Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Category Archives: creativity

Time to Update

Hi friends,

I sincerely apologize for not being very active on the blog over the past two months. I’ve been a busy boy – working full-time at a job that gives me tons in tips, rehearsing full-time for a show that’s in the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Festival, and launching my own theatre company – Third Street Theatre (www.thirdstreet.ca).

So I have been quite busy, with so many projects on the go. Last count had me at 95 hours/week of work, and I don’t think I’ve had a day off in six weeks. It’s a pretty rigorous and exhausting schedule.

That being said, I have had continued interest from the literary agent in my book, and he is working with me on fixing some of the issues regarding pacing. My only challenge is to grab some time to dedicate to revisiting the manuscript.

I have had a seven month break from the book, which I am sure has given me loads of perspective. I am hoping that in the next couple of months I’ll be able to find a couple of days to really dedicate myself to editing again, so that we might be able to continue on this path.. and hopefully lead to official representation.

There are so many exciting things going on in my life, and the Universe seems to keep sending more projects my way. It’s hard to complain about it (although, I find myself complaining that I am tired, have no time, and no social life.. which isn’t a fun story to be telling all the time).

I can make no guarantees that I will be blogging every day, but I will do my best to write a post now and then – especially as I move forward with editing the manuscript.

All the best, and cheers.

Paul

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What Makes a Good Story?

I have had a very busy year.

A rough estimate would suggest that I have seen over 110 plays in the past 12 months. In a way, it has been fantastic: I have been exposed to so many differing types of stories through the medium of the theatre. In another way, it has been a chore. Most of the shows have been perfectly acceptable pieces of theatre, with a few true “stand-out” pieces. And the elements of those stand-out pieces vary. In some instance, it was the direction, and in others it was design that made it stand above the rest. In yet others, it was the performance – the skill and craft of the actors involved. And in precious few, it was the story – the elegance and execution of a perfectly crafted script.

That definitely gets me thinking: What is it that makes a “good” story so hard to tell?

We can and do spend countless hours trying to understand and master structure. We struggle to perfect the rhythm and the pacing of the piece, and we try to create compelling characters. We throw them into interesting worlds with challenging, believable conflicts, and we hope and pray that we will succeed, that someone will be moved by our work.

So why is it that we so often come short?

I do not have the answers.

I am still learning this myself, and while I have theories, I cannot claim to have true knowledge as to what makes a good story. Indeed, when I read, watch, or experience what I would describe as a “good” story, I often find it challenging to explain why. I find myself saying that it touched me, moved me, excited me, or surprised me. In other instances, it inspired me, sparked something in my imagination that took me to another place, that caused my own ideas to multiply and grow. All good things, but definitely not tangible – and certainly not universal.

The elements of a good story are something I am exceptionally curious about. I do my best to read other people’s take on the subject in an effort to understand what it is, what that magical trick might be, that allows a storyteller to weave a tale that will have an impact.

So I wonder: Can we ever truly master the elements of a good story? Do good stories exist that defy the logic, the “formula,” as it were? And when that happens, why does it happen?

Is it voice? Artistry? A certain je ne sais quoi?

The curiosity lingers.

But we are curious beings, so I can only conclude that this is a good thing.

Have you read any articles that have given you an “ah-ha!” moment when it comes to what makes a good story? What resources have played important roles in the development of your craft? What are some examples of good stories that defy the logic, as it were? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!

Rhythm and Pacing

Hello, friends.

It has been a while since I have last updated. I have been busy with a new “joe-job” (which is actually pretty fun) and a number of other work opportunities that have come up – working as a mentor for a festival, participating in workshops, substituting classes at a private institution, and a handful of auditions and the preliminary exploration for a film opportunity. When it rains, it pours.

The Magnetic North Theatre Festival is in town this week. For those of you who don’t know, this festival brings the best of the best theatre to one lucky town every year – with each alternate year being in our nation’s capital, Ottawa. As Calgary is the Culture Capital of Canada for 2012, and as we’re celebrating a number of wonderful milestones (Stampede’s Centennial, for one), Calgary is the ideal choice for the host city of the Festival. I am privileged to be living here, as it’s giving me the opportunity to attend.

