James Matlack Raney's Blog

December 13, 2012

Good Morning, Everyone!

I know I don't yet have a great many followers - but I appreciate all of you so much for reading my blog and wanted you to be the first to hear about my blog's new title and home!

The blog is now called Storygazing and can be found at http://www.storygazing.com/.

I'll have a new post on Sunday, but I've also lined up a couple of VERY COOL guest bloggers I'm sure you'll love to hear from:)

Thanks again, and if you check out the new spot, leave a comment and let me know what you think!
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Published on December 13, 2012 08:07 • 212 views • Tags: authors, new-blog, storygazing, storytelling, writing

December 8, 2012

Last week we went over the first of two ways to begin the transition out of Act I (the ordinary world we’ve established with all its global problems and challenges for our protagonist.) The first technique we addressed was the character-centric Moment of Longing, in which we reveal our character’s most inner desires and hopes. The second was the dropping of Mysterious Hints and Clues that let both our central character and our audience know that a change is coming. These next two story segments do more than simply set up the forthcoming change – they instigate it! It should be noted that the first of the two techniques, the Call to Adventure, is not always used and is fairly specific to a certain type of storytelling structure. However, it may be altered slightly for use in many stories. The second technique on the other hand, the Inciting Incident, is used in virtually ALL storytelling forms and genres and is vital for solid plot structure.

The Call to Adventure

Okay, so we're drawing close to the end of our first act and getting ready for Act II! If we've done our diligence, we’ve revealed our central character’s most desperate desire and given our readers a couple of tantalizing hints that change is just around the corner. Now there may come a moment when our hero is openly presented with an opportunity to undertake a quest to bring about change to the ordinary world. In mythic storytelling (the Hero’s Journey) this moment is The Call to Adventure. Many times this is a direct call to action in which the hero is told specifically what is needed of her, asked to go on a quest, or recruited to complete a certain deed. The Call to adventure is usually delivered by a messenger from the Special World: that place or time in Act II into which our hero must soon venture. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of examples of the Call throughout literature and film, but here are a few examples to better highlight the concept:

In the Hobbit, the Wizard Gandalf arrives on Bilbo Baggins’s doorstep and asks him to join a quest to the lonely mountain to recapture a lost dwarf treasure from the dragon Smaug.

In very nearly all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, a fresh adventure always begins with the arrival of a new client, outright asking Holmes and Watson to come solve a strange and awful case, which they describe to him in some detail.

In one of Michael Crichton’s most unique novels, the Eaters of the Dead, Ahmad ibn Fadlan is sent as an ambassador from Persia to the wild Vikings of the north. But, due to a local superstition, Ahmad is then recruited to be the thirteenth member on a quest to free a Viking city-state from the horrors of an ancient evil.

In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, two government agents come looking for Indiana Jones to tell him that the Nazi’s may have discovered the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant and ask for Indiana’s help in finding it first.

Just a couple more thoughts on the Call to Adventure: First, the messenger, in many cases, often turns out to be a Mentor to our hero. Again, this is a common theme in the Hero’s Journey. Gandalf, Obi Wan Kenobi, and Merlin are all characters who invite an innocent bumpkin on an adventure and teach the inexperienced initiate how to become a hero. Secondly, the hero, in spite of the longing she may have expressed just a few, brief pages ago, often refuses the call. Sometimes this refusal comes because of fear, insecurity, or even laziness. To use the example directly above, Indiana Jones, in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, tells the men asking for his help that there is another, better archeologist they should be looking for instead. Luke Skywalker tells Obi-Wan that he can’t go off rescuing princess – he has farm work to do (which he was just complaining about to his uncle!) The refusal of the call is just as important as the call itself, for it segues perfectly into perhaps the single most important (and final) moment of your first act: the Inciting Incident.

The Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident (sometimes called the First Turning Point) is not only one of the most vital segments in your first act, it is one of the most important moments in your entire story. None of the other three techniques we’ve previously mentioned: the Moment of Longing, the Mysterious Hint, or the Call to Adventure are ever enough to push the character into action. It’s just not compelling enough. How often does a well-written character in one of your favorite stories simply decide to have an adventure and head off on some crazy escapade into danger and darkness on a lark? Even in real life, bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. If you recall from an earlier post, the Ordinary World is like a rut or a plateau, a place where people and things have grown stagnant – and human beings in general need a real kick in the pants to jolt them into action!

Think about all the great pitches or log-lines you’ve ever heard for a great story. In those ultra-brief summaries the lead character is almost always forced, driven, pulled, thrust, or propelled into the heart of the action. Unlike the Call to Adventure, the Inciting Incident should be an event or discovery of such power and dread that the hero has no choice but to act. The more compelling you make your inciting incident the more exciting the story for your audience and the more storytelling momentum you provide to drive your protagonist to the end of the journey.

