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How can you tell if a piece of writing is strong? Whether you’re editing for a publishing company, working as a freelancer, or self-editing, correctly assessing the quality of the work is imperative. In this excerpt from The Editor’s Companion, Steve Dunham discusses four marks of good writing and how you can recognize them in every piece you review.
1. Good Content
Communication, even in writing, requires two people. Every time a writer begins putting words together for publication, one fact should always be foremost: The writing is (at least partly) for the benefit of someone else. Even if a writer begins without a specific audience clearly in mind, the goal of communication remains. The writing must achieve a link between author and reader.
The editor, too, must always remember the reader. Both writer and reader may benefit from written communication, but editing is done primarily to benefit the reader, to smooth the process of communication.
The content of any piece of writing ultimately must be of personal interest to the reader. From news headlines to novels, from apartment leases to the Bible, every piece of writing attracts readers by providing something that concerns individual people.
An editor faces the task of taking a piece of writing and heightening its relevance to those individuals who constitute the publisher’s readers or market.
Each sentence, says editor Margaret Palm, should convey one idea. So should each paragraph and each chapter, with the ideas becoming more general as the writer progresses up the scale. This sort of cohesion does not limit the number of ideas a writer is able to communicate; rather, it organizes them. Focusing on one idea at a time makes for clear, direct communication. It does not leave the reader guessing where the writing is headed. It does not distract the reader with digression. Instead it takes a general idea as the subject of a chapter, develops an aspect of that idea in each paragraph, and provides details in every sentence. Focused writing, like a focused photograph, presents information clearly.
The classic style of newswriting, with the “most important” facts at the top, followed by less and less important facts in descending order is called the inverted pyramid. Inverted pyramid leads begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how, all in a few sentences.
Those five Ws of journalism also provide a guide for both writers and editors of nonfiction. In a news story, the writer must tell the reader who, what, when, where, and why—preferably in the first paragraph. Although not all nonfiction needs to be as compact as news writing, the editor must be sure that the basic facts are communicated.
Even in fiction, the five Ws need to be addressed somewhere in the story, although depending on the genre—mystery, for example—key parts of the story may be withheld until the end.
3. Precise Language1
The writer’s biggest job is that of combining words—and often numbers and graphics—to share ideas. Organizing the material and choosing precisely the right words require more effort than just writing down what is in the writer’s head. The knowledgeable writer possesses information or ideas that the reader does not. To make that information accessible, the writer must use words that the reader understands (or explain any that the reader does not). The writer must choose which information to include and must decide what is superfluous or would burden the reader. Appendices, footnotes, and bibliographies are all communication tools. So are abbreviations. They help the reader understand what the writer has to say.
The editor’s job is to help the writer communicate with the reader, and just about all of us—including editors—need some help with our writing. Sometimes we have a little trouble saying what we mean. Editors do make sure the commas are in the right place. (It does make a difference: My favorite comma error was in an ad in the church bulletin for a supper hosted by the youth group; it read, “Don’t cook Mom!”) Editors also do a lot more, ensuring good content, focus, precise language, and good grammar.
Editors are on guard for much more than missing commas, however. Writers might, for example, get a little repetitive: “The analysis phase of the project consisted of analysis,” stated one report I read. A job ad required “program related experience in related areas”—one of those “necessary conditions that must be met.”
“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!” as Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking-Glass.
The reader’s time is worth something, too. Let’s not waste it by stating the obvious. If our work is read voluntarily, we will lose readers if we waste their time. Often, though, we may be editing a piece of writing that people are obligated to read, and we owe it to them to communicate simply and clearly.
In The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, the Monkey-man— a monkey that Doctor Moreau had been trying to turn into a human—“was for ever jabbering … the most arrant nonsense” and “had a fantastic trick of coining new words. He had an idea … that to gabble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it ‘Big Thinks’ … He thought nothing of what was plain and comprehensible.”
Writers can commit Big Thinks by using imprecise language or misusing words entirely. Some writers may impress themselves by using big words they don’t understand. Utilize may sound more impressive than use (but has a specific meaning of its own: to find a use for). Comprise is not the same as compose (it means “be made up of,” as in “New York City comprises five boroughs”); a nation-state isn’t merely a sovereign country (it’s the country of a single nationality); coalesce isn’t transitive (things coalesce, people don’t coalesce things). Emulate means “do at least as well as,” but imitate, the word that is more likely appropriate, doesn’t sound nearly as impressive. Respective is often used where it is not needed, as in “The adjutant generals report to their respective governors”—well, of course they report to their own governors. Writing to impress oneself or others is what editor Dave Fessenden called “the curse of Babel.” He pointed out that people built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves and ended up with their language confounded—a result still obtained by vain and pompous writers, he said.
Editors must be alert to misused words. Words Into Type has an excellent twenty-three-page list of “Words Likely to Be Misused or Confused”; The Elements of Style has a similar list, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has usage notes for many entries.
In his book Doublespeak,2 William Lutz described another way of misusing big words: “gobbledygook or bureaucratese … a matter of piling on words, of overwhelming the audience” or “inflated language that is designed to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.” That language is meant to impress, and specifically to deceive, the reader.
Aside from writers who deceive themselves, readers are usually the victims of misused words. As William Safire wrote in his book In Love with Norma Loquendi,3 “Meanings can be assigned to words to suit the speaker, corrupting communication and derailing intelligent discourse.”
For example, one job description stated, “Demonstrates technical achievement at the highest Government and corporate levels.” In plain English, what does that mean? It sounds as if the job applicant must have been president, chief justice, or speaker of the house. Such overblown prose corrupts communication and derails intelligent discourse, to borrow Safire’s wording.
When writing and editing, let our first concern be the reader. Let’s not try to impress anyone, least of all ourselves. Instead of engaging in Big Thinks, let’s pursue the goal of “plain and comprehensible” communication.
4. Good Grammar4
“I don’t care about grammar,” a writer told me when he brought his article in for editing.
In fact it seemed that the writer, like many others, didn’t care about a lot of things.
“This merger does not seems to posse any intimate security risks to the United States” was one statement in the article. I called out the posse of language deputies; we changed posse to pose and fixed dozens more errors, grammar and otherwise. We had to query the author to find out what intimate was supposed to be (he’d meant to use immediate).
Unfortunately this writer was not alone. Not in making mistakes—we all make those—but in not caring. George Orwell cited two common faults in English writing: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”5
If a writer doesn’t care about grammar, the writer at least should care about the reader. If you have something worth saying, then care about communicating it.
The editor, who is assisting communication between writer and reader, must scrutinize every piece of writing that is intended for publication and, to the greatest extent possible, make the text conform to the marks of good writing.
Author Stephen Coonts, in a July 2001 interview with Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute,6 discussed the editing of his books (the Naval Institute Press published his first novel, Flight of the Intruder).
Proceedings: How were you treated, editorially, at the Naval Institute Press, compared to your subsequent publishers?
Coonts: The Naval Institute is unique, because it probably publishes more first-time writers—not so much first-time novelists, but first-time writers—than any other publishing house I know. So for me it was a great place to learn how to write by working with the editors and to learn how to get a manuscript up to what is called “commercial quality.”
Subsequently, I went to Doubleday, where they have a line editor who looks at the manuscript and puts in some commas and takes some out. How you wrote it is the way it’s going to be in the book. It’s tough for most beginning writers to get their prose ready to be published. It was a really great educational experience at the Naval Institute. I worked with a great editor, and I learned a lot.
Proceedings: So you’d say you were edited more at the Naval Institute Press?
Coonts: Yes. They edited the living hell out of the book. I think they overedited some of the passages. In some cases they improved it; in some cases they made it worse. Looking back, I don’t think they had much faith that I knew what the story I was telling was all about. On the other hand, the folks I worked with knew their English, and what a sentence was, and how the prose had to come together. On balance, it was a great learning experience for me.
As Coonts pointed out, editors make mistakes, too. Sometimes we attempt to improve clarity and end up muddying the water instead. Worse, we sometimes accidentally change the correct meaning to something incorrect. “One of my greatest dreads as a copy editor is that I will change something to make it wrong,” wrote copy editor Laura Moyer in her Red Pen blog.7 “Changing things on the proof is risky, as it raises the possibility of introducing an error while attempting to correct an existing one,” she wrote in another blog entry.8 Editing for focus, precision, and grammar are essential and less hazardous than editing for content, which requires some knowledge of the subject matter.