Last night was a production of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s “Oil and Water” directed by the new Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre, Jillian Keiley. There was some wonderful work happening in this very interesting show about a piece of Canadian history: the true story of Lanier Phillips, the only African American survivor of the shipwrecked USS Truxton.

The director, Ms. Keiley, has an incredible gift for rhythm and pacing and, from what I gather, she often makes use of this sort of exploration in her theatrical storytelling. Through rhythmic percussion and acapella singing, she builds the dramatic tension and intensity from start to finish.

The result?

A powerful piece of theatre whose climax hits us on a highly emotional level. It carries us on an intentionally and carefully crafted ride, keeping us invested and engaged in the journey of the story as it unfolds.

Building tension through rhythm and pace.

Building tension through rhythm and pace

 

Seeing this piece of theatre and the effectiveness of its execution got me thinking about rhythm and pacing in writing. It exists, and it is a tricky thing to master (kind of like trying to “master” artistic “voice.”) Some people have an innate talent for it and are able to feel the impact of the writing – and everything from word choice to use and type of punctuation contributes to it.

When I edit my own work, one technique I always use is to read the work out loud. If we trip over the phrases when we read them out loud, chances are people will be tripping over the same phrases when they read them. Their little inside voice won’t be too happy, and we run the risk of losing them as a reader.

When I start tripping over sentences, I investigate them further to figure out why. More often than not, it has to do with the rhythm of the phrase, or the length of the thought. Something isn’t jiving, and this technique definitely helps point out what, exactly, is amiss.

Another thing that happens – and this is an added bonus – is that you start to hear the rhythm of the piece. When you’re hitting climactic moments of a scene, the intensity should be building, and the reader should be swept along. Reading out loud helps us determine whether this is truly happening – and if not, we know where to tweak.

We want to build tension, and we want to catapult the reader through the story. We don’t want them to put the book down. We want to tease their curiosity and force them to stay up way past their bedtime because they needed to read just one more chapter. Taking a look at rhythm and pacing is perhaps one of the most effective ways to improve your writing.

How often do you focus on rhythm and pacing in your own work? Do you find it easy, exciting, or challenging? How do you handle areas where the pacing is off? Is it a technical thing, or more of a reliance on your intuition? Please feel free to share your thoughts (and links to great articles, if you’ve got them!) in the comments below – I would love to hear them,

The Importance of Space

I have taken a 3-month break from working on my manuscript. It wasn’t that my life got too busy, as I certainly had a fair amount of “free time” that I could have invested into my manuscript, and it wasn’t because I lost interest in the work. My love of the story hadn’t changed, nor had my passion to become a published writer.

I had burned out.

The expression “burning the candle at both ends” exists for a reason. Sometimes we get carried away and try to do too much. That’s what happened to me.

I was cast in a wonderful piece of children’s theatre that took me to Edmonton for almost six weeks. It was a wonderful two-person play that was high energy and fast-moving and it demanded a lot of commitment and focus. I made a lot of physical and vocal choices, and I did my best to give it my all.

In the professional theatre, you typically work 6 days a week rehearsing to put a show up. Add to that my decision to walk 10 km a day to and from the theatre and we’re talking about a 55 hour/week time commitment. Seems like more than enough, doesn’t it?

But what did I do?

I decided to also continue to aggressively work on my book and learn about the publishing industry. I learned about platform, and the importance and impact it apparently has in the modern publishing world (and I promise I’ll write a blog post on platform at some point.) I learned about writing and editing. I tried to stay abreast of the changing world of publishing – and boy, is it ever changing fast. I read e-books on the craft and the business, and bought a number of fantasy novels to understand what others were doing and how.

It was too much.

Some nights, I didn’t even sleep. I tried to, but my brain kept going and it kept me awake. I’d lie in bed and feel like I was wasting time, so the lights would go back on and I’d get back to work.

I probably spent another 35 hours / week working on the book. On top of my 55 hours / week, the candle faded fast.

