Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Beginning Writer Quirks

No one - and I mean no one - starts out as an expert.  Sure, there may be a few savants like Mozart, but the reason they're so famous is that they're so rare.  No writer I know of ever began as a great storyteller.  Stephen King once said he has enough rejections to wallpaper his house, and each one improved his skills.

As such, all writers have quirks, and beginning writers have many more than experienced writers.  As we gain that experience, we get rid of things that don't work, and we incorporate what does.  The only true teacher on this is time, so I thought I'd go through a list of my own quirks I had, and I'm willing to bet I'm not alone in this.

1.  New writers trend towards the liberal use of modifiers.  All of our works rely on description, whether it be detailed enough to paint exactly what we want the reader to see, or just enough to tease the spirit and get others to envision what we want them to see.  It's the second part that's so challenging, which is why, at the beginning, most of us use more adjectives and adverbs than many can stand.  Our characters are "insanely intelligent" and "extremely well built, with rippling muscles and very large biceps."  They all "run quickly" and "take care for great aim of their silver plated pistol."  After a while, we learn how to narrow the focus to get what we want without going overboard, but it's not something we tend to get at the start.

2.  Paranoia.  I wrote about this not long ago, but it deserves another mention.  We're all so convinced that we've found an idea everyone will want that we hide our work away from the world, scared to death that some unscrupulous soul will steal it.  With maturity comes the knowledge that no one is going to come after us until we've become famous, and we acquired rights to our work the instant we set it on paper.

3.  Egos of crystal.  To be fair, many writers retain this throughout their career, but it's especially pronounced in newbie writers.  Our writing is our baby, and we'd be just devastated if someone told us we stink.  In fact, a bad review might lead us to put our work in a drawer and never show it to another person ever again.

4.  Supreme arrogance.  This is the flip side of the point above.  Despite being concerned that someone will tell us we stink, we're equally convinced that we're better at this whole writing thing than anyone out there.  JK Rowling?  Pfft, she'd be lucky to have our skills.  Harry Turtledove?  We've read his stuff and know we've got a better grasp on storytelling.  After all, we're driven to write, and we wouldn't be so driven if we weren't so good at it.  Other, less talented writers need that annoying stuff like beta-readers and editors - we can just vomit out a story and it'll be perfect.

5.  Lack or originality.  Some of you will look at this and be shocked that I dare call anyone who took the care to put their idea on paper unoriginal.  Unfortunately, for 95% of us, myself included, we tend to liberally...um...borrow from others.  I don't mean a verbatim stealing of words, but we'll work in that which we've already seen.  It can be as small as a character(the chief engineer of the starship in my very first completed book, one I've since trashed, was a Scotsman), or it can be large(a friend of mine asked me to read his story, which, with a few minor details altered, read like a Lord of the Rings novel).  We incorporate these ideas because we loved them in what we read, and the similarities don't really hit us.  After some time, we learn that we don't need this, but it's hard at first to abandon what worked for us.

There are a few more, but you get the idea.  Anybody out there have quirks of their own that have dissipated as they grew?

Sunday, March 29, 2015


I don't enjoy the genre referred to as "Literary Fiction."  To me, many of these novels remind me of that pretentious neighbor who always derided others that drive a Camry while he drove a Prius.  They're well written, but they're not for me.  I prefer down to Earth action and adventure that lets me leave the trappings of life behind.

Many of our stereotypes are grounded in at least a caricature of reality, and the snobbish nature of those who read literary fiction seems to fit that mold.  I knew a person once who was always bringing in a new book to work to read on her lunch break, usually Little Women or Pride and Prejudice.  I never thought much about it until I brought in Guns Of The South.  She took one look at my book and sneered, "Why don't you read a real novel?"

After schooling her in the arts of etiquette, I realized this form of class warfare must be more present than I thought.  Those who read such things exclusively - don't get all worked up...I said exclusively - tend to be much more haughty than those that read a mix of this stuff and other "normal" books.  My interaction has never failed to generate an air of "I'm much more sophisticated than you" from the person in question, while my own reaction is to usually laugh and wonder how someone so uptight ever walked around without clenching his or her butt cheeks every second.

