Releasing the Creative Writer in You – Lesson 8

To access the earlier lessons, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar.

releasing-the-creative-writer-in-you-coverLESSON 8: EDITING – MAKING SURE WE’VE SAID IT IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE.
(What do we look for?  How do we fix it?)

1. GENERAL MANUSCRIPT FORM –  For both fiction and non-fiction:

If your material is published in book form, you will automatically have a title page, and a copyright page on the back of the title page. All of your identifying data for the book, for you, and for the publisher will go there. But if you are not to that point yet, and you’re preparing a manuscript to send to an agent or a publisher, there are some basic rules you want to follow. They are mostly just good sense and thoughtfulness, but sometimes people who are genuinely talented in creating stories have never had much training in laying out their material. So this section is primarily for those people.

Use regular letter size paper, and, in general, it’s best to leave the pages loose. Staples can sometimes get in the way when an editor reads. It’s often good to use a title page as your first page, and you’ll want to put the title, your name, and the copyright information on that page. Also, be sure to check the submission guidelines from whatever company you’re submitting to, in case they want other information as well. It’s a good idea to also include the word count on that title page as well.

On the first page of the actual text — if you have a short story — repeat the main title at the top and go down at least 3 or 4 lines (more if you like) before beginning the story. If you’re submitting a novel, then you don’t need to repeat the title at the top of that page; the Chapter number is sufficient.

Double-space every single line of the paper so that the editor can write between all the lines. (And even if you’re writing the final draft for yourself, having those blank spaces lets you do a lot of editing and re-writing where it can be easily read.)

Indent the first sentence of every paragraph at least 5 spaces to the right.

Leave at least a 1-inch margin on top, bottom, and both sides. (Always remember that white space is your friend.)

Use 12pt. Or 13pt. font for text of the story at all times. (Anything else is too small for comfortable reading, and anything larger causes your manuscript to be too bulky.)

In the top left corner of each consecutive page, put your last name and the title of the story. Put page numbers in right-hand corner.

All of these rules may seem unimportant, but you want to remember that all of those editors and agents you’re sending to generally have so many hundreds of manuscripts pouring in weekly that they cannot possibly read them all. As a result, they will just naturally gravitate to the manuscripts that are neat, easy to read, and pleasing to the eye.


2. GRAMMAR AND WORD CHOICE:

Run-On Sentences

I have this problem, well, more like a gift, no on second thought it’s a curse.

Correction: I have this problem, well, more like a gift; no, on second thought, it’s a curse.

Or: I have this problem, well, more like a gift. No, on second thought, it’s a curse.

Well, you won’t have any trouble with it, it was easy.

Correction: Well, you won’t have any trouble with it; it was easy.

Or: Well, you won’t have any trouble with it. It was easy.

Or: Well, you won’t have any trouble with it because it was easy.

She just stared at me, all of them did.

Correction: She just stared at me; all of them did.

Or: She just stared at me. All of them did.

Or: She just stared at me, as all of them did.


COMPUTER WITH TONGUE OUTActive Voice vs. Passive Voice Verbs

Every year at Christmas, hundreds of lights had been strung throughout the property, and each Christmas Eve carols were sung by the townspeople who gathered there.

Correction: Every year at Christmas, the owners strung hundreds of lights throughout the property, and each Christmas Eve, the townspeople gathered there and sang carols.

A wonderful time was had by all.

Correction: Every one had a wonderful time.

Papers had been drawn up by the city council to create a historical monument of the old mansion.

Correction: The city council drew up papers to allow for creating a historical monument of the old mansion.

The sale of the property three years ago had been handled by buyer’s attorney.

Correction: The buyer’s attorney had handled the sale of the property three years ago.

Lunches are packed, clothes laid out, and dogs let outside. Now it’s time to wake three sleepy headed children. Teeth are brushed, hair braided, backpacks are in front of the door. Warm coats, hats and gloves are put on the children.

Correction: After packing lunches, laying out clothes, and letting out the dogs, Dawn is now ready to tackle the job of waking three sleepy-headed children. After breakfast, she braids hair, and once the children have brushed their teeth, she helps them get their backpacks in front of the door and bundles them into warm coats, hats and gloves.


Parallelism

I had been fired, thrown out of my room, condemned to die, and had numerous curses about my future heaped upon my head.

Corrected: I had been fired, thrown out of my room, condemned to die, and cursed for the rest of my future.

She loved to sing, dance, play the piano, and talking with her friends.

Corrected: She loved to sing, dance, play the piano, and talk with her friends. – OR –

She loved singing, dancing, playing the piano, and talking with her friends.


She was intelligent, serious-minded, and liked being alone.

Corrected: She was intelligent, serious-minded, and introverted.


Punctuation

Quotation Marks:

Use quotation marks at the beginning and end of any words that are dialogue.

All commas and periods go INSIDE quotation marks — ALWAYS.

Question Marks and Exclamation Points go inside the quotes if they are actually part of the quoted material, but if they are not, they go outside.

“When do we eat?” he asked.

Did you hear him say “We will eat at six.”?

Also use quotes for titles of poems, songs, articles, chapter headings, or short stories.

Special Note About Dialogue: When writing dialogue, be sure to start a new paragraph every time the speaker in a conversation changes – even if the speaker says only one word. Being sure to change paragraphs helps your reader understand who is speaking in each sentence, and this procedure also cuts down on the need to use as many tag words (such as he said, she asked, etc.)

When you need to use tag words, try to use words that will not disrupt the important words in the dialogue itself. Occasionally a word like yelled, shouted, mumbled, etc. can be effective, but the vast majority of the time, writers need to stick with the simple words like said, asked, answered. Those words are generally acknowledged by the reader’s brain without the reader actually having to interrupt the flow of the dialogue to give them any attention. Never use tag words that do not fit the tone and vocabulary level of the rest of the story or that require a reader to have to figure out the meaning or run for a dictionary.

Example: “I think you need to re-think your decision,” he interposed. (Rather, simply say, “I think you need to re-think your decision,” he said.)

Italics:

Use italics to show emphasis of a word in your narration or in the dialogue of your story.

“I absolutely refuse to accept your excuse.”

Also put titles of books, newspapers, magazines, plays, major works of art, court cases, ships, aircraft, and spacecraft in italics.

(Titles of poems, articles, or short stories are put in quotes.)

Italicize foreign words and words, numbers, and letters referred to as such. (A few foreign words have become so accepted into the English language that they do not require italics, but if you have no idea whether that is the case or not, you may always italicize the foreign word.)

Your v’s look like u’s.

I can’t say the word detritus.

What is the meaning of the word moi?

Non-Essential Elements in a Sentence

All words or phrases that are not essential to the main meaning of a sentence – which are added simply for the sake of emphasis or as extra information – are set off from the rest of the sentence with a set of commas, parentheses, or dashes.

She gave her speech, surprisingly, without saying one critical word about her opponent.

My little dog (a fuzzy gray mutt) is very good with kids.

When interrupting the flow of a sentence in a manner that could confuse the reader – or when you want to draw special attention to the interruption – always use dashes on either side of the interrupting phrase.

Also use dashes when using dialogue in a story, and one character interrupts another.

“I will not listen –”

“Don’t tell me you will not listen to me.”



Past Perfect Verb Tense (Using the helping verb had)

When you write a sentence in past tense, but are also referring to an action that took place farther into the past than the main action of the sentence, you must use Past Perfect Tense for that previous action.

Donald worked with the equipment exactly as his dad had taught him.

We all knew that the teacher had endured all she could take from us for one afternoon.



Adjectives and Adverbs

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. Make every effort to use such strong, colorful, specific nouns and verbs that modifiers are unnecessary.

Instead of saying this: She wore a bright red dress. Say this: She wore a scarlet dress.

Instead of saying this: The man walked slowly down the road, as if his feet weighed a ton. Say this: The man plodded down the road.

In general, follow this rule: Never use two or more words then one will do the job.



Pronouns and Antecedents

Every time a pronoun is used, it MUST CLEARLY refer to a noun that has been used previously. And the pronoun must agree with the noun to which if refers (known as its antecedent) in both gender and number.

Examples: Everyone cleaned their plates. (Everyone is singular, so pronoun has to be as well.)

Correction: Everyone cleaned his plate.

Sarah was with Kate when she signed up for the play. (‘She’ is ambiguous; which ‘she’?)
Correction: Sarah was with Kate when Sarah signed up for the play.

Be especially careful with words such as this, that, which, it. When using these pronouns, double-check to make sure your reader will know exactly which noun used earlier is the antecedent, and if there is no one single noun to which they refer, avoid using those pronouns and find a noun to use instead. One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make is using this or that or it to refer to a general idea or some vague concept that was mentioned earlier. The antecedent must be one single noun that can be pointed out easily.