Furthermore, overconfidence can lead to wrongly second-guessing an author’s meaning. An editing error in Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War by William M. Fowler, Jr.,9 led to a cure that was worse than whatever the supposed illness was: “Galena was far smaller than New Ironsides, 738 tons versus 3,486; her topsail schooner rig and exaggerated tumble made her home immediately recognizable.” When I read that, I suspected that it should have read, “… her exaggerated tumblehome made her immediately recognizable”—tumblehome being the inward curving of a ship’s sides as they rise (some ships, anyway). Galena indeed was immediately recognizable because of her exaggerated tumblehome (see the photo). Evidently the nautical term tumblehome was unknown to the editor, who rearranged the sentence into immediately recognizable words (the author confirmed that this was an editing error but added, “Alas, I read proofs”).
An extreme example of second-guessing the meaning was a reference to a story in the Atlanta Constitution headlined “Mock Bioterror Attack Spooks Some in Denver.” Someone citing it decided it was a mistake and, in a footnote, changed it to read, “Mock Bioterror Attack Some Spooks in Denver.”
Both the word tumblehome and the Atlanta Constitution headline were verifiable with a little research. Second-guessing the meaning (rather than looking it up to verify it) is one hazard for editors.
Arthur Plotnik, author of The Elements of Editing, noted another: Editors “must stop short of a self-styled purism and allow for some variety of expression.”10 All editing requires care to ensure that the writing communicates better than it did in its original form.
Plotnik posed ten questions for editors to critically examine their own work:11 Has the editor
“weighed every phrase and sentence … to determine whether the author’s meaning” was preserved?
“measured every revision … against the advantages of the author’s original”?
“pondered the effectiveness of every phrase”?
“studied every possible area of numerical, factual, or judgmental error”?
searched “for typos and transpositions, especially in” parts that were “retyped or reorganized,” and “edited and proofread” the portions altered by the editor?
“groveled in the details of the footnotes, tables, and appendices”?
“cast a legal eye upon every quoted phrase, defamatory comment, trade name, allegation, and attribution”?
“stepped back to consider the impact of the whole as well as the parts”?
“provided all the editorial embellishments to the text—title, subtitle, subhead, author notes, sidebars …”?
“cleared every significant revision and addition with the author?”—if that “is the policy of the publication.”
As Plotnik’s list indicates, editors must be certain that they are actually improving the author’s writing. Overconfidence comes all too easily, and we need to handle the author’s creation with care.
This article was excerpted from The Editor’s Companion by Steve Dunham. Filled with advice and techniques for honing your editing skills, this book provides the tools you need to pursue high quality in editing, writing and publishing—every piece, every time.
Portions of this section appeared in Precision for Writers and Editors, September 1999; “Writing for Everybody,” Precision for Writers and Editors, spring 2001; “Better Writing: Stating the Obvious,” Transmissions, June–July 2001; and “Big Thinks” and “Word Abuse,” Precision for Writers and Editors, Autumn 2001; all copyright Analytic Services Inc. and are used with permission.
William Lutz, Doublespeak (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).
William Safire, In Love with Norma Loquendi (New York: Random House, 1994).
Portions of this section appeared in Precision for Writers and Editors, September 1999, copyright Analytic Services Inc., and are used with permission.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
Fred L. Schultz, “Interview: Stephen Coonts,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 127, no. 7, July 2001, p. 68.
Laura Moyer, “Rock. Copy Editor. Hard Place,” Red Pen blog, Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, June 7, 2011.
Laura Moyer, “Lie/Lay. I Had to Tackle This Sometime,” Red Pen blog, Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, Aug. 2, 2011.
William M. Fowler, Jr., Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing, p. 3.
Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing, pp. 35–36.
The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form. Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.
1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”
It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”
This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.
2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.
It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”
3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.
In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.
4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.
One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see. As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.
5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.
If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.
6. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.
Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.
Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.
7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.
In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.
What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.
8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.
Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?
9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.
The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).
Then set the father in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.
10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.
However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.
… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.
Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.
Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room. As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.
11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.
The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.
With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.
… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …
Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.
It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.
By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs.
It’s the New Year, and the blogosphere is teeming with resolutions. Last year, so much—well, let’s call it “debris”—hit the fan that we’re all ready for a clean, fresh start. And I think this national January pastime of resolution-making is particularly compelling for writers. Starting a new project, completing an old one, editing, querying, classes, conferences—we have no shortage of goal-worthy pursuits.
I usually make resolutions. This year, however, I’m trying something different, inspired by Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland. Early in the movie, when Alice remarks to her stick-in-the-mud potential fiancé that she wonders what it would be like to fly, he asks her why she would spend time thinking of such an impossible thing. She can’t imagine why she wouldn’t and tells him that her late father sometimes believed in six impossible things even before breakfast.
Near the end of the movie, as Alice battles the ferocious Jabberwocky, she gathers her courage by reminding herself to believe in six impossible things. “One: there’s a potion that can make you shrink. Two: and a cake that can make you grow. Three: animals can talk. Four: cats can disappear. Five: there’s a place called Wonderland. Six: I can slay the Jabberwocky.”
She does slay the beast. Then she returns to tell the dull Seamus that she won’t marry him. Instead, she embarks on an exciting new business adventure with her father’s friend. Inspired by Alice’s moxie, I’ve decided that instead of making resolutions this year, I will believe in six impossible things every day before breakfast. For example:
1. Chocolate can make me thin
2. I can win a million dollars just by using my Discover Card
3. My kitchen can stay clean for longer than five minutes
4. I can master time management
5. With the right shampoo, my hair can look like Jennifer Aniston’s
6. I can vanquish the dreaded slush pile like my own personal Jabberwocky.
My rational mind knows that the odds of these things happening might not be in my favor—and probably a kajillion-to-one for #2—but there’s something very liberating about giving myself permission to be open to the idea that anything can happen. As Alice’s father says, “The only way to achieve the impossible is to believe it is possible.” What impossible things will you believe in this year?
Kerrie Flanagan is the Director of Northern Colorado Writers, an accomplished freelance writer, author and publisher. Her articles have appeared in the 2015 Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market, as well as the past four Writer’s Markets,Writer’s Digest and The Writer. She is the author of three books and the founder of Hot Chocolate Press. Jenny Sundstedt is a member of Northern Colorado Writers (NCW) and serves on the creative team for the annual NCW Writer’s Conference. She writes long and short fiction, essays, overly ambitious to-do lists, and since 2010, has been a regular contributor to the NCW blog, The Writing Bug. Their book, WRITE AWAY, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, Nook and Kobo. The book combines monthly insightful and humorous stories with tips, tools and interactions that encourage writers to reflect on where they are and where they want to be. Here are two essays from the book for you to enjoy.
MOVING BEYOND WANT (by Kerrie)
Those who become successful writers are not always the most talented ones, but they are always the ones who did not give up. They pushed through the tough times, they passed those who dropped out, and they made the decision to cross the finish line.
Someone told me that what you want becomes irrelevant without a decision. This is so true when it comes to writing. I come across people all the time who say they want to be writers. They talk about all the things they want to write, or all the novels they want to finish. But they never do anything about it.
There are so many things I want. I want to spend a year in Alaska, I want to see the Northern Lights, I want to attend the Book Expo of America, I want to publish a short story… Are all of these things possible for me? Of course they are. I just need to make a decision to stop wanting and to start doing.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen created the Chicken Soup for the Soul empire. This would not have happened if they hadn’t decided to publish the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book. They also decided that NOT publishing it was NOT an option. So, they persevered. They didn’t quit after 20, 50, 100 publishers said no. When someone said “no,” Jack and Mark would say, “next.” After 123 rejections, Heath Communications gave them the yes they had been waiting for. They have now sold over 100 million Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
Is this the year you will move beyond wanting to write and make the decision to actually be a writer? Are you willing to do what it takes to finish that novel, write that article, start that blog, or find an agent? Are you ready to invest time in your writing, have confidence in your abilities, and push through to the finish line? If so, this is going to be a great year for you.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
Your new complete and updated instructional guide to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, craft, the submission process, researching agents, and much more. Filled with all the advice you’ll ever need to find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.
Thinking of starting a blog in 2015 to build your writer platform and gain a readership for your work? All the best journeys start with a bit of planning. Even if you’re not one for planning and would rather dive in right away, bear with me! In this exclusive excerpt from Blogging for Writers, Robin Houghton asks six crucial questions about your blogging goals, audience, and plan. Be honest with the answers as you write them down—they’ll serve as good reminders and motivators later on. When you’re finished, you’ll have the beginnings of a blogging roadmap that will assist you throughout 2015 and beyond.
1. Why do you want a blog?
What appeals to you about blogging? Is it something you can see yourself getting into, enjoying, and looking forward to doing? What do you want to get out of it? Promotion? Community? Sales?
It’s important to have goals for your blog, and those goals should be linked to your goals as a writer. All the same, the more open you are to seeing the fun in blogging, the more likely you are to stick with it and have it work for you.
2. Who do you want to read it?
An interesting question, and linked closely to your blogging goals. It’s no good saying, “I want the whole world to read it!” Of course there are ways to go viral or hijack an audience, but the most successful bloggers are in it for the long term and are interested in becoming notable rather than notorious.
