Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Category Archives: storytelling

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.

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Worth a Look: Rebecca Berto & Larry Brooks

Today, I want to introduce you to a woman named Rebecca Berto. She is a young writer and editor living in Australia, and she hosts a blog called Novel Girl where she offers up clear advice on writing, a smattering of comprehensive book reviews and author interviews.

And what’s more, she’s done a ton of work on amassing valuable tools that I have certainly found useful in developing my craft.

In particular, she highlights the skills she learned from Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering. Larry’s book is definitely on my wishlist, as it sounds like it’s loaded with incredible tools and resources.

As I approach my own craft of writing, Larry’s site Storyfix and Rebecca’s blog have been very educational, and I recommend them both.

Story structure is one of those elusive things that a lot of novice writers don’t think about – and judging from a couple of disappointing published short stories and a 500-page YA novel I’ve read recently, it might be something a few published authors don’t think about, either. Most, however, do – and it becomes quickly apparent as to why.

We’re given a very brief overview of it in high school, and then it quickly drops to the back-burner, never to be thought of again. I will admit that when I wrote my first novel, structure was the last thing to pop into my mind. But I guarantee you that through the editing process, it resurfaced and I paid special attention to the various elements that make for good structure in a story. The fixes were sometimes a challenge, but definitely worth-while.

The following three links are from Rebecca’s site, highlighting her understanding of Larry’s technique.

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 1 – Setup

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 2 – Plot Point 1

The Best Advice I’ve Learned on Story Structure: Part 3 – Midpoint & Second / Third Plot Points

What are your favorite sites for writing technique? Are there any books on the craft of writing that you view as your proverbial “bible”? Please share them in the comments below – I’d love to take a peek at them.

Becoming a Master – 10,000 Hours to Master Your Craft

Malcolm Gladwell writes some fantastic books. My favorites include Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point.

In Outliers, Gladwell introduces a concept:

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something.

10,000 hours of investment in your drawing skills will lead to a level of mastery. 10,000 hours of the study of the history of Venice will likely make you an honest-to-goodness expert in the field. This makes sense to me, even though life can’t always follow the rules of a formula. But it’s a good general guideline.

So let’s do the math:

  • 10,000 hours / 365 days (1 year) = 27.5 hours/day (Impossible!)
  • 10,000 hours / 1095 days (3 years) = 9.1 hours/day (Possible, but exhausting)
  • 10,000 hours / 2190 days (6 years) = 4.6 hours / day (More likely)

Interesting to think about, isn’t it?

How many hours a day do you spend honing your craft?

To be a good writer involves an investment of time. This is where formal education does come in hand. It forces us to invest the time required to improve our skills. Additionally, we get feedback, critique, and hopefully some encouragement along the way. We gain a formal understanding, and pick up numerous tips and tricks. We’re more likely to develop faster than we would on our own.

But not all of us have pursued this sort of formal training.

I didn’t. I have 7 years of university under my belt, but it was divided between a 4-year BA degree in Psychology and Philosophy and a 3-year BFA degree in Acting. Sure, I did a lot of writing in both programs, but nowhere near the 10,000 hours needed to become a master.

However, there’s another component aside from education: practical experience. We can’t discount that. Any work – be it reading, writing, critiquing, or editing – definitely counts.

Lately, I’ve been reading tons of articles, books, and blogs about the craft of writing. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s really changed the way I approach my craft. I know there’s still so much for me to learn, and I am actively pursuing my own practical experience and training. Some days I’m discouraged, feeling like I’m so far behind. But then, when I look at what I’ve accomplished over the past 15 years, I realize I’m exactly on target.

As mentioned in my last post, I started playing online text-based roleplaying games when I was 13. In the gaming world, they’re called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs. They had no graphics, no fancy special effects or sounds. They relied wholly on imagination, and that made them both powerful and engaging.

I am afraid to calculate how many hours I logged on MUDs over the course of the 10 years I spent playing, administering, and running them.

