Friday, August 31, 2012

A Game that Writers Play: Transformation by DeAnna Knippling

Across the world, it's commonly understood that games are stupid and boring, and nobody likes to play them.

No, wait, I mean it's commonly understood that games are fun, exciting, and everyone has their favorite types of games they like to play or watch. 


It could be sports (the Olympics certainly tied up people's brains for a while, didn't it?), it could be card games, board games, video games, darts, drinking games, rock-paper-scissors, pattycake, tag, or even holding your hands behind your back and making a little kid pick which hand the candy is in.

Games are fun.  Because they have rules.

They have just enough rules.  If a game has too many rules, we strip the rule out.  If it doesn't have enough rules, we add more--house rules.  How do we know if the rules are right?  Because we're having fun.

So let me tell you about my favorite game.  It's called "Transformation."  You only need one player to play, but it's nice to have an audience.  And everyone plays it differently, but there are rules. 

Generally, this is how you play it:

  • First you deal out a Character card.  A kid just making her way out into the world for the first time.  An ordinary Joe.  A grumpy old woman.
  • Then you deal out a Setting chard.  Late 19th-century England. Outer space.  The high seas of China during the age of piracy.
  • Third, either one or two Problems from the problem-card deck: an External Problem card and possibly an Internal Problem card.  Spouse Kidnapped! Lack of Confidence!  Out of Gas!  Arrogant SOB! Low Man on the Totem Pole!  Loss of Hope!

Actually, I take that all back.  The first card you deal out is the Overall Emotion card.  Pure adrenaline, self-sacrifice, laughter, pessimism, careful consideration, fear, pluck, wonder, determination, and integrity are some of the major emotion cards.  Some people like to deal out two, but those are the advanced players.  (Of course, the only way to become an advanced player is to deal out the cards like one.)

Here, things get more complex, and the house rules get all over the place.  Some people deal out goals next; others, catalysts.  Some will throw in a mentor and an antagonist and leave it at that; others will toss down a cast of thousands. 

But all those games of transformation share a few essential cards, although they're called by different names.  Here are the big ones:

  • The Point of No Return, where the character has to admit that the problem can't be solved by everyday methods.
  • The Clever Idea that Will Lead to No Good, where the character tries to solve the problem by doing the wrong thing (often, through ignorance of the real situation).
  • Worse Off than When They Started, where the character feels like they never should have tried to solve this problem anyway (even though they couldn't avoid it).
  • They Knew It All Along; If Only They'd Listened, when the character realizes that the problem is their attitude, and changes it.
  • And finally, Changed for the Better, when the internally-based solution to the External problem has been put into place. Or Abject Failure, where the internally-based solution...was realized just a moment too late.

I'm sure you know another name for this game.  It's "telling stories."

When we tell stories, we're playing a game, with rules.  Stories aren't like real life, although we sometimes turn real life into a story, so we can understand it.  If we played stories like we play real life,  we'd play the beginning of the game a hundred times before we ever got to the Point of No Return card.  And we'd play the same Clever Idea that Will Lead to No Good card over and over, never understanding why things didn't work out the way we wanted them to--through unhappy jobs, relationships that sap our strength, and trying to raise kids that don't act the way we think they should. 

In real life, most of us are terrible Transformation players.  Storytellers, however, are great at it.  Okay, maybe we're not so great at it in real life, but on paper, we can deal out those cards like pros, making tales that include all the right cards in the right order, whether we do it consciously or not.

And a lot of the problems we have, as storytellers, come from a problem with the way we play the game.

As storytellers, when you're stuck, look at your deck of cards: did you play all the cards you needed?

If you're having trouble coming up with ideas for what to write, just deal out your first four or five cards--an Overall Emotion card (hint: this is your genre!), and a Character in a Setting with a Problem (or two).  You'll be surprised with what clicks.

And if you're having trouble finishing a story, or if you feel like something's wrong with it but you can't tell what--study the great card players and find out what their house rules are!  Study the games that are closest to yours...and listen to the teachers who explain the layouts best.

All of this, I admit, was just a clever way to get you thinking about structure.  Personally, I found it utterly overwhelming when I first started studying it (like trying to learn 4-dimensional math), and I would cry loudly that I didn't need no stinking structure. Live and learn. The more I think about it, the more I find that it's structure that gets to the heart of why we read stories and what we find so pleasurable about them.

Here are some of my favorite works on structure:

And you probably know of more.  What are your favorite books or teachers on structure?  And what are your personal (or your genre's) house rules?