So, who is your audience? Your readers and fans (actual or potential)? Your peers? Industry influencers? Prospective publishers, agents, editors, gatekeepers? Perhaps, if you write for children, it’s the parents of your readers. Perhaps you write for two different markets with very different readers. The reason for this question is to get you thinking about what your blog will be about, what it will look like, the tone of voice you will adopt, and so on.
3. What are you prepared to put into it?
Sorry to sound harsh, but the vast majority of blogs are abandoned within the first year. Don’t let that be yours! You can blog for free, but there will be costs associated with it—some financial, but mostly in terms of your time and effort.
Do your research—check out other writers’ blogs, especially (but not exclusively) those in your genre or niche. Look at the top industry blogs and websites—the annual Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers is a great place to start. Not only will you draw inspiration from them, but by subscribing to other blogs you’re starting the process of connecting with the blogosphere. It’s never too soon to start commenting, sharing, and engaging with other bloggers. When your blog is up and running, it’s just as important to keep engaging with others as well as nurturing your own blog community.
4. What’s your blogging persona?
A blog is unmediated—it’s you talking directly to people—so it’s worth thinking about your “persona,” or the face you present to your blog readers and anyone else who may come across your blog. Here are some considerations:
Professional vs. Personal: Let’s say you are approaching blogging primarily as a business tool—for example, your goals might be to network with influential industry people, demonstrate your authority/ability/talent, or promote yourself to an audience of readers or potential readers. In this situation, you are presenting yourself and your work as a brand, and your blog will reflect that, both in how it looks and in the nature of its content. But this is a blog, not your author publicity page. Take advantage of that and inject your personality into it, too.
Transparency and Consistency: Will you talk about both your successes and your failures? Not everyone wants to lay themselves bare by mentioning rejections, spats, loss of motivation, or other negative aspects of their writing life. Others revel in it and find visitor numbers and comments increase when their blog posts are at their most raw and honest.
5. What will you name your blog?
What will your blog be called? An obvious choice might be your name, writer name, or something that incorporates your name, such as “Seth’s Blog” or “Neil Gaiman’s Journal.”
You might prefer your blog’s name to say something about the content, or its purpose, so that it’s separate from your name. This could work well if it’s not your only blog, or if you’ve already got a website with your name associated with it and the blog is in addition to that, or if you are planning to have regular guest bloggers or contributors.
Your blog’s given name or title doesn’t necessarily have to be its domain name (the address that appears in the browser bar). You may choose to register your writer name as your domain name, then call your blog something different. As a rule, you should try to register both your writer name and your blog name (if different) as domain names, even if you’re not sure you will use them right away.
6. What blogging platform will you use?
A blog platform refers to the software that powers a blog. You could think of it as the underlying construction, like a house—is it timber-framed or brick-built? Once the house is built, you may not be able to tell. Most blog platforms do pretty much the same job. But it’s worth understanding the key differences—the choices you make at this stage will affect what you can do with your blog further down the line, so it’s worth taking the time.
The most popular blogging platforms are WordPress and Blogger, and Blogging for Writers goes into both of these in depth. Do your research and make a decision based on your needs, comfort level, and personal preferences.
Do you ever write something and immediately find yourself wanting to edit it (or worse—delete it)? Or are you struggling to really develop an idea? It’s tough not to immediately begin the rewriting process or automatically start second guessing yourself. Sometimes, as writers, we can get lost in continually improving a piece, trying to give it that little extra bit of pizzazz.
In the following excerpt of Elizabeth Sims’ “How to Develop Any Idea Into a Great Story,” originally in the November/December 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest, you’ll learn four solid techniques for heightening the tension in your story and taking it to the next step. Whether it’s increasing the drama through detailed and well-developed secondary and tertiary characters or adding extra emotion, you’re sure to find a tip that will add a new layer to your story.
Are you writing or putting the finishing touches on a short story? Consider entering it into Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Story Competition, where the winner will receive $3,000 in cash and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference! This year, all entrants will also receive a special pass to attend a live webinar conducted by award-winning author Jacob Appel. Hurry, though: The deadline is December 15!
Brief Encounter is a British film adapted from Nöel Coward’s play Still Life. It’s the story of two quiet people who meet and fall in love in spite of being married to others, but then, conscience-stricken, break off the relationship before it really gets going. The small, exquisite tragedy resonated with the genteel, romantic codes of conduct valued in prewar England.
But then along comes Tennessee Williams with his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a love story that has similar themes at its core but rips us away from any semblance of civilization. Williams sure could amp drama! For one thing, he knew that a story about noble ideas wouldn’t cut it anymore. Setting his play in the emotionally brutal mélange of the postwar American South, he slashed into the secret marrow of his protagonists and antagonists alike, exposing the weaknesses and delusions that bind people together on the surface while tearing them apart below decks.
Take the essence of your story, and amp it:
Add characters and pile on the emotion. Playwrights used to limit the number of characters in their stories, not wanting to overcrowd the stage. But when Williams crams six or eight people into the scene at once and sets them all at one another’s throats, we get a chance to feel their emotional claustrophobia and unwanted interdependence. Amp up your action by adding cunning, vindictiveness, jealousy, fear of exposure, stupidity, even death.
Make even minor characters fierce and elemental. Consider Mae and Gooper’s five children in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who lesser authors would describe (boringly) as “brats” and leave offstage. Before you even see them, you witness their havoc (ruining Maggie’s dress) and listen to Maggie call them “no-neck monsters.” You don’t even have to meet them to fear them. Then Williams gives them stage time, every second of which makes you squirm with discomfort.
Expose internal bleeding. The deepest, most painful wounds are the invisible ones humans inflict on one another and ourselves in a hundred ways: betrayal, selfishness, abandoment. Strive to write characters who feel vulnerable to pain, whose secrets are so close to the surface that they can’t afford to be polite. Put in a truth teller and watch the inner flesh rip and sizzle.
Create blood ties. Kinship is story gold. Take your pick of, and take your time with, its darker aspects: scapegoating, favoritism, jealousy. A blood link can instantly heighten any conflict. Why? Because kinship is the one thing in life you can’t change or walk away from. Make your characters learn this the hard way.
Interested in learning more about short stories, or where to submit them to? Check out the 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which offers hundreds of listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more. Plus, you’ll find dozens of informative articles on how award-winning authors published their first work, how to market your work, build a loyal fan base, and more. Take the guessing work out of the business side of writing and find out exactly where you need to send your manuscript!
Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.
Sometimes, as a writer, it’s difficult to think about large, overarching goals when you’re working on a project or planning to start on something new. Thinking, “I’m going to write a novel and have it completed by XX date,” is ambitious. And maybe it’s too much of a reach.
Instead, develop a plan. Write in chunks. Write sections of your novel or story that you find more interesting than others. Challenge yourself, but make your goals and expectations reasonable and attainable, because it will make the payoff satisfying.
Below is an excerpt from our go-to guide, Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction. The selected portion will help you develop a plan to start writing immediately and turn writing into a habit, rather than a chore or an exercise. The entire book will assist you with whatever you’re currently writing: flash fiction, a short story, a novel, or an epic trilogy. It features advice and instruction from best-selling authors and writing experts like Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Sims, Hallie Ephron, N.M. Kelby, Heather Sellers, and Donald Maass, plus a foreword by James Scott Bell.
Are you writing or putting the finishing touches on a short story? Consider entering it into Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Story Competition, where the winner will receive $3,000 in cash and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference! This year, all entrants will also receive a special pass to attend a live webinar conducted by award-winning author Jacob Appel. Hurry, though: The deadline is December 15!
“So, what do you do?” asks the fellow dad at the soccer match, glancing over at you while he keeps an eye on his daughter, the star forward.
“I’m a writer,” you announce proudly.
“That’s fascinating! Anything I would recognize?” he asks, while you both cheer a save by your team’s goalie.
“Not yet,” you admit. “I haven’t had much luck yet in getting published.” There is a pause while he makes a sympathetic-sounding cluck. “Actually, I haven’t been writing much lately at all,” you continue. “Being home with the kids takes so much of my energy that by the time they’re in bed at the end of the day all I want to do is watch television. Plus, writing is so discouraging when you can’t get someone to even look at your work.”
There is a beat while he processes this. “But, you’re a writer, right? How can you be a writer without actually writing?”
This scene may cause you to chuckle with recognition or possibly to hang your head in shame. Real writers write. Successful writers find the time every day to hone their craft and meet their writing obligations—whether those obligations are external (from editors) or internal (from an incontestable desire to write). What usually separates good writers from bad ones (and often, published writers from unpublished ones) is a strong work habit. That’s it. That’s the big secret. Real writers work hard. In fact, most work ridiculously hard.
