Tag Archives: writing

Rewriting Is A Good Thing

Dip_PenNo two writers are alike, and I dare say, no two writers work alike either. However, in contrast to what some writers say and what others do, rewriting is a good thing.

Of course the depth of writing will vary, but pre-planners will benefit from rewriting and plan-as-you-go writers will benefit from rewriting.

Prolific author Dean Wesley Smith disagrees, and gave his rationale why the need to rewrite is a “myth.”

Among his reasons, he stated

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less. Research is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. Talking to other writers is not writing (“Killing the Sacred Cow of Publishing: Rewriting”).

Strictly speaking, Mr. Smith is accurate, I suppose, but that’s why professionals refer to the writing process and not just writing. Any kind of writing is much more involved than what the finished product leads readers to believe. What someone can read and absorb in a matter of minutes, may have taken the writer hours to put together.

Why? Because details need to be checked, story structure needs to be hammered in place, characters need to be developed, voice needs to be created, dialogue needs to be constructed, and on and on.

According to Mr. Smith, thinking through these various aspects of fiction simply kills creativity. Rather, Mr. Smith’s own process works like this: first he lets the story pour out of him, then edits for punctuation and does a spell check, then gives the manuscript to a reader and does a touch-up draft based on what the reader has said. Next step, mail that sucker off to the agent or editor who’s waiting for it.

I suspect there are seasoned novelists who may have once upon a time, revised and revised and revised in order to produce a publish-worthy manuscript, but as time has worn on and their skill has improved, they may now need to do half as many revisions.

There’s no doubt that the more we write well, the more we write well. However, Mr. Smith has fallen into a trap:

And what you will discover is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. With each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories.

It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Apparently Mr. Smith didn’t take lessons under the great college basketball coach John Wooden who famously said, it isn’t practice that makes perfect; it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.

In other words, if we keep making the same mistakes over and over, there is no progress toward perfect.

Ironically I didn’t believe in rewriting or revising when I was in school. I had wonderful English teachers who reminded us of the importance of reading our work and making necessary changes. But I didn’t see the point. After all, I’d written what I wanted to say or I wouldn’t have put it down! Why go back over it and rethink the whole thing if I knew I’d said it well the first time?

Such hubris.

When I finally got a couple teachers who required us to rewrite after our papers were graded, I got the picture. I had many more things wrong than I’d imagined, some that I could have corrected myself if I’d only taken the time to think a little more.

Mr. Smith’s idea is that the critical evaluation of our creative work “ruins” it.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

I have two observations about this thinking. First, Mr. Smith started his article just as I did mine—by saying no two writers are alike. If that point is true, then how can he make this sweeping statement about writers and what’s in the critical side of our brains?

I have no doubt that had Mr. Smith revised this article, he would have seen the inconsistency himself.

My second observation is this: Mr. Smith uses input from a reader and then does his third draft, which seems to me a way of saying he’s fine with someone else’s critical side of the brain—just not his own.

Mr. Smith makes one final argument against rewriting—creativity is always ahead of our knowledge of technique. I think that well might be true for some people. But all the more reason to study our craft and catch our technical knowledge up with our creativity.

On the other hand, some of us imagine our story (creativity) but express it in rather pedestrian ways until we get to the revision stage. I’ve heard this termed “prettying up the story,” a thoroughly creative part of the critical process.

I do think some writers fear revision. I know I used to. I didn’t want to go through the whole, entire manuscript again once I’d finished. So much work. Could I do it?

That’s a little like saying, I washed the dishes yesterday; do I really need to wash them again today? If we want them to be clean, yes. If we want our stories to be as good as they can be, then yes, rewriting is part of reaching that goal.

I think there are two extremes when it comes to rewriting. One is to do too little. Especially with the ease of self-publishing, it’s possible to slam out a story, then put it into the digital world for anyone and everyone to read. Except, the anyone’s read the sample chapter, and they’re not buying.

Isn’t it possible that a couple rewrites could have made the story better so that readers would want to keep reading instead of clicking over to another book?

The second extreme is the never-ending rewrite. Some writers are unwilling to let their story go. Rather than move on to a new premise, they continually and obsessively tweak the one story they’ve been working on for years.