Perhaps one of the best (and most famous) examples can be found in L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy doesn’t choose to go to Oz - a tornado picks her up along with an entire building and whisks her away to a place so far from Kansas, that it will require much effort, adventure, and magic to return home.

If you’ve ever read the science fiction classic Dune, by Frank Herbert (and you really should if you haven’t!) Paul Atredies has been given hints that he possesses very unique powers, and is told outright that the native Fremen believe him to be some sort of messiah. Yet it is only when Paul’s father is assassinated and Paul is forced to flee for his life that he enters into the world of Dune and is forced to put his powers to the test.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is bored and indeed follows a talking white rabbit to his hole (and who could blame her really.) But the adventure doesn’t really take off until Alice falls down the hole herself and must traverse the bizarre landscape of the special world she’s found in order to get back home.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy and Edmund Pevensie discover that the wardrobe is a magical portal to the land of Narnia, but it isn’t until all four children are chased into the wardrobe by Mrs. McCready that the adventure really begins.

In Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father for the summer when his plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Alone and with no hope of rescue, Brian is forced to grow up quickly and learn to survive the dangers of the wild.

Lastly, to use a couple of examples from film, in the Academy Award winner Braveheart, William Wallace refuses to fight the English, hoping to raise a farm and family peacefully. But when his new bride his murdered, Wallace is driven by vengeance into war.

The inciting incident even holds up in comedy, such as the Will Farrell hit Talladega Nights. Ricky Bobby is a natural behind the wheel, but he would never have gotten the chance to prove himself if the original stock car driver hadn’t quit mid-race and the desperate crew chief left with no choice but to throw Ricky Bobby out on the track.

Notice how dramatic and irreversible the above examples are? That is what makes the Inciting Incident so integral to great storytelling. It is an event that pushes your character beyond the point of no return and into the throes of action. Take a few minutes to flip through some of your favorite reads – can you find the inciting incident? What type of events do you find? How many times do you see a death of someone close to the hero, a need for the hero to run for her life, someone close to the hero captured or held prisoner, the hero becoming lost in an unfamiliar world, or a sudden and desperate need for money (or some other elixir/solve-all.) You will also notice that all of these acts leave the protagonist with a natural and irresistible motive for action: vengeance/retribution, rescue, need to regain something valuable or irreplaceable, need to get home, etc.

As we said earlier, the strength of your inciting incident will drive your story through the second act (and often times to the very end of the story.) It is vital that you create a moment of weight and impact for your main character. We will talk more about this next time as we take our first look at Second Act structure (my favorite!) But for now, here are some questions you could ask yourself as you’re reviewing your manuscript:

1. Am I going to use a Call to Adventure? If so, who is going to ask my hero to go on this quest and why?
2. Will the messenger of the call become my hero’s mentor?
3. Will my hero refuse the call? What will be her reasoning for doing so?
4. As Act I draws to a close, have I used an Inciting Incident to force my character into action?
5. Is my inciting incident dramatic powerful enough? Does it leave my character with little or no choice but to move forward into the world of Act II?
6. Does my inciting incident create a natural motive for my protag’s following actions in the second act?

I can't wait to start talking about Act II structure! Also, I know there are probably many of you who have techniques or concepts of your own that you love to use. Please feel free to share them in the comments section. Be back next week with the next post - Happy Holidays everyone!
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Published on December 08, 2012 17:02 • 1,328 views • Tags: new-authors, novels, storytelling, writing

November 27, 2012

*blog note: My good friend Ty King made a good observation and rightfully chided me for failing to provide an outline for where this series is headed. My apologies for not saying so earlier, but if you haven’t been able to guess yet, we’re walking through our storytelling structure from the beginning of the story through to the end. Last we week we talked about establishing our central character in an ordinary world, and now we’re going to look at the best ways to begin the transition out of that ordinary world and into the meat of the story that lies in the second act! This post went a little long, so to keep it bite-sized, I've divided into two parts...

Moments of Longing, Hints, Calls, and Incidents – the ordinary world is in for a shake-up! Part 1

I love classic rock. In fact, not much feels better than driving down the highway on a sunny day with the windows down, hair blown back, rocking out to a great tune on the radio. One of my favorite such road songs is More Than a Feeling by Boston. Even if you’re not a fan of 70’s rock there’s a good chance you’ve heard this instant classic before and found yourself singing along (in my case, singing along quite terribly.) There’s a moment in that particular song, what might be its signature moment in fact, that comes between the verses and the chorus. It’s a short, guitar solo pre-chorus: a few notes that transition the song from the soothing, acoustic opening to the head-nodding, foot tapping power chords of the chorus.

