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1. NaNoWriMo Prep

TypewriterAre you participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year? It starts this Saturday (November 1st) and is a mad dash to write 50,000 words of a novel in one short month! I participated for the first time last year and loved it. It’s true, I was a big snob about NaNoWriMo before I tried it, but now I’m a complete convert.

If you’re taking the plunge and trying NaNoWriMo this year, I have a few quick suggestions that I learned from my experience last year. Hopefully these will help you stay on track and reach your 50,000 word goal.

1) Make an Outline

Make a list of scenes you want to write for your novel. This doesn’t need to be fully formed outline. All you need is a list of events or moments that you think might be a part of the book. The fun thing about NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing so fast that everything you try counts toward your 50,000 word! Even if you cut it later, you can try it now and it’s productive. You can pick a scene to write each day and see where it takes you. If it doesn’t go anywhere, try another scene on your list. You’d be surprised to see how many scenes will snowball into whole sequences, chapters, and eventually full novels! An outline gives you a place to start each day, and a new scene to jump to if the one your working on isn’t going anywhere.

2) Create Scene Cards

After you make your outline, create scene cards for each of your scenes. These cards outline the major action and emotional change of the scene. This will help you to make sure you have a plan and direction when you write. This way you won’t sit down and stare at a blank page. When I re-read my novel after NaNoWriMo, one of the big things I learned was that scenes I had a plan for were worth keeping. Scenes I didn’t use a scene card for often got cut. Read more about scene cards and see examples here: Scene Cards Blog Post.

3) Don’t Edit

I know it seems counter intuitive to not edit. Part of writing is choosing the right phrase and sentence to communicate your ideas. But when the end goal is word count, editing is your worst enemy. NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas on the page and moving forward. It isn’t about writing a masterpiece in the first pass. That’s what revision is for. Who cares if you’ve added adverbs everywhere. Who cares if you spend half a page describing a character’s hair style. This draft is about creating the raw material that you can shape and mold later. It’s easier to revise a novel once you have that raw material to work with, rather than trying to come up with a brilliant and perfectly crafted page out of nothing. Yes, your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t going to be spun gold. That’s not the point. The point is to get material on the page that you can revise with.

nanowrimo-poster

4) Write the Fun Scenes First

We often think we have to write in linear order. We also think we have to finish scenes. I give you permission leave scenes half-finished and to write out of order! Write the scenes you’re most excited to write first. Those scenes are going to have the most energy and excitement behind them. They’re going to create inertia that gets you excited to get up and write again tomorrow. If a scene isn’t going well, don’t finish it. Leave yourself a big note that says: finish this scene later and move on. Don’t worry about it right now. There are going to big plot holes, sure, but you can fix them in revision. Focus on what is fun and keeps you excited to keep writing this project. That’s the trick to writing faster than you should. Have fun and forget all the rules you’ve made for yourself in the past. Create, enjoy, and fall in love with your story.

5) Write in the Morning

Not everyone is a morning writer. I understand that. But personally, I’ve have found that writing in the morning during NaNoWriMo keeps me motivated. It allows me to get through my 1600 words a day early on. This also means any additional words I write that day are a bonus and help get me closer to 50,000 words faster! If you get behind in NaNoWriMo it can be discouraging. So don’t wait. Write first thing and make it a habit. One of the great side effects of this exercise is the way it motivates you to work on your project every day.

Looking for more tips to help with National Novel Writing Month? Try these:


2 Comments on NaNoWriMo Prep, last added: 10/29/2014
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2. 9 Reasons Your Reader is Bored

cheese-classic-lDon’t give your reader an excuse to put your book down! Make sure your book looks more appetizing than a cheese sandwich by avoiding these nine pitfalls.

1) Leisurely Descriptive Passages

Ever read a book where the author spends multiple pages describing a house? Or maybe it’s a spaceship, or the way the light plays upon the windows of a city. Snooze fest!

Of course we need settings so the action doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but we no longer live in a time without photographs or television. Back in the day when we’d never seen an elephant before it was great to spend a whole page describing the lumbering and exotic animal. But you don’t have to describe everything in extensive detail anymore.

2) Leisurely Passages of Back Story and Flashback

One of the easiest ways to get your reader to tune out is with an extensive passage of back story. As authors we need to know all the back story, and we spend countless hours creating it. And because we’ve put in so much time creating the back story it’s tempting to want to share all of it with our readers. But that’s like forcing your reader to look through all 1000 photos from your vacation. They’re going to tune out pretty quickly.  Back stories can help us relate to characters, and many details are necessary, but keep them in shorter passages.

3) Scenes Where the Plot is Not Moving Forward

Plot is a shark, if it doesn’t move, it dies.

It’s tempting to include scenes that explore character, relationships, or mood, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they’re going to bore your reader. Do double duty with your scenes and interweave character development, mood, and themes into your plot-driven scenes.

4) Overstatement or Over Description

Imagine a nervous character who does too many actions to display his nervousness: puffing away on cigarettes, jiggling his legs, spilling his coffee, and twitching. Suddenly the character has turned into a caricature and not a real person. The over abundance of detail can annoy the reader and pull them out of scene. Once the reader is disengaged, you have to work extra hard to gain their attention again.

my-mr-man-book5) Neutral Information 

Sharing history that doesn’t have an impact on what’s happening in scene is the perfect way to distract your reader from the story. Yes, that fight is happening in the story, but hold on a sec while I tell you all about steam technology. This is particularly tricky for a novel that you’re doing research for. Be careful about how much you explain. All information should be on a need-to-know basis.

6) Telling the Story in Retrospect 

It can be hard to keep tension in a scene that’s told in retrospect. Because the event has already happened, the character isn’t in the moment anymore and is telling rather than showing. Consider re-writing the event in-scene to engage the reader.

7) Gratuitous Use of Disasters

One car wreck will grip a reader and put her on the edge of her seat. But gratuitous car wrecks, hurricanes, abuse, or explosive fights will desensitize your reader. Ever watch an action film with fight scene after fight scene, but it doesn’t really impact the story? It’s boring.

Disasters seem like prefect dramatic fodder, but are difficult to pull off. Disasters only create real tension if they’re truly interwoven into the story, characters, and situations. Otherwise they feel like a false tension used to deliberately manipulate the reader.

8) Resolving Problems Too Quickly

Did you spend a bunch of time setting up a problem only to remove the tension of that problem in the next scene? We’re told to torture our characters, but often we like to bail them out as fast as possible. Make your hero struggle and be uncomfortable. This is how he’ll grow. Show what he’s capable of and your reader will become more involved.

9) You’ve Created False Tension

Don’t deliberately crank up the plot at the end of your novel and create false tension. The plot’s tension needs to be there, in some form, all along. If you’re having trouble with the last act of your book it’s because you haven’t set up the conflict and tension correctly in the opening. Look back at the beginning, rather than forcing false tension at the end.

Interested in more topics like this one? Take a look at:


1 Comments on 9 Reasons Your Reader is Bored, last added: 10/13/2014
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3. Metaphorically Speaking

“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary

If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.


1 Comments on Metaphorically Speaking, last added: 10/2/2014
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4. Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.

Telling

Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion  in broad, telling strokes:

EXAMPLE:

Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.

What’s wrong with this passage?

While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.

Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs?  Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.

Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc. Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?

Showing and Telling

Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.

 EXAMPLE:

Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did. 

When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board.  In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.

Over Showing

Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.

EXAMPLE:

Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight? 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.

Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!

~~~~~~~

Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!

The post Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS.

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5. Call for Submissions: Glassworks

Glassworks, the literary magazine of Rowan University’s Master of Arts in Writing graduate program, invites writers to submit work to be considered for publication.

Glassworks publishes nonfiction, fiction, poetry, hybrid pieces, craft essays, new media, and art both digitally and in print. We are currently reading until December 15, 2014.


More information about the magazine, sample issues, and our submission manager can be found at our website.


Submissions link.

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6. 4 Types of Prologues

Satellite View Of StarsThere’s an ongoing debate about prologues. Do you need them? Are they superfluous? Do they set up the story, or should you cut ‘em and get to chapter one already?

Plenty of opinions exist, and many opinions have to do with taste. So, before we jump on the “prologues never contribute to the story” bandwagon, I think the first step is to identify what kind of prologue one is writing and the objective of that prologue. We need to know what we’re writing and why, before we let  the opinions of what’s “in vogue” influence our writing decisions.

Let’s take a look at four different kinds of prologues.

1) Future Protagonist

This prologue is written in the same voice and style as the main story and from the POV of the same protagonist. When done really well, this kind of prologue changes everything the reader thought. As the reader continues with the story, there’s a point when he will come to understand why the prologue was included. When this reason becomes clear, the reader’s perspective of the story undergoes some kind of change. The reader has an “Ah-ha!” moment. An example of this type of prologue can be found in Unleaving by Joan Paton Walsh.

2) Past Protagonist

Something happened to the protagonist in the past that the reader has to know. Batman’s back story is an example of this. You have to know that his parents were murdered to understand the story and his motivations. This type of prologue usually includes a strong emotional event that starts off the story. Examples of this type of prologue: Pixar’s Up, The Scorpio Races, Smoke and Bone, and Batman.

3) Different Point of View

This prologue is not told from the POV of the protagonist. In this case, the writer has to justify this switch; the relevance MUST be made clear and the pay off has to be worth the disruption of the narrative voice. A successful example of this would be Boy in the Burning House by Tim Wynne-Jones.

4) Background Prologue

This is the kind of prologue that gives prologues a bad wrap. This  prologue somehow explains setting and back story. But It can also be a “bit of a trudge.” The writer has to be careful to make sure that the information shared in a background prologue is relevant to the story. It’s not an excuse to share exposition, which is often found in science fiction and fantasy novels that start with trudging prologues. This information has to be truly necessary.

A spin-off of this type of prologue is the background montage, which in effect, is a back story prologue in a film. You see these in movies and television shows like: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit, Amile, Pushing Daises, and Maleficent. This technique is often more successful in film due to the short time frame. Where as, an author has more time and opportunity to share back story and exposition in a book. The film viewer tends to be more forgiving of a background montage than the reader is of a background prologue.

Looking for more resources on prologues? Try these:


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7. Call for Submissions: 2016 Writer's Market and 2016 Poet's Market

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: 2016 WRITER'S MARKET

Until 11:59 p.m. (Atlanta, Georgia time) on October 20, 2014, I'll be accepting pitches for articles in the 2016 Writer's Market. Sometime in the end of October, I'll start making assignments. If you're interested in pitching an article idea or three, read on.

What I Like
So, what do I prefer? The best way to figure that out is to read a recent edition or two of Writer's Market. (Order the 2015 Writer's Market here). Anyone familiar with the book will know that I'm looking for articles that will help freelancers find more success from a business perspective.

Previous articles have tackled queries, book proposals, taxes, record keeping, business management, and more. If you're an experienced source and can interview other sources, that is ideal. However, I'm unlikely to assign featured interviews with writers (as I tend to tackle those myself).

I'm also not interested in articles on the craft of writing. While I think those pieces are extremely valuable, they're just not a good fit for Writer's Market. If you're in doubt, go ahead and pitch it. Read the full guidelines to learn how.


CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: 2016 POET'S MARKET

 
Running until 11:59 p.m. (Atlanta, Georgia time) on October 15, 2014, I'll be accepting pitches for articles and original poems in the 2016 Poet's Market. Sometime in the end of October, I'll start making assignments. If you're interested in pitching an article idea or three-or submitting original poems, read on.

What I Like
As with Writer's Market, the best way to figure out why I like is to read a recent edition or two of Poet's Market. (Order the 2015 Poet's Market here). Anyone familiar with the book will know that I'm looking for articles that will help poets find more success, including articles on business, promotion, and the craft of poetry-which is one major difference between the two books.

Here's another major difference: I'm seeking previously unpublished poems! Yes, I want article pitches, but I also want poems. I will choose between 10 and 20 to publish.

So get together your article ideas, dust off your previously unpublished poems, and start submitting. But first, read the full guidelines to learn how.

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8. Kick it up a Notch: Top Tips on Writing a Page-Turning Novel

We all want to write an engaging, page-turning story. But that’s harder said than done, as is proven by the number of times I leave a movie complaining that it was one long bull crap moment. There are tips and tricks to successfully writing a can’t-put-it-down book. Eileen Goudge is here today to share some of them with us…

3024760675_c49e59b0d3_o

Courtesy: Sam Beckwith at CC

If you’ve watched the hit TV show “24”, you know that every day in the life of hero Jack Bauer is a really, really bad day. When he’s not hunting terrorists he’s saving a major city from total annihilation. Is any of it remotely believable? Hell no. But we watch anyway.  Why? Because the action moves at such a rapid clip, we don’t pause to reflect on the gaping plot holes until the credits are rolling.  (Seriously, a middle-aged guy singlehandedly taking out a dozen armed terrorists?)

It’s the same reason authors like Stephen King have legions of fans. King is a master of plot and pacing.  He knows that to create a novel that’s addictive you have to “kick it up a notch,” in the words of chef Emeril Lagasse. King’s current bestseller, Mr. Mercedes, had me at page one. It was off and running when I still had one foot on the ground climbing into the passenger seat. (It contains some Jack Bauer-like heroics, is all I can say without being a spoiler.) Is it the kind of stuff that would ever happen in real life? Doubtful. But who cares? We get enough real life in our own lives, and it’s usually pretty tame compared to a day in the life of Jack Bauer. Whether it’s a novel or filmed entertainment, fantasy or reality-based, we all want the same thing when reading a book:  to be swept away.

So how do you accomplish this when you’re writing a novel? How do you take a low-octane plot and kick it up at notch?

Don’t be afraid to be over the top. Your plot doesn’t have to be in the realm of the probable, just believable enough to keep readers from rolling their eyes in disbelief. The only rule is that it has to make sense in the context of the story so it doesn’t seem out of character.

When I first started out as a writer I made it a practice to keep up with what was selling by reading at least one book by each of the authors whose titles frequently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. If you want to understand the perennial popularity of a Danielle Steel, check out Palomino. The heroine is not only dumped by her cheating husband, an anchor on the local news channel, she then has the torment of watching him and his now-pregnant girlfriend/co-anchor on TV every day. And that’s just the first chapter. Before she’s paralyzed in an accident.

You may roll your eyes at this plot line, but in the hands of a skilled writer like Steel, it’ll have you turning the pages too fast to think, “Please. Like this would ever happen!”


In my first novel, Garden of Lies, which was a New York Times bestseller, my doctor heroine is faced with an unwanted pregnancy as a first-year intern. She agrees to end the pregnancy only if her doctor boyfriend will perform the abortion. She wants him to know it’s a big deal, not the minor procedure he seems to think it is. In ending a life they’re both scarred for life. And that’s just one of the subplots. The main plot is the classic tale of babies switched at birth with a twist: It’s the mother of one of the babies who consciously makes the switch.

Create high stakes. It’s one thing to have the protagonist lose his job or have the bank foreclose on his house. We read about this sort of thing every day in the news, so it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; we feel for the person crying on TV because they lost their house and wish him or her well. With fiction, we want the exact opposite: more pain and suffering. If the protagonist is thrown into hot water, we want that water to be scalding.

Take The Firm, for instance—the novel that launched the mega-bestselling John Grisham’s career. The protagonist, Mitch, not only suspects there’s something fishy going on at the law firm that’s just hired him, but he notices the mortality rate among junior partners is unusually high. Soon he’s on the hit list and being chased, not only by the crooks, but by the mob and FBI. Who cares if that’d likely never happen in real life and you wouldn’t survive to tell the tale if it did? It makes for a compulsively readable novel and was made into a film that was a box-office hit.

Make us care before you toss your hero into hot waterThere’s a reason you don’t see a dead body in the opening pages of my newest title, Bones and Roses (Book One of my Cypress Bay mystery series). I wanted readers to first get to know my amateur sleuth Tish—a recovering alcoholic who lost her mom at a young age—so when the corpse does turn up, they’d understand and appreciate the impact it has on her.


In opening scenes, suspense should come from the protagonist himself (or protagonists if it’s a multiple-viewpoint novel). Readers will want to know more about this character, so they’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. If the author fails to create reader sympathy for the protagonist before he or she is put in a tight spot or a tight spot becomes even tighter, the reader won’t care whether or not he or she finds a way out.

