Robert Newton Peck’s “Fiction is Folks”

Robert Peck’s Fiction is Folks was a difficult book for me to get through on my first read and an entertaining book on my second read. I’ll read it at least one more time before I’m satisfied I’ve sucked all the marrow from its pages (that odd phrasing is one of his suggestions. Such odd phrasings wake the reader up. You may not like that one, that’s fine, and learn the technique. Practice it. The technique useful even if my example is not).

My initial challenge was the reason I was entertained on my second read: Peck is homesy and folksy. He is direct, clear, honest. He’s a native Vermonter and it shows in both his prose and his examples.

An important point about his examples: most of them passed over me on my first read because this entire book is an example. He explains something and read his explanation again. It’s an example of what he’s explaining. Now look at the example he uses for his explanation. Yes, it’s an example and it contains a thread to the next example.

Also (and like most Writers’ Digest books I’ve read) he covers a broad range of topics well beyond character (the main item in this book). A partial list includes:

  • Blurbs
  • Plot
  • Character
  • Covers
  • Story
  • Marketing
  • Structure
  • Language
  • Exercises
  • and this doesn’t touch on the general stuff you need to know to get your work published

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William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”

I feel sorry for fiction writers and author-wannabes who pass by On Writing Well because it’s subtitled “The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.”

Don’t let that fool you. This book is a gem.

It’s not laid out like most books I’ve read on (fiction) writing (the TOC’s chapters include The Transaction, Simplicity, Clutter, Style (okay, I recognize that one), Unity, The Interview, Writing About a Place (Oh, you mean “Setting,” right?), and other obscurities) and readers should expect that; Zinsser’s writing about how to make your writing better, more exact, more succinct, more communicative of what you want to communicate.

He’s writing a book for people who need to have their writing understood by a specific audience.

But…umm…isn’t that what fiction writers want, too?


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Four pieces for a workshop

I’m taking an online writing workshop. For several reasons.

First and foremost, I know I can improve.

Second and notquitemost, I enjoy learning.

One assignment had four parts, shared here (to give folks a break from The Goatmen of Aguirra):

Write a Character Description where the Character isn’t happy with their appearance
Mary said yes.
Yes!
I can’t believe she said yes.
To me!
Why me? My god, does skype show all those wrinkles? Or the gray? How come I didn’t trim my beard today?
And I smiled a lot. I should have spent that extra $100 for the whitener the dentist suggested.
But she said yes!
My eyes are bloodshot. I can’t believe my eyes are bloodshot.
At least she couldn’t smell my breath over Skype.
Or can she?
Maybe that’s why she was smiling so much. Her pretty, whimsical smile. All teeth and curls.
She wasn’t smiling at saying yes, she was smiling because she could smell my breath, knew I just woke up, hadn’t even had a coffee yet, hadn’t brushed my teeth, combed my hair…
Why did I take that fucking call?

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Describe something from nature
Cool, night air.
The musk of woods swirling about our feet like hungry raccoons pecking at our toes.
Bright, Autumn moonlight leading Orion through the sky, away from dawn.
Wolves howl, owls hoot, loons call.
The gentle touch of my lover’s hand in mine.

Describe someone’s perception of nature
What’s wrong here?
The trees are at their posts, the rivers course on their ways, the clouds dance correctly overhead.
What’s wrong here?
The bees buzz on their flowers, the ants carry leaves to their nests, the spiders sit lazily in their webs.
What’s wrong here?
The snakes slither after toads, the toads snatch hatchlings on the wet, wet bottoms, the salamanders spread their toes like firewalkers on parade.
What’s wong here?

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Show People Realizing they’re not where they should be
I catch my wife’s eye and nod towards the end of the vegetable aisle.
“What’s he doing?”
“I’m not sure, but the two people with him don’t look happy.”
“She’s trying to calm him.”
“That boy’s getting ready to scream.”
“Should we alert the manager? Does this store have security?”
“A place with food this expensive in this neighborhood would have disguised Pinkertons walking the aisles. They’ll act if they have to.”
“Bullshit. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. They’ve got money. Nobody’s going to throw them out.”
“How come everyone’s ignoring them?”
“How come we’re not going up to him, asking him if there’s a problem, asking him if he needs help?”
“Because he’s a fucking lunatic, the way he’s behaving. You want to get near that?”
“I don’t want that boy – “
“Oh, my god! He whacked that boy!”

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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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World-Building – Moving from Mundane to Fantastic Settings

When asked, “How do characters move from mundane to fantastic settings?” the correct answer is:

  1. The take the 45st L, get off at the first stop, then go left at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. By grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

In the Harry Potter Universe, children get to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station. Aside from people not noticing a young person with a tram of luggage and a caged owl on top or that youngster and all their belongings suddenly disappearing into a brick pillar, we’re back to the familiar in the unfamiliar mentioned in World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters.

It’s worth noting that Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 is a representation of the starting point for every hero on every hero’s journey regardless of culture or mythology: We enter the fantastic via the mundane. The invitation to the mythic must be accepted or there is no journey and the invitation must be accepted in front of others – Muggles – who can’t accept or refuse to accept it. Usually there’s a mentor/guide/guardian/herald/… someone to help the young adventurer on. Harry Potter’s Mrs. Weasley told him how to “enter”, ie, pass the first challenge.

The message here is that entry into the fantastic is always around us, is everywhere, is waiting for us to become aware. Consider Keith Jarrett’s preface to his album Treasure Island:

The treasure has always been there
It is not hidden
But is only where certain people would look
At all
Thus it remains a secret to the rest
And to solace themselves
They say it’s hidden
Or buried
To still their invading thoughts.

Some are calm and content
Or at peace, in their words

Some are stirred and cloudy
But they are improving their vision

Of the island
Of themselves

I make use of these “we must see the magic for it to exist” concepts myself in my short story The Magic Tassels: A shaman lives in a village and is known for the magic tassels he wears on his wrists. Different villages come and ask what the tassels are for and he asks them, “What do you think?” Everyone tells a magic story about them save three old women who mock him. Later the village is threatened and everyone will die. The villagers come to the shaman for help and his tassels turn into the magic each saw, which saves them.

Except for the three old women. When they ask him to save them he answers, “No, the only magic in my tassels is that which others put there. All the magic I gave others they already had. I merely reminded them of the magic within them. You saw nothing in my tassels, so there’s nothing I can give you. There is no magic in you for me to remind you.”


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