This is a common technique in musical arrangement and every good musician knows that to enhance a listeners enjoyment of a song, it is important to tip the listener off to upcoming tempo changes, solos, or choruses, give them hint, or building into those musical changes. These “hints” create excitement and anticipation. They prime the audience for what is to come.

The same is true for storytelling. Hopefully, as you’ve crafted the first few pages or chapters of your novel, you’ve built an ordinary world and given your audience a clear picture of the global problems that face that world and, more specifically, the individual and unique issues that challenge your central character. So now that you’ve set the scene you’re probably chomping at the bit to get the action going and take your hero into the second act, full of danger, challenges, and adventure. But before we move into that fist-pumping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping chorus, we can give our story an added boost by “priming” our reader with an effective pre-chorus that tells them: change is coming, and you’re going to love it!

The elements of our storytelling “pre-chorus” are varied and not all necessarily used together, or even in every story, but I’ve grouped them in the following order: The Moment of Longing, Mysterious Hints, the Call to Adventure, and the Inciting Incident.

The Moment of Longing

One of my favorite, nerdtastic childhood-defining moments in film is the binary sunset scene from Star Wars. Luke Skywalker has just stormed away from a frustrating dinner with his Aunt and Uncle. With the purchase of two new droids earlier that day, Luke expresses his hope to finally leave the farm and go off to join his friends at the academy. But once more Uncle Owen forbids it, telling Luke (again) “maybe next year.” Luke sulks out into the desert evening, the music swells, and he stares off into the twin sunset with tears in his eyes. Even as a boy that scene moved me. I instinctively knew what Luke was going through. He felt trapped - by the farm, by his Uncle, by his own youth, and he longed for freedom from his dusty, desert home and hoped for adventure far away in the stars.

The moment of longing is a vital trigger for the coming change of the second act. It gives the audience insight into whatever it is our character truly needs or wants (or thinks she wants!) In most cases (as many stories begin with the ordinary world and our hero in noticeably difficult or needy situations) this longing is for something the character lacks. This missing piece can certainly be physical, but the moment of longing gives you, the writer, a chance to demonstrate that there is an internal or spiritual component to the missing piece. In Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes obviously wants to escape his wrongful imprisonment in the dreaded Chateau d’If, but when he carves the words, “God will give me justice” into the stone walls of his cell he reveals his deeper hope: revenge on those who put him in chains.

Perhaps the trickiest part of executing the Moment of Longing successfully is isolating it around a specific instance, but at the same time giving the sense that this is merely the latest in a series of similar disappointments. There is a wonderful scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in which Harry, cold and hungry, counts down to his birthday on his cousin’s watch, wondering if his Aunt and Uncle will even remember it at all. It is a marvelous moment, for we know that Harry has wished for a family that would celebrate with him and love him for all of the birthdays leading up to that particular one. And the countdown serves double duty, as it also perfectly builds up to a moment of change about to come bursting through Harry's door!

Mysterious Hints

People in general, but especially those on the receiving end of a good story I think, love clues. It’s the whole reason people read or watch mysteries. The only thing more fun than being surprised by a twist or turn in a brilliant tale is anticipating the surprises of those twists and turns! Even if readers are only barely aware of what the clues might mean, they catch and hang onto even the smallest of hints, itching to see what they might mean to our hero. As we writers ready our characters and the world into which we've written them for the changes about to come in the second act, it is equally important that we also prepare our audience, even if it’s with just a breadcrumb here or there.

In one of my favorite books of all time, Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, Ender Wiggin and his siblings have all been tested throughout their childhoods for entrance into the prestigious Battle School through implanted monitors that record their every word and deed. But neither Ender’s older brother nor his sister were accepted. When Ender has his own monitor removed early he assumes it is because he, like his brother and sister before him, has failed to gain acceptance to Battle School. But the audience knows better!

In the first Twilight novel, Bella Swan is both told by her high school friends and notices for herself that there are many strange goings-on surrounding the Cullen children. Most noticeably, the entire lot of them are without fail absent from school on all beautiful, sunny days. Bella at first guesses this must be because they are simply an eccentric family, but any reader who’s glanced at the jacket copy knows there’s more to the story than that.

In the movie Rocky, just after Rocky has lost his locker at Mickey’s gym, another boxer let’s Rocky know that there’s a phone call for him. Rocky has been asked to come visit Apollo Creed’s manager. Rocky assumes this is because he’s going to be asked to be a sparring partner for the champ, nothing more.

It is interesting to note that in all these examples, and quite often in storytelling, the hero of the story misinterprets the meaning of the hints given to them, not fully comprehending the extent to which their life or world is about to change. But the audience always knows better. The reader catches the hint and eagerly awaits the surprise they already know for certain is in store for the main character. The hint isn’t there to necessarily fool the reader, it’s there to get him or her excited for what’s about to be revealed to the main character!