Take The Shining, by Stephen King. King foreshadows the horrors to come in an opening scene in which down-on-his-luck protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. You care what happens to Jack and his wife and son, and you suspect it’s not going to turn out all hunky-dory when he gets the job.

In short, if you haven’t developed reader sympathy for your protagonist, the sledgehammer blow on which the plot hinges won’t have as much impact.

Keep up the pace. Remember when you were a kid and your big brother would twist your arm behind your back until you cried “uncle”?  There’s no crying uncle in a taut, fast-paced novel. As you build toward the climax, it needs to be fast and furious with no letting up. In Michael Kortya’s masterful suspense novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, a wilderness guide is leading a group of at-risk youths—among them, a kid who witnessed a murder and is being hunted by killers. Throw in a former U.S. marshal who has her own reasons for finding the kid, a forest ranger with a tortured past, the hero’s plucky wife back at the ranch, and a couple of really scary psychopaths, and you have a potent blend that’ll get the reader’s pulse pounding like a triple shot of espresso.

You write romance? Same rule applies as with horror and suspense novels: keep those pages turning with memorable characters and a compelling plot. Will Scarlett find happiness with Rhett?  Will Bridget Jones get over herself and get with Mr. Darcy? These questions keep the plot bubbling and the protagonist stewing to perfect, delicious done-ness.


These are just a few of the basics. For more about how to write a page-turner, I recommend Writing the Blockbuster Novel, an excellent how-to written by my former literary agent and ex-husband, Albert Zuckerman. As someone who’s published a novel of his own and shaped countless others (including those of bestselling author Ken Follett), Al really knows his stuff.

Eileen authorNew York Times’ bestselling novelist Eileen Goudge wrote her first mystery, “Secret of the Mossy Cave,” at the age of eleven. She went on to pen the perennially popular GARDEN OF LIES—which was published in 22 languages around the world—and numerous other women’s fiction titles. BONES AND ROSES is the first book in her Cypress Bay Mysteries series. She lives in New York City with her husband, television film critic and entertainment reporter Sandy Kenyon. Online, you can find her at her website.

The post Kick it up a Notch: Top Tips on Writing a Page-Turning Novel appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS.

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9. Kick it up a Notch: Top Tips on Writing a Page-Turning Novel

We all want to write an engaging, page-turning story. But that’s harder said than done, as is proven by the number of times I leave a movie complaining that it was one long bull crap moment. There are tips and tricks to successfully writing a can’t-put-it-down book. Eileen Goudge is here today to share some of them with us…

3024760675_c49e59b0d3_o

Courtesy: Sam Beckwith at CC

If you’ve watched the hit TV show “24”, you know that every day in the life of hero Jack Bauer is a really, really bad day. When he’s not hunting terrorists he’s saving a major city from total annihilation. Is any of it remotely believable? Hell no. But we watch anyway.  Why? Because the action moves at such a rapid clip, we don’t pause to reflect on the gaping plot holes until the credits are rolling.  (Seriously, a middle-aged guy singlehandedly taking out a dozen armed terrorists?)

It’s the same reason authors like Stephen King have legions of fans. King is a master of plot and pacing.  He knows that to create a novel that’s addictive you have to “kick it up a notch,” in the words of chef Emeril Lagasse. King’s current bestseller, Mr. Mercedes, had me at page one. It was off and running when I still had one foot on the ground climbing into the passenger seat. (It contains some Jack Bauer-like heroics, is all I can say without being a spoiler.) Is it the kind of stuff that would ever happen in real life? Doubtful. But who cares? We get enough real life in our own lives, and it’s usually pretty tame compared to a day in the life of Jack Bauer. Whether it’s a novel or filmed entertainment, fantasy or reality-based, we all want the same thing when reading a book:  to be swept away.

So how do you accomplish this when you’re writing a novel? How do you take a low-octane plot and kick it up at notch?

Don’t be afraid to be over the top. Your plot doesn’t have to be in the realm of the probable, just believable enough to keep readers from rolling their eyes in disbelief. The only rule is that it has to make sense in the context of the story so it doesn’t seem out of character.

When I first started out as a writer I made it a practice to keep up with what was selling by reading at least one book by each of the authors whose titles frequently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. If you want to understand the perennial popularity of a Danielle Steel, check out Palomino. The heroine is not only dumped by her cheating husband, an anchor on the local news channel, she then has the torment of watching him and his now-pregnant girlfriend/co-anchor on TV every day. And that’s just the first chapter. Before she’s paralyzed in an accident.

You may roll your eyes at this plot line, but in the hands of a skilled writer like Steel, it’ll have you turning the pages too fast to think, “Please. Like this would ever happen!”


In my first novel, Garden of Lies, which was a New York Times bestseller, my doctor heroine is faced with an unwanted pregnancy as a first-year intern. She agrees to end the pregnancy only if her doctor boyfriend will perform the abortion. She wants him to know it’s a big deal, not the minor procedure he seems to think it is. In ending a life they’re both scarred for life. And that’s just one of the subplots. The main plot is the classic tale of babies switched at birth with a twist: It’s the mother of one of the babies who consciously makes the switch.

Create high stakes. It’s one thing to have the protagonist lose his job or have the bank foreclose on his house. We read about this sort of thing every day in the news, so it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; we feel for the person crying on TV because they lost their house and wish him or her well. With fiction, we want the exact opposite: more pain and suffering. If the protagonist is thrown into hot water, we want that water to be scalding.

Take The Firm, for instance—the novel that launched the mega-bestselling John Grisham’s career. The protagonist, Mitch, not only suspects there’s something fishy going on at the law firm that’s just hired him, but he notices the mortality rate among junior partners is unusually high. Soon he’s on the hit list and being chased, not only by the crooks, but by the mob and FBI. Who cares if that’d likely never happen in real life and you wouldn’t survive to tell the tale if it did? It makes for a compulsively readable novel and was made into a film that was a box-office hit.

Make us care before you toss your hero into hot waterThere’s a reason you don’t see a dead body in the opening pages of my newest title, Bones and Roses (Book One of my Cypress Bay mystery series). I wanted readers to first get to know my amateur sleuth Tish—a recovering alcoholic who lost her mom at a young age—so when the corpse does turn up, they’d understand and appreciate the impact it has on her.


In opening scenes, suspense should come from the protagonist himself (or protagonists if it’s a multiple-viewpoint novel). Readers will want to know more about this character, so they’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. If the author fails to create reader sympathy for the protagonist before he or she is put in a tight spot or a tight spot becomes even tighter, the reader won’t care whether or not he or she finds a way out.

Take The Shining, by Stephen King. King foreshadows the horrors to come in an opening scene in which down-on-his-luck protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. You care what happens to Jack and his wife and son, and you suspect it’s not going to turn out all hunky-dory when he gets the job.

In short, if you haven’t developed reader sympathy for your protagonist, the sledgehammer blow on which the plot hinges won’t have as much impact.

Keep up the pace. Remember when you were a kid and your big brother would twist your arm behind your back until you cried “uncle”?  There’s no crying uncle in a taut, fast-paced novel. As you build toward the climax, it needs to be fast and furious with no letting up. In Michael Kortya’s masterful suspense novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, a wilderness guide is leading a group of at-risk youths—among them, a kid who witnessed a murder and is being hunted by killers. Throw in a former U.S. marshal who has her own reasons for finding the kid, a forest ranger with a tortured past, the hero’s plucky wife back at the ranch, and a couple of really scary psychopaths, and you have a potent blend that’ll get the reader’s pulse pounding like a triple shot of espresso.

You write romance? Same rule applies as with horror and suspense novels: keep those pages turning with memorable characters and a compelling plot. Will Scarlett find happiness with Rhett?  Will Bridget Jones get over herself and get with Mr. Darcy? These questions keep the plot bubbling and the protagonist stewing to perfect, delicious done-ness.


These are just a few of the basics. For more about how to write a page-turner, I recommend Writing the Blockbuster Novel, an excellent how-to written by my former literary agent and ex-husband, Albert Zuckerman. As someone who’s published a novel of his own and shaped countless others (including those of bestselling author Ken Follett), Al really knows his stuff.

Eileen authorNew York Times’ bestselling novelist Eileen Goudge wrote her first mystery, “Secret of the Mossy Cave,” at the age of eleven. She went on to pen the perennially popular GARDEN OF LIES—which was published in 22 languages around the world—and numerous other women’s fiction titles. BONES AND ROSES is the first book in her Cypress Bay Mysteries series. She lives in New York City with her husband, television film critic and entertainment reporter Sandy Kenyon. Online, you can find her at her website.

The post Kick it up a Notch: Top Tips on Writing a Page-Turning Novel appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS.

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10. Call for Submissions on the Theme of Disobedience: Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry

Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry is now accepting submissions for our next issue, Volume VII, The Disobedient Issue. We are leaving the interpretation of the concept of disobedience open, but know that this issue was inspired by reading Poetics of Disobedience by Alice Notley and by necessary acts of civil disobedience everywhere. Please send only your best work, any length, any style.

Deadline for this issue: January 31, 2015

Expect a response within 1 - 3 months after close of submissions. If you have not heard from us after this time period please feel free to inquire.

The details:

- Please submit 1 to 5 poems, 1 craft essay, and/or 1 book review, using the online submission form.
- Please include a brief third-person bio in your cover letter.
- Simultaneous submissions are fine as long as we are notified promptly when work is accepted elsewhere, but please no multiple submissions. The only exceptions to this rule is if you are submitting both poems and an essay, or both an essay and a book review, or both poems and a book review.
