Weekend Coffee Share 8/18/18

If we were having coffee together today, I’d tell you that I need about 3 more cups, along with a huge piece of chocolate cake and a handful of potato chips — you know — for that ‘sweet & salty’ touch. It could be that I’m just hungry because I’m writing this at suppertime. But I’m not fixing supper right now because I’m waiting for my nephew to come and move a very heavy appliance for me. So I’m probably just really, really hungry period. But boy, the coffee and chocolate cake would make a great supper, if you ask me.

I’ve had a very busy week, but it’s not the kind of stuff I really want to spend time going back over, so instead of telling you about my week, I’m going to do something different this time around. I’m going to give you one of my stories from what will soon be an anthology of short stories from the Elixir of Life Coffeehouse. So put your feet up and have another cup on me while you read.

 

COFFEE & LAPTOP -- Gilliw 1864 -- PX

AS THE PLOT UNRAVELS

“I don’t know what to do,” Neville groaned, rubbing his hands roughly over his face. Then he pushed his laptop out of the way and leaned both elbows onto the coffeehouse table, propping his chin in his hands.

“What’s wrong?” Clarence, the waiter bussing the table next to Neville’s, turned to question him.

Neville looked up, startled. “Oh … blast … I didn’t realize I had said that out loud. Sorry,” he added looking sheepishly around the room to see if other customers had heard. He was relieved to see that Elixir of Life Coffeehouse was having one of its quieter days.

“No problem,” Clarence answered and walked over to Neville’s table. “Can I get you a refill?”

“Yeah, that would be great,” Neville answered, handing the boy his cup. “It’s been a rough writing day.”

The young man returned in record time with Neville’s refill and stayed to talk a moment. “Do you have what they call writer’s block?”

“No.” Neville shook his head and continued. “No, Clarence. This isn’t writer’s block. In fact, I almost wish I did have that dreaded condition. My problem isn’t that I can’t get the story to move along. This story is moving along at an incredible pace. The problem is that it’s writing itself, and my original plot is unraveling as fast as I can put my fingers to the keys.”

“You mean you’re not in control of your own story?” Clarence looked at Neville as if he had lost his mind — just a little. And that made Neville laugh.

“Don’t worry, my boy,” he said. “I’ve not gone bonkers yet. And … thanks for making me laugh. It helps. But to answer your question, no, I’m not in control of my own story.”

“Wow … how does that happen?” Clarence asked, really into this new information he was being exposed to.

“Well it’s not too unusual for a writer to get into a novel and find that one of his characters seems to gravitate in a direction other than what he had originally planned — or that the story seems to be flowing toward an ending that’s different from what he jotted down in his outline. But what’s happening in my story is different.”

“How?”

Neville shook his head and sighed. “I’m not sure how it’s happened, but every character seems to be taking on a brand new identity and making his own decisions. The guy I had pegged as the hero has suddenly become the villain, and the woman he loves is rapidly developing feelings for his best friend — which means he will probably end up killing his best friend — he’s already entertained the idea — and maybe even offing the woman as well.”

“But does it matter who ends up being the villain and the hero — I mean — as long as you have one of each, it’ll come out even, right?”

Neville chuckled. “Well, it’s not quite that easy. My publisher assigned me a contract to do a specific kind of story. One that will be a believable sequel to my last three novels. They were moneymakers, and I’d hate to mess up a record like that. I spent the money I made on them, and now I need more.” He rubbed his face agitatedly again. “Besides that, I’d be breaking my contract if I didn’t give them what I guaranteed.”

“MmMmm, you do have a problem,” Clarence said, so engulfed in the conversation now that he just sat right down at the table beside Neville.  They both sat in silence for a moment, Neville stirring his coffee and staring at it as if he could somehow find an answer in the dark liquid. Finally Clarence asked, “Why don’t you just delete all that part that changed and go back to your first chapter and start over on the story you intended to write. That would take care of it wouldn’t it?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not able to do that.”

“Why not?” Clarence asked, his face showing his obvious confusion.

