When you write fiction or memoir,

what is it you truly do?

Can you list the types of writing you engage in line to line?

Do you know that there are different parts to your work?

Read the rest of this entry »

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If you’ve written an opening for a character it’s not always wise to start your story with only description. That can be a bit boring – like looking at a still-life painting, or out the car window at a building you’re approaching. It’s static.

Writing out a description of your MC usually has very little movement to it. Plus, the most common thing that novices do is step away from the scene while they’re telling their readers about the colour of someone’s hair, or the clothes that they wear. If you’re going to tell us about those things, make them do double duty by reflecting either the character’s state of being, or the tone you’re trying to get across in your narrative voice.

Gus Sanchez commented recently:

I like to keep descriptions about people’s physical appearances to a minimum, unless there’s something about their physical appearance that drives their character or motivation…. I would rather picture this character on my own terms, and let the author tell me more about the character’s motivations than what color their socks are.

 

About The Idea Of Keeping Character Description To A Minimum.

Rethinking your opening gives the reader actions your characters make. Writing ‘in-scene’ from your opening line, “Joey gripped his bb-gun and watched the fog of his breath rise in the early morning chill.” is better than “Joey stood, dressed in camo and a bright orange vest” type of opening.

One shows how those actions reflect your characters’ motivations, reactions, or emotions right from the beginning. Your word choice is storytelling from the very beginning:

Gripped = nerves?  Rise = hope? Chill = dread?

In the line-up of smart writing elements, description is rather low. Action for description, or action’s sake, ( Joey stood…) isn’t even top of the go-to list over Action with word choices, that convey motivations, reactions, or emotions.

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Want one-on-one coaching or story edits  in this and other craft elements? See the side panel for my contact info.

Make you writing all it can be before you send it off for self-publishing.

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 Here’s another example,

Let’s suppose Tim’s a character who’ve you’ve outlined as someone whose actions are rough and menacing. Forgo the guy’s physical description unless you can use it to show us this roughness via his motivation and reactions. Do this by asking questions – How would someone hiding his anger act? What motion does someone make who is trying not to yell, and fails?

Then any movement Tim makes are doing double duty to show is this violence or his suppression of it.

If Julie’s written up on your character outline as nervous, battered, or wary. Knowing her hair colour won’t show much of that side of her to us, at least not the bits we want to know about.

If you write an opening ‘in-scene’ to show us those traits via her emotions, then your word choices for the movements Julie make as she cringes away from the sound of Tim’s voice can then do double duty to show is this hesitancy in Julie’s character. And the menace in Tim’s.

This is why if you are going to describe your characters right from the start – your descriptions can go so much deepr than a physical one.

Paint a picture with the intangibles too.

Do your novel’s characters seem bland? A bit too average? Nothing setting them apart from anyone else you have walking around in your pages?

Want to work on that?  Here’s how.

The trick here (and for novices it is tricky) is to come at this problem backwards.

Don’t say to yourself, Humm, I need to make this gal or guy more quirky.  They just do the same old things everyone does. How can they be more I don’t know, better? This character needs more—umph!

Instead, work from what you know.

Don’t think of your characters at all yet. Just think of things you know about people.

What do you know about boys, girls, men, or women?

Not what we all know – that general stuff, those are just clichés that society knows about people.

I’m talking about what you’ve personally experienced in your life about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

These are the bits of knowledge that bring your writing up a notch, and bring your characters to life.

The tricky part is that what you know is applied randomly.

So don’t ask yourself  What do I know about private investigators, or single dads, or bad boyfriends?

That’s coming at things head on.

We’re trying for tricky here – and what needs tricking is your preconceived notions of what you think you know about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

For instance: I know that an old friend of mine, when he cooked, would talk to himself in a low voice all though the prep; lovingly narrating every move he made.

That quirk of self-talk in the kitchen is something unique that I can take from my actual life knowledge and use as a character’s quirk— in any of my novels. Luckily, it could be used differently on any PI, or a single dad, or a bad boyfriend character I write.

Drawing on character knowledge of this sort will work far better than those societal clichés we all assume we know about people. He is a silent type. She can be a harridan. Teens are disgruntled or sullen.

Those things are rather abstract. The act of self-talk in a character is a bit more concrete.

Now, if you feel you’re not a novice, perhaps you’re a 2nd Tier writer, there is even more you can do.

Ask yourself how this character’s quirk would differ from character to character? That is refining uniqueness for the needs of your story. It also exercises refinement of how you might use the character trait in your character.

How can it be applied on that investigator? How can it be switched up so that it’s nothing as how it would be used for a single dad, or a bad boyfriend? How can you do some serious writing to find what’s uniquely characteristic about your characters?

If all three of these characters are in your story, and you run this exercise for all three of them, one will work a lot better than the others and that is who you’ll give this quirky habit to.

To find that out you’ll need to put that found quirk into a unique circumstance or scene. It doesn’t have to do with your plot (though that’s good if it does); it is there to heighten your characters’ uniqueness so that the reader sees him as real.