- Previously published is also fine, as long as it was in print, not online, and as long as you as the author retain all copyright. Because we strive to be the first online publisher of your work, if it has appeared anywhere that is publicly accessible on the web (including on your blog) then it is considered previously published. Please feel free to contact us and we will provide clarification on a case-by-case basis.
- We acquire one-time, non-exclusive rights to publish your work, at which time all rights revert back to you as the author. If we should ever decide to create a print anthology and would like to include your work, we will contact you.
- If accepted for inclusion you may be asked to provide a brief contributor's statement exploring your view of disobedience in literature . (See past issues for examples of what me mean.)
- Please note that we are a non-paying market.
- No snail mail submissions. All submissions must come through our online submissions manager.
Upload your submission here.

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11. Call for Submissions: Mason's Road: A Literary & Arts Journal

Call for Submissions - Mason's Road: A Literary & Arts Journal

We are pleased to announce the opening of our next submissions period! We are now accepting your best Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Drama, and Craft Essays. The theme for Issue #10 is “Memory,” and we are looking for unique and arresting takes on this topic.

Our submissions period runs for three months: August 15 – November 15, 2014. There are two ways to submit to Mason’s Road. You can submit for free any time during our submissions period, and your work will be given thorough consideration for publication. Or, you can submit with a $10 fee, and your work will also be considered for our Mason’s Road Literary Prize, which includes publication and a $500 prize to the best entry we receive. Please visit our website for submission guidelines.

In our just-published issue, we feature work by prize-winning authors, including Jay Kidd, Nicola Waldron, and Stephanie Dickinson .We also have interviews on craft with poet Cynthia Atkins, screenwriter Tom Grey, and novelist Therese Anne Fowler. We are proud of the excellent array of work we selected from over 500 submissions, including the short story, “Formication,” by Patricia Canright Smith, winner of the Mason’s Road Literary Prize. Visit our website to check out all of the current issue’s works.

Sponsored by Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing, Mason’s Road is an online literary journal with a focus on the lifetime learning of the writing craft. It is run by the program’s graduate students, and its goal is to be both educational and inspiring. Anyone in the literary community is welcome to submit, comment on the current selections, and engage in a dialogue about our craft.

Thank you in advance for helping us spread the word among your creative writing students, faculty, and contacts!

The Mason’s Road Editorial Team


MEMORY
Marcel Proust once said, "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were." Such is the mystery and miracle of memory. Virginia Woolf believed that emotions cannot be fully developed in the moment, rather, only by remembering them in the past. Perhaps that is why, while we exist in the present, we have a tendency to live in the past, feeding on memory and experience to inform our future. Literature, especially, has all to do with memory. It is no coincidence that the majority of prose is written in the past tense as if being recalled from somewhere, and we even have a whole genre of nonfiction dedicated to memoir--a word derived from the French and Latin words for memory. Poetry is very often reflective, and even futuristic drama has an organic way of telling a story of the past. Why are we so tied to memory, and perhaps more curiously, why do we feel compelled to share memories with others? Mark Twain said, "A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory." The implication is that alongside our memories of happiness and joy, there must surely be memories of sadness and regret. What value does this add to the human experience? How can literature help us to answer these questions? The editors of Mason's Road look forward to reading the creative ways in which our contributors delve into the eerie abyss of Memory. As Aldous Huxley puts it, "Every man's memory is his private literature." We are excited for this opportunity to read so many chapters of so many different stories.

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12. Five Things I Learned From Doing NaNoWriMo

It’s been nine months since I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in under a month. It’s one thing to bask in the manic euphoria of pounding out 50,000 words like an intense sprint around a track. But it’s completely different thing to step back and look at what you’ve written and see if it’s worth anything. Yes, I braved reading my NaNoWriMo draft, and I’ve even begun to draft revisions. But what I’ve discovered in the post-NaNo-creation glow is pretty surprising…

First draft button

1) My First Draft Isn’t Shitty

First off, I’m not a fan of the term shitty first drafts. Yes, it was created to help us deal with our need for perfection in the first draft, but I also think it creates a cycle of negativity. The idea of telling ourselves our drafts are shitty, only reinforces the negative feelings we already fear about our work. Sure, a first draft may not be publishable, but honestly, I never think they’re shitty. However, if there was any instance where my theories on shitty first drafts would be overturned it would be NaNoWriMo … after all, I pumped out this draft in 2 ½ weeks. Only…

My NaNoWriMo Draft isn’t shitty!

Sure, it’s not polished gold, but there are so many important discoveries in it, explorations that led to new plot points, beautiful lines, sassy sections of dialogue, and even entire scenes that are good. Not scenes that are okay… but good!

My point is: we should trust our first drafts more. Trust the joy and the positive energy that can come from freeing yourself up and writing quickly. Trust the fact that you do know what you’re doing and your writing is better than you think it is!

female-empowerment2) Revisions are Empowering

Okay, so my first draft isn’t complete crap, but there’s still plenty of work to do. The second great discovery about writing a quick first draft is that when you approach revisions you immediately know what to do to make the book better. Revisions don’t become nail-biting, hair-pulling, exercises in frustration. Instead, revision become empowering!

For me, it can be the despair, the sense that I don’t know what to do, that makes writing so hard. But revising this novel has been invigorating and fun. There’s power and purpose in sitting down with raw material and knowing exactly what to do to shape it. It helps me to see how much I already know about crafting good stories, and that I’m able to do it with intention.  

old chronometer3) It Doesn’t Take as Long as I Think to Write a Novel

Looking back at my NaNoWriMo time sheets, I’ve discovered that I spent an average of 1½ hours writing per day. Yes, there were a few days where I put in 3 to 4 hours in a sitting. But mostly it was 1 ½ hours a day. As I’ve moved on to revision, I’ve also put in an average of 1 1/2 hours per day. By keeping a time sheet I’ve started to see how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time. In fact, I haven’t even put in a full month’s worth of work into this novel yet!

One of our big struggles with writing is finding the time to get it done. But I’ve been floored to discover how much I can accomplish with only 1 ½ hours a day! I bet most of you could find 1 or 2 hours in your day to write.

no_plan_road_sign4) Scenes That Went Nowhere…

Not every section of my NaNoWriMo draft works. But, I discoverd a pattern to the pages that fell flat or went nowhere. These scenes were searching for direction, and without it they floundered.

In my pre-planning stages I outlined and created scene-cards for the scenes I knew existed. I did, however, leave a few blank. I made the excuse that I’d figure it out later, while writing. It turns out that every scene I promised to figure out later on, didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’d know the general action of a scene, but the things that really killed my momentum were not knowing what my character wanted in the scene, or what his or her emotional change would be. All the scenes with a clear character goal and emotional change came alive on the page. Perhaps this is the through line I needed to guide me while writing really fast.

blinders5) Everything You Think You Know is Wrong! Or… Don’t Put On Writing Blinders.

I was certain that NaNoWriMo was going to be a huge failure. I had some snobby ideas about how a novel should be written. I was certain those participating in NaNoWriMo were wasting their time. But boy was I wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

I don’t think I will write every novel in my future this way. But I do think it will be a great way to write some of them. But man, if I’d stayed in my stuffy singular way of looking at things, I would have never discovered this amazing tool and these important lessons.

So get out there and try new things with your writing. Try things you’re certain will not work. Allow yourself to fail. We never know what will work until we put it into practice and give it a whirl.

What Did You Learn from NaNoWriMo?

Did anyone else participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you re-read your work? Started revisions? What discoveries have you made?


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13. Five Things I Learned From Doing NaNoWriMo

It’s been nine months since I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in under a month. It’s one thing to bask in the manic euphoria of pounding out 50,000 words like an intense sprint around a track. But it’s completely different thing to step back and look at what you’ve written and see if it’s worth anything. Yes, I braved reading my NaNoWriMo draft, and I’ve even begun to draft revisions. But what I’ve discovered in the post-NaNo-creation glow is pretty surprising…

First draft button

1) My First Draft Isn’t Shitty

First off, I’m not a fan of the term shitty first drafts. Yes, it was created to help us deal with our need for perfection in the first draft, but I also think it creates a cycle of negativity. The idea of telling ourselves our drafts are shitty, only reinforces the negative feelings we already fear about our work. Sure, a first draft may not be publishable, but honestly, I never think they’re shitty. However, if there was any instance where my theories on shitty first drafts would be overturned it would be NaNoWriMo … after all, I pumped out this draft in 2 ½ weeks. Only…

My NaNoWriMo Draft isn’t shitty!

Sure, it’s not polished gold, but there are so many important discoveries in it, explorations that led to new plot points, beautiful lines, sassy sections of dialogue, and even entire scenes that are good. Not scenes that are okay… but good!

My point is: we should trust our first drafts more. Trust the joy and the positive energy that can come from freeing yourself up and writing quickly. Trust the fact that you do know what you’re doing and your writing is better than you think it is!

female-empowerment2) Revisions are Empowering