“Well, Clarence … as strange as I’m sure it sounds to you … the truth is that I’ve totally lost track of the story I intended to write … and besides ….” He paused and glanced off to the side, lost in thought for a long moment. Clarence waited, figuring Neville was trying to work out a plan.

Suddenly Neville looked back at Clarence with a smile on his face. He looked serene  now, rather than agitated, and Clarence leaned toward him across the table to ask, “You figure something out? How to stop this runaway story?”

“Nope,” Neville said, grinning wider. “I’m not going to stop this story, Clarence.”

“Huh?”

Neville reached over and rested his hand on Clarence’s shoulder. “Clarence, my boy, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to give this story my whole heart and soul and let it lead me wherever it wants to go.”

“But what about your contract and all?”

“Blast the contract,” Neville said, beginning to close up his laptop and slip his notes into his briefcase. “If that publisher can’t see the truth about the value of this story, then he can sue me.”

“But –”

“No more ‘but’s‘ my boy,” Neville answered, rising from his chair, laptop under his arm. “This is the best damn story I’ve ever written in my life, and I’ve just decided I’m free enough to give my creativity its own head and let it take me to my destiny.”

He slapped down his last five dollar bill as a tip for Clarence and headed out the door, whistling.

 


If you’d like to take part in the “Weekend Coffee Share” posts, hop over to Eclectic Ali’s site and get the details about how to join the group.

 

 

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Releasing the Creative Writer in You – Lesson 9

 

For other lessons, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.

releasing-the-creative-writer-in-you-coverLESSON 9: INTRODUCTIONS – FIRST LINES, FIRST PARAGRAPHS, FIRST PAGES

 

Without a doubt, the first and primary job of your introduction to your story is to GRAB the reader’s attention and interest – and HOLD them securely. People sometimes consider attention and interest to be the same things. They are not. You must get the reader’s attention first. He has to pay enough attention to what your words are saying to read through more than the first few sentences. From that point on, you must have him interested enough to keep turning pages.

Once you have written a story, always go back to the first chapter and ask yourself, “Is there anything in this first chapter that is holding up the presentation of the really important characters or their action?” If so, delete it and get right into the “story” part of the story. If there is necessary information in the material you deleted, work it into the story later – perhaps through dialogue or even a character’s meditation.

Try your best to avoid prologues. In general, readers do not like prologues because they feel the material in that section of the book is keeping them from actually getting into the story itself. Occasionally, a prologue may be necessary, but the all-important operative words here are “occasionally” and “necessary.” In almost every novel, any material presented in the prologue can be worked into the first chapter of the book through dialogue and/or character meditation as the chapter flows along.

There are almost unlimited possibilities for great introductions – as many possibilities as there are writers. But most of them will fall into 4 main categories.

Intros beginning with ACTION.

This type of intro is almost always sure to get attention, and assuming the reader has picked up the book because he already has some degree of interest in the subject it covers, this plan is successful most of the time. However, be aware that if you begin action that is part of the main plot of the story, you may have to work your reader back to a place of beginning somewhere along the way, and you don’t want too much use of flashbacks, since they don’t move the story forward. Plan carefully so that most of the time you can avoid the need for flashbacks or the need to stop and give backstory information.

Intros beginning with DIALOGUE.

This type of intro is almost always a winner, as long as you can make clear who is speaking – and as long as the conversation is an important element in the story as a whole.

Intros beginning with SETTING.

These introductions are the hardest to use successfully because many readers are anxious to get to characters and action. However, settings that provide really strong appeal to the senses or emotions can work very well. Settings that immediately start building suspense or romance are often successful as well.

Intros beginning with a CHARACTER SKETCH.

Beginning with a strong character and presenting him/her in terms that immediately capture the senses and/or emotions will usually work well – mainly in character-driven stories, of course.

MAN TYPING HUGE PAGE - w. textAnd remember: always double-check your first chapter after the story is complete. That’s the time when you’ll know for sure whether you have the very best beginning possible.
More than once, I’ve changed my first chapter — particularly the first three paragraphs — in order to get the reader right into the important issues of the story, rather than just stuffing him with information.