Professional writers know there’s nothing like a looming deadline to make them focus on their work. In fact, the real problem for beginning writers is usually not scrambling to meet a deadline, but simply organizing their time efficiently enough to find time to write at a productive pace. All writers feel this way from time to time. As other commitments encroach on our days, writing is often pushed aside like an unpleasant chore.
Accomplishing your writing goals requires making a writing plan, which is a time schedule that lists what you need to do and when.
Choose to Write
Everybody on the planet has the same amount of time every day. How we choose to use that time makes some of us writers and others of us short-order cooks. If you are a short-order cook who wants to write, however, you should probably take a bit of time to think about how you use your time.
Sandra Felton, who has written more than a dozen books on how to get organized, including Neat Mom, Messie Kids, and The New Messies Manual, points to prioritizing and dedication as helpful organizational tools for writers. “I think the whole answer is focus,” she says. “I think what focus means is you have to decide what you want to do and lob off other stuff that you also want to do. Because you want to write more.”
Note that the choice is not between writing and doing something else that you don’t want to do. The choice is among a nearly overwhelming array of things that seem appealing: checking in with your friends on Facebook, reading for pleasure, or having people over for dinner. Then there’s going to movies and the theater and the opera and family get-togethers and on trips and watching way too much television. Sometimes people would even rather do laundry and dishes than write. (All writers have days like that, but if that’s your constant M.O., you may wish to rethink a literary vocation.) Faced with so many options, people tend to choose too many and feel like they’re short of time.
Some people actually can use stray snippets of free time to write, penning novels on the back of envelopes while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. If they have ten minutes between helping a child with homework and driving her to flute lessons, they use those ten precious minutes to write or polish a small chunk of prose. Such people are the envy of the rest of us. For the rest of us, writing for publication requires larger pieces of time to research, ponder, draft, rewrite, and polish.
Make Writing a Habit
Finding writing time requires a modicum of organization, but using it productively demands dedication. The theme of virtually every article about getting organized to write is straightforward: Just do it. Wanting to write and writing itself are cousins, not identical twins. Psychological research indicates that writing every day, whether your muse is whispering in your ear or has deserted you, produces not only more writing but also more ideas for future writing.
The writing habit, like the exercise habit, is its own reward. When you don’t do it, you feel as if you’re cheating yourself. Real writers don’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike before they put fingers to keyboard; they put fingers to keyboard and know that somewhere during those hours they will discover small nuggets of inspiration. The fingers-to-keyboard, butt-in-the-chair pose is like exercise for the writer. In a way, this is just like real runners who pound the pavement or the treadmill in all weather, whether they are busy with work or on vacation. Like physical exercise, writing is often not enjoyable while you’re doing it, though occasionally an endorphin or two will spark and the serotonin does its thing. Most of the time, though, writing is just a matter of discipline, plain and simple. Discipline comes more easily to some people than to others, but it is certainly a skill that can be cultivated.
“The only thing I can tell you I do that’s inviolate is when I have to write, I get up in the morning and literally go straight to the typewriter,” says Stephanie Culp, who has written books on organization and time management. “Any little distraction that takes me away from my desk kills it. When I’m writing something large, it takes about three fitful days, and then I’m in the rhythm of it, and I write it. I can still write a book in three weeks.”
Here are some tips for getting into a writing habit.
Start by setting aside an hour or a half hour every day to write.
Or make a goal to write a set number of words each day.
Try to write at the same time every day so it will feel peculiar to do something else at that time.
Write even if you feel uninspired, even if you don’t feel ready to write. If you want to be a writer, you must write.
Your Writing Plan
Often, getting started on a writing project is the hardest part. Most writing jobs, however, can be viewed as a sequence of doable tasks that follow the same general path from beginning to end. If you accomplish each task in order, you can follow the plan to a finished piece. The more you write, the more you will be able to anticipate how much time a particular project will take you.
The planning guidelines below help you break your book project into smaller tasks. Start with individual chapters, and break down the chapters into component parts. Schedule your writing project into your day at specific times, and, with a little luck but more hard work, you’ll finish your pieces on time.
If you’re a person who resents and resists scheduling, remember that creating a writing plan is intended to help you, not restrict you. The goal is to relieve some stress, organize your life, and make your writing process more efficient. Meeting even mini deadlines can lift your spirits and bolster your confidence. Simply crossing items off to-do lists feels so good that the act in itself becomes a reward and keeps you writing.
Take a look at the following guidelines, which will help you better organize your writing time and, in turn, finish your projects.
Set reasonable, measurable goals.Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub the toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.
Divide and conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal. You’re likelier to accomplish smaller tasks in the near future than a vague goal in the abstract faraway. The tasks help you reach that distant goal step-by-step.
Create a plan of ordered tasks.Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the niggling details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.
Select dates and stick to them. “Someday, I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, an entire chocolate cake, or what have you. Enlist other people to hold you accountable.
Work backward. The most important step in planning the time for your writing project is this one: On your calendar, mark the story’s final due date. (If you don’t have a deadline from a publisher, give yourself a reasonable one.) Then figure out when each of the specific items, in reverse order, must be completed if you are to meet that deadline. Allow a little wiggle room in your calendar for the delays that inevitably happen: an interviewee gets the flu and has to postpone by a few days, the computer crashes, etc.
Next to each item on your list, write the time you think it will take to accomplish it and the deadline for completing it. People commonly put far too many items on their to-do list and, as a result, feel defeated when they have to copy uncompleted items from day to day. As William James once wrote, “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” So jot down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in a day. Some people have success using online organizational websites to help them stay on track. For example, on www.Toodledo.com, users can create goals for themselves, color code them, assign themselves deadlines, prioritize the tasks in a “hotlist,” and keep track of the time spent on each project. There are other similar sites as well, including many that are compatible with PDAs and smart phones. (Of course, the old-fashioned system of a pen and a sticky note works fine, too.)
‘Tis the season … of short stories! Contests and journals are currently calling for submissions; to be selected, your story must stand out. By building strongly defined characters, a rich backstory, and the perfect pace and momentum, you can ensure your work makes the cut. Write & Sell Superior Short Stories is a kit that guides you through every phase of writing your short story, from gathering ideas to publishing your completed work. With creative writing prompts, advice from writing experts, and step-by-step guides to constructing scenes, choosing the right narrative and more, this kit will help you compose short stories that readers love and publishers can’t resist. Includes: Crafting Novels & Short Stories, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?, Writing with Emotion, Tension and Conflict, 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and much more!
Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.
When I started reading Gone Girl, I’ll admit I had high expectations. “It’s incredible,” one friend told me after recommending it and praising it profusely. “You just won’t even believe what happens …” She stopped short, looking guilty. “I can’t say any more,” she said, almost at a whisper. “I don’t want to give anything away.”
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t want to give anything away either. But suffice it to say (and you’ve probably heard it already) that Gone Girl contains some killer plot twists. The narrative builds and builds, and then—boom—a major revelation is revealed. And then another. And another. It makes for a delicious, tense, uncomfortable, and incredibly thrilling ride.
And here’s the thing: As implausible as some of the occurrences in Gone Girl are, they’re also set up in such a way that I embraced each of them, one right after the other. They felt organic. They felt natural. They didn’t feel forced.
How do we do that when writing fiction? How do we write plot twists and turns into our stories without seeming overly obvious? How do we surprise readers without coming completely out of left field?
In this excerpt from Story Trumps Structure, Steven James presents four ways to craft plot twists that readers will never see coming.
PLOT TWISTS: PRACTICAL STEPS TO PULLING THE RUG OUT
1. Eliminate the obvious
When coming up with the climax to your story, discard every possible solution you can think of for your protagonist to succeed.
Then think of some more.
And discard those, too.
You’re trying to create an ending that’s so unforeseen that if a million people read your book, not one of them would guess how it ends (or how it will get to the end), but when they finally come to it, every one of those people would think, Yes! That makes perfect sense! Why didn’t I see that coming?
The more impossible the climax is for your protagonist to overcome, the more believable and inevitable the escape or solution needs to be. No reader should anticipate it, but everyone should nod and smile when it happens. No one guesses, everyone nods. That’s what you’re shooting for.
While writing, ask yourself:
What do I need to change to create a more believable world for each separate twist I’m including?
How can I drop the gimmicks and depend more on the strength of the narrative to build my twist?
Will readers have to “put up with” the story that’s being told in anticipation of a twist ending, or will they enjoy it even more because of the twist? How can I improve the pretwist story?
How can I make better use of the clues that prove the logic of the surface story to create the twist and bring more continuity to the story—but only after the twist is revealed?
2. Redirect suspicion
When you work on your narrative, constantly ask yourself what readers are expecting and hoping for at this moment in the story. Then keep twisting the story into new directions that both shock and delight them.
