Thursday, September 30, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: It may seem elementary, but some students inevitably ask, "Are all novels fiction?" Before you laugh, remember that the reading public is bombarded with reality TV shows and celebrity drama. In some memoirs, fact and fiction seem blurred. The student's first attempt at writing a novel is often at least in part autobiographical. The answer, of course, is yes, all novels are fiction. And what should a novel accomplish? The bones of a good novel can be simply stated as "Interesting people in trouble." Yet a novel is NOT "just one darned thing after another." There must be a purpose in portraying the "people and trouble." Remember: Character + goal +obstacles + determination = plot.
Try This! Many novelists group themselves in terms of pantsters (those who just write by the "seat of their pants"and see where it goes) and plotters (those who outline or somehow pre-write a course of action). Which do you think you are? This week, in your writing sessions, pretend you are the opposite--if you're a "pantster," write out an outline for a chapter or a scene. If you are a "plotter," give up your planning for a few sessions. Or experiment by alternating styles on opposite writing days. See which style is more comfortable and which leads to most productivity.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
aha moment: teach and do.
I had a really good time and wish to thank the film crew and Megan the appointment setter, for contacting me. Thanks a bunch!
Writing Tip for Today:
- Those two little words--what if--can take a tired story line and pump new life into it. So you might ask, "What if Little Red Riding Hood was actually in league with the wolf?" Not that we want our sweet Red to be a baddie, but you get the idea.
- Ask what if for each element of your story (Main Character, Goal, Antagonist, Problem, Setting) and see if you can devise a fresh twist on a pat story.
- The resource book What If, by Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter, contains a wealth of exercises and ideas geared toward helping you be original.
Try This! Read over your opening chapter. Now, play the "What if?" game with each element: Character, Goal, Setting, Antagonist, Problem. Change each one and see if any makes the story sharper or more interesting.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: When the waiter is just coming out of the kitchen, it's a so-so situation. He could deliver the wine flawlessly. Meh. Not much of a story.
As the waiter gets closer to the lady in the white gown, maybe he trips. If he's still far enough away, he could either manage not to spill the wine or the wine could land on the carpet. Still, no big deal.
But, as the waiter gets closer to the woman, it becomes inevitable that the wine will land on her beautiful gown. We begin to pay attention. A great way to open a scene in media res is to think of the moment when the wine arcs out of the glass, heading for the woman's gown, but just before it hits her.
Notice we don't want the scene to begin after the wine stains the dress. We already know the outcome. The moment(s) prior to possible disaster provide instant tension and rising action, two keys to scene writing. Don't be afraid of in media res. It's a tool you can use to keep the story moving.
Try This! Look through some of your work. Are there scenes where the characters are getting out of bed, dressing or shuffling off to find the coffee? Although in real life we do all these things, your characters don't need to. If you see scenes that start slowly with set-ups that take up a lot of space, consider moving the opening of the scene to just before something big happens. That scene writing in media res.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Imagine a scene in which your POV character is sitting at a dining table with other people, enjoying a nice meal. Everyone's talking and laughing and having a nice time, when something someone says or does reminds this POV character something else that happened in the past. Our POV character had scooped up a forkful of mashed potatoes when this "past occurrence" struck. The character's fork is midway to her mouth when we the readers are catapulted, drifted, or reeled back in time.
Now we "see" another time and place as the POV character thinks about what happened back then. We assume this second time/place's reality for as long as the flashback lasts. If the writer doesn't properly manage us as readers, we forget all about "real time," content to read about what happened yesterday. But in the real time of the story, the POV character's still holding that forkful of potatoes halfway to her lips, frozen there while readers explore the alternate universe of the flashback. While this character waxes poetic about her childhood, THE MASHED POTATOES ARE GETTING COLD.
I like the Rule of 3 to help me remember not to stay long in flashback, especially if it's early in the book. If I write 3 sentences of flashback, I remind the reader of the "real time" story or end the flashback.
Another tool for flashbacks is to use something concrete and/or sensory to get into and out of the past. So, if character sees a blue tea cup and it reminds her of the way Grandma used to take her tea, the tea cup itself can be used as a tangible marker for the reader to hang onto while moving around in time. When the flashback is going back to real time, the same cup signals the writer that the flashback is finished.
