Accepting Critiques of your Work: Sanctification

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Courtesy of bing.

 

The rough draft is done. The rewrite is done. The first round of alpha readers is in. (You know who you are: thank you!) Adjustments are made, notes are taken, and the story is ready to simmer while the rough draft of Book 2 is written. Rinse and Repeat.

This is my general cyclical habit when I’m writing a novel.

Last year, I added in a new step via Scribophile. As I read, critique, and learn from other writers at various stages in their craft, I share my chapters to be critiqued in their turn.

What a different world. I get the email notice that my work has been critiqued and I’m instantly nauseous. This is not my writing group of gentle suggestions. This isn’t fellow believers who see the beauty of the gospel in my work. This isn’t friends who’ve been reading my work for years. This isn’t even acquaintances of friends who wanted to see what I write. These are people who don’t know me and are willing to take any given chapter apart word by word. (I’m now crawling into a corner.)

If you’ve never opened yourself up for a sound critiquing, you need to know there is little in the world as painful. I had to build a tiny network of friends/fans/readers just to talk me down off the rough every time I got a critique.

I will admit much of the negativity and harshness is in my head. The critiquers have, over all, been very encouraging, kind, positive, and helpful. But, God is a master at using every element of our lives to point out our remaining sin and make us more like Christ. Getting critiques of my beloved story was the perfect opportunity for God to help me see my pride.

Sigh. There was a lot of it.

Paragraph breaks, commas, dialogue, telling, info drops, confusion, descriptions. Each time someone pointed out something that needed another polish with the old rag, a little voice of anger rose up in me: “Can’t they see that this is the greatest work ever???? What’s wrong with them?” Whoa. Hold up there, Betsy. Greatest work ever? Really? Come on.

Someone’s struggling with pride. Me.

Lesson 1: Getting Critiqued Requires Humility. If you want to survive any type of criticism and come out better on the other side, you must willingly admit that you are in need of improvement. You do not have it all down. You aren’t perfect. And you can’t see everything. It’s a scary and vulnerable position to put yourself in even when you have a computer between you and a critiquer. But! It’s also very healthy. I’ve done my greatest growing under strong criticism. (Generally, after some pity-partying, but I’m working on that.) Thinking you have it all together, that you have no room to learn, grow, or improve is not a good place to be. It’s a place of pride and a place of stagnation. We all have ways we can be better. Better writers, wives, mothers, church members, and just all around human beings. If we don’t accept criticism, we’re probably in danger of also deciding we don’t need to listen to the preaching of the Word, or our spouses, or our parents. This leads us right into rebellion.

God used an online critique group to really poke at my pride. It wasn’t fun. But, I’m thankful he didn’t leave me thinking I was all that, and didn’t need to keep growing.

Lesson 2: Getting Critiqued Requires Confidence. Having other readers and writers tell you a name doesn’t work, or a sentence doesn’t fit, or they don’t like the description here, or a character isn’t making sense to them is very important for the storyteller to hear. But, the storyteller can’t blindly apply every suggestion given. Why? First, constantly contradictory advice is given. What works for one reader doesn’t work for another. One person loves a description and someone else hates it. You must decide what works in your book. Second, only you the storyteller sees the end. You know that the description is important, or the character, or the name. They haven’t read the whole book yet.

So while you humbly listen to their advice, you also sometimes have to confidently reject it. They don’t know your story as well as you do. You can’t make everyone happy. Sometimes a critique is wrong.

I’m the kind of person who hates conflict. (ISFJ, here.) I’d rather sacrifice what I want in the name of peace and quiet, then stand up for something. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to ignore critiques, advice, suggestions, and outright demands. I don’t have to do what someone says just cause they really hated something. It’s my story.

This flows out into the rest of my life as a warning about who I listen to. I need to be very careful who I allow to critique my life. My pastors, my husband, close, wise friends. These are the people I need to listen to and I can confidently trust. I don’t need to accept every criticism the world or people level at me. I don’t need to listen to people who tell me how they think I should manage my health, my life, my home, my schedule, if what they say doesn’t line up with the truth of the Word, or what my husband has laid out. I can confidently ignore them. They aren’t my authority. Sometimes this means preaching to yourself when you read a blog article, watch TV, read magazines, or even talk to friends. Sometimes it means talking to your husband when you get home about what a supposed authority said.

 

criticism

Courtesy of bing.

 

From having my work critiqued by strangers, I’ve learned that you must hold in one hand great humility, and in the other great confidence. You must be willing to admit you need work, while at the same time know what’s best for your story.

Life is the same. You must humbly listen when others point out faults or make suggestions. You must confidently stand strong so you don’t try to be everything to everyone and forget who and what’s important in your life.

God is good and uses everything, even a harsh critique of a chapter you love, to show us our sins and to make us more like Christ!

 

Writing Lesson: Teaching old Dogs New Tricks

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I’ve been writing since about 2000. (That’s 15 years!) I host a monthly writing group, a monthly writing class, and do beta and alpha reads for other authors. I know a lot of writing rules and tricks. I can even judge when to break them most of the time. Why? I have experience. Been there, done that, learned to do better. But, a little over a year ago, I changed what I write and have had to learn some new rules.

