Rick Yagodich

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Author of, predominantly, literary epic fantasy. But presentational genre is only a wrapper, and some stories demand other packaging. Custodian of an unhealthily long list of story ideas in need of writing.

Currently working on A Balanced Crown, book 2 of The Gods'Bridge Chronicles, which is "a coming-of-age/political-intrigue series that looks at how someone can become as evil and universally reviled as Sauron." Seeking alpha readers and other feedback on book 1, An Empty Throne.


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Just because I used an edit of it to get my mind working again, after a couple of weeks of bogging d…
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  •  · I wrote something like this when I was in my punk days and my father was basically in my friend grou…
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One for the plotters… pantsers might find this interesting, but it won't be meaningful to you…I'm in…
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  •  · It might be worth approaching it sequentially, too, rather than looking at act structures - just as …
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Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a famously deep and backstoried tale. The material created to sup…
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  •  · Great thread! Having started writing as a 'pantser' (3 novels ago) I am now beginning to appreciate …
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Alpha-reading… wait a moment. Alpha? How's that different from beta-reading?For those not familiar w…
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  •  · Thank you for this clear explanation. Very helpful. 
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A multi-part feature request, for uploaded files:When uploading a file, only two fields are presente…

This piece came about as a result of reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods, as part of the Community book club. Therein, Yorke opens with the conceit that he is the first to ever address the question of why we write story; he then pointedly fails to answer the question, except to claim that his model of archetypal story structure intrinsically explains its own existence.

So… to fill this gap, I posit a response of my own.

Why do we story? The answer is not a simple one; the question itself is ambiguous. There are three elements – three sub-questions – that derive from this overarching query:

  • What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?
  • Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals?
  • What makes story – and story structure – effective?

What are we – the storytellers – trying to achieve with our stories?

There are many answers to the question of what we storytellers wish to achieve. Maybe we want to impart an idea. Or we want to encourage our audience to think critically, to question their assumptions. Maybe we want to impart knowledge. Or beliefs. In many cases, we simply wish to entertain. These are all valid reasons, and there are certainly more. However, the details do not particularly matter.

We want to pass an idea or thought process from our own mind into others’. It’s as simple as that.

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 1

The answer to this secondary question is somewhat self-referential. We use story as our tool because it works, we use it because it is effective at getting into the audience’s minds, and it has a structure that will keep it there.

We use story because our audience wants story. Indeed, the audience demands story.

But that’s not very helpful. I will come back to this question once I’ve addressed why it is so effective, once I’ve covered what the audience wants – needs – from story.

What makes story – and story structure – effective?

To answer this question, we need to step beyond story into the realm of neurophysiology. Without descending into the weeds, we need to consider how the brain copes with the world we inhabit. Every second, it is assaulted by thousands of elements of information: sights and sounds, tastes and smells, several different axes of touch-based perception, and thoughts.

Yet we blithely ignore most of that. We pay attention only to the things that matter. How?

The brain is an amazingly complex filtering system. It weighs each element of information it receives on a scale of disruption: is this different? Is it, in effect, an edge?

The brain then marks these edges with stress. It says: pay attention, deal with this.

The toolkit used for this is a limited array of neurochemical agents. The same ones that play into emotions. That marking of perceived edges with stress is – creates / uses – emotion.

We perceive, and thus feel, edges in our surroundings. That is how we know we are alive.

How does this relate to story?

To tell the story of your day, you wouldn’t recount every detail of all 86,400 seconds. That would be boring. Instead, you would skip over the background static, calling out only those elements that are different. You would speak of the edges.

As many who have written about story agree, the fundamental, atomic element of story is conflict. (Robert McKee said it best: “Conflict is to story as sound is to music.”) Conflict comes in many forms, the most basic of which is divergence, whether from expectation or from the norm. Our inciting incident is jsut that, a divergence to kick things into action, an edge worth noting. This aspect of story aligns perfectly with how our brain works.

Then, there is the second aspect to this stress-marking of perceived edges: deal with it.

In everyday life, that can take many forms, from frantic action to deciding it’s not relevant. But they all work towards the same: resolution. While the brain uses stress chemicals to alert us to that which we need to pay attention to, we do not cope well with their persistence. As we need the hit to feel alive, we also need the anticipation and the reward of resolution to avoid the negative consequences of our brain’s highlighting mechanism.

Story provides this, too. A good bit of story provides the stress-inducing edge (cortisone and epinephrine), the anticipation that comes from moving forward through the challenges (dopamine), and the pleasure – or pain suppression – of resolution (serotonin and endorphins).

Stories work, quite simply, because they stimulate the same elements of the brain as do perception and the handling thereof. Because they cause the successive release of stress, challenge, and success neurochemicals. And, in doing so, they trigger emotion, which makes us feel alive.

You could say – to paraphrase Descartes – I story, therefore I feel, therefore I know I am alive.

Which brings us back to…

Why do we choose story as our tool to accomplish our goals? —part 2

I said that we use story because our audience demands it of us.

They demand it because it enables them to feel, to know they are alive.

Thus, we use story because its structure aligns with the way our audience’s brains work: doping with, then releasing from, stress.

