Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Story Synthesis: The Ultimate Tool in the Toolkit

Craft and Practice

Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.

The Ultimate Tool in the Toolkit

Remember when you were a kid and you had to lie to your parents? Maybe you trashed the house while they were away, dented the passenger-side door of their new car, or perhaps you can go back even farther with me and you remember drawing with crayons on the wall or stealing the last cookie from the cookie jar.

Whatever you did, I’ll bet you had to tell one heck of a story to get out of trouble. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. Odds are, if you told a real whopper, they grounded you for a week. Too many details, or maybe too few. Too many working components you couldn’t keep track of, or maybe you introduced logic gaps and they picked the damn thing apart on you, literary-critic-style. The key all along would’ve been balance, believability mixed with a healthy dose of surprise. And boy were they surprised. What lovely colors you added to their wall.

As storytellers, we often do something similar, draw all over the walls and then spin an incredible yarn about it. Although, if you feel the need to call us liars, remember that the preferred technical term is “professional liars”. Story synthesis relies on your reasoning skills, ability to drive a narrative in fun and creative ways, and your talent for convincing your readers everything happened just like you said.

Story synthesis applies to every level of the storytelling process, from brainstorming and outlining to drafting and revisions. It applies to character histories, plot details, scene details, dialogue choices, and you must believe me when I tell you this, if you can’t synthesize spare parts on the fly in an organic, natural, and logical manner, you’ll leave your readers cold, and no one wants cold readers, now do they? In very real terms, story synthesis is the most important tool in the toolkit, one not every author has developed to its full potential.

It’s a bit of a magic act, a spell you’ve got to cast on yourself. It happens while you’re writing, which of course means it must be at least somewhat subliminal and unconscious. What we’re really talking about here, though, is completion and resonance. Do all the different parts of your story add up? Do they make sense in context? Does anything come out of left field? Or conversely, is your story just too milk toast?

Story synthesis isn’t hard as such, because your brain synthesizes concepts from disparate elements all day long anyway. It does, however, require a bit of practice to do well, especially if you’re writing a long-form story, like a novel. Much as a spider would, your job as an author is to take all the loose threads you’ve spun and collect them together into a coherent web. This is why it’s usually a bad idea to abandon a project and then pick it up again later. Those threads might be lost on you. The process by which you were synthesizing the narrative died an untimely death, and now you can’t pick your way through and reassemble it, at least not in the same manner.

Story emerges from character, unless you’re outlining too heavily, in which case story emerges from, well, an outline. What’s the difference? In one scenario, it appears to the reader that your characters are making their own choices. In the other, it’s clear you’ve rigged the deck, and that the whole experience is artificial. In my experience, people who rely too heavily on outlines doubt their ability to synthesize story in a natural way. Either that or they think outlining will save them time and effort. As Stephen King once said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

At any one moment in the process, ask yourself what your characters want and how, reasonably so, they can go about getting it. The rest will flow from that, though not effortlessly, so don’t get it twisted. Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. A common enough situation. And though you’ve had a general plan all along, something ended up rushed and malformed. You may need to go off the rails to land back on your feet. So to speak. I say blow the whole thing to pieces. Do something to really shake yourself loose. You’ve got to navigate your own twisting waterways with grace, or put another way, all those balls you’ve tossed into the air? They’d better be in your hands and not on the floor by the end of your routine.

Don’t be afraid. Some of the best writing you’ll ever produce will be wholly unexpected. Be the trapeze artist, the reed in the wind. Be willing to exert a little nonchalant flexibility when you feel most worried all your herculean efforts have gone up in smoke. The synthesis of your tale into something readable and engaging begins when you relinquish a little control and trust your creativity and rational mind. Because really, it requires both.

Synthesis in this context applies most especially to story climaxes, the worst of the worst, the hardest to pull off. Sure, beginnings are tricky, and middles are a tough nut to crack, but the endings, oh, the endings. I’d like you to imagine a pot of boiling stew. Now imagine your readers watched you cook this amazing stew from start to finish. They watched you cut up the veggies and meat, saw you season everything and stand at the stove for hours, stirring and tweaking. They’re even aware you’ve been taste testing, which is important because it means they trust that you at least find the flavor remarkable.

But let’s say that stew wasn’t synthesized properly. Maybe you were working off a recipe and failed to notice it needed certain improvements, or maybe it just came to you and you rushed the chopping and cutting. Potato pieces the size of peas. Celery stocks that may as well be whole. If dinner doesn’t go well, it hardly matters what you think you did or how well you think you did it. I mean just look. You left a whole pile of carrots sitting on the cutting board. Why didn’t you throw those in? And that beef broth you only used half of? It probably explains why your stew tastes like wet cardboard.