Example:

Private investigatorhe’s contemplating going to AA and the self-talk he does waiting in his car while on a case is his way hearing what he’ll sound like if he ever gets up the courage to go to a meeting.

 Single dadHe’s outside the kid’s room, in the hallway, and overhears his two sons mimicking that self-talk Dad does and in a flash, realizes he’s doing okay by them after all, no matter what anyone says.

 Bad boyfriendHe’s there on the couch after a fight, doing that self-talk thing again. But this time your character hears him running baby names options, mixing them with his last name, then a hyphenated version of the FMC’s and his. For one moment in your story, this person is more than a clichéd version of all those other bad boyfriends.

Here’s the final tip of the day:

This is what the experts mean when they tell you that you need to write what you know.

My Call for Submissions for your 200 word excerpts is still open.

Click the link to find out about it.

A Hint Will Do

May 18, 2013

Novices sometimes fall into shorter lines that only tell where their characters are standing. They only tell the reader ways that characters are moving. It’s all very stage direction-ish. These underwritten shorter lines don’t help tell the story.

There are conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet & so), and there are punctuation marks (commas and semi-colons) that you can use to make a simple sentence more robust.  These revision helpers bring more story to your stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Novice writers sometimes focus on the wrong Who, What, Where, When, and How’s in their story. In all my coaching, this is a big thing I teach novices about news ways to write and better editing skills.

You can write about how your characters are feeling, or reacting to the happenings in your story. Showing.

Or you can describe to the reader how they are moving. Telling.

This is where the over-use of prepositions and prepositional phrases come in. Read the rest of this entry »

My Life’s Work

May 6, 2013

Attention, Sweden, Netherlands and Finland readers,

 In the last 30 days, my blog’s received 36 views from your countries. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

For the interest, and the return hits. I work often with international clients.

Feel free to contact me for coaching and story-editing services.

Now, on to today’s post:

In my opinion, I’m reading too many self-published novels that could have used some editing before their authors let their work out in public.

When we’re the only arbiter of what is ready for print we can allow our less than best efforts to be published. I think the problem is we don’t look hard enough at our own work. It may be the fact that self-publishing novice writers are in too much of a hurry to think beyond ‘getting it out there’.

Unfortunately, the whole idea about writing novels isn’t getting it out there – it’s writing something that won’t disappoint your readers with its level of craft or skill.

Look at these blog reviews for my short story collection, Claiming One:

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging… The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

–         Roof Beam Reader blog

 They were all hard hitting in their own way, each of the characters touching and affecting, which I loved about the book.  The writing was very tight, not overly descriptive, but each of the stories painted a picture in my head that stuck with me.

–         Indie Reviews blog

 The stories in this collection are intimate and reflective. They will leave you with a sense of wonder when you finish each one. As with all short stories, there is a sense that you’ve been left to ponder that there is more than what is on the page. The characters came alive in most of the stories… I usually only read “The Greatest American Short Stories” and “The Greatest American Mystery Short Stories,” so she had a very high bar.

–         Book End Babes blog

To receive reviews like this you need to do the work. You need to not settle for just good enough, common effort. Are you doing that extra work with your writing?

I don’t like having book purchases disappoint me so often. I want every great story idea that the book blurb promises delivered between the covers. I want to see great writing.  This is why I coach 1-on-1 and offer story-editing services.

Aside from being a writer myself, I also want to stop and engage each new writer long enough to help clean up their manuscripts.  To be over-romantic about it, it’s my life’s work; helping new writers to be better than what I now see offered in the self-published fiction and memoir market.

 Novices have great ideas, they want to build wondrous worlds, and accomplish their brave plans, I know I do. But not everyone has enough practice to recognize when their stories have too much summary narration. When there is clunky dialogue on the page. When their overuse of cliches is ruining those great ideas, and brave plans.

That’s what story editors are for. That’s what you learn from coaching. That’s why I want to help.

My blog posts here, and my website with the 52 lessons, are a start. But 1-on-1 work is also offered. I’ve worked well with writers in the US and internationally.   Contact me, don’t let your potential readers down.

 

I coach novice writers, offer services in story editing (content – not proofreading). And though folks like these posts just fine, I could use more clients.  Here’s what I teach new writers in my 1-on-1 coaching, and what I  offer as editing suggestions in my manuscript editing.

Anyone can write first drafts:

Jeri sat at the bar’s table, and picked up the drink. She paused for a second. The smell was awful. But she drank it down, hating the taste.
Laughing was heard behind her, as she sat with eyes closed. Opening them, she gave a look at her companion who was chortling to himself.

Tom teased her about the drink. And it made her defensive.
“It is…offensive,” Jeri  the android replied. Since she’d been discharged and graduated from the Group home, she found still she had trouble eating and drinking.