Try This! Write a scene that calls for a flashback. Use the tools listed above to help you get into and out of the flashback smoothly.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: In your protagonist's viewpoint, we get sensory information (concrete sensory detail or CSD) as the character acts. At the same time, the reader needs to understand at least a hint of how and why this main character does what he/she does. Knowing a character's motivation, what drives him and what she's after must also be evident by that character's reactions to the scene and other characters in the scene. Sometimes, a character's reactions say more about motivation than her actions.
Let's follow this action/reaction component in writing a typical scene:
Main character A is in a scene where she is at cross-purposes with another character B. Character A acts (says or does something)
Character B reacts by acting (saying or doing) something that raises the stakes.
Character A first reacts to what just happened through sensory and body language info or by interior thought.
Character A is now faced with a dilemma. Raise, call or fold? Should A keep pushing, quit or decide it doesn't matter?*
Last, Character A decides what she'll do next. The action begins again.
*A draw or tie or deciding it doesn't matter is hardly ever good for fiction.
Try This! Take a scene you've drafted and identify the places where your main character goes through reaction, dilemma and decision. Why does your protagonist think and react this way? Do you know your character's main motivation?
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Strunk & White warns writers against creating dangling participles, which violates this rule: A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. If the parti phrase is preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives and adjectival phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.
Ay! Sound like gibberish? Perhaps these examples will help:
Wrong: Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.
Correct: I bought the dilapidated house very cheap. The house was dilapidated, not the speaker.
Wrong: On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station. His friends didn't arrive, he did.
Correct: On arriving in Chicago, he was met at the station by his friends. Oh! But isn't this passive? You betcha. Maybe better: He arrived in Chicago. His friends met him at the station.
Often, laugh-out-loud writing involves roaming body parts, especially traveling eyes.
He took her arm up the stairs.
Her eyes roamed the room.
He dropped his eyes.
He stared at her with fresh eyes.
Her eyes shot out the window.
She threw up her hands.
He dropped his head. OW!
I'm sure you can think of more. Some are rather unavoidable, but instead of eyes, substitute gaze. He took her arm in his and together they went upstairs. If you know a less awful substitute for throwing up one's hands, I'd love to hear about it. And if you tend to shoot off your mouth, be careful.
Try This! Look over your work in progress (WIP) and see if any of these danglers or roving body parts are present in your work. Laugh heartily and then fix them.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The reader's total experience (and by that I mean something akin to cinematic) depends on many things, but after the characters are established, knowing when and where a scene takes place becomes paramount. A time barrier can be as simple as "that afternoon," or as precise as "At exactly 4:07 PM." Other time barriers include:
- The period, year or age, such as Regency, 1942 or Bronze.
- The season, such as "late autumn," "Just before Christmas" or "That summer."
- A relational time barrier such as "the next day," "By July," or "after school."
- Night vs. day.
Time is very important to the scene and to the story as a whole. Some novels take place in the span of an hour, others are epic in scope and cover generations. To bridge a gap or lull between pivotal scenes, a short narrative is often a better choice than trying to act out through scenes every moment in a character's life. It may take a writer hours to craft a scene that might give the reader the impression that minutes have passed, and it only took the reader seconds to read.
Try This! I always end up moving the time barrier to the beginning of a sentence/paragraph. So instead of, "She arrived home late in the afternoon," I think the reader appreciates reading, "Late that afternoon, she arrived home." This way, readers aren't left wondering about when they are until the end of the sentence.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: My pet peeves on misspelled/misused words? Here are the ones I see most often:
- separate, often spelled seperate.
- advice/advise. We give advice. We advise others.
- lose/loose. We lose our lunch money. We (let) loose or wear loose (baggy) clothes.
- waist/waste. One of the mean Amazon reviews said my Fence book was a waist of time. I felt better about it knowing the reviewer doesn't know that a waist is what we wear a belt around, and a waste is just money out the window.
- perscription. Prescription drugs need a doctor's OK.
- your/you're. Your house is your home (possessive). You're (you are) going home today.
- it's/ its. One is a possessive (dog chases its tail) with no apostrophe. It's is a contraction for it is.