I remember well the day I realized that the third chapter of my novel Quenton’s Honor should actually be Chapter 1 instead. I was sitting, thinking about offering Chapter 1 for a free reading on a couple different Internet sites. I caught myself thinking that I wished I could offer Chapter 3 instead because that’s where the real action of the story starts. Suddenly, I had this “light bulb” moment and realized “DUH!  If that’s where the action starts, then that should be Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3.”

And so — I made it Chapter 1. However, it was not nearly as easy to do it as it was to decide. I was working with a change in location throughout the story — from St. Louis, USA, to Karachi, Pakistan. As I went back and forth with the plot, I had to keep reminding myself and making allowances for the time change — particularly since a good deal of the conversation in some chapters took place on computers between two people who were located literally a half a world away from each other.

Beginning the book with Chapter 3 — and allowing for all the time differences — put me in the position of actually losing 12 days of activity in the story that were important to the plot —  but not attention-grabbing enough to start the story with. So I had to find a way to let the reader know about everything that happened in those 12 days. I finally decided to use a very short flashback. As I mentioned above, it’s important not to use flashbacks often or for any long sections of the story. They don’t move the story forward, and that’s what readers want to do — keep going forward to the climax and conclusion. But once in a while a short flashback can come in handy, and if it means a much more  compelling beginning chapter, then it’s worth the risk of using it later in the story.


This lesson will be the final lesson in this series. I will try to post a few more later in the year. Also, when I get the online creative writing course set up — so that students can read the lessons and do an assignment which they turn in via e-mail — I’ll be letting my readers know about the details. It’s been fun sharing with you the same kinds of things I share with my students in the college classes. I hope they’ve been beneficial. Whatever you do, keep writing and keep having fun doing it!


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

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Daily Post Prompt: ‘As the Plot Unravels’ – a short story

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MAN AT DESK b & w“I don’t know what to do,” Neville groaned, rubbing his hands roughly over his face. Then he pushed his laptop out of the way and leaned both elbows onto the coffeehouse table, propping his chin in his hands.

“What’s wrong?” Clarence, the waiter bussing the table next to Neville’s, turned to question him

Neville looked up, startled. “Oh … blast … I didn’t realize I had said that out loud. Sorry,” he added looking sheepishly around the room to see if other customers had heard. He was relieved to see that Elixir of Life Coffeehouse was having one of its quieter days.

“No problem,” Clarence answered and walked over to Neville’s table. “Can I get you a refill?”

“Yeah, that would be great,” Neville answered, handing the boy his cup. “It’s been a rough writing day.”

The young man returned in record time with Neville’s refill and stayed to talk a moment. “Do you have what they call writer’s block?”

“No.” Neville shook his head and continued. “No, Clarence. This isn’t writer’s block. In fact, I almost wish I did have that dreaded condition. My problem isn’t that I can’t get the story to move along. This story is moving along at an incredible pace. The problem is that it’s writing itself, and my original plot is unraveling as fast as I can put my fingers to the keys.”

“You mean you’re not in control of your own story?” Clarence looked at Neville as if he had lost his mind — just a little. And that made Neville laugh.

“Don’t worry, my boy,” he said. “I’ve not gone bonkers yet. And … thanks for making me laugh. It helps. But to answer your question, no, I’m not in control of my own story.”

“Well, how does that happen?” Clarence asked, really into this new information he was being exposed to.

“Well it’s not too unusual for a writer to get into a novel and find that one of his characters seems to gravitate in a direction other than what he had originally planned — or that the story seems to be flowing toward an ending that’s different from what he jotted down in his outline. But what’s happening in my story is different.”

“How?”

Neville shook his head and sighed. “I’m not sure how it’s happened, but every character seems to be taking on a brand new identity and making his own decisions. The guy I had pegged as the hero has suddenly become the villain, and the woman he loves is rapidly developing feelings for his best friend — which means he will probably end up killing his best friend — he’s already entertained the idea — and maybe even offing the woman as well.”