Writing for children is different than writing for adults. In some ways, it’s easier. I feel released because there are things I can skip and not worry about explaining. But, in some ways, it’s much harder because it’s new to me. I’m the new kid on the block. 😉

One of the writing rules I teach my class is repetitive words. Never be accidentally repetitive. You can be repetitive on purpose, but not on accident. When you repeat words beyond AND or THE it catches the readers eye and draws them out of the book. It makes them stop flowing in their reading and start reading every word specifically. Now they are doing a vocabulary study, not reading your story.

There is one exception to this word. The word ‘said’. You can repeat ‘said’ as many times as you like. Over and over. Sentence after sentence. Why? Because the human mind stops reading it. They read the dialogue and then the name of the speaker never once reading the word said. This is in fact why writers are encouraged to not use other words like asked, exclaimed, and growled to describe a character talking. When they use a more descriptive word it breaks the flow of reading. The reader has to stop the flow of the words in their mind and make sure they read the dialogue correctly.

Did I read that line with a growl?

Did I understand that the character was exclaiming?

In the best-case scenario, the reader should be able to tell by your word choice and vocabulary the emotion of the situation without saying anything beyond ‘said’.

This is a rule I have honored, taught, and experienced. I have stood by this rule for years.

Then my younger brother broke it for me.

My younger brother is married and has two of the cutest little girls in the world. He works for Halliburton and has spent time all over the world on oilrigs. I don’t get to see him very often, so we started a Christmas tradition of going shopping together before the holidays. He gets gifts for the girls and his lovely wife and I finish up everything I haven’t gotten done yet. Between stops, we talk about what we haven’t covered via text or email, and some things we have but we wish to rehash. We talk about books, movies, philosophy, Tolkien, vampires, my writing, his girls, and just life in general. It is one of the many things I love about the Christmas season.

This year, as we drove from Target to World Market, we talked about my Texas Cousins Adventure stories. They are very popular with my nieces and nephews and I hope to get them published some day. My brother told me how much he enjoyed them but wanted to offer one word of critique: the word ‘said’ is used too much.

What??

You can’t use ‘said’ too much!!

It’s a rule!

But wait . . .

Children’s stories are not the same as novels. They are short and meant to be read aloud by parents to little people who can’t read yet. Eureka! Lightbulb!

They are meant to be read aloud.

Few of us read novels aloud. We read them silently in our heads. But a children’s story is meant to be gathered around and enjoyed by several little people while someone reads each word. Why yes! In that case, you would never want to repeat the word said because it would get old and annoying. In a novel, your mind and eye skip it. But when you’re reading it aloud, you’re reading it over and over and over and over and over.

Oh my.

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In that one little moment, I realized that I need to look at Texas Cousins Adventure stories as something read verbally and heard with the ears. I need to read it aloud before sharing it so that I can make sure it works well with the human mouth and not just the human eyes. I need to used words like exclaimed, asked, growled, grunted, and any other fun descriptive word I can come up with for the way someone talks.

I was thankful for his honest and gentle critique. It’s important as a writer to have friends who are willing to tell you where you’re going wrong. It’s tough to take, but worth it.

Now, on to better writing!

(Our current debate is about genres. Are they good, bad, a necessary evil? We’re still discussing it over text and emails, so I’ll keep you posted. Also, I’m listening to some audio books to see how they handle this situation. Do they skip said if they’re doing distinct voices or do they say it and we start to ignore it? Thoughts?)

Me and my younger brother!

Me and my younger brother!

Writing Lesson: Food

“You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”

– Psalm 104: 14-15

Writing Lesson: Food

Food is one of my favorite elements in fantasy writing. I love long-winded descriptions of feasts and holidays. I love celebrations around the table, snacks, the stopping of the story to eat. I love the names of food used to set the stage for betrayal or friendship. I love that food eaten for enjoyment is a Biblical concept. Food isn’t there just to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy, though it does do that, but for our souls. Look at the richness of God! It makes our hearts glad, our faces shine, and gives us strength. Bring on the comfort foods!

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“Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.”
― Dean Koontz, Life Expectancy

There are a few books that stand out in my mind as having excellent food moments. Life Expectancy is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It focuses on a cook/baker in love with a girl and hunted by a clown. Not a Steven King clown like It, but a real life circus clown. Many of the intense scenes are broken up by great culinary descriptions of the family gathered around a meal. You will salivate while you read. Since the book is all about family, these delicious dinners bind you in with them as if you sat at their table and shared their supper.

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“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”
―Brian Jacques, Taggerung

(You would not believe how hard it is to find one of his food quotes! But trust me, they’re amazing.)

Discovering Brian Jacques when I was in my early teens was like an oasis in the desert of teen drama passed off as literature. His stories of brave forest creatures, heroes, battles, and feast triggered my imagination and brought hours of joy to my heart. And yes, his feasts. They are amazing. He focuses in on things forest animals would eat and fills the menu with fantastical dishes that pull you into his world. I even got together with a friend and tried to cook some of them. They never turned out quiet like we hoped, but proved that a good story invades your life.

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“Ah! Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans! I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them — but I think I’ll be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?”
He smiled and popped the golden-brown bean into his mouth.
“Alas! Ear wax!”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Food should play an important role in your story. It can be used to unite characters, heal characters, snag readers, and flesh out the setting. Especially in fantasy, where so much of the world is unique and different, food can function as an ambassador. Food in Harry Potter has a distinctly British feel to it, mixed with just a hint of magic. I love how you can imagine what a Butterbeer taste like, along with Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans and all the other magical food. Do you see how a completely made up candy keeps the world consistent? Harry Potter would lose much of its child-like glee if Harry bought regular Jelly Belly’s instead of ear-wax flavored beans. Rowling used the food to flesh out the setting of her stories. She also used it to tie us to Harry early on by describing the difference between how Dudley eats and the leftovers tossed to Harry. We instantly pity him. When he’s able to eat as much as he wants, we rejoice with him.