- break/brake. The glass might break, day breaks. We brake our car, put on the brakes. That's the breaks!
- hopefully. An adverb (ly word) always modifies. So in, "Hopefully, the race will go on," a race can't be hopeful. More correct: "I'm hopeful that the race will go on."
- decimated. The prefix should give a clue: deci- means a unit of ten. So to say the army was decimated means a tenth was affected. (and don't get me started on affect/effect!)
Most of these offending misspellings are homophones. Spell checkers don't know the difference. It's up to you to learn which word is correct. Get a copy of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. As I said, a misspelled word won't get a fabulous story rejected. But by becoming a student of the craft, you send a signal to pros that you're a pro, too.
Try This! Be on the lookout for misused homophones (sounds alike, spelled differently) as you read newspapers, magazines and books. How would you feel if a misused homophone made it into print in your work?
Monday, September 20, 2010
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Writing Tip for Today:
- Name that Reason. In fiction, each scene must advance the story. Think of the plot as a series of interrelated layers. A scene must uncover or reveal a bit more of the story. It's usually safe to omit scenes where characters go from one place to another or to fill in a timeline. If nothing happens until Monday, just say so with a short narrative sentence or paragraph.
- Every scene must have a beginning, a middle and an end. You can think of this like a joke, according to Good old Anne Lamott: First you have a set-up, then you have a build-up and finally you have the punch line. In the set-up, the reader learns who's in the scene, where and when it occurs and the reason for the meeting. The build-up should usually increase the tension/conflict. The punch line reveals whether the POV character wins, loses or ties with the other character. Early in the story, a main character probably shouldn't win too much.
- Consider the Eleven Elements of a scene. Don't bend over backward to include all 11 in every scene, but do consider that we are a visual society. Seeing and hearing top the sensory information list. Now and again, remember touch, taste and smell. Smell, in particular, is a very powerful sense that transports a reader. Here is the list. Tape it to your work area and refer to it often.
- Purpose of scene.
- POV (point of view) character.
- At least one other character.*
- Time barrier.
- Quality of Light.**
*Scenes with only one character tend to be too interior and lack conflict or tension. To avoid this, write scenes with at least one other character, even if it's the dog.
**Quality of light affects a scene's mood and lends depth to the setting. Is the scene taking place at night, in bright sunshine, under fluorescent lights? Is it rainy, foggy, stormy?
Try This! Write a scene where a main character is arguing with another character. Strive for balance between action, dialogue and emotional reactions.
Next up: Cold mashed potatoes, red wine and other scenic morsels.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The most common place to feel jet lag is when you hit the middle of a novel-in-progress. The standard advice is to tighten the sagging middle. I've found an effective way to do this is to story board.
- List the main action/purpose of each scene you've written on a 3x5 card or a computer spreadsheet. You can even simply make a list.
- Color code or otherwise identify (I use colored highlighter pens) to mark the major plot points, subplots or other pertinent developments.
- Lay out the cards in chronological order. Some people use different-colored sticky notes on a wall or simply list the scenes in a way you could easily manipulate.
- Take aim on the middle. How many scenes are there? Most novels have the most scenes occur in Act Two, but make sure you don't leave the main action or theme for too long. For instance, a heating up romantic subplot is great, but it could easily usurp the book's main story arc.
- Yer Out! Decide on three least important scenes and take them out of the lineup. Now look again at your story board. Do you miss these scenes? Could a simple bit of narration replace them?
- Or, Move Up. Conversely, is the major plot idea unfolding in this middle area? If so, consider moving the onset of the development much earlier in the book.
- A good rule on whether to keep or chuck a scene: Is the dialogue/action worthy of acting out (scene)? Or is it more getting from here to there or other things which might be summarized?
Try This! As you try out the ideas above, if you decide to make changes to the manuscript, copy and paste the entire file into a new document. That way if you like the changes you can rename the file with a date (I use exclamation points to put the file at the top of the list) so you don't get mixed up. If you decide you'd rather stick with what you already have, you can easily return to the original document.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: I'm not a beginner, but that doesn't mean I've stopped learning the writing craft. The best writers usually seek to improve their skills no matter how many books to their credit. This doesn't mean you should become a "workshop junkie," where you attend gobs of workshops but don't actually write much. Still, a brush-up class can be a good choice. Even if you've taken the class before, you're a different writer now. Chances are, you'll see the topics presented with fresh eyes.