I had such a writer in one of my critique groups. No matter how many of us urged her to walk away from that story and work on the new project, at every turn she was going back over that first story she loved so much.

Another writer I know wrote something like 190,000 words and still wasn’t finished and couldn’t let anyone read her work. She continued to tweak and add and add and tweak. At some point we writers need to put our stories down and work on a new project. We can apply all the cool things we’ve been learning to this brand new story instead of trying to patch up the old.

The truth about fiction is that it’s never going to be perfect. Pretty much every writer can rewrite their story and find something to improve, no matter how experienced you are. Perhaps the only writers who think their story is perfect are beginners.

Of course beginners might benefit more than any other writers from a thorough rewriting process.

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Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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Filed under Characters, Plot, Word Use, Writing Rules

Where To Start

812863_pink_fitness_center
At the beginning of a new year, thoughts turn to fresh starts. More people create bucket lists, start exercise programs or new diets, and make promises to stop smoking or staying up too late.

For writers, the new year is a good time to do a re-evaluation, too, or to start a new project. If you’re in the latter category and are planning to write that book you’ve been thinking about, I suggest keeping in mind a couple basic points.

  • Avoid jumping on bandwagons. If you’ve read a really good story about a boy wizard, a vampire, or a mermaid, I suggest you look for a different concept and avoid joining in with any number of others who might think they want to write about about those characters after reading the same books. If you’ve seen a successful movie about a hobbit, it’s not the best idea to write a book about a hobbit. If you’ve watched a cool TV program about fairytales, it’s not the best idea to write a retake of a fairytale. Why?

    For one thing, agents and editors will not look at your work as if it is fresh and original. For another, it is harder to make your work stand out above others trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do.

  • Avoid copying trends. This is a correlation to the first point. Because a certain genre is hot or because editors or agents say they are looking for this or that kind of book, this is not the time to start writing those books. For one thing, you well may be starting out when other writers who aren’t chasing trends but are writing to their natural bent, are finishing up. In other word, by the time you read that something is the new “in” genre, it’s probably too late to start a project in that genre.

    For another, by chasing trends, you may well write something that you aren’t particularly qualified to write. For example, if you hear that middle grade boy fantasies are the next hot thing, replacing young adult dystopian fantasy, you may not be well versed in what the differences are between middle grade and young adult books. You may also have a sharp learning curve to write straight fantasy as opposed to dystopian fantasy.

    None of these are impossible, of course. But if a writer is chasing a trend instead of trying to start one, he’s behind the pack at the start.

  • running marathonDon’t sign up to run a marathon simply because you’ve started walking the track. In other words, don’t set your sights too high too soon. Nothing can discourage a writer more than getting into a project only to find out that it is much more demanding than what he anticipated.

    The cure for this, of course, is to do your homework. If you decide you want to self-publish a book, then do the research to learn what all is involved–both in time, expertise, and money. Can you afford this project? Do you know enough about book covers and editing and promotion to make this work? Or can you afford to hire professionals to do what you cannot? With your other responsibilities, will you have the time to complete the project?

  • Study writing. Too often those who wish to write don’t realize that different types of writing require different skills. One of the best writers of non-fiction I know decided to write fiction. Unfortunately this author did not take the time to study fiction technique and the result is … less than successful.

    The point is, success in one area should not blind a writer to the need to do the hard work to learn the components of a new type of writing. For most of us, fiction is a new type of writing. We may have read stories all our lives, but we haven’t written fiction. We may have written blogs, articles, reports, letters, and emails all our lives, but those are not stories. Hence, we need to study what makes good fiction if we want to write a novel.

  • Continue to learn no matter how much success you have. One of the best professional basketball players in history used to spend his summer working on a new shot or move so that he would have something new in his arsenal for the new season. No matter how many championships he won, he continued that approach. The man was a millionaire, and he had wide acclaim from his peers and fans, yet he was not satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the past and knew that he had to master greater skills if he wanted to stay at the top.

    Unfortunately, it seems too many writers make getting published their goal, and once they have published, even if they self-publish, they relax. They no longer work to improve because they are satisfied. They make no effort to expand their audience or win others over by their improving writing skills.

