Curt Covert

Making Stuff Up as I go… The Novels, Games and Works of Curt Covert

Archive for the tag “novels”

‘The Ultimate First Paragraph’ & A New Appreciation for Literary Agents

I have to tell you about a rather inspired and very enlightening contest, which recently asked aspiring writers to share their novel’s “Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph.” Up for grabs was an impressive Grand Prize, the opportunity to have an agent consider your manuscript. Wow. Offered up by Nathan Bransford, a children’s author, one-time literary agent for Curtis Brown and blogger extraordinaire, the contest drew roughly 900 entries, which were posted for all to see.  And that was the best part. Nine hundred beginnings. Nine hundred authors trying their damnedest to hook you with a handful of words. I heartily encourage you to give it a read through. You may discover what I did. (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2013/02/the-5th-sort-of-annual-stupendously.html)

It was eye opening, reading paragraph after first paragraph. What does it say to you? Where do those first words take the reader? Does the first paragraph describe the setting? Are you placed right in the action? Is the voice of the main character your introduction to the world? With so many different beginnings, many trends popped up. Pitfalls became quickly obvious and clichés were exposed to the sun. In between, there were some great stories, that had only just begun, by some talented new authors. I found it riveting reading and very, very sobering.

After reading the first two hundred, I suddenly gained a true appreciation for what agents and publishers go through. I found myself, after the first two sentences, deciding if the book was ‘for me’ or not. It was just that quick.

Crap-in-a-hat! If that could happen to me in such a short amount of time, imagine an agent, with years in the business, flipping through the slush pile. My god! That story better impress right out of the gate. Not that I didn’t intuitively know that already, but I can tell you it made a big impression on me and had me reexamine my own book’s beginning with new vigor.

Nathan said, “A first paragraph is a surprisingly important part of an entire novel, because it has to do so much. It eases the reader into the novel. But the reader literally has no idea where they are. The paragraph has to carefully guide the reader through the paragraph and into the world of the novel. Flow is important, crucial details are important, and voice is important.”

At no other time had that been so apparent to me. How did my first paragraph stack up? Had I done a good enough job on the first chapter overall? Well, my entry, which you will see around the #216 mark, was disqualified. Technically, my first paragraph had been two sentences, simply for dramatic effect. That didn’t stop me from completing the thought with the ‘rest’ of the paragraph after hitting the ‘return’ button. XXX BUZZ XXX Hey, that’s two paragraphs, mister. I lose.

But honestly, I won. I decided I could do better yet. After the contest ended, I completely rewrote the beginning of my story, taking every bit of insight I’d gleaned and put it to use. I am so much happier with the chapter as a result. Nathan’s fun little contest really forced me to work harder on perfecting my story’s beginning and will no doubt make me a bit more understanding when it comes to receiving rejections. And who knows, with all that extra effort, maybe it will just pay off in the end.

Now go read those Ultimate First Paragraphs. You won’t be sorry.

The TXT that already made writing my novel worth it. The first of many?

The text arrived 10:30 Friday morning, while I was at work. It was all in caps.

I HAD A LUCID DREAM!

It was from my thirteen year-old son, who had been reading my novel recently. He had lobbied and gained permission from his new 8th grade teacher to read my book for his school reading assignment, just as soon as classes started this fall. I have to admit; I had thought that was pretty damn cool, on both their parts. While my son was reading DreamWalkers, my wife reported that he would occasionally look up from the book to tell her how much he was enjoying it and that he kept forgetting that I had written it, as he became swept up in the story. High praise, indeed.

When he had finished it, he gave me some good notes to consider as well. But it was the story and content itself that excited him. It got him thinking. A lot.

Now, he had previously heard me talk about the concept of lucid dreaming, of becoming aware that you are dreaming and being able to influence the dream you are in. He knew that I had learned how to do it as a kid, as a means of escaping my nightmares. Hearing me talk about it when I was writing the first draft hadn’t created a huge reaction in him. Yet his biggest take-away from reading the book, apart from enjoying the story, was that he now wanted to learn how to have his own lucid dreams.

I was pretty excited that the story had inspired my son. After all, it was one of my great hopes that kids would find the book mind opening in a number of ways and that learning more about lucid dreaming might serve as a gateway to having their own adventures as they slept. But, until Friday, I didn’t know how much he’d been motivated to try.

