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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Orson Scott Card’s “Characters & Viewpoint”

First and up front, I’ve never enjoyed an Orson Scott Card book. I could never get into them. They didn’t interest me. When a reviewer favorably compared my The Augmented Man to Card’s Ender’s Game, I scratched my head. Grateful, of course, and still confused.

However, Card’s Characters & Viewpoint?

Another story (forgive the pun) entirely.

Although titled “Characters & Viewpoint”, the subtitle is “How to invent, construct, and animate vivid, credible characters and choose the best eyes through which to view the events of your short story or novel.” Tear that subtitle apart and you get (or, at least I got):

  • Character
  • General story building elements
  • Story concept
  • Scenes
  • Story structure
  • POV
  • Narration

I so dog-eared this book my folded pages made it twice as thick as normal.


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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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Faith Untested

This story has been haunting me since 2013 and has gone through four revisions. I believe there’s one heck of a story here…somewhere…comments welcome…


Faith Untested

Many years ago Ben grabbed William by an ankle and dangled him outside my third story dorm room window. It was a warm, Spring afternoon that suddenly got hot. Ben, a muscular wrestler, spoke calmly. “Tell me where the Jews are.” Ben’s quiet voice reverberated in my room like a rifle shot.

Some of us gathered to discuss an Ethics class assignment: It’s The Holocaust. You’ve hidden Jews somewhere in your home. The Nazis burst in the door demanding to know where the Jews are. What do you do?

Some confessed they’d cave. Some professed they’d stay resolute and hoped they could endure torture. Much was said between these two points. I was in the resolute-endure-torture camp but secretly knew I’d go with the crowd: “Want the Jews? Well, here they are! All wrapped up and neatly waiting for you in my basement! Aren’t I a good doobie? Getting them all together for you like this?”

My room was at the end of a hall, tucked away in the top floor southeast corner of the dorm. A perfect place for lively discussions.

None of us noticed William, not in the Ethics class, on the other side of the doorway in the hall, standing stiff and attentive, listening, bible in hand. His father was a Bible answer man at a Christian radio station. In an era of long haired hippie freaks, William stood out in his close cut hair, pale skin, a perfectly starched and ironed white shirt with thin black tie that hung on his closet-hanger shoulders and billowed about his once-a-week-fasting frame. Blond and blue-eyed, he took every opportunity to evangelize us. He wasn’t a pain or a nuisance, though. He was more like a gnat.

He cleared his throat and we looked up. “I would tell the truth, tell them where the Jews were, and trust Jesus to perform a miracle and save them.”

“Really.” It wasn’t a question. It just sounded like one.

“I’d have to tell the truth because that’s what God requires of me.”

“You tell the truth, the Jews die. This is what God requires of you? You can’t lie and trust all that forgiveness of sins crap you talk about?”

“My faith tells me God and His Son Jesus Christ will save those Jews.”

“You mean a miracle of some kind? The Nazis go blind? Or just decide, fuck it let’s knock off early and grab some brews? Maybe the Jews disappear? You think God’s going to pull some kind of Jedi mind trick?”

“Please don’t curse.”

Ben, his massive arm eclipsing my small black-and-white TV on my bureau, chuckled at the Jedi remark. Moonless midnight sky black hair and always in need of a shave, he laughed when we described him with “arms as big as legs and legs as big as people.”

Ben lost people in The Holocaust.

He listened patiently, his brow furrowed, his lips silent, his eyes fixed on William and squinting as if William were some bright light on a close horizon. William started insisting that telling the Nazis where the Jews were hiding would be a test of his faith.

Ben quietly opened a window. He put his hands on the window sill, inhaled deeply, upturned William, grabbed him by an ankle and held him outside the window, three stories up.

“You have ten seconds to decide. Tell the truth, sacrifice the Jews and hope for a miracle, or lie, convincingly, and save your life. In ten seconds you’ll fall three stories. You may not die, but you’ll be badly hurt. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be spared in either case. You admit there are Jews in your house and you’ve harbored Jews, you’re an enemy of the state and will be killed as an example to others. You convince me there are no Jews here and I may kill you anyway as a warning to others.”

“Ten…”

We didn’t think Ben would let William drop. He’d never been violent or even angry that we could remember. Even when we went out for pizza, he was the one who stopped arguments and shoving matches with reason and quiet good humor.

Now he relaxed his grip a few times. Whatever blood should have been rushing to William’s head never made it there. He was blanched white and screaming for Ben to stop.

“Nine…”

William never called for Jesus to save him. He begged Ben to bring him in. He screamed at us to help him.

“Eight… Where are the Jews?”

More screams. We could hear people outside on the college quad shouting up at this strange play. Somebody hollered for others to call campus security.

“Seven…Where are the Jews?”

William screamed hysterically now. Hysterically. “PLEASE DEAR GOD SOMEBODY MAKE HIM STOP!” I remember thinking, “Does that count as a call to God or is he just using the adjectival modifier?”

“Six…You are going to drop to the ground unless you tell me where the Jews are. Where are the Jews?”

At this point one of the other fellows in the room said, “Ten dollars Ben can’t hold him the full ten seconds.” Ben wasn’t breathing hard. He looked like he could hold William out the window forever. I said, “What?”

“Five…”

A window in the room next to ours opened up. Somebody shouted “William says he’d let Nazis kill the Jews and hope for a miracle. Ben’s going to drop him unless he changes his mind.” There was a quick response from the crowd, “Let the fucker fall!”, but nobody laughed.

“Four…Where are the Jews?”

William screamed, “I don’t know! There are no Jews!”

“Three…I’m not convinced.” He took his eyes off William, turned his head and looked at us, “Are any of you convinced?”

Somebody said, “Ben, come on. Enough’s enough.”

“Two…Nobody here’s convinced, either. Where are the Jews?”

William is crying now. Screaming and crying, hysterically begging for someone anyone to help him. He’s calling to Jesus Christ and all the saints and not in ways I think they’d recognize as calls for help.

“One. Time’s up. You die.”


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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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