So I needed time to recover, and I did my best not to feel guilty about that.

Fast-forward three months to today.

I have just come back from a week-long Artist in Residency contract in Lethbridge where I worked with Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, and Grade 1 students on the topic of diversity. Together, we created a play that was 100% developed from their imaginations. And boy, do they ever have wonderful imaginations!

I feel rested and recharged (even though the week was exhausting) and last night I sent an e-mail out to the literary agent who has been reading the partial of IN THE SHADOWS OF THE DAWN inquiring about the status of my book.

All this to say: I finally feel ready to get back to work on taking the manuscript to the next level.

It needs some more editing and I have some ideas of scenes that I think should be cut. There are a couple of thematic moments that I think need to be highlighted a little bit more. And I’m certainly curious to see what 3 months of rest does to my reading of the story. I am certain I am going to see it with fresh eyes and find a number of things that I missed in my previous edits.

So stay tuned! I think I’ve found a new candle to burn.. but this time I’m going to be careful not to burn it on both ends.

Have you ever burned yourself out? How did it happen, and what steps did you take to recover? What lessons have you learned? Please share your stories in the comments below. I’m sure we could all benefit from hearing each other’s experiences!

An Injection of Conflict

I currently live in Calgary, Alberta (that’s in Canada, for those who aren’t in the know), and we’re knee-deep in provincial elections right now. There are numerous political parties vying for the win, each with their own mandate as to how they wish to represent Albertans, and how they wish to shape our province and move forward.

There have been a lot of contentious debates surrounding key issues of abortion, gay marriage, equality, the rights of women, health care, arts and culture, and economic survival. Some of these issues hit pretty close to home for a number of people – and (particularly if you’re involved in social media websites and follow the news) the debate is getting pretty heated.

I try to stay abreast of current events, and I have been paying attention to what’s going on south of the border. It looks like the same key issues are surfacing in the States.

One thing that stands out is the level of conflict. There have been debates about personal beliefs vs. public beliefs, personal (religious) beliefs vs. political beliefs. It is challenging to watch or participate without your heart rate rising and getting all worked up. And that’s because it’s personal, no matter what side of the fence you fall on.

A group feels attacked and discriminated against – targeted, even – and they feel that their rights, welfare, and safety could very well be compromised if the election results show up as predicted. Other groups (even those in the majority) feel that any criticism of the political platform set forth, or the personal/public/religious beliefs of the politicians involved, is also an attack and a discrimination.

It’s a big ole hot mess, and it’s difficult to reconcile.

The flip side of it is that it is very interesting (and some would argue scary.) So many people are engaged, and a lot of apathetic citizens are being moved to stand up and voice an opinion, take a stance, and get out and vote. Many are encouraging their friends and colleagues to vote in an effort to ensure a future for a province in which they’d like to live and thrive. It will be interesting to see the outcome – both of the provincial elections here in Alberta, and the federal elections south of the border in the USA.

I bring this up because it is on my mind a lot these days, and it reminds me of when I used to administer/run my online text-based roleplaying game, The Towers of Jadri (which, if you’ll recall, is the world in which my stories are set.)

The biggest challenge I faced in trying to create a dynamic, interesting game for my players to play had to do with conflict. People gravitated towards happy, peaceful times. Others tried to play conflict, but often failed – falling into stereotypes, archetypes, and unmotivated cruelty.

We would try to find interesting plot lines, clear-cut aggressors, threats from dangerous places, invasions, explosions, and even war. We’d do our best to create realistic motivations for the key players involved, and we tried to ensure the conflict suited the current climate of world politics, the players’ roleplay, and organizational interests, all the while keeping the big picture story in mind.

The problem? The conflict was usually resolved immediately.

People had fun during the times of conflict, because there was something to do. They could band together, unite, create strategies, and take steps towards a common goal. It was active, exciting, and uniting.

But when the conflict was resolved, things would inevitably slow down and people would get bored – and we’d struggled to find new ways of injecting conflict back into the mix.

I give all this preamble as a way to focus in on your stories.