“But does it matter who ends up being the villain and the hero — I mean — as long as you have one of each, it’ll come out even, right?”

Neville chuckled. “Well, it’s not quite that easy. My publisher assigned me a contract to do a specific kind of story. One that will be a believable sequel to my last three novels. They were moneymakers, and I’d hate to mess up a record like that. I spent the money I made on them, and now I need more.” He rubbed his face agitatedly again. “Besides that, I’d be breaking my contract if I didn’t give them what I guaranteed.”

“MmMmm, you do have a problem,” Clarence said, so engulfed in the conversation now that he just sat right down at the table beside Neville.  They both sat in silence for a moment, and then Clarence asked, “Well, why don’t you just delete all that part that changed and go back to your first chapter and start over on the story you intended to write. That would take care of it wouldn’t it?”

“Well, that’s the other problem. I’ve totally lost track of the story I intended to write … and besides ….” He paused and glanced off to the side, lost in thought for a long moment. Clarence waited, figuring Neville was trying to work out a plan.

Suddenly Neville looked back at Clarence with a smile on his face. He looked serene rather than agitated, and Clarence was a little confused. “You figure something out? How to stop this runaway story?”

“Nope,” Neville said, grinning wider. “I’m not going to stop this story, Clarence.”

“Huh?”

Neville reached over and rested his hand on Clarence’s shoulder. “Clarence, my boy, I’ve made a decision. I’m going to give this story my whole heart and soul and let it lead me wherever it wants to go.”

“But what about your contract and all?”

“Blast the contract,” Neville said, beginning to close up his laptop and slip his notes into his briefcase. “If that publisher can’t see the truth about the value of this story, then he can sue me.”

“But –”

“No more ‘but’s‘ my boy,” Neville answered, rising from his chair, laptop under his arm. “This is the best damn story I’ve ever written in my life, and I’ve just decided I’m free enough to give my creativity its own head and let it take me to my destiny.”

He slapped down his last five dollar bill as a tip for Clarence and headed out the door, whistling.


To participate visit Daily Post.

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‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You: Lesson 4

To access other lessons in this series, simply click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar, and scroll through to find the lessons you need.

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? Science has the answer. Does that surprise you? Well, believe it or not, two of the world’s greatest physicists have provided the basic truths that generations of writers have used as foundational principles for telling stories. Albert Einstein, after years of scientific work and research came to the conclusion that “nothing happens until something moves.” And another great physicist and mathematician, Isaac Newton, is credited with giving us the basic understanding of the laws of motion. He proved that an object at rest stays at rest unless it receives pressure from an outside force. Then he further proved that an object in motion will remain in motion, going in the same direction, unless acted upon by an outside force.

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, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

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‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 3

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedTo access other lessons in this series, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.

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 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

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Writing Rule # 1: Use Your Own Voice

CARTOON WRITER, PINK, SPIKEY HAIR 2
Every writer, whether he’s having his say in prose or poetry, needs to follow the most important rule of successful writing: BE TRUE TO YOURSELF. If you spend your writing energy trying to be like some other author or poet – or trying to please people who do not see life the way you do – you will come to the place where your writing is drudgery, and even worse – you will be a total failure as a writer.

Now, that is not to say that you will never sell a piece of your work. In fact, you just might sell a few things to people who can’t distinguish great work from mediocre or poor work. But you will never reach those readers of the world who are waiting for another voice – a unique voice – YOUR VOICE — to speak to them in forms, words, images, and rhythms that they feel inside and can relate to at the highest level. You want to reach those people. And unless you are the REAL YOU in what you write, they will never find you.

Author Khaled Hosseini said this recently in an interview for TheAtlantic.com: “It seems miraculous, doesn’t it? That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you, something shrouded in impenetrable fog. Great art reaches through the fog, towards this secret heart—and it shows it to you, holds it before you. It’s a revelatory, incredibly moving experience when this happens. You feel understood. You feel heard. That’s why we come to art—we feel less alone. We are less alone. You see, through art, that others have felt the way you have—and you feel better.” (“How To Write: A Year In Advice From Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More,” Ed Fassler, TheAtlantic.com, December 17, 2013.)