  • Think past the obvious. Rather than settling for the first story idea that comes to you, push yourself to think of other possibilities. Rather than using the first descriptive word that comes to mind, look for something more interesting, specific, or unique.

    In the third point above, I originally wrote “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” It’s a familiar phrase–a cliché actually–but it communicates the thought I wanted. However, its very familiarity would most likely make it forgettable. Creating a new comparison has a greater chance of not only showing the principle, but of becoming memorable.

What tips do you have for writers who might be thinking of starting a new project?

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Filed under Concept And Development, Writing Process

Love What You Write

disappointed_manI don’t generally use this space to write inspirational pieces. For the most part, I assume someone who is reading a blog offering writing tips is probably already motivated and doesn’t need too much sideline cheerleading from another writer.

But for most of us, there comes a time when we start to wonder what it is we’re doing. Whether it’s agent rejections, tough critique group responses, contest failures, low sales, a scathing review, few blog post comments, dwindling followers–need I go on?–there will come a time in our experience that we might get discouraged and wonder why we’re writing.

It’s at those points I believe that we writers should focus on what we love. We should write what we love, but more than that, we should write it so that we love it.

Most often the writing advice we receive is helpful, but there can come a time when it all seems conflicting or vapid or repetitive.

I’ve been in groups before in which one person praises the very thing that another person rips apart. So which view is right?

I’ve also seen critiques that are so bland, they are meaningless. “This is nice” might be the worst comment of all. Or “It’s fine.” How is a writer to learn, grow, improve from that?

Then there are the comments that continue to be the same no matter what your write. “Needs more description,” or “the character’s voice isn’t strong enough”–week after week, no matter what changes you make, the comments remain the same.

It’s possible, after a time, for us to write ourselves in circles, trying to fix all the problems others point out in our work. And it gets discouraging, so much so that some writers might consider stepping aside and letting go of their dream.

It’s at that point that I think we need a little inspiration, and it comes from what we love. We writers generally made the decision to tell a story we love or discuss a truth we believe in. In other words, we had a passion for communicating something with others. In times of discouragement, then, it’s important to focus on that story we love, on that truth we believe in and ask if we still want to communicate it with others.

But that’s really writing what we love. This post is about loving what we write.

In those times of discouragement, it’s important to love what we write. That can be hard to do when we have the voice of critics running through our heads as we read our work. But at some point, we need to decide if the critics are right or not. If they’re right, then we need to do the hard work and revise our story or our article until we love it.

What if the critics are not right? One thing I’ve learned about writing feedback–well, two things: no piece of writing is ever perfect and if someone says there’s a problem, they may not be right about how to fix it, but they’re probably not wrong about the fact that a problem exists.

I think there are far too many writers out there who simply have not done the hard work and yet think they are ready for a publisher. After all, I was one of those writers. I went through the process of joining a critique group, growing from their feedback, and eventually receiving glowing comments. I was going to conferences and placing in contests. I was ready! Except I wasn’t. There was still more hard work for me to do.

But here’s the thing. Even as I am doing the hard work to become a better novelist, I still love the story I’m writing. That, I think, needs to be the baseline to which we return. Some stories can get so gummed up by all the changes this agent or that editor or critique partner has suggested, that we stop loving them. Maybe those need to be put aside for a time. Maybe we need to pick up something else, something that expresses our passion, and tells the story we love in the way we love.

Maybe then we will remember why we write and we’ll recognize our own voice again.

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Filed under Revision, Writing Inspiration

Back To The Basics: Capitalization

Texting and tweeting just might be ruining our knowledge of writing mechanics. For writers, this is a serious issue. Editors and agents want “clean” query letters and book proposals, but our ability to produce that kind of copy is being undermined by the everyday habits of informal communication.

Thus, it’s a good idea to do a basics refresher from time to time.

Today we’ll take a look at capitalization. As opposed to punctuation, few questions come up about what and how to capitalize, yet I am beginning to see more and more capitalization mistakes in my reading.

The basic capitalization rules can be summarized by two statements:

    (1) Capitalize proper names and the personal pronoun I (which is the equivalent of the name of the speaker)
    (2) Capitalize beginnings of sentences and lines of poetry.

So far so good. Now for the but-what-about‘s–what about a person’s title, what about directions, what about seasons, what about … You get the idea.