Something you may have already noticed in all the above examples is that neither the Moment of Longing nor the Mysterious Hints are enough to trigger a full-on move into action. We'll get to that next week as we continue on to the Call to Adventure and the all-important Inciting Incident! Until then, here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you are reviewing or rewriting your own stories:

1) Have I taken the time to include a singular moment, no matter how brief, that demonstrates my main character's inner hope and longing?
2) If so, is this longing something our hero has yearned for over time and through frustration and disappointment?
3) Have I Ieft any hints for my audience that change is right around the corner?
4) If so, what are my central character's reactions to these hints?

I hope everyone has a great week of writing! I'll be back with part 2 two this section in a few days!
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Published on November 27, 2012 21:24 • 349 views • Tags: authors, storytelling, structure, writing

November 18, 2012

Just over ten years ago I was in my early twenties and life was hardly turning out the way I had hoped. Not a year or so earlier I graduated from a fine university with excellent marks and was brimming over with the potential and lofty goals of eager youth. But my degree proved harder to use in the dreaded “real world” than anticipated. I was working an entry-level sales job that was as far from the glamorous or “important” roles for which my dreams once told me I was destined back in high school. I was too embarrassed to date much because I was literally living in my parents’ basement, who themselves were in the middle of a divorce. There wasn’t much money and as far as I could tell there was no way out of the trap I was in to the life I actually wanted.

I had become a cliché. I was living in a rut. Something needed to change.

Fast forward from that moment to 9 years later. I had somehow become a multi-unit manager for an outstanding organization. My team and I helped each other learn and grow in our respective roles. We were successful, winning awards, and the majority of my store visits consisted of congratulations and high fives. There was enough money to enjoy nice things and time enough to explore my true, first love: writing. I frequented a local coffee shop in which I was the local writer who's drink was prepared before even reaching the front of the line. Good friends lived nearby and I was settled into a comfortable pattern of living.

I was happy. I was travelling a pleasant and easy stretch in the road of life. It was too good to last.

What is the common thread between these two places in life? They seem as opposite as moments in life can be: the valley and the plateau. But what ties them together is that they are both the moments between times of change and upheaval. They are the beginnings of stories, the starting points from which either action must be taken or the unexpected event turns life on its head. In literary structure, these times are what some systems refer to as “the ordinary world.”

The ordinary world is the static place that is about to be changed radically by the events of the forthcoming story. But for that story to become a great story, it is vital to clearly establish the place where it began. If I jump right into telling you that there’s a man named Forest Gump who is a multi-millionaire shrimp tycoon, you may be impressed. But if I also tell you that Forest Gump began life as a poor, handicapped child raised by a single mother in the deep south who went on to become that tycoon, you would not only be deeply impressed, but you would probably want to know exactly how he ended up where he did! The beginning of the story, the ordinary world from which our hero emerges, is key in setting up your audience for the emotions they should feel at the end of the story and during all the events in between. The clearer the picture we paint of that ordinary world the greater the emotional payoff once we reach the end of our tale.

In order to create an effective ordinary world I believe it is important to remember three points:
• The ordinary world is a global state of affairs in your setting, affecting a greater group of characters. But it is also a situation with a unique impact and effect on your hero (which is essential, as this element will drive your hero into action as events unfold.)
• The ordinary world is usually more than a blip on the radar. Whether things are good or bad, it’s important that they’ve been that way for a significant period of time.
• There are, in general, three types of ordinary worlds.

Ordinary world #1: The Rut/The Valley/The Dark Times

In this type of ordinary world we start at a very low point (though perhaps not the lowest point, as things will probably get worse before they get better.) Life is tough and joy is scarce in the dark times, whether it be for a household, a neighborhood, a whole city, or even an entire country or planet. But as tough as life is for the group it’s even tougher for the individual who will eventually become our hero. It is a world that needs to change. This may be the most common ordinary world in storytelling.

In The Hunger Games, District 12 is a poor and dirty place where the only work to be had is dangerous digging in the coalmines. But as harsh as that might be, it’s even more difficult for Katniss, who has lost her father to the mines and has been forced to care for her mother and sister on her own.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Dursley household is a miserable place full of people who would be unhappy even in the best of times. But it is that much worse for Harry, forced to live in a closet and tormented daily by his cousin, Dudley.

To use an example from film, in Rocky, Rocky Balboa lives in a poor, Philadelphia neighborhood full of the disenfranchised, troubled youths, and run-down apartments and stores. But it is tougher for Rocky, a lonely, never-was boxer who works as an enforcer for the mob and has just had his locker taken from him at the local boxing gym.

Ordinary World #2: the Good Life/the Plateau/the Golden Age

In this version of the ordinary world all seems well (at least on the surface.) Crops are plentiful, a good King/Queen sits on the throne, people are happy, and even our hero is blessed a particular something that makes their world a joyful place. It is a world too good to last. This is a less commonly used starting point. However, it is used frequently in horror where it is common to take a comfortable, pleasant environment and throw it into chaos. This version is also seen in some sequels, when the hero has already solved a first set of problems and is enjoying the success of early victories.

