Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Tag Archives: storytelling

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

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,

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!

Blog Mash-up

I’ve been a little swamped lately, but I’m still reading blogs and wanted to pass along a couple of wonderful articles for you to read. Please check them out:

From Kirsten Lamb:

What “Finding Nemo” Can Teach Us About Storytelling

Storytelling is in our blood, it binds us together as humans. On some intuitive level, everyone understands narrative structure, even little kids. All good stories have a clear beginning, middle and end. Ever try to skip parts of a story with a toddler? Even they can sense on a gut level that something is wrong if we miss a fundamental part of the story. Thus, often when I am teaching new writers how to understand narrative structure, I use children’s movies. Frequently the narrative structure is far clearer, as well as the Jungian archetypes that are present in all great fiction. Additionally, all fiction can be boiled down to cause, effect, cause, effect, cause, effect.

Check out the rest of the blog here.

From Janice Hardy:

Footloose and Not So Fancy Free: Four Ways to Update an Old (and Familiar) Story:

When the hubby and I watched the new Footloosemovie and we had mixed feelings about it. Part if it was easily because the original 1984 version was a big part of our teen years, but part of it was due to the almost too faithful remake. Nothing felt fresh, even though it was new movie. It took what was already out there and just re-made it. It’s a great example of why a book might not grab an agent’s or editor’s eye.

Check out the rest of the blog here.

From Rebecca Berto:

Three Fiction Writing Tips From Famous Authors:

I love these lists. Do you?

I Googled this topic and loved these results so much that I had to share them with you. The best thing is, you can never read enough advice. I mean, who thinks, “Right I know enough. I can’t get any better at writing”?

Check out the rest of the blog here.

Have you come across any fantastic articles that you’d like to share? If so, please post in the comments below – I’d love to see what’s inspiring you these days.

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.

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.

Make Your Writing Groggy – How Spirits Can Add Characterization

I am a bit of a geek. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and one of the things I like to “geek out” on is random (some would argue useless) information. There I’ll be, having a perfectly normal conversation…

Friend: “How goes today?”
Me: “Not bad, and you?”
Friend: “Ahh, I’m feeling a tad bit groggy.”

…and my brain suddenly gets hijacked. Where does the expression “groggy” come from? What’s it all about? What does “groggy” really mean?

And I’ll spend the next twenty minutes futzing around online in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Today, I wanted to share a brief history of GROG. Why? Because it’s neat, and neat stuff rocks.

I spent five years working in the liquor industry, so I’ve got a little bit of knowledge when it comes to spirits. I tend to include spirits in my writing, and I find the inclusion of “adult beverages “can inject a lot into a story.

Three characters walk into a bar.

  • Susette orders a light, fruity white wine.
  • Benson orders an 18-year old oak-cask whisky.
  • Charles orders an ounce of over-proof spirits.

When we read this, our brains conjure up an idea of what these characters are like and what sort of personality they might have. We also get a sense of age, socio-economical status, and perhaps even temperament. Immediately, conclusions are drawn. We’re left with an impression.

It’s a great, simple tool to help flesh out a characterization without overloading the reader with “telling” descriptors. And if you want to add comedy to the mix, you simply go against stereotype. You have the big, battle-hardened warrior order something that’s counter-intuitive, like strawberry wine. It’s instant comedy gold. (Well, maybe not gold… but you get the point.)

Now back to my groggy friend.

Grog is a type of spirit, and it tends to appear in fantasy novels – especially pirate fantasy, or any fantasy tale where the characters find themselves a-sailin’ on the seas..

Back in the days of yore, when sailors went to sea, they needed to bring fresh water as it wasn’t practical to distill fresh water from the salty seas. Water was stored in wooden barrels, which would develop both algae and bacteria. Over months at sea, that water would get pretty vile, and so beer or wine was added in an attempt to make it more palatable. But that involves transporting even more barrels of liquid, and after many months aboard a ship, the risk of spoilage would increase. And since sailors were issued a daily ration of beer, the amount of storage space required to transport the casks – water, beer, wine, brandy, etc. – caused a serious cargo problem.

Rum eventually replace beer and wine/brandy as the drink of choice upon the sea, but it was given to the sailor straight – and as a spirit with a high alcohol content, it caused some undesirable behaviors.  Some sailors would hoard their rations and then go on a bender, resulting in illness – “I’m feeling groggy” – and a severe lack of discipline. And likely a song or two sung off key. But that’s beside the point.

The decision was made to dilute the rum with water, as the final mixture had a shorter shelf-life than the rum alone. This solved the undesirable behavior, and thus became the standard practice. And if you’re curious, the ratio of water to rum was generally 4:1.

Seeing as the stored water wasn’t very tasty, a little bit of citrus – lemon or lime juice, typically – was added. So now we’ve got a tasty blend of foul water, rum, with a dash of citrus… and a ship full of satisfied – and lightly buzzed – sailors. As an added bonus: no more scurvy! And so, grog was officially invented and became common practice until the 1970’s.

And for those who care about etymology, “grog” is said to have taken its name from the nickname of “Old Grog” given to British Admiral Vernon because of his sense of style. It seems Old Vernon enjoyed the stylings of a kind of heavy coat of grogram – a coarse, weather-proof fabric. Vernon was stingy and had mandated the dilution of rum rations with water in 1740, and the term “grog” was used in a derisive way.

Personally, I’m not a fan of grog. I’ve tried it, and I find it tastes too much like Pinesol™. Or at least, it tastes what I imagine Pinesol™ to taste like, as I’ve never tried it. Honestly. Stop judging me. (No, seriously: don’t drink Pinesol™.)

Have you ever used spirits in your writing as a characterization aid? Do you notice it in the books you read? What sort of impression does it give? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Welcome!

Welcome, friends.

I have decided to step up to the plate and join the blogosphere!

The plan? To share articles, information, tips, and tricks about the crafts of writing and editing.  Along the way, you might find some observations about the publishing industry during my journey toward publication. I hope you enjoy the ride!

My passion is FANTASY, although I quite enjoy historical fiction, crime thrillers, and literary fiction. At the end of the day, though, I love a good story, no matter the form or medium. As an actor and playwright, storytelling is what I do for a living. I am incredibly ambitious, curious, and motivated to become the best storyteller I can possibly be, and this exploration is just another step down that road.

This is an exciting opportunity to connect with fellow authors, readers, and enthusiasts, and I invite you to participate in the discussion.

Cheers,

Paul