Example:

Writers often misuse pronouns. This results in confusion.

Correction: Writers often misuse pronouns. This misuse often results in confusion.

Or: Writers often misuse pronouns. Such mistakes often results in confusion.

Or: Writers often misuse pronouns, thus causing confusion.


GREEN TYPTER - GOLD W. TEXT
Wordiness and/or Repetition

When you edit, one of your main jobs will be to cut out any words that are not absolutely necessary.

EXAMPLE 1

He was headed towards her. She wanted to run but knew he would see her. As he came closer, she sneaked around the tree. so he wouldn’t see her. She let out a sigh of relief as she watched him disappear over the hill. She knew what she had to do now. Run.

Just deleting the words is enough correction of this section.


EXAMPLE 2

She ran, heading for the path she had taken to get there. She was running for her life. or that’s how it felt anyway. She continuously looked over her shoulder, making sure she didn’t see the gunman. The scene of the gunman throwing his victim in the well kept flashing in her mind as she ran.

Corrected: She continuously looked over her shoulder and tried to keep scenes of the gunman throwing his victim in the well from flashing through her mind as she ran.

(This change cut 28 words out of the text without changing the meaning or the effectiveness of the scene. In fact, making the scene this much tighter makes it more effective in capturing the emotions of the reader.


EXAMPLE 3

The next step was to go to Cherokee and sign into our room and get ready. We had not taken into account the many curves in the road that have to be taken at twenty-five and thirty miles per hour when we had estimated the miles and time from Pigeon Forge to Cherokee. The drive seemed to take forever …..

We then headed for Cherokee to sign into our room and get ready. We were surprised by all the curves in the road and the twenty-five to thirty miles an hour speed limit. The drive seemed to take forever ….

(This change cut 20 words out of the text, and a reader involved in the story will appreciate the cut.)



Descriptions

When describing people, places, or events, keep in mind that you and your reader are concerned about three main aspects:

Space
Mood/Tone
The 5 Senses

When describing places, be sure to keep in mind how the reader will “see” the picture you are giving him. Ask yourself these questions:

Are you moving Front to Back, Side to Side, Top to Bottom, Bottom to Top, and are you consistent in those movements?

Are you moving Up a Hill or Down a Hill?

Are you entering through a door or looking through a window, and can you really see everything you’re describing from that vantage point?

When setting the Mood, be sure to use words that have connotations that will stir up the right emotions and thoughts in your reader.

Don’t forget to make use of all five senses whenever possible. Many writers resort to sight and sound for all of their sense information. But smell, touch, and taste can be very powerful descriptors and make your writing stand out.



Transition Words:

When connecting thoughts, ideas, or actions within a paragraph or in the move from one paragraph to another, be sure you do not leave your reader wondering what relationship the ideas/actions have to each other. Make use of good transition (connecting) words to avoid problems.

If you want your reader to understand that one idea or action causes another, using words like “therefore” or “as a result” or “thus” to begin the next sentence can be very helpful.

If you have been showing one side of an issue or idea, and you are now going to look at some aspect of the opposite side of the issue, words like “however” or “but” or “nevertheless” help the reader prepare his mind to switch gears.

If you are continuing to add multiple examples or layers of information to make your point, using words like “also” or “in addition” or “furthermore” will help keep the ideas connected.

Be sure the words you use for transition make absolutely clear what the relationship is between the ideas or actions. If in doubt, look up the words you are considering in a dictionary and be sure of their meanings before using them. Use of a thesaurus (lists of synonyms) is also helpful. If, for example, you know you want a word that means “also,” but you do not want to use that particular word again, you can use a thesaurus to get a good synonym that will do the same job. As you edit, look for places that need transition words or phrases, or that may be using words that confuse the issue.

Remember: Never add words just to add words. Be sure you NEED them to make the text flow well. Your number one rule is still to say as much as you can, as specifically and colorfully as you can, in as few words as possible.



Paragraphs:

Each individual paragraph should be devoted to developing one point or aspect of your article or story. In non-fiction, whatever you focus on in the first sentence of your paragraph should then get some detailed development before you move out of that paragraph — and any other main points should be saved for another paragraph, rather than having all the thoughts thrown in together. (Some writers use a form that does not make the main point of each paragraph in the first sentence, but until you are a seasoned, experienced writer, you will have much more success if you try to get your reader focused on the main idea of each individual paragraph with the first sentence.)

In fiction, paragraphs can change more irregularly. For example, in dialogue, every time the speaker changes, a new paragraph begins. And sometimes, in order to heighten suspense, authors may use a separate paragraph for each step of action in an especially important scene. Still, you want to be sure you are changing paragraphs for a specific and necessary reason, and not just because you don’t know how to develop ideas. Fiction allows for more freedom of form, but you want to be sure you decide on the form you will use throughout the story and stick with it from beginning to end.



When I teach my college creative writing classes, we don’t usually have much class time to spend on basic grammar. The curriculum assumes that students have learned the basics and used them for years prior to taking the writing classes. However, there are always students who, for one reason or another, never got a good grounding in grammar in the past, so I do try to include a lot of these basics in the material I hand out for them. We generally take one class period to go over most of these points, and then they take this chapter home to study. But they can ask questions throughout the rest of the term if they need to do so.

You may do the same. If any of these rules of good writing cause confusion or raise other questions in your minds, please feel free to leave your questions in a “Comment” window below.

Happy Writing.

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 7

releasing-the-creative-writer-in-you-coverI’ll be posting my creative writing lessons only once a month now, on the first Saturday. Can you believe this is already the first day of April?  (NO FOOLIN’).  If you want to access the previous 6 lessons, just click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar, and it will take you to the other posts in this series.

LESSON 7: AVOIDING DRAGGY DETAILS AND CHOPPY SENTENCES

 

A.  DRAGGY DETAILS

When telling a story, you have to keep the dialogue and action moving at a good pace to hold the reader’s attention, and your details need to be specific things that make the scene more alive or more colorful.

Think about this example: If I were telling you about my date on Friday night, and I said, “We walked into the restaurant, and the waiter led us to a table at the back of the room. Then we picked up the menus and took some time looking over the possibilities. When the waiter came back with our drinks, we gave him our order,” you would think, “Well, of course, you walked to the table and sat down, and, of course, you looked at the menu and then gave the waiter your order.”

What I need to do — if I’m going to make my story interesting — is use only details that add something the average reader would not automatically put into the scene himself. So I could say something like “We had a great table, right by the window so that we could look out on the river. The spicy aromas wafting from the kitchen increased our appetites, and when the menu came, we both got so absorbed in the huge variety of entrees that it took us fifteen minutes to make a decision. But our waiter was extremely patient, and we finally decided on fruit cocktail,  Caesar salads, and Porter House steaks.”

But WHY are you putting this paragraph into the story in the first place? Ask yourself if these details are truly IMPORTANT to your story. If the answer is ‘no,’ then LEAVE THEM OUT. If the answer is yes, be sure the reader can easily make the connection.

One other alternative to that scene could be something like this scene, which emphasizes a totally different aspect of the evening, and which has a specific reason for being in the story: “The atmosphere in the restaurant seemed set for romance. From the time we sat down at the table, Roger and I both had trouble deciding on our choices for entrees because we just couldn’t seem to keep our eyes off each other. We finally managed to order, but as soon as the waiter stepped away from the table, Roger reached for my hand, and we were still holding hands when the first course arrived.” This scene is building on a relationship between characters and is simply using the meal as a setting.

Remember not to waste words telling your reader anything that he will already know. If you have a scene that is so very ordinary the reader could write it for you – if there is nothing really special, unusual, or super important to the plot in it – LEAVE IT OUT. You can refer to it having happened without describing it.

For example: If it’s important to my story to let the reader know that Roger and I went out Friday night, then I can always find a place to toss in that information. I can say to a friend, “When Roger and I went out Friday night, we tried a new restaurant.” OR “Roger and I went out again Friday night, and I can tell that our relationship is getting serious.” But I haven’t bored my reader with the details of an “ordinary” date.

Here’s another example of a scene that is too ordinary.

‘When the time came for the ceremony to begin, Abby’s father took her arm and walked her down the aisle. He turned her over to John, and as the bride and groom smiled at each other, the minister began the ceremony. Abby and John said their vows solemnly and then exchanged rings.”

Since everyone reading your book knows exactly what an “ordinary” wedding ceremony is like, they will be bored reading this. If there are several passages like that in your book, the chances are good the the reader will put it down before he’s done. So – again – if you do not have anything going on that the reader will not automatically assume anyway – just refer to it obliquely in order the let the reader know it happened.