I started out as a player and eventually became a staff member. I helped police the game, assisted with problems, resolve bugs, and even add content. I would also help encourage role-play by planning quests and special events for some or all of the players to participate in, and these events involved storytelling in its purest form.

Now, I know for a fact I logged well over 10,000 hours. It might be close to 30,000 (or more) – but let’s not concern ourselves too much with that. And not all of my hours were spent writing, but a good portion of them were. I cannot deny that my involvement in running and administering MUDs helped develop my craft.

My journey might not be conventional, but it definitely had worth.

How about for yourself? What unconventional methods helped develop your craft? Do you have a unique journey that led you to writing? During a typical day, do you find opportunities to focus and develop your skill? I’d love to hear your stories, so please feel free to share them in the comments below.

A Journey to Storytelling

I have been a writer – a storyteller – since I was 13 years old.

When I was younger, I struggled at school in English. It was never my forte. In fact, in grade 5 I believe my grade in English might have been a D.

I never had much interest in books. In a heated spar with my 15-year old sister, she once lobbed the word “illiterate” at me because I only read Calvin & Hobbes. (Note my surprize when, after obtaining a degree in Psychology and Philosophy and re-reading Calvin & Hobbes, I was blown away by the profundity of Bill Watterson’s work. It likely had a major influence on my post-secondary academic pursuits.)

At my family’s cottage on the 13th summer of my youth, I was introduced to the world of Fantasy by a neighbor. He spoke to me of fantasy books and of these incredible on-line, text-based roleplaying games called MUDs – Multi-User Dungeons. We were playing badminton on the green grass, overlooking the blue waters of the lake, and my world exploded with the possibility of playing an elf, dwarf, orc, or troll, a warrior, mage, thief, or cleric.

It changed everything.

I began playing MUDs that September, logging on to the local FreeNet through our old 2400-baud modem. My parent s were worried, for their only son was beginning to explore the mysterious “cyberspace,” and these MUDs weren’t the typical pastime of 13-year-old boys.

If you’ve never played a MUD before, allow me to give an overview.

MUDs are 100% text-based. There are no graphics, no special effects to seduce and entertain you. Sometimes, you’ll find color (and at the time, this was the most impressive aspect of some MUDs.) You would create a character and decide what race, class, and moral alignment that character might have. You’d pick your skill sets and your preferred weapon, and you’d be thrown into the game full-force. You created a character – a role – that you would play in the adventures and storytelling – the role-play – that you’d encounter.

Rooms had descriptions, with objects you could obtain and equip. There were channels to chat on, areas to travel through, and guilds to join. There were players from around the world, sharing in the game at any given time. People and monsters were strings of texts you could look at, interact with. If you felt bold, and if the MUD allowed it, you could even fight them.

And to me, it was incredible.

I jumped head-first into the realm of MUDs, beginning originally on a mud called MadROM (because the neighbor at my cottage played there.) It was here that I met one special woman whom I am still in correspondence with today. Indeed, she is the sole inspiration behind the character of Ischade in my first book, In the Shadows of the Dawn.

My parents were understandably concerned. Their son was suddenly a full-time online “gamer.” I spent anywhere from 3-14 hours a day playing on MUDs. My parents tried to limit my online time, but when faced with my logic – “Would you rather I sit in front of the TV for 14 hours?” – it was a near-impossible task to persuade me otherwise. I claimed my homework was always complete, and that it wouldn’t get in the way of my schooling. My report card would ultimately be the deciding factor.

Fast forward to midterms and an A+ in English, and I was victorious.

MUDs also launched me into a world of exploration. Philosophy and religion became avid interests of mine. I was introduced to the world of Fantasy, and the “illiterate” 13-year old was suddenly reading Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, and Terry Goodkind.

It also introduced me to the world of storytelling and roleplaying. It is here, I believe, that my passion for theatre – for the performing arts – and for writing – the telling of stories – was born.

I am grateful for MUDs and for summers at the cottage.

They have undeniably shaped who I am.

Why did you first begin telling stories? What form did they take, and with whom did you share them? Did your passion for storytelling dictate aspects of your life or career? Share your journey in the comments below – I’d love to hear about it.