To keep readers from noticing clues, bury them in the emotion or action of another section. For example, in an adventure novel, offhandedly mention something during a chase scene, while readers’ attention is on the action, not the revelation. Use red herrings, dead ends, and foils. Bury clues in discussions of something else.
While writing, ask yourself:
How can I do a better job of burying the clues readers need to have in order to accept the ending? Where do I need to bring those clues to the surface?
How can I play expectations based on genre conventions against readers to get them to suspect the wrong person as the villain or antagonist?
3. Avoid gimmicks
Readers want their emotional investment to pay off. The twist should never occur in a way that makes them feel tricked, deceived, or insulted. Great twists always deepen, never cheapen, readers’ investment in the story.
This is why dream sequences typically don’t work—the protagonist thinks she’s in a terrible mess, then wakes up and realizes it was all just a dream. These aren’t twists because they almost never escalate the story but often do the very opposite, revealing to readers that things weren’t really that bad after all (de-escalation). Showing a character experiencing a harrowing or frightening experience and then having him wake up from a dream is not a twist; it’s a tired cliché.
How do you solve this? Simply tell the reader it’s a dream beforehand. It can be just as frightening without de-escalating the story’s tension, and it can also end in a way that’s not predictable.
While writing, ask yourself:
Will readers feel tricked, deceived, or insulted by this twist? If so, how can I better respect their ability to guess the ending of my story?
Have I inadvertently relied on clichés or on any plot turning points that have appeared in other books or movies? How can I recast the story so it’s fresh and original?
4. Write toward your readers’ reaction.
The way you want your readers to respond will determine the way you set up your twist. Three different types of twists all result in different reactions by readers: (1) “No way!” (2) “Huh. Nice!” and (3) “Oh, yeah!”
When aiming for the “No way!” response, you’ll want to lead readers into certainty. You want them to think that there’s only one possible solution to the story.
The more you can convince them that the story world you’ve portrayed is exactly as it appears to be—that only one outcome to the novel is possible—the more you’ll make their jaws drop when you show them that things were not as they appeared to be at all. If the twist is satisfying, credible, and inevitable based on what has preceded it, readers will gasp and exclaim, “No way! That’s awesome! I can’t believe he got that one past me.”
With the “Huh. Nice!” ending, you want to lead readers into uncertainty. Basically, they’ll be thinking, “Man, I have no idea where this is going.” When writing for this response, you’ll create an unbalanced, uncertain world. You don’t want readers to suspect only one person as the villain but many people. Only when the true villain is revealed will readers see that everything was pointing in that direction all along.
Finally, if you’re shooting for the “Oh, yeah!” reaction, you’ll want to emphasize the cleverness with which the main character gets out of the seemingly impossible-to-escape-from climax. Often we do that by allowing him to use a special gift, skill, or emblem that has been shown to readers earlier but that they aren’t thinking about when they reach the climax. Then, when the protagonist pulls it out, readers remember: “Yes! That’s right! He carries a can of shark repellent in his wetsuit! I forgot all about that!”
Relentlessly escalate your story while keeping it believable, surprising, and deeper than it appears.
While writing, ask yourself:
If I want to shock readers with the twist, have I led them into certainty as they try to predict the ending?
If I want readers to suspect a number of different endings, have I satisfactorily built up all the potential outcomes?
If I want readers to cheer at the ending, have I (1) created a seemingly impossible situation for the protagonist to escape from or conquer or (2) allowed the protagonist to persevere through wit or grit rather than with the help of someone else (that is, deus ex machina)?
Putting ideas out in the world takes courage, so playing it safe with your writing can be an appealing strategy. Faced with limited writing time and abundant competition, you figure out what … Read more
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A strong narrative voice gives your fiction a distinctive flavor and makes it stand out in a slush pile. But many beginning novelists struggle with finding their narrative voice, and some opt … Read more
Prewriting. Freewriting. Mind Mapping. Clustering. If you’ve taken a creative writing or English composition class, you’ve likely encountered these terms. They represent an important step in the writing process and, in my … Read more
March seems like a good checkpoint for New Year’s writing goals: Two months into the New Year, you probably have a sense of whether a resolution made in January will become a reality by December.
If “start a book” was on your January to-do list, how’s it coming? If you hit the ground running and are well into your first draft, congratulations! But if you feel overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and are questioning why you thought you could write a book in the first place, consider this: The problem may be as simple as setting vague (and therefore unreachable) goals.
As with any long-term project, a book project becomes achievable when you break it into segments. These writing tips can help you start a book:
Think in terms of weeks and chapters, versus months and final word counts.
Reduce each chapter into components, and each week into days.
Turn these mileposts into mini-deadlines, and reward yourself every time you meet one.
1. Set Reasonable, Measurable Goals. Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.
2. Divide and Conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal.
3. Create a Plan of Ordered Tasks. Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.
4. Select Dates and Stick to Them. “Someday I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, chocolate cake, or what have you.
Before I get to some book reviews and interviews that have been on the back burner, It's "catch up" time for some tagging. In March I was tagged by two cool bloggers, Rachna Chhabria and Linda Jackson with The Lucky 7 Meme tag. Here's how tagging works (although some of you already know this):
1. Go to page 77 of your current MS, WIP. 2.Go to line 7. 3.Copy down the next 7 lines, sentences or paragraphs and post them as they are written. 4.Tag 7 authors. 5.Let them know.
Soooooo, here are my 7 sentences: (The car in question is a Model-T)
If you’d like to quickly amass content for a book—without the pressure of actually having to work on one—consider blogging a book. Blogging is a fast and simple way to generate a body of targeted content and build your platform, which are key components of landing a book deal in today’s competitive marketplace.
When writing blog posts with the intention of creating a blogged book, be sure to:
Develop each post as a stand-alone unit with a beginning, middle and end so readers can “pick up” your book at any point;
Create flow from one post to the next by teasing readers to keep “turning pages”;
Link related posts to form a cohesive body of work.
In addition to creating cohesive and relevant content (as noted above), optimizing your blog, and utilizing best SEO practices, it’s important to write with passion in an authentic voice, says author and expert blogger Nina Amir in How to Blog a Book (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012):
“Successful blogs have at their helms bloggers who write with passion and purpose, who feel inspired and who every day show up as nothing less than their true selves with all their colors flying,” says Amir. “Almost every blogger I interviewed (for the book) who landed a book deal attributed his or her success to feeling passionate about the subject of the blog and being authentic while blogging. If you feel the need for inspiration, read their blogs.”
Here are more blogging tips from the book to inspire you:
Top 10 Blogging Tips for Blogging a Book
Read other blogs on your topic—and comment on them.
Get involved in groups and forums on your subject.
Read books on your topic.
Set up Google Alerts on your topic or on additional keywords related to your topic (and be sure to open the alerts and read the pertinent posts).
Ask some experts to write guest blog posts for you so you get a break.
Take a brief blogging vacation (tell your readers you are, in fact, on vacation for two or three days).
Do research on your topic.
Talk to other people who are interested in your topic or who are experts in your subject area.
Explore the possibility of using multimedia on your blog—audio and video.
Interview experts in your subject area and post the information or the interview; you can even post it as an audio clip, podcast, or video.
In the search for story-worthy ideas, most writers are sidelined by occasional bouts of creative myopia. When it sets in—when your field of inspiration narrows—it’s easy to convince yourself that your luck has run out and all the good ideas are taken. But finding exceptional writing ideas isn’t a matter of luck. Waiting passively for creativity to strike won’t put words on the page, either. The secret to cultivating writing inspiration is to go out and hunt it down—in unexpected places.
“Curiosity, attention, a little bravado, and a willingness to break routines lead to great writing ideas,” says writing coach Don Fry. “You lurk, listen, ask questions, and find experts. You can prowl the Internet, but the best writing ideas come from face to face interaction with people.”
He offers these great writing tips and more from his new book Writing Your Way (Writer’s Digest Books):
6 Surprising Ways to Find Writing Ideas
“The best ideas are subjects that other writers haven’t written about, or haven’t noticed. The following writing techniques work because they dynamite you out of your routine ways of thinking and dealing with the world. They make the world ‘strange’ so you can see it fresh.
1. Explain Common Things
Ask experts to explain how ordinary things work, preferably things invisible to the public. For example, how does your town’s water-purification system work? What happens to recycled plastic? How do wine aerators work? What do lifeguards look for? What makes chocolate taste good?
2. Mine Your Emotions
If something bothers or puzzles you, find out why by interviewing people with similar reactions. You’ll discover you’re not alone in never changing your passwords, buying lottery tickets, or your fear of high bridges. I’ve always wondered if my parents are really my parents, which turns out to be a fairly common doubt.