However, if you want to make a point of how emotional the bride and groom were during the ceremony, then you may have a reason to give more details, and you can say something like this: “Abby was so excited that her knees wobbled as she took hold of her father’s arm to walk down the aisle, but he patted her hand and smiled reassuringly, as he had done all through her childhood. This moment would be her last opportunity to interact with her father as merely his child. In a few more minutes, she would be another man’s wife, and her life would never be the same. As she and John spoke their vows, they both had tears in their eyes, and their hands shook a little when they exchanged rings. But they weren’t nervous or afraid — just excited about living out this dream together.”

cartoon-writer-pink-spikey-hair-2
B. SHORT, CHOPPY SENTENCES

The best way to avoid short, choppy sentences is to make sure you use good variety. Make it a point to use some compound or complex sentences. Both of these are explained below, with examples of each.

The best writing always uses great variety in sentence structure and length. Most readers expect to feel a sort of ebb and flow in the way thoughts are expressed. It’s the way we think and the way we talk to each other. The most important thing to remember when deciding what kind of sentence to use is that emotions and/or thoughts cause actions – and actions cause thoughts and/or emotions. You never do or say anything for no reason, and neither do your characters. So you want the reader to understand the connections and relationships between thoughts, feelings, reasons, actions, etc. Tying thoughts together into some compound and complex sentences helps the reader do that. So, keep the writing interesting by using all three kinds of sentences to their best advantage.

Here are some examples of poor sentence choices and some corrections for those problems:

Very Poor Grammar:  Mary stopped at the store to get some milk, she bought lettuce and tomatoes too.  (This is a run-on sentence because it has 2 separate, complete thoughts, but only a comma between them.)

Slightly Better: Mary stopped at the store to get some milk. She bought lettuce and tomatoes too.  (This example is 2 choppy sentences.  Much better than the run-on — and they are okay once in a while — but you don’t want this pattern too often.)

Better:  Mary stopped at the store to get some milk, and she bought lettuce and tomatoes too. (Compound sentence because it connects 2 complete thoughts by using the conjunctions ‘and, but, or, nor, or yet.’ When using those conjunctions, you DO use the comma as well – before the conjunction. You just never use the comma alone to connect 2 complete thoughts.)

Best: Mary stopped at the store to get some milk, and while she was there anyway, she picked up lettuce and tomatoes too.

OR:  Since Mary had to stop at the store for some milk, she decided to get lettuce and tomatoes too.

(These last 2 sentences are Complex sentences, which use one completely independent clause (which could stand alone as a sentence) and one clause that cannot stand alone because it is dependent on the other clause to make sense. In both of these, the dependent clause tells the reader the reason Mary bought the extra food. Also, while giving that reason, the clause takes care of any other information that the reader needs, and that information doesn’t have to be put into its own short sentence.)

Remember, you want a variety. There are times when three or four short, choppy sentences can be very effective if you need a specific tone or mood in the scene, but make sure short, choppy, staccato is the feel you want your reader to have before using very many sentences like that.

Mainly, remember that you want the reader to understand the connections and relationships between thoughts, feelings, reasons, actions, etc. Tying thoughts together into some compound and complex sentences helps the reader do that.

Example:

Choppy:  Roger was afraid. He did not want to let it show. He was the first to volunteer for the rescue mission.

Much better:  Roger was afraid, but he did not want to let it show, so he made sure he was the first to volunteer for the rescue mission.

OR

Because Roger wanted to hide his fear, he made himself sign up as the first volunteer for the rescue mission.  (This example also cuts out words, and doesn’t leave out anything important. If you tell the reader Roger wants to hide his fear, then the reader knows Roger’s afraid, and you don’t have to say that.)

Question: Is there such a thing as a sentence that is too long? Yes, if you have included so much information that the reader could get confused – or if reading the sentence aloud causes the reader to run out of breath – then it may be too long. But that can be fixed as well, simply by taking one portion of the information and putting it into a separate sentence. There is no simple way to help any writer decide when he needs to go longer or shorter. But the more the writer observes real-live conversations, and the more he reads his work aloud, the better he will get at making those decisions.

+++

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 6

If  you want to access the earlier lessons, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar, and it will take you to the earlier posts.

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedLESSON # 6: BODY MOVEMENT AND DIALOGUE MAKE A STORY COME ALIVE

As you develop your plot, remember to use as much dialogue and body movement as possible to help the reader see and hear the words and actions. Simply narrating it is much less effective. Quote your characters directly, and let the reader hear a sigh or see the character lean against a door frame. Describe a smile or the sound of the laughter. Allow your character to lean forward or backward, prop his foot on a stool, rest his head against the back of a chair, or fold his arms across his chest. No real person carries on a conversation without body movement as well, and you need that kind of description to keep your reader’s attention and make your characters “real.”

Beginning writers often find themselves skipping this very important principle. They get involved in “telling” their story and just continue to narrate the events without any individual detailed action and without letting their characters carry on real conversations. That lack of material is generally why some beginning writers have problems filling out scenes and developing entire novels. But once you get into the habit of adding these two very important elements to your writing, you will find that you enjoy writing even more, and that you have less problem creating real-life, fully developed scenes for your story.

Now, of course, adding just any old movement or dialogue will not work either. The characters’ behavior and conversations have to fit the story and be totally relevant – even important – to the story itself. Keep checking to be sure that every conversation and every scene is actually moving your story forward and not just taking up space.

Remember also, that tag words (things like “he said / she asked”) need to be kept at a minimum and need to be simple, ordinary words as often as possible. Some new writers have the mistaken idea that they should reach for a variety of words or for unusual words to use with quotes. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Those unusual words stick out like the proverbial “sore thumb” in the middle of dialogue and interrupt it. Except in very rare instances, you’re much better off using the ordinary words like “said” or “asked.” Occasionally, in a scene where they would be perfectly applicable, you might venture out to tag words like “whispered” or “shouted.” But the number one rule is to keep those tags as inconspicuous as possible.

The next rule you want to remember is to begin a brand new paragraph each time the speaker changes in a conversation – even if the previous speaker said only one word. When you stay faithful to that rule, you end up needing far fewer tag words to begin with – particularly if you have only two speakers. Once you identify the original speaker and then identify the person who answers him, changing paragraphs for each one will keep your reader aware of who is saying what. If your conversation lasts for more than a page, you need to throw in a couple more tags here and there, just for extra clarity, but it’s amazing how easily readers will follow your conversations with no other help when you follow these two basic rules.

QUIVER FULL COVER - GOLDBelow, I’ve given you two versions of the same excerpt from my novel A Quiver Full of Arrows. The first excerpt uses very little body language and dialogue. The author narrates what is happening, but does not show the characters in action or let them speak on their own. In the second, you will see how much more color and interest is added by letting the characters speak their own words in normal conversation and by showing the reader even small unremarkable body movements.

In order to better grasp the way these writing tools are used, I’ve made the dialogue a sort of turquoise color and the body movement sections a shade of purple. I tried highlighting them, but could not get the highlights to copy and paste into this editing window. So I’ll work with what I’ve got.  And the color variation will help you see exactly what was added to get the better version.

Version # 1 – Mostly narration with only a small amount of body movement or dialogue. (Remember: dialogue is only the words within quotation marks. Any other mode of letting your reader know what a character said is narration.)

Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!

How were they getting there?

Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. He stood for several more minutes, looking around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight.

He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .

He went to get a rake and some garbage bags to gather up the shells. While he was raking up the shells, Elmer Peabody, his 75-year-old neighbor from across the street came over. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again,” he said.

Lawson agreed and asked Mr. Peabody if he had seen anyone unusual in the neighborhood recently. Mr. Peabody replied that he hadn’t seen anything so far and asked if the shells were all still intact the way they had been the other times. Lawson told him that they were.

Eventually Mr. Peabody began to walk around the area himself, looking closely at the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side.

Elmer was leaning down close to the foundation right where Lawson had been raking up the shells, and all of a sudden he shouted. “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”

“Broken?” Lawson asked. “Where?”

“Right here,” Mr. Peabody answered and handed Lawson a piece of the loose lattice.

Lawson couldn’t understand how it could have broken because he had put it in place last summer, and it was all secure. He finally stooped down and looked more closely.

The area under the porch was spacious and dry, and Lawson crawled in to have a better look.

“What in heaven’s name!” he shouted from under the porch.

“Did you find something?” Elmer asked.

Lawson crawled back out from under the porch and looked up at Elmer. “I found two sleeping bags and a can of peanuts under there,” he said. He was hoping Elmer might be able to help explain what was happening, but Elmer was equally stunned.

After a few seconds, Lawson laughed out loud. He told Elmer that he felt like the three bears who had come home and found someone had been sleeping in their beds. Elmer asked Lawson if he had any idea who it could be.

“I don’t have a clue,” Lawson said. But, suddenly, he remembered something.



