Then he hauls Batman, Gordon and Fox into the middle of the town and exposes the big lie about Dent, and takes off Batman’s mask. The poor people and the prisoners are enraged when they learn about the deception, and they proceed to make Gotham their own. Of course, Dr. Crane leads the charge.

Click here for Part 2. What do you think so far? Is there anything I need to explain more? Is there something you want to argue with me about? I love arguing about movies. Hit me!

Notes Of A Storyteller: I’m Not Scared Of Query Letters

Usually this post appears on Friday, but the claws of chaos reached into my life once again, leaving me off-schedule and very disoriented.

So let’s not waste any time. This afternoon, I peeked into my e-mail, with more interest than usual. You see, a week ago or so I decide to shoot some queries out to literary agencies about The Quest (Part One of The Kingdom Trilogy). I’m still writing The Stand (Part Two) and I mean to self-publish it, but I figure that there’s no harm in shooting a few e-mails and seeing if I get a response. I’m still open to traditional publishing, and if that door opens, I’m inclined to take it (after taking a careful look at who I’m throwing in with, of course).

After what happened today, I know for sure I want to send more query letters. I got my first rejection today, and it felt amazing.

It was very nicely-written- about as nicely written as a rejection letter can be. Basically, they told me the project wasn’t right for them. I got a big grin on my face. I wasn’t angry at all; I was ecstatic. This is no rejection. This is a challenge. This is a competition. I’m thrilled to have the chance to play.

I was so enthused, in fact, that I posted the following on Twitter…

I love getting my query letters rejected by agencies. Makes me feel nice and defiant. #query #writing #inlikealion #outlikealion #roar

I’m going to spend even more time on that next query letter. I’m not intimidated at all. Neither should you, if you’re making queries yourself. This is fun! We get to show off our writing talent, pack it into a one-page explosion of goodness, and send off into the unknown. I feel like I’m the Rebel commander from Star Wars, watching his X-wings fly off against the Death Star. It gets my adrenaline going.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to plan my plan of attack for the next agency on my list. And play some motivational hard rock war music.

Fall, Goliath, fall.

Notes of A Storyteller: What Suzanne Collins Taught Me Not To Do

I should have known I was going to read The Hunger Games eventually. Back when Harry Potter got his first movie, I scoffed at the series and then blazed through the book like a wildfire. The pop culture sucked me in. Well, when Katniss Everdeen got her film debut a few months ago, I started scoffing again. So, naturally, when my little sister came home from Chicago with the book in her hand, I borrowed it from her and was done with it in a good 4-5 hours.

Like many things which I didn’t plan to do, I learned something from this. For those of you who haven’t heard, I’m writing the second novel of my own trilogy. Reading the first part of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy reminded me something about pacing: sometimes it can be too fast.

Katniss Everdeen is put into the Hunger Games at the end of the first chapter, and immediately she’s whisked away to the Capitol. She’s so busy getting dressed up, listening to Haymitch snarl about strategy, and preparing for the Games that I never get a chance to catch my breath. She has a moment with another tribute the night before the Games, but it’s not nearly long enough. There’s not enough detail. The scene comes and goes as quickly as the others.

Once we get into the Games, Katniss goes into survival mode, and events move even more quickly. It’s harrowing stuff, and marvelously entertaining, but I get the sense that it would have been even more harrowing and much more marvelously entertaining if I had had more time to get to know Katniss. Her story is too much of a blur for me to truly connect with her.

Perhaps I’m asking too much from a YA novel, but it has reminded me of something as I write some key scenes for my own novel, The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy). I must be careful with pacing. This is my second novel with my old friends Arman, Larsor, and Oarath, but I cannot stop delving into their characters. I need those little moments, the slow ones where nothing seems to be happening. Moments as trivial as drinking beer and watching a sunset.

Those are the moments where the reader spends time with a character and finds that he/she is just as interesting during ordinary times as he/she is during extraordinary times. With that discovery, the reader becomes truly invested with a character. What happens during the extraordinary times will have much more urgency.

The Hunger Games could not deliver that for me, and it is my fervent goal to achieve that with The Stand.