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It is Not the End

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A misconception I’ve run into amongst those who do not write is that the most important aspect of the story is how it ends. This is simply not true. It is not the end that matters the most. In truth, it is not the beginning either. In the grand scheme of things all of our stories begin and end the same way: birth and death. On the surface level, there is no difference. Yes, there are many different ways to die, just as there are many different ways to be born. But the emergence into life and the exit from life are expected as we all cycle through our years on this plain of existence.

What tends to be interesting is the time in between.

The people who help shape you traditionally do not enter and exit your life at birth and death (save, perhaps, for your parents who are usually the first people you meet). Rather, they appear as neighbors, moving into the empty house across the street when you’re five. They stumble into the fourth grade classroom that smells of stickers and paste and offer endearing smiles or horrifying grimaces. They stare at you from behind a cold, wooden desk in the back of a journalism class in 11th grade and say something like, “Contrary to popular belief, you’ll never be a writer unless you stop smoking so much damn weed.” They dance by at your sister’s wedding and flutter their eyes at you as though seeing you for the first time or maybe wanting to be seen for the first time, though you’ve known each other since you were children. They sign up for your class and dash all your preconceived notions of what a good student should act like.

Likewise, the decisions you make that make your life and the lives of those around you interesting usually occur while you’re stumbling through this mortal coil, not while you’re taking your first worried steps or gently succumbing to your last night. When you decide to elope with the girl you started dating a little over a year ago, you are doing it in the middle of your story. When your job takes you to a completely different part of the country, you are doing it in the middle of your story. When your children are born, when your parents die, when you lose, love, laugh, and grow, you are doing it in the middle of your story. By the way, for our purposes, the middle is the longest chunk of your story, not the literal middle (in case you were wondering).

When the end comes, as it must, you, hopefully, drift off peacefully while dreaming of a cool summer day, a beautiful green field, and a gentle babbling creek filled with crystal clear water. Maybe you are reading a good book. Maybe you are talking with friends. Maybe you’re making love to your spouse. But that’s neither here nor there because the story is over at this point. The adventure has been had, the lessons learned.

The best part of the meatball sandwich is the meatball. The best part of the Oreo is the creamy filling. The best part of the workday is the middle (when you get to stop for lunch). So the best part of your story, the most important part of your story should always be the middle. The middle makes readers care. The middle makes readers want to keep reading.

The middle is life.

Your book is life.

Or rather it is if it is well written. As in life, the end is going to come. It always does.

Please don’t force it.

Practice the Craft

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My family was out-of-town this weekend and I have a little book coming out soon that I need to finalize. In case you were unaware, I also have a day job where I make yearbooks, video yearbooks, and videos for a student driven website. Needless to say, it keeps me a little busy. Normally, when I’m not doing that, I divide my writing time with family time. This Saturday was different though. This Saturday was mine and mine alone so I was a writer all day, nothing more and nothing less.

March 7th I practiced the craft the way I love to practice it.

Here is a semi-complete rundown of my day.

  • 7:00am
    • Woke up
  • 8:00am-10:00am
    • Taught my online course on writing graphic novels
  • 10:00am-11:30am
    • Edited the first two chapters of my friend’s newest novel
  • 12:00pm-6:00pm
    • Edited/wrote my aforementioned novel
  • 6:30pm-8:45pm
    • Met with another friend whose novel I edited last month and discussed those edits with him (among other things–like how we would fix Star Warswhy comic books are both awesome and awful, and how we feel about the fanboy mentality)
  • 9:30-10:30
    • Worked on my book some more
  • 10:30- whenever I fell asleep
    • Watched the latest season of Archer on Netflix

I tell you all this because most of my days are not spent this way. As a writer who has to make the bulk of his living another way (much like most of you, I assume), there is something great–nay–something magical–about a day spent absorbed in the written word, a day spent acting like a writer. This isn’t to say I feel like less of a writer any other day. On the contrary in fact. I consider days like March 7th, 2015 to be gifts and I look forward to many more.

I also wish you–all you artists out there on the Internets–the same sort of days more often than not.

Rethinking the Plot Pyramid, Part #2: No Pyramid

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Welcome back to some writerly instructions. Today I am going to go into more detail about the plot pyramid . . . kind of. We’re going to steer away from the traditional shape I wrote about a few weeks ago though and focus instead on the hero’s journey.

You will be–or maybe have been–told (correctly) that there are several different ways to tell stories. In fact, each person who writes has a different way to tell stories. This is all well and good. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that can complex it all up for beginners, or even some of us who have been at it for awhile.