I know, I know...I have a similar level of condescension towards this stuff as its lovers have towards mine.  I'm not saying it's right, but it's usually generated by the "sophisticated" reader.  The more I've run into exclusive readers of Literary Fiction, the more the stereotype has held up, to the point where my reaction becomes automatic.  It's hard to not see haughtiness in such a reader since I've seen it in so many up to this point.  Many have been assholes, and like I always say, I promise that I can be a bigger asshole than you can.

I've wondered whatever brought on such pretension.  Do those who read this stuff exclusively believe they're more cultured?  Is it a perception of educational level?  Class-ism?  What brings someone who reads a certain type of book to the point where he or she looks down on other readers?  Shouldn't we all be in the same boat as book lovers in a world that increasingly relies on other entertainment mediums?

I guess I'll never be sophistimacated enough to figure it out.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go slop the hogs before rebuilding my outhouse.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Twisting In The Wind

Readers want the unexpected from us in our work.  A boring, predictable plotline gets easily discarded for something that provides a little more excitement and intellectual engagement.  However, as writers, we often outsmart ourselves in this regard.

A twist that makes sense is great, and even an understated bit of unpredictability can add spice to a story.  Unfortunately, far too many writers try to throw in something so OUTRAGEOUS! and AMAZING! that the reader twists his or her lip, sighs, and vows to never read one of our novels again.

M Night Shyamalan is a classic example of someone who tries too hard.  The first time we noticed one of his twists - for most of us, that was in the movie The 6th Sense - we were blown away.  Bruce Willis was always dead?!?!  How did we not notice that?  Oh my God, that was incredible!  But since this twist was so epic and made a good movie great, Shyamalan seemed to blow his wad and spent the rest of his career trying to top it.  None of his other stuff was never up to par - aliens hurt by water invading a world that's 74% water?  Really? - and looking for the twist eventually became a big joke.
(Don't milk your twists)
For a twist to work, the audience can't be expecting it.  That's why you only introduce the enormous swerve once or twice in your career.  When you try it every time, two things happen - 1) it seems forced; 2) people expect it...thus making it less of a twist.

Don't toss in the unpredictability just for grins.  It has to mean something and enhance the story.  Otherwise, you risk being a Shyamalama-ding-dong.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I enjoy symbolism.  Writing underlying shades of meaning and seeing if people can pick up on it is one of the reasons I do what I do.  And since I have to force myself to be patient with my work, I don't always strike the right balance of symbolism.  In fact, I've been known to ram it down people's throats, to the point where I'm virtually shouting, PAY ATTENTION RIGHT HERE!  THIS MEANS SOMETHING!

However, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  Since reading is subjective, it's up to individual readers to discern if there's symbolism to be had.  Unfortunately, the filter between the writer and the reader is often flawed, and it can lead a reader to see symbolism where none exists.

I've had this happen with my own work.  Someone who read Salvation Day once regaled me with example after example of the symbolism contained therein, and some of it was what I'd intended.  Let me repeat that - some of it was what I intended.  The rest, like the make up of the energy suit the main character wore or the black outfit worn by Lucifer, is just description.  However, this person insisted there was a wide variety of meaning I was missing.  In pointing this stuff out, this reader managed to make me feel both incredibly smart and stupendously stupid at the same time.  I felt smart for putting in all of this great nuance that created layers to the story, and I felt stupid for missing my own symbolism.

This seems one of the perils of writing.  Yet I wonder how much is pretension.  Are some people so afraid they've missed something that they'll find and describe it everywhere?  Yes, in Akeldama, the precise weight of the stakes used to penetrate a vampire's heart is important, but the SUV the main character drives is nothing more than an SUV so he can get from one place to another.