Okay, so my first draft isn’t complete crap, but there’s still plenty of work to do. The second great discovery about writing a quick first draft is that when you approach revisions you immediately know what to do to make the book better. Revisions don’t become nail-biting, hair-pulling, exercises in frustration. Instead, revision become empowering!

For me, it can be the despair, the sense that I don’t know what to do, that makes writing so hard. But revising this novel has been invigorating and fun. There’s power and purpose in sitting down with raw material and knowing exactly what to do to shape it. It helps me to see how much I already know about crafting good stories, and that I’m able to do it with intention.  

old chronometer3) It Doesn’t Take as Long as I Think to Write a Novel

Looking back at my NaNoWriMo time sheets, I’ve discovered that I spent an average of 1½ hours writing per day. Yes, there were a few days where I put in 3 to 4 hours in a sitting. But mostly it was 1 ½ hours a day. As I’ve moved on to revision, I’ve also put in an average of 1 1/2 hours per day. By keeping a time sheet I’ve started to see how much I can accomplish in a short amount of time. In fact, I haven’t even put in a full month’s worth of work into this novel yet!

One of our big struggles with writing is finding the time to get it done. But I’ve been floored to discover how much I can accomplish with only 1 ½ hours a day! I bet most of you could find 1 or 2 hours in your day to write.

no_plan_road_sign4) Scenes That Went Nowhere…

Not every section of my NaNoWriMo draft works. But, I discoverd a pattern to the pages that fell flat or went nowhere. These scenes were searching for direction, and without it they floundered.

In my pre-planning stages I outlined and created scene-cards for the scenes I knew existed. I did, however, leave a few blank. I made the excuse that I’d figure it out later, while writing. It turns out that every scene I promised to figure out later on, didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’d know the general action of a scene, but the things that really killed my momentum were not knowing what my character wanted in the scene, or what his or her emotional change would be. All the scenes with a clear character goal and emotional change came alive on the page. Perhaps this is the through line I needed to guide me while writing really fast.

blinders5) Everything You Think You Know is Wrong! Or… Don’t Put On Writing Blinders.

I was certain that NaNoWriMo was going to be a huge failure. I had some snobby ideas about how a novel should be written. I was certain those participating in NaNoWriMo were wasting their time. But boy was I wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

I don’t think I will write every novel in my future this way. But I do think it will be a great way to write some of them. But man, if I’d stayed in my stuffy singular way of looking at things, I would have never discovered this amazing tool and these important lessons.

So get out there and try new things with your writing. Try things you’re certain will not work. Allow yourself to fail. We never know what will work until we put it into practice and give it a whirl.

What Did You Learn from NaNoWriMo?

Did anyone else participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you re-read your work? Started revisions? What discoveries have you made?


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14. 5 Important Ways to Use Symbolism in Your Story

So many elements go into a truly good book. When we turn that final page with a satisfying sigh, it’s often hard to identify just what made it a success. But many times, symbolism is one of the things that ties the whole work together. Done sloppily, it’s heavy-handed and forced, and turns the reader off. And when it’s done well, symbolism is one of those elements that the reader doesn’t notice; they just recognize that everything worked. It’s an important element, but really hard to do well. That’s why I’m glad to have K.M. Weiland here today. Symbolism is just one element that she tightens the focus on in her latest release: Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classics. I had the pleasure of reading this arc, and it was so incredibly interesting, seeing a classic analyzed to see what made it a success. It frankly would have scared the poo out of me, being the one to pick apart such an iconic, well-known novel, but Katie totally nailed it. So rather than blather on, I’ll just turn things over to the expert ;).

Symbolism can sometimes be a tough concept for authors to get their heads around. How do we come up with the right symbols in the first place? What should they be symbolic of? And how do we incorporate them into our stories without making them so obvious we lose all their symbolic value?

Symbolism offers one of the richest opportunities for writers to deepen their themes, past just the conscious appreciation of the readers and right into their emotional and subconscious cores. That’s a lot of power right there. And we’d be crazy to leave it on the table.

V8374c_JaneEyre.inddCharlotte Brontë’s classic masterpiece Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic) is a wealth of symbolism. You want to know how to do it right? All you have to do is learn at Brontë’s feet. Following are five methods of symbolism she used to enhance every aspect of her story—and which you can use too!

Symbolism Type #1: Small Details

You can include symbolism in even the smallest of your story’s details. The colors your characters wear. The movies they watch. The pictures they use to decorate their apartments. All of these details offer the opportunity for symbolic resonance.

In the first chapter of Brontë’s story, Jane Eyre is reading a book called Bewick’s History of British Birds, which features significantly bleak and desolate descriptions of the English landscape. On the surface, these descriptions have no connection to Jane’s world—except that, of course, they do. Brontë could just as easily have given Jane a cheery romance to read. Instead, she used the bleak descriptions to symbolize Jane’s bleak life as an orphan living with her cruel aunt.

Symbolism Type #2: Motifs

A motif is a repeated design. In a story, a motif is an element repeated throughout the narrative, often to obvious effect. Sometimes, however, it will be used in a less conspicuous way that infiltrates the readers’ subconscious with a web of symbolic cohesion.

The concept of orphanhood is prominent throughout Jane Eyre, most notably in the main character’s own status as a loveless orphan. Indeed, the concept of love and what people have to do to earn it is central to the entire story. Brontë reinforces the obvious aspects of this motif time and again throughout the story. Consider just a few examples:

  • Early on, a servant sings a song about an orphan girl.
  • Adele, the child Jane is hired to look after, is ostensibly an orphan.
  • When Jane encounters the Rivers family, late in the story, she discovers they are newly orphaned themselves, after the death of their father.

Brontë never draws attention to the motif by directly comparing these examples to Jane’s own orphaned state. Rather, she simply allows their presence in the story to reinforce the overall effect.

Symbolism Type #3: Metaphors

Motifs can also be metaphors. Indeed, some of the best symbols in literature are visual metaphors for thematic elements. You may choose to use fire to represent a character with a hot temper. Running water may become a symbol for purification. Illness might represent sin or corruption.

The main metaphoric motif in Jane Eyre is that of birds as symbols for captivity and freedom. Brontë uses the bird metaphor throughout the story to symbolize the relativity of every character and setting in relation to this fundamental theme. Small, plain birds such as sparrows represent Jane. Birds of prey refer to Rochester. And Thornfield—Rochester’s prison and Jane’s sanctuary—is frequently described in terms of a bird’s cage.

Often, strong metaphoric language will emerge naturally while writing a story. In the rewriting, see if you can identify any recurring motifs that crop up. Can you strengthen them to better represent your theme? Try to figure out ways to use different aspects of the same motif to describe varying characters.

Symbolism Type #4: Universal Symbols

Some symbols are ingrained so deeply in our social psyche that they are used in practically every story. The power of these symbols lies in the fact that they will already have been accepted deep into your readers’ subconscious minds. (Their potential weakness, of course, is that their very prevalence can make them seem like clichés.)

Weather is a particularly good example. Thunderstorms are often used as the background for a character’s defeat—or as a contrast to a seeming victory. When Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal, the lightning that strikes a tree in the garden isn’t just a random happening. It’s a portent of the dark revelations that will soon sunder their love.

Symbolism Type #5: Hidden Symbolism

Some types of symbolism will be so deeply buried within your story that your readers may not recognize them at all. Obviously, the value of hidden symbolism is significantly less than that of other types. After all, what good is something if the reader never notices it?

For example, Rochester’s horse is named Mesrour. Very few readers will catch the significance of this: Mesrour is the name of the executioner in Arabian Nights.

Why name the horse this at all? Why not Blackie? Or even O Beauteous One? For starters, both of the latter names would have been a poor use of our Symbolism Type #1. “Mesrour,” even without explanation, enhances the already dark and mysterious tone of the novel. And for those readers who do catch the obscure reference, the symbolism will only be that much stronger.

Symbolism is a delicate dance. But authors can’t afford to overlook it. When choreographed correctly, it can spell the difference between a three-star novel and a five-star novel. Just ask Jane!

K.M. WeilandK.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

The post 5 Important Ways to Use Symbolism in Your Story appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS.

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15. Transitions in Time

The landscape of time can be a ticklish beast, particularly when writing. We live our lives in a linear fashion, always moving forward, never backwards or sideways. Our characters often live their lives linearly as well. In fact, books themselves must be read in a front to back fashion where chapter one leads to chapter two and so on. Yet time – or story time – is more malleable in a novel than it is in real life. Engaging a reader in the whole history of a world and character requires flashbacks, summarization of memories, and whole scenes that make us time travelers. Or as my favorite time traveler Doctor Who would say:

As authors, the question is how do we deal with all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff without disorienting our reader? Jumping around in time is a luxury we can explore, but walking blindly into a flashback, without any cues to the reader, will break the fictive dream and draw attention to itself. It will commit the cardinal sin of writing, which is to remind the reader that they are reading.

One of the best ways to transition a reader in time is through the careful crafting of language. Words are our tools and used craftily, that can lull a reader through an invisible portal from one time space to another.

Let’s look at four techniques to help a reader flawlessly transition through story time.