Version # 2: A considerable amount of dialogue and body movement has been added to this version. Compare the effectiveness of Version # 2 with that of Version # 1. Which story will hold your reader’s attention better and help him relate to your characters?

Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!

How were they getting there?

Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. In frustration, he ran his hands through his short brown hair, and as he did so, the sunshine caught sections of it and highlighted them with streaks of copper. He let his hand slip down to the back of his neck, massaging it a little as he shook his head back and forth slowly, still trying to reason out the solution to this strange development.

Then he stood for several more minutes, resting both hands on his hips and looking slowly around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight. He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But after a moment, he shook his head again. No … he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .

He shrugged his shoulders now and let out a sigh, turning as he did so to walk around the house to the garage, where he extricated a lightweight rake from a jumbled collection of yard care equipment. He returned to the front yard, where he began to rake the small piles into one larger heap in order to scoop them into a garbage bag he had carried over along with the rake.

“Hey, L. W.” The voice of his seventy-five-year-old neighbor across the street got his attention. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again.”

Lawson couldn’t help chuckling and shaking his head in consternation again as he stilled his rake and looked at Mr. Elmer Peabody. “Looks like,” he called back, leaning slightly on the rake now as he gave his attention to his favorite neighbor.

“Still no idea how they’re gettin’ into your yard?” Elmer asked as he started across the street.

“Nope. You still haven’t seen anything or anyone unusual, have you?”

“Not so far.” Mr. Peabody took off his gardening hat as he crossed the yard and scratched his almost bald head. “’Course, that don’t mean nothin’,” he added. “I hardly ever look outside after dark, and early in the mornin’ I’m eatin’ my breakfast and lookin’ out my back window at the birds.” By the time he’d finished answering Lawson’s question, he was beside him, watching him finish his clean-up job. “Were the shells all neat and clean again like the other times?”

“Yeah … just exactly like the last three times.”

“Mm-mm!” Elmer Peabody grunted, shaking his head back and forth. He began to walk around the area in tight circles, finally bending over and looking along the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side. …

All of a sudden Elmer shouted, “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”

“Broken?” Lawson asked, stepping over to stand beside his neighbor. “Where?”

“Right here,” Mr. Peabody said, reaching out to take hold of a loose 3-foot section of the white lattice and lift it away from the rest of the porch. He held it up for Lawson to inspect.

“Well, I’ll be!” Lawson said, taking the piece of latticework in his hands. “How on earth did that happen? I just put that up last summer, and it was all secure.” He studied the piece of wood he held in his hands. “Hmm … it looks like the nails have been worked loose and just pulled out, but nothing’s broken off.He stooped down to look more closely under the porch.

The area beneath the porch was quite spacious, and stayed fairly dry most of the year, unless they had heavy rain or snow. He could easily crawl under it himself and move around, but he hadn’t done so since he’d put up the lattice. Now he got down on his hands and knees and eased his way into the three-foot opening.

“What in Heaven’s name!” His voice came out sounding muffled from beneath the porch, and Elmer Peabody leaned a little closer to hear better as Lawson spoke again. “I don’t believe my eyes!”

“What’d you find?” Elmer asked, excitement filling his voice now. This was an adventure for him. He hadn’t had this much interesting activity in his neighborhood since Hilda Gates, next door to him, had set her kitchen on fire trying to make a big rum cake. ….

Lawson hadn’t said anything else for a minute or so, and Elmer leaned in even closer and stuck his head inside the opening.What did you find? What’s going on?”

“Sleeping bags!”

Sleeping bags?” Elmer couldn’t believe he’d heard right.

“Yeah … two of them, and a big metal can full of peanuts!” Lawson began to ease backwards out of the opening, and Elmer moved away to give him room.

“Did I hear you right? Sleeping bags?”

Lawson was still crouched down close to the ground, and he looked up at Elmer, his face a perfect picture of consternation. “Elmer, there are two rolled-up sleeping bags under my porch, and a large metal can full of peanuts in the shells.” His eyes still registered his shock, and then a quizzical look came into them, almost as if he hoped that his neighbor, somehow, would have the explanation.

When he realized that Elmer’s face was as full of surprise as his own must be, he added, grinning in spite of himself, “I feel a little like the three bears who came home and discovered that someone had been sleeping in their beds.” He laughed out loud then. In spite of the obvious seriousness of the discovery, he couldn’t help himself. “Mr. Peabody … somebody’s been sleeping under my porch!”

“And havin’ a midnight snack on top of that,” Elmer said, chuckling and scratching his head again. “By Jove! I wonder who in the world it could be.”

Lawson shook his head again and picked up the piece of lattice to replace it. “I can’t imagine – unless – ” His voice trailed off, and he sat back on his haunches, looking off into space. . . . He had just remembered a recent news story. …


With this second version, not only is the scene fully fleshed out, but the reader actually feels that he is getting to know the two people involved. As we discussed in the chapter on developing characters, we get to know real people in our lives by talking with them, seeing them in action, and learning how they treat and interact with others. That’s also the best way for readers to get to know the characters in a story. As a result, those characters seem real, and the reader connects with them enough to want to read to the end.
__________________

NOTE:  My schedule has become a little over-loaded this month, so I’m going to have to hit the ‘pause’ button on my plan to offer a creative writing lesson every Saturday. I’ll try to post a lesson at least once a month for a while, but that may be the best I can do. I hope these have been a help and encouragement to some of you, and I’ll add more as often as I can.

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ Lesson 5

To access previous lessons in this series, simply click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar, and it will take you to all the lessons.

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedLESSON # 5: DEVELOPING CHARACTERS

Plot-Driven Stories vs. Character-Driven Stories

(Plot, remember is basically the action – problem/conflict, attempts to resolve problem, climax, resolution)

Plot-Driven stories focus on the action. However, great-selling authors also develop their characters with care and detail. The most popular action novels generally have a large following because the readers can identify with the hero/heroine. It is hard to identify with characters that have no depth – are only one-dimensional. This problem is the biggest hazard of writing plot-driven literature. You must resist the tendency to let characters remain as one-dimensional beings who are obviously just manipulated by the author to fit the action.

Stories with no character development can entertain for the short-term but generally have no lasting quality.

Character-Driven stories give the reader someone to identify with. But those characters have to be “real, and they have to be living, changing, growing. (Unless your bent is focused on degeneration. Then they need to degenerate.) Every single character may not change significantly, but certainly your hero/herione will, and his changes will normally affect changes in other characters as well.

How Does Your Reader Get To Know Your Characters?

All great stories reveal and develop each individual character through use of three basic tools:

1. Pointedly describing the characters – physically, psychologically, emotionally. Giving your reader the details of the characters’ physical appearance or his psychological bent works well up to a point. But this tool needs to be used sparingly. It leads to just “telling” the reader about the character instead of letting the reader himself get to know that person the way he would get to know any person in real life.

2. Revealing a character’s speech, thoughts, and behavior. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a quote often used to praise photography over verbal descriptions. But the truth of it applies to writing stories even when photographs or illustrations are not used. When an author uses his words carefully enough to show the reader what a character is like, rather than explaining through narration, the reader gets a much better handle on that character. It’s when the reader can discover for himself what a character is like that he more fully connects with him.

3. Describing opinions and reactions of other characters to that character. What the other members of the cast of your story feel and say about each character – and how they react to him — reveals that character in light of relationships within the story. That aspect of characterization adds much more depth to the story as a whole.

MAN PROFILEWhat About Your Hero/Heroine?

Hero/heroine: The principal figure in an action, event, or story. This person will obviously be the central focus of your story, and it is his development – his learning, changing, experiencing epiphanies, maturing, growing, becoming better, stronger, wiser, healthier, etc. that will give the story its meaning and satisfy your reader. It is the hero – along with the help of the other characters – who is the driving force behind the action.

WOMAN SILHOUETTE, PONYTAILAll other characters need good development as well. Having a well-developed hero with no one to interact with except one-dimensional, cardboard characters will stifle the hero’s development as well.

The Hero/Herione’s Progression:


Most good stories will take that hero through about 6 main stages as the story moves along:

1. Hero is introduced: You need to know how and why he is the center of your book.

Why will this guy – instead of someone else — do the job of making this book a great read?

2. The hero has experienced – or is experiencing – a certain amount of preparation for what he will do in the story. Let the reader see that he is a certain type of person and that he has had experiences that will eventually lead him to specific action or reactions later in the story. His actions and reactions need to seem real.