He was home sick all last week with some crazy virus. As a result, he was sleeping a lot throughout the day. It just so happens that drifting into and out of sleep creates a fertile territory for gaining lucidity in one’s dreams. As I had not yet placed my list of tips on how to have a lucid dream at the back of the book, which I plan to have as a ‘Note from the Author’ in the final, my son was only armed with the information he gleaned from the story itself. Turns out, it was enough.

Unbeknownst to me, he had been keeping a dream journal for the past two weeks, writing in it every time he awoke to capture the content of his dreams before the memory of them faded, just as Adam does in my story. During the week of my son’s illness, he would go back to sleep with one goal, to realize what he saw next would be a dream.

On Friday, he did.

The dream began in our front yard. He saw his brother driving a tricked-out orange Mazda noisily down the street. Having had recent driving issues, my younger son didn’t think his brother would be able to own a car like that, because of the insurance cost (a frequent topic of discussion in my house recently). He used the incident as a reality check. If his brother was driving that car, my son reasoned, then this MUST be a dream!

Delighted that he was now aware he was dreaming, it occurred to him that he could do whatever he wanted. His first thought was to emulate one of his favorite video game characters, Link, from The Legend of Zelda. Link has a signature sword and shield that my son has always wanted to own for real and here was his chance. He tried to summon the shield to his arm… and it worked! Sort of.

He was now holding a shield, but instead of the specific shield he’d wanted, he ended up with a shield from Gundam, a robot warrior show from even earlier in his childhood. Slightly disappointed, but still having fun, he tried for the sword. He was much closer this time. It was actually Link’s purple-hilted sword, but it looked like a horrible, low-resolution screen grab. He said it looked like bad Photoshop work. It struck him as funny dreaming it, as it was for me, hearing about it.

Shortly thereafter, he remembered he could probably fly, if he wanted. He started running, felt the air catch underneath him, and found himself up in the air. He became aware of my wife and I watching him from below as he soared and, at the same time, realized he wasn’t very good at controlling his flight. Momentarily out of control, he started flying backwards into the copse of trees that separates our yard from the neighbor’s – until he hit a tree. Apparently, as his very supportive father, I couldn’t stop laughing. Happily, he thought it was comical as well.

He made a number of loops of the yard, enjoying each swoop. In the end, he made a controlled landing, flying through our back porch door and running a few steps, as he was carried forward by momentum. He looked back and saw the screen door was closed. Another sign he was still dreaming. And then, the dream was over.

My wife walked into his room shortly after he woke up, to check on how he was feeling. She saw him writing frantically in his journal, trying to catch every detail he could, not interrupting him until he was finished. His text to me was sent moments later and I called to hear all about it immediately.

What a gratifying moment for both of us. He was so thrilled to have been an active participant in his own dream. It was just like the book. He was having his own adventures, like Adam had! Lucid dreaming had become real for him. And, sharing in his excitement, I had my own hopes realized. My book had inspired a child and opened him to a whole new world. I couldn’t have been more delighted that my son had been the first and knew, somehow, he wouldn’t be the last.

And what’s better than that?

Dreaming Blind: A Study of How The Blind Dream

When the blind dream, what do they see? I was just introduced to a very interesting scientific study by a friend who looked into it and decided to share it with me. My friend, Justin, had an interesting dream the other night in which he couldn’t find his glasses. For the rest of the dream, his vision was profoundly affected. He said:

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced vision loss in a dream before. It was a bit frightening because I had to get out of my car and walk.  I was in an unfamiliar location and everything was blurry. Of course I awoke with a curiosity as to whether or not this is a common occurrence among people with vision impairment. I came across this article, which I thought you might find interesting and possibly even useful in your novel crafting.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/health/16real.html?_r=1

The New York Times article discusses research about how the blind dream – and whether or not the dreams are visual experiences. Apparently, it depends on when they lost their vision. For those who were born blind or lost their sight very early in life, dreams are experienced without imagery but with heightened senses of smell, touch and taste, which can be largely absent in the dreams of sighted people. Give it a read. Very cool stuff.

It may be a bit too late to incorporate the knowledge smoothly into my current novel, but I have already imagined how it may work into the following book. Imagine a sighted person visiting the dreams of a blind person, having to navigate the visionless dream without any experience in such things. Talk about a fish out of water. What a great insight to bring to bear in the next book. Thanks, Justin!