Let’s take a few of these that seem to give the most trouble.

Capitalize a person’s title when it is used as part of his or her name. Consequently, President Obama, Dr. Tragan, Queen Elizabeth, but the senator, a professor, his pastor.

Capitalize parts of the world when they are incorporated with a name. Consequently, West Coast, the Plains Indians, the Colorado River, but the bay, an inlet, our lake.

In addresses, the abbreviations of states (or provinces) are in all caps: CA, AK, MI, IL.

Words derived from proper nouns and used as a literal reference to that name are capitalized. Consequently, American bald eagle, Christian church, Republican candidate, but biblical proportions, swiss cheese, roman numeral.

Time periods are capitalized only when they are part of a name. Consequently, the Roaring Twenties, the Middle Ages, the First Dynasty, but the twenty-first century, the colonial period, the information age.

Note, seasons of the year are not specific names of a particular time period. Hence, fall, winter, spring, summer.

In the same way, a.m. and p.m. are not the names of a particular time. However, when those designations are used without the period, they are printed in small caps.

Academic subjects are capitalized only when they are derived from or form a name. Consequently, English, Philosophy 101, Beginning Archaeology, but psychology, arithmetic, social studies.

One more. Abbreviations standing for names are capitalized. Consequently, J.R.R. Tolkien, DMV, and UPS, but rpm and mpg.

Hopefully a pattern has emerged which should help the writer decide on his own whether to capitalize or not to capitalize: If the word in question is a name or part of a name, it is capitalized.

So what questions do you have about capitalization?

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Characters Can Be Cliches Too

When I was growing up, westerns dominated the small screen. As my experience expanded, I realized that it didn’t take much to figure out who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.

Good guys — white hat, shirt neatly tucked in, guns riding high and often two strapped to the belt (they were always extremely good with guns), friendly, polite (especially to women, old men, and children), law-abiding.

Bad guys — black hats, rumpled shirts (also often black), guns riding low, black horses (usually slow), a five-o’clock shadow or a couple days growth of beard, surly, chews and spits a lot, leers at women, mean even to friends, cheats at cards.

Stereotypes. That’s what the characters in westerns became, and I suspect part of the reason the public lost interest in westerns was the predictable nature of the stories told about these stock characters.

The thing is, it’s easy to fall into producing assembly-line characters. When we think about villains, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “lovable.” So we shape them to fit the need at hand. They are mean-tempered, ugly, squinty-eyed, fat, rude, selfish. Whereas the good guys … Well, you see the problem.

How can a writer steer clear of stereotypes?

First, each character needs to become an individual. No two of us are alike, nor should the characters in our novels be alike. But more than our different looks, we show ourselves as individuals by our actions. Hence, the characters that stand out as memorable are the ones that act in ways that are unique, unexpected, and homogenized.

Often the things that make a person unique are considered quirky or weird by others. The TV program Monk became popular in part because the brilliant detective who solved crimes a la Sherlock Holmes was plagued with obsessive compulsions and a long list of fears. He was unforgettable.

Quirkiness doesn’t have to be that extreme, though. A kindly June Cleaver-ish stay-at-home mom could be dyslexic and unable to read. A successful car salesman could be inept at handling his own finances. The star high school quarterback could hole up in his room on the weekends with a book.

Where does the writer come up with quirks in a character? From real life. As a starting place, think about people you know and the ways they do things differently from others.

Quirks can also lead to unexpected qualities which create unexpected actions. The dyslexic mom, for example, refuses to help out in her son’s classroom even though she’ll volunteer her time at the homeless shelter and participate in walk-a-thons for breast cancer research. She’s involved, civic minded, but steers clear of her son’s school.

Sometimes, however, the character may violate his own list of taboos which creates another kind of unexpected.

Again using the main character in Monk as an example, from time to time one of the people he cares about — his brother, the captain who hires him, his assistant — gets into serious trouble and he has to climb a ladder (he’s afraid of heights), go into a sewer (he’s afraid of germs), or pay a ransom (he’s cheap). Of course each trait deviation is clearly and properly motivated, but the fact that he does what he fears is unexpected.