This process can include some involved background – if you have a long enough story to work with – and it can be added a little at a time as the action ensues. Or it can be a well-placed couple of sentences that use exact descriptive words. In a novel, you may tell the reader a little of the character’s background, but then let the rest come out through conversations with other characters, or a situation that causes the character to remember events in his past, etc. You may even introduce a separate character who reveals some of the main character’s past that lets the reader know what caused the hero to be the person he is today. Even in a short story, try to avoid just telling the facts. Let them come to light through as much natural action and interaction between characters as possible.

3. The hero moves into his journey – his quest – his effort to reach his goal – his effort to defeat an enemy. This aspect of the story will involve a series of battles or conflicts that come against him, and he must decide whether to go forward or pull back. His nature – that you have developed well – will determine that decision. (Now your reader may still be learning about his nature, and these decisions will give that reader a clearer and clearer picture of who this guy is. But YOU should already know his character well-enough to know what he will do and WHY.


(Occasionally, authors will find themselves in the middle of a scene, and suddenly feel the character pulling to go an unexpected direction. That situation can lead to a whole new aspect for the story that makes it better. However, it can also sidetrack a good story that’s well underway. So if this happens, take a little time to re-evaluate and determine if what this character seems to WANT to do really has value. You may even pull up a new document page and allow yourself to write the alternative scene with the character acting “out of character,” but don’t delete the original plan unless you are totally convinced that plan number two is much better.)

*** Keep double checking your story to make sure that every sentence is actually moving the story forward and not just filling up space on the page.  ***

4. The hero/herione will eventually come head-to-head with the main antagonist. You must decide how soon that takes place. They may have met very early in the story, but their battle for the climax of the story will not take place until your character development and your action is ready for it.

Who is that antagonist? He will be the killer, the rival lover, the mean banker ready to foreclose, the evil totalitarian government system that is taking over a free nation, a killer storm raging across the country, destructive beings from another planet, some mysterious disease that can’t be stopped by drugs, the devil himself. Whatever mask the antagonist wears, he is the embodiment of evil as opposed to the hero who is the embodiment of good. He, too, must be well-developed prior to this climaxing battle.

Note: Modern novels have had a tendency to produce heroes who are so imperfect and fallible that they offer no “higher level” of character or lifestyle to which the reader can aspire. That is certainly acceptable, of course, but the greatest novels of all time – those that have outlasted the millions that see bookstore shelves for 3 months and then dwindle away – are those with heroes or heroines who have something above and beyond the “average” or the mundane in their make-up. And in spite of the fact that people say they want “realism” in their books and movies, the truth is that almost every human being secretly wants a role model that is just a little “bigger than life” to identify with – and wants a level of life that is just a little bit better/higher/freer/more successful/more loving than what he is experiencing now.

So while you may not want to write a book that is particularly positive in theme or that has a “happy ending,” you may still want to be sure that your hero/heroine offers the reader something “better” than ordinary to identify with and aspire to.

By the time the hero enters into the decisive battle with the main antagonist, you must have made him so believable and reliable that your reader will know what to expect in his actions and reactions.

5. The hero will win the battle with the main antagonist. This action – whether physical, spiritual, or mental, will be the end of the climax of the story.

6. The hero will be changed/transformed by the end of the story. He will be different in some way. He may have learned something, found new qualities in himself he didn’t know were there, realized he’s capable of giving/loving/creating more, etc, etc. Also, as he moves into and enjoys these changes, they transfer to the reader, and the reader benefits from them as well.

This kind of strong identification makes for memorable, lasting stories – and also builds a strong base for any sequels or series that you want to create.

Needless to say, the other characters in the story will undergo their own changes, and these will be important to your reader as well. But the process of developing the hero and moving him through his 6-step process works the same way for each character. For the most part, you need to create each character with as much care as you do your hero. The “realness” of the other characters can make or break the story as well.

DRAGON W. BOY - LARGERThese basic rules of good character development apply equally in children’s literature — whether the characters are children or animals. The principles are still the same, and the readers respond to characters pretty much the same way at all levels.

So take time to get to know your characters personally. Write out a checklist that will clarify the basics aspects of their personalities, experiences, and relationships. Even writing up a complete character sketch on each one is never a waste of time. Everything you can do to make sure those characters are “real” will give your story that much better chance to find a special place in the hearts of readers for generations to come.

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You: Lesson 4

To access previous lessons in this series, simply click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar, and it will take you to all the lessons.

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedLESSON # 4: PLOTTING YOUR STORY

 

First, let’s look again at the main parts of the plot of a story:

Most authors and writing teachers agree that all stories should have an arc of somewhere between five and eight steps. That arc takes the reader from a state of rest (before the story opens) into action, then through the process of one action causing another and another, until those actions reach a climax and finally ebb into the resolution of the story. A normal arc generally includes all of the following:

A. The presentation of the conflict

B. The hero’s attempts to resolve that conflict

C. His deliberate choices to fight or give up – use force or peaceful measures – take the legal way or the illegal way, etc.

D. His ultimate success or failure (the climax of the story)

E. The resolution into a changed situation, due to the outcome of the climax.

Each writing course will label these steps a little differently, but, in the end, they represent the same 5 simple parts of a plot that we’ve mentioned here. In the chapter coming up, “Developing Characters,” you will see a similar list of steps through which every hero and heroine move as they progress from beginning to end of the story. It is not particularly important that the writer label each individual step based on one writing course or another. What is important is that the writer understand that the natural progression of action or character development is most successful if it follows the pattern we see in real life, which generally does include an arc similar to the one we’ve just described.

SWORDS
CONFLICT

Conflict is always based in the very broad primary concept of Good vs. Evil. However, that “good” and “evil” can wear many faces.

Conflict can be rooted in the relationship and/or rivalry of two individual characters, two families, two nations, two worlds. It can also be rooted in one individual character’s battle with an ideology or a system (for example, a battle to avoid or annihilate a totalitarian government). Some stories create conflict between a character and some force of nature or some element or power outside of the human realm – such as a killer storm, a deserted island, a sorcerer’s curse, etc.

However, conflict can be totally internal as well – within one character himself – possibly between the character’s realization that he needs to overcome some aspect of his nature or personality and the desire on his part to avoid working at overcoming it or letting it go. Conflict can also be internal in the sense that the character is battling an enemy coming against his own mind or body (for example, a deadly disease).

Any or all of these kinds of conflict make for great stories, but you want to be sure that the type of conflict you choose is the best carrier of the story you’re telling so that the story accomplishes exactly what you want it to accomplish.

Also bear in mind that most good stories have more than one conflict going on. The major conflict will decide the resolution of the story, but while it is played out, many of your characters can be experiencing their own minor conflicts that affect how they act and react to the major conflict and how they fit into the climax of the story.

WHERE TO START

In all fiction, the first three pages of any novel (and the first few paragraphs of any short story) are the author’s only chance to grab the reader’s attention. Once he has that attention, the action or characters must develop quickly enough and realistically enough to hold that attention and keep the pages turning.

Make sure you have your reader securely in your grasp by the end of chapter one. If he isn’t in a hurry to turn the page to chapter two, there’s a moderate chance that he will do so anyway, but most of the time, at that point, he’s usually made his decision about whether or not he’ll finish the book. (A few readers out there force themselves to finish every book they start, whether they like it or not, but you cannot count on that handful of people picking up your book.) And for the short story writer, it’s safe to say that after the first 500 words, the reader has decided whether the story is worth his time.

So how do we capture that reader and hang onto him? Isaac Newton is famous for making us aware of the laws of motion. Thanks to his efforts, most of us have been taught the basic principles of physics concerning objects at rest and how they will simply stay at rest unless and until some outside force puts pressure on them to move in one direction or another. And, of course, once an object begins moving, it will, more often than not, continue moving in the same direction unless and until pressure from another source is applied to it. That pressure could be deliberate, or it could simply be circumstantial — like a bump in the road that causes a rolling ball to jump off course and veer sideways.

SOCCAR PLAYER KICKING BALLSo what does that have to do with writing fiction? A LOT: Good plotting puts things into motion quickly and then makes sure they stay in motion, or change direction, or come to a complete stop in such a way that those actions carry the reader along at a satisfying pace. And the gifted story plotter makes sure that every one of those actions and reactions – every motion and counter-motion – has realistic motivation and cause. (And remember: ‘motion,’ as we refer to it here, can be physical, mental, or emotional. However, be careful to avoid getting  your reader bogged down in thoughts or emotions with no physical action to relieve them.)

When the writer begins his story, he needs to have some kind of action taking place in those first few pages – even if his story is mainly character driven. The reader wants to get to know the characters the way he gets to know real-life people – through talking with them, seeing them interacting with other people, and seeing what they do and how they do it. A couple centuries ago, authors got away with giving lengthy descriptions of characters early in their books, and readers put up with it. But in the 21st century, we can’t find those kinds of readers.

