Monday, December 22, 2014

Hitting the Writing Wall

This post first ran here on March 9, 2009.

“You just can’t get there from here.”

How many times have you heard that direction-giving joke? But often that line describes a type of writer’s block. You’ve written up to a certain point. You know where you want to go up ahead. But what do you write in between? Personally, I have wasted hours, days, even weeks, trying to figure out what to write next, so I can get to that future scene I already have in my head.

But wait. Who says you have to write in a linear fashion? What if you write out of sequence? Aha! Now, you’ve given yourself permission to write the scene from your head and it flows wonderfully. Another Aha! Questions and solutions actually appear about how the character might have arrived here from there. You’re not stuck any more.

As a writing instructor once explained, to build a bridge, one first needs to erect a scaffold. It’s not a lot different in writing. You have several important scaffold scenes in your story or novel that have to take place (there will probably be more than one of each of these scenes in your book):

1. The Introductory Scene where the reader meets your main character.
2. A Meeting Scene, where the main character meets another character (maybe the love interest or maybe his nemesis) This is another form of Introductory Scene.
3. A Conflict Scene where two characters battle it out, whether physically, verbally, or in a match of wits. Or where the character battles himself.
4. A Realization Scene—the moment the character realizes something about herself that is a turning point. Or realizes her “enemy” is really her friend.
5. A Resolution Scene, where a problem is resolved (not necessarily the main one, but a problem nonetheless).
6. A Final Scene, which may or may not be your actual ending. An interesting exercise is to write a scene in which your main character(s) are old and looking back at what happened, what he/she/they learned, how they’ve changed, what they would've done differently, etc. That can give you an insight to “fill in the blanks.”

Another interesting exercise is to write a letter from your main character to yourself, as if this person has just learned you are writing a book about her, how she feels about that, any advice she might have for you, etc. This can be quite revealing. Sometimes you learn that you have a reluctant character, one who doesn’t want her story told. So you have to figure out how to win her over.

A recent article in The Writer magazine talked about writing out of order. The author made similar suggestions to the ones above, such as:

1. Write a scene in which the main character enters a new place.
2. Take a minor character you’ve introduced and write a scene where he/she appears later in the story.
3. Choose a character other than the main character—someone you’d like to know more about, and write a monologue in which she explores or explains herself.
4. Write a scene where your main character has a dream that advances the story.
5. Make a list of at least five crucial scenes that you think will be important for the story/novel (see “scaffold scenes above.)

Any one or all of these scenes may or may not appear in your final draft, but they will help you keep writing and develop ideas.

Have fun, write on and defeat that Writer’s Block! (Now, I just have to take my own advice.)

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, was published in 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Slang and the Art of Authentic Discourse (or “You’re in the groove, Jackson!”)

This post was first published here on August 17, 2012.

Whenever we open our mouths, we access a vast reservoire of linguistic reference material – words, phrases, and idiomatic expressions - that we’ve acquired in the course of our daily lives. Some of the most colorful idioms available to us are derived from the realm of slang, defined in the OED (rather amusingly) as The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character. Slang is the register of language invoked by fringe members of society (teenagers and street gangs, tramps and thieves, common soldiers/sailors, peons and low-lifes of every description) in order to mock, defy, devalue, or otherwise outmanoevre The Establishment. For this reason, slang never fails to pack a punch.

This precept holds true in fiction. When characters speak, they should communicate more than they say. I.e., their believability as characters is dependent on whether the writer can endow them with a mode of discourse which authenticates the individual’s fictional context.

If you’re writing a mainstream novel, set the real world in the present day, you won’t have to go looking for slang to enliven your character dialogue: the appropriate idiomatic expressions will come naturally to you. By contrast, in the realm of genre fiction (especially Science Fiction or Fantasy), you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Leaving aside specialist terminology associated with high-tech professions (like depth-psychology or astro-physics), real slang finds its way into popular usage in various ways:

a) as a source of creative invective;
b) as a metaphorical synonym for an existing verb or common noun; and
c) as a term of qualitative comparison.

The challenge for the SF/F writer is to simulate the above with reference to the world he/she has created.

One of the best examples of synthetic slang can be found in the British SF comedy series Red Dwarf. As a vehicle for creative invective, the characters regularly invoke the term smeghead as a synonym for asshole. Smeghead resonates alliteratively, metrically, and scatologically with the contemporary term shithead. By a further lateral extension, the term smeg can function as a verb (as in We are totally smegged). It also functions as a comparative: How smeggy is this?

The point being: if your point-of-view character is the first mate aboard a clapped-out space-freighter, he/she has got to talk like a graduate from the school of hard knocks. To invest this character with an artificial, but realistically idiomatic mode of expression, you need to explore the metaphorical possibilities based on what you know.

