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Learning How to Be a Writer–Part 3, Fiction and Mechanics

Last week we presented some edited excerpts from a series first published in the Eagle Peak Quarterly on learning how to be a writer. This week we’re offering some basic tips applicable to writing fiction and some mechanics that apply.  This is NOT a comprehensive set of never before heard tips, but you might still find it helpful if you are new or need a refresher. If you missed last week’s post, get it here.

Fiction Writing Tips

Fiction, no matter the length or the genre, has a number of elements that you probably already are well aware of:

  • A plot—the narrative or storyline of events that make up the story; depending on the length and complexity of the work, there may be a number of subplots
  • A protagonist—the main character, often at odds with an agonist also known as the bad guy
  • Secondary characters with whom the protagonist interacts
  • A setting—where the story takes place; there could be multiple settings for different scenes but there is still likely a main focal place for the story
  • Theme—the overarching issue or concern of the story; it could be love, war, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.
  • Conflict—an internal or external challenge to the protagonist; how the protagonist deals with the events that precipitate the conflict are an essential part of the plot
  • Climax—when the plot elements of the conflict come to a head, a time when the tensions reach the maximum
  • Resolution—how the protagonist and any other essential characters resolve the climax, the payoff of the story, if you will

So how do you make these disparate elements into a story—from a short story to a novel? You need a beginning and an end. A good story, no matter its length, connects readers to the protagonist so that they empathize with him/her—feeling what they feel. A story arc introduces the protagonist and through a series of event escalates the conflict to the climax and resolution. Along the way, the story shows the possible character flaws, shortcomings or other reasons that make the challenges the protagonist faces difficult. The speed at which the story progresses from beginning to end depends in part on the genre (action/thrillers are typically fast-paced and sacrifice character development to the plot; romances, mainstream drama and other stories may take a more deliberate pace) and in part on whether it is a short story or novel.

The Mechanics

  • Point of View—the perspective from which the story is told; from whose head is the story being told to the reader
    • First person (“I walked along the shady trail”) common in memoirs and autobiographies
    • Third person (“Fred walked along the shady trail”)—which can be limited or omniscient; most books today use limited third person (inside the head of one person only)
    • Second person (rarely used, talking directly to readers)
    • POV can and often does switch from scene to scene but should not within a scene; imagine if two people are talking and then the story first offers one person’s thoughts about the other and then the story switches to the other character’s view—very confusing
  • Flashback—You know what this is, right? A character’s thoughts go back to events of the past; used judiciously for a setup or for character definition and development it works well but done too often in one story it can be confusing
  • The beginning—ideally, the opening of any story will cause a reader to want to continue reader; hence, the advice to begin with a “hook”
    • Set up an action sequence—something is happening with or to the main character
    • Do a flashback of some event from the past that sets up a plotline
    • Introduces the protagonist or another key character
  • Show don’t tell—Tears fell from Lisa’s eyes at the viewing. Her knuckles whitening as she gripped the seat back before her, “What will I do without him?” she voiced her thoughts aloud. [an example of showing] Lisa cried at the viewing, overcome by the loss of her beloved husband Bill. [the same scene told instead of shown]
  • Avoid unnecessary adverbs—“Stop it,” Sal yelled loudly (loudly is redundant); “Stop it,” Sal yelled; “Stop it,” Sal said loudly—yelled does the work of expressing Sal’s emotion without need of loudly and much better than by modifying said with loudly
  • Using said—some (including Stephen King, who rails against adverbs) insist that it works fine to attribute dialogue to a character:
    • He said, she said is fine—especially if you are showing and not telling so that any emotion that hissed, laughed, growled, etc., might convey is unnecessary; only if it is critical and more expedient to use something like “yelled” as in one of King’s own examples in his book, On Writing should you consider something else
    • Often, if not most of the time, dialogue attribution can be omitted altogether when two characters are having a conversation; it should be obvious who is speaking
  • Be sparing in the use of cliché’s—consider “It rained cats and dogs, soaking his pants and shoes” versus “The rain fell hard, bouncing drops soaking his pants and shoes the moment he stepped outside”
  • Dribble out character details—dialogue works well for this, as well as responses to events during scenes; it’s more interesting and keeps reader’s attention learning about the characters as they go along, it’s another aspect of showing versus telling; don’t try to do a biography of the protagonist and other major characters all at once
  • Reveal a character’s faults or flaws—it’s OK for the main character to be imperfect, in fact it may be essential in presenting the scope of the conflict and getting through the climax to the resolution as the character succeeds despite his or her shortcomings—which most humans have, even heroes
  • If you can plan, do; if you can’t, don’t—there are two (or more) camps of writers: those who swear by complete planning with outlines, character sketches, setting descriptions, plot lines, etc. and then there are those who completely wing it, letting the characters take the story where it should go; you will have to decide what works for you—try them both on for size and see which you prefer
  • Get it all down, THEN revise—this is a mantra sworn to by many, for the sake of not getting bogged down by constantly editing while you are trying to complete a story; it may be hard to resist but if you can, you might find it worthwhile so long as you can forgive yourself for what appears on the page or the screen on the first draft—because it is only that (and should be)
  • Polish and revise until you can do more—except that will probably never happen; you just have to stop and say enough but then you need to have beta readers and/or an editor look it over, preferably both, if you want you have written to be something others will really want to read and pay for to do so
  • Use spellcheck and grammar/usage checking if using a word processor—it’s far from perfect but it will give you a start on editing; it won’t catch everything, it will annoy you with its recommendations that are incorrect or unhelpful but it still is useful

