Tag Archive | writing

Point of View and Voice

I’m starting my Point of View workshop tomorrow and as always before a workshop, I’ve been thinking about the topic. A workshop is always a challenge–how do you better communicate ideas? Do the students understand basic concepts? Are folks trying to run before they can walk? Is anyone even listening?

POV is tough in that I think most folks brush it off as not really that important, when it is in fact one of the most important decision to make. Whose POV best tells the story? What POV gives the most conflict? And, more to the point, what POV calls to you?

Point of view and a writer’s voice cannot be separated. It is what makes writer’s voice authentic. A writer who attempts third person when their skills, preference and characters call out for first person will fail. Just as a writer who attempts first person who really leans heart and soul to third person will end up with clunky writing. Or even worse–writing that just sounds like showing off. And heaven help the story when craft is put first. The poor reader ends up with stories that are just terrible because the writer is spending too much time saying “look at what I can do.” It is death for a story when the reader notices the writing first.

So what’s a writer to do? Learn by reading, of course.

A great fist step I always advise is look at your bookshelf. Are most of the novels in first person? Or third person? Or a mix? Can you even get through a book written in first person (or, heaven help us, first person present tense). My own style leans toward third person–I love that it disappears. But I’ve read and loved some excellent work in first person, and mixed–but it takes talent to pull this off. It also takes passion–and it needs to fit the writer’s voice.

Trying something on is fine for a writer just starting out. Sometimes the only way you know if a pair of jeans fits is to put them on. But it’s also important to figure out what works best for you. And for the story. It’s also important to have your techniques down solid–if your technical skills are weak, the whole story is going to fall apart for the reader. Mastery of technical skills is what allows you to forget them. They’re in your DNA and you do them without thought. But you want to know your intent, too. You want to know just what it is you want to have the story do.

And that thought came up in a recent discussion on a forum about mixing up points of view had me wanting to respond with a question. What’s best for the story? That is the question a writer needs to ask. We’re back to intent here. And then the writer must answer with authority. That is what provides the reader and the story an authentic voice.

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How do you Plot?

notquietThere are as many ways to plot as there are writers. However, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you have an idea where you’re going, it can save you from having to do massive revisions. This is not to say you have to know every detail. Sometimes knowing too much can keep you from writing the story–you feel as if it’s already been told.

A balance between too much and too little is my happy spot. I want to know the big moments in every act. I want to know the character arc I’m building–and I want that arc to be the story arc. That’s where I see a lot of writers get into trouble–they build an action arc instead.

Now action can be great–in a mystery, or SF, or a Western. It’s not so good in a romance, which has to be character based. And character-based stories are what I prefer. But character-based stories need to be plotted from the character (not the action). This idea is what led me to my Plotting from Character workshop, which I’m teaching this September for the Contemporary Romance Writers.

handsThe idea behind the workshop is that if you plot from trying to think up actions to happen, you’re more than likely going to end up pushing your characters around as if they are paper dolls. The characters are going to come across as one-dimensional and not well motivated to take the actions demanded by the plot (because the plot is being pushed onto them, not pulled from who these characters are). The other problem is the plot is going to seem contrived–the author will have to manipulate the characters to make these actions happen. That’s going to strain the reader’s ability to believe in these characters (and their situations).

How do you avoid this? Well, that’s the point of the four-week workshop. But there are some tips:

  1. Create one main character–this is your protagonist. I know this seems obvious, but it is amazing how many writers write as if they are really unsure who is the protagonist. This is not the narrator. This is the character who changes the most in the story (and who faces the most problems).
  2. Create an external goal for the main character that is tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal. Failure should be personally costly to the main character. And those consequences are the motivation for wanting this goal.) This will drive your action and needs to be known to the reader as soon as possible (in the first ten pages is best).
  3. Figure out the main characters’ person’s core internal need. This should be something in conflict with that character’s goal so you get automatic conflict for that character between what that person wants and needs.
  4. Make sure you have strong motivations (the why) for a character’s core need. Discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés).
  5. Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  6. WHY is the most important question to keep asking and answering–why would this person act this way? Why do they want that thing? Why must they do this now? Never stop asking this question.
  7. Have a theme in mind–it will help you enormously as you shape all your characters and the story. Theme helps you figure what to put in and what to leave out.
  8. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character–and with more and more conflict.
  9. Layer in strengths and weaknesses for all your characters–develop them so characters do more than show up to advance a plot.
  10. Leave room for your characters to surprise you.

Obviously, there is more to the art of plotting from characters. But if you keep the story focused on your characters–and keep asking would this person really do this?–then your stories are going to become much stronger.

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Rushing the Story

stophurryingI’ve seen a new habit cropping up with a lot of beginning writers–they’re all rushing the story. It’s like these writers are so afraid of a slow pace that the story takes off the other direction, meaning too fast for the reader to start to care about the action and way too fast to establish the scene and the characters.