Read a novel at whatever level you enjoy it at, but don't get so caught up in the symbolism that you feel you have to find it everywhere.  This isn't English class, where you'll get docked points for not figuring out that Queequeg's coffin represents death.  Just read, and let your mind figure out what it wants to.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Resistance Is Futile(ie, Giving Up Work)

As I said not long ago, many writers are so fearful of their work being stolen that they guard it the way a dragon guards treasure.  However, anyone who truly loves writing, anyone who wants one day for his or her stories to be shared across the world, finds the lure of readers too tempting to pass up for very long.

I get excited when I start talking about my novels.  I speak with my hands and try to set the stage with the tone of my voice.  Since I can be so passionate about it, I inevitably get people asking to read my stuff.  That's where both my excitement and my paranoia meet.

My paranoia is similar to other writers' paranoia in two regards.  First, and most irrationally, I fear that others will want it for themselves.  This is a purely emotional reaction and based in nothing resembling reality.  Second, and most childlike, I get worried that people will tell me I suck.

To be honest, most people are far too nice to come right out and say you stink.  They'll usually hem and haw, touting minor points to make you feel better while playing down major themes that you both know are central to the story.  If you can read between the lines, you can figure out what they're saying(ie, you suck).  Such things hurt.  For all my logical exterior, even I'm subject to a swift blow when it comes to my story.

However, there's always that spark of optimism as well.  Something wants me to give my stuff out to them with the hope they'll take to it.  This has happened with a couple of novels I've written, and it's gratifying.  When it does, a tiny voice in my head says, "Go ahead and give out something else.  Risk the hurt.  It'll be worth it."

Someone recently requested Wrongful Death.  The paranormal elements of the story caught this person's attention, and he all but begged me to give it to him for a look.  I resisted for a while, but I'm about to give in.  Oh, I'm not giving in completely - I'm only giving up the first three chapters and telling this person they can have more if he's interested, but deep down, a part of me wants him to come back the next day and demand the rest.

That's the hope we all cling to, that our work will grab someone with such force that the person simply must have more.  We want to know we've written a page turner.  It grants validation, and in the end, isn't that what this is all about?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Muse - A Relapse

She lay on the bed, panting.  Her long black hair, normally so full of life, lay limp at her side.  When I touched her, she opened one eye at me, her mouth cracking into a smile.

"I thought you'd abandoned me again," she said.

"I could never do that," I replied.  "Other stuff just got in the way."

"Other stuff always seems to get in the way."  There was no mistaking the venom in her voice.

Hanging my head, I knew she was right.  I promised myself I'd get to 30,000 words before my work project kicked off in earnest, and I'd only gotten to 25,000.  I could've made it if I'd focused on the novel those last couple of days, but I was content to piddle around, convinced I had enough time.

Taking a deep breath, I said, "You're right, but there's nothing I can do about that anymore.  It's in the past.  All we can do now is move forward.  Tell me, can David bring down one of the alien ships with his napalm missile?"

Her eyes were closed again, and it took a second or five before she answered.  I was about to give up when she finally said, "It can make a great distraction, but given that these creatures came halfway across the universe to exterminate mankind, do you really think a model rocket with some homemade napalm can really do anything?"

"I know it's a stretch, but something's got to give.  David has to start building the global resistance network, and no one will follow him if he doesn't have success."

"You seem to think his success has to come from a stand up fight," she sighed.  "Use some subterfuge.  David's missile can cause the enemy to wobble, but the real purpose has to be to get them to land.  Once that happens, then you can spring the trap."

I grinned, swiveled my chair, and opened my laptop.  What she said made sense, so I plugged away for a few minutes.  When I looked back over my shoulder, she was sitting up, her hands resting at her side.  Not long after I turned back to the computer, she was up and standing next to me.  Her hand trembled on my shoulder, but it gave me strength.  I wrote.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Good Book= Idea + Storytelling

Like everyone, I think I have the formula for a good book.  No, it isn't about the number of chapters you write or some formulaic means of crafting characters.  It's really simple, and it applies to all books - combine a great idea with great storytelling skills.