Sometimes, however, he doesn’t come through, or does so only because of incessant nagging prodding from another character. Thus, his change in his routine way of living remains fresh and unpredictable.

A third way to make a character memorable is to homogenize them — stir together both strengths and weakness. Notice, this is not the same thing as saying they need to have a mixed bag of good traits and bad traits. Strengths simply mean that the character is very good at something particular. So the villain might be a better swordsman than the hero, or he might be a master at manipulation and control (think The Godfather).

In the same way, each character needs to have weaknesses and fears. Even Superman had a physical vulnerability (his “allergy” to kryptonite) and a fear of putting the people he loved in jeopardy. Creating characters who are a composite of qualities makes them much more interesting.

Scarlett O’Hara was an obnoxious flirt and didn’t know her own heart when it came to men, but she was resilient and strong-minded and determined. Was she a heroine or a villain? Sometimes she seemed like one only to show herself to be quite different a few chapters later.

What about Bilbo Baggins? He was reluctant, timid, and enamored with ease . . . except he was also clever and adventurous and trusting.

When an author avoids cliches in writing, his prose takes on a freshness that makes it a delight to read. When he peoples his fiction with fresh characters, they take on a life of their own and become memorable.

What memorable characters can you think of that show uniqueness or the unexpected or the homogeneity of strengths and weaknesses?

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Help For The Stalled

From time to time it seems writers of fiction or non-fiction get stuck or stalled. Some people might even say blocked. There are pressures that may contribute to a mental attitude that screams, “I can’t,” but I’m not addressing those factors today.

Rather, I want to look at specific things a writer can do when the next scene or non-fiction article point doesn’t take shape in his head, when “what comes next” doesn’t have an answer.

Consider first that you might not know enough. You love to garden, perhaps, and have been to the nursery more times than you can count, so certainly you know enough about plants to make your protagonist a landscaper, right? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Aine Greaney, in her Writer’s Digest article “How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript” says

if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters — fictional or real — in a whole new way.

“Research” might simply mean, taking time to think through who your character is on a deeper level. Do you know what she fears? and why? Is she socially inept or particularly kind or fascinated with philosophy, and if so, what contributed to her becoming who she is? Was there a traumatic event she experienced as a child, an ongoing situation she lived with, a person who modeled a lifestyle or pointed her in a direction?

Knowing our characters well, especially knowing what he or she wants, can open up many possibilities for our stories to move forward.

A second step to take to get unstuck is to ramp up the conflict, even in non-fiction. Again from Ms. Greaney:

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other.

A good question to ask is, “What does my character want in this scene?” A corollary might be, “What is making it difficult for him to be successful?” And finally, “Why does it matter?”

Conflict, of course, can be inner conflict and not just a clash with another person or with external circumstances. One place to look to create more conflict, then, is inside your character.

Does he have warring values that you can bring into play? Perhaps he loves his job as a professional baseball coach, but he loves his family who he must leave every time his team takes to the road. Two values, both good, but at war with one another.

Your character might also have fears that war with her desires. She wants to spend time with Mr. Perfect, but his hobby is to rock climb. In fact he’s invited her to go on the next trip, which she desperately wants to do — except she is deathly afraid of heights. What’s she going to do?

If you aren’t at the stalled stage yet, read over your manuscript and see if you’ve introduced your character’s fear early in your story. If so, it can serve as a tool to ratchet up the conflict when you need it most.

Stalled may not feel like blocked, but it is nonetheless a detriment to our writing. Thankfully there are practical steps to take which should soon have the ideas flowing and our fingers once again flying over the computer keys.

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Filed under Inner Conflict, Research, Writing Process

Ideas

I’ve read my share of author interviews, and inevitably the question comes up: Where did you get your idea for your story? I used to think that was a question interviewers used because they couldn’t think of anything else. 😆 But just this past week, an author (whose debut novel landed on the New York Times best-seller list) created a frequently asked questions page on her site, and she included “Where did you get your idea for …”

So I relent. Apparently people really are interested in where story ideas come from. I have a writer friend, in fact, who has expressed some interest in writing short stories but generally says she doesn’t think she could because she doesn’t know what she’d write about.

I’m familiar with the problem. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us a story every Friday. My friends used to moan and groan. What could they possibly write about?