You see? Good story synthesis means combining all of your disparate and seemingly unconnected ingredients together creatively, confidently, logically. In fact, if you do find yourself in no man’s land over a piece of fiction, get excited, because it means you’ve got the opportunity to pull off something truly magical. As you’re writing, keep track of everything you still have to pay off. You know what a payoff is, right? If someone mentions a mountain in Chapter One and we never see its summit, not even by Chapter Forty, that’s not a good payoff. You might even keep a list running so you miss not a single opportunity to pull one more good thread together.

Like the man said, “Not all who wander are lost.” I urge you to get lost in your writing this month. Check and see that this particular superpower is performing at peak levels. And remember, good story synthesis isn’t about shock and awe, not necessarily. It’s about balance, inevitability, structural harmony. Plus tons of shock and awe. You wouldn’t want people to get bored, now would you? I’ll be back in September with more Craft and Practice. Good hunting, everybody.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!

Love Madness Demon Cover Final

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


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Announcing the WordCrafter 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference

SiP Header

We’re all tired of staying at home during this recent crisis. It seems like everyone has been affected in different ways, but no one has gone unscathed. Our world has changed in recent times. We, as authors and lovers of the written word had many of our in-person writing events – conferences, conventions, and book fairs – cancelled due to the appearance of COVID 19. To to emulate all those events we look forward to each year and are missing out on now, and to chase away some of the boredom of social distancing and isolation, WordCrafter presents the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference on Tuesday, April 28 from 8 am to 8 pm.

This is a unique event, the first of its kind, and one you won’t want to miss. Free presentations and author takeovers will be occurring on the Facebook event page, and interactive workshops and panel discussions will be offered for a minimal fee on the Zoom platform. Interactive panel discussions and workshop session can be accessed individually for $5, or an all access pass to all interactive sessions can be purchased for $50. Tickets can be purchased on the Facebook event page. Watch for your Facebook event invite from me or one of the many wonderful authors involved with this conference. Send me a message through my WordCrafter page or through the event page if you have further questions, or if you would like a half an hour author takeover spot to promote your own work.

This has been a huge undertaking to organize and set up an event such as this one, but I haven’t done it alone. Without my 22 talented presenters, this event couldn’t happen. We have a great line-up, with international bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson presenting the keynote on the interactive platform.

Kevin J. Anderson

And that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the talent that has lined up for presentations, workshops and panel discussions.

Mario Acevedo

Award winning and national bestselling speculative fiction author Mario Acevedo will be offering a presentation – “The Power of Motivation: What Your Characters Do and Why”

Alatorre Bio

USA Today bestselling multi-genre author Dan Alatorre will be a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.

Chris Barili - B.T. Clearwater

Multi-genre author Chris Barili will be presenting “Writing in the Face of Adversity” and giving an interactive workshop on “Writing Across Genres”.

 

L.D. Colter - L. Deni Colter

Award winning fantasy author L.D. Colter will be offering a presentation on “Short Fiction”.

Candido Bio

World builder and speculative fiction author Kieth R.A. DeCandido will be offering an interactive workshop on “The Business of Writing” and he is the moderator for the media tie-in interactive panel discussion.

DeMarco Bio

Award winning novelist Guy Anthony De Marco will be a member on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.

Anthony Dobranski

Fantasy and science fiction author Anthony Dobranski will offer two presentaions, “How to Swim Upstream: Not being in the mainstream of your market/genre” and “Working with Others: How to direct others in a project”. In addition, he will offer two interactive workshops. “Business Class Tarot” and “The Savage Horror of Writing Back Cover Copy”.

Jason Henderson

Author for young readers, Jason Henderson will be presenting “Story Ideas and the Choices You Make” and moderating the interactive book marketing panel discussion.

Kevin Killiany

Media tie-in author Kevin Killiany will be a member on the interactive world building, media tie-in, and short fiction panel discussions.

L. Jagi Lamplighter

Award winning young adult fantasy author L. Jagi Lamplighter will be on the interactive panel on world building, and moderate the interactive short fiction interactive panel discussion.

Lawless Bio

Award-winning science fiction author J.R.H. Lawless will be a member of the book marketing interactive panel discussion.

Jonathan Maberry

Award winning and New York Times bestselling multi-genre author Jonathan Maberry will be a member on three interactive panel discussions: short fiction, world building and media tie-ins.

