ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 6: Time for a Spit Shine


We’re two weeks from the June 11 deadline to submit a short story or the first chapter of a novel and sign up for the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Believe it or not, two weeks is plenty of time to create a brand spanking new piece for a writing workshop. If you’re diving in from scratch, clear some time in your schedule, buy some extra coffee beans, and peruse the earlier boot camp posts in this series. Take what you need and write like the wind!
Regardless of when you start writing, we’re not talking about a shining piece of perfection here. What you want to bring is something in decent shape that will give the pros and your fellow critique partners an idea of where you are as a writer. In my opinion perfection is overrated. Strive for it, sure. We all do, and we’re all destined to fall just short – welcome to the creative life. I know it’s scary to turn in something that you can see is flawed or has some issue you just can’t resolve, but the worst that will happen is that your critique partners will point it out. If you’re lucky, you will also receive useful solutions for your story in particular and gain new skills for your writing in general.
If you’ve been following along with my (patented) boot camp schedule you should have a middle revision of a story that, while it still might have some rough edges, has all the necessary parts and culminates in some kind of climactic moment. Either your protagonist DOES something or s/he DECIDES something, and this action or decision carries an actual and/or emotional consequence – preferably both.
Honestly, with two weeks to go there is plenty of time to cycle through middle revision territory a couple more times until you are really happy with the shape and emotional impact of your story or chapter, but I know how good it can be to finish ahead of schedule so let’s talk about the final proofing and polishing.
A few words about grammar.
Grammar isn’t really a final revision task as your grasp of grammar affects every stage of the writing process, but this read though is a good time to really attend to word choice and sentence structure.
Don’t feel bad if you find grammar intimidating. I did for years. Really, if I can get a working mastery of grammar, anyone can! I didn’t get great grammar instruction in middle school, and after that I was on my own. Only after returning to writing as an adult did I take my grammar education into my OWN hands. Now grammar is no longer a nebulous topic where I worry that I’m going to somehow screw up every sentence I write. Once I got a toehold, I have found grammar to be an enduring source of fascination. Like clay to the sculptor, exotic musical keys to the pianist, words and sentences are a writer’s medium.
That said, if you think you know everything there is to know about grammar – check yourself. The English language is constantly evolving – including grammar. Being completely prescriptive about grammatical rules (current or past) will limit your writing, too.
There are many wonderful sources for learning grammar out there, and Strunk & White isn’t one of them. For me its twee style, brevity, confusing advice, and contradictory examples were just more of the same ineffective instruction that got me so deep in the hole during my school years. Here’s a far more eloquent and thorough take down of S&W.

“The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn…. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.”

If you feel you need a grammar refresher, here are some resources. Start small, commit to spending 10 or 15 minutes a day, and focus on one element at a time.
For specific questions, check out the Perdue Owl grammar site
Put the Grammar App or the Grammar Up app on your phone,
Listen to The Grammar Girl or the the BBC’s 6 Minute Grammar podcasts.
As you go over your writing, just remember it’s all about Clarity: 
  • Think about the essential meaning of each sentence.
  • In description, use specific, telling details.
  • Focus on precision of language.
  • Check the usage of any tricky words and make sure you’re using them correctly.
  • For style, try to replace linking and helping verbs with action verbs. 

Look for common errors like their/there/they’re or it’s/its. I read my draft aloud again, “un-contracting” every contraction, and I almost always find one or two slip-ups.

There. All polished up and ready to go. Right? Next week I’ll talk about knowing when a piece is finished. Seems a simple enough question, but when your trying to become a better writer, it can be hard to know when to stop trying to improve a piece and let it go.


NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!

Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.

This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

The Game Plan: Story Structure for Football Season


Telling a story in three acts – or not.
(Bear with me: I’ll get to the football soon, promise!)