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“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Tolkien, on the other hand, used familiar foods to root his story in the nostalgic and familiar. Beer, bread, sausages, and potatoes are all comfort foods reminding us of home as we travel far into the unknown with the fellowship. Dinner with Farmer Maggot and his family is a place of rest after the fear of black riders. This use of food ties the everyday reader to the Hobbits giving us a warm spot to cling to. We can all sympathize with being the small person caught up in events much large than us. Tolkien uses food to further instill this feeling creating a race of quiet people that make us all want to go back home. No matter the danger, Hobbits always think about food first. For this reason, we all love them.

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To switch from books, the TV show Firefly helps explain its Space Western setting when it has Shepherd Book pay for passage on Serenity with food. This helps the viewer understand that fresh fruits and vegetables are so rare on the outer planets that they can be used as currency. We now have a subconscious grasp on the situation. We can see that life is hard, dangerous, and dirty by looking at the setting, but Kaylee’s face when she eats the strawberry drives these points home in a far more personal way. The times that the crew gather together to eat are used by Whedon to deepen the sense of family: the true magic of Firefly.

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Should your characters eat? Should you worry about food in your story? I hope you’ve seen the important roll food and eating can play. It can confirm a familiar setting or round out an unfamiliar one. It can bring unrelated people together as a family. It can serve as a moments rest, a time to heal, or a celebration. However you use it, food should play a role in your work. Settings can take on the roles of secondary characters. Think about Hogwarts, Hobbiton, the Enterprise, Serenity, and Red Wall. These places aren’t just where things happen, but characters in their own right. They are familiar and beloved. Food can do the same thing a ship can. It can give you a nest to put your characters in and push them, challenge them, create conflict, or beauty. Food can be another tool in your tool-kit just like a building, car, road, or city. Don’t discount it. We all love food. We all need to eat. Food is meant to be enjoyed. Use it in your story!


Life Expectancy: R

Red Wall: PG

Harry Potter: PG

Fellowship of the Ring: PG

Firefly: PG-13

Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.

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Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.

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Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.

Writing Lesson: Reading

1385917_10202312859570822_2002110902_nMy mom had a radical idea when I was a struggling student who couldn’t stand English, had little use for Math, and really didn’t understand Science . . .or, looking back as an adult . . . refused to apply herself to any of these fields. Once I got into college, I kept a 3.8 GPA and had no problems in my English, Math, or Science courses. But high school seemed to be a point in my life when I just didn’t care. So, my super awesome Mom did what she could to try to prepare me for my life as an adult. She encouraged the one thing I did love – reading. She figured I’d learn a fair amount of the English I needed just from seeing it over and over again. I guess she also figured that as long as I could read I could learn the other stuff when it became important to me. Funny enough, she was right.

I love to read. I love books. Libraries and Half-Price Bookstore are like walking into a room with all your favorite people just sitting around waiting for you. My smart phone lets me take books with me when I go workout without needing to lug a volume with me. And, there are so many good audio books out there that I can work and ‘read’ at the same time. I must live in reader heaven!

Somewhere along the way, I was inspired to take that love of reading and start writing. I fought this gift for quite a while, but God kept nudging me and pushing me towards it. I have now been writing for over ten years. I’m going to give you the same advice every writer gets. If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. (This is not one of those rules you can squeeze out of I promise you.)

You need to read. You need to read many things. You need to read in your genre, and you need to read outside it, especially outside it. You need to read classics and weekend reads. You need to explore new writers, new worlds, and new stories.

But! Don’t just read. Don’t just lay there like a limp noodle and let the words pass before your eyes without letting them affect you. Read as a writer. Do you think a sculptor goes and just looks at Michelangelo’s David with a passing glance? Do you think a composer listens to Beethoven’s 9th symphony with a casual enjoyment of the combination of notes? No! Of course not! They figuratively sit at the feet of these masters and learn. They take what they know already and see how the masters applied it. They bring their amateur expertise and use that to guide them as they study what the masters did. You can’t read the symphony unless you can already read music. See, they’ve moved past the basics, but that doesn’t mean they stop learning.

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As writers, we must do the same. We must saturate ourselves with masters, old and new. How do we do this? What are we looking for?

1) Read with An Eye: Train your mind to pay attention to what you’re reading. Don’t let yourself just read. Watch sentence structure, timing, plot development, world building, beginning, and ends. Pay attention to what you read. How did the author use grammar to communicate ideas? How did they handle the pacing? How did they catch your attention? What was their first sentence? When did you realize you were hooked on the story? Did they choose 3rd person of 1st person POV? Why?

2) Rule Breaking: Watch for places the author breaks all the rules. When did they tell instead of show? When did they use an –ly, -ing, or past tense words? When did they use flashbacks? Think of all the rules you’ve ever been told as a writer and then read someone who has effectively broken them.