About the Writer:  DeAnna Knippling is a freelance writer, editor, and formatter married to a Network Administrator, and she was still embarrassed about some of her personal security practices after hearing JT's talk.  Check out her personal blog at or her small press at

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

All Writing Helps Writing by F.P. Dorchak

One of my brothers and I were discoursing on the topic of writing, and he asked “ does ‘all writing help all writing’? For example: how does writing tech manuals help writing a screen play for a comedy?

I have been using that statement in my signature block for some years. I believe it. Now, I’m not going to get all scientific-y on everyone (except for one link, below), I’m just gonna use experience, but on the more mechanical and mundane side of the coin, any time we set out to do anything, it sets up new neuro pathways, even changes existing ones (okay, maybe a little scientific-y...). Basically, the dendrites and axons move, and break, and form nerve connections. For getting all “science-y” about dendrites, neurons, and axons, click here. I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for in my research, but there was a History Channel (I think it was) show that described how these connections change with learning. On a related topic, there’s also “muscle memory,” where the body learns, gets used to doing something it’s been repeatedly doing. The more you do something, the more you can do something, and the better you can be at it. The more you write, the better you get at it.

It’s called practice.

On the Zen side of things, I feel that the more we “tune” ourselves into whatever it is we’re doing, the better we become at it. The more “practiced” we become in accessing whatever it is we “access” when we write.

“Where did I come up with that?”

“Did I actually know that term?”

“Man--that was good--that came out of me?

This ever happen to anyone?

Now, while you might need to learn the specific format and mechanics of technical or comedic writing, the fact that you’re becoming (or already are) a writing machine (yeah, give yourself some credit) will propel you forward in all your writing. You may not be oriented toward either of the abovementioned areas, but you are in other areas, and you’re a writer. That means you can write. For example, working on other, dissimilar areas of writing can help all writing through one or more of the following:

1.  Formatting and formulation of ideas, topics, and structure.

2.  Deadlines.

3.  Writing fast.

4.  Writing to word counts.

5.  Outlining--mentally or physically.

6.  Receiving criticism.

7.  Writing and rewriting. And rewriting.

8.  Better use and combination of words and grammar.

9.  Better familiarity with words.

10.  Develops your “voice” (yes, I can see my “voice” in my technical writing as well as in my fiction.

11.  Writing toughness (you think this stuff is easy?).

All of the above and more will make you a better, faster, more economical and efficient writer. There’s also the sitting down part (butt-in-chair syndrome), which is a pretty important aspect in and of itself.

Does it really matter what it is you’re writing about? If your life depended on you writing a rousing, emotional plea for action--or how to put together or break down (blindfolded!) a blender--do you think you could do it?

Of course you could.

Can you write funny? I’d say most of us have (intentionally or unintentionally) talked or acted funny in our lives. Use your writing superpowers to translate those experiences into the writing medium.

I am not one to parse things out and break down the “wholes” of things, I’m more of a “gestalt guy.” I believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that all the little parts know their own place in the Grand Gestalt and will do their part in takin’ care of business, and as such, I allow it all to work its own metaphysical magic. Yes, at some point--and throughout the writing life--some “learnin” need take place, but I’m not really here to talk about craft. Just like I’m not a “parser,” I’m also not a “craft guy.” All this is about the intangible--which, I am about.

You’re a writer.

You write. Do so.

While you’re writing, weird and wonderful things happen. Once you’re “in the zone,” things come out of you that will very likely surprise you. But you have to allow this to happen, whether through meditation or the act of writing itself, and there are plenty of books out there on both of these.

Allow yourself to write, allow all of your writing--your life--experience to flow through you, to come out in the medium of your choice. “All writing helps all writing” is about state of mind. About not compartmentalizing your experiences, but allowing the Gestalt to overtake, to flow through you.

Writing is simply putting one word in front of the other. It’s just like walking. How we do it is where all the Zen takes place, the practice, the mechanics...the magic.

About the Writer:  F. P. (Frank) Dorchak’s interest in the paranormal and reality manipulation has been with him as long as he can remember and saturates his fiction and non-fiction. Currently a technical writer, he’s published in the U.S., Canada, and the Czech Republic with a handful of short stories and non-fiction articles, as well as his first published novel, Sleepwalkers. His Twilight Zone-like short, “Tail Gunner” was included in this year’s Longmont Public Library, You Belong anthology. He’s attended 20 years worth of writer conferences, has presented and volunteered at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, presented at local writers’ groups, and has been interviewed on local and Internet radio, most recently this past April, on Roaring Success Radio out of Castle Rock, Colorado. Frank’s Runnin’ Off at the Mouth blogsite can be found at He’s currently working on an action/adventure conspiracy series, and is represented by Cherry Weiner.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Jodi Anderson Retires

On behalf of the Pikes Peak Writers' Board of Directors, members and staff, we take this opportunity to express our sincerest appreciation for the contribution of Jodi Anderson. PPW is deeply grateful for her talent, skills and dedication as she concludes her tenure as Executive Director.

