Tag Archive | writing

Testing Your Ideas

pencilOver the years I’ve learned that ideas need to be tested–you save yourself a lot of wasted writing time, dead ends, and massive frustration if you run a few simple tests over what seems like a brilliant idea. Here are ten easy tests/checks to help you:

Test 1 – The plausibility check. This test requires a partner. A plotting partner is a great help for any writer. I recommend having only a couple of these–too many writers really do spoil the story. You end up with a mess. Run your idea past your plot partner–ask flat out if it works. Is it plausible–meaning does it work as a basic idea.

Test 2 – The motivations checks? This is where a lot of stories fail. The writer figures out the hero’s motivations, and maybe the heroine’s–but the antagonist is neglected and the story fails because the bad guy is just stock character who does things because the plot demands it. Do yourself a favor and write out all motivations–check EVERY character. Why are your characters wanting what they want and doing what they do? Be very certain to check and double-check your antagonist. The rule that your protagonist is only as strong as your antagonist is a good one. If you want a strong protagonist, create a great antagonist to challenge that character.

Test 3 – The cliche check. This is where you must look for any cliches. Does your bad guy kidnap the heroine? Why–and why can’t he do something different and which makes more sense? Does the hero’s mistress or ex-lover make trouble? Look for every cliche–and look to cut these or put a fresh twist on them.

Test 5 – The locked room test. This is a test specifically for romance novels. Put your hero and heroine in a locked room, where they must sit down and talk. Does this talk make all the conflict between them worse? If so, you’ve got great conflict. If a forced talk would resolve everything, you’ve got misunderstandings instead of conflict and so your characters need work.

Test 6 – The exception check. This is where you  have to look at your idea and see if you must bend history, physics, or the rules of your own fantasy world to make the idea work. This isn’t so much of a problem if you’re writing alternate history–but this, too, must be worked out logically. Do you have to create exceptions to make your own story work? If so, you’re heading back to test 1 of plausibility.

Test 7 – The idiot test. This is a good one to look at. Must your hero or heroine behave like an idiot at some point to make the story idea work? Does the heroine have to leave the house in a nightgown with not so much as a flashlight to check on a mysterious sound? Does the hero have to believe in a man who has been lying to everyone during the entire book? Does the antagonist have to hire terminally stupid henchmen? This is closely related to cliches, but writers can always invent new ways for characters to be very dumb. Now, if your character is supposed to be dumb this is not an issue, but if the character is only supposed to be dumb to make a key plot point work, you’ve got problems with that idea.

Test 8 – The backstory check. If your idea requires the reader to first have several chapters of set up in order to understand the story, the setting, or this world’s history, you may want to look at how complicated you’re making things. Maybe you–the author–need to write these chapters–but can you cut them or find another way to get the information to the reader that doesn’t mean the story start is delayed or put off? We all fall in love with our backstory stuff–that’s great. But it doesn’t mean a reader really needs this stuff.

Test 9 – The skill test. This is one that many writers ignore. We all want to believe we have the skill to write the stories that come to us, but the truth is that sometimes our ideas are bigger than our abilities. You have to be honest with yourself to apply this test–and you want to err on the side of caution. It’s much better to have a simple story idea very well done than it is to have an amazing story idea that’s poorly realized. Opt for simple every time.

Test 10 – The butt test. This one is simple–but again it needs honesty. Can you keep your butt in a chair long enough to write this idea? Maybe you have an idea for an epic space fantasy–can you really write 300,000 words?  Or will you actually get a 25,000 word novella done? You want to look at your skills–and your ability to keep yourself focused. Nothing is more depressing than unfinished story after unfinished story. Give yourself a break and go hunting for doable ideas.

There you have it. Ten tests that could save you from wasting your time with ideas that are going to lead you down the garden path and into the brambles. Just remember–there are always more ideas. So go cherry pick the best ones!

 

 

 

Break it Down–to Put it Together

BellyDanceDarMaghreb 045I’m about to start my Show & Tell Workshop for the FF&P chapter of RWA, and as always I’ve started thinking about the workshop. Inevitably, questions come up that aren’t related to the workshop, and I really do try to keep folks focused just on the workshop. There’s a reason for this.