In The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth, and specifically the Shire, has been free of dark magic and orcs for generations. The hobbits eat, drink, and throw merry parties for a living. Frodo especially enjoys life, drinking nightly at the pub with his friend, Sam, and living with a rich uncle who adores him.

In Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, the Newman family is a happy, modern family, headed by a successful and famous husband and wife archeology team. Sophie and Josh have even been lucky enough to spend the summer in San Francisco with their favorite aunt and have found the perfect summer jobs at a coffee shop and an old, used book store.

In the film Titanic, the world seems to be a place of innovation and promise. An unsinkable ship, representing the peak of modern, human genius, has been built and is set for its maiden voyage, full of wealthy, joyful passengers. Even young Jack, with barely a penny to his name, wins a ticket onto the incredible vessel and sees the hope and promise a new life across the sea.

#3 The Grass is Always Greener/See no Evil, Hear no Evil

Perhaps even more infrequently used than the Good Life version of the ordinary world is what I like to call either the Grass is always Greener or the See no Evil, Hear no Evil version. In this ordinary world the global experience and the unique, hero experience will usually differ in some key way, which will eventually lead to confrontation and change for both. Sometimes the hero is a sheltered person, living a good life but blind to the hardships of the greater world around him. Other times the hero is specifically (and often times selfishly) unhappy, even though the world in which she lives is a good place.

In The Little Mermaid (both the original fairy tale and the film version) the Little Mermaid is a princess living in a peaceful, underwater kingdom ruled by her noble father. But she is unhappy, longing for a life and love in another world above the waves that she doesn’t truly understand.

In the film Empire of the Sun, Jaime Graham is the son of a wealthy, British family living in Shanghai who plays tennis and likes to go to parties with the adults. He knows shockingly little of the Chinese culture in which he is growing up and is oblivious to the fact that the world around him is descending into war and chaos.

There are long chapters in many books devoted to the subject of beginnings and the ordinary world. But if you are reading through early drafts of your novel or story and are concerned that the second act or the finale feels weak or is failing to generate enough emotional impact for your audience, you might start by looking at the beginning of the story. Here are a few questions you may ask yourself:
• Have I have given the global world in my story a specific starting point, whether good or bad?
• Have I given my central character a more unique situation or experience that is consistent with the global world’s environment?
• If I want to drag my character through the mud and put him through real hardships, have I started him in a comfortable enough place that will make those hardships that much more painful?
• If I want my character to have an impact on her world and make it a better place, have I started her world off in a deep enough valley or a thick enough darkness?
• If I want my character to learn a hard lesson about the reality of life, have I started him blind enough to the world around him?
• If I want my character to overcome impossible odds to achieve unexpected victory, have I started her off in a low enough place with a difficult enough disadvantage or struggle?

Once we’ve taken the time to establish an ordinary world as our setting and given our hero a unique place in that world, we will have set our central character up for the next, crucial step in solid story structure: the moment of longing.

I hope everyone has a great week, full of plenty of writing time in between all the turkey, football, and shopping!
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Published on November 18, 2012 20:15 • 476 views • Tags: beginnings, novels, short-stories, storytelling, structure

November 12, 2012

Just last week an online friend of mine challenged me to become a more consistent blogger. This was the not the first time I’d been challenged on the topic (and rightly so – as blogging has often times been the victim of greedy time and attention gremlins gobbling up my hours and days!) However, this was the first time that I accepted the challenge and realized what I needed to do in order to gain the blogging momentum necessary to sustain my drive and desire from week to week.

I suppose it might be helpful to confess that the problem with my first few attempts to start a consistent, weekly blog was that I tried to do so with new topics each and every week. I (foolishly) thought that fascinating ideas would magically pop into my head and I would instantly find a couple of spare hours (somewhere) to churn those topics into thoughtful words and post them online.

Epic Fail.

However, this time, like realizing you’ve been pushing against a pull door for a few minutes, I saw the light and came to the understanding that I needed something regular to talk about, something that might target an actual audience (light bulb!) and bring them back to share some time with me once a week or so. And lastly, I knew this topic had to be something I enjoyed, knew, and would never get tired of discussing (even with just myself!)

So, for the next several weeks, if you decide to join me in my blogging adventure, I’m going to talk about story and storytelling – specifically, about structure in storytelling. Now, I know that there are a hundred books out there by a hundred authors who most certainly have superior credentials to my own. I don’t have an MFA, I don’t have a shelf full of published novels (yet!), and I certainly don’t presume to call myself a professor of literature. However, I do have this: I love writing – I love it with all my heart and there is little in the world that gives me more joy than writing, telling, reading, watching or even just talking about a beautiful story. And also, I will endeavor, as best I can, to relate each piece of storytelling structure to real life moments and memories, whether personal or shared – and that, I think, will be at least a little bit different than anything else out there.