Examine the story from a point of view of the conflict. Does each scene have conflict? Is the conflict strong? Is it external, or internal? How do the characters respond? What steps do they take? Is it something that can (or should) be resolved quickly? How does it fit into the bigger picture?

Conflict makes things interesting. It is something to which we can relate and respond. If your story is low on conflict, it might be worth revisiting to see if there are ways to inject a little more conflict into the mix. Give something for people to fight for, or fight against. Something to fear, and something to root for. Your story will likely be stronger as a result.

Have you ever read books that were painfully low on conflict? Did they manage to keep your interest in another way? If so, how did they succeed? What are some examples of your favorite books where the conflict is impeccably handled? Please comment below, as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Style Stalker: Author Gets Stalked

I was stalked on the streets of Calgary and asked about my style! It was a super fun shoot, and I am flattered to be included.

It’s a blog where they showcase the random stylings of local Calgarians as they move to and fro about the city. Everything I’m wearing is relatively new, with the coat, shoes, and belt found on huge sale discounts.

Check it out, friends! Head on over to Avenue Magazine’s Style Stalker Blog.

The Joy of a Good Story

Just a quick blog post tonight.

I have just come off a 5-week children’s theatre tour, taking a 50-minute show to Kindergarten-Grade 6 students throughout northern Alberta. I had a blast, even though it was exhausting (picture doing jumping jacks while giving a speech for an hour.) The show took tons of energy, but the pay-off was worth it: excited, happy, transcendent children.

Why did this happen?

Because we’re brilliant, of course. But seriously, the reason why it really did happen is that we were given an incredible script to work from. The story of this play was beautifully constructed, with the perfect amount of exposition leading up to a wonderful inciting incident. Add to that a great rising action, a rewarding climax, and a brief – yet poignant – resolution/denouement, and you’ve got the recipe for success. All we had to do was show up.

Well, not true. We had to show up and get out of the way of the story – and add to it in our own, unique way. In the writing world, this is viewed as ‘voice’ – something that can’t be forced, but happens naturally. The show was a two-hander, and I am fortunate enough that we both had enough faith and trust in each other to surrender wholly to the honesty and authenticity of our own unique voices.

I think the most rewarding thing about sharing a good story is the number of people who will be profoundly affected and changed as a result. This is why I act, and this is why I write. I want the stories I tell to make a difference, and, when I have the chance to do just that, it’s an incredible thing.

Learn about story structure. Figure out what it takes, and why. Understand it. Master it. It will never serve you wrong.

What are some of your all-time favorite stories? Have you ever seen a movie or a play that has had an incredible impact on you? What was it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

And a good story? It never goes out of style.

Blog Mash-up

For today’s post, I wanted to share three articles from blogs that I think are pretty darned interesting. I’ve given you the headlines and a sample of the article, and I strongly hope you click through and give the rest of the article a read. I don’t think you’ll regret it!

I hope you enjoy them!

Paul

The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn’t a Person

In a lot of stories (especially genre novels) the antagonist is a physical being that can be fought against. But what do you do when your antag is something to overcome, like depression, or a self-destructive streak? Technically, there’s nothing plotting against your protagonist for them to fight. It’s a personal situation or flaw holding them back. These stories are a little tougher to write. 

Read the rest of the article HERE on The Other Side of the Story.

How To Write – And Deliver – Killer Speeches
For two years or whatever, I blogged three times a week about publicity, speechwriting, public relations and scandals for The New York Times’about.com.  If you are an author, actor, director, politician, professional athlete, rock star, user of social media or otherwise in the public eye, THESE POSTS ARE USEFUL TO YOU. If you live in an ice cave, you can safely ignore all this stuff and go back to tanning that elk hide.
Six Ways to Beat The Blogging Blahs
We all go through times when we wake up in the morning, take one look at the clock, and pull the covers back over our heads wishing we could spend the day cocooned away from the world.We have those days (or weeks!) when it’s hard enough to force ourselves out of bed, much less make ourselves sit down in front of our laptops and try to come up with something witty and interesting to say on our blogs.
Did you come across any awesome blogs or articles this week that you’d love to share? Or perhaps you posted one on your own blog that you’re particularly proud of? Please share them in the comments below – I’d love to see what you’re reading.