All rules have exceptions, of course, and if you are writing a totally character-driven story that requires your reader to be thoroughly acquainted with the thought processes of the main character, you just might be able to begin your story with a monologue of that character’s own thoughts. However, the point we made earlier bears repeating here: keep in mind that too many pages of thoughts with no accompanying actions does get boring for most people.

That being the case, even if you’re focusing on your reader getting to know and understand your main character in the first chapter (or the first page of your short story), you’ll want to let the character say and do some things that will make his nature and personality clear.

So when your reader sees the words “Chapter One,” he will generally expect to see a situation that was at rest before the story started now beginning to move in a specific direction because a character does something or a specific event takes place that starts the ball rolling. Some people like to line up long rows of dominoes and then knock them all down with just the touch of a finger on the first domino in line. Until the outside force – with a motive – does something to the first domino, they all just keep standing there, silent and boring. However, as soon as the outside force causes domino number one to fall against number two – at just the right angle – there’s no stopping the chain reaction. That’s the process of good story telling.

Now, the guy who pushes down that first domino has a motive. He wants to enjoy watching all the other dominoes fall down. In the same way, your first movement in your story –whether it’s by a character, a force of nature, or even a big machine – will have to have a motive. You may not want to disclose that motive in the first chapter, but you, as the writer, have to know what that motive is, and you have to build your story so that when the reader finally does discover the motive later on down the line, the whole story makes sense.

In the past few decades, the literary world has seen a slight shift in readers who gravitate primarily to action (plot-driven) novels. Even these readers now seem to want at least a lead character that they can relate to and develop feelings for. They want to know what makes that guy tick – what’s important to him and why – and what it is that he wants to accomplish. Because, ultimately, it’s what that main character wants to do – save a city – a country – the world – and all the battles he has to fight in order to do it – that makes the story.

So one of the most important things a good story teller can do, even in plot-driven stories – is develop three-dimensional, true-to-life characters that his readers can relate to. And if the story is intended to be character-driven, then all of the characters need to be carefully developed so that the reader feels so attuned to them that he really cares whether they manage to get what they want by the end of the story. And if the reader really cares, he isn’t going to put that book down until he reads the words “The End.”

Next week we will discuss in depth the best ways to develop well-rounded characters.

 

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 3

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedYou can find Lesson 1 and Lesson 2 at these links.

LESSON # 3: WRITING FICTION

Fiction covers a wide range of genres, including short stories, novels, novellas, novelettes, scripts, screenplays, and children’s literature. Having a knack for writing well in one of those genres does not guarantee that a writer has an equal knack for the others. However, most of the time writers find that, with experience and practice, they can write successfully in several different genres at the same time. While all good writing requires some of the same characteristics, each of the different genres of fiction has certain elements that are peculiar to it alone.

SHORT STORIES

There are no hard and fast rules followed by all writers and publishers concerning what constitutes the length of different genres of literature. Each literary guide has its own specifications, but the information given in this text offers an average that takes into consideration the high and low ends of various guides. In general, short stories are considered any stories between 100 words (generally referred to as “flash fiction”) and 20,000 words. Often the stories that run between 100 and 3,000 words are referred to as “short-short” stories. Length does not matter, except for the purpose of meeting the requirements of a particular assignment. (Ex. Writing for a magazine that has a word limit, etc.)

What matters is whether you have all the elements required to satisfy the readers of the stories, and if you have developed the characters, setting, and plot thoroughly – without letting any areas of the work drag or become unnecessarily verbose. The writer must tell a complete story: an attention-grabbing beginning, the development of a problem or conflict, attempts to resolve that conflict, the climax, and a resolution/conclusion.)

In short stories, word choices are even more pressing than in longer fiction. Character development is trickier, due to less time. There are also fewer words for describing setting and characters, as well as for developing plot.

NOVELS

Novels require a larger tale – so a larger scope. You have more time to develop setting and characters, as well conflict and climax. Generally readers expect a little more than one simple conflict in a story of any significant length – simply because real life is that way.

Word choices are still extremely important because nothing drags as badly as a novel that is too wordy.

Novel length is generally considered anything between 50,000 and 300,000 words. But most publishers have a policy concerning length of each genre they publish, and authors will need to consult each individual publisher’s guidelines when considering submissions.

Novellas: When you have a story that really needs more than a short story format, but hasn’t enough plot for a full novel, novellas offer a good alternative. If you find yourself working on a short story, but realize you are up to 30,000 words, you need to consider expanding the story a little more and making it a novella. (Generally 40,000-50,000 words on average).

Novelettes: This category offers one more level in alternatives to short stories and novels. Novelettes also give the reader a story that is more involved that a short story, but that does not have enough plot to carry it the length of a full novel. Any work running between 10,000 and 30,000 words can be considered novelette length.

SCRIPTS AND SCREENPLAYS

For scripts and screenplays, dialogue will generally rule, and action must be 100% do-able. Words are at their highest premium in a story that must be acted out. The author must also consider and write in all the stage directions as well.

CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

In children’s literature, writers deal with all the elements common to adult short stories and novels, but children’s works require special attention to the level of language and frames of reference so that they fit exactly the age group for which the pieces are written. The ONLY way to do that successfully is to SPEND A LOT OF TIME WITH CHILDREN. Children’s literature is also generally much more successful with pictures and illustrations. Therefore, the author needs to be able to provide these elements or develop a good relationship with an artist/photographer who can.


ELEMENTS REQUIRED BY ALL FICTION GENRES

So what are the elements of a good story?

1. Characters

Get to know your characters personally. Your reader may never need to know how your main character did while in first grade, whether he always cleaned his plate as a kid, whether or not he took vacations with his family, etc. But you need to know him well enough to know those things. That doesn’t mean you have to list every event in his life before he steps onto the stage of your book, but you do need to sit and think about him from every direction.

Chances are he will come from a real person you have had experience with, or – more likely – a composite of a number of real people. That is why keeping a journal and making character sketches is so important. This character had a life before he came into your book, and you need to know what it is so that he will be REAL and not just an automation you have invented to walk through the pages and say certain words.

Sometimes the characters will be there to carry out the plot (Plot-driven story)

Other times, the characters will be the main story, and their inner struggles, changes, and growth (or deterioration) are what constitutes the story. (Character-driven story).

2. Setting

You know yourself best, and you must decide if you are a person who enjoys detailed descriptions of settings or not. If you enjoy them, chances are you will write them well enough that your readers will also enjoy them. However, if you do not enjoy them, then you must work at giving your story a setting that needs a minimum of description and that has no real importance to the story itself.

The purpose of your story will also determine a lot about the degree of attention paid to the setting. If you write a story focused solely on a romance, making the characters and their personal, emotional interaction the meat of your story, you can get by with simply letting the reader know the characters live in a large American city, or a village in the English countryside, etc., with very little detail. But if you write a story set on another planet, you need to be prepared with loads of details so that your reader will not feel out of sync with the characters they want to identify with.

(You will find more details concerning setting in the upcoming chapter on that particular element.)

3. Plot (Action – either physical or mental)

The plot of a story includes the following basic 5 basics:

A. Introduction.

This can be as simple as opening the story with ordinary action shortly before the important action begins. This method is tricky because of the need to engage your reader from page one, but it can be done. Or you may open in the middle of some important action that will be explained in subsequent pages. Or you may use a prologue if you have to lay some groundwork that is not part of the main story. (However, you need to use prologues and epilogues very sparingly. Some readers skip them altogether.)

B. Development of a Problem or Conflict

This problem/conflict can be physical, mental, emotional, or all three. (More details are available in the chapter on conflict, which will be included in a later lesson.)

C. Attempts to fix the problem

D. Climax – Problem comes to a head and meets the solution head-on

E. Resolution/Conclusion/The End

For more details concerning plot, see the chapter entitled “Plotting Your Story,” coming in a future lesson.

4. Theme: The central, recurring, unifying idea of a piece of literature.

What is the Purpose of Specific Action or Dialogue in Your Story?

Your theme can generally be found in the answer to the questions of why something happened or what effect it is meant to have. As your story develops, you (and your reader) will generally find that virtually all of the action and dialogue is happening – ultimately — for the same purpose: to bring about specific outcomes – all of which work together to affect the reader the way you want him affected.

5. Body Language and Dialogue

As you develop your plot, remember to use as much dialogue and body language as possible to help the reader see and hear the words and actions. Simply narrating it is much less effective. Quote your characters directly, and let the reader hear a sigh or see the character lean against a door frame. Describe a smile or the sound of the laughter. Allow your character to lean forward or backward, rest his head against the back of a chair, or fold his arms across his chest. No real person carries on a conversation without body movement as well, and you need that kind of description to keep your reader’s attention and make your characters “real.”