So be true to yourself and let who you really are come through. Now, that does not mean you should never try new things. Certainly, every writer needs to give himself to some degree of experimentation. That’s how we learn what we have inside and what constitutes our strengths and weaknesses in our craft. Be brave and reach for fresh summits in your writing all your life, but always do so from the truth of your own heart.

In that light, let’s look at a few directives that fall under the heading of being true to yourself:

1. Use vocabulary that is your own and that your reader can follow without losing the real point of what he’s reading. Some writers strain for vocabulary that they believe will impress their readers by causing the author to look particularly intelligent or sophisticated. But the vast majority of the time, their readers become so frustrated with the need to stop and look up words in the dictionary in order to understand the text that they often give up. And if they push themselves to finish the book – or the poem – just because they like to finish what they start, they never pick up anything else by that same writer.

Use words that convey exactly what you mean and what you feel, but make sure the audience who reads it is going to be able to understand it without running for a dictionary. If you live your life in an academic world that communicates only through a sophisticated academic level of vocabulary, then – unless you are writing for an academic publication – you may need to re-evaluate your word choices as you write. Still be yourself, but be the self that carries on conversations with the clerks in the stores or with your kids.

2. Do not become an imitation. Most writers go through a period, early in their attempt to express themselves in their own work, where they unconsciously imitate their own favorite writers. The main cause of that problem is that they read so much by those authors, and, naturally, their thinking is influenced by them. One of the best solutions for the situation is for new writers to make an effort to read a lot – by a lot of different authors. Read within the genres you enjoy, but read outside those genres as well. Sometimes the influence of a writer in a totally different genre from you own can have just enough effect on your own writing that it makes it fresh and unique. In general, most writers come through those phases of imitation pretty quickly, and the more you expose yourself to different voices and styles, the more you will find yourself free of any one particular influence.

3. Write what you believe. Regardless of your topic, write what you believe in your own heart. It’s one thing to play “devil’s advocate” for a specific purpose, but to write from a point of view that is not your own on a regular basis is being false to yourself and to your reader. Even when you are writing on an assignment about a topic that you have no interest in and for which you feel no emotional response, if you force yourself to look in depth, you will undoubtedly find some aspect about which you can write with conviction and even emotion.

4. Be Succinct. You want to say as much as you can – as accurately and colorfully as you can – in as few words as possible. Although we cover this concern in the chapter on using language effectively, it bears repeating here. Work hard at choosing exactly the right word for the right place. Use words that are direct, colorful, active, emphatic, and fresh. When you can say what you mean with one or two words, DO NOT use four or five. Avoid passive verbs except where you want to bring special attention to the receiver of an action.

In light of this effort, you want to make it a habit to avoid adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. Make your nouns and verbs do the real work of saying what you want to say. You also want to avoid too many exclamation marks. Once in a while, they are very effective, but if you have an article, a story, or a poem full of them, the reader stops feeling their effect.

In poetry especially, emphasis can be added to words simply by where they are placed in the poem. The first and last words in a line – and the first and last lines themselves – automatically give emphasis to what’s being said. Sometimes the rhythm chosen will put added stresses on just the right words, and even using inverted sentence order can bring certain words added attention and emphasis. Once in a while repeating a word or phrase is the most powerful way to give it emphasis, but you must be sure not to overuse this tool. Don’t repeat words just because you haven’t spent time looking for a better substitute.

5. If you’re writing poetry, choose a poetic form, meter, and rhyme scheme that match your topic, your tone, and your purpose. Experiment with a number of different poetic forms, meters, and rhyme schemes so that you are comfortable with more than just one or two. That way, when you have an idea for a brand new poem, you can look through your mental file and pick and choose the tools that will make your new piece say EXACTLY what you want.

(Excerpted from Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Conner)

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