"You asshole," you say.  "That's pretty friggin' obvious."

One would think so.  Unfortunately, lots of writers forget this simple way to create a good book.  The first place many fail is on the idea.  If you've watched any movies coming out of Hollywood recently, you know there is a dearth of ideas out there.  And it's not just screenwriters that suffer from this - many "regular" writers suffer this as well.  It's hard to recall the number of repackaged, fan-fiction ideas I've seen passed off as original work.

I get it - those ideas are tempting because they've already proven themselves.  Many writers feel they only need to alter a little of the original, and *poof* people will flock to them the same way you flock to your mother's grilled cheese sandwich...it's comforting and has stood the test of time.  However, when I'm looking for a new work, I want something I haven't seen before.  Why would I want to read the same basic story time after time?  I've already done that.

That said, there are many writers out there who've developed lots of good ideas.  When I get into an idea session with a group of people, I find my faith in the creative juices is always renewed.  But...that brings up the second reason many can't create a good book - they can't tell a story to save their life.

The world's greatest idea for a story is useless if you can't convey it in a meaningful way to your audience.  If you, um, you know, like kind of stumble and such, or wouldn't tell story that be a good thing...no one will want to read it.  You may as well simply hand them a dictionary and hope they find the right words.

Numerous writers I know are either WAY OVER THE TOP!!!! on how they convey an idea, or they give out so so so so so so so much detail that the story has no pace beyond it.  Yes, the other extreme exists, where a writer gives too little, but I've found that the two examples above account for over 90% of the failures I've read.  You have to let your audience come to you, and you can't try and DAZZLE and WOW them with every sentence.  Remember, the best lovers don't blow their wad in the first three minutes.

Now all you have to do is string those two parts together - original idea and good storytelling ability - and you're halfway there.  I say halfway because while you must write a good book in order to interest your audience, if you can't convince people to read it, you're just as bad off...but that's a discussion for another time.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Writing Isn't A Zero Sum Game

I've never understood those who get mad at the success of another, especially in writing.  There's a perception among some that if one writer is doing well, then another writer must be getting eaten.  This leads to jealousy and even sabotage of fellow writers, particularly in the traditional publishing world.

Does anyone really believe that if someone is reading Stephen King that they won't then read Timothy Zahn?  Unlike automobiles that are so expensive and overpowering that most people can only have and drive one at a time, books are cheap and don't intrude on each other.  Much like a movie, when I find something entertaining, I don't then find other stuff less so.  My degree of enjoyment is based on the quality of the writing, not whether there was another novel I enjoyed previously.

The backbiting I've seen has to stop.  We should be cheering on each others' success and sharing tips on how to get better rather than hoarding all the "good info" to ourselves.  I realize what a hippie I sound like right now, but there are times that rhetoric is true.  How are you as an author hurt when someone reads another person's book?  Shouldn't that point instead to a love of reading that might translate to what we've written too?

Your fellow writers aren't the enemy unless they take active steps to block your work from getting out.  In fact, the success of a similar novel should be touted, for it gives a potential customer something relatable to measure your work against.  If you're writing alternative history, you should want someone to read lots of Harry Turtledove because it'll spawn interest in the genre, thus increasing your potential sales.  If you write dystopian novels, then you should hope Hugh Howey's Wool does well since it'll generate comparisons to your own work that creates buzz.

Traditional publishing does this in other ways as well.  The old paradigm that a writer shouldn't publish more than on novel a year is based on the claptrap that more books will push the original/first out of the market.  That kind of perverted logic misses that several novels actually make people search through more books by the same author in order to keep reading what interests them.

Celebrate the success of other writers, and use them as a symbiotic springboard from which to ascend to new heights yourself.  If you do nothing but tear others down in the hopes of crawling over them, don't be surprised when the masses rise up and shove you back to the bottom of the pile.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What's In A Name?