3. Follow Alternative Paths
Take alternate routes to your normal destinations, and try out different types of transportation, especially slower ones that let you see more. Leave your car at home and walk to work, or ride a bike. Climb stairs instead of taking elevators, take the service elevator, or enter through back doors.
4. Cultivate Weirdos
Your mother taught you never to talk with strangers. Good advice for children, bad advice for writers. Strike up conversations with people you don’t know, even cultivating weirdos. Introduce yourself to airplane seatmates, to people carrying a sign or wearing a name tag.
5. Lower Your Standards
Accept any piece of paper handed to you on the street. Read junk mail. Watch awful TV shows and ask why they appeal to anyone. Buy TV gadget offers, test them, and try to get your money back.
6. Make Yourself Into Somebody Else
Role-play the lives of people with viewpoints different from yours or your readers’. I once spent half a day in a wheelchair and learned about hazards I never imagined. Bob Graham, the former governor of Florida, did manual labor one day a month to understand the public.
All of these writing techniques jar you out of your normal vision, because that’s where the writing ideas are, invisible in plain sight.”
Show, don’t tell. Most writers have heard this maxim at some point, whether from a teacher, an editor or an agent. But what does this writing advice mean, in practical terms?
While a certain amount of exposition is unavoidable (and even useful) in your writing, it’s easy to “over-share” the minutiae of your story’s background and your characters’ lives. When writing a novel, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve a balance of showing and telling:
Be brief. Make sure that all of your “telling” details are actually necessary to advance the plot, either by developing backstory, establishing the mood/tone, or describing the setting.
Avoid the dreaded “info dump.” Don’t overwhelm your reader with information in your story’s first few pages. Focus on capturing her attention with a compelling character and an interesting situation, then fold in the details as the plot develops.
Steer clear of cliches. Never start a story with a character waking up and starting his day—unless you want to put your reader to sleep.
Author and editor Jeff Gerke offers the following writing advice for balancing showing and telling from his book The First 50 Pages (Writer’s Digest Books):
Showing vs. Telling in Your Writing: The Camera Test
I’ll give you a little tool here that could revolutionize your understanding of showing and telling in fiction. I may not be the first person to talk about it in these terms, but I know I’ve never heard it before I thought it up. So at least I’m its co-inventor.
Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can’t see it—not in other people’s fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can’t even see? There’s a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?
There are exceptions, but Can the camera see it? is a terrific tool for helping you begin to see the telling in a manuscript. Let’s test it:
Urlandia was a peaceful realm. Peasants and nobles alike lived in harmony despite the occasional bout with famine or invaders from the neighboring kingdom of Dum. There were heroes and cads, pirates and tavern wenches, and in all, their lives were good.
Okay, aside from this being deadly dull, is it showing or telling? Let’s load up the testing gun and fire: Can the camera see it?
Your mind might have conjured up an image of a fantasy countryside with green meadows, vast forests, and castles with pennants flapping in the breeze, but how could you have seen “the occasional bouts with famine”? How could you see that their lives were good? You couldn’t. You weren’t shown any of this—you were simply told. And it probably left you feeling a little sleepy.
It would be quite possible to convert this telling to showing by depicting things before the camera’s lens that suggest each of these elements. But right now it’s unconverted telling. I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve seen that start like this. And I’ve rejected every single one of them. You don’t want your book rejected, so don’t put telling anywhere in the first fifty pages.
Veronica shifted into park and got out of her VW bug. She shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun and stared at the house. It was smaller than she remembered. And had it always been this run-down, or had it fallen into disrepair only lately? It had once been white, but the siding slats desperately needed a new paint job.<
I was reading through some of our older science fiction titles, and I came upon Worlds of Wonder by David Gerrold (published in 2001). As I was flipping through the book, I read an opening line that intrigued me:
“All writing is list-making. Nothing more. The trick is knowing what to put next on the list.”
This seemed a puzzlingly simple notion–that developing the plot of your story was in some way akin to the act of jotting down your grocery list. And yet, as I started to read further, what the author was saying made a lot of sense:
The thing about Lego bricks is that you can build just about anything you can imagine–if you’re patient enough. People have built whole cities out of Lego bricks. The problem is that you have to figure out yourself how to put the things together. While there might be instructions on how to build a specific kind of Lego castle, there are no instructions on how you can build the castle that exists in your own imagination.
Planning your story is the same experience. You have a sense of what you want it to be, how you want the pieces to fit together, but actually getting this brick to fit next to that one…. Pretty soon, you start to wonder how the hell Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Frederik Pohl and Richard Matheson and Jack Finney and Anne McCaffrey and C.J. Cherryh and Connie Willis can make it look so easy.
David goes on to suggest this exercise, which I share with you below. (A sidenote: What’s particularly amusing about it is that he is the writer of the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek: The Original Series, which is, in my opinion, one of the best Star Trek episodes ever.)
Get yourself a stack of index cards. Write a one-line synopsis of each specific scene that you think should be in your story, one scene per card. Don’t worry about writing them down in any specific order. Just write them down as fast as you think of them:
Lt. Uhura brings a tribble aboard the Enterprise.
Lt. Uhura first gets the tribble from a local merchant.
Uhura’s tribble has a litter of little tribbles.
Scotty discovers tribbles in the air vents.
Kirk finds a tribble on his captain’s chair.
Kirk and Spock beam over to the space station. Kirk opens up the storage compartments and lots of tribbles fall down on his head.
But this isn’t enough for a complete story. You need a second plot line too, something to complicate the first one:
The Klingons want shore leave, but what they really want is … to disrupt the plan for Sherman’s Planet.
The Klingons are on the speace station. A barroom brawl breaks out.
Kirk investigates the fight. He bawls out Scotty and restricts him to quarters. Scotty is glad for the chance to read his technical manuals.
The plan for Sherman’s Planet is that Earthwillplant a new grain. If nothing earthlike will grow, the Klingons get the planet.
The Klingons are here to poison the grain.
The tribbles eat the poisoned grain, reproduce like crazy and fall on Kirk’s head, but McCoy discovers that they’re dying.
Now, take all these separate cards and shuffle them together and start laying them out on the kitchen table in the order you think they should go. First organize each plot line in its own thread. Then you can go back and forth between separate threads, picking up the next appropriate scene from each.
When you have all the cards laid out in order, go through them as if you’re reading a comic book or a storyboard and see if they re
Powerful, surprising, and fascinating personal essays are also “reader-friendly essays” that keep the reader squarely in focus. So how do you go about writing one? In this excerpt from Crafting the Personal Essay, author Dinty W. Moore shares a variety of methods for crafting an essay that keeps the reader’s desires and preferences in mind, resulting in a resonate and truly memorable piece. As Moore says, “Privacy is for your diary. Essays are for readers.”
Writing the Reader-Friendly Essay
Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions. Like all artists of any form, essay writers occasionally find themselves breaking away from tradition or common practice in search of a fresh approach. Rules, as they say, are meant to be broken.
But even groundbreakers learn by observing what has worked before. If you are not already in the habit of reading other writers with an analytical eye, start forming that habit now. When you run across a moment in someone else’s writing that seems somehow electric on the page, stop, go back, reread the section more slowly, and ask yourself, “What did she do here, put into this, or leave out, that makes it so successful?”
Similarly and often just as important, if you are reading a piece of writing and find yourself confused, bored, or frustrated, stop again, back up, squint closely at the writing, and form a theory as to how, when, or where the prose went bad.
Identifying the specific successful moves made by others increases the number of arrows in your quiver, ready for use when you sit down to start your own writing. Likewise, identifying the missteps in other writers’ work makes you better at identifying the missteps in your own.
Remember the Streetcar
Tennessee Williams’ wonderful play, A Streetcar Named Desire, comes from a real streetcar in New Orleans and an actual neighborhood named Desire. In Williams’ day, you could see the streetcar downtown with a lighted sign at the front telling folks where the vehicle was headed. The playwright saw this streetcar regularly—and also saw, of course, the metaphorical possibilities of the name.
Though this streetcar no longer runs, there is still a bus called Desire in New Orleans, and you’ve certainly seen streetcars or buses in other cities with similar, if less evocative, destination indicators: Uptown, Downtown, Shadyside, West End, Prospect Park.
People need to know what streetcar they are getting onto, you see, because they want to know where they will be when the streetcar stops and lets them off.
Excuse the rather basic transportation lesson, but it explains my first suggestion. An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.
Now there are dull ways of putting up your lighted sign:
This essay is about the death of my beloved dog.
Let me tell you about what happened to me last week.
And there are more artful ways.
Readers tend to appreciate the more artful ways.
For instance, let us look at how Richard Rodriguez opens his startling essay “Mr. Secrets”:
Shortly after I published my first autobiographical essay seven years ago, my mother wrote me a letter pleading with me never again to write about our family life. “Write about something else in the future. Our family life is private.” And besides: “Why do you need to tell the gringos about how ‘divided’ you feel from the family?” I sit at my desk now, surrounded by versions of paragraphs and pages of this book, considering that question.