(More discussion on this aspect of writing stories is covered in the material on Developing Characters and in the chapter on Dialogue and Body Language. These segments will be included in upcoming lessons.)


cartoon-writer-pink-spikey-hair-2Do you need an outline before beginning?

The short answer is ‘No.’ Sometimes stories just jump out at us when we are doing a simple writing exercise or sitting quietly and meditating. It’s fine to just sit down to the keyboard and start writing out what is flowing through our minds.

However, do not expect to write excellent stories on a regular basis without having a strong idea of what you want the story to do – how you want it to play out – and who the characters are. You will need some kind of guidelines to help you stay focused and to make sure you have a thoroughly developed plot.

If you find that a story begins coming to life in your mind, go ahead and start writing it. Write until you know you are finished with what was pressing to get onto paper. However, once that is done, you do need to try to determine where you are going – what is going to happen to your characters – what do you want the ending to be – are you wanting the story to stir up particular emotions or teach any particular lesson or moral?

Then lay out a “loose” outline. You will, no doubt, change this outline a number of times, but having something to look at now will at least help you stay with your story instead of writing two or three different stories because of running off on tangents as you write.

You can use the old tried-and-true classic outline format to do your planning, or you can simply write out a few notes or a paragraph for each scene you plan to include in your story. Many authors plan out their entire novels in such paragraphs. And some writers plan out each individual scene as well as the effects of each scene on the people who were involved in it.

One plan includes writing each scene on a note card, followed by a second card explaining the effects of that scene. The writer can then lay out the cards in front of him as he begins each new chapter and write out what he sees in his notes. Naturally, there may be a number of additions or subtractions – or some moving scenes around – putting them into a different chapter – but that’s what creative writing is all about.

(NOTE: If, while you are writing one story, you do get an idea for a totally different story, stop long enough to jot down the main idea that came to you – along with any notes about a character that you know will be a part of that story. Then put those notes away until you are finished with the story in progress. EXCEPTION: The exception to this rule is that if you find yourself pulled back to the new story again and again – or the ideas for it are coming much easier than the ideas for the first story, then, by all means, put #1 away in a drawer, and write # 2. This may be your masterpiece!)

Most of the time, characters and plot tend to take on a life of their own as you write. Do not be alarmed if you find a character wanting to do some things or say some things that you had not intended. If you are brave, let it happen. Then go back to the piece a day later and see how you feel about it. The same is true with plot. You will very likely have new ideas that come along as you write, and your story may turn in a direction you hadn’t even considered in the beginning. You may end up with an entirely different ending than you planned.

Now, there is a thin line between letting your imagination and creativity have this freedom and in being confused about what you are writing. That is one reason to have an initial loose outline. Each time you find a character changing his or her nature, you can stop and ask yourself, is this helping the story or hurting it? The same is true with plot. Often, you will have to wait a day or two and go back to the story to make that decision, but most of the time, you will not be on a strict deadline.


Releasing the Creative Writer in You © 2013 Sandra Pavloff Conner

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 2

Time for the second post in this teaching series, based on my curriculum, Releasing the Creative Writer in You.*    In case you missed last week, here is the link to Lesson 1.

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-edited

 

LESSON # 2: IN THE BEGINNING

Introductory Thoughts, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, And Fun Ideas to Get You Started

`

QUESTION: Where Do Good Writing Ideas Come From?

Successful Writing Rule # 1: If you are a writer, you’re full of ideas.

Ideas come from a myriad of directions, but two of the most common places – two that you can always depend on – are the following:

A. We have a storehouse of ideas inside us. Sometimes they just need a trigger in order to cause those ideas to “go off” enough to ignite a story. What are the subjects that you care about in the various aspects of your life? What do you feel passionate about? What do you like to discuss with friends or colleagues? What do you argue about most ardently? What makes you happy? What makes you sad?

The answers to all of these personal questions can be the key to a successful writing venture – whether fiction or non-fiction.

Do not accept the position of a “would-be” writer who feels he has to run around and ask other people for ideas because he has none of his own. The very idea that you have no ideas is a deception. So your first rule in fulfilling your writing goals is to recognize that you do, indeed, have ideas of your own, and if they are not rising to the surface, start digging as deeply as necessary until you find them.

B. We can see ideas and themes for writing all around us in life itself. How can we be sure we don’t miss them? Simply make a habit of deliberately allowing your curiosity and your imagination to exist unfettered. When your curiosity is free, and it latches onto something, then let your imagination go to work on that subject.

Author/Editor Micheal Seidman discusses this subject in his book Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published (p. 20., Pomegranate Press, Ltd. ). He believes that often we can find ideas most easily when we are not looking for them. He shares about an army lieutenant who trained Seidman’s unit in the expert use of rifles – particularly regarding sniper fire. Seidman quotes his lieutenant as saying, “Don’t stare directly in front of you; you won’t see anything … or you’ll see things that aren’t there. Either is deadly. What you do, gentlemen, is watch the horizon … use your peripheral vision. That’s how you’ll see the movement you have to be aware of.” Seidman often tells writing students of his own that the advice from his lieutenant can be applied to the writer’s craft as well.

And most writers would agree. Those of us who follow the advice proffered by the lieutenant often find that it is a great help in becoming an expert with our own weapon – the pen.

cartoon-writer-with-nin-quoteWhen you get up every morning, get up as a writer. Intentionally go through your day seeking to learn something you did not know previously – or learn more about a subject you thought you did know. Be open and expectant. Allow yourself to ask questions concerning the things you see people do or the things you hear them say. You will not always be in a position to ask the questions of others. In fact, only rarely will that plan work. But you can search your own conscious and subconscious mind for answers.

Apply the principle to events as well as people. When you find yourself involved in an event, ask yourself how and why things are happening as they are – or what would happen if one aspect of the event were opposite of what is taking place in reality. Once you learn to operate this way on a regular basis, you will be surprised at all the questions you will come up with, as well as some of the answers you receive. And remember, you are not necessarily stuck with the “real” answers. Often they are a great catalyst for a story or a non-fiction piece. But just as often the ideas that your own imagination comes up with in answer to those questions will be just as effective.

And always keep in mind that there are some basic questions that every generation has asked, since the beginning of time – and there are as many different answers as there have been generations. But it’s those questions – the ones that apply to every human being just because he’s a human being – that have a universality about them. And, as a result, those very questions often provide great subject matter for the stories we write.

Author Wally Lamb quoted one of his former writing teachers during an interview for Writer’s Digest recently. His teacher said, “You’re never going to tell an original story. … The world is a very old place and all the stories that matter to people have been told over and over.” (Writer’s Digest, March/April, 2014, p.43). The key to your success, dear writer, is to find a fresh way to tell those same stories. But you must begin by asking the same questions that caused them to be written in previous generations.

A word of caution: Bear in mind that writing a story with a universal theme does not mean that every person who reads your work will like it. He will not. And that is a good thing. If everyone liked everything that every great writer published, the human race would be nothing but a mass of confused, undecided, and uncommitted people. You want to live in a world – and write for a world – that is made up of people who are real individuals. They have ideologies, prejudices, and emotional attachments that differ astronomically. Some of them will find your writing exactly to their taste because it agrees with their ideologies, touches their emotional roots, and satisfies their longings. Those who do not find your work to their liking will like someone else’s work – and that simple fact, dear writers, is what makes the literary world – and the literary market – go round.

Successful Writing Rule # 2: Never throw anything away.

If you write a sentence that records how you feel about one brief conversation, keep it. If you try to write a short story for an assignment, but it just won’t fit into the assignment requirements, don’t wad it up and toss it into the trash. That currently disqualified story may be the root of your finest novel some day. Create a file and keep everything you write that came from your own creativity. In fact, you can also keep quotes from many other writers as well, because they may spark ideas in the future. Remember, of course, that you are not allowed to “borrow” their ideas – just let them spark brand new ideas in you.

Successful Writing Rule # 3: Make frequent use of writing exercises.

Below are some examples of successful writing exercises that generations of writers have found helpful:

A. This first exercise is similar to the process followed in some party games, but it is also a never-fail story starter. Make yourself a collection of 1, 2 or 3-word phrases, single sentences, or longer, specifically detailed single sentences. (If you have opportunity to have someone else create the lists, that will be even more challenging.) Write them in a tablet you do not use frequently, or, better yet, write each one on a separate piece of paper, fold it, and put it in a box or jar, or sandwich bag – whatever your style. When in need of an exercise for your creativity, draw one folded suggestion from the collection and sit down at your computer (or notebook) and begin writing. Write non-stop for a pre-specified time (5-10 minutes). Do not stop to edit or even think for any significant amount of time. This is a time when you are letting the creativity in your subconscious have its way without hindrance. (If, after 10 minutes, you find you’re onto a good thing, just keep writing.)