I had an interesting critique of one of my books recently.  The reader said she enjoyed what she got so far, but she felt like some of the suspense had been taken out because the names of the chapters gave away too much.  I must say that that's the first time I ever got that one.

To an extent, I understand and even appreciate the criticism.  My goal in naming chapters is for that name to contain some foreshadowing so the reader will have an idea about what is in it without giving away the ballgame.  A chapter title that tells you exactly what the following text is all about defeats the purpose of the reader reading it, while a chapter title that is too far from the substance will make the reader wonder what the heck he or she is getting.

Up to this point, my titles came to me before I wrote the body of the work.  Sure, I sometimes changed them if what I wrote was radically different than what the title alluded to, but I didn't give them lots of thought.  This has made me rethink that paradigm.

Just how literal should a title be?  How much should be symbolism and foreshadowing?  Let's be honest - a chapter title is far different than the book title.  After all, a book's title should reflect everything that a novel is.  How much of this translates to a chapter?  My chapter titles tend to vary back and forth between symbolic and foreshadowing, and literal in order to prepare the reader for what to expect.

Maybe that's the key - knowing what feeling or mood you want to accomplish with said title.  There will be times I will want to leave some question in the mind of the reader as to specifics, and there will be other times that plunging the reader straight into the story will be important.  Threading that needle will be the challenge.

So, what was the point of that rambling screed that ended up right back at the starting point?  I guess it was so that I could work out exactly what to make of the criticism.  Like I said, chapter titles were only of minimal importance to me before.  Perhaps I should pay better attention.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Little Piece of Me

Who do you know best in your life?  Who's the one person that you get more than anyone else?

The answer, of course, is yourself.  We are the one person who we have true insight into.  We know our hopes, fears, thoughts, dreams, and quirks better than we do others.  That's great because, let's face it, figuring out other people is hard.
(Does this person have a special attachment to butterflies, or is he trying to create a new eyepatch?  Only he knows)
Getting into the head of another person is nearly impossible - if it was easy, there'd be fewer wars and no misunderstandings.  People have whole careers where they get paid to figure other people out, and even then they get it wrong most of the time.

So where am I going with this?  Well, it occurred to me that this applies to most of the characters I write.  Although not exact clones, the main characters of my books, the ones through whose perspectives we get the story, all have large pieces of me in them.  Sure, there are secondary characters who are vastly different, but we rarely get to experience the novel through them, so they don't require as much insight as the main character.

This is where it gets tough.  For example, I originally intended to write the main character of Wrongful Death as a teenage girl.  As I sat at my computer and stared at a blank screen, I realized I had no more insight into the mind of a teenage girl at the age of 37 than I did when I was 15.  I'm sure I could've come up with enough clichés to muddle through, but there'd have been little to no emotional connection to her and readers would have quickly lost interest.  At that point, I decided to make him an exaggerated version of my teenage self because I could write that convincingly.

It got me wondering how many of the rest of us have this issue.  After all, "voice" is one of the strongest elements of telling a story.  I wonder how many putrid novels are the product of a person with no talent, and how many are the product of someone trying to write a main character and perspective he or she didn't understand?

None of our main characters are exactly alike.  Mine have held jobs as a vampire hunter, a scientist, a governor, and a historian.  However, the basic core is me.  I provide the outline for them, and any variance is done from that template.

I've resigned myself to this model.  Although I can and will stretch my own personality to provide variance, it's still my personality that comes through.  Since many say to "write what you know," who do we know better than ourselves?

Anyone out there have similar issues in creating a main character?  Have you managed to overcome them, and if so, how?  Or are your main guys pieces of you in different shapes?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Blowing Your Wad

Anyone who writes knows that every person out there has an idea for the next Great American Novel.  Even most of us who take writing seriously have that one awesome idea inside of us just bursting to get out.  We look forward to the day it's all on paper and we're ready to present our masterpiece to the world.  Of course there will be banner headlines and rave reviews.

And then what?