Where is the lighted streetcar sign in that paragraph?
Well, consider that Rodriguez has
introduced the key characters who will inhabit his essay: himself and his mother,
informed us that writing is central to his life,
clued us in that this is also a story of immigration and assimilation (gringos), and
provided us with the central question he will be considering throughout the piece: Why does he feel compelled to tell strangers the ins and outs of his conflicted feelings?
These four elements—generational conflict between author and parent, the isolation of a writer, cultural norms and difference, and the question of what is public and what is private—pretty much describe the heart of Rodriguez’s essay.
Or to put it another way, at every stop along the way—each paragraph, each transition—we are on a streetcar passing through these four thematic neighborhoods, and Rodriguez has given us a map so we can follow along.
Find a Healthy Distance
Another important step in making your personal essay public and not private is finding a measure of distance from your experience, learning to stand back, narrow your eyes, and scrutinize your own life with a dose of hale and hearty skepticism.
Why is finding a distance important? Because the private essay hides the author. The personal essay reveals. And to reveal means to let us see what is truly there, warts and all.
The truth about human nature is that we are all imperfect, sometimes messy, usually uneven individuals, and the moment you try to present yourself as a cardboard character—always right, always upstanding (or always wrong, a total mess)—the reader begins to doubt everything you say. Even if the reader cannot articulate his discomfort, he knows on a gut level that your perfect (or perfectly awful) portrait of yourself has to be false.
And then you’ve lost the reader.
Pursue the Deeper Truth
The best writers never settle for the insight they find on the surface of whatever subject they are exploring. They are constantly trying to lift the surface layer, to see what interesting ideas or questions might lie beneath.
To illustrate, let’s look at another exemplary essay, “Silence the Pianos,” by Floyd Skloot.
Here is his opening:
A year ago today, my mother stopped eating. She was ninety-six, and so deep in her dementia that she no longer knew where she was, who I was, who she herself was. All but the last few seconds had vanished from the vast scroll of her past.
Essays exploring a loved one’s decline into dementia or the painful loneliness of a parent’s death are among the most commonly seen by editors of magazines and judges of essay contests. There is a good reason for this: These events can truly shake us to our core. But too often, when writing about such a significant loss, the writer focuses on the idea that what has happened is not fair and that the loved one who is no longer around is so deeply missed.
Are these emotions true?
Yes, they are.
Are they interesting for a reader?
Often, they simply are not.
The problem is that there are certain things readers already know, and that would include the idea that the loss of a loved one to death or dementia is a deep wound, that it seems not fair when such heartbreak occurs, and that we oftentimes find ourselves regretting not having spent more time with the lost loved one.
These reactions seem truly significant when they occur in our own lives, and revisiting them in our writing allows us to experience those powerful feelings once again. For this reason it is hard to grasp that the account of our loss might have little or no impact on a reader who did not know this loved one, or does not know you, and who does not have the emotional reaction already in the gut.
In other words, there are certain “private” moments that feel exhilarating to revisit, and “private” sentences that seem stirring to write and to reread as we edit our early drafts, but they are not going to have the same effect in the public arena of publishable prose.
In the last twenty years of teaching writing, the most valuable lesson that I have found myself able to share is the need for us as writers to step outside of our own thoughts, to imagine an audience made up of real people on the other side of the page. This audience does not know us, they are not by default eager to read what we have written, and though thoughtful literate readers are by and large good people with large hearts, they have no intrinsic stake in whatever problems (or joys) we have in our lives.
This is the public, the readers you want to invite into your work.
Self-expression may be the beginning of writing, but it should never be the endpoint. Only by focusing on these anonymous readers, by acknowledging that you are creating something for them, something that has value, something that will enrich their existence and make them glad to have read what you have written, will you find a way to truly reach your audience.
And that—truly reaching your audience and offering them something of value—is perhaps as good a definition of successful writing as I’ve ever heard.
One of the main concerns writers should have when planning and writing a series is consistency. But what does it mean to be consistent? It’s more than just keeping track of the character names, physical attributes, family trees, and locations in a notebook or Excel spreadsheet; it’s about presenting the logical facts that you’ve established in a series in a consistent manner, from book to book
. Why is this so important? Because even if you (or your editor) don’t notice your inconsistencies, the fans of your series most certainly will—and they’ll definitely call you out on it. If you keep your facts straight and avoid inconsistency mistakes, your readers won’t be pulled from the story–and will stay hungry for more.
Below, Karen S. Wiesner discusses the five major red flags of inconsistency—and what you can do to prevent them in your own fiction series.
Oversights are a catchall category for anything in a plotline, character, or setting that concerns illogical, unexplainable, or unrealistic courses of action and plot holes, including coincidence contrivance (writer needs it to work and so creates the groundwork on the spot to patch up a means to force it to work) and convenience justifications (it was the only way to make A fit with B, so I had to do it, didn’t I?).
A deus ex machina situation is one in which an improbable event or element is introduced into a story to resolve all the problematic situations and bring the story to a close. In a conventional Greek tragedy the producers actually lowered an actor playing a god onto the stage at the end of the play and he resolved all the conflicts. Talk about unsatisfying for the audience! Any author worth his salt needs to create plausible backstory and motivation for every action, and she has to make characters heroic enough to solve their own problems. That’s why Oversights are so major in series consistency.
If your character does something that makes no sense in the course of the action or in terms of their internal conflicts and motivations, or if you include a plot point merely for convenience sake, you’ve got yourself a nasty oversight. If, in one book, your character is so scarred by the death of a spouse that he doesn’t believe he can ever move on or fall in love again, and in the next book he has already become involved with someone new and never thinks about how he’s a widower, you’ve made a huge oversight that readers probably won’t tolerate, let alone accept. In other words, you go from one situation to the next without any explanation for the radical change. If you want something to be believable, you need to set it up logically and you need to set it up early enough so it will be readily accepted by the reader. That absolutely requires advance planning.
2. Changed Premise
This category includes information given in one episode that directly contradicts information in another. In a series this can be fatal. If your book series has a Changed Premise from one book to the next, readers will lose respect. If anything concerning character, plot, or setting conflicts with something that was previously established, it would fit under the Changed Premise heading. If you alter the structure or foundational facts that were previously set up in the series, even if you do it for a very good reason, you’ve changed the premise for the story, and readers will notice. If you can’t find a way to make something believable within the entire scope of the series, you’ll lose readers, perhaps for the remainder of the series. As an example, if your vampire can’t see his own reflection in the first two books in the series, but in the third he desperately needs to be able to see his reflection in order for your plot to work, you’ve changed an established premise. You’ll have to come up with a solid bit of plausibility to get readers to accept the change. If you create a world in which no outsiders are tolerated in the first three books, yet in the fourth one a stranger shows up and is ushered into the heart of the community with open arms, you’ve changed the premise of your series.
3. Technical Problems
While problems with equipment and technical oddities were often an issue in science fiction shows like Star Trek and TheX-Files, (and may be in your series, too, if you include a lot of technology that must be realistic), this kind of inconsistency can also deal with inadvertently or indiscriminately jumping into alternate viewpoints or changing descriptions of characters or settings because what was previously mentioned has been forgotten. If your character always speaks in a certain dialect and suddenly stops in a subsequent book, that’s a technical problem. Names and jobs can also accidentally change through the course of a series. If your character’s hair color or eye color changes, or if he was 6’5″ in the first two books in the series but drops an inch in later stories, you have what may be considered technical problems.
For instance, in The X-Files both main characters used cell phones throughout most of the series, but the phones were used inconsistently, in ways that forced the viewers to question the logic. In one episode, Mulder was trapped underground in the middle of a desert called Nowhere—was there actually a cell phone tower nearby that allowed him to get good reception? In other cases Mulder and Scully didn’t use the phones when they should have, and in each of these cases, it was convenient to the plot and for the writers/creators that they didn’t use their phones to call the other to their rescue because it would have solved the plot of that particular episode too quickly.
These are probably minor and simply annoying issues at most, and you probably won’t lose any readers with such blunders, but dotting all your Is and crossing all your Ts will make fans appreciate you that much more.
4. Continuity and Production Issues
Again, in both The X-Files and Star Trek, errors often crept up as a direct result of someone on staff not checking the manual or previous episodes before going ahead with the episode. How often was a setting shot reused and only slightly altered in Star Trek because coming up with something new would have been expensive or time consuming? In a classic Star Trek episode, the creators decided to establish that the Romulans had stolen the design of Klingon ships—so they could use a Klingon ship they’d already created. Not only that, but the Romulans also used Klingon weapons. Cheaper for the creators, yes, but viewers can’t help but groan at these production issues. If you’re doing anything “halfway” with your series simply because it would be a hassle to find a better, more creative way of handling it, you’re making your own production problems. Readers will feel your impatience and probably wonder why you skimped.