When I became a teacher and handed out my own writing assignments, the chief complaint I heard was, “I don’t know what to write about.”

Honestly, all this subject-matter angst has mystified me. In my own writing I’ve had questions about selecting subject matter for a non-fiction piece, but generally the issue is a non-issue for me when it comes to fiction. Finally I realized, perhaps I needed to tell other writers why.

As I see it, stories ideas come from everywhere. From an author’s dreams, his home environment, his work environment, from his childhood memories, from what he reads in the newspaper, from what happens in the grocery story or bank or gas station or library or church, from special days and from regular ones, from the hair dresser or from the dentist, from the generous friend or from the demanding neighbor, from his child’s teacher, from the Little League coach or the hot dog vendor or the ticket taker. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 😀 Ideas are everywhere.

The key is in recognizing them when we see them. One way to recognize a story idea is by asking probing questions — things like, I wonder why she decided to finish college in a small school instead of the state university where she started? From there a writer can begin a list of “maybe” answers. Maybe she followed a guy she met. Maybe she got involved in a cult. Maybe she was following in the footsteps of her older sister. Maybe she was running away from her family. Maybe she wanted a simpler lifestyle. And on and on until the list begins to include the bizarre and improbable. The more outlandish, the more a writer is stretching her imagination.

Of course, each of these “maybe answers” comes with a “why.” It is in answering this that a writer begins to get a glimpse at which of these stories might be interesting to write.

So the real answer to the question, Where did you get your ideas, lies in observation and curiosity — and the great news is, with practice every author can cultivate and increase both.

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To Do NaNoWriMo Or Not To Do NaNoWriMo

November is just around the corner and writers everywhere are making plans to participate in the unique program NaNoWrMo — short for National Novel Writing Month. The question is, should you join all those others?

First, a few specifics about the official program. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. The process is to register at the official NaNo site, then report back at the end of November and download your work to receive official recognition for “winning.” The stipulations include writing a brand new novel, not one you’ve already been working on.

What are the advantages of this program? Everyone I’ve asked who has participated says NaNo works as a form of motivation and accountability. There are forums where writers can ask questions or congregate with others writing in their genre. There are Pep Talk articles and word count badges or scoreboards. In other words, NaNo turns a solitary activity into a community event. Lots of people participate, I suspect, simply because they don’t want to be left out.

In addition, serious writers report they come away from NaNo with the skeleton of a story that they can flesh out in the days ahead. NaNo may not deliver a finished product (let’s face it, only middle grade novels clock in at 50,000 words), but it helps the writer push through until that difficult first draft is either finished or firmly in hand.

With those pluses, what then could be the disadvantage? I see several drawbacks. For seasoned writers, writing between a thousand and two thousand words a day ought not to be too demanding, but the pace doesn’t allow the new writer to collect himself when the story bogs down, to learn what might be the problem, and to discover how to get out of it.

In addition, new writers might be fooled into thinking that their “winning” manuscript is now ready for publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellow editing pal Jamie Chavez wrote a helpful blog post about how good writing takes time to learn. She concludes with this:

A great manuscript is a good first step. But it’s going to take time, grasshopper.

Should someone who has done little to no study of how to write fiction set out to write a novel? Apart from the possible harm of discouragement, I can’t see that it would damage someone’s writing. I don’t know that it will help either unless the writer gets feedback from knowledgeable writers — not from loving family members.

My own writing journey started with an idea and a couple chapters that I took to a writers’ conference. I got enough encouragement that I finished the story and went back to that conference. Again I received positive feedback which led to consideration of publication by a particular publishing house. That might have been the worst thing that happened to me. Though I ultimately received a rejection notice, I assumed from that point on for a number of years that my story was ready for publication because one person showed interest.

As I queried editors and agents and the “not for us” notices mounted, I concluded the problem was my genre (Christian fantasy). It was too hard a sell, I reasoned, because editors and agents weren’t being open-minded enough. After all, there was that one industry professional who liked it.

During this time I was doing some study, but honestly I dismissed much of the writing advice I was receiving because I thought it was too demanding — no one in his right mind could do all the things these writing instructors were suggesting. On top of that, I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Some times I thought I understood, and other times the specialized termonology passed me by. (When exactly did a scene end and where did a sequence fit in? What was a sequence?)