3) Plot, Dialogue, and Character Growth: Watch the dialogue of master story tellers. Look for ways they make each character unique. Pay attention to how they ratchet up the tension and reveal the plot. Watch the character development. Did the characters change all at once or slowly over time? How did they keep them differentiated? How many characters do they have? Can you keep them separate?

4) Think and Talk About It: After you’ve read a book, analyze it. Think through it. Find a trustworthy friend, share the book with them, discuss. Don’t just read it and go on. What touched you? What bored you? What brought you to tears, made you angry, or frustrated you? What scared you? What made you want to name your first-born child after a character? What side characters did you like or hate? What sticks with you for days afterwards? What do other people say about it? (Hint: read both positive and negative reviews!)

5) You Write what you Read: What you feed your brain will pour out your pen. Do you want to write something good? Well, read something good. If you enjoy horror read King, Koontz, Poe, James, and Lovecraft. If you want to write urban fantasy, read Gaiman, Butcher, and Rowling. If you want to write about war, read about war from men and women who’ve been there. Read about WWII, Vietnam, Korea, and the Iraqi war. Look for master wordsmithers. Look for writers with deep descriptions, well-developed characters, and places you want to stay . . .or run far far away from.

6) Research and So70d6145144e9644c75e0368ad263d4e8mething Different: If you learned something, it counts as research. You may be writing a fairytale and reading Correia. That’s fine. His action scenes and gun knowledge can help you tighten up your own action scenes. You can learn more about guns than you ever needed to know reading one of his books. It’s okay, in fact, it’s recommended that you read things far outside your genre. It will make your work richer if you pay attention.

7) Bad can be Educational: Sometimes we learn by seeing other people’s’ mistakes. Pay attention. If you’re bored, figure out why. If something doesn’t sit right with you, analyze it, and learn from the mistakes of others. It’s amazing how much you can improve your writing by recognizing bad writing. Just make sure you apply it to your work. As you do this, keep in mind genre differences. You may not be the writers target market. Don’t be offended if you’re not.

There are times to read just for the sake of reading, but as a writer, you must always remember you’re honing your craft. Reading is how you do that. All the list of rules in the world won’t make you a better writer. Reading will, if you read with purpose. Keep your eyes open, monitor your reactions, think!, and apply. If you don’t do that as you read, you’re never going to improve your writing.

Writing Lesson: Angst vs. Agony

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Seal Team 10: Murphy, Dietz, Axe, and Marcus.

Angst and agony are sort of related, but also two very different things. They often remind me of the difference between romance and love. One is a passing feeling and one is an act. Angst is often self-focused, selfish, and fades unless perpetually fed. Agony is something horrible which happens to us. It can be empathized with by others even if they’re not in the situation, even if they’re only an observer. Angst is an emotion. Agony is an act. Twilight is angst. The Time Traveler’s Wife is agony. As much as I love it, the Breakfast Club is angst while 3000 Degrees is agony. Listening to your brother firefighter’s last transmission over the radio knowing it is his last is agony. Agony is Marcus Luttrell’s fellow SEAL, Dietz, shot and killed while Marcus held him. Then, having Murphy scream Marcus’ name, scream for help, when Marcus couldn’t reach him. Agony is looking Axe in the eye as he dies before a grenade blows him apart and flings Marcus off a cliff. That’s agony. Just like love, agony involves an act. Love involves generally gaining something we desire. Agony generally involves the pain of losing something we desire. (This can be used, just like love, to build believable protagonist and antagonists.)

Angst is a sappy, repetitive praise song pleading not for God, but for our emotions to increase. Agony is “it is well with my soul”. Angst is griping because of a mixed up Starbucks order, agony is having your church blown up by a suicide bomber. Angst is feeling misunderstood. Agony is dying on a roman cross. See one isn’t always true. Angst could be just your point of view and a far cry from reality. Agony, real agony, can’t be missed. You’ll know it when you feel it, experience it, hear of it.

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The firefighters who died in a fire on Dec. 3, 1999.

I don’t like angsty things. They tend to annoy me. I do enjoy reading about agony. Agony reminds me to look beyond my relatively easy life and see what’s been sacrificed for me. Agony keeps me thankful, humble, and willing to serve. Agony, either my own, or read about, helps me think about others. It floods me with pity for both the seen and unseen pain of those around me. I have yet to see Angst do that in any way. Angst, from what I’ve seen, shuts people off. It closes them away, trapped by what they think is bad in their life until they can’t see beyond the end of their own nose and their own suffering. Angst makes those who dwell on it more selfish.

It’s not that angst is wrong. It’s no more wrong than romance. What’s wrong is over indulging in them, and making it more important than their far more significant counterparts: Agony and Love.

See, I don’t want Christ to experience angst for my sin any more than I want Him to have a passing romance for me. I want Christ to suffer agony for me, not because I’m a sadist, but because that’s the only way I’m going to be saved. I want Christ to love me, not as a feeling of warm fuzzies, but as an act, a choice.

It may seem like splitting hairs, but as writers it’s very important that we split those hairs and understand the difference. It doesn’t work if you don’t handle the difference between romance and love correctly. It doesn’t work if you mistake angst for agony. Say you have a character who is being belittled, not bullied, just belittled, and another who is tortured. Don’t equate those. Being belittled isn’t the same as being tortured. But, if you know the difference, then you can start having fun. You can have the person who has suffered physical torture overcome that through strength of character and you can have the belittle person cave under the pressure of what he has mistaken for agony. Only when you know the difference can you start having fun mixing things up.

