Author Archives: Frog Jones

About Frog Jones

Frog Jones co-writes with his wife, Esther. Together, they've written the Gift of Grace series, as well as appeared in myriad anthologies together. When not writing, Frog spends his free time as a public defense attorney, the chairman of the board of a non-profit dedicated to housing homeless teens, and a Rotarian.

Liar’s Dice

I am about to tell you a lie. I’m going to give you three things about me, personal parts of my life. One of them is not true. Let’s see if, by the time you’re finished with this post, you can spot the lie.

  1.  I have held in my hands a freshly severed human head.
  2.  I was once charged by an angry moose in the Bitterroot Mountains.
  3.  I have pulled my wife out of a flooding mountain river using nothing more than a canoe and a half-filipino ninja-like dude named James.

By the time you started that list, you were immediately a little irritated at me for using this meme. After all, it’s getting flogged to death on social media right now. Nevertheless, a little part of you is looking at those three absurd things, trying to figure out where the bologna is.

Because we, as humans, love to lie. Moreover, we love to catch people in lies.

There’s a whole board game culture out there about this. And it’s not exactly new. Go pick up a copy of The Resistance and play it with your friends sometime; half your friends are lying, and the other half are telling the truth, and it’s on you to figure out who’s who. The game is intense, and it’s nothing more than lying and being lied to. If you don’t want to do that, simply watch this video of other people doing it.

Why do we love lies? Because they make us smarter than the people around us. Lie to someone, and you’ve gained power over them–feed someone bogus information, and they act accordingly. Catch someone in a lie, and you’ve gained a tremendous amount of power over them. They’re a core, non-violent method of gaining control over a person’s actions. Which means they’re a core source of conflict.

And conflict is storytelling.

We’ve spent the month going over lies and dishonesty. I opened the month with a joke post, and that was a lot of fun. But now that we’re leaving the month, it’s time to get honest.

We all lie.

Odds are, you lied to someone today. In fact, lying in our society is considered polite. Giving absolutely honest answers to some questions is a really terrible idea. Don’t believe me? Try going an entire day telling everyone you meet the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It will shift all of your relationships substantially. Certainly some argue for the better, but it will certainly make things different.

And that’s fine. That’s how we work as a society. No, you don’t look fat. I’m totally happy with my job. I care about everyone, even the people who piss me off. I’m secure. I’m confident.

But if we all lie, then so too must our characters. Understanding the difference between who they are inside and out is one of the basics. How do they see themselves, and how do they present themselves to the world? It’s not simply a form of conflict; it’s a form of existence. It’s a way to give your characters that extra bit of depth. Let them lie.

Oh, right. Remember at the beginning of this post I said I was going to tell you a lie? Well, go back and reread it. The lie wasn’t in the list; it was the sentence “One of them is not true.”

All three of those statements are the absolute truth.

April: Grammar and Punctuation

Welcome to April.

We’ve talked a lot on this site about the art of writing. We’ve covered characters, we’ve covered plot, we’ve covered setting and theme. All of the big, large-scale things that make a good story great, and all of the artistic touches we, as artists, put into our work.

But this month isn’t about any of that. This month, we’re getting really down to the nitty-gritty. Watch as our members seize upon their favorite piece of grammar, and expound upon the proper and improper uses of that rule. We’ve got Guy Anthony De Marco going on a tear about prepositional phrases. Quincy Allen is going to talk to us about the importance of diagramming every sentence you write in detail. I, personally, will be dealing with my trials and tribulations with the nefarious semicolon. Greg Little has an eye-opening piece on all of the wonderful things he does with conjunctions. And we’re going to end this month with a fight to the death between Nathan Barra and Kristin Luna over the Oxford comma–I’ll let you figure out who’s taking what side on that one.

So stay tuned, because this month is going to get past the art of writing into the true, deep, mechanics of the thing. And at the end of the day, if you manage to stick with it, you’re going to be amazed at what you’ve learned.

 

 

If you’ve made it this far, you probably realize what day it is.

That’s right; April Fool’s.

No, I didn’t intentionally sign us up for a whole month of grammar and punctuation. Yes, those things are pretty important, but I’m not about to make my first month picking a topic that boring. (I await the swarm of e-mails disappointed that this actually wasn’t the topic).

No, instead our theme for April is much more insidious. Our theme is the April of Fooling People.

See, it’s our job, as fiction writers to lie to the reader. Any time we write that something “happened,” it didn’t. That’s the fun of writing fiction; it’s all a lie. But the trick is in being good at lying to people.

And, what’s more, having one’s characters be good at it is an art in itself.

So, this month will be a month devoted to the art of deception. How to pull off a twist ending, unreliable narrators, scoundrels, and sleight of hand will all feature in the posts you see over the next month. So buckle up, folks, because sorting out what’s actually true over the next month is going to become a real issue as the Fictorians begin the April of Fooling People.

Subliminal Tension

Tension is an emotion.

Making a reader feel tension is, in part, a function of what is happening in the story, and other Fictorians are doing a fine job of covering that. I want to dig down, though. I want to get past plot structure, and characters, and all of the things we usually talk about. Today is not a lesson in simply writing fiction. Today, I want to talk about the words themselves.

Speed is key. Short words mean fast reading. Short sentences mean fast reading. Fast reading means fast thinking. Fast thinking means excitement.

Extended vocabulary, on the other hand, will tend to result in a slower, more ponderous pace of comprehension. In addition, one can expect that a more complex sentence structure will also result in increased temporal periods for absorption of material. In turn, this style of writing can lead to a more leisurely, intellectual feel for one’s reader.

See what I did there?