Geeking Out: From Gamer to Writer

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a geek.

Growing up, I spent countless hours playing, administrating, and running MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). These were the text-based roleplaying games where I would whittle away my hours, interacting with people around the world by playing at being a Druid, a secret magic user, a nefarious rogue, a troubled artist, a religious Warband leader, and a powerful manipulator of the elements who had a huge distrust of authority. I spent countless hours developing skills that have proven exceptionally useful in my writing. I’d like to share some of that experience and those skills with you here today, and put forth my argument that certain types of gaming can be a writer’s greatest gift.

Character Planning. When we begin a roleplaying game, we have to think about the history of our character. Or rather, we do if we hope to create a solid character that will have longevity in the world. This involves figuring out who our parents might be, what are our religious beliefs, which gods or goddess we might like and dislike, what is our skill set, what events in our youth might have shaped our attitude and outlook in life, and what our aspirations are – our super-objectives that drive us through the world.

Druid

How would you describe her in words?

How do we feel about other nationalities/races/religions? What style of clothing do we choose to wear? What is our economic status, and how will we interact or move through the world?

Asking these questions help create the dynamic, interesting characters people will want to interact with and include in their roleplaying world.

And the same questions apply to planning our protagonists and antagonists and indeed our secondary and tertiary characters. The more fleshed-out a character appears to be, the more seamlessly they fit into the world. It creates a subtle impact, and readers pick up on it. The characters will have attitudes, personality, prejudices, and allegiances. This will affect how they move through and interact with the world. It creates for a more immersive storytelling experience.

Writing and Reading Descriptions. When I administered and ran MUDs, my duties included building the descriptions of rooms, objects, and monsters. As a player, my duties included describing my character for others to see and read the world around me. I had to examine how others described themselves, what the rooms and areas we played in looked like, and whether there might useful clues we might devise from the world around us.

On some MUDs, the descriptions are pretty limited. They are stunted, do nothing to further our understanding of the world, and are often times laughable. The same can be said about a good deal of gamers out there. But when you come across the players who have good descriptions and the MUDs where a true atmosphere has been evoked in the way everything has been described… Well, it is thrilling.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I can write some killer descriptions. Pages of them, if need be. Unfortunately, this usually causes problems, and I end up spending time paring the descriptions down in order to ensure that they drive the atmosphere forward, rather than bog the reader down and create obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

Personally, I like to rely on descriptions that involve a sensory experience. Our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell all help immerse the reader into the world. Often times, though, less is more – and this becomes crucial with writing strong stories.

Atmosphere can take center stage

Atmosphere can take center stage

There are moments where the atmosphere or locale needs to take center stage, where an anticipated character gets the opportunity to wow the reader with their carefully put-together attire. We just need be careful that it doesn’t add obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

World Building. When I began designing my MUD, The Towers of Jadri, I started from scratch. I had a common look-and-feel in mind, as I wanted to create a unified world for my players to immerse themselves in.

I built dozens of areas – likely 80% or more of the playable zones on the MUD – for the characters to explore and live in. I spent countless of hours writing help files for players to be able to read to further understand the culture, history, and abilities. I’d even pay players in the form of special in-game points to go through all the game’s commands in search of missing help files, or scanning the current help files for things of interest which could be elaborated upon to assist in the understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the players appreciated the several hundred help files that the MUD had. However, when I stop by other MUDs, I am often dumbfounded by how non-user friendly they seem to be – simply because I am unable to get the answers to the questions I have in order to successfully develop the depth of my character.

Now, the hours I spent fleshing out the world served another useful purpose, as I still have those areas and help files. Since the Towers of Jadri was a MUD set in my world, everything I built – from rooms and objects to monsters and help files – furthered my own understanding of the world, the history, the nations, races, special and magical abilities, etc. This was serious world-building, and as a result I believe that when my stories are read, there is a sense of full immersion into the richness of the world. My beta readers seem to agree.