This is a writer telling the reader things. It’s a great start because the writer got some words down on the page. But it’s only story facts being told to the reader, so far. Very little is shown; we see almost nothing physical, visual, visceral. We can’t see much of what this bar, android, or her friend looks like or feels ‘in-scene’. We can’t hear the sounds in this bar. She must feel how her body is reacting to that drink, she must feel something about being laughed at, and a reaction might be in order because of that laughter.

You write well when you look at the first draft and then try showing a reader that stuff by making edits. And the best edits use senses to show more.

Take a look at the First round edits in the paragraph below. Again, like with most writing advice— This topic is aimed at Showing and not Telling: Telling is saying your character is in a seedy bar, having a drink she doesn’t want. And further, that she is not used to solid foods or drink for that matter. Everything in these paragraphs tells right now, and with the five senses they can show us instead.
IF you show it with senses then the extra words can be removed, which leads to a faster, tighter read: right now, these words tell but they are not visual words that show.

First round edits. Trying to show more:

Jeri sat down at a table in the dim bar, picked up the drink before her and took a deep breath. She paused for a second once it reached her lips, already able to smell it. Gathering herself she tipped it down her throat, baulking at the taste.
The sound of laughter filtered through to her as she realized she had scrunched her eyes shut in disgust. Opening them she shot a withering look at her companion who stood chortling to himself.
“That is their mildest drink, and still you can’t hack it,” noted Tom with a shake of the head.
“It is…offensive,” Jeri replied, looking at her glass. It was nearly a year since she’d been discharged and graduated to human interactions from the Android Group home and still she had trouble with simple things like eating and drinking.

Can this be made even more visual, physical and visceral? Here is a sample list of the senses.

Visual – What does this place we are in look like? Colors, textures, shadows, light. Mix it into the narrative – be sparse in this but show it to us in small ways and do that right up front, don’t keep us waiting. Use the senses to show the reader dimness, or silence, or the feel of residue of old, past spilled drinks on the table or the glasses. The time of day.

Smells – the same as above, is someone taking a drink? Don’t tell us that, “Jeri took a drink.”— have the character smell that drink: not in words like acrid, show us the reaction of acrid. Also, smell that ‘seedy bar’. The sweat of the unwashed patrons – machine oil and welding fumes. The amber lights, that conceal in their shadows – what?

Touch – Is a fan blowing? The air still? Is the glass in her hand cool? The bar none to clean? The bar or table where they sit – is it still damp from a rag carelessly swiped before she sat down?

Tastes – not in words “The drink tasted awful.”— in motion — Show us the reaction of the word acrid. Mime to yourself drinking and hating it. Pushing that swallow down. Then write that for us. What did your body do as it mimed? Put this in new ways. Not the tried and true [acrid stench] but in your words for a mouthful of something you’d rather spit out. Write that feeling. Show us. (Remember your verb exercises.)

Sounds – Did ice tinkle when her friend laughed? Did she slam her drink down in disgust? Did her strength of her grip make the glass squeak as she shuddered from the taste? Did she stifle a noise? Is there music playing, have they heard that song before? Is the music from this galaxy or from back home? Have they heard this song 50 times before, this month alone? Make this place come alive. Then do this for every instance when we are now in a new location of your story. Show it to us.
Second round edits. Writing for senses:

Jeri sat down at a table in the dim bar, her shoulder blades meeting tightly as she hunched, she picked up the unwanted drink before her and took a deep breath. She paused for a second once it reached her lips, already able to smell its inevitable stench, like some caustic chemical stored in drums in the mechanic’s bay. Gathering herself she tipped it down her throat, her shuddering intake of breath bringing its fumes into her sinuses, so that the torture lingered.
The sound of laughter filtered through to her as the noises in the bar bounced and magnified, mingling with the jukebox tunes; the rough scuffing of stools and the angry click of pool cues on ivory. She realized she had scrunched her eyes shut in disgust. Opening them she shot a withering look at her companion who chortled to himself.
“That is their mildest drink, and still you can’t hack it,” noted Tom with a shake of the head, his eyes on his own sweaty drink.
The burning sensation had reached an area just behind her sternum. “It is…offensive,” Jeri replied, looking disdainfully down at her glass, her elbows tight at her sides. It was nearly a year since she’d been discharged and graduated to human interactions from
the Android Group home and still she had trouble with simple things like eating and drinking.

 

What can you do with your own paragraphs? Give it a try, rewrite it using senses and showing verbs. Do it quickly and with the best word choices you can. Don’t be heavy handed with it. If you come up with five ideas for each sense, select the best of the 25 ideas and add those to your first round edit.

Worried that you need a second opinion for your work? Contact me. My rates are low.

We added maybe 80 words or so to our example, but in the final expansion, we also showed much more of this world via senses in the writing that weren’t there in the first draft.

Take any one of your own paragraphs and try this exercise. Make additions that will show us what you see when you visualize your story in your head. The goal is never just MORE WORDS.

If you think coaching will help, I can walk you though these steps in real time.