Visual media–movies and TV–have it lucky. A thirty second shot can do a lot to establish place, time and even give you a good bit of information on a character. But in any written media, all of that needs far more than a sentence or two on the page.

Now I’m not saying you have to drag the story out, or load on the details until it is overwhelming. I’m talking a balance between too much and too little. Too much information can indeed slow a story down and leave the reader turning pages to jump ahead to where there is some action and the story starts. But too little information can leave a reader confused, and leaves the setting unclear and will not help the reader into the story with vivid details.

The opening of a story–or every scene in the story–is also a vital place to set the reader into the world, the moment, and is a place to establish the tone of the story. Yes, an action packed story should start off with action. But a historical romance can slow down the pace. A cozy mystery doesn’t have to have the same grit as a police procedural. Writers need to think about the type of story being produced. And have confidence in their own skills. A writer who will take time to set up the story and the scene will better hook me because I can see at once that this writer will deliver on the promise in those opening pages. I trust this writer knows how to TELL A STORY.

And I think that is where a lot of young writers fall down. Yes, you need to know the technical stuff–how to write a sentence or craft a paragraph so it won’t trip the reader. Even more important is how to tell a story, and that means all parts of the story. This means you want to know how to craft every scene so it has an arc–a beginning, middle and end. You want to know how to weave in conflict and tension, but how to do so with also weaving in vital details.

A writer needs to use all the senses to bring the reader into the world–to make the reader smell the air, feel the chill or warmth, hear the crunch of frost or gravel. It’s about more than throwing in just a few crumbs of details–the writing must have enough brush strokes to realize the world. And that means the writer has to see, hear, smell and think about all these details.

It’s not enough to say the hallway was black and white marble with a grand staircase. I want to know if that marble is polished to a sheen and is slick to walk on, or is it dusty and cracked. I want to know if the air is stale or fresh with the scent of orange blossoms and roses from a hot house. I want to know if the character standing next to that grand staircase is shivering in the cold of a draft, or sweating from oppressive heat and wishing a window could be opened. I want to see the world through the character’s eyes and have a mood established of foreboding, or joy, or tension, or awe. I want to hear the footsteps crack against that marble, or hear the slam of a distant door and I want to be immersed in that world. All that means the writer must be just as immersed.

It is noted that the great writer Chekhov once wrote to his brother Alexander, that, “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”’

chekhovmoon03This has come to be attributed as: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Which Checkov indeed did in one of his stories:  The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star. The two wheels of the mill, half-hidden in the shadow of an ample willow, looked angry, despondent …

So maybe it is a need for these younger writers (and by young, I mean in experience, and not so much in age), to slow down and read their own work aloud. That’s a habit I learned early on. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch not just the mistakes, but to hear the cadence of the words and to learn where more is needed. It’s rather like having a chef who must takes the food–a lack of tasting leads to not enough of the right spices.

Or maybe it’s just a need to slow down in general. Stop trying to rush to the end. Start letting the reader–and yourself–enjoy more of the process of getting there. Let the story unfold and spend more time with the details. Do multiple drafts and look to improve every single draft with more of the right details and more vivid images and senses. Give the reader a world the reader won’t want to leave.

And think about the overall tone of the story–go for more of what you want to give the reader (more humor, or more romance, or more tension, or more whatever you want to deliver). A writer’s job is to deliver a great story–and that means the writer must first imagine it.

Separated by a Common Language

The quote is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw that England and America are two countries separated by a common language–but that’s not quite right.

It’s Oscar Wilde who first brings this up and one of his quips in The Canterville Ghost:

“…we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”

Which is, of course, a delight to me. Most writers I know get drunk on words–it’s our vice of choice, and the differences in English and English are fun. It’s a way of looking at words. Some of my favorites include:

Braces (suspenders to us Yanks)
Cot (not crib)
Crisps (instead of chips)
Dustbin (not garbage can)
Garden (instead of lawn)
Ground floor (what we in the states call the first floor)
Jelly babies (Jelly beans)
Trainers (sneakers)
Trolley (otherwise known as a shopping cart)
Vest (an undershirt–what we Yanks call a vest is a waistcoat)

The list is just about endless, and can get an American in trouble (do not be asking to borrow anyone’s pants–they are trousers). Or a Brit in trouble in the States (yeah, you just try to ask to borrow a fag here–better make that a cig or a smoke).

I find you almost have to get into another mindset to cross the pond mentally. It’s a softer approach to the language in England, but it’s also a rapier instead of an ax if you want to insult someone (I do love watching British Parliament–it always starts with Right Honorable or Learned Colleague and heads downhill from there in a scathing words, but said with such polite phrasing).

And, if you’re writing anything set in another place, it’s something to keep in mind. Words influence how we think. They influence how we do certain things, too. I do think if you’re writing anything set in England and you live in the States you have to immerse yourself in tons of BBC American or loads of videos. Or better still lots and lots of period books. It helps if you can spend time with the Brits, of course. You pick up the cadence that way. And the opposite is true–except America is more than happy to unload its culture via a thousand movies, so I must believe it’s easier to pick up on American habits.

