Tag Archive | writing

A Good Narrative

Narrative is one of those flexible words. The basic meaning is the same as a story, but narrative can be use as a noun or as an adjective. it is an account of events, experiences and details. But as an adjective, narrative describes the style of the story being told. A good narrative means in part a good style in the story and style matters.

I’m teaching my workshop on showing and telling in February for Outreach International Writers, and I’ve also been reading The Paper Magician, which is a wonderful book to illustrate great narrative, which relies on really excellent telling mixed with showing. That’s right–it’s not only show your characters to the reader.

Now, too much narrative can indeed slow the pace of any story–but it is also useful to set the pace. That includes the details that make up the style. Style is partly a matter of work choice, and also how do you structure your sentences, and how do the paragraphs connect and flow. What are the modifiers you use–are they fresh and specific? Do you vary sentence structure, using shorter sentences to speed action and longer to slow the reader? What words to you choose to set the mood for not just the scene but the entire story? All these details matter.

You may not be too concerned with style when you are just trying to get words on the page and get started, but it’s something to look at as you edit and revise. The style of the story is what pulls in a reader–this is your writer’s voice.

There is a danger here–too much style can become a burden to the reader. This is where the writing gets “writerly”–the writer is drunk on words and this can trip up readers, throwing the reader out of the story. Sometimes the right word is an unusual word–sometimes the unusual word is just the writer getting in the way of the story