Luckily, there are certain elements in good storytelling that seem to pop up again and again. For instance, when speaking of the plot pyramid, we have the specific shape from my last blog post. It is easy to understand and simple to use. To add to that though, we have two new shapes that can only exist because of the plot pyramid. They are the “Simple Storytelling Hero’s Journey” and the “Complex Storytelling-Hero’s Journey.”

For a simple storyteller, the hero’s journey is simple:

Simple Storytelling-Hero’s Journey

For s storyteller who wants his/her characters to grow and progress as he/she makes his way up and over the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey is a little more complicated. However, as I believe it is best to present instructions in a simple form, I came up with a easy-to-read design to show the complexity of growth:

Complex Storytelling-Hero’s Journey

Using the plot pyramid and the hero’s journey design, a sophisticated writer can begin to set up struggles and goals (particularly in the “rising and falling struggles” section of the pyramid) in order to create a character who changes over the course of a story, thereby becoming something more than a character, a person. If you have a character in no need of change, a simple storytelling journey will be appropriate.

But really–in a good story–how often does that happen?

Rethinking the Plot Pyramid, Part #1

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The plot pyramid, that old writing trope.

Your English teachers told you all about it in 6th grade, then again in 7th, then again in 8th . . . . This, naturally, went on until you were well into college. Every year, the same thing over and over again. It looked something like this. If you were anything like me and actually paid attention and enjoyed English class, then you probably became sick of this continuing re-education.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not begrudge any of my teachers for going over the plot pyramid time and time again, the same way I don’t begrudge them explaining simile and metaphor every year. They had to. After all, several students didn’t care, didn’t understand, or didn’t have the ability to retain what they were taught in class. Hell, when it came to math, I was one of those students. I get it. I do. But after several years of school, after learning, and re-learning this thing over and over again and after reading and writing books, I’ve come to the conclusion that the plot pyramid, frankly, isn’t right.

I like for my tools to be right, as, I assume, most writers do.

That in mind, I came up with a few visual aids to help aspiring writers work their way through the pratfalls of plot. Here is my first one:

Plot Pyramid

I’m keeping it simple this time. I hope you enjoy.

There will be more . . . .

Snow Day Lonely

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Today is a snow day here in Bellevue, NE. We have a substantial amount of snow on the ground, the temperature is low, and the wind is a’blowing. It is a good day for a snow day, especially considering all of the hangovers people are probably nursing after the Super Bowl last night. Me? I have no hangover. I wasn’t really that interested in the Super Bowl this year. Sometimes I am, usually I’m not. This year, again, I wasn’t. It’s whatever.

But today, as the wind blows and the snow piles up, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I should have paid a little more attention to it, or, at least, to the commercials. After all, isn’t that what everyone will be talking about tomorrow? Sometimes I feel so disconnected from the rest of the world . . . . Once, while talking with a couple of my friends I offered an offhanded comment that went something like this: “Most of the time, when I’m in a room full of people, I feel alone.” In my own naïveté, I assumed my two good friends would relate. The three of us are writers, unique souls, etc, etc, etc. They paused though–both of them–and the first to finally reply said, “That’s so sad, man.”

After that conversation I started to rethink a few things about myself. No, I haven’t lost that feeling of loneliness. I don’t think I ever will. It’s just something built into me. However, I have made an effort to leave my comfort zone, to participate in life a little bit more than I have in the past, to actually feel what others feel. It can be hard at times, because there is so much I simply don’t care about in a world full of people who care about so much about things I find, to be brutally honest, trivial.

But I’m trying.

I just didn’t last night. Instead, I played in the snow with my daughter and did a few rounds of Super Smash Brothers with my son. I never feel alone when I’m with those two. I never feel trivial. Then I wrote. Though, through my office wall I could hear the Super Bowl going on the living room television. No one was watching it.

It must have felt lonely too . . . the television I mean. Sometimes I personify things that way. It’s a habit most of us pick up as small, small children. Some of us keep that habit into adulthood . . . .

But c’est la vie. It’s a snow day! That’s something worth celebrating whether you’re alone or together.

A Look Back on This Charmed Life

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I had a rough day as Aaron Stueve the teacher and now that we’re ankle deep into 2015 I felt it was time to look back on AE Stueve, the writer’s 2014. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it was something of a banner year for me. With an email from a local bookstore I haven’t felt has been all that supportive of me, asking me if I’d like to be in their ‘local author directory’ I think, now more than ever, I can officially say I’m a writer and other people will agree. For me, that’s a big deal.