Even though I did revisions based on the few things I learned and understood, nothing changed dramatically in my writing until I joined a critique group and began to get feedback from knowledgeable people who gave me honest criticism.

The relevance of my story is this: essentially I used the NaNo method of writing, though I took longer than the thirty days to produce an entire manuscript. But when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing I’d created until I got help.

Beginning writers who do NaNo will be at a crossroads when they finish — will they take their baby, which they undoubtedly love, and let the evil eyes of critique partners or some profession freelance editor such as myself tear into it so that they learn how to write by having written badly, or will they try to show it to the world as the next president or beauty queen or star athlete, fully formed, ready to go?

If the latter, NaNo will be a bad experience. If the former, then it has possibilities.

I’ve said often, if I could begin my writing career over, I’d write short stories while I studied the craft and had critique partners give me feedback. For one thing, short stories allow for experimentation. I can write in first person in one story, for example, then switch to a close third person limited in the next story. The two offer me a chance to see which I like better, which fits me, what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. But writing a novel, I’m locked into the point of view I’ve chosen and might not learn until twenty thousand words in that it’s really hard to sustain.

But that’s me. Others may find that hammering out a novel in thirty days is exactly what they want to do. It will give them something from which to work, and it will validate them as writers because they will have finished what they set out to do, and they’ll be NaNo winners.

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Readers Are Not Tone Deaf

I don’t imagine that readers in general think about the tone of a piece of fiction or non-fiction, and yet clearly they are affected.

In one blog tour in which I participated, a number of reviewers said something similar: I didn’t like the book as much as I thought because the main character was so whiny. Translation in writing terms: I didn’t like the tone.

Simply put, readers are not tone deaf. Whether or not they can identify the tone of an article or story, they pick up on it and are enticed or repelled by it.

In the previous two articles in this series, “Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?” and “Tone That Works Against You”, we’ve established that the writer should determine in advance what tone is appropriate for the piece he is writing, that he should be consistent in his tone from start to finish, that some tones need to be avoided because they are off-putting, and that an authentic approach to content will create a winsome tone.

There are several additional aspects of tone to keep in mind. First, don’t be afraid to let your voice come through, particularly when you’re writing a personal piece such as a blog post. Brian Klems in his Writer’s Digest article “7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone,’ “ said, “[In your blog posts] you must sound like somebody. This is true with other forms of personal writing, as well. Resist the urge to come off as uncomplicated, reasonable or polite. If you’re expressing opinions, express them!”

I would suggest that in today’s confrontational society, adopting a polite tone might actually be the best way to “sound like somebody” because it will set you apart from the vast majority of people communicating on blogs or social media. The same is true in magazine articles and memoirs. While an author needs to sound authoritative, that does not mean he needs to be arrogant or intransigent when someone takes an opposing view.

In fiction, unless the author is writing in an omniscient voice, readers should “hear” the characters. Consequently, writers create tone in a less obvious way, which leads to the next point, applicable for all forms of writing.

Details help establish tone. Does a character look at a street down which he’s walking and see dirty stains on the sidewalk and a discarded bottle in the gutter, or does he see the flowers blooming in the planter and the brilliant blue sky?

Most scenes have both pluses and minuses. The details a writer chooses to emphasize helps create the tone.

Here’s an illustration — a community reporter writing about the scene after a game-winning touchdown.

Paragraph one.

    As the boys in blue jumped into the air, then raced for their star wide receiver cradling the football in the end zone, their coaches thrust their arms high. One by one the players sprinted to the sideline where their head coach greeted each, shaking their hands or giving them high fives.

Paragraph two.

    As the referee signaled touchdown, the gray-clad boys lowered their heads and shuffled toward the sideline, their hands on their hips. Their coach flung his clipboard to the ground and stalked toward the locker room.

The writer reporting on this game does not need to specify which team won and which lost. The details create the appropriate tone and reveal which is which.

In conclusion, readers may not be tone deaf, but they can’t “hear” what isn’t there. Writers would do well to give their audience something to “listen to” in their articles, stories, novels, or blog posts. A little tone goes a long way.

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