Questions Authors Need to Ask Themselves

When we write a story there is often some idea, feeling or concept we want the reader to entertain.  There are many tutorials out there about what questions you must ask yourself, and although I do not disagree with them, I still feel the need to share with you the six questions I personally feel an author must ask of themselves before beginning a prewrite.  The bulk of the following is based on philosophy, and I feel that is important, because in the end a story is most often an examination of some philosophical insight or question.


Who is the target audience?

This is the very first question you should be asking yourself before even considering your prewrite.  However eager one is to get started, without this first question you stand the risk of mis-targeting your audience.  Are you writing to children, adolescents or adults?  If it’s children, then you will need to avoid going too much into detail with certain aspects of human behaviour.  Yes, children are much smarter than we often give them credit for, and they are aware of a lot more adult concepts than we’re willing to admit.  However, that said, we still need to be cognizant of sensitive issues and we need to respect the parents’ possible issues with content.  I mean it would be rather inappropriate to have sexual content of a pornographic nature when telling a story to your child, right?  So, your story cannot be a typical romance novel.   That genre is generally for the late adolescent to adult populations.  Children would generally find romance gross.  Nor do you want to target adults or adolescents with “Boobob the Bear Goes to the Zoo”.  Know who you’re addressing and keep that mental image in your head while you formulate your story.


What are the philosophical implications?

Stories are interesting because there is most often some root philosophical investigation involved.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Boobob going to the zoo to see caged animals, Barbara the Barbarian trying to break her tribal stereotypes, or a weapon of destruction that can end all of civilization, philosophy is often at the root of human behaviour.  There may be some exceptions to this, but I have found that the most interesting stories are those that challenge philosophical issues.


Where do you want to take the reader on that philosophical journey?

This is a complicated question and one that I struggle with whenever I put fingers to keyboard.  In my short story “The Fifth Rule” the philosophy is about rules and when to break them.  I will not give spoilers, but my difficulty was deciding how I would challenge my protagonist and the rules he was taught in the academy.  That challenge needed to be delivered in a setting that would force a decision from Quinn one way or the other.  I chose survival as the direction of that story, but I could have easily placed him before a review board for some decision he made that violated regulations.  Either way, Quinn struggled with the philosophy of the rules of survival.


Why do you find the topic valuable?

This is as important as choosing your target audience.  You need to assess why it is that you find a given philosophical idea important enough to put to keyboard.  In “Parallel Man”, Anders struggles with the prospect that he is killing other versions of himself.  I found this important because self identity had been on my mind for years before committing to a prewrite.  I was fascinated with the prospect that if I slipped into an alternate universe, would I even like the me that lived there?  Would I care for the alternate version of my wife that he was with?  What if the alternate version of my wife was exactly the same in every way?  Would it even matter?  The end philosophy that resulted was, “if you cannot be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”.


How do you want to deliver the philosophy?

This takes all the above and melds them all together into something cohesive.  If we’re writing for adults, we can examine the philosophical implications of personal security versus national security, using ideological terrorism in the modern age, and higher moral philosophy to promote the brotherhood and unity of man.  This is something I personally feel strongly about.  In this case, I would deliver it as a personal journey of the protagonist from a state of hating oneself, and thus all of humanity, to a state of acceptance of the fact that we are all good and bad people trying to do right by ourselves.


When is it a good time to drop an idea?

This one I saved for last, because it is more of a self assessment than it is mental preparation for the tale you want to create.  This is listed last because at the end of the day you need to be able to let all the above effort be wasted.  Hey, it happens and one should never be too reluctant to waste that time and effort.

Sometimes an idea just doesn’t work, no matter how cool it sounds in your head.  While writing an installment of “Parallel Man”, called “Flower Child” I had gone several drafts in and several scenarios resulted.  None of the attempts really worked for me and I ended up writing myself into corners at every turn.  In the end I had to drop the idea and move on to another.  Yes, I still have the recent few drafts, but even today I do not see how I could have pulled it off without destroying the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief.  The idea is still rather cool and I am always looking for a way of expressing it.  It just wasn’t going to happen with “Parallel Man”.  So, you need to realize when your idea, no matter how awesome it seems in your head, will break a story.  We often hold a little too much emotional investment in our conceptualizations, and that is normal for us as writers.  This is because we write from our hearts and it is the heart that gets attached. We resist letting ideas go based on that investment.  But, if it doesn’t work, don’t force it.  Move on.

Of course I did my best to present these questions in a manner that makes sense.  If you feel there are some that I left out, or just feel I made a mistake someplace, please feel free to comment.  No writer is perfect and we all share the same love of creation.  So, what are some of the questions you ask yourself before you hit the keyboard?