Tension is a function of two things: excitement and a lack of resolution. You want to keep your reader on a knife’s edge for a bit? Shorten everything. Boil your words down to the simplest form. Boil your sentences down to subject-verb-direct object structure. Lose as many phrases, clauses, or anything extraneous as you possibly can. Make it so a third-grader could read it. Put in a refrain (see above where its X means Y), because once the brain is on a roll it will simply speed up.

The goal here is not to cut back on the amount of information you’re throwing at the reader. The goal here is to get the reader to absorb the information as quickly as you possibly can. From a writer’s perspective, this can be tough. It’s actually faster for us to write one massive sentence than it is to break that baby up into little chunks. When we’re flowing, we don’t want silly little things like sentence structure to stop us. So when one is writing a tense scene, the knee-jerk reaction is to write longer stuff. Bigger words, longer sentences, and massive, hulking paragraphs.

But when you’re revising, you need to break that up. Read those two paragraphs up above again. You’ll burn through the fast paragraph in about half the time it takes to read the slow one.

Don’t think of it as “half the time,” though. Flip the equation. What really matters is the amount of information hitting a person’s brain in a set period of time. In other words, the boiled-down writing style means that your reader is getting twice as much information per second. She’s racing to keep up with you, and her conscious mind is running at a dead sprint to keep up with her subconscious one. You ever run down a hill only to find that you have to keep accelerating or you’re going to completely beef it? Reading a scene written in that boiled-down language feels like that.

Now, don’t write everything for speed. Sometimes, you want to slow it down. Let your reader breathe in parts by lengthening everything. Get a little purple from time to time. I’m not saying you should write for speed all the time; what I’m saying here is that, by controlling the speed at which your reader processes your story, you can create tension in certain scenes by having them accelerate the speed at which they are reading, and you can relieve tension by allowing them to slow down. By controlling the speed of their comprehension, you can make them feel tense and they will never know why.

So don’t use this trick alone. Use it in conjunction with all the other tricks being written about by my colleagues this month. Just remember, your goal is to control all of a reader’s brain, and word, sentence, and paragraph structure is the gateway to triggering that subliminal feeling of tension.

Cleansing With Fire

I hear from other authors or prospective authors that nothing is quite as intimidating as a blank page.

I won’t speak for everyone, but this simply isn’t the case for me. I love a blank page. A blank page represents the infinitely possible. A blank page represents freedom. When I have a blank page, I can fill the thing with whatever I want. It’s hope, it’s potential beauty, it’s raw creative space. I love a blank page.

For me, there’s nothing quite as intimidating as a page filled with a terrible story that I have written.

You see, sitting down and drafting is easy. It’s the thing we all love to do. It’s the funnest part of writing a thing. It’s what makes NaNoWriMo so popular (and so problematic for some) Throwing down raw, fat word counts is, without a doubt, simply a joy.

Fixing a broken story? That’s hard.

So, let me take you back to the fall of 2015. I’m writing this story for a little anthology called Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and Magic. I’m not going to lie–the call for this thing was weird. My task was to write a story wherein “close is good enough.” That’s a really esoteric theme, and I know I’m not the only author that struggled with it.

See, I got this idea in my head. A thief breaks into a vault and then has to use the enchanted items therein to get back out, only he has no clue what those items do. Sounds like a fun little story, right?

Nope. Nightmare.

I ended up with about four thousand words of me repeating the same joke over and over again as told from the persepective of a main character that, by virtue of this joke, had almost no agency. It. Was. Terrible. I haven’t drafted a story this bad since high school. I gave it a day, read the thing, and cringed.

My wife, who usually takes the second pass on our stories, tried to calm me down. She’s a lovely woman, and her initial reaction was “Frog, you say everything is terrible when you write it.” And she’s right, but I tried to impress on her how much I really meant it, this time. Still, she insisted that she should read it and take the second pass, as is our normal wont.

I don’t actually think she finished that first read. Very, very quickly she returned, and this time with a different attitude.

“Okay, this time you’re right,” she said. “It sucks.”

Now, we’re all going to have off days. We’re all going to muff it a time or two. Nobody hits a home run every time they step up the the plate. Insert failure platitude of choice here.

But I want you to learn from my mistake. Screwing up the initial draft was bad, but not unforgivable. It’s what I did next that really sets this baby apart in the annals of Frog’s terrible mistakes. It’s my response to writing this malformed chunk of text that marks this experience as being just slightly worse than trying to shave my beard with a cheese grater.

I tried to fix it.

I spent a month. An entire month’s worth of writing time. An entire month during which I could have been working on a novel, or churning out four other short stories. No, I threw good time after bad, and I tried to polish this turd until it shone. I tweaked the language, I moved paragraphs about, I tried everything I could think of to make the story readable, but nothing I tried worked. You know why? Because it was a bad story. It wasn’t bad writing, it wasn’t bad grammar or bad structure. It was a bad story. No matter how I told it, it was going to suck. But I latched onto the thing like a weight and let it drag all of my writing goals down with me for a month.

It was my wife that saved me. After a month went by, you know what she did? She handed me a blank page. She sat me down and told me to stop thinking about the way I had written the story, and to start completely over from my original concept.

Two days later, the story was written, revised, and sent to the editor. It’s still got the same core concept as the original version, but this time it also has a story. You know, a whole plot arc, with dialogue and motivations and all that jazz that we put into stories that make them not suck. This second version is good; I’m actually pretty proud of it.

But mostly, when I did a reading of it at the last convention I appeared at, it made me think of that full month of pain in the fall of 2015 where I refused to cleanse a bad story with fire. Learn from my mistake, oh ye reader of writing blogs. Learn that sometimes, when you just can’t find a way to fix what you’ve done, the best thing to do is burn it to the ground and get yourself one of those blank pages everyone keeps talking about.