So that got me thinking further. In my own dreams, I have had experiences that enhanced or eliminated some of my senses. In one particularly bad nightmare from my past, I was effectively blind. I strained to see in pitch-black darkness as a circle of unknown voices called my name. Some harshly, some softly, some tempting me to draw nearer – as they all closed in around me. Horrifying. I could feel cool air on my skin – and felt their presences even though I could not see them. In a separate dream, I slowly lost each of my senses, one by one, after being struck in the head by a bullet. But that is a tale for another day (it would be a very long post to chronicle that dream).

What about you? How have your senses been altered for good or worse in a dream that helped or hindered you in some way? I’d love to hear your stories!

Why I Can’t Wear Sunglasses. A Writer’s Epiphany.

I won’t wear sunglasses. Never could. I’m just not cool enough.

It’s funny how certain items and words become layered with meanings in the collective conscious. And for one reason or another, I’ve always associated wearing sunglasses with motorcycles, celebrities and rock stars. Trying on a pair left me feeling like a poser. Sure, it’s ridiculous. I’m well aware. But I’ve just never felt comfortable in them.

Honestly, I’ve always felt the same twinge when describing myself as a writer. Not that I don’t qualify. I write all the time. I even get paid for it. It’s just that when I think of a WRITER, my mind immediately leaps to Hemingway, Emily Dickenson, Kafka… you know, Writers.

You want to have fun? Do a web search for images of ‘writers.’ Never mind; I’ll save you the time. This is what you’ll find…

Half-crazed madmen. Suffering infuses their every word. Writing is pain, an obligation, a compulsion that tears at them. They chain-smoke their way through writer’s block, struggle with the weight of the world on their shoulders… you know, Writers.

A lot of the writers I’ve known have talked about it in the same way. Writing was a struggle. It was emotionally draining on them. All I could think of in response was, Sounds awful. Why the hell would anyone want to be a writer?

Yet, here I am, writing away and having a blast. I look forward to it. As I write, it is almost as though I’m reading the book for the first time. The characters surprise me. The story keeps charging forward, twisting and turning in ways I hadn’t expected. I’m just trying to keep up half the time. I set the stage, but the characters decide what happens and shape the events. They certainly seem to know the story better than I do, so I just let them go. It’s fun.

Clearly, I am doing it wrong. I’m just not this dude.

All of which makes calling myself a writer feel like wearing an ill-fitting shoe. Not only does it pinch my toes, it looks ridiculously out of place on my foot.

But then, something interesting happened the other night. I had just spent two hours on the hot seat, having my writing group provide feedback on my first draft, and had jumped into a story about how I first learned to lucid dream as a kid. As I finished, one of the women in the group was looking at me funny. I couldn’t quite read her expression. She looked stunned, with a hint of annoyance, yet still warm and friendly. “My God. Do you even hear yourself?” she said. “The sentences just fall out of you fully formed.”

I didn’t know how to react, still unsure of where she was headed with the comment. But what she said next led me to an epiphany as I replayed it in my mind going home. She said I was a natural storyteller and did not wonder that it showed in my writing.

Storyteller.

Now that brings up much different imagery, doesn’t it?

Google thinks so, too.

What a pleasant looking fellow. This is a guy who enjoys what he does. He’s an entertainer. He’s not trying to create art; he’s trying to engage an audience, artfully.

So why do the two words connote such disparate things in our minds? Is the oral tradition and performance of a story so different than the authoring of the story? Don’t you have to be a storyteller in setting the words down in the first place? Yeah, of course you do.

Perhaps, then, it is simply an attitude. I often hear people say they are working on a book. In college, people talk about wanting to become writers. Writers are constantly at work on their craft and measure themselves by those who have distinguished themselves as literary giants.

Well sure, we all want to be better writers. It’s just the word perhaps, the vision that seems so out of whack. But what if one replaced the desire to be a writer with the desire to tell a story? To not work on a book, but delight in telling a tale? It just sounds like more fun. And maybe, that’s the only difference.

Certainly, the thought made a difference for me. Driving home, I realized how right Katie was. For people who know me, you know that you can seldom strike up a conversation with me without being subjected to a story. Sorry. I can’t seem to help it. But yeah, storyteller pretty aptly describes how I see my role. Perhaps that’s how I fit into the writer’s world.

Though… I suppose I could get used to the term ‘Author’ pretty easily, should I be so fortunate. For the word author conjures up a whole new vision in your head, a person who has had their story published, having been recognized for their own unique voice. And that is a title anyone can wear with pride.

Even for a guy who can’t wear sunglasses.

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