When it comes to terms of invective, let’s start with something like idiot. Pre-existent synonyms include bonehead, loser, and the fabulously-evocative Scots term numpty (numbnuts + dummy). Working at one remove, one option by analogy might be floozer (fool + loser). Another possibility might be gurk (geek + birk).

When it comes to tech-speak, let’s take the common noun gun. Real-world historical synonyms include heater, piece, and gat. Pre-existent SF synonyms include blaster and phaser. Ok, let’s call your world’s version of a personal sidearm a vaper (as in vaporiser) or a scorch (as in flame-thrower).

The bottom line here is that pseudo-slang is an integral aspect of SF/F world-building. If you can pull it off, you’re on the road to legitimate credibility as a writer. So exercise your imagination to descriptive effect!


Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Resist the Urge to Explain

This post was first published her on May 18, 2011.

When I began writing, my crit partners would often return my pages with passages labeled "R.U.E." Anyone who's undertaken writing has heard "Show, Don’t Tell"—probably more times than they've wanted. This isn't a hard and fast rule, because often telling is more efficient than showing, and done well, gets the point across. But too much telling, especially when it comes across as author intrusion, can put the brakes on the pace of your story, doing exactly the opposite of what the author intended.

For example,
"Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she'd pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard."  
The second sentence isn't needed; it's explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

The goal of any fiction writer is to get readers to care about the characters. We want there to be an emotional connection, so we often tell our readers exactly what the character is feeling. However, saying "Mary was depressed" doesn't pull the reader in as effectively as showing Mary's actions. Did she stay in bed until noon? Eat a box of chocolates? Not eat anything at all? How did being depressed affect Mary's actions? That's what you need to show.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let's say you're beginning to understand "show don't tell" and you do put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:
After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:
Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, and he'd cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary's depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?
Mary's feet felt like lead. She couldn't run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don't need both. What about: 
Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary's feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.
Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don't insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?
"I'm sorry," Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you're telling something the dialogue should be showing. They're propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn't strong enough to begin with. All that 'scaffolding' merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can't explain why.

Check your manuscript for 'emotion' words, especially if they're preceded by "was" or "felt." Are you describing your character's feelings? Don't tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don't need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don't patronize them by 'talking down' to them. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Central Question

This post was first published here on January 28, 2013.

Every plot hinges on a central question. Posing the question at the beginning of the tale and answering it at the end is sound story architecture. Does that task make your head spin? It shouldn’t. It’s as easy as choosing a story skeleton. Let’s explore a few examples.

1) The Romance skeleton poses the central question: Will they or won’t they end up together?

The answer had better be yes or a satisfying equivalent. The girl can find out guy A isn’t what she wanted after all because she found guy B, but this is not the genre for an I’m okay on my own ending. That story uses the Literary (or Women's Fiction) skeleton. Romance readers want passion and fulfillment and are very disappointed if they don’t get it.

2) The Mystery skeleton poses the central question: Who did it and will they catch him?

The answer is yes. The criminal may escape at the last moment to torment the detective another day, but the case that is the focus of the story is considered solved. Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all should be rerouted to the Thriller section.

3) The Thriller skeleton poses the central question: How will they, and by proxy we, survive the threat to an individual or society? 

For an up ending, the hero succeeds. If you want a down ending, the hero can fail and learn an ugly truth. Twists often provide an unexpected answer in this genre.

4) The Horror skeleton poses the central question: What brought the danger near and how will they escape it?

The answer can go either way as long as you reveal the reason why. Some horror stories ignore the why, but fans consider that a weak story. Fans want the main character to live to be frightened another day, even if every other character is knocked off by the tale's end.

5) The Science Fiction skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero find, change, or stop something in time?

Most fans prefer an up ending. They want to believe that we can overcome the challenges to our existence, especially if you plan a sequel.

6) The Fantasy skeleton poses the central question: Will the hero obtain or learn to use the power to defeat the evil that has disrupted his world in time?

The force is usually with the hero. The wicked witch gets her just due. Lord Voldemort is defeated. If you plan a sequel, the villain can live to fight the hero another day, but the story must show a resolution to a skirmish in the battle.

Once you've chosen a skeleton, the challenge is providing riveting obstacles between question and answer to keep the reader glued to the page. The reader knows from the outset that the hero will likely survive. Your mission is to make her question the outcome anyway. You do that by choosing believable obstacles.


Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

He Said, She Said, They Said

This post was first published here on November 13, 2012.

Good morning, dearies! Please excuse the T-shirt and leggings; I’m off to the local jogging track in just a bit to work on my hurdles. I discovered a snake in the rubbish bin and failed to stick the landing.

It’s easy to fall into biased (and colorful) language when one is startled by a scaly percussionist, but what about the written word? The CMOS has a lovely section that covers bias-free language; let’s take a peek, shall we?