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This can also help you define the difference between heroes and villains. Villains are quite often those who don’t handle agony, angst, love, or romance well. They mistake them, mix them up, give them more weight than they deserve. They never overcome the hurdles thrown at them. Loki has this bit of angst mixed in with him while Thor is more agony based. Loki is the bad-guy and Thor is the good-guy. Loki complains about his adoption, while Thor learns from his mistakes to control his power. In Labyrinth and Legend, the heroines are both wrapped up in angst which leads them to experience some real agony and helps them become the great characters we all love. That’s good storytelling. You can have someone start with love and add in romance. That makes for really powerful stories. Arrange a marriage that turns into true romance. Or maybe have a husband/wife duo that rediscover their romance due to circumstances which have to be faced together. You can have a character suffer agony and then spiral into angst only to suffer a greater agony which pulls them out of the angst and sets them on a path to help others.

Legend

Legend

So much can be done when you see the difference between agony and angst. It keeps you from giving incorrect weight to one or the other. It keeps you from encouraging something which is totally unhealthy—read between the lines here and interject 90% of YA fiction. It gives you more tools in your tool belt for storytelling. It may keep you from writing the next fad, but it will help you write something which will resonate with audiences far longer. Lord of the Rings sold second only to the Bible in the 20th century. If the book had been angst and romance instead of agony and love, do you think it would have echoed through the masses, crossing cultural and linguistical lines? Do you think we, the elect, would be saved if Christ just felt really bad about our sin, kinda stressed out, and really really liked us? Nope. It took death on a cross. It took bearing the wrath of God. It took real agony driven by real love to save sinners.

Agony and angst are different. This is a good thing.

Can you think of other similar, closely aligned concepts often mistaken for one another? Comment below with your thoughts!

Labyrinth

Labyrinth

Writing Lesson: The Basics

Always follow the rules.

Always follow the rules.

I’ve been going over several rough drafts handed in from my writing class, and recently re-read one of my own, driving me to remember the basics of literary writing.  For many of you this is going to be so ingrained in your writing psyche that you hardly notice it anymore.  For others, this might be new news and something you want to do more research on.  If you’re home schooling your kids, this might help you help all those little budding writers out there.

When I first started, I joined several writing groups and took a continuing education class on creative writing.  I didn’t get much out of these classes except general discouragement.  The difficulties in establishing an environment where people can share their stories and get constructive criticism are vast.  What I did get was the basics ground into me.  The classes were limited and never got to the roots of whether a story was good or not.  All that could be critique were the basics.  These are some of the things I learned:

LY Words:  -LY words are adverbs.  This means they modify or flesh out a concept, person, or thing in your sentence.  Too often they’re redundant and profuse in writing.  They weaken your ability to communicate.  They’re a crutch.

  • Example: Jane whispered quietly.
  • Problem:  The inherit nature of a whisper is that it is quiet.  The idea of whispering quietly is redundant and tells the reader nothing.
  • Fix:  Jane lowered her voice to whisper.  A whisper so soft, so subtle, it forced me to lean in closer to catch her words.

This fix is far wordier, yes, but it also creates a richer, more vivid image in the mind of the reader.  You can’t remove all the -LY words from your writing, and you shouldn’t.  But watch how often you rely on them to explain what’s going on instead of communicating more fully with your reader.

ING Words:  These words slow down the action in your writing.  They are often connected to Passive words.  Many of them can be eliminated easily with some sentence restructuring.

  • Example: Jane was swinging her sword around her head and running away at the same time.
  • Problem:  both -ING words steal the action from the scene.  They make it something we are looking down into, instead of something we’re in.  Eliminate as many as you can to make the scene stronger and tighter.
  • Fix:  Jane swung her sword around her head and beat a hasty retreat.

This fix tightens the action giving more emotion and immediacy.  It brings you into the action, instead of making you watch the action.  You won’t be able to eliminate all the -ING words from your writing because Gerunds and Present Participles have their place.  But, watch out for these words.  Cut them as often as possible.

Passive words:  Any forms of ‘to be’ are passive words.  They’re easy to use and harder to get rid of.  The easiest one to use is the word “was”, or “is” if you are writing present tense.

  • Example: Jane was tired.
  • Problem:  You can do better than this.
  • Fix:  Jane experienced a level of exhaustion that words failed to communicate.  The pillow, the down comforter, the clean white sheets embraced her as she tumbled into bed.

The fix gives us a far richer, deeper understanding of exactly what Jane feels and senses.  You won’t be able to eliminate all the ‘was’ words from your writing, but take a red pen, circle them, and try to get rid of most of them.

Action to the front: As often as you can, move the action to the front of the sentence.  If you always have it at the back, you lose most of its power.

  • Example:  With her blue hair trailing behind her, Jane rushed down the hall.
  • Problem:  The action your reader needs to know is at the end of the sentence, possibly not even standing out to the reader.
  • Fix:  Jane rushed down the hall.  Her blue hair trailed behind her.

At times, to vary sentence beginning and structure, you will need to move the action to the end of the sentence.  But try to keep the action at the forefront.  Go edit a paragraph and see how much tighter, crisper, and more fun it is when the action leads the way.