So why talk about structure? Some of you might have already said to yourselves “BORING!” and clicked the back button on your browser. Structure certainly isn’t the element of storytelling that ensures a beautiful novel, stunning short story, hit song, blockbuster movie, or epic folk tale. In fact, stories that rely overmuch on structure, or have only the structure and have forgotten believable characters, high stakes, and universal themes, are derided as formulaic, derivative, or by-the-numbers. However, I would make this statement: While I don’t believe that structure is the magic bullet for a great story, I do believe that no great story was every told without a foundation of a solid structure, whether the author used it intentionally or not.

I look at structure in storytelling as very much like one of America’s favorite past times – pro football. Every football game played on Sunday or Monday (and now on Thursdays god help me) is played with two halves, four quarters, sixty minutes, three time outs, two teams, eleven players, refs and penalties, touchdowns, field goals, passing, and running. That’s pretty much it. Yet for over a hundred years, with each game looking and feeling nearly exactly the same, football has never been more exciting nor had more fans than it does today. In spite of those same rules and same form for each game, no two games end up being exactly the same. Some of them are entirely forgettable and bore us to tears (especially if your home team is terrible.) But there are other games that turn into epic events, sending fans storming onto the field or out into the streets celebrating for days at an unforgettable, emotional experience. Of course, it isn’t the rules or format that does all that – it’s the players and their backstories or the rivalries between cities that do all of that. But without the rules, without the reliable structure that tells us what to expect each week, we would miss out on all those thrills and all that drama.

I know that there are some writers out there who insist on writing completely organically, or are afraid that talking about structure might leave them trapped or closed off to inspiration. And I would never argue with an artist over the method of their art! But I will leave you with this anecdote my guitar instructor gave me not too long ago about John Lennon (and I have no idea if it’s actually true – but it sounds good;) I was learning a tricky concept of music called modes at the time, and my instructor told me this story:

Sitting down for a chat with a very astute interviewer (who perhaps simply wanted to impress Lennon with his own musical knowledge) Lennon was asked: “Sir, you write quite a bit of your music in the Mixolydian mode, why is that?” The young interview sat forward in his seat, pen at the ready, awaiting some gem of musical wisdom from one of the founding fathers of modern rock n’ roll when Lennon casually replied: “Mixo-what?”

I take away from that story only this: John Lennon wrote great songs, and in his songs he told great stories, and he wrote those great songs and told those great stories with the aid of solid structure – even if he didn’t know it at the time. So whether you’re a pro who enjoys telling your tales without specific structure in mind or you’re a new writer looking for some starting points to help you on your way, I’m going to enjoy sharing one of my favorite topics for the next few weeks and I’m hoping to get at least a few, fellow storytellers to enjoy it with me!
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Published on November 12, 2012 19:34 • 204 views • Tags: form, james-matlack-raney, storytelling, structure, writing

October 9, 2012

Hello everyone!

Thank you so much to everyone who's waited so patiently for the release of JIM MORGAN AND THE KING OF THIEVES! But wait no longer for today is the big day!

Here are the links:

For Print:

For Kindle:

Thank you again for all your support and encouragement and I hope you enjoy sharing Jim's adventures with me!
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Published on October 09, 2012 07:32 • 154 views • Tags: amazon, kindle, middle-grade, new-novel, release

October 1, 2012

Before I write one word about selling JIM MORGAN, I must take a moment to thank everyone who has supported me in any way over the last ten years. I’ve been writing nearly every day for over a decade, and even so, I don’t think I can fully express what every kind act or encouraging word has meant me. Whether you liked my Facebook page, proofread of one of the umpteen drafts of this book (or any other one of my manuscripts at any time,) or convinced me not to give up on this novel – thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know I haven’t earned any of your generosity yet, as many of you have yet to read a word of the novel. But perhaps that’s what makes your praise and encouragement so much more special – because you’ve done it out of friendship and belief in me. That is more special than I can say and I won’t ever forget it.

So, it is with great humility that I ask yet another favor from all of you, in hopes that you’ll please indulge me one last time.

JIM MORGAN AND THE KING OF THIEVES is an independently published book, which means no financed marketing campaign, very few pre-launch reviews, and a slow trickle into brick and mortar stores, which sometimes makes me wonder how I will get anyone to read my book at all! For no matter what else, I’m proud of this little novel. I didn’t primarily write it to make gobs of money (as nice as that would be,) I wrote it to be read, if that makes any sense. I remember reading books when I was a young boy. I remember them whisking me away to far away places and sparking a sense of discovery, wonder, and joy in my imagination. I hope JIM MORGAN carries that same gift to young readers now (and older readers who still have a little bit of their childhood imagination left.) So this is where I could use as much help as possible.