It's this question where most writers fail.  We're all so focused on getting out our masterpiece that many fail to think beyond that.  The key question we have to ask ourselves is whether it's a splash we want...or a career.

Harper Lee is an example of a splash artist.  She wrote a great book in To Kill A Mockingbird, but what else has she done?  Can any of you think of another novel she wrote?  Truth be told, there isn't one - her sequel(Go Set A Watchman) isn't due out until later this year, marking 53 years since her first book.  Is that really what we want?

You need to think beyond the "best" book you have if you want to be in this business a while and do silly things like put food on your table or live in more than a cardboard box.  So many of us get so caught up in the excitement of what we just know will be terrific that we don't brainstorm to the next idea.
(Like urinals, readers like to have more than one to pick from)
No serious professional athlete wants to play in only one NFL game, just like no actor wants only one movie role.  They plan their careers around multiple roles and games, so why should we be any different?  I hope you can find and distribute that one great novel that gets you through the rest of your life, but most folks don't win the lottery.  Think through more than just your initial(and best, of course) idea.  I'll bet that if you give other ideas half as much passion, you'll have at least a chance to do this for a living.  And isn't that one of the reasons we write?

Thursday, March 5, 2015


I like the show The Walking Dead.  Those who think it's a show about zombies are missing out on the larger memes it hits on - survival, the savagery of human nature in primal form, what's really family, and so on.  The more grand visions associated with it are what makes it work on so many levels.

Unfortunately, there are also things about it I don't like, and the complete and utter misery without relief is the biggest.  While I get the need to have the characters face adversity so there are challenges they can overcome, there's never a payoff that lets you feel good about them and what they're going through.

When a reader or viewer gets emotionally attached to a character, he or she wants the best for that character.  We cheer their triumphs and laments their hardships, but most of us want them to eventually find happiness.  Yes, there are some hardcore fanatics out there who want nothing but despair, but the vast majority of us want that despair to turn into greater victory in the end.

The Walking Dead never quite seems to get there.  Rick Grimes and the others find Hershel's farm as a place of refuge, only to see it overrun by the living dead.  They find some solace in Woodbury...only to discover that the guy who runs it is a psychopathic nut job with a penchant for zombie fights.  They finally make it to Terminus...and they discover that its inhabitants want to place them on the dinner menu.

It's becoming tedious.  Johnny Carson once said that the longer the joke, the bigger the payoff has to be.  The Walking Dead is about to reach the point where no payoff will suffice.  Contrast this with Supernatural, the series about a pair of monster hunters that help protect people from real monsters on our planet.  Yes, Sam and Dean Winchester encounter hardship, like the time Dean got sent to Hell for saving his brother's life, but there's usually some sort of triumph that gives you hope.  There may not yet be an ultimate payoff - likely that'll be saved for the series finale - but you get doses that life isn't meant to be totally shitty.

As writers, we need to keep this in mind.  Our readers will put up with a lot when it comes to what we do to their favorite characters, but they'll only allow it to go so far before they'll put down our stuff.  I have to remember this since my desire to keep things as real as possible lends itself to some terrible stuff.  However, most folks want a "happy ending."  You can do this and maintain fidelity to your story, but you have to focus on it.  If you always go down that dark alley, readers will eventually stop going down it with you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Punctuation As Body Language

While I love writing stories, the written medium is terrible for many reasons.  The biggest, in my opinion, is that it leaves out the subtleties we get when we're standing next to someone while having a conversation.  We rely on so much more than words to discern meaning - tone of voice, body language, use of hands, etc, all give us larger insight into what the speaker means than a simple litany of nouns, verbs, and modifiers strung together.

However, with writing, so much of this is gone.  A sarcastic and biting comment goes from witty to dorky in an instant, while questioning a concept goes from curiosity to a mean spirited vendetta.  The interpretation of what's on paper is left to the reader rather than the writer, and while using our imagination is one of the greatest aspects of reading, it also allows for a great deal of misinterpretation.