First and foremost, the Manual emphasizes maintaining credibility. Getting bogged down in objectionable language or visual distractions should be avoided. Have you ever tried to work your way through a paragraph stuffed with he/she and they? It’s like trying to decipher a store return policy.


While there are many biases to be dealt with, the CMOS focuses on gender neutrality and offers several ways to avoid drawing the ire of readers. Most of these techniques draw on careful pronoun use or omission. A smart shopper knows where he can find the best bargains on coats becomes A smart shopper knows where to find the best bargains on coats.

That was a relatively simple example, but it may not work for every case. Another option is the use of relative pronouns such as who. For example: If your visitor is wearing mismatched socks, she may not have had enough coffee becomes Visitors who are wearing mismatched socks may not have had enough coffee.

One thing to bear in mind is the fact that you cannot please everybody. While you may end up inadvertently irritating someone, a reasonable reader will understand and be pleased by your carefully chosen words. Do your best, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Photo courtesy of Darrick Bartholomew 
Seeking escape from freezing temperatures and howling winds, the Style Maven has laid in an enormous supply of milk and cocoa, and is pondering the logistics of a hot chocolate bath. If she succeeds, the story will be posted on The Procraftinator.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Don't Marry Your Writing

This post was first published here on July 17, 2010.

Telling stories to a ghostwriter is like talking to a therapist or a bartender. When they get comfortable with me, my clients tell me all sorts of intimate stuff,often answering questions I never even asked. Then later they may have second thoughts, and wish they hadn’t.

Here’s a frustration with working with non-writers.  Writers know that writing exposes you and makes you vulnerable. The more real and truthful you are, the more vulnerable and exposed – and the more compelling to your readers.  But non-writers don’t know that. They get their manuscript back from the ghostwriter they hired to write their story, read their words and thoughts and feelings on paper, and get scared.  They want to hedge and soften, and turn specifics into generalities, so they will feel safer.

Of course, this will kill the writing.  Readers respond to gut-level stuff; that is what makes stories compelling and readable.  But it’s not just the readers who get shortchanged when the story is “softened.”  So does the storyteller.  By softening those rough patches, by hedging their truths and telling instead of showing their pains and joys, they have dramatically reduced one big benefit of writing – healing their emotional wounds.

From the ghostwriter’s perspective, this is so frustrating! It’s not my story; it’s theirs. If they don’t want to tell the truth, I can’t make them.  All I can do is offer my word tools, and hope they use them.

Many times I’ve been told “I didn’t say that” when I know they did – I have their recorded voices saying exactly that. I had one client who had a bit of a potty mouth, but she didn’t realize it. I didn’t include all of her swear words, but I inserted a few so it sounded like her. She was upset. “I would never use that f***ing word!” she said.

I once ghostwrote a memoir for a lovely man who had led a rich and varied life. He was a touring musician during Vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 30s. His circuit included places like Al Capone’s Chicago, and as you might guess, there were some juicy details in his stories. I loved listening to him, and could hardly wait to get those stories down on paper. But his wife was a very proper lady in her eighties, and she did not want any of those juicy details in his memoirs – they weren’t respectable and she didn’t want anyone knowing about them. They belonged to his youth, before he became a pillar of the community.

The musician himself didn’t actually care, since he was just doing the book at the request of his children. He shrugged and said, “Whatever my wife says.” So I had to take some of the best stories out of his memoir, and make it conform to what his wife deemed proper. It made the story much blander than it should have been. Boy, that was hard for me.

This happens to ghosts. I don’t always agree with everything my client wants to say, or doesn’t want to say. I may have to argue for artistic integrity. I’ll have to defend why I want to put those details in, or why I want to take them out. I’ll have to explain why the story about grandma and the plumber just doesn’t fit in a book about gardening. Even if it is funny.

But I must be aware that I might lose this argument. It is their book, not mine. This is one of the hardest challenges of ghostwriting – you must let go of your own ego. You can’t marry your writing. In fact you can’t even get engaged to it. At the most, you’re simply dating.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Buck Stops Here

This post was first published here on April 27, 2012.

At least we hope it stops here — because that’s the plan. So how do we get from hope to plan to book sales? Where’s the marketing goose that lays the golden eggs?

Last December, a very interesting piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal. After having her manuscript rejected by several publishers and more than 100 literary agents, first-time author Darcie Chan took matters into her own hands. At the time the article was written, she had sold over 400,000 books. When any unknown writer creates this kind of success, we need to sit up and take notice. What is she doing that we are not? Check out the article at the link below, and then tell us what you think. How could you adapt her marketing strategy to your book?

This is a very short post because I really want you to read this article. It could make a huge difference in the success of your books — as well as the size of your bank account.

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at DenverEditor.com.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...