mango1) Word Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of sounds, syllables, objects, and words. In the excerpt from The House on Mango Street below, the repetition of the words know and because are used as a portal from one time period to the next. The words move us from the present day story space to a new location in Mexico, and then back again.

“I have never seen my Papa cry and I don’t know what to do. I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico, all the uncles and aunts will be there, and they will have a black-and-white photo take in front of the tomb … because this is how they send the dead away in that country. Because I am the oldest, my father has told me first and now it is my turn to tell the others.”

2) Sentence and Phrase Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of phrases, images, and sentence structure.

In this second example from The House on Mango Street, the repetition of a sentence structure creates a rhythm and punctuation to the paragraph. It is the repeating words along with the repeating rhythm that transitions the reader from impression to impression.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings … songs like sobbing. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine.” (The House on Mango Street)

humanbraincloud_shot13) Word Association

Remember being a kid and playing the word association game? The mind likes to make connections through visual images evoked by single words. You can also use this technique to create transitions in time and space.

The word association game begins with hair in the example below. It then riffs off of imagery to transition from hair to bread, thus moving the reader into a memory.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you… is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell  when she makes room for you on her side of the bed … the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”  (The House on Mango Street)

wordUp-44) Question and Answer

You can also use a question to transition the reader from one time to the next. The question creates curiosity in the reader’s mind and the answer works as a transition into the new time space.

“No address. No Name. Nothing in his pockets. Ain’t it a shame. Only Marin can’t explain why it mattered … but what difference does it make? He wasn’t anything to her. He wasn’t her boyfriend … Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback … How does she explain it?  She met him at a dance. Geraldo in his shiny shirt and green pants…” (The House on Mango Street)

There are a lot ways to transition between time and space in a story. In later posts we can discuss things like: cause and effect, causality link-chains, or pause button violations. For now, focus on the magic of phrasing and how your words can makes a transition seem inevitable, natural, and invisible.

See these time transition techniques (and more) in practice by reading and studying these awesome stories:

  • How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien
  • The House on Mango Street by Sanda Cicneros
  • Small Damages by Beth Kephart

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16. Transitions in Time

The landscape of time can be a ticklish beast, particularly when writing. We live our lives in a linear fashion, always moving forward, never backwards or sideways. Our characters often live their lives linearly as well. In fact, books themselves must be read in a front to back fashion where chapter one leads to chapter two and so on. Yet time – or story time – is more malleable in a novel than it is in real life. Engaging a reader in the whole history of a world and character requires flashbacks, summarization of memories, and whole scenes that make us time travelers. Or as my favorite time traveler Doctor Who would say:

As authors, the question is how do we deal with all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff without disorienting our reader? Jumping around in time is a luxury we can explore, but walking blindly into a flashback, without any cues to the reader, will break the fictive dream and draw attention to itself. It will commit the cardinal sin of writing, which is to remind the reader that they are reading.

One of the best ways to transition a reader in time is through the careful crafting of language. Words are our tools and used craftily, that can lull a reader through an invisible portal from one time space to another.

Let’s look at four techniques to help a reader flawlessly transition through story time.

mango1) Word Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of sounds, syllables, objects, and words. In the excerpt from The House on Mango Street below, the repetition of the words know and because are used as a portal from one time period to the next. The words move us from the present day story space to a new location in Mexico, and then back again.

“I have never seen my Papa cry and I don’t know what to do. I know he will have to go away, that he will take a plane to Mexico, all the uncles and aunts will be there, and they will have a black-and-white photo take in front of the tomb … because this is how they send the dead away in that country. Because I am the oldest, my father has told me first and now it is my turn to tell the others.”

2) Sentence and Phrase Repetition

Create transitions through the repetition of phrases, images, and sentence structure.

In this second example from The House on Mango Street, the repetition of a sentence structure creates a rhythm and punctuation to the paragraph. It is the repeating words along with the repeating rhythm that transitions the reader from impression to impression.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings … songs like sobbing. It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine.” (The House on Mango Street)

humanbraincloud_shot13) Word Association

Remember being a kid and playing the word association game? The mind likes to make connections through visual images evoked by single words. You can also use this technique to create transitions in time and space.

The word association game begins with hair in the example below. It then riffs off of imagery to transition from hair to bread, thus moving the reader into a memory.

“But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you… is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell  when she makes room for you on her side of the bed … the rain outside falling and Papa snoring.”  (The House on Mango Street)

wordUp-44) Question and Answer

You can also use a question to transition the reader from one time to the next. The question creates curiosity in the reader’s mind and the answer works as a transition into the new time space.

“No address. No Name. Nothing in his pockets. Ain’t it a shame. Only Marin can’t explain why it mattered … but what difference does it make? He wasn’t anything to her. He wasn’t her boyfriend … Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback … How does she explain it?  She met him at a dance. Geraldo in his shiny shirt and green pants…” (The House on Mango Street)

There are a lot ways to transition between time and space in a story. In later posts we can discuss things like: cause and effect, causality link-chains, or pause button violations. For now, focus on the magic of phrasing and how your words can makes a transition seem inevitable, natural, and invisible.

See these time transition techniques (and more) in practice by reading and studying these awesome stories:

  • How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien
  • The House on Mango Street by Sanda Cicneros
  • Small Damages by Beth Kephart

3 Comments on Transitions in Time, last added: 7/28/2014
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17. 4 Tips for Writing Great Scenes

We all want to write scenes that grip our readers and keep them glued to the page! Easier said than done, right? Well, here are four tips that I try to keep in mind every time I sit down to craft a scene. They aren’t 100% fool-proof, but they often help me find that extra oomph to make my scene’s sing.

ptsd-soldier-crying1)  Make Sure Your Scene Has Dramatic Action.

The number one reason a scene falls flat is because it doesn’t have any dramatic action. Dramatic action is the action the protagonist takes to resolve the problem he has suddenly been faced with.

In STORY, Robert Mckee talks about dramatic action as “story events” and defines them as an event that creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character and is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”

Well plotted stories are built on stringing together the scenes that have dramatic action. These are the important moments within the character’s life that move the plot forward. For example, we seldom see a character go to the bathroom or sleep, because there’s no dramatic action in these moments. Instead, we pick the scenes that are the most exciting and meaningful for the reader to read.

smiley face images2)  Is There a Significant Emotional Change in the Scene?

A great way to tell if your scenes have dramatic action is to check and see if there’s a significant emotional change. If the character starts the scene happy and leaves it happy, nothing has happened. But if a character starts happy and leaves sad, then something has happened in the scene to change their life situation and make them sad.

You can track the emotion of your scene by drawing emotion faces (happy faces, frowning faces) at the opening and closing of your scenes. The emotion should reflect the emotion your character carries into the scene, and the emotion the character carries out of it in when it’s over. If the emotion-face is the same, for example both are grumpy faces, then you don’t have any dramatic action in the scene. This indicates that the scene may need to be cut or revised.

expectations-a-poem-by-pooky3)  Set Up Reader Expectations

Setting up expectations helps the reader to feel the emotional change in a scene. If we know what a character wants and expects as she enters a situation, the reader becomes more invested. They want to see if the character succeeds or fails. You won’t have any reversals and surprises if you haven’t set up any expectations for the reader.

It’s much more exciting to watch a scene where a character scales a cliff if we know he’s afraid of heights, or we know his family is trapped at the top, or we know he thinks he can’t do it. It’s rewarding to see the character defy his fear. It adds tension if we know each misstep means he’s one step further away from saving his family from that fire-breathing dragon above (of course … you’ve got to set that up that dragon!).

Protecting4)  Stop Protecting Your Characters

Even though we’re told to “torture our characters” it’s really common for us to protect them instead. Have you ever written as scene and decided to:

  • Have an important conversation interrupted by another character/event.
  • Had a character freeze up and avoid talking about their feelings in internal monologue.
  • Had your character avoid asking an important question? Or had another character avoid answering it?
  • Hinted to something, not once, but over and over and over again, and never unveiling the truth until late in the book.
  • Bailed your character out of a situation before it reeeeeeally got tough?
  • Avoided writing a scene because you the author felt uncomfortable?

All of that, is protecting your character (or in the example of the last one, yourself). The most common culprit is interruption. What’s happening is we start a scene, but the second it gets to the tough questions or uncomfortable conflicts, we bail our characters out of the scene and ask our readers to wait.