We, the storytellers… we are, in effect, drug dealers.

That is why we tell story.

Just because I used an edit of it to get my mind working again, after a couple of weeks of bogging down and not being at all productive.

Honestly, I don't even know how to describe the genre for this one, except that it really is a mortography. And I can only hope a true one.

Enjoy. Critique. Whatever…

The one possible question: would this work as the prologue to a memoir entitled "40 Year Holiday - Lessong from a life / in which nothing and nowhere / ever felt like home"?

One for the plotters… pantsers might find this interesting, but it won't be meaningful to you…

I'm in the process of trying to standardise what I include in my story outlines. In a structured way. Not just a summary of each chapter/scene, but details about characters first introduced, worldbuilding elements covered, the purpose of the scene, etc.

What do you include in your outlining? Are there elements that must be included, without which the outline is incomplete? And what granularity do you go to?

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a famously deep and backstoried tale. The material created to support it was posthumously published in six volumes; likely, there was more. So, more metadata than final story.

My question: how much metadata do you create for your works? What form does it take? Backstory? Plot maps? Theme maps? Something else?

Do you create a story wiki? What tools do you use? Do the answers differ between a short story, a stand-alone book, and a series?

Alpha-reading… wait a moment. Alpha? How's that different from beta-reading?

For those not familiar with the difference, alpha-reading is that first small group of readers you give your work to who understand that it's not polished. You may have passages that say [insert jargon here]. You may have other bits you've intentionally skipped, or even sections you intend to remove. With beta-readers, you're providing a first draft of a finished-ish product. (Which doesn't mean it won't get rehashed beyond all recognition, but that's what the alpha-readers are supposed to help with.)

So…

First, credit where credit's due. What follows is a modified version of Mary Robinette Kowal's approach to obtaining meaningful feedback.

One important point of alpha-reader feedback is that you are looking for symptoms, not diagnoses or prescriptions. The logic here is simple. You are writing your story. You understand it on a level no one else ever will. If something isn't working, the alpha-reader's job is to tell you that it isn't working. Not to tell you how to do it right. If they tell you how to change it (the prescription), it becomes their work, not yours.

So, to be clear about what you're asking your alpha-readers for:

Sympton

Symptoms are the details the alpha review is intended to identify. What the reader feels, whether positive or negative. It is based on grading the material using the matrix below. Some symptoms will require an explanation of the reader's response – a clarification of the marking.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is the why behind the symptom. For the most part, the reader won’t need to supply this information, but you may ask for it subsequently. A diagnosis from someone who understands writing and story structure should carry far more weight than a diagnosis from someone who doesn't.

Prescription

The prescription is the solution, how to fix the problem. It’s the author’s job, not the alpha-reader’s. Except in the rarest of cases, and then from professionals, alpha-reader prescriptions should be ignored.

And now, the matrix.


Writing
Story
+ve
A – Awesome
An A is for anything that is just perfect prose.
Beautiful wording that needs to be kept, whatever happens to the story around it.
C – Curious
A C is for anything that pulls the reader into the story.
Events or descriptions that make them wonder what happened, or why it happened. It includes anything the reader feels includes a promise of a resolution.
-ve
B – Boring
A B is for anything that feels dull and uninspired.
Wording that drags on for no apparent reason, convoluted or unnecessary descriptions, etc.
D – Don’t Care/Believe
A D is for anything that relaxes the story’s grip on the reader.
Events or descriptions that distance them from the characters, that they don’t care about or don’t believe.
Ds will often benefit from an explenation, or at least a subcategorisation.


E – Continuity Error
An E is for a continuity error.
These errors add confusion to the story, uncertainty over details you believed has been defined.
E’s should include a brief explanation of the discrepancy.

This markup can be applied at any scale. Sometimes, it will apply to a few words. Other times, to a scene or more.

Obviously, Bs and Ds are the "bad" ones here, but they're also the ones you really want to have pointed out to you as early as possible. So you can understand them and fix them.

So, with that all said… Helpful? Useful? Let me know if it works for you, or you think the model could be enhanced.

A multi-part feature request, for uploaded files:

  1. When uploading a file, only two fields are presented: File and Visibility. When subsequently editing it, there are two additional fields: Title and Descriptions. Please can those additional fields be available on initial upload.
  2. Posts can be cross-posted to multiple groups/furums… Can we please have similar flexibility with files, in the form of multi-selection within visibility (e.g. friends + group A + group B)

I'm looking for alpha readers…

The book - An Empty Throne (volume 1 of the Gods'Bridge Chronicles) - is a character-centric, epic fantasy tale. It runs to a little over 150k words.

The premise of the full series is: what would it take for a fairly normal person to become as evil and universally reviled as Sauron?

The sample chapters here are to allow members to determine whether the style is what they would be interested in reading; it wouldn't do to have alpha readers who don't habitually read in this genre/style.

There is a specific format of alpha reading annotation I will be looking for, which I will include in what I send to those who are interested.

Reciprocation is, obviously, on the table.

Rick Yagodich
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Rick Yagodich
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