If you give a character two birthdays or have him get younger instead of older as a series progresses, these are less crucial issues but nevertheless problems. I call issues like these minor because, unless you have fans who are ravenous and must know and understand every facet of your series, many won’t sit down and figure out timelines or even see a problem.
5. Unanswered Questions
If the author is never going to answer a nagging question, why invest anything, especially time and passion, in the series? Leaving a series arc dangling isn’t something an author can do in a book series unless she sets up the series from the first as an open-ended one that probably won’t have definitive closure. While each book in the series must have satisfactory individual story arc resolutions, all series-arc questions must be answered in the final book of the series or readers will be furious, perhaps enough to ban you as an author for life. They’ll feel cheated and rightly so. Don’t underestimate the damage a vengeful reader can do to your career. (Have you read Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne? Do it now and take heed!)To write a series is to promise the closure and/or resolution of unanswered series arc questions. Think of it this way: With the first book in your series, you’ve presented a question and asked your readers to be patient as you string out the development of this theme through several books. You’ve promised that an answer will be delivered in the last book. If you don’t deliver it, you’ve stolen time, money, and even reader emotions, all with a careless shrug of purposeful neglect.
Contemplating a series? You’ll definitely want to check out Writing the Fiction Series by Karen S. Wiesner; it’s the complete guide to crafting an engrossing, compelling and consistent fiction series of novels or novellas.
Rachel Randall is the managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books.
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As we discussed in the first installment of Digging in the Dashboard, WordPress.com has so many great features that it’s tough to be familiar with them all. I’m still discovering new ones myself! Let’s keep the discovery going with three more features that might be new to you. This time, …
No matter what the genre, a good writer needs to set the mood for readers. Whether it’s a creaky old house or the tense moments leading up to a final confrontation, atmosphere can make or break the experience in any piece of writing. It makes the story believable.
In the following excerpt from The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, author Jeff Gerke walks us through (withexamples) using specific word choice and description to paint the kind of picture that keeps readers turning the page or glancing over their shoulder. Moreover, he shows us how we can use the same setting for three different places, but, by adding and changing detail, create drastically different moods. In this sense, the settings become different because the mood and atmosphere have changed.
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Here’s an example in setting mood through word choice. I’m going to describe the same place three times but set three different moods. The place: a house in the suburbs.
A shadow lay over the yard like a grave cloth. The grass was long and unkempt. Against the bole of a withered oak lay a child’s ball shrouded by the creeping Bermuda. The features of the house shimmered in the blaze of the afternoon, blurred beyond recognition to the unwary stranger.
Okay, a bit cheesy, maybe, but you get the point. Not a fun place to go.
Zinnias blossomed against the cherry tree beside the front porch, their sun-kissed inner circles wreathed in bashful pink. At the base of the grand oak, a mother rabbit led her furry litter out from the shade of a rhododendron’s lacy leaves. She sniffed the breeze with delicate nostrils, brushed her eye with a paw, and bounded into the sun.
Ah, a more pleasant place, yes? A Disney moment.
The dirt showed through the grass in brown scars. The grass that remained was brittle and sharp, like a smoker’s eyebrows. Signs remained of the home’s luxuriant past—the garden path, the children’s toys, the “Home of the Week” sign out front—but they lay wasted. An American flag still fluttered on its pole, but the sun had washed it out to a milky translucence, and its trailing edge was shredded. It hung from only one tether, twisting in the wind like a castaway’s last cry for rescue.
I was describing the same place in all three passages: A yard, grass, some trees, and stuff on the lawn. But I created vastly different feelings for the scene that could then take place there.
I did this by means of three tricks. First, I selected different details to point out each time. All the things I mentioned could be there in the yard each time—the flag, the bunny, the child’s ball—but by plucking out specific details that supported the mood I was after, I was able to construct different images in your mind.
Second, I made heavy use of word pictures and comparisons. You’ll notice I never resorted to personification, in which I could’ve brought inanimate objects to life (“the weeds tried to choke the joy from the yard,” that sort of thing). The similes were sufficient.
Third, I chose my vocabulary carefully. In the first one, I used words like grave cloth, bole, shrouded, withered, and creeping. In the second, I used blossomed, furry, bashful, and bounded. (Plus a bunny—you can never go wrong with a furry bunny if you want to paint a happy mood.) In the third, I used wasted, brittle, and cry, plus images of regret and loneliness.
Actually, I did a fourth thing to create the mood I was after. This one’s so subtle I didn’t realize I was doing it until I stepped back and took a look. I used words that “sounded to the eye” like other words that helped paint the picture I was going for. For instance, I used shimmered when I was thinking shivered. I used cherry to sound close to cheery. And I used lacy to sound like lazy, as in relaxed.
Pretty cool, huh? I’ve gone a bit overboard to illustrate, but you can achieve the same effect with a less heavy hand simply by being mindful of the mood you’re trying to create.
You can do this to convey the narrator’s mood, too. Indeed, you could combine both advanced techniques in this book into one. You’ve got a viewpoint character who is the narrator, and now you want to illustrate his mood, so you do so by having him describe things in ways that reveal his inner state. Now we’re really at heady altitude.
The same house and yard might look all three of these ways at different points in the story depending on how the viewpoint character is feeling at the moment. We all see things we want to see—or fear—and your characters are no different.
So try it. Do you have a scene you want your reader to perceive as happy, frightening, or sad? Do you want the reader to arrive at the scene feeling wary, disarmed, or flush with young love? Then take out your paint kit (your thesaurus) and begin selecting your palette.
It should work the other way around, too. If you’re about to write a scene that is supposed to be scary, be mindful of the images and vocabulary you use to describe the setting. You should probably remove the happy family of bunnies, in other words.
Your words are setting a mood for your scenes, whether you think about them or not. I’m just asking you to think about them. You want your descriptions to help set the mood you’re after, not work against you.
Descriptions are like paintings. An artist will choose her tools carefully. The brushes, the canvas, the paints, the colors, and more. All of these help her convey the image and feeling she wants to create in the painting.
So it is in your fiction. It’s the words and images you choose in your description that convey the mood you want to create for your scenes. Be mindful of your tools, and paint away!
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For more useful tips and instruction, Jeff Gerke’s The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fictionis available now! And with instruction on the hero’s inner journey, flashbacks, showing vs. telling, POV, and dialogue, it’s more than just a book for thewriter of Christian fiction. There’s something in this book for everyone.
Cris Freese is the associate editor of Writer’s Digest Books.
If you've been following along with The Radleys Blog Tour, celebrating the book's paperback release on 9/20, you know YABC is the last stop on the tour. If not, head on over to the official tour page to find out what's up and how you can win a THE RADLEYS prize pack!
At the end of each tour week, one person who commented on all participating blogs for that week will be selected as a Radleys Blog Tour winner. The winner will be announced on Helen and Rowan’s twitter accounts @Helen_Radley and @rowanradley. (If you aren't following them already, I suggest you do so. Pronto!)
The prize will be a copy of THE RADLEYS in both hardcover and paperback signed by author Matt Haig and some blood-red hot chocolate.
How awesome is that?
And to make things even more awesome-er, we have an exclusive excerpt from The Radleys, just for you! (Tip: if it's too small, click to read in full screen mode.) The Radleys by Matt Haig
To celebrate the release of the fourth book in The Iron Fey series, we've got a giveaway and an exclusive excerpt for you!
A bit about The Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa:
My name—my True Name—is Ashallayn'darkmyr Tallyn. I am the last remaining son of Mab, Queen of the Unseelie Court. And I am dead to her. My fall began, as many stories do, with a girl…
Here's what our staff reviewer had to say:
"The Iron Knight has been a book I have been highly anticipating for ages. I had a bit of a hard time getting into it, I think because I knew this was Ash and Megan’s final tale and I didn’t want the story to end. Once a few chapters had passed, I was completely engrossed and barely put down the book until I finished." Click here to read the full review and submit one of your own!
And now for an exclusive The Iron Knight excerpt:
There were three of us at one time, all princes of Winter, myself and my brothers, Sage and Rowan. I never knew my sire, never cared to know him, nor did my siblings ever speak of him. I wasn’t even positive we shared the same sire, but it didn’t matter. In the Unseelie Court, Mab was the sole ruler, the one and only queen. Handsome fey and even wayward mortals she might take to her bed, but Mab shared her throne with no one.
Don't forget to head over to Novel Novice tomorrow to read the next excerpt!
As any children’s picture book author will attest, writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. In fact, it’s probably more difficult, and here’s why: The story must appeal to … Read more