Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Please, No Need to Explain

Today, we're going to discuss repetition, especially where it fits in with details while writing your scene.

I'm sure you've read it before. I'm sure you've written it before. Heck, I certainly have!

You write a beautifully descriptive sentence about a character's actions. Then, you explain it.

Don't know what I'm talking about? Here's an example:

Wanda fiddled with her pen. She looked from me to the bundle of fur in my arms and finally rested her eyes on the dusty ceiling fan. "You found it, huh?" she said skeptically. 

You've already shown us through Wanda's actions and her words that she's skeptical about the story the protagonist has told her. Repeating this skepticism by writing, "she said skeptically" is redundant.

Why shouldn't we explain details in our writing?

1) It's Unnecessary: You've just shown us through action and dialogue that a character feels a certain way. No need to beat us over the head with the emotions.

2) Showing is Better Than Telling: We've heard it since the fifth grade, folks. Show don't tell. If you can show through stage direction and action how a character feels, why would you instead choose to tell your readers? It's so much more real and immersive when they're involved in the scene.

3) It Insults the Reader: When you repeat information twice in the same paragraph - sometimes in the same sentence! - you're basically telling the reader that they're too thick to understand from your subtle actions what your characters are feeling, so you're going to write it down in plain English for them to grasp. Your readers are smart. You are smart. No need to repeat what's already been conveyed.

So the next time you're editing or even writing your scene, try not to explain what's happening. If you're properly conveying stage action and details as they unfold organically from your characters, there's no need to go back through and tell us that Benji feels slighted, Amanda is frustrated, and the entirety of Wisconsin is hip-deep in snowfall.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What The Sun Taught Me (AKA: writing characters who aren't like you)

In my spare time I write content for a free environmental awareness Zine in my town. The pages are small (about the size of a greeting card) and so rarely require over 200 word submissions.

Though this means I'm not saddled with the burden of a 1,000 word essay every month, it is difficult to write content to fit within a 200 word maximum.

Another added dilemma comes in the form of themes. This month, with a theme of the Summer Solstice, I am writing a Sun Affirmation and a Yoga Sun Salutation Sequence. Sounds interesting, right? The only problem is: I'm allergic to sunlight.

When the sun's rays touch my skin, it inflames and breaks out in a hive-like rash that both feels like molten lava is trapped under my skin and like an army of tiny men with pitchforks are stabbing me repeatedly. I try to stay out of direct sunlight most of the time, and when I have to be in the sun, I usually feel like I'm going to vomit.

However, I know that I am in the minority. Most people love the sun. They love the warmth and the light and the general euphoria that comes with the fact that it's not raining or snowing or the apocalypse.

So, how in the world could I buck up my general avoidance of the large glowing star in the sky into adoration? How could I put aside my personal feelings and put myself in the shoes of others?


The first thing I did was read up on all the scientific reasons we need the sun to survive. It gave me a new look at the thing I'd grown to know as a hindrance. I had a new admiration for just how much the sun does on this Earth, and you know what? I started liking the sun, too.

Now, I'm not going to go out and bask under the rays for the rest of the day (that would hurt) but I did gain enough information and empathy to write the pieces required of me for this month's issue.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, eventually in your writing career, you will write a character that doesn't share all your same likes and dislikes. You'll write someone of another religion, or someone who dislikes the taste of chocolate, or someone who only wears the color green. It's your job as a writer to research and empathize with the type of person that has values that may not necessarily line up with your own. Not only will you write a fully-rounded and believable character, but you'll expand your own knowledge in the process.

So, go ahead. Give your protagonist a weird quirk or get inside your antagonist's head for awhile. See the world from their perspective and understand why they like or dislike a certain thing. When you research it for a moment, you may find things you were never aware existed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Balance of Mystery

You're writing a mystery novel. Even if no corpses or cops show up in your novel, it's a mystery novel nonetheless.

Why do I say this?

Because every good novel is at its core, a mystery. The tension of an hidden affair, an alien ship hanging over the backyard swimming pool, or a set of rare and valuable records vanishing - they're all full of tension. And the main goal of tension is to keep readers guessing. When they keep guessing, they keep flipping the pages.

Your job as a writer is to keep the mystery alive by laying clues down, but not solving them until the climax of the story.

So remember, even if you're writing for children, a literary romance, or a sci-fi stumbler, you have to keep the mystery alive to keep readers engaged.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Writer's Blessing

I'm not religious, but this seemed so very fitting for this week. I hope you have a wonderful writing week and feel free to spread the Writer's Blessing around!

Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/476326098069733776/

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On The Art of Pacing a Scene

Pacing is one of those illusive elements of the writing craft. You don't want to forge ahead at such a breakneck pace that your readers are gasping, but you also don't want to bore them on such a long amble that they put your book down and move on to the next one.

It seems like some writers are naturally blessed with the ability to perfectly pace a scene. They know when to slow down, when to speed up, and when to make time stop and hang in midair.

If you're not naturally blessed with pacing genius, how in the world is it something you can develop? This week, I'll share with you a few examples of ways to get your pacing under control.

First, my ultimate and overarching advice is to urge you to read. Read in your favorite genre, read outside it. Read anything you can get your hands on - whether it's a newspaper article or a five volume novel. Reading allows you to learn the pacing techniques of other writers firsthand. Some will be spot-on, others way off, and more still somewhere in the middle. If you read them all, you learn what works, what doesn't, and how to fix that in your own piece.

The second piece of advice is to understand your scene. If you're writing a romantic scene or a developmental moment in the plot, you'll want to slow down. If you're writing a chase scene with the killer, or a heated argument, you'll want to turn the pace up a notch.