Start each Paragraph/Sentence with a Different Letter:  There is an element of reading which is visual, even if we don’t consciously notice it.  As you write, make sure you don’t start each sentence or paragraph with the same letter, or word.  Nothing bores a reader faster.  This is most often seen by starting a sentence with the name of the protagonist or ‘I’ if you’re writing 1st person POV.  It tires the reader.  The names you choose for your characters can make this more difficult.  A protagonist named Henry is a challenge  because ‘he’ doesn’t serve as a  unique substitute to change up the beginning of the sentence/paragraph.  They have the same beginning letters.  Same with ‘T’ names and ‘S’ names.  They often conflict with ‘the’ and ‘she’.  This doesn’t mean avoid them, just know the challenge ahead of you.

Stagger your Sentence Structure:   You remember all that annoying diagramming of sentences you did in high school, right?  You may not be able to do it anymore, but as a writer, you need to make your sentences different.  If each one has ‘and’, or ‘as’, or ‘which’, or ‘that’, you need to change it up.  Write long sentences and short ones.  Connect two sentences together and break them up.  Make sure the Sentences are structured differently.

Don’t repeat Words:  Avoid repeating words, big and small.  I’m not talking about words like ‘and’, ‘the’ and things like that.  I’m talking about words like angry, sky, blue, indispensable.

  • Example:  Jan skipped through the puddles.  Water splashed up on her jeans from the puddle.
  • Problem:  The use of the word puddle, twice like this, is boring and uncreative.
  • Fix:  Jane skipped through the puddles.  Water splashed her boots and jeans.

This is a very simple and easy example.  Some situations are harder, and some you won’t even notice until you go back to edit.  You can repeat a word if you are being poetic, and only then.  Often you will see poetic uses of repetition in groups of three.

‘Said’ is the Only Repeatable Word: The dialogue tag is the only excessively repeatable word you may use.  In fact, studies have shown that readers rarely read the word ‘said’.  Their eyes skim this word, don’t read it, often ignore it.  They are only interested in who is speaking.  Does this mean you should just stop using the word ‘said’ and replace it with more interesting words, descriptions, and sentence structure?  No.  This slows the reader down.  As often as possible, the emotion should be clear in the dialogue.

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Show don’t Tell: Almost all these rules boil down to one great rule, the writer’s Prime Directive:  Show don’t Tell.  Don’t tell me the man is angry.  Show me he is angry by the redness of his face, the spittle flying from his lips, the strain against his collar.  Or, maybe show me he is angry by how still he sits, how soft his voice has become, and how white his knuckles are as he grips the head of his cane.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov

Once in a while, you have to tell the reader.  Showing them would take too long and be distracting from the thrust of the story.  99.9% of the time you need to show the reader.  Practice showing first, before you decide you have to tell.  When you tell me, instead of show me, you lose the very art of writing.  You disconnect me from the story, the heart of what is going on.  This is one of the greatest and hardest rules to master as a new writer.

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The most important thing to remember in all of this is that these rules are never hard and fast.  Rules give you structure for your creativity.  You can’t creatively break the rules unless you know the rules.  They also don’t apply in first rough drafts.  But, I promise you, the longer you write and edit your own work, the more you will try to write this way from the start.  If you train your brain to think this way from the beginning, you save time on editing.  When you save time on editing, you have more time to write that new story.

I don’t know any published author who hasn’t broken the LY word rule, the ING word rule, or the “was” word rule.  Just know how, when, and why you can break them.

Making Ever Paragraph Count, Part 2

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

Last time we introduced the idea of Making Every Word Count.  Now let’s get more specific.

Make every paragraph count.  Make every scene and description count.  Ask yourself, as you edit, if this event is important.  What am I learning about the situation and the characters?  Every word counts.  Your book is your baby.  Your reader wants to enjoy it, but in the end, it’s another book on their shelf.  Even if they adore it, they can’t spend their life studying it.  Appreciate and respect this fact by making every paragraph count.

What does this look like for the writer?  Emotion.

Sometimes rough drafts can be quiet dry.  They have all the plot points and all the action but little of the emotion.  (Sometimes they’re the other way around: all emotion and no plot. But that’s a different problem.)  This is especially true of new or young writers.  Never fear.  It’s all part of the process.  What you have to do, after you’ve written those two great words, THE END, is go back and add in the emotion.  You have to go back and make every paragraph, every word count.

There are a two key places I regularly see this problem as an Alpha Reader, and as I edit my own work.

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Description:  You know the paragraphs where you spend several lines and a few hundred words talking about clouds, trees, grass, sand, snow, and wind?  Or maybe you invested some words in the description of a beautiful car, a surprisingly fast motorcycle, or the long limbs of a racehorse.  Descriptions shouldn’t be dry.  They are the playground of the writer and the soul of the story.  Descriptions are mood setters.  Wait!  What’s that?  They effect emotion?  Yes!  Descriptions pull the reader away from their world and into yours, be it the same one they inhabit or a fantastical one.  Adjectives and adverbs clue the reader in on who to love, who to hate, when to be nervous or at peace, to slow down or quicken their reading pace.  If you write an emotionless description, go back and look at your word choice.

Have you read Lord of the Rings?  If you haven’t, I highly suggest it.  If you have, think back and remember how you felt when the Hobbits entered the Old Forest.  Did you feel its twisted nature?  What about the feelings you experienced in Fangorn Forest, the Misty Marshes, Lothlorian, Rohan, or the Shire?  These places take on a life of their own because Tolkien harnessed the power of descriptions, and used them to set the emotional stages of the story.  They feel alive, almost separate from the people who live in them.  Emotion in descriptions is a powerful tool in your writing smithy.