Try This! List five ways your character might experience that first glance across the crowded room.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Writing Tip For Today: I agree that once a writer has name recognition in a category, it makes sense to build on that. But if an author is having trouble selling a book, it may make sense to try another type of story. This is one case where using a pen name may be a good idea, so you can keep your "main" genre audience separated. If you want to dip your toe in another genre's waters, you might want to do these things:
What do you read? For a few skillful authors, it may not matter. For most, I'd say the writer should read at least ten novels in the genre they want to try, especially if it's something not usually read. Get a feel for how quickly the story builds. You may want to analyze by jotting down where the key plot points occur. How many viewpoints? At the climax, what does the protagonist do on the inside and on the outside?
Invent Your Story. Do a short sketch or synopsis (say no more than 250 words) of the story you want to write. Include protagonist, setting, main problem and obstacles for starters.
Let your mind go. After you let the plot line from these published examples sink in, sit down and bang out a chapter. Don't try to edit yourself. See where it goes.
Let it sit. Give your draft a while to cool off. Write on other stories.
Compare. After your draft is cool, get it out and compare your try with the first chapters of a few of the novels you analyzed. Ask yourself these questions: What is the balance between narrative and action (scene)? By the end of the first chapter, what do you know about the story? Is there any back story? If so, how much?
Friday, September 10, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Cross-pollination isn't hard or expensive. Here's how to start your own cross-pollination campaign:
Know your genre. Find out the names and websites of at least ten other authors in your genre. If you know who your competition is, you're more likely to stay current and you may even make friends.
Get to know them. In a friendly email, Facebook note or on a blog, mention that you noticed this other author's work. Ask if they have guests on their blog or whether they do book reviews and offer your book(s). Hold off asking to swap publicity until they know you're not some spy or enemy.
Ready, set, swap! Once you establish a relationship, ask if they'd want to swap publicity. By this I mean that you agree to announce/plug/shout out their book on your network in exchange for their announcing your book on theirs. Be sure to be clear that you're not asking for stuff that costs money or even much time. In my experience, most are willing to make a brief announcement on your behalf.
Spread the pollen!: Book promotion is much more pleasant and rewarding if you maintain a cheerful, nonthreatening attitude. By cross-pollination, you can stay as busy as a bee for free. Go out and find your 10 authors today!
For my readers: I'm out of town, in Arizona for a week, so if I miss a post, don't worry--I'll be back in Oregon on Sept. 16th. Keep writing!
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Writing Tip For Today: Dialogue sounds like real speech in that it:
- uses some idioms or colloquialisms.
- usually abbreviates by using contractions
- doesn't allow speakers to utter things the characters already know. For instance, you want the reader to know the character is working for the largest company west of the Rockies. But who would say, "You know, I work for the John Q. Public company--largest company west of the Rockies." The phrase "you know" can be a tip-off that you need to be more creative in giving the reader info.
- doesn't allow the characters to natter. In real speech we hem and haw, talk about nothing and generally produce a lot of meaningless words. In a story the dialogue must always advance the story line in some way.
- doesn't allow the characters to educate one another. This is also known as "information-loading" or "encyclopedic responses." Again the usual culprit is an author who could be more creative in getting the desired info to the reader.
Try This! Think of 3 ways other than dialogue in which you could relay vital info without putting it into the mouths of your characters.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The target for writing better dialogue is to focus on putting words in the mouths of the characters that advance the story, sound the way people talk and that surprise the reader. Here are a few of the easiest to incorporate:
- Use contractions. This idea seems simple but writers are sometimes afraid to use contractions lest they be labeled casual. Even worse, writers who want to sound literary will sometimes eschew contractions. Hardly ever works.
- When you write dialogue, revise with an eye to incomplete sentences. Thus, I might draft, "Are you going to the concert?" but revise to "Going to the concert?" or "You going?"
- Don't allow "ly" words to describe how a character speaks. If she says something angrily, is there a more specific verb? Try hissed, snarled, sneered.
- Avoid "yes" or "no" questions. Instead, have your character ask "how" or "why" questions.