As a storyteller, the concept of the three-act story form is unavoidable. The idea is particularly popular among screenwriters, and is found in numerous books, featured in lectures, and on countless websites. It is often applied to narrative storytelling regardless of the form. But wait! FILM CRIT HULK presents a counter argument to the idea of the three-act structure in his epic take down, The Myth of the 3 Act Structure:

 HULK HAS NEVER SEEN SOMETHING SO UNHELPFUL BECOME SO WIDELY ACCEPTED. SURE, IT MAKES SENSE AND IS A SIMPLE WAY TO SEE STORIES FROM AFAR, BUT IT’S ALSO SO SIMPLE THAT IT’S TAUGHT TO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS WHEN THEY’RE FIRST GRASPING THE CONCEPT OF NARRATIVE. AND WHILE HULK ARGUES THAT THE SIMPLE TRUTHS ARE OFT TIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES, THE EXPRESSION OF THOSE TRUTHS SHOULD BE FAR MORE COMPLICATED. AND THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE IS NOT EVEN “A TRUTH.” IT’S A WRITING MODEL ATTEMPTING TO HELP YOU GET AT ONE. SO HULK THINKS THAT HOLLYWOOD COULD MAYBE STAND TO DO A LITTLE BETTER THAN A THIRD GRADE GRASP OF STORY.

Oh, preach it brother! Seriously, read the whole essay.

Of course, Aristotle laid down the foundation of narrative theory in his Poetics where he describes a story as “a whole [that] has a beginning and middle and end.” This is absolutely true, all stories have these three parts in some degree, but I think confusion arises when we conflate the idea that these three parts of the narrative will align with a story’s acts. In other words, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, but they can have any number of acts.


A story should have exactly as many acts as it takes to bring it to completion. That could be five acts or seven or twelve or more. I’m currently writing a short story with two acts (and of course, it still has a beginning, middle, and end).


For a practical guide to narrative structure (and a survey of popular theories of narrative structure including three-act and the Hero’s Journey) read John York’s Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, which is one of the best books that I’ve read about story structure in, well, maybe ever. * In it, York defines an act as:

“A unit of action bound by a character’s desire.”

THE GAME
Last Monday night, I was sitting on the couch watching the Monday Night Football with one eye (as I do) and thinking about story. Recently, a friend asked me what I found appealing about football. As a writer, I enjoy watching sports because it reduces drama to its essential elements. Two teams take the field, both want to win, only one will. This is conflict in its purest form. When watching scripted dramas, I often get distracted second-guessing what the writer was trying to accomplish, or thinking about how the director’s choices affected the scene. I can’t help myself. While this has its own pleasures, a football game, with its direct conflict overlaid with the commentators’ patter to give a little color to the characters on the field, is just the thing after a long day in the word mines.

It’s this no strings attached narrative that draws me in. By observing a football game’s narrative, we can see how its structure contributes to dramatic tension. We can see, with a just few rules to provide a framework, how flexible the parts that form the whole can be.


THE CLOCK

This is the most artificial construct of the game and the most necessary. It’s the running time of a movie, the word count in a short story or novel. Everyone can relate; the Clock itself is a kind of antagonist, ever present, stalking us all to our dying day. The winning team will try to run out the clock. The losing team is playing against, not just the opposing team, but time itself. This arbitrary limitation is the essence of what shapes the game. And it’s time and its limits that shape the stories we tell. But within the constraints of any given time frame there are an infinite number of variations.

THE DRIVE

When a team gets the ball, it tries to score with a series of plays that together form a drive toward the end zone. Like the act, a drive is a unit of action bound by the team’s desire to score. A drive is made up of a series of plays, and an act is made up of a series of scenes. A game can have any number of drives. A drive can end in failure after one broken play or a fumble, or in success with one magnificent Hail Mary pass. A drive can consist of dozens of running plays and short passes, making downs by inches, moving the chains just enough to keep the drive alive. A drive consists of exactly as many or few plays as it needs for the team with the ball to either achieve their goal (touchdown!) or fail (because they couldn’t make enough ground or they turn over the ball).

THE PLAY

Drives are made up of plays just as acts are made up of scenes. Each play is the very soul of conflict, the lines smash together, the linemen try to sack the quarterback, the quarterback sends the ball sailing toward a receiver – will it be caught and held, or fumbled, turned over for a reversal? Scenes are the basic elements of story. The binary code of success/failure that drives narrative.

THE STORY

Each game is bounded by the same rules, but no two games are alike and they can contain any number of plays that make up any number of drives. Yet, each game tells a story, one that we recognize as such on an elemental level. So, when you’re writing, while you know that every story will have a beginning, middle, and end, consider all of the myriad ways that you can travel that road.

 

* and believe me I’ve read more than a few.