When I first got serious about writing one of the most frustrating things about it is that there are so many moving parts. There’s dialogue, pacing, getting your characters on the page, narrative, description, punctuation, grammar, action, active voice, viewpoint, plotting, theme, and the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. Most of this stuff you learn because any writer starts out as an avid reader—and by reading you learn a lot about this stuff. But sometimes you have to break it down.

Breaking it down is something I learned from dance (belly dance specifically). In dance, you break down the moves so you can learn them not just one step at a time, but one body part at a time. Breaking it down with the writing lets you focus on not just trouble areas, but on getting a firm grip on some of the technical stuff. Why do this?

Getting the technical stuff out of the way:

1- Lets the characters and story shine—you really want the story and the characters to be front and center, not all the other stuff. To keep that other stuff invisible, you have to master it, so you can forget it.

2-Means less revision. You’re not constantly having to fix the typos—a little of that is not a lot of work, but many, many typos mean much, much work.

3-Lets you focus on bigger issues. Let’s face it, if you’re struggling with viewpoint control, or showing vs. telling, you’re probably going to be neglecting the bigger stuff—like did you really motivate your main character’s key choices, or did you really nail that dark moment, or do you have a strong grasp of what the book is really about. I’ve seen a lot of writers dig technical holes for themselves, and everything else suffers.

4-Can speed up your production. The stronger my technical skills have become, the smoother the writing, meaning fewer drafts, and faster production. This isn’t always true—other things (such as life) can step in to interfere with a project, but strong technical skills means you aren’t stuck trying to solve technical problems with the work.

5-Lets you have some more fun. Technical stuff is often a drag—it’s a lot of detail, so if you’re not a detail person this can seem like stuff you really don’t want to deal with. It’s actually the stuff you want to get so good at that it stops mattering. Then you can really fly.

6-Puts you on the path to art. We all go through stages of learning—and sometimes we’re blessed with stories that are gifts. But art really comes from a marriage of craft and passion. You may be born with the passion, but if the craft is lacking—the technique—expressing your passion can be held in check. So this is where you want to be so solid with your technical skills than you can actually forget them—and let something more take over.

7-Means that your technique is always there for you. Stuff happens. Passion can fade. And deadlines can bring stress that makes your muse hide. But your technical skills will be there no matter what. And it’s great to be able to fall back on that sometimes when you need to get work produced because that is your job.

So…don’t be afraid to break it down—to focus on one skill at a time. Pick an area where you know your skills are weak and just make that the thing you want to improve. Then you can figure out how to put it back together to get your story on track.

Are you a writer or a storyteller?

When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.

erbTake Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.

With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”

So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.

A good storyteller juggles:

Characters And Hooks: Act 1

•   Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with

•   Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)

Basic Structure: Act 2

•   Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!

•   Pacing — sequence of events

•   Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story

Craft And Voice: Act 3

•   Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)

•   Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest

•   Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others

Emotion and Innovation: Endings

•   Unique or Creative Use Of language

•   Presenting The Sequence Of Events

•   The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)

All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.

 

Character Motivations

writingblindOne of the biggest thing that readers need is to related to and understand your characters. If a character does something–particularly something out of character–the reader needs to understand why the character takes this action.

Why does the reader need to understand your characters?

1-Understaning means a stronger ability to relate to that character. Think about a character such as Dexter who is a serial killer. He is also the hero of his own TV series. How can he be a hero? He can be because a) the viewer understands him by getting insights to him (that’s why he narrates the episodes) and b) he kill only people worse than him. The understanding of WHY he does what he does is vital to making that character work because the viewer can relate to this killer. He’d be a harder sell to anyone if he acted without clear motivations.

2-Understand means a stronger ability to find the actions plausible. Yes, smart people do dumb things. But when smart fictional character do dumb things a reader tends to think that character is dumb. Fictional characters have to be more consistent that real people. This means if a smart character does something dumb the reasons for that dumb action have to be understood by the reader so the action seems plausible. At the very least think about making your characters self-aware enough that they know they’re doing something stupid–but they’re going to do it anyway because they’re desperate or angry or frustrated.

3-Understanding means a stronger chance of making that character likeable. We tend to cut our close friends and close family members more slack. If a reader doesn’t understand a character, the reader is distanced from that character. This means the reader has a harder time liking that character. Understanding is not all it takes to like a character–going back to Dexter as an example, if he killed just anyone you might still understand him but you’d have a harder time liking him. But understanding is a good start.