This is where punctuation comes in...and where it sometimes falls apart.  I make no bones about the fact that I believe most people are horrible writers.  One of the things that makes them horrible is the dryness with which they present their ideas.  It often boils down to a rote listing of what they want to get across, but there's no flair or attempt to drive the true meaning home.  After all, the writer knew what he or she meant, so why shouldn't you?

The proper and sometimes imaginative use of punctuation lets us bridge the gap between meaning and intent.  Just now, in the previous sentence, I debated about whether to add commas between proper and and, as well as between imaginative and use.  These pregnant pauses, or lack of them, convey tone of voice and let you hear my words more in my voice, thus leaving less room for misunderstanding.

Other punctuation plays a big part.  Exclamation points help convey excitement.  Dashes and semicolons aid either emphasis or lecturing.  The suspension point of ellipses - the dreaded triple dot - allow us to either convey "blah, blah, blah"...or they help us get across a slight change in meaning and tempo.

Lots of writers seem almost afraid of punctuation.  They use just enough to get by, and no more.  To me, risk taking with punctuation adds spice to our words and lets us get across how we intended to say something, bringing us closer to the real meaning.  It separates okay writing from good writing, and good writing from great writing. 

It also requires practice to do it right.  You have to take the time to use it, and you have to be prepared for mistakes.  Find others who are willing to help and see if they can figure out what you meant.  I like to hand out original work with bland punctuation, and then I give out the new version.  The change in tone is fascinating to watch, and sometimes I miss, but that doesn't mean I don't try.  After all, bland rarely excites.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Copyright Paranoia

Ever since I've let people know I'm seriously pursuing a writing career, several folks have approached me for advice on how to break in, as if I'm some kind of expert.  While I appreciate the confidence, I usually remind them that I'm little more than an unpublished writer at present.  However, what I do have is a broader base of knowledge due to the research I've done.  In essence, I'm a great big shortcut.

In the mix of these folks who've sought out my advice for new writers, a handful have approached me with that old writers' paranoia - what will happen if someone steals my idea?

This is a common problem among newbie writers.  We're all convinced that we've stumbled into the next Great American Masterpiece that we're certain if word ever got out, legions of unscrupulous bastards will take our stuff and claim it for their own.  I have a one word answer for this.

(Everybody needs to chill out.  Naptime might help with that)
First of all, most folks are too busy to go around and take your idea for a story.  Even most writers are too busy for that.  Besides, they have their own (INCREDIBLE!  AWESOME!) stories to write.  Further, those rare people who are unethical enough to try and steal an idea aren't going to go after yours - they're going to find a story that's already sold a gazillion copies and claim they wrote it first.  This has happened to JK Rowling and Stephen King.  In other words, they're doing the reverse of the thing you're most paranoid about by claiming they wrote something before that great bestseller and the novel was stolen from them.
Also, you need to keep in mind what's protected and what's not.  The way you write a story is protected, ie - the words and such.  However, you can't copyright an idea.  If that were the case, there'd have been no more vampire stories after Dracula, and God knows the stores are clogged with them.  It's the specifics of the story that makes it protected.
You also can't copyright a title.  There are lots of books out there that have the same title.  For that matter, I could write a novel called "War and Peace" right now and try to put it out there, but most intelligent book readers would know the difference.
As to the story itself, if you're really that concerned about it, just find a way to document when you wrote it.  That could be as simple as giving a few pages to a friend to read.  Do that, and BAM, you've established a date.  Or you could email it to yourself.  Or you could just screen capture the date on your computer when you saved it.
But please do these things only if you're really paranoid about it and doing this will let you sleep better at night.  If you're halfway serious in writing as a career, you've acquired beta-readers anyway, so people know you wrote it and when.
Chill out and remember that no one can tell your story better than you can...and most don't want to.  You may think you have a story that will sell millions of copies, but until it catches fire and proves that assertion, no one else will have as much faith in it as you do, no matter how often you're told it's terrific.