Sometimes we think we’re creating mystery and tension by drawing out the answers to questions, or avoiding the main conflicts. In real life we absolutely avoid questions and conflicts. But in drama … well, we want the drama!

Don’t cut off the scene before it gets going. Don’t avoid the dramatic action!

Stop protecting your character by allowing her to wander, avoid, and be bailed out of situations. Lock your characters in a room and make them deal with their conflicts! Be brave and get to the guts of the scene.

Happy scene-writing everyone!


4 Comments on 4 Tips for Writing Great Scenes, last added: 7/2/2014
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18. Immersion: The Writing Process

We each have our own writing processes, and every book demands to be written differently. While participating in the #writingprocess blog tour last month, I talked about how my current WIP has been a difficult project to wrap my brain around. I said:

“This book demands immersion. She demands focus for hours at a time. And I’m not talking half-assed freewriting or NaNoWriMo first draft word-puke. This novel wants my blood. I do the best I can to keep myself immersed in this novel as much as I can, because she likes to hole up and shut me out for weeks if I’m not diligent.”

I haven’t been diligent. I’ve allowed this project to hide in the back of my mind. I’ve been avoiding it.

So after failing to immerse myself in this novel, I’ve decided to dive in 100% and go for it. There’s no time like the present. I just dropped my fiance off at the airport and he won’t be back for five days. Which means I have five days without distractions. It also means I can turn my writing studio (which happens to be in our living room) into a shrine to this project.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Say hello to my workspace this week:

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Yup, I’ve covered the walls with all of the brainstorming I’ve done on this project: character sheets, outlines, mind-webs, questions I need to answer and more.

Workspace

I’ve been working through John Truby’s 22 Steps of Story Structure:

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I’ve collected setting and location images:

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I’ve created character sheets with photos and lists of controlling beliefs, external goals, fears, moral needs, self revelations, and distinguishable traits.

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As much as I’ve been avoiding this project … I can’t anymore. Not if I have to look at this every morning!

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Lets hope this keeps me motivated!

I wish you all happy writing this week and the next. And if you have images of your work spaces, I’d love to see them!


8 Comments on Immersion: The Writing Process, last added: 6/20/2014
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19. Call for Submissions: Mason's Road: A Literary and Arts Journal

Mason’s Road: A Literary and Arts Journal is currently accepting submissions for our ninth issue. The theme for Issue #9 is “Truth,” and we are looking for unique and arresting takes on this topic.

All submissions will be given thorough consideration for publication. However, your work will also be considered for our Mason’s Road Literary Prize, which includes publication and a $500 award. For this issue, the award will go to the best entry we receive, as judged by Bill Roorbach, the award-winning author of Life Among Giants.

Our submissions period runs for three months: February 15 – May 15, 2014. Please look here for submission guidelines.

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20. Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Out Loud

Dystropian Task ForceHave you been reading the Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Cooper’s blog? If not, you should!

I participated in the series back in January with my thoughts on breaking the rules of character development, but my fellow VCFA dystropian classmates (who are fast selling books, getting agents, and taking the writing world by storm) have posted a ton of amazing articles for you to devour. The posts include life lessons on writing, hard truths, and of course a picture of a cute dog!

How could you resist?

Check out the awesomeness:

Journal Writing and Craft  by Melanie Fishbane

Writing Truth and Authenticity Amidst the Noise by Jessica Denhart

Writing Lessons Learned from My In-laws by Jeff Schill

What Travel Writing Taught Me About Fiction by Steve Bramucci

A Cute Picture of My Dog … And Words About my Writing Life by Rachel Lieberman

The Top 10 Uses for an Action Scene by Sheryl Scarborough

Breaking the Rules of Character Development by Ingrid Sundberg


3 Comments on Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Out Loud, last added: 4/15/2014
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21. Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Out Loud

Dystropian Task ForceHave you been reading the Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Cooper’s blog? If not, you should!

I participated in the series back in January with my thoughts on breaking the rules of character development, but my fellow VCFA dystropian classmates (who are fast selling books, getting agents, and taking the writing world by storm) have posted a ton of amazing articles for you to devour. The posts include life lessons on writing, hard truths, and of course a picture of a cute dog!

How could you resist?

Check out the awesomeness:

Journal Writing and Craft  by Melanie Fishbane

Writing Truth and Authenticity Amidst the Noise by Jessica Denhart

Writing Lessons Learned from My In-laws by Jeff Schill

What Travel Writing Taught Me About Fiction by Steve Bramucci

A Cute Picture of My Dog … And Words About my Writing Life by Rachel Lieberman

The Top 10 Uses for an Action Scene by Sheryl Scarborough

Breaking the Rules of Character Development by Ingrid Sundberg


0 Comments on Dystropian Blog Series on Ellar Out Loud as of 4/15/2014 6:43:00 PM
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22. The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.

Katniss

The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

7 Comments on The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!, last added: 5/22/2014
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23. The Gap: How to Make Your Story a Page Turner!

Lately I’ve been having a hard time finishing books. Not because the writing is bad, or the stories don’t have developed characters, or even interesting plots. The problem is the stories don’t grip me and I’m not compelled to pick them up again to see what happens next.

Tired and bored boy sleeping among the books

With so many distractions in life – television, facebook, cooking classes – it’s easy to put a book down and stop reading. This is a reality we all must face. So, how do we keep our readers hooked? How do we make it impossible for them to put the story down?

Of course there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but the one I want to talk about today is The Gap.

The Gap is a concept coined by Robert McKee in his craft book STORY, wherein he argues that we read because we want to see characters presented with situations that “pry open a gap” in their lives. He describes the Gap as a moment in a character’s life when the world acts in a way that surprises them. It’s a revelation and/or situation in which the character’s landscape operates outside of what they knew was possible.

For example, a tornado headed straight for your character’s house is a gap in their life. Normal life has been interrupted by mother nature and now your character must act. But a gap can also be as small as the “cool kids” deciding to talk to your character at school. It’s any event that tilts your character’s landscape in a new way and presents your character with new opportunities and obstacles. At least, on the surface that’s what a Gap is.

But let’s talk about how to maximize the Gap and make your stories un-put-downable!

McKee describes the Gap this way:

story“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective POV the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected … his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen … The gap is the point where the subjective and objective realms collide, the difference between anticipation and result, between the world as the character perceived it before acting and the truth he discovers in action.” (McKee, Story)

Creating a Gap for your characters isn’t as simple as throwing obstacles in the character’s way and hoping for drama. A compelling Gap will present your character with a situation that demands they make a difficult choice. This choice should be one that isn’t easy to run away from. I should “trap” your character and not allow them to return to their normal way of life. This is the space in which characters grow. It’s the space in which plot becomes so intoxicating your reader cannot put the book down.

Why? Because we want to see what choice the character will make. And, we want to see the consequences of their actions.

McKee goes on to say that:

“Once the gap in reality splits open, the character, being willful and having capacity, senses or realizes that he cannot get what he wants in a minimal, conservative way. He must gather himself and struggle through the gap to take a second action. This next action is something the character would not have wanted to do in the first case because it not only demands more willpower and forces him to dig more deeply into his human capacity, but most important the second action puts him at risk. He now stands to lose in order to gain.” (McKee, Story)

Okay, let’s look at an example to help illustrate this idea.

One of my favorite examples of a compelling Gap is in the reaping scene in The Hunger Games. As writers we have a lot of choices to make in our novels. Hunger Games author, Susan Collins, could have chosen to have Katniss’s name pulled out of the reaping basket. This would have presented a Gap in Katniss’s life. She would be presented with the choice of accepting the challenge of the games or running away and putting her family in danger. But Susan Collins makes the Gap even more intense and unimaginable for Katniss. Instead of pulling Katniss’s name from the reaping basket, her sister Primm’s name is pulled. Now the world has really opened up and torn a Gap in Katniss’s life. The world has truly acted in a way she did not see coming.

Katniss

The Gap forces Katniss to choose between staying alive and watching her sister go off to die, or choosing to volunteer in her sister’s place and fight to the death. Neither decision is a good one. If you were forced to put the book down at that moment, before Katniss made her decision, don’t you think you would be itching to get back to reading? YES! Of course you want to see what choice she will make. This is the stuff of great drama!

Sunshine posterAnother great example of Gaps is the movie Sunshine. This is a lesser known sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. Every action, decision, and plot point in this movie has a consequence that forces the characters to face a new Gap. The film follows the crew of ICARUS 2, a spaceship flying toward Earth’s dying sun in hopes of “rebooting” it with a nuclear bomb. ICARUS 1 failed its mission in the past and ICARUS 2 is Earth’s last and final hope before the planet dies from lack of sunshine. The first gap in the film comes when ICARUS 2 receives a distress signal from ICARUS 1. The crew is now forced to make a choice. Do they alter their course to intercept ICARUS 1 and get a second “payload” bomb to help re-boot the sun, thus allowing them two chances for mission success, or do they stay on course and gamble that the one payload they have is enough? It’s not an easy decision. Both choices have consequences. As a reader we want to see what they will do!