Okay, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn a little bit, and I apologize. I’m proud of the world I created, and I often find myself a little blown away by the fact that, 15 years later, the game I created has turned into an honest-to-goodness book. It’s allowed for me to create a fully-realized world where the metaphysics and history make sense, where the way people interact with each other is plausible, and where the stories have become quite easy for me to share.

How has your involvement in gaming helped develop your craft and the stories you tell? Have you had any special experiences that have led to your worlds being fully immersive and highly developed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – it’s pretty nifty hearing how other people came to develop their worlds.

Love What You Write: The Challenge of Short Stories

I’ve decided to answer a call-for-submissions for a short story anthology.

The anthology in question is Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound. It’s being produced by Calgary publishing firm EDGE/Tesseracts Books, and, to quote the website:

“Submissions should focus on art, music, literature and cultural elements which are integral to the story. This anthology will reflect as broad a spectrum of stories as possible; highlighting unique styles and manners.”

Sounds like a cool opportunity to write a nifty fantasy short story, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. I never thought it was going to be so challenging, though.

My first task was to figure out the “trick” to writing short stories. As it turns out, it’s the same as writing any story – only shorter. Go figure.

I did come across a couple of tips, though:

Every word counts. Make sure that every sentence either furthers plot, action, character, or world building. Any sentence that doesn’t touch on one – or more – of the above points needs to be revisited. Or else, you’re hooped.

Story structure is key. You know: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denoument/resolution. All that jazz. It can be 3-act, 5-point, or 7-point structure – whichever you prefer – but stick to a tried-and-true structure, and you’ll be fine.

But what I wasn’t expecting?

Being given limitations / restrictions as guidelines can complicate things.

This blew my mind. As an actor, I love restrictions. The more restrictions you give me, the more creative I get. For instance, if I tell you to get up and improvise a 15-minute monologue, chances are you’ll soil yourself and stammer and mumble aimlessly. It would be a traumatic experience for all involved.

However, if I tell you to improvise a 15-minute monologue as a young girl who goes looking for her run-away dog and comes across a mysterious triangular-shaped stone that transports her to a world of talking plants where she must go on an adventure to find the Paramion Seed, granting her the special elemental powers needed to return home…

Chances are you’ll succeed.

I thought the same thing would happen with this short story. It has very specific (although definitely not simplistic) limitations, and limitations are the key to creativity.

And limitations can be awesome.

But they can also be limiting.

I am working on building a specific, marketable product: the fantasy world I created. I plan on writing 30+ novels that take place in this world, because I know it so well. I’ve literally spent decades and tens of tens of housands of hours developing the world. I know it inside and out, and I love it. I love it to bits.

So naturally, I wanted to write a short story set in this world.

Correction: I wanted to write a short story – that would be selected for this anthology – set in this world.

But the requirements / theme of the anthology? Now there’s a fly in the mimosa.

I dove head first into the first idea that came to mind, and wrote 2500 words. I challenged myself and learned a lot about telling vs. showing, and I played with some narrative techniques I was looking to explore.  But ultimately, the required theme of the submission became a gimmick, rather than a central core value of the story. In that way, it was a fail.

So I did a little more research, and came across some essential advice:

Write what you love.

I think this is an important message that we all must take home. We should always write what we love. Sure, we sometimes have to write things we’re not too gung-ho about, but I think it is imperative that we find something to love. We need to force ourselves to find it. Growth will happen as a result, and isn’t that the saving grace of the “art” of writing? I think so.

I am happy to say that I’ve started a new short story and I’ve written 1,600 words. I still have a ways to go, but I’m digging it, and I am looking forward to continuing to work on it. Whether it’ll succeed and be published in this anthology, I do not know. But I do know that I’ll have loved every moment of that, and at the end of the day, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

How often do you write for specific competitions, anthologies, or markets? Do you find it challenging, or an awesome opportunity to push yourself and grow as an artist? What are some tips and tricks you’ve developed along the way when it comes to writing short stories? Please share your wisdom in the comments below – we’d love to hear your thoughts.