Peace, and good writing!

Writing Conflict Dialogue

We’re all writers of our own stories.  What we say is often not as important as what we do.  Just like real people, your fictional characters have thoughts and reactions to stimuli.  Events mold them just like they do you.  When you talk with another person what they say and do affect what you say and do and vise versa.  Today, I’ll cover two aspects of conflict, the physical and the verbal.  Both aspects play an important role in fiction, be it science, fantasy, crime, romance etc.

When you are in conflict with another person you wouldn’t just say that you’re angry, you would act that out.  In fact, just saying your angry is never enough is it?  You don’t just say your angry.  You may explain what it was that just pissed you off, maybe you throw or hit something, maybe point aggressively or stab your palm with your index finger when making each point and that usually gets the message across immediately. So, why would your characters be any different?  The action of stabbing your palm with your finger, and raising your voice at the same time is the physical aspect.  Take the following two passages as an example:

Edward had tried to be patient with the man, but his insistence that something be done ‘right now’ was starting to grate on his nerves until he couldn’t take it anymore.  He interrupted the man.  “You pathetic little excuse for a man!  You come in here with your holier than thou bullshit and expect to be taken any other way but as the complete asshole you are.  Get the fuck out of my shop before I call the cops!”

Edward had tried to be patient with the man, but his insistence that something be done ‘right now’ was starting to grate on his nerves until he couldn’t take it anymore.  That was when his hand slapped down on the table, making a resounding smack that stopped the man in mid sentence.  “You pathetic little excuse for a man!”  His next line was delivered with a sneer and an accusing finger.  “You come in here with your holier than thou attitude and expect me cowtow?  Get the fuck out of my shop before I call the cops!”  His other hand was already going for the telephone handset.

We have two examples above.  One is okay, but the other is much better.  In the first example, we have an okay statement but little description of the actions that would accompany it.  Although, the narrative somewhat supported the statement the actions of the character were completely absent.  I notice this type of failure often in all forms of fiction.   

In the second example, the visual we perceive in our minds pulls us further into the story.  Now we can see and hear how upset Edward is with the man.  We have actions that support his statement.  This is how it works in reality and this is how it should work in your fiction.

In the first example we have a bit of profanity.  Edward swears three times in that short statement.  Doing this relies too much on the profane and distracts from the story, the statement and the dialogue.  It ruins the flow.  Yes, people swear in real life and sometime even more often than in the example, but relying too much on such elements shows immaturity in the character and the writer.  

The rewrite has only one swear word.  It’s usage is only once and at the end of the statement.  This way you still retain the attention of the reader, still effectively have Edward express himself and provide an impact at the end.  Of course you could simply use other words that are borderline profane; like bloody, hell, heck etc. and that would be the writer’s choice.  Bear in mind, that even borderline profanity can still take away from the flow of the statement even though they aren’t outright swear words.

Arguments will happen on occasion in real life and they will not often be an organized exchange of ideas.  Those involved have vested interests at stake, from personal philosophies to money, power, prestige etc.  Writing an immersive argument can be a tough concept to get one’s head around.  One only needs to keep in mind that an argument is never tidy or pretty.  It’s a mishmash of contrary ideas, opinions and observations.  One hardly ever gets to say everything they want to, even if it is a calm exchange.  Let’s use another example:

Klara tried to calmly rebut Albert’s statement.  “I don’t know about that, Al.  We have several instances in the last week where the police have beaten down a suspect before realizing they got the wrong person.”

“Oh, here we go with that old trope.”  Albert raised his voice in ridicule.  “I’m getting real sick of you liberal sheeple constantly blowing things out of proportion.  The cops have a tough job.”  He waved a hand to the side, as if brushing away her argument.  “So what if sometimes someone gets abused a little more now and then?  They’re cops, man. They put their lives on the line every day.  Just don’t resist, and you’ll be fine!”  

The above example is short and tidy.  It gets the information to the reader in an efficient manner.  Except that it is not realistic.  It is not realistic because it is short, tidy and efficient.  When writing an argument between characters I would advise an effective use of interruptions.  Because that is exactly how we humans argue in real life.  Let’s read an enhanced version of the above exchange, only we’ll add in that interruption factor.  

Klara tried to calmly rebut Albert’s statement.  “I don’t know about that, Al.  We have several instances in the last week where the police have beaten down a susp-”  She stopped in mid gesture, having been interrupted by Albert for the third time during that meeting, with her mouth still held at the ‘p’.  Her arms dropped to her sides, as she mentally rolled her eyes.