Bobby Nash

Award winning multi-genre author Bobby Nash will deliver a presentation on “The Importance of Promotion”, as well as being a member of both the media tie-in and book promotion panel discussions.

Nye Bio

Science fiction and fantasy author Jody Lynn Nye will offer a presentation on using humor in science fiction and fantasy writing, “Bringing the Funny: how to apply humor to your writing” and she will be a member of the world building interactive panel discussion.

Ellie Raine

Award winning fantasy author Ellie Raine will sit on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.

Art Rosch

Award winning multi-genre author Art Rosch will offer a presentation on “Creating Villains We Love to Hate”.

Sean Taylor

Award winning multi-genre author Sean Taylor will offer a presentation on “Visceral Story Beginnings”.

Vandenberg Bio

Science fiction author and marketing expert Alexi Vandenberg will be joining the book marketing panel.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Award winning poet and author Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer offers a livestream presentation “The Gateway to the Unknown: A Poetry Thought Shop”.

Rick Wilber

Author and educator Rick Wilber will be a member of the short fiction interactive panel discussion.

Dave Wolverton - David Farland

Award winning and New York Times bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Dave Wolverton/David Farland offers a”Promoting Your Book BIG” and he is a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.

You can find a full schedule here. I do hope all of you will join us for this unique writing event. It’s the first of its kind and we could be making history. You can be a part of it, too. Join us.


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“A Warm Winter Skye”: A Christmas Novella that touches the heart

A Warm Winter Skye

A Warm Winter Skye, by J.C. Wing is a Christmas novella in Wing’s Gannon Family series. Even if you haven’t read the previous books in the series, this story is easy to follow and you feel as if you almost know the characters. I’m not sure why it is labeled as a Christmas Novella, other than the fact that the story takes place in the months preceeding Christmas.

I had trouble as I went to write this review, because I wasn’t sure what to say. It’s a good story. The problem might be what I said about ‘almost’ knowing the characters. This could have been a novel, instead of a novella. Wing could have gone into more depth, allowing us to know more about them. Perhaps if I had read the preceeding stories in the series, I wouldn’t have been left feeling as if there should be more.

It really is a good story. One that will make readers fret over the possible outcomes and remind them of the power of love and family.  The characters need to be more fully developed, and the Irish dialect is too heavy and hard to understand, but I still wanted to read to the end. I give A Warm Winter Skye three quills.

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Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


“Twisted Webs” may leave readers tied up in knots

Twisted Webs

Twisted Webs, by Darlene Quinn has more twists and turns than a lab rat maze. The story moves along at a quick pace, with brief chapters that keep the pages turning and maintains interest over an eight year period of storyline. Even though the setting revolves around the worlds of high fashion and finance, the characters were easy to identify with and I found myself rooting for good guys and bad guys alike. After all, they are all just flawed humans, no matter their intentions. This story deals with many issues that are prevalent in the world today. It is a tale of finding lost children, lost mothers and lost inner-selves.

This story pulled me in and didn’t let go until the last page. More importantly, the plot and characters stayed with me long after I put the book down. I give Twisted Webs five quills. five-quills3

 

Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


“Freedom’s Song”: A Well-Crafted Romantic Thriller

Freedom's Song

Freedom’s Song, by A.K. Lawrence has all the elements of a good romance wrapped up in the plot of a top notch thriller. It is obvious that this is book 2 of the continuing saga of Baldwin series, (novels set in the small town setting of Baldwin, Michigan), but Lawrence offers just enough background to keep me from being in the dark on the first one, without actually reading it, yet doesn’t bog you down with backstory. The characters feel realistic enough to make me care about what happens next, and that’s a good thing.

Hunter and Anna found each other last summer, during the life or death events in the first book, when he became the knight in shining armor for both Anna, who was kidnapped and Nancy, who was married to Anna’s kidnapper, an all-around louse of a guy, named Dock. Now Nancy’s divorce is almost final, and Colby has plans to make his move for Nancy once she is a free agent once more. But, all is not as it seems and a blast from his puts the brakes on his anticipated romance, when his college stalker girlfriend reappears on the scene to claim her man.

The only complaint I had with this story was I felt the dwarf subplot and the proposal pool were left unresolved, and we really didn’t get to see them through to the end. If you read the book, you’ll see what I mean. The romantic elements carry the story as we get to know the characters and sets things up, but when the thriller elements join the party things start hopping with good tension and suspense. I give Freedom’s Song five quills.