- Attributions should be limited to "said." I've seen the current trend away from attributions (dialogue tags) altogether, replaced by a "beat" (short sentence) of action, interior thoughts or emotion. It is good to remind your reader of the rest of the sensory info aside from dialogue but be careful not to let this style become repetitious. Vary the tags, beats and scene reminders by mixing it up.
- Don't forget the Rule of 3! If one character speaks more than 3 uninterrupted lines, insert a beat or a bit of narrative. If two or more characters speak more than 3 exchanges, consider adding beat or narration. Don't allow your characters to speechify or become talking heads.
Try This! Write a tense scene of only dialogue. Read it aloud. Are you picturing the characters' postures, body language, actions? Can you imagine the surroundings? Rewrite the scene, sprinkling beats of action, narrative and emotions in small doses throughout the scene. Are there spots which call for "said?" Are there places where the tension is so high you don't even need attribution?
Monday, September 6, 2010
Friday, September 3, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Believe it or not, pets (especially dogs and cats) tug on a reader's heartstrings and transfer their "aaw" factor to the character (unless the character kicks said cute pet). Adding deeper emotional gut appeal is a sure-fire way to get your reader more hopelessly hooked on the character's plight. A pet also gives your character someone to talk to in those lonely scenes where he/she's the only one on stage. A furry friend (don't know if this works with the snakes, scorpions and tarantulas I never did let my boys have as pets) can also humanize an antagonist. How a person treats an animal is a way we all gauge a character's character. Want to add value to your character's situation and deepen the emotional reaction of the reader? Give your character a dog, cat, ferret or mouse. Unless you want aaw to turn to eek!, skip the snakes, scorpions or tarantulas. No offense, arachnid lovers.
Try This! In your work-in-progress, add a pet to the main character's life. How does this change the story? Add a different type of pet. How is the story different now?
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: The balance of narration vs. scene, especially in an opening, depends in part on that elusive quality, voice. Yet pacing is also a key. Readers are more likely to be sucked in by a unique narrative voice (think Charles Dickens or William Faulkner) but have you really found your unique voice yet?
- For those of us in "voice" training, I suggest that your opening follow the good old rule of three: No more than about 3 paragraphs of narrative (and that narrative had better introduce the character, the problem and the book theme) before you dive into a real scene.
- The first scene, you've heard, must hook your reader. Do it by using a scene that showcases your protagonist's struggle. How do you find your voice? Easy. Just write and read and write and read some more. About 10,000 hours' worth--at least. Don't be discouraged, just keep churning out the word count, learning new revision skills and keeping abreast of other authors' work.
- Opening a scene in media res plunges the reader into a dilemma. In an old TV ad, a woman stands at her stove stirring a pot of something. A family member innocently asks her a question. She slams down the pot lid and yells, "Can't you see I've got a headache?" This is an example of starting in the middle. We don't need to know what caused the headache how long she's had it or who the woman is.
Try This! Gather several novels you enjoyed. Analyze the first 2-3 pages. Are they narration (telling) or a scene (action)? If narration, how long until the first scene? If scene, how long until the first narration? Hint: Scenes often contain dialogue. Look for quotation marks to identify scenes. How do these books compare to your work-in-progress?
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Writing Tip for Today: Another way to summarize your story is to use the mash-up method. In Hollywood screenwriters often use this method to pitch projects. These days, novel writers have adopted the mash-up method too.
Mash-up Method is simply a joining of two different story lines or plots, usually with the word "meets" in the middle. If your story is Cinderella meets The Three Little Pigs (I know, how weird!), chances are you get an instant idea of what the story is like. Here are some tips:
- Use known works. It won't make sense if the agent or editor has never heard of the books or movies you're comparing.
- Go for the tone. Use at least one example that reflects the tone you want to impart. If it's a comedy, don't cite a mash-up of two serious books/films. If it's a drama, don't use broad comedies to describe.
- It's okay to admit you are borrowing story elements. Most people agree that there are only a few basic story lines or plots, and everything else is a variation.
Try This! Using your novel-in-progress, find two movies or books that best represent a mash-up of your story. You can use one to describe the time/setting and the other to describe the genre, such as "Star Wars," which is often described as a "western set in space."