While there will be multiple ways to purchase JIM MORGAN (and I am appreciative of any and all purchases of the book) a purchase through Amazon, in print or via Kindle, accompanied by a review and by tags is the best way to get my book in front of a broader audience. Amazon makes the most incredible use of reader feedback, reviews, and tags to recommend books to readers. It really is amazing how good they are at this! The more reviews (especially good ones) and more tags a book has, the more likely it will be recommended to other shoppers looking for that kind of read. So, if you are planning to buy the book when it launches, please purchase it through Amazon. And if you have a few extra minutes, and are so inclined, please leave a review and tag the book. Please know that I’m not asking for any favors in the reviews. Be honest (though of course I hope and trust that you’ll enjoy it!) Also, if you’ve already pre-ordered the book through B&N, no worries! I truly appreciate your support!

Of course, if you like the book enough, recommend it to your friends and family as well. And if your kids love it, recommend it to other parents or families who are looking for a book the whole family can read and enjoy together. You can also leave a review on Goodreads, another site where multiple reviews will attract more readers.

Once again, thank you so much to everyone who has supported me during this winding, oftentimes uphill journey into the world of writing. I’m so excited to be at this juncture with a chance to put my favorite story in front of an audience, hoping they enjoy reading it at least half as much as I enjoyed writing it. Stay tuned to the Facebook page or my twitter account for the official launch date. I’m just waiting for the Kindle conversion so that both versions can sell at the same time!

Thank you again to everyone. And for those about to meet my friend, Jim, I hope you like him and I hope that his story brings a smile or two to your heart.

James Matlack Raney
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Published on October 01, 2012 20:18 • 451 views • Tags: adventure, amazon, fantasy, kindle, magic, middle-grade, reviews

September 1, 2012

I'm so excited to share that JIM MORGAN is now officially YA Reads September Indie Book of the Month! WHOOHOOO!!

A full review, an interview, a giveaway, and my own guest review will all be coming soon on their site: www.YAreads.com !

Thank you so much to everyone at YA Reads for showcasing my novel!
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Published on September 01, 2012 12:15 • 150 views • Tags: interviews, middle-grade-novel, reviews, ya-reads

August 29, 2012

Stars Fell Sideways Cover

Hey everybody! The talented Cassandra Marshall has a brand new YA novel coming soon(I'm so excited for her!) Above you can see the amazing artwork and below you'll find a summary of the incredible adventure that awaits you in THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS!

Alison Arroway takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. She has to, or she won’t get paid. Alison is a stunt double for pampered teen actress Pomegranate and when the director takes the shoot to Portugal, Alison is anything but thrilled to be rooming with Pom. But getting to hang around teen hearthrob Erik? Now that’s a plus.

Erik invites both girls on a sunset boat trip and Alison manages to have a decent time. Until the storm hits and the boat is shipwrecked on a small island, leaving Erik missing and the boat captain dead.

In the morning light, Alison and Pom find themselves on the lost island of Atlantis. Only one problem: now that the girls know the secret of the island, the Atlanteans don’t want them to leave. They're stuck with corsets, full-skirted dresses, and the strange steam-driven contraptions that are just a way of life for the islanders.

When a plot by the ruthless army Captain to take over the island and declare himself General over all emerges, an underground group promises to return the girls to the mainland if they can help stop him. They'll go through a mountain, literally, to find the Book of Blue, a book that will explain how to make ‘the stars fall sideways' in order to save the day and earn their freedom.

THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS, a YA Steampunkish fantasy, coming October 1st from MolliePup Press!

In THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS, Cassandra Marshall has created a detailed and intricate new world. Readers are sure to meet many memorable characters, exiting technology, and may even run into a "hydroglyph" here or there:) As you will learn in the novel, Atlantis is filled with hydroglyphics, a word Cassandra made up from 'hydro' or 'water' and 'hieroglyphics' like the ancient Egyptians used. Hydroglyphics are taught to all Atlantean school-aged kids, but most adults don't remember much of it.

Cassandra Marshall is giving away a signed pre-order of THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS! To enter, visit each of the blogs below to find special inside info about THE STARS FELL SIDEWAYS and Cassandra Marshall. Be sure to visit all of the blogs to find all of the insider info and then visit www.thestarsfellsideways.com to enter to win a signed pre-order! You can gain additional entries by sharing links to the cover reveals!
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Published on August 29, 2012 07:12 • 275 views

August 28, 2012

I love sports – I especially love the great team sports like pro football and college basketball. Unfortunately, if you’re a bit of a late bloomer physically, as I was, it’s often too late to get involved in any of those sports at the varsity level and see playing time much less any real success. However, there are individual sports that remain viable alternatives for the aspiring athlete. As it happened, I found boxing.