“Oh, here we go with that old trope.”  Albert raised his voice in ridicule.  “I’m getting real sick of you liberal sheeple constantly blowing things out of proportion.  The cops have a tough job.”  He waved a hand to the side, as if brushing away her argument.  “So what if sometimes someone gets abused a little more now and then?  They’re cops, man. They put their lives on the line every day.  Just don’t resist, and you’ll be fine!”

The young reporter patiently waited for Albert to finish.  She wasn’t going to lower herself to the same level by interrupting him back.  She simply picked up exactly where she was interrupted.  “-ect before realizing they got the wrong person.”

“What the hell are you talking about?  You’re not even making sense!”

“That’s because you weren’t listening.”  Was Klara’s calm reply.

“Oh, I was listening, you just weren’t saying anything I haven’t heard before a million times!”

In the enhanced version, we see an interruption of Klara’s statement.  Yes, we could have made her interrupt Albert in turn, or even raise her voice to talk over that interruption.  This would depend on how you wanted to present Klara.  In this version I wanted to depict her as a calm reasonable person facing a less than reasonable person.  This could very well have played out where Klara was just as emotionally invested as Albert appeared to be.  The result would have been much more messy, much more heated and perhaps much more interesting to the reader.

Moving on we instead have Klara pick up exactly where she was interrupted.  This is a character trait I decided to throw in that doesn’t necessarily add to the plot, but does show her to be an interesting person instead of just another party in the argument.  It also shows that she is quite used to being interrupted.  It bothers her to the point that she used this technique to gain a sort of moral superiority over Albert.  And perhaps there is some hope that he would realize that he did interrupt her and adjust his behaviour.  Again, that would depend on what led up to the argument, what their relationship was, and what the goal of the argument was in the grand scheme of the larger story.

Albert, was clearly not listening, as is often the case in such a scenario.  After people watching for decades I have learned that it is quite common for one or all parties to no listen and just watch for an opportunity to interject with their own opinion.  I show this as the case with Albert when he asks what she was talking about after she pauses in her statement until the interruption is over.  To Albert it is a half sentence and really doesn’t make sense because he really wasn’t listening.

When we have Klara reply, calling him on the fact that he wasn’t listening, we now reinforce the fact that Albert wasn’t listening.  We also show that Albert is actually a bit of a dick.  The example finishes when we slam home the fact, by having him retort with the conviction that he felt he knew what she was saying anyway, so he didn’t need to allow her the respect of finishing her sentence.

Peace, and good writing!

Talk is an Investment in Survival

I am a story teller by nature and the tales I tell are for entertainment. I create works of fiction deliberately. When I do tell a story that is based on truth I endeavor to not distort reality, or fill in blanks with supposition, opinion or judgement. By now you may begin to see the difference between a work of truth and one of fiction. Both are stories, but one has a necessity to be truthful… the other not. We often mix the two while we struggle to perceive what we feel is truth.

I went to the KFC in North Central (Dewdney) the other week and while waiting I greeted an elderly woman. Yes, I did notice that she appeared native. Noticing is not a crime, by the way. The crime is when one invigorates an incorrect theme by injecting fiction into it. The woman and I had a lengthy conversation.  We discussed the last couple of days, shared with each other something personal an unique.  We both enjoyed the conversation… at least she appeared to, and I am not in the business of questioning the obvious.  What I learned is that she was a minor hockey league fan, that her grandson played that very weekend,  that she was very proud of the boy, the work he put into his role on the team and the skill he mastered. There was no necessity to fill in blanks with supposition, opinion and judgement.

Our strength as a species is a combination of our differences and similarities together in the right proportions.  We are humans, and we became the pinnacle of evolution on earth, not by pretending we know a stranger and not by mixing fiction with reality. We became successful because we talked, learned and cared for each other. I know something truthful about another human being, not because I assumed a stereotype, but because we talked.