The brilliant thing about Sunshine is that each Gap has consequences that lead the characters to a second Gap, and then a third. In Sunshine these Gaps aren’t simple issues of survival. Instead these decisions force the characters to make choices that challenge what it means to be human, how far they are willing to go, and what is an appropriate sacrifice for the greater good. I love the film because it isn’t plot and action for the sake of plot and action. Every action opens a Gap in the character’s world and forces them to react in ways they never thought possible. (Note: I’ve been deliberately vague here, in case you want to watch this movie – which you should!)

I realize both of these examples come from high-stakes adventure stories. Let me give you an example of a Gap that isn’t “life or death” in nature:

Sky is EverywhereIn Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, The Sky Is Everywhere, teenage protagonist Lennie is dealing with the death of her older sister, Bailey. There’s a wonderful Gap when Lennie is hanging out with her sister’s boyfriend Toby. The two are chatting about Bailey, remembering her, and then they look at each other and — BAM! — Toby kisses Lennie. However, the gap comes in the moment when Lennie realizes she likes kissing her sister’s boyfriend! Suddenly the world has acted in a way outside of all that Lennie thought possible. And even more exciting, now she has to decide what she’s going to do about it.

So, how can you apply the concept of The Gap to your work?

Ask yourself these questions about your book:

  1. Within the scope of your story, what Gaps have been presented in your protagonist’s life?
  2. How is your character challenged and incited to act by those Gaps?
  3. How has the Gap brought into question what your character believes, wants, and thinks is possible?
  4. What are the consequences of the choice your character makes when presented with a Gap? Does that choice move the story forward and take your character to the next Gap in the story? If not, does the Gap need to be changed so it challenges your character in stronger way?
  5. What does your character learn about herself as a result of the choices she makes when presented with those Gaps?

It’s one thing to throw obstacles, problems, and action at your character, but that doesn’t make the story compelling on its own. We often hear the phrase “torture your characters,” but that’s not what captures your reader’s attention. It’s the moral questions imbedded within the choices they must make that allows your reader to peek through the words on the page and see what makes us human. It’s those choices and the subsequent consequences that compel readers to picking the book up, again and again, to see what will happen next.

Want to learn more about The Gap? 

Please Read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, specifically pages 147 to 149.
  • McKee also talks about the Gap on pages: 154-157, 177-180, 208, 270-271, 311-312, 362.
  • These page numbers are based on the 1997, hardcover, It Books edition.

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24. Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters. Feel free to follow the link and read, but if you’re short on time, the rundown is this: negative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.

And after reading James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between and attending a full day workshop with him a few weeks ago, I can also see how this idea of using negative emotions to fuel a positive changes fits oh-so-nicely with Jim’s concept of “the Mirror Moment.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at what a mirror moment is.

mirror 2Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

Jim actually describes the Mirror Moment so much better than I can HERE, but do your writing a BIG FAVOR and also snag a copy of this book. (It’s a short read and will absolutely help you strengthen the character’s arc in your story!)

To see how the two tie together, let’s explore what leads to this essential “mirror moment.” Your hero is taking stock of his situation, realizing he has two choices: stubbornly continue on unchanged and hope for the best, or move forward differently, becoming something more.

The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?

The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.

Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:

Emotion + look within = change

So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!

Common positive emotions, taken right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Happiness + look within

Happiness is contentment, a feeling of extreme well being. If one feels good about themselves and where they are at, it doesn’t encourage a strong desire for change, does it?

Gratitude + a look within

mirrorGratitude is thankfulness, an appreciation for others and what one has. Because again, gratitude creates contentment, feeling “full” and thankful, it doesn’t make the best catalyst for change. However, if you were to pair it with something like relief (such as being given a second chance), then  gratitude over being spared something negative could lead to resolving to change.

Excitement + a look within

Excitement is the feeling of being energized to the point one feels compelled to act. On the outside, this looks like a good candidate for change, but it depends on the type of excitement. Is the “high” a character feels something that distracts them from self reflection (such as being caught up in the experience of a rock concert) or does it inspire (such as the thrill of meeting one’s sports hero in person)? If one’s excitement propels one to want to become something better, then change can be achieved.

Satisfaction + a look within

Satisfaction is a feeling of contentment in a nutshell. It is feeling whole and complete. As such, looking within while satisfied likely won’t lead to a desire to change anything–in fact it might do just the opposite: encourage the character to remain the same.

Common negative emotions, again right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Fear + a look within

Fear is the expectation of threat or danger. Feeling afraid is very uncomfortable, something almost all people wish to avoid. Some even try to make deals with the powers that be, so deep is their desperation: if I win this hand, I’ll give up gambling, I swear. So, combining this emotion with some self reflection could definitely create the desire to change.

Frustration + a look within

mirror 3Feeling stymied or hemmed in is something all people are familiar with and few can tolerate for long. By its very nature, frustration sends the brain on a search for change: how can I fix this? How can I become better/more skilled/adapt? How can I succeed?

Characters who are frustrated are eager to look within for answers.

Embarrassment + a look within

Embarrassment is another emotion that is very adept at making characters uncomfortable. Self-conscious discomfort is something all usually avoid because it triggers vulnerability. When one feels embarrassed, it is easy to look within and feel the desire to make a change so this experience is not repeated.

Shame + a look within

Disgrace isn’t pretty. When a person knows they have done something improper or dishonorable, it hurts. Shame creates the desire to rewind the clock so one can make a different choice or decision that does not lead to this same situation. It allows the character to focus on their shortcomings without rose-colored glasses, and fast tracks a deep need for change.

*  ~  *  ~  *

These are only a sampling of emotions, but the exercise above suggests it might be easier to bring about this mirror moment through negative emotions. But, does this mean all positive emotions don’t lead to change while all negative ones do? Not at all!

Love + a look within could create a desire to become more worthy in the eyes of loved ones. And emotions such as Denial or Contempt, while negative, both resist the idea of change. Denial + a look within, simply because one is not yet in a place where they can see truth. Contempt + a look within, because one is focused on the faults of others, not on one’s own possible shortcomings. Overall however, negative emotions seem to be the ones best suited to lead to that mirror moment and epiphany that one must change or become stronger and more skilled in order to succeed.

1ETSo there you have it–when you’re working on this critical moment in your story when your character realizes change is needed, think carefully about which emotion might best lead to this necessary internal reflection and change.

(And of course, we profile 75 emotions in The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, so that’s just one more way for you to use it!)

 

photo credit 1: Dhinal Chheda via photopin cc
photo credit 2: nowhere Zen New Jersey via photopin cc
photo credit 3: stephcarter via photopin cc

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25. Immersion: The Writing Process

We each have our own writing processes, and every book demands to be written differently. While participating in the #writingprocess blog tour last month, I talked about how my current WIP has been a difficult project to wrap my brain around. I said:

“This book demands immersion. She demands focus for hours at a time. And I’m not talking half-assed freewriting or NaNoWriMo first draft word-puke. This novel wants my blood. I do the best I can to keep myself immersed in this novel as much as I can, because she likes to hole up and shut me out for weeks if I’m not diligent.”

I haven’t been diligent. I’ve allowed this project to hide in the back of my mind. I’ve been avoiding it.

So after failing to immerse myself in this novel, I’ve decided to dive in 100% and go for it. There’s no time like the present. I just dropped my fiance off at the airport and he won’t be back for five days. Which means I have five days without distractions. It also means I can turn my writing studio (which happens to be in our living room) into a shrine to this project.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Say hello to my workspace this week:

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Yup, I’ve covered the walls with all of the brainstorming I’ve done on this project: character sheets, outlines, mind-webs, questions I need to answer and more.

Workspace

I’ve been working through John Truby’s 22 Steps of Story Structure:

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I’ve collected setting and location images:

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I’ve created character sheets with photos and lists of controlling beliefs, external goals, fears, moral needs, self revelations, and distinguishable traits.

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As much as I’ve been avoiding this project … I can’t anymore. Not if I have to look at this every morning!

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Lets hope this keeps me motivated!

I wish you all happy writing this week and the next. And if you have images of your work spaces, I’d love to see them!


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