How do you do this?  Easy.  Ask yourself how your character feels as they observe the world around them, or what you want your reader to feel as they look in on the world you’ve created.  Are the clouds overhead ominous or uplifting?  Is the car a deathtrap or a thing of beauty?  Does the dog’s hair stand on end while its lips curl back, or are his ears perked and his tail wagging?

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Plot:  You know the little in-between plot points were your character cleans the house, goes grocery shopping, travels from point A to point B, and does their laundry?  We all know they have to do these things.  Even if you’re writing a futuristic story, there’s always laundry to do.  Maybe you cover a few non-important days in their life by listing out all the mundane things that they did.  Or maybe you tell us how their friends were late to see a movie, or their car needed to a wash.  These scenes should be filled with emotion or cut.  Noting is more annoying to a read than a pointless list of events….especially if it looks a lot like their own To Do list.

If your character is doing laundry, how do they feel?  Happy, content, defeated, frustrated?  Maybe the laundry time is just an excuse for the character to think, giving us needed insight into their mind.  Don’t tell me they did the laundry, give me a point for the laundry that drives the story forward.  If you need to tell your reader several days had passed were nothing happened, then just tell them.  Don’t give them a list of all the mundane things done.

Back to Lord of the Rings, no one thinks that Aragon didn’t shower and wash his clothes ever.  We all know he did at one point in time or another, but Tolkien never tells us this.  Why?  Well, it wouldn’t fit in the story.  It wouldn’t drive the story forward.  It would bog us down.  He does tell us about making campfires and eating.  Now eating is pretty normal, but Tolkien uses food and pipes to show us the comfort of home, or the lack of comfort.  The lack of pipeweed on the journey to Mordor is used to show us how out of their element the Hobbits are, and how far from civilization they are.  Tolkien doesn’t give us a list of Sam’s backpack contents.  He uses those contents to drive the story forward or to help us look back at crucial moments.

How do you combat useless plot points, or lists?  Easy!  Ask yourself if the reader is learning anything about the character based upon what is going on.  Is this scene driving the plot forward?  If yes, than draw out the emotion of the scene.  Develop it.  If no, cut it!  If you aren’t sure, see if it can be used.  Ask yourself how your character feels as things slow down a bit and work that angle of the story.  Make sure there’s a point.

Waste nothing.  Every moment, breath, scene, paragraph, and word counts.  They’re all important.  Look for clues.  The longer you write, the more books or articles you get under your belt, the more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses you will become.  You will find words that clue you in that a scene needs to be developed.  It becomes your personal short hand.  When the words are flowing let them flow.  Then go back and add, develop, and cut, as you need.

And for goodness sake, if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, go do it!

Making Every Paragraph Count, Part 1

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

It’s amazing to me what I learn when I’m trying to teach others.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Mom – you must feel constantly under the knife, excited, and exasperated.  That’s how I feel when I’m working on my writing classes’ work.  Every time I tell them to fix something, I need to go fix it in my own work.  It’s exciting to see them learning and growing, even if it’s just little by little.   Sometimes I feel like I have to find a new way to say the same thing I say every class hoping this time it gets through to them.

One of the things I’ve been faced with recently is the idea of making every paragraph count.  Every. Single. One.

This means you have to stop and really look at your work.  Study it.  Mock it.  Look for errors in logic, rules you’re world functions by, themes, characters, and setting.  Stop seeing it through the lens of your love for your own art, and look at it through the eyes of a critic.  (Boldly go where no one wants to go! – you may use your Kirk or Picard voice here.)

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I ran into a scene in one of my student’s stories where two friends met to talk about a wedding over coffee.  Sam shows up and there’s a paragraph about her sitting by a window waiting because her friend Maiden is late.  Neither the setting nor the late arrival of Maiden are used in the story as it goes along.  Neither are important.  They set no mood, they spark no conversation, they enhance the story in no way, shape, or form.

I wrote – yes, in nasty red ink – ‘Who Cares?’ in the margin of my student’s paper.  A little harsh?  Probably.  But I need her to sit up and think about what she’s writing.  Don’t waste your reader’s time if you want to keep them as a reader.  Writing may be your life, but to them you’re one of millions of forms of entertainment and enlightenment.  Humbly respect that.  If it’s important that Maiden was late, it should come up either subconsciously, in Sam’s inner-monologue, or directly in the conversation.  If the window is important, even just for mood, then keep it and develop it.  If it doesn’t even set the mood, cut it.  Tell me what Sam feels while she looks out the window waiting on her friend.  If you don’t, you run the risk of an emotionless character who bores your reader to death.

So, how do you address this issue?  First, get out that awful red pen.  Just do it.  Next, sit down with your work in a quiet place and don’t read it.  Resist the temptation to get sucked into your own story.  (Don’t worry, we all do it.)  What you need to do is see, not read.  You need to take each paragraph and see if it’s important.  Does it add flavor, emotion, and character roundness to the story? Does it drive the story forward?  Yes?  Good.  Keep it.  If the answer is No, then you need to either edit it or cut it out.  Either make it important, or get rid of it.