My Life is Good – Brian Johnson

My life is good. It took me a long time to truly remember this. Think back to when we were kids. We didn’t know we were poor, we didn’t know we were eating no-name. We thought our toys were the best, even though it was just a piece of wood decorated with old scrap electronic parts to look vaguely like a lazer rifle. We wore our clothes to dust. We didnt fear…. anything. With the exception of that belt if we were bad. We saw that belt a lot too. Most of us deserved it and knew it, others not so much. We went over to friends places on foot. Walked across the city to go to an arcade because we found 5 bucks. We loved it. We learned to fear through our media. We learned that there is a horrible element in this world. We learned that other people are bad. We learned that risk is everywhere. Dont make new friends cause the nicest people could be con artists. Dont trust our food because corperations are poisoning us. Dont drink the tap water because the gov’t is medicating us. Dont buy bottled water because they lie about their ‘process’. Hate this or that race because ‘look what this one or that one did over here’ its a boiling pot of oil over a lava pit and we are all balancing tentatively on the edge. Then i pulled my face out of my phone. Looked around. Life is good. Nobody in my neighborhood has been blown up or mowed down by terrorists, no military patrolling my street. There are no earthquakes or floods or hurricanes or tsunamis. I walked all the way to the store and didnt get jumped or killed. I dont have to boobytrap my doors and windows. I dont need a ferarri…. its the same as my ford, just prettier and faster. I dont need a mansion or an acreage, but a little more room would be nice. My TV isnt 3D, but camping is fully immersive interactive software that was installed at birth. I dont have an ATV, but my bicycle has gotten me through a lot. I dont get to be picky about what i eat, but our cupboards aren’t bare. I like my life and all its shortcomings, i have what i need, who i need, a place to enjoy it, and a lifetime of memories to recall or create. Why? Because i stopped comparing me to you, or anyone else, long enough to see that life is good.

By, Brian Johnson

Tolerance of the Intolerable

It could be climate change, or racism or any number of hotbed social issues, but we all have family that are guilty of believing something we find horrible. They may be a sibling, parent, grandparent, cousin etc, but whatever the relation they annoy us, disappoint us and even piss us off with their blatant idiotic regurgitation of pseudo-scientific nonsense. We may feel that we don’t even love them, for which we always feel some measure of guilt, but we do feel stuck with them. So how do we cope with the knowledge that someone so close to us is so willfully unaware of the facts that they deny the undeniable, when we are willing to ditch an old friend because we find their ignorance intolerable? How can we possibly maintain an active relationship with those, who we are supposed to love unconditionally, when they invariably always end up making us feel sick to the stomach?

Some of us divorce ourselves from them, never to talk to again. And when they pass on, any guilt we may have held at bay comes crashing down upon us all at once, leaving us with a feeling of how futile the entire endeavor really was. Because, in the end, what did we really accomplish but the alienation of a loved one from our social circle, our life and our love? When we toss them aside in frustration, and yes even pride, somehow we feel justified in doing so. Our ideology, at the time we make such a drastic decision, dictates that such retributive action as a necessary thing. It is right because of the high morality we feel. But, is it really a high morality, or a higher hubris? We know we are right. At least we feel we know. For some reason that fatal decision, to abandon that part of our family forever, feels so right that we think that regret can never come back later and bite us in the ass. But it almost always does. I believe that if you ask anyone who has pulled that trigger eventually does have some regret later in life. Many who have decided on this final solution may not have considered that they were the ones that abandoned, given up and taken away their affection… not the family member they found so distasteful.

The alternative may not be ideal, or even desired, but is absolutely necessary. Perhaps agreeing to disagree is the most reasonable ground to come together on. Maybe in the face of all that is and could be that there are no absolutes when it comes to family. Really, friends come and go, but family really is forever. That is, if you truly are human. No one wants to be abandoned. No one wants to feel frustration or anger or disgust, either. However, do you really want to feel that crushing regret and the cold snap of realization that you were the intolerant one? I think that when one considers all things a measure of disgust is okay.


To Just Be or Not…

angry faceAs we go about our daily business we all feel stress to some degree. Pressures come from our bosses, family, or that dick in an Ford F-150 that tries to rape our cars with their truck by tailgating. More today than ever we have a habit of overextending ourselves to the point were we need several clones to take up the slack. We feel like failures because there is so much we haven’t gotten around to. Yet, we don’t realize, at least we don’t let ourselves realize, that the real failure is not in our ability to perform, but our inability to just relax and chill. Think about it. You’ve been raised to believe that you must be a human*doing* rather than a human*being*. When we were kids many of us had been over-enrolled in extracurricular activities. We learn real early that we have to be doing… always doing. We organize our lives around activities rather than strike that balance between necessity and fun. This is what it means to be an adult.

Therefore, when we grow up it’s ingrained in us that fun or non-activity is bad. We over-enroll ourselves with projects. Every minute of the day must go toward something useful. Even when we relax it is by doing something. Either we forgot or just never learned that doing absolutely nothing is required sometimes. Doing nothing allows us to self-reflect, to let our minds wander and let our imagination do what its good at. Nothing is a form of reboot for our sanity and when we aren’t allowed to reboot, the stress of all those things with which we feel we have to fill our time, eats away at us until our anxiety goes into overload or we get diagnosed with depression.

The message is simple. Relax. Do nothing every so often. Every now and then just be… and not just on vacation. Just be a little bit every day. Maybe, just be the kid you may have never had the chance to be.