I freely admit to never amounting to much as a boxer. In fact I hardly stayed with the sport long enough to leave any mark at all. But I did box with my University for a time and even trained for a summer with a professional, earning some memorable bruises and several really spectacular bloody noses for my efforts. Those wounds would have been the sum total legacy of my boxing saga were it not for one phrase, one lesson, that stuck with throughout the years that followed. To this day I can remember Doc Ginter, our coach, yelling it to me from the ropes as another fighter’s fists pelted my face: “You gotta let your hands go, kid!”

“Let your hands go.” It’s an odd phrase if you think about it - an idiom that means nothing outside the proper context. So to make it easy on me and you, here is the definition from urbandictionary.com:

“Let Your Hands Go”

1. Typically a term for professional fighting, but can be used in any fighting situation. Occurs when an individual literally "let's their hands go" and throws punches without thinking about any of them.

2. Going off pure punching instinct.

You see, my problem as a boxer wasn’t that I was afraid of fighting (I was, after all, bravely standing there taking a beating.) My problem was the same one that I face from time to time even now, in writing, in working, in relationships – in living. My problem was, as Doc Ginter (who really was a doctor) so elegantly put it: “You think too much.”

There are only four punches in boxing: a jab, a hook, a straight, and an upper cut. It sound simple enough, yet there are endless ways to string those four moves together and coordinate them with your defense to create an effective style of boxing. Athletes have committed lifetimes to developing such styles and cataloging their techniques. But according to Doc, to be a good boxer, the most important thing was not just to learn those lessons, but to learn them so well that the mind could foget them while the body remembered and acted them out all on its own – nearly without thought.

That is letting your hands go, and I believe the same idea applies to countless other facets of life, especially the creative life.

There are so many rules in writing: character arcs, syntax, plotting, form, narrative structure, proper punctuation, diction, symbolism, etc. We could go on forever with just that sort before getting to the ones that really stymie us: What’s hot? What’s not? What are Agents repping? What are houses buying? Please don’t believe that for a moment I’m saying those rules or questions aren’t important. They are (especially those in the first list.) But sometimes, sitting in front of our blank pages with those same rules screaming loudly in our heads at every word we type, our confidence and passion for storytelling taking a savage beating, we need someone in our corner to remind us to let our hands go.

It goes beyond writing. We could apply the same maxim almost anywhere. My friend and teacher, Mark Hamrock, bent nearly same proverb Doc gave about boxing toward music. “You need to learn the theory,” Mark told me. “But usually, when you’re writing the song, you should forget it all and just play.”

It seems contradictory at first, doesn’t it? Do we need the knowledge or don’t we? I believe wholeheartedly we do need the knowledge; and lots of it – when something works we need to know why it works, so that we can do it again. When we revise and perfect we need to apply our hard-won knowledge and experience to shape our rough-hewn image into a smoothly polished picture. But before then, in the beginning – when the page is blank and the possibilities are endless, sometimes we need to forget all we know or think we know, trust our instincts, and just let our hands go.

Right now I’m writing the sequel to the book I love more than anything else I’ve ever written: JIM MORGAN AND THE KING OF THIEVES. I don’t even know if audiences will enjoy the first one half as much as I enjoyed writing it, much less demand a sequel (hell, the book may not even find an audience!) But I love that little story and I found myself absolutely terrified to continue the tale. First, the questions and self-doubt set in: What if it doesn’t read like the first one? What if it isn’t as funny? What if the adventure isn’t as exciting or the heart of the story fails to ring true? Then, after the questions were really buzzing, the rules sounded off, criticizing my every move until I was sitting there with an overstuffed mind and a blank piece of paper for the better part of an afternoon. I needed Doc’s words come back to me, like a whisper from the ropes:

Let your hands go, kid.

I remember the day it happened in the boxing ring at the University like it was yesterday. I was sparring, getting my butt handed to me as usual, when something unbelievable happened. I slipped a punch, and without thinking I launched into a combination that sent my opponent sprawling into a corner. I heard Doc from the ropes, cheering me on. For a nineteen year-old kid, it was glorious.

That same unbelievable moment happened again, years after that sparring session, in a coffee shop just down the street from where I live.

I was staring at a blank piece of paper, my mind clouded with those loud and obnoxious questions, until I slipped one of those rules and just started typing - one word after the other. I forgot the first book after a few minutes. This was its own story. I forgot the rules after a few moments more. This is my story.

I heard Doc again from the ropes, cheering for me.

Thanks for the lesson, Doc. I still remember. Let your hands go ... Let your hands go and just write.
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Published on August 28, 2012 00:06 • 472 views • Tags: boxing, encouragement, storytelling, writing