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Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


“Gyre”: A Science Fantasy Romance novel worth reading

Gyre

Gyre, by Jessica Gunn is the first book in her Atlas Link series. It is the story of Chelsea, a descendent of Atlantis, who is just discovering her amazing powers and Trevor, a Lemurian descendent, who should be her mortal enemy, but instead falls for her in a big way. See? Boy meets girl, but there is no way they can be together, yet they will fight against all the odds, and even against family to prove them all wrong. Now if that isn’t the recipe for a perfect romance, I don’t know what is. As they are traveling aboard a top secret naval submarine complete with cloak, I think Gunn has the science fiction elements and Lemurians and Atlanteans with super powers pretty much covers the fantasy realm. If it sounds confusing, read the book. It’s actually a pretty good genre combination.

Chelsea is discovering her powers. First super strength, which she was able to ignore, or deny, but now she keeps teleporting to a location near Trevor any time she gets stressed. The problem is, Trevor is on a top secret U.S. Naval Sub cruising the ocean depths, but on that vessel also may lie the answers to Chelsea’s unasked questions about who she is really and she might learn to control her newfound powers. Unlike Chelsea, Trevor is aware of his heritage as a Lemurian, but he refuses to get involved in the war his people are wageing with the Atlanteans. He just can’t believe the girl he’s falling for is his innate enemy, and he’s able to keep it all under control until they find an Atlantean outpost filled with valuable artifacts on the ocean floor. It seems everybody wants those artifacts for their own reasons, and we can only guess who will get them, and where Chelsea will end up.

This story is well-written, with minimal telling of the tale. The characters are likeable, except for Trevor’s friend and fellow Lemurian, Valerie, who is a bit difficult to figure out, but I think that’s done on purpose to throw readers off the trail. I give Gyre four quills.

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Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


“A Cat Came Back”: an unusual tale of transformation

A Cat Came Back

A Cat Came Back, by Simone Martel is a quirky little tale about a woman who finds herself in the body of a cat. Most of us, put in the same position, would panic and try to figure a way to get our own body back, but not Eliza. She accepts what has happened as a a matter of course. All she wants is for someone to see her for who she really is, and at first, it seems that being in this cat body might not be such a bad thing, since her boyfriend, Stu, takes one look at the cat and knows she’s in there. But, being recognized for who you are isn’t always easy, you have to keep working at it, especially when the only sounds that come out of your mouth are purrs, yowls and hisses.

A thoroughly entertaining story of transformation that offers a few surprises and the occasional chuckle. It’s light and quirky and funny. Not your typical body switching out of the bottle tale. I give A Cat Came Back four quills.

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“Blood in the Water”: A Crazy Crime Novel

Blood cover

Author Tim Baker has done it again and Flagler Beach is the setting for another crazy crime caper, Blood in the Water. Ike helps a friend with a seach for sunken treasure that leads to a thirty year old cold case, which strangely enough is tied to a murder investigation his girlfriend, Val, has undertaken. Can they bring done the killer and solve the cold case before he learns they are on his trail and puts a stop to their plans? No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

As usual, Tim Baker has turned out a fun and extremely entertaining read. Readers will root for the good guys and boo whenever the villian appears. Hidden identities, missing persons, sunken treasure and lots of danger. This book has it all.

I give Blood in the Water five quills.

Five Quills3


Leaving Eva/Losing Eva: A story of loss and seperation

Sivec Books

Leaving Eva and its sequel Losing Eva, by Jennifer Sivec, are a sad and tragic tale that evokes strong emotional response in the telling. This touching story may be true to life, covering the lives of not one, but several dysfunctional generations of women and the men in their lives, over the course of time. It is a tale where one tragic action by one self-centered girl dominoes into many heart-wrenching losses in a saga where nobody wins. While each book easily stands alone, together they tell a story of loss and tragedy that will bring all but those with hearts of stone to their knees. There is so much heartbreak within these two stories that they left me longing for a sequel, one titled Loving Eva, where at least one woman of the Harper family might finally find happiness.

One spoiled rich girl, Ellie, and a series of poor choices, leads to a life of abuse and neglect for her daughter, Eva, whom she abandons at a very young age. Losing Eva is the story of that young girl’s life, spent searching for love that seems to be just beyond her grasp. Losing Eva is the story of how once found, she constantly struggles to keep that love, and how it always seems to slip through her fingers. In addition, these books tell the story of all the others who are effected, both directly and indirectly, by Ellie’s initial decisions and the lessons, both learned and missed, from them.