 

These are just some of the mechanics that you should consider. There are more, that you will find exploring them on the web or in books about writing, as noted above. Just write and have fun doing so. You can get some tips on improving your writing by posting it on the web on sites of your choosing, but remember you do risk having people take you less than seriously by putting up less than your best work, writing that will forever remain discoverable on the web with only a tiny effort by anyone.

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Learning How to Be a Writer–Part 2

Last week we presented some edited excerpts from a series first published in the Eagle Peak Quarterly on learning how to be a writer and thinking about where. This week we’re offering some general tips applicable to most writing and to writing nonfiction.  Next week we’ll cover fiction writing and the mechanics of writing. If you missed last week’s post, get it here

General writing tips

Medieval scribe writing

  • Find a quiet, distraction free writing space if possible—make it so with headphones, a door or other means. Writing is a mental exercise; don’t try to multitask.
  • Devote a solid block of time, whenever possible—build up to a few hours, if your circumstances permit, from 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will find it difficult to focus and get into a flow.
  • Make use of the writing tools that work best for you—try pens, laptops, desktops or even typewriters if you have access to one, until you find a level of comfort.
  • Set meaningful goals or determinations for progress—words or pages, time, etc. Some people suggest you must set a goal of X number of words no matter what; others will say you must spend at least a certain number of minutes/hours. It is up to you, in analyzing your own level of self-discipline versus laziness or procrastination (among other things) to make your own commitment in a way that makes sense to you. Artificial rules won’t help and will only frustrate you.
  • Have everything you need to be comfortable—clothes, food, beverages and the right chair; you can’t write if you are uncomfortable. Poor posture is not good for the body or the mind. Use a keyboard properly to avoid wrist problems. Blink and look away from a monitor from time to time to protect your eyes.
  • If you are using a computer, consider what software you will use for writing. Word-processing software will work for a start. Eventually you might want to consider specialized software such as Scrivener (usable on both Mac and Windows). If you want to blog or put stuff up on the web, you don’t necessarily have to start with a word-processor but it’s not a bad idea to get your work together in the final form you want before you load it up on the web.
  • Is there such a thing as “writer’s block?” You have heard the phrase often enough. It means you are staring at a blank page and can’t figure out what to put there. Some say it’s a myth or it really is something else. Don’t get hung up on the concept. Consider these options to deal with that empty page.
    • Get up and walk around for a few minutes. Step outside for a change of perspective, fresh air, etc.
    • Open or pick up another writing project and work on it for a while, then come back to the one that isn’t moving for you.
    • Re-examine notes, an outline or whatever planning document you may have.
    • Just work through it, if you can, putting something/anything on the page; you can always change it later.
    • Switch media—put down the pen and boot up the computer or vice versa.
    • Get some coffee, tea or another beverage; have a snack or a meal.
    • Only as a last resort, shut it down for the time being and come back to it later—just be sure you do.

Non-Fiction Writing Tips Continue reading Learning How to Be a Writer–Part 2

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Learning How to Be a Writer; Thinking About Where

In case you missed the earlier parts of a writing series published in Eagle Peak Quarterly, we are running re-edited excerpts here. First is how and where. From Part 2 of that series. Maybe you know much (if not all) of this already. If you do, look at it as a refresher. If not, use it as new perspectives to help you on your quest.

Ernest Hemingway writing at a campsite in KenyaYou want to write. Books, short stories–whatever. You’re ready to get started. Maybe you already have. You fire up your computer or your tablet, or you pick up your pen or pencil. Maybe you’ll end up like Hemingway, writing at a desk in Kenya.

Sure, you can just jump right in. You can start a blog, if you don’t already have one, on Blogger or WordPress.com. You can post your poems, your short stories or whatever thoughts may occur to you on Google +. You can find many sites on the web to submit flash fiction—the really short bits of writing that are much less than the typical short story. You can submit feature articles or stories to print or online magazines. You can even go to Amazon and create a Kindle account to upload your work to publish an eBook. Or you can use CreateSpace on Amazon to create a print book. There are plenty of other options for self-publishing as well–Kobo, Smashwords, Lulu and many others.