How do you provide the reader with an understanding of a character’s actions?

Some motivations are obvious to most people. The woman who will take on a tiger to save her baby. The firefighter whose job it is and who is trained to go into a burning building. Or the gentleman who opens the door for a pretty lady. Cultural norms, training for specific jobs, and core human nature behavior are things most readers get without needing the motivations really detailed. But when you get out of these you need more.

If it’s not obvious, make it obvious.

With first person, it’s pretty easy to fit in the character’s thoughts. You can also fit in character thoughts in third person with internal dialogue.

You don’t have to make this too obvious–in other words, you don’t really hit the reader over the head with, “I decided to let the air out of my ex-boyfriend’s tires to let him know I hated him.” That may be a little too direct. Or it may be that you really do need this because it’s the opening of the book and the reader doesn’t know anything about this character. You have to look at where is the scene in the book and do you need to weave in thoughts to let a reader know HOW a character gets to a decision. This is really important if you have something such as a housewife who suddenly picks up a gun and shoots someone–maybe she has a good reason for this, maybe not. If you want the reader to sympathize with the character you need to make sure the reader understands why she picks up a gun and why she’s suddenly able to use it on a person.

Another useful tool is dialogue. You don’t want the dialogue to be too “on the nose” — in other words, dialogue that is only about the plot tends to be stiff and awkward. It won’t sound like the illusion of real people talking. So you want to make sure you have interruption, and emotion, and layers to your dialogue.

With dialogue, you need someone who can talk to your main character. This is often why you include best friends in any story–they’re a great sounding board for your protagonist. Dialogue helps get motivation and understanding on the page. A friend can question the hero or heroine. “A gun? Why did you buy a gun?” the best friend says. And now the heroine can explain–or duck the question, or partially explain how she learned to use a gun from her ex who is an Army Ranger. So best friends can be very useful. They’re great to give the reader insight and an understanding of your main characters.

What about the character who has to act out of character? The person afraid of heights who suddenly climbs up the side of a building? Or the person who is non-violent who hits another person? Or the person who hates water who now dives into  a swimming pool?

A great guideline is that the more extreme the action is in terms of taking that character away from their core set of actions, the more you have to motivate that action.

So a woman who has to shoot a man who is threatening her baby, that motivation is clear and strong. Protection of a child is something every reader will understand. A reader may have a harder time believing a woman who shoots a man because  he touched her front door. The reader is going to wonder if she’s crazy. Or does she know something the reader doesn’t? As in she recognizes him as the man who killed her sister. This is where the reader NEEDS that critical information in order to understand the character.

It’s fine to have a little bit of mystery with characters–maybe you reveal after the action that this woman did know this man killed her sister. However, if you do too much of this remember you may not have a chance to let the reader know this fact. Hide or withhold too much and the reader may just abandon the story before the reader gets to that fact.

One of the eight rules of creating writing from Kurt Vonnegut is:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve read more manuscripts by writers who haven’t mastered their craft where you can tell the writers is holding back on information about the character and either hinting at it or just not saying anything. The usual result is I stop reading. As a reader I lose interest and find the characters unlikeable and I don’t understand them. Why would I want to waste my time with such people?

Lack of understanding–not enough information–is a way to lose readers out of your story. Yes, you can also overdo the information. You’re have to be the middle bear and have not too much and not too little and just the right amount of information. This may means another draft, another set of edits, a read through from another writer or a reader, and some more edits.

But do listen to Kurt. Get your characters onto the page, doing things and going them for reasons that the reader understands. And this brings us to the last point.

Remember there is the story in your head, there is the story on the page, and there is the story in the reader’s head. Those three stories don’t always match.

You may understand your characters’ motivations, but did they get onto the page? Did they make it onto the page in a way the reader understands? Or have tangled sentences warped the meaning? Is the writing getting in the way of clarity?This can be a problem for a lot of writers who love words–you opt for those fancy pretty words. Go for clarity instead.

Think about aligning the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head. Go for clear motivations in clear sentences that help your reader understand your characters.

Understanding of your protagonist is important–but apply this reasoning to all your characters. And even to your settings.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.