But the subtleties are often hard to catch–when do you use the right phrase with the right person, and what about local habits (those are always hard to come by unless you’ve lived in a place).

And now I’m going to toddle off to take a cuppa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.

Punching Dialogue

bamI judge a fair number of writing contests–my way of giving back since I learned a lot both from entering and judging. One thing almost always pops out–experienced writers know how to punch dialogue. And nothing marks a writer as a “beginner” as much as flat dialogue.

This November, I’m teaching my dialogue workshop for YRW, but there are a few tips that can help punch dialogue to take it from flat to fab.

First off, get the technical stuff clean and perfect enought to show you’re a professional who knows the craft. Commas in the wrong place, periods used when you need a comma, or vice versa, and quote marks incorrectly used will stop a reader. This distraction throws the reader out of your story–so just get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, keep it by your computer and master you techniques.

Next, are you propping up the dialogue with tags? Does your heroine sigh words, does the hero say things angrily? If you’re putting in descriptive phrase  like that odds are the dialogue itself is weak. Instead of going for a crutch, tear out every description for the dialogue and look at the words coming out of the characters’ mouths.

Pretend you are writing a script for our favorite actors–and you want those actors to come to you and praise you for giving them wonderful words to say. Make the dialogue itself the star, not the descriptors.

When you do describe how someone is talking, make it vivid and detailed. Don’t settle for one word. If  the character trails off with a weak, squeaky gasp, be specific about what that really sounds like. If a character has a charming Scottish lilt and burr, describe that early on but don’t try to recreated it unless you have a really good ear for how to work this in.

Do an edit JUST on each major character’s voice. Does this person have a unique voice? Pet phrases? A regional shading to the words? Words that reveal the character’s education, experience and intelligence? Now look at the other major characters–are they all sounding alike?  Can the reader tell who is talking just by the words spoken? If not, it’s time to revise and give each character his or her own voice.

Read  your work aloud. There is no habit that will help you more. Do you stumble? If so, the reader will as well. Are there awkward sentences? Unclear thoughts? Yes, in ordinary life people cross-talk and talk nonsense, but this is fiction–the dialogue has to be better than real life.

Are the words right for the character and the era? If you’re writing a historical set in the 1940’s different words will be in use than a historical set in 1840, or 1640. Now, too much accuracy can throw a modern reader, but too much inaccuracy will also jar the reader from the story. Think, too, about not just how different a world would be in the past, but also the differences between classes, genders, and countries. These are subtle differences that can make your characters come to life–or leave them flat cardboard stereotypes.

Be picky–about the words chosen, about the tone in the words, about the voices your charcters have. Don’t settle for okay dialouge–give every character great words to say. Use dialogue to let your characters express emotion, negotiate for what they want, to lie and to try and get out of tight spots. Don’t just stuff plot explotion into a character’s mouth and call it good enough. It’s not.

Sometimes less is more–learn to edit and revise your work. Do multiple drafts. Do an edit just on dialouge. Do an edit just on action tags. Use actions to reaveal the truth and dialogue to hide the truth. Remember–we don’t just talk to tell someone something, we try to convince, to hide, persuade, passively get our own way, punish, lie, cover up, hide, and a million other things. Words aren’t just a writer’s tool, we all use them. So know what your charcters want in each scene and have them trying to get it–all within character. But what a character doesn’t say is often more important than anything else.

Let your characers be funny, witty–let them say the things you always wanted to say, or thought up an hour later. Again, fictional dialouge needs to be better than how we talk in reality. Punching means punching up to make words stronger and dialouge sharper.

There are some other tricks, but these  will get you going to make your dialouge stand out–and often it’s the dialogue that really sells a story.

 

 

The Best Question A Writer Can Ask…

…and Keep Asking!

It’s one little word, and yet it is vital.

WHY?

Why doairconditioneres my hero want this goal? Why does my heroine go into that haunted mansion? Why does the bad guy in the book want the hero dead? Why…why…why?

The answer to why is the motivation for a character to act. In fiction, the reader has to buy into that answer. Fictional characters have to make more sense than real people. Real people can do odd things for seemingly no reason–but readers want their fictional worlds to make more sense.

Now when you ask that why, don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Anyone who reads a lot is going to go straight for a cliche–meaning a overused answer to why–for motivation.

Oh, the hero has commitment issues because his girlfriend dumped him (cliche).

Oh, the bad guy is just crazy (cliche).

Oh, the heroine goes into the haunted house because I really need  her in danger at this point in the story (cliche and contrived).

So you ask WHY? Then you ask again, and again, and again. About the fifth or sixth, or seventh or eighth time your brain will run out of cliches and you’ll start getting ideas that really connect to your specific character. That’s where the gold is–and you have to dig for it.

Which means next time your story is stuck, go back to WHY is she doing this? Or WHY is he acting this way? And keep asking WHY. It’s the most best question you can ask of your characters.