Should you? No, not right away,

Why notBecause you want to make sure what you write is of a quality that won’t embarrass or short circuit eventual success at attracting readers or selling your work in whatever market fits what you are writing. If you surf the web, you will find countless complaints (rants even) about the “crap” that can be found among eBooks and on websites. You have probably seen some of it yourself. What should you do? Learn more about writing well and before putting something out there in print or as an eBook make sure it has been edited. Take your chances on blogs and social media if you like, but remember—nothing ever leaves the web, it will be discoverable forever. OK, enough of what not to do; read on for how to get there. Continue reading Learning How to Be a Writer; Thinking About Where

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Web Resources for Self-Publishing Authors–Part 3

Are you writing a book? Considering self-publishing? Here is the 3rd and final part of some web resources that will help in all aspects of writing—from the first draft through marketing. 

256px-Internet1These links are categorized by topic in alphabetical order. NOTE: as of October 2015 all are active. No evaluation or approval is implied by the listing; you must evaluate the merits of any site you check on the list. On just a few listings there will be some pros or cons. Some items on this list contain lists of their own—links to other sites with more links. So there is a great deal of information to be gleaned here, some better than others. This is just a small sample of what’s available, but it’s a start. To update that old biblical quote—search the web and you shall find [some good stuff and some junk].

Social Media
Other Writing Resources

Excerpted from Part 4 of Becoming a Writer, a series published in the Eagle Peak Quarterly

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Curing Writer’s Block–Whether Maddening or Myth

writer who might be blocked
From a painting by Goya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inertia—Although I’m not a scientist or engineer, I like to apply a concept from physics to this problem some of us writers face. I see it as the principle of inertia at work. An object at rest tends to remain at rest; an object in motion tends to stay in motion (subject to gravity, friction, wind resistance, etc.). In the case of a writer, one first has to overcome the inertia of being at rest—staring at a blank screen or page, fingers unmoving without the impetus of the mind’s direction. So what’s to be done, with a project in mind but no thought on how to proceed. That’s the classical predicament, is it not? You want, you need to get something down on that story, that article, that page in the novel. But your mind is not cooperating, it’s as if the mind were frozen, locked up like a malfunctioning bit of software on the computer. This is when you might use inertia to your advantage.

Write anything—you can write something can’t you? No, not on the task at hand. Something else. You could write something about that vacation you took last year. The problem with your car that the mechanic fixed. The movie, the restaurant, the play—somebody else’s book that you enjoyed. It doesn’t matter what. Now your writing mind is in motion. It wants to stay in motion as the principle of inertia demands. So when the alternate writing gets up to speed, try shifting to the work that you were initially unable to do. It may not work all the time, but the simple confidence boost, the mental shift may be enough to get you going. If not, instead of choosing some mundane topic of no immediate practical value, you chose to make some progress on another project that is on another to do track, what happens? You will have accomplished something of value, despite the block on the task that you intended to work on.

Physical activity—So maybe doing something else doesn’t help if you have an absolute deadline. Resistance to motion is stronger, back in the inertia analogy, with a deadline. So what else can you do? A little oxygenating, pulse racing exercise for a short time may help. Gets the brain functioning at a higher level. A walk outside, some trips up or down stairs. Nothing that will wear you out, just something to get the blood and oxygen going. What else? If caffeine helps, fine; but note that it might make you more frazzled. Play with the dog or another pet; they’ll be happy for the attention paid to them instead of the intention that the computer or the writing pad gets from you. This is restorative, calming if you find yourself too tense to proceed.

Rest/Relax/Take a Break   Makes no sense, does it? You need to work, not be lazy, right? It’s not lazy if you can escape the grip of anxiety or stress over the inability to do the writing. Take a nap. If not a nap, perhaps meditation or whatever other relaxation technique you use. Be careful with drugs or alcohol. While they may offer relief, they also may offer too much in the way of escape. It’s all in what your mind and body can handle and make use of. A few sips of wine may remove the inhibiting thoughts that locked the writing part of the brain. A few more and you may be inclined to say the hell with it. Mary Jane all the more so. She is a tempting Goddess. Only you know your functional limit. Don’t buy into the historical anecdotes about the authors who must drink to write—unless you are quite sure you are one of them.

 

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Five Essential Story Ingredients

Book cover, Waiting for Westmoreland
Waiting for Westmoreland cover

Thanks, Richard Brownell for posting this on LinkedIn to remind us of some essential story ingredients needed for successful writing. The tips are contained in an article on Writer’s Digest, by Steven James. James begins his piece by asking  is the following a story:

Imagine that I’m telling you about my day and I say, “I woke up. I ate breakfast. I left for work.”

Of course it isn’t. From my own writing courses from a bygone time, I recall that a story needs exposition of a character who experiences a conflict. The crisis the character meets may be exacerbated by a weakness or a character flaw. The story arc proceeds through the protagonist discovering more about him or herself and finding the change required to resolve the difficulty. Rather than my explaining all that here, take a look at the item on Writer’s Digest at the link in the first paragraph. Of course, you can also see a real life example looking at my book, Waiting for Westmoreland.