So, like I said, 2014 was something of a banner year for me. I had a new book come out and an old one re-issued. I helped put together four issues of a literary magazine and I edited a novel about being stuck in the purgatory that is Village Inn. On top of that, I started teaching a class at University of Nebraska at Omaha on comic book analysis and execution called Writing the Graphic Story. Also, I signed a deal to get my sort-of-zombie novel published through a fledgling publisher with just the right amount of whimsy to succeed

Were there several rejections thrown into the mix here? Yes. So many, you guys. You don’t even know. I have a list on my Google Drive–the submissions colored red are for rejection letters and the submissions colored blue are for acceptance letters. The red far outweighs the blue. Such is life though, amiright? Also, all this success in writing hasn’t exactly brought me a fortune. I still have a day job where I teach filmmaking and design and run a yearbook, video yearbook, website, and literary magazine for Bellevue West High. I’m not complaining. If I have to work, I’m glad I teach. 

It has come to my attention recently, thanks to more than one colleague’s observations, that I live something of a charmed life. When I am grading films by students who clearly didn’t listen to a word I said when teaching, I don’t feel it. When I’m stuck on a sentence or even a word in a story I’m working on, I don’t feel it. When something in my house breaks and I don’t have quite enough money to fix it as quickly as I’d like, I don’t feel it.

When I take a moment though, to look at my house and my family, to really think on the work I do every day, and to see the clear success I have as a writer, I do. I should probably do it more often because when I do, I realize I am living a charmed life.

More importantly though, I realize, I’ve earned it.

Everything is Wrong

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On MLK Day, after a year of wars, racism, and riots, it’s hard not to think everything is wrong with our society, isn’t it?

Do you ever get the feeling that something isn’t quite right around here?

These questions might sound like the troubling contemplations of a sick man. So let me back up a step before you call the po-leese to take me to the crazy house. I don’t want to go there and you can’t make me.

Anyway.

Since I was a little boy I’ve been fond of superhero comic books. If you’re a regular reader, you know this. There has always been one aspect of them that has fascinated me. No. That’s not true. There have always been several. Today though, I’m going to focus on one: alternate universes. Comic books–science fiction stories in general really–have, for time immemorial, contemplated the theory of alternate universes/timelines/realities/histories/etc. Some great examples include but are not limited to:

There are many, many more. Some are good (like the above mentioned). Some . . . not so much. But that’s not the point. In recent history, science has come to terms with the concept of alternate universes/timelines/realities/histories/etc. Many scientists, including Dr. Neil Degrasse TysonDr. Max Tegmark, Dr. Michael J.W. Hall, and other cosmologists, quantum physicists, astronomers, etc, etc, etc. have concluded, perhaps unknowingly, that the possibilities put forth in superhero comic books, pulp fiction, and sci-fi films are, in fact, quite feasible. I’m not going to get into the science of it here . . . . I’m not sure I understand it, something about wormholes and multiple outcomes to any given decision . . . .

Anyway.

Finally–we’ve made it back around to the point I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What if it is all wrong here? What if we live in an alternate timeline? What if, ages ago, a villain with a time machine rocketed through the space-time continuum and did damage to a perfectly acceptable timeline? What if, alternatively (pun intended) someone else followed and tried to make right what was once made wrong? What if this then sent ripples through the space-time continuum and this, then, created the world we are currently living in . . . as well as countless others? What if they’re all here, a few steps away from ours, just like ours is a few steps away from theirs? Furthermore, who are the ‘they’ who live there? Do they see us? Is there society as advanced as ours? Is it more so? Am I there right now typing something similar or did another version of me die in a sledding accident when he was in sixth grade? For the record, a distinct possibility. Anyway, is there a world, somewhere on the other side of the multiverse where MLK wasn’t shot and killed? Is there a world where the peace movement of the 60s didn’t devolve into a mess of drugs, frustration and (gasp) disco? Is there a world where Stephen King never wrote this?

I’m falling down a rabbit hole ladies and gentleman and I’m taking you with me. On MLK Day this may seem like an off-color topic–time travel and alternate universes and all that. But when I watch the news I have to think of the possibilities because if there is a world like this one, a world where people who promote peace and equality are assassinated and/or imprisoned, and comic books and scientists are right, then there must be a world where people who promote peace and equality are embraced and encouraged.

Somewhere.

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