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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‘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’). To 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 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, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

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‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 6

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

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

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.

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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 2

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

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

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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

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

 

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‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’- Instruction in the Craft of Writing

releasing-the-creative-writer-in-you-coverToday’s prompt from the Daily Post gives me the perfect opportunity to introduce a new series of articles I’ll be offering on this site. I’ve taught creative writing for years, and I am currently gearing up to begin an online instructional course (via e-mail) that I can offer to people who want to take my writing courses but who don’t live within commuting distance. While preparing for that online project, I decided to offer a series of instructional articles here on my website as well.

Of course, the articles here won’t include any editing or feedback for people who do the exercises or write stories connected with the instruction. That service will be part of the actual online e-mail course only. But I thought there might be several readers who would like to glean from the information, suggestions, and experience that I can share from this venue.

The material will come primarily from my writing curriculum Releasing the Creative Writer in You (2013, St. Ellen Press). Some articles will simply be encouragement in certain areas, but many of them will offer specific suggestions that can lead us to keep making our writing better.

I know for certain that I am a much better writer today than I was 10 years ago. In fact, there’s such a difference that I rarely go back and read any of the novels I wrote the first couple years of my fiction writing because I always want to change way too many things, and I’m frustrated because the books are already in publication. But my improvement in writing was primarily the result of writing.  As simple as that sounds, it’s the truth. The more we write — and the more we challenge ourselves to stretch out into new territory and experiment in areas beyond our comfort zones — the better we become at our craft.

So I’ll be posting some segments of my curriculum on here once a week for several weeks. Some of my readers are brand new writers, who can glean something useful from all of the posts. However, I know many of you will already be very familiar with the skills and techniques I’ll be discussing. Hopefully, even for the very experienced, the articles will still give a lift and maybe a new surge of energy. The first couple of posts will be articles that I’ve posted in the past, but they are the best way to introduce the curriculum, so I’ll begin with them.

My plan is to post the instructional articles on Saturdays. I hope they are a source of real help to any readers who are just beginning to delve into their own creativity and writing skills, and an encouragement to several of you out there who already enjoy practicing and maturing your craft.

I love teaching my creative writing classes, and I’m excited about sharing more of that same material here.