 It is through the dedication of people like Jodi Anderson that we are able to continue to strengthen our programs, and to develop new and innovative projects to serve our members and the writing community.
As we turn a new page in PPW’s success story, we would like to thank Jodi Anderson for making our mission a reality, and are excited that she will continue to support PPW as a visionary and volunteer.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. – Stephen King

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ira Sez by Shannon Baker

I read something the other day and I just had to share it. I picked this up from a Desert Sleuths’ newsletter and that writer picked it up from Ira Glass. He’s the interesting and wildly successful guy who does “This American Life” on NPR. If you’ve ever listened to his show, you can hear him speak these words:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Did I mention he’s wildly successful? And yet, he admits that he, like the rest of us, was riddled with doubts. He didn’t start off being great. He worked at it. Worked really hard.

I find this encouraging and inspirational and disappointing all at the same time. It means I can’t quit. I’m not as good as my hero-writers and suspect I’ll never rise to their level. I’d like to settle for “good enough.”

Mr. Glass’s quote tells me I can never stop trying to be a better writer. That’s daunting. But he also tells me that hard work will pay off. I will improve over time. And so, thank you, Mr. Glass for giving me the proverbial homework for the rest of my life.

How about you? Does Ira Glass’s quote inspire or exhaust you?

(Originally posted at the Sisters of the Quill blog on October 24, 2011)

About the Writer: Shannon Baker has a right brain/left brain conflict. While the left brain focuses on her career as an accountant, her right brain concocts thrillers, including her 2010 release, Ashes of the Red Heifer. A lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers, she can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. The first book in the Nora Abbott Mystery Series will release in the fall of 2012 from Midnight Ink publishers. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Column: Invitation Only by Mandy Brown Houk

             As you might know from my earlier columns, I teach creative writing at a small private high school. My most complained-about but most successful class requirement is that the kids write for at least twenty minutes, five days per week. Early every school year, the kids are plagued by the fear that what they write won’t be “any good.” The first few entries in their journals are a mess of scribbles and erasures; I’ve even had journals returned to me with pages torn out, so horrified were the students with what they’d produced.

            A few days before school started this past August, I had an epiphany. I bought a box of Legos and took it to school with me on that first day. Once we’d made our introductions, I dumped all of the Legos in the middle of our conference table and told the kids to build something – one construction per student. Sure, they looked at me like I’m crazy, but I’m me and they’re teenagers, so it’s expected.

            As they slowly started to pick out Legos and fit them together, I strolled around behind their chairs, observing them and nodding. Then I swooped in and took a blue Lego out of one boy’s hand and told him, “That’s not going to be a good color scheme. You shouldn’t add it.” I tossed it back into the pile.

            The reaction was immediate (and hilarious). Since the first day of school is always about sizing up the teacher, I could see in their faces that they were pretty close to horrified. As soon as all the students had turned their attention back to the Legos, I swooped in again. This time, I actually took a girl’s assembled pieces from her hand and took a couple of bricks off. “I don’t think that’s a good shape.” I smiled into her bewildered face and handed the pieces back to her.

            I repeated this until I’d disturbed each student at least once, and then I finally grabbed one student’s nearly-finished masterpiece and said, “Augh—you need to just start over with this one. I don’t know where you were going with that.” I separated every piece and dropped them all back into the pile, leaving the student alarmed and empty-handed.

            At this point, all the kids stopped and didn’t look like they’d be starting again any time soon. Which was perfect.

            “So,” I said, nodding toward the empty hands of the student I’d just accosted. “What’s she got now?”

            There were murmurs, out of which I picked out the word I was looking for: “nothing.”

            “Nothing,” I repeated. “That’s right. And the rest of you have less than you could have if I’d left you alone. Right?”

            There were grunts of assent, and kids glanced at each other, trying to sort out precisely what kind of a weirdo I might be. When they quieted down and I knew they were listening, I said, “That’s what your inner editor does.”

            I went on to explain that, when they were supposed to be writing (building), they needed to focus only on that. They could not invite the inner editor to the party—building up and tearing down can’t happen at the same time.

            I gave each student a Lego to take home that day, to place on their desks where they could see it when they sat down to write—to remind them of who was not invited. I don’t know what they decided about my sanity, but I do know one thing: this year’s class did a lot less erasing, scribbling, and tearing-out those first few weeks. That’s worth the price of a few Legos.

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site is