Understanding what each particular moment in your novel needs is crucial. After you've identified, however, you then need to know what to do to get the desired slowing or quickening pace you're after.

Here are some ideas:

If you're slowing down - 1. Back up. Give readers descriptive passages of the setting, the characters, and what's happening. It's like panning the camera wide in a movie. We're able to see more of the surroundings so the shot can stay on the screen longer. There's more to hold our attention. 2. Get in their heads. Make sure you check in with your main character or other characters in the room and get their feelings, thoughts, and ideas on the page. This can be used to break up dialogue or to give readers a moment to digest the new plot information with the character.

If you're speeding up - 1. Get in the thick of it. Focus on the here and now in the scene. This is not the time for your protagonist to notice how long McFarlan Street is or to think back on the girl he met last night. Adrenaline is high, things are happening, and that's what your character and your reader care about right now. 2. The senses matter. Allow us to taste the blood of a split lip. Let us hear the roar of the approaching train. Give us the smell of the burning fuse. These concrete sensory images bring readers closer to the scene, and when you highlight the right sense with the right piece of information, the tension soars and your pace quickens.

One final snippet of advice: Write with your scene in mind. If you're in the middle of a fight scene, stick to short sentences - yes, even fragments. Strengthen your verbs and ditch all adjectives and adverbs - yes, all of them - to keep things moving.

On the flip side, for a slow scene, use longer, more fluid sentences and paragraphs. You can get away with more details and more adjectives and adverbs (though please try to cut as many as you possibly can. Remember the advice of the great Stephen King, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs".)

Above all, make sure you picture your scene while you're writing. If you're in tune with your characters while you write, they usually reveal the details, thoughts, senses and verbs you need at that given time. Remember, all you need to be a great writer is within you. You simply have to uncover it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tips for Reading Your Work to an Audience

This weekend I'll be reading at a poetry open mic in my town. As I prepare the poems I'm going to read, I though I'd share with you a few snippets of important info to keep in mind when you do a poetry reading aloud to an audience.

1. Slow Down: It's easy to get caught up in the adrenaline of the moment and race through your poem or short story. But remember, the crowd is gathered to hear your work. They want to be able to absorb and contemplate the beginning, middle, end, and every piece of metaphor and imagery you toss their way. If you speed through your poem, they won't be able to appreciate what you've created. So, take a deep breath and read slowly. You will undoubtedly think that you're reading much too slow for anyone to stay interested. Trust me, this is the correct speed.

2. Make Eye Contact: There's nothing that says amateur like reading your poem, line for line, without ever once making eye contact with the assembled crowd. Not only does it seem awkward, but it bars your listeners from making a connection with you, which means they won't feel connected to your poetry either.

3. Find Your Rhythm: Much like musicians, writers spend hours deciphering the mood of a poem. Read your poetry out loud. Find the correct cadence for each piece (which will be dictated by whether the work is serious, humorous, narrative, lyrical, or a combination of two or more styles). You can even write notes in the margins of your poem to remind yourself when to pause, speed up, and change your tone of voice.

Ready for your own poetry reading? Do a little homework by watching famous poets read their work aloud. Many are readily available on YouTube. Here are a few of my favorites:

Check out Billy Collins reading four poems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTxpQCY7df8&nohtml5=False

And if you're into slam poetry, this one by Lily Myers is amazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQucWXWXp3k&nohtml5=False

Above it all, though, just relax. The people gathered there do indeed want to hear your point of view and your ideas. Stay confident, stick to what you practiced and the performance will be over before you know it!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Fiction vs. Nonfiction - What's the Difference?

In my writer's group, we're a diverse bunch. There are literary fiction novelists, flash fiction scribes, essayists, poets, memoirists, writers for children, and international writers. The only way we're able to critique each other's work is by the fact that we understand and respect the rules and guidelines of each particular genre.

This got me thinking. What if my blog readers wanted to join a diverse writer's group? (One that doesn't say in the description, "We're a group of YA novelists helping each other on the way to publication", not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, if you're a YA novelist, you should join them. However, if that's not readily available around you, check out a diverse group, they're awesome.)

So, long story short, we're going to talk about the main difference between Fiction and Nonfiction.

This is great if you're critiquing the work of others, if you're a nonfiction writer with a novel idea, or a fiction writer ready to tackle the scientific explanation of worm holes.

What is the main difference between Fiction and Nonfiction?

Fiction poses questions, whereas nonfiction answers questions.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Think back to your high school days with all those giant textbooks. They often included bold headers throughout the chapter saying something like:

Why is the sky blue?

How does Carver embody minimalist style?

What is an integer? 

The paragraphs of text that followed those headers would answer the question and explain why the answer was that way.

However, this is not the case in fiction. In fiction, whether it's a short story, novella or novel, the best writers simply present us with a question.

Harper Lee posed the question of how innocence is destroyed, as well as the impacts of racism.

F. Scott Fitzgerald posed what facilitates the decline of the "American Dream".

Mary Shelley posed the question of what are the tolls in the pursuit of knowledge.

Being a fiction writer means that through your work, you uncover a question for the reader to ponder and create their own answers for. A nonfiction writer has the question predefined and uses their writing to provide answers for that problem.

It's the ultimate boiling down of the term, show don't tell, to a thematic level.

(Special Note: Memoir and other creative nonfiction [think David Sedaris and Elizabeth Gilbert] has shifted more to a fiction "pose the question, don't answer it" mentality in this post-modern time. So, if you're writing a memoir that reads like fiction, but is merely recounting factual events, please follow the thematic guidelines for fiction writing. It'll be so much more successful.)