B. Take an hour or so in a public place: restaurant, mall, grocery store, department store, book store, civic event – any place where you can observe people and listen to conversation. Watch how they act and interact; pay attention to what they show interest in or what they purchase. Listen to them converse. Jot down excerpts of their conversations that grab your attention. One particularly interesting writing exercise involves jotting down the last sentence you hear in an overheard conversation and, for the next five minutes (or tomorrow if necessary), sit quietly and let your imagination pick up at that point and continue the conversation, taking it whatever direction your own muse leads. It’s these times of faithful observation of “real” life that lead to the creation of believable characters who act and speak like “real” people.

One of the major earmarks of poor fiction is the creation of characters who often tend to move and speak as some programmed components of the book. They do what the author needs them to do, but they are not interacting and conversing in ways that real human beings would act and speak without the author’s contrivance. But many an observant author has watched and listened to an individual in a restaurant or public event and discovered the main character of his next successful novel in that person’s “real” behavior and speech. The character so conceived has the potential to grab the reader’s attention – and possibly his heart – and stay with him long after the last page of the book as been turned.

But back to the specific exercise: now take the notes you’ve made during observation and write a character sketch or a flash fiction story about what you’ve observed. Keep it and be on the alert to recognize a place where you can use that material in future work.

C. The third exercise is helpful for writers who are already involved in creating a story but are having trouble with one aspect or one scene. Take the scene you’ve been having trouble with and meditate on it during a long period of quiet and rest. Forget about what you originally intended to do with the scene and set your imagination free with it. It is important to be relaxed in this exercise. Even if you doze off, it is not a problem. Often in those moments between sleeping and waking, ideas rise to the surface of our minds easily because there is less conscious restraint on them at that time. More than once, I’ve wakened in the middle of a brilliant, technicolor action scene playing in my mind – a scene that I doubt I would have imagined with as much quality had I been awake to start with. Let your mind wonder and meander through as many pathways and mazes as it wants during this exercise, and see where your subconscious may take you. You may find that you have a whole new avenue for using the scene in that story – and you just might find that you have an entirely new story altogether.

dreaming-man-with-pencil-blueDeciding on Genre

A. Write what you are hooked on – what you read all the time or think about all the time. Many of you will read various genres, but there are one or two that really spark your interest or give you the greatest pleasure. Focus your own writing in those directions – at least to begin with.

B. Do Not try to write to fit what seems to be selling in the marketplace. Some writers/editors/publisher will tell you the opposite. But when all is said and done – particularly if you are interested in publishing with a mainstream publishing house – what you submit to a publisher today will not see a marketplace bookshelf in less than one full year and sometimes two. Self publishing will get your work out faster in the initial stages, but getting wide-spread distribution may take a lot longer.

As a result you cannot count on the best-selling genre this year to still be the best-selling two years from now, when your book is finally sitting in the bookstore or on the Internet retailer’s site. Some genres, of course (such as romance) are best sellers all the time. However, if you cannot write great stories in those particular genres, then your competition is going to be too stiff. Look for the niche that you and your creative talents fit, and you will have the best chance of capturing your share of the market.

C. Another point to consider: How important is personal satisfaction with your work in your estimate of whether or not you are a success? Do you see yourself as a strong individual – a leader? Or do you see yourself as a good follower – perhaps even a clone? There are possible sales for both kinds of writers, but the personal satisfaction with your work can be significantly lacking if you are a leader at the core of your being, but expend all your time and talent just following the crowd.


Examples of Non-Fiction Genres & Categories

Essays
Academic Assignments
Literary Anthologies

These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.

Articles
Newspapers
Magazines
Educational Journals
Literary Anthologies

These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.

Books
Autobiographies
Biographies
Travel Journals
Analysis/Expository
How To/Self Help
Histories

Media Reviews
Books
Movies/Plays
Music

Miscellaneous Categories
Precis
Book Report
Letters
Business Reports


Examples of Fiction Genres & Categories

Commercial Fiction Category

This genre makes up a large part of the books found on
mainstream mass-market bookstore shelves and Internet sales sites.
Often plot-driven more than character-driven, but can sometimes
cross over into the Literary Fiction Market.

Literary Fiction Category

Often more character-driven than plot-driven and generally
considered a little more “intellectual” than commercial fiction. However, more and
more writers are crossing the barriers between these two categories.

Some of the Most Common Genres From Both Categories
Romance
Women’s Fiction
Mystery
Horror
Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Political Intrigue/Espionage
Science Fiction
Memoirs
Humor


*Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

~~~

‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’-Lesson 1

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedWelcome to the first of a series of lessons excerpted from my writing curriculum Releasing the Creative Writer in You.*  As I mentioned in the post last week introducing this series, I’m beginning with a couple articles I have posted previously — about three years ago. But they provide the best introduction to this series, and then we will proceed from there into other territory. I hope writers find these posts encouraging, comforting, enlightening, challenging, entertaining, or all of the above.

LESSON# 1: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITE?

Then DO IT!

Mystery author Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.

You know, you don’t have to live a weird life — or even a particularly exciting life — to be a great author. In fact you can live a very ordinary, chicken-frying, auto-repairing, laundry-washing, diaper-changing kind of life and still write books that will lift people out of the ordinary and into a place where imaginations rise to peak places, where new dreams are ignited, and where hope and faith bring victory into life’s struggles.

So pick up that pen, sit down to that computer keyboard, or start dictating into that recorder — whatever method works for you.  If you’re sure you want to write, start writing.

cartoon-quote-kingNow that you’ve started, you come to your next decision. Do you want to be an “occasional writer” – sharing an idea or a complaint only now and then – when the mood strikes you? Or do you want to be a “serious writer” – making writing one of your primary goals in life and, therefore, at the top of your list of priorities.? If your answer is the first option, then you are free to write or not, depending on how you feel on any particular day. However, even in that situation, the more you write, the better you will be at it when you feel it counts.

But if you are serious about writing – if you feel it is a necessary part of your feeling successful in your life – then you must live by a different law: You must commit to writing on a regular basis and stick with the program, regardless of how you feel on any particular day – or how anyone else feels about your work.

Unfortunately, this decision to be a serious writer must be made anew every few days. The “new” wears off after a while. The excitement turns to frustration after several days of reaching for just the right words and falling short time after time. The bright ideas seem to fade a little when the family and friends don’t find your first chapter exciting enough to want to listen to you talk about it for three hours non-stop. But if you really do want to write, you must make yourself write faithfully and regularly, regardless of the struggles involved. If you sit at your keyboard three hours and type onto the screen only one sentence worth keeping, you have accomplished writing a sentence that never existed before.

And therein lies the intrinsic value of writing. Everyone who writes becomes a creator. Once you have written an original piece – no matter how small or how large – you have created something that never before existed! That fact is not dependent upon whether anyone else reads it.  Or whether anyone else likes it if they do read it. The proof of your creativity does not rest in your work’s boasting a publisher’s imprint or finding a place on a bookstore shelf.  Get this straight: once you have written an original piece, you have created an entity that never before existed. I repeat that point because it is a powerful reality that very few writers recognize.

And another related fact that many unpublished writers seem to miss is that once you have created a written product, you are a writer. You’re not “going to be” a writer. You’re not a “would-be” writer. You’re not an “aspiring” writer. You are a writer. You are an author. You are a creator. When you do recognize these two truth, they will empower you to keep creating and to create even more effectively.

Also, once you recognize them, you will come to realize a third truth that is just as important: As a writer, you have a heavy responsibility to your readers. From the moment an individual picks up your work and reads the first sentence, you begin to influence that person – for good or evil. And the more of your work people read, the greater your influence grows.

So it is important to remember that, although you may feel you are writing for yourself, if you intend to allow your work to be read by anyone else at all, your words will have some kind of influence on that reader. There is a passage in the Bible, Luke 12:48, that says, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”

Although the statement is found within the pages of Scripture, it is a truth outside of those pages as well. It is a law of life for anyone committed to living responsibly. When we are endowed with the powerful gifts and talents that allow us to create through the written word, we then become accountable for what we do with that word.

One final thought: If you love to write, then you have a gift for writing. You may need to develop it, nurture it, and discipline it. Most writers have to work hard at those endeavors. But you need to recognize that if you genuinely love to write, then there is a gift inside that calls you to give yourself to it.

cartoon-quote-wrightThe goal of this course, then, is four-fold:

1. To acquaint students with the basic skills required to express themselves well through writing.

2.   To help students discover and use their innate talents and abilities for creative expression.

3. To acquaint students with the unique characteristics and requirements of multiple genres of literature and help them determine which genres best fit their individual writing strengths.

4. To help students develop a consciousness concerning their responsibility as writers and help them learn to use every tool at their command to fulfill that responsibility successfully.


* Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

~~~