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Writing Level-Up: The Fire Opal

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Jun 29th, 2010
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Over the weekend I finished the first draft of a new short story called The Fire Opal. In the beginning of my novel, Jack of Hearts, Jack meets a family in the Desert of Night Walking that has been robbed of their only horse by the charlatan wizard he’s hunting. Jack gives the family a rough opal to compensate them and vanishes after the wizard. The Fire Opal tells what happens to that family.

I really, really wanted it to be 5000 words, and I had the general story arc mapped out ahead of time–but half-way through the writing process it took an abrupt turn. I should say *I* took an abrupt turn, because I don’t subscribe to the idea that I’m just along for the ride, following the story wherever it wants to go–I’m the AUTHOR dammit, the characters and plot obey me (under threat of deletion!)–but I can sympathize with that view. That’s what it feels like at times, anyway.

The disruption occurred at what I thought was the end of a sentence that went:  Kali grabbed his wrist and clawed the opal out of his hand, which turned out to only be half a sentence that spontaneously grew the following: except when she opened her fist she saw it wasn’t the opal.

Since you haven’t read the story, the significance of that sentence and it’s uninvited appendage are probably lost on you. But trust me, it was supposed to be the opal. It was a lark, a stray thought, and after I typed it, I laughed. Yeah, that would be cool and crazy. Okay, let’s just delete that and get on with the story. But I paused, because maybe it wasn’t just a stray thought. Maybe it was a subconscious signal–maybe it’s what I really wanted to happen as a reader, because it would be crazy, and more dramatic, and interesting. The worker in me balked momentarily because it meant more effort, more thinking through the ripples it would have on the storyline. You know what? Put some duct tape on that dude’s mouth because he never has the best interests of the reader in mind, or your goals as a writer.

So I let the sentence stand, thought about everything I’d have to change, then plunged ahead. I took a left turn when the map said go right. And that, as Mr. Frost once said, has made all the difference. I think, anyway. I could be wrong–maybe I should have stuck to the plan, but I believe I ended up with something more emotionally compelling (to me anyway). The story came in at 6300 words instead. It’s a first draft, so I can probably  chop some more fat after I let the story simmer a while.

If you’re a planner, I’m certainly not advocating dumping planning, or just following any stray thought, but I do recommend staying open to new possibilities that present themselves along the way. It’s along the way that you know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the journey.

On a different tack–anyone else know of any cool novels that spawned short stories set in the same universe? I think it’s fun to find out what happens to an interesting side-character or explore a locale only touched on by the main novel.

Hurray for Jack!

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Jun 22nd, 2010
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Around spring I entered Jack of Hearts into a few Novel/First Chapter type contests. Just got the results in from the last one (I think, unless I’ve forgotten about one) over at the The Write Helper. As far as I can tell this contest was open to all genres. I’m happy to report that Jack of Hearts ended up in 4th place out of 68 entries.

I saw the result on their website, but I’m looking forward to reading the editor’s official critique when it shows up in the mail.

And with that, I think I’m done with contests from here on out. It’s great to get the feedback (when it’s offered) and some validation (when you do well) but I think I’ve gotten all the value out of them I can at this point. A few more tweaks remain and then I’ll be sending my first batch of query letters out to agents. By carrier pigeon. Agents like that, right?

Writing Level-Up: Action

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Jun 18th, 2010
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[Occasionally I'll post about my experiences trying to improve as a writer. If you’re a writer you might find something useful. Sometimes the topic will converge on game design, my other vocational passion.]

Action scenes are fun to write. They’re fun to read too, when the text doesn’t get in the way of the unfolding drama. After receiving critiques from some talented writers over the years I’ve collected several pointers that have helped me and that I try to keep in mind in my writing process.

To serve as an example I’ve dragged out an old dusty piece of writing from a prehistoric draft of Jack of Hearts. First, a little context: the protagonist—a falchion wielding waif of a boy named Jack—has come to the edge of a deep chasm. A rickety bridge spans the chasm, except half the bridge (the far half) is drawn up. Jack decides he can probably leap across the gap to the upraised bridge with a good running start. Here’s a short passage from the original draft of that scene:

When he came to the edge, Jack sprang. Legs still churning, he flew out over the chasm, his cloak unfurling behind him like a sail … and fell short. But before dropping away he swept his sword overhead in a huge arc. It hummed through the air—


—and bit deep into the wooden end of the far bridge, sticking. Jack dangled from the blade. He glanced down between his feet at the river far below. Cool mist swirled around him, dampening his belly.

Now let’s look at this through the lens of these three pointers:

1. Don’t neuter your drama before it begins.

Once Jack starts to fall, the next sentence begins with: “But before dropping away he…” This phrasing is unfortunate because it reassures the reader that Jack’s going to be okay. It completely obliterates any suspense. It’d be better to force the reader to wonder, if only a second more, what’s going to happen next.

2. Put the details where they matter

Case in point: do we really have to be told that the cloak unfurls BEHIND him? Could it unfurl in front of him? No. It’s obvious from the preceding action which way the cloak unfurls, so it’s an extraneous detail. The word count here could instead be spent on describing Jack’s sensations. I should have put in details that serve the main drama front and center, and omitted details that are extraneous or irrelevant.

3. Word choice is critical

This is of course just good advice across the board, and seems obvious–but it’s important to see how it can matter. A lot of words you could choose as a writer might work in a sentence, but often there’s a word that best serves the goals of the text (in this case to heighten the drama of Jack’s precarious leap). Take the section where Jack is dangling from the sword. It says he “glanced” down. Normally, glancing is a casual action. I glance at my watch, at the tv, whatever. Even though it technically works here, it’s not a good verb if the point is to convey that he’s hanging from a dizzying height, facing death.

All of these problems stack up to create a barrier between the reader and the story, when what we want is immediacy. We want to feel viscerally what it’s like for Jack to spring across the gap and fall short. I think these are good pointers to keep in mind as you’re writing an action scene, or to use as a lens to analyze a scene you’ve already written. Of course, they’re rules of thumb that have helped me. Your mileage may vary.

Anyone else have any tips or stylistic preferences when it comes to action?

Guest Post: Secret Archives

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Jun 11th, 2010
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This week I wrote a guest post for the cool people over at Secret Archives of the Alliterati. Head over and check it out.

Another Near Success

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Jun 3rd, 2010
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Since I posted about “Near Successes” last week, I suppose that’s what I should call this one. Earlier this year I entered Jack of Hearts into the Writer’s League of Texas manuscript contest. (I also entered into the Houston Writer’s Guild  contest which I posted about here). The contest is based on the first 10 pages and a synopsis. Just got the result back in the mail.

Unfortunately, JoH didn’t win in its category. However, there’s a bright side–it did score a 9 in almost every category being judged (out of 10 possible). Which must mean the winners got 10’s, so congratulations to the winners. The judge(s) also wrote some very nice comments about the story. Here’s a quote:

“I am not sure how far along the author is in the drafting of Jack of Hearts and the second book in the series, but these first nine pages are polished and professional and warrant a further read by an agent/editor. Much potential for publication.”

The judges are anonymous, but whoever you are, thanks for the great comments! I’m about to begin submitting to agents, so I hope they agree with your assessment.

About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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