This is a story you won’t want to put down. Sivec’s characters are well developed and she  makes you care about them. You will  hope for positive life experiences for them and root for them when they succeed, especially for the main character, Brynn. The plot is full of surprises and rivets you to your seat to find out what will happen next.

My only problem is the head hopping. In places it gets to be so bad that I had to stop and go back to figure out who’s POV I was in. At times the viewpoint changed mid-paragraph, which really made me have to stop and reread. Regardless of the recurring confusions that this caused, and the fact that it is one of my biggest pet peeves, this story was so powerfully told that it brought me to tears on more than one occasion. The Harper generational saga is woven like an intricate narative tapestry through the lifetime of one hauntingly tragic Harper woman.

Grab a box of tissue when you settle in to read Leaving Eva and Losing Eva. I give this story set four quills.

Four Quills3

Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.


Exposition: Telling vs. Showing

Old Manual Typewriter

A writer should show the reader, rather than tell the reader. Help them form a mental picture in their minds. Put them into the story. How many times have we all been told this? Finding a balance between showing and telling is a hard thing to do, but to be a good writer we must strive to achieve that balance.

I’m a person who likes to think big, and in my writing it’s no different. As many of you know, in graduate school, my genre fiction thesis project was the first book in my Playground for the Gods science fantasy series, In the Beginning. But, what you may not know is that my original thesis proposal was for what turned out to be the third book, only in my mind it was the only book and it spans back beyond prehistoric time. While preparing my thesis proposal the feedback that I recieved from instructors and cohorts time and again, was that my proposal would require too much exposition unless I created an epic tomb of unfathomable porportions, way beyond the scope of my thesis requirements, and impossible to complete in the time allowed.

The main problem was that there was a lot of background that I felt the reader needed to understand where the character was coming from in the now of the story. Most of that information was being communicated to my readers through exposition. The story wasn’t taking them back to relive the scene, it was simply filling them in on what they needed to know, because the story I wanted to tell spanned over billions of years. That’s a lot of backstory. That’s exposition.

Robin Conley saw a similar problem in her review of the movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, “Almost all of these really big elements deserved a proper set up because they are major story parts that will potentially carry over… The long exposition and set up in the film makes the story drag and hard to stay involved, no matter how many interesting elements there are.” Thumbs DownRobin explains what exposition does and why we don’t want too much of it. Too much exposition is like coming in in the middle of a film you’ve already seen, and filling in other viewers on what is happening, instead of letting them watch the film and figure it out for themselves.

That was the problem with my PfG story – way too much exposition. It happens all the time. And it’s easy to overlook it when you’re the author. Which is exactly what I had done with my thesis. I had that story outlined and plotted, but I kept having to stop and fill in the background details with exposition. And exposition tells your readers something, but it doesn’t provide a mental image for them. It doesn’t pulace them in the scene. Action and dialog accomplish those tasks quite well. And my cohorts and instructors were right, although at the time, I didn’t want to believe them.

My solution was to turn my story into a four part series. Hence the Playground for the Gods series was born. All that backstory, which had come out mostly in exposition, became a story of its own, one that I could show my readers, rather than telling them about it. My original story idea will eventually be book three, and although I did have to write the whole first book instead of the story I set out to tell for my thesis, that story outline is still waiting for me to put it in story form.

Of course, that isn’t the only way to solve problems of exposition, but this can be applied without creating entire novels. You simply expand on some scenes to eliminate exposition and create a longer story, chosing those scenes that are most vital to the story. You can also chose to leave certain information out, thus eliminating exposition without lengthening, and perhaps even shortening your story. It is a delicate balance, but as the writer, you must do what the story needs to achieve it. What works for one story may not necessarily be the answer for another.

So, how much exposition is too much? That’s a very subjective question, but generally speaking, if you’re telling your reader what happened, with a few lines of glib dialog thrown in here or there, then you have too much exposition. Your reader wants to get lost in the book, and for that, they need a story that is told in such a way that they feel like they are there.

We’ve all read stories like that. For me, it’s Anne Rice. I may have never been to New Orleans, but after reading some of her books, I feel like the Garden District and the French Quarter are old frieinds. I can smell the magnolia blossoms, and see the old plantation houses as if I’d been there. That’s the kind of story we, as authors, strive to write, regardless of the genre we write in. It’s the kind of story that has the perfect balance, using exposition only when absolutely necessary to fill in details, providing plenty of action and dialog to fill in the rest. It’s a  delicate balance, but one we must all strive for.

Until next time, Happy Writing!

 

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