path of the storyteller / blog

Shakespeare’s birthday

careers Apr 20, 2022

Saturday is April 23rd, the day traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday. It may not be perfectly accurate but it’s close enough, as the first historical record of the man from Stratford is his baptismal record, dated April 26th, 1564. 

Given the usual practices of the era, to back-date his his birth three days prior to the baptism is as good a guess as any. There’s also the bittersweet symmetry of his death date, which is known to be April 23rd, 1616.

Shakespeare was 52 years old when he died.

He’d had a successful and prosperous career, but fully half of his performed plays had not yet been published at the time of his death.

That task fell to a couple of his long-time actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who assembled and edited all the scripts they could lay hands on and published them in 1623, in a volume we now call the First Folio.

Without the First Folio, the text of eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays...

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Better writer, better person?

change conflict morality Apr 14, 2022
 
The truism that reading makes us better people is well explored, but does writing make us better people? I argue yes. Here’s why.

I’ve been reading George Saunders’ terrific collection of essays about Russian short fiction, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a book about what makes writing good with an interesting limitation, which is that the work held up for analysis is offered in English translation and Saunders doesn’t speak Russian. 

Saunders notes the shakiness of the project when he describes the day a Russian scholar visits his classroom to explain how the tale currently under examination reads in the original Russian. 

Saunders and his students are flabbergasted to confront just how much of the author’s intent has been lost to them. The jokes! The wordplay! The voice! None of it survives intact. The version of the story they’re scrutinizing for clues about good...

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Creative overwhelm! The struggle is real.

 

We writers are a funny lot, aren’t we? We spend half our time worried about not having enough ideas, and the other half worried about having too many!

Fear of the blank page gets a bit more attention, and understandably so. Who hasn't panicked at the specter of “writer’s block” (which is not a thing, in my opinion—we’ll discuss!), or skidded to a halt mid-draft because you just didn’t know what to do next? 

But creative overwhelm is an equal, if opposite, problem. We keep coming up with ideas. Characters. Potential scenes. We try writing in first person, then third, and now we can’t decide between them. As our cast gets bigger we waffle about who our main character is, and start wondering if we should try to include multiple viewpoints. Is two enough to cover all bases? Is twelve?

And what about the backstory? It feels important too; what if we weave it in as a subplot that takes...

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Are you in, or are you out?

writing craft Mar 31, 2022
 

One of the tricky tasks we take on when writing fiction is finding the just-right balance between depicting our viewpoint character's inner life versus the external events of the scene. 

By inner life, I mean what your character is feeling and thinking, including the sensations in their body. This is the stuff other characters cant see, but your reader can, if you choose to share it.

External events are just that—what are characters actually saying and doing in the world of the story that’s perceptible to others? 

Finding the perfect balance can be elusive. Too much inner life, and we get bogged down in an endlessly ruminating protagonist. Not enough inner life severs the connection with the very character our readers are supposed to be rooting for. 

In this livestream I talk about this concept of inner life versus external events, and offer some tips on how to find the...

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Lights, camera...fiction!

writing craft Mar 24, 2022
 

As the movie buffs among you know the Academy Awards are this weekend. As ever, the categories featuring celebrities and jokes and musical numbers will be featured in the television broadcast, while the “technical” categories—in other words, the actual movie-making part—will be rushed through or skipped altogether. 

Film is a storytelling art form just as fiction is, but it sure takes a village to accomplish! It's so different from the solitary work of the novelist. From cinematography to production design to musical scores, movies rely on a collaboration of elements that we novelists can only dream of—or can we?

Words can accomplish a lot, you know! I'd argue that we fiction writers have our own way of making use of these same elements, if we know how and take the time to do it. It's all part of giving our readers that vivid, "lived experience" feeling. And there's stuff we can do that movies can't, too.

Today, let's grab...

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The perfect process

process Mar 17, 2022
 

My earliest association with the word “process” is processed cheese.

Kraft American, to be precise! Those individually wrapped, unnaturally yellow slices were as plastic as their wrappings, but they made the grilled cheese sandwiches of my childhood legendary.

I loved those sandwiches. I mean, they were my absolute favorite thing to eat. 

Ah, for the pleasures of simpler times, right?

Now, when I use or hear the word “process,” it invariably refers to creative work. Normal work we just do, but our creative work seems to require a process. A special way of doing it, planning it, approaching it, managing it, measuring it.   

Why are writers so preoccupied with process? Why can't writing just be a simple and occasionally gooey pleasure? Something we can just do, without timers, spreadsheets, color-coded calendars, self-imposed deadlines and “accountability" partners?

It’s a contrarian question, but a...

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What’s driving the plot?

character plot process Mar 10, 2022
 

I sometimes stumble upon conversations between writers that make me scratch my head a bit. There’s a lot of terminology about writing craft floating around out there, that’s for sure!  And writers don’t always agree upon what even familiar terms mean.

One recent example was a debate about character-driven stories versus plot-driven stories. Talk about confusing!

Do character-driven stories have plots? Do plot-driven stories have characters? The answer to both questions has got to be yes, so what exactly do these terms signify? 

And if neither character nor plot can unequivocally be said to be “driving” the story, what is?

In this livestream, we talk about what character-driven and plot-driven might really mean. 


My weekly livestream about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific on YouTube. Come live and participate! Or...

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When heroes need help...

hero third acts Mar 08, 2022
 

My dear storytellers, I hope you’re staying grounded during this tumultuous time.

As I write this, we’re a week in to a frightening ground war in Europe, prompted by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor Ukraine. The rest of the world has been rapidly swept in, moved to react both by the sudden, senseless brutality of the invasion, and the astonishing principled bravery of the Ukrainian people and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

As someone who’s thought long and hard about the transformative energetic qualities of the hero’s journey, watching the real-world manifestation of these foundational human patterns play out on a global stage is deeply emotional and deeply fascinating. 

In this week’s livestream, I’d like to talk about the power of the hero archetype in a particular context: We all know the hero should be actively driving the story forward, but won’t there be times in our story that the...

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The secret of comedy

comedy Feb 25, 2022
 

Hey, did you hear the one about the writer who was going to reveal the secret of comedy on a YouTube livestream? 

No? Well, have I got news for you! Comedy is what this week’s talk is all about. The sheer chutzpah of trying to answer the question of what makes something funny is pretty hilarious on the face of it. But the question was asked by one of you delightful storytellers, and who am I to refuse the call? 

I can’t promise that I’ll fully succeed in revealing the secret of comedy, but I intend to have a good time trying! Far more than mere entertainment, comedy creates space to look at hard things. Let's take a serious look at the art form that serves as the “conscience of the king.”


My weekly livestream about story structure, writing craft, and the mindset of the working writer happens on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific on YouTube. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays on...

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The hierarchy of needs

motivation Feb 17, 2022
 

Writers are (or should be) obsessive students of human motivation. When we craft a tale, we’re always looking at our characters’ conscious and unconscious motives. We devise whole plots out of the reasons our characters do or fail to do things (I’m looking at you, Hamlet). And we draw powerful forces of opposition from the characters whose motives collide with our hero’s.

Which brings us to the the topic of this week’s livestream: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a useful and enduring psychological theory about what motivates humans to do the things we do, value the things we value, choose our priorities, and define our vision of “success.”

What’s at the pinnacle of our personal hierarchy? Is it relationships? Self-fulfillment? Prestige and achievement? Or are we mostly just trying to survive?

Abraham Maslow’s model of human motivation is a fascinating topic in its own right, but for us storytellers it’s pure gold. This...

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