Always remember that these things don’t matter in the first rough draft.  The first rough draft is like a detailed outline.  You just write as the words flow out of you.  Only after the rough draft is done do you go back and start marking it up.  Sometimes these useless paragraphs can actually be road markers and flags to remind you that greater development is possible if you just flesh out the scene.  Other times, they are useless and need to go.  If you’re really unsure, get some Alpha Readers to help you!

This may seem really elemental to writing – writing 101.  But, remember, the basics are the basics for a reason and we all need to be reminded of them.  Go and SEE your story!

B Meme

Look for the next Writing Lesson where I will go into more detail about description and plot issues specifically!

Writing Journal – Communication with Your Reader

After you get that first rough draft done, and your alpha readers have lovingly bled all over it, and it has had time to simmer and mature on the back burner of your mind, you pull it back out and re-read it.  Your eye and heart are refreshed from other activities and you read your story with a slight bit of objectivity.  What kind of things do you need to tackle?

That’s a question which has been tackled by many a writer.  There are whole books written about editing and taking your story to the next level.  What I want to talk about today is Communication with your Reader.  What are you telling them?  Are you telling them one thing and leading them in a different direction?  And not on purpose.

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For instance, if you tell me that something dangerous is lurking around the house of the protagonist and that she must have an honor guard to school every day, don’t have the honor guard sleep in without something bad happening.  If you tell me this and then don’t follow through, I’m not gonna believe your hints.  I will have no heightened sense of worry or fear.  Obviously, if the protagonist is being lied to about the danger level and this is how they realize it, then it’s okay to do this.  Just make sure they confront the lie a.s.a.p.  If they don’t, the reader will be confused about what direction the story is going.  Your protagonist will also feel flat.  Where’s the injustice!!!!?  In a similar case, don’t tell me the princess is super super important for the survival of the hidden magical people and then have the hidden magical people abandon her without major questions being asked by the princess.  If she just goes on her merry way, I’m gonna wonder why I’m even reading your book.

In a first rough draft, when you’re pouring your heart and soul out onto paper, this is okay.  As you edit, you need to look for these unrealistic human interactions and fix them.  Always ask yourself if your protagonist and antagonist are acting how people act.  If you’re not sure, go get a movie or a book featuring a similar tragedy and let that spur your thoughts. Pay attention when you read other books and watch movies for character development and emotion.  This will help you.

If you’re going to hint at the beginning of your book that something strange is going on, but have a time of ‘normal life’ before it really gets going, this communication idea is even more important.

First off, don’t bring the abnormal up just once.  Your story is not the only thing going on in a reader’s life.  They will need a reminder that something strange is happening.  Have a ring in the protagonist pocket which constantly weighs on his mind.

Second, make sure the ‘normal life’ part is interesting enough to carry me on until something bigger and deadlier comes along.  Take Harry Potter, for instance.  At the beginning of the book, a problem would often present itself.  Harry would peck at it through the rest of the novel.  Clues are given, other problems weave in and out, but the main part of the book is Harry going to school.  Why isn’t that boring?  Cause he’s going to wizarding school!!!  Even his normal life is really interesting.  In addition, we’re only given enough everyday stuff to move us along in the timeline, not every second of Harry’s existence.  Whole months of Harry’s life are skipped so the story doesn’t bog down.  If you’re ‘normal life’ is very normal and starts to read like a boring journal – woke up, ate oatmeal, went to school, came home, studied, went to bed, repeat – you’re going to need to add in something.  That something is conflict!

conflict

Third, ask yourself what your main conflict is and what the themes of your story are.  These can act as guideposts for each and every paragraph.  If a scene isn’t helping the reader understand the character better or moving the plot along, cut it!

Fourth, write interesting descriptions and overviews.  You have to give your protagonist a world to live in, don’t skip this.  It is the heart and soul of a well-written story.  Have beautiful and rich descriptions.  If you need to pass over big chunks of time, write an overview, a transitional sentence, or scene to help the reader see that the story is moving on to something else.  These are great opportunities to practice wordsmithing!

Fifth, watch how you set reader expectation.  I wrote a whole article on reader expectation for Josh Magill’s Blog.  Check it out here.  Ask your alpha readers and yourself if you set reader expectation correctly and then fulfilled it.  There is nothing worse than reading a book you think is one thing only to find it’s not.  I’m not talking about twists and turns in the plot.  I’m talking about books like Tana French’s novel In the Woods.  It is a beautiful book, well written, amazing and not a crime – mystery novel.  It’s not about solving mysteries.  It’s about how a haunted past affects a cop and about psychopaths walking amongst us.  It’s very well written, but it’s marketed as a mystery.  If you read it that way, you will be very disappointed.  If you don’t, you’ll really enjoy it.  It’s vitally important to set a readers’ expectation clearly and correctly.  If you’re a paranormal or urban fantasy write, have something fantastical happen.  If it’s going to take a while to get to the fantasy, make sure your protagonist life is interesting enough to keep me going, which is conflict!  (Again, this doesn’t mean don’t have twists and turns, or normal scenes, just infuse them with conflict!)

If you find moments like this in your story, don’t worry!  We all write scenes we think are amazing which ultimately have to be cut.  Just save it in a file labeled My Favorite Scenes that No One else Appreciated.  Find the moments your characters are flat and flesh them out.  If they’re acting without emotion, add some in.  Make them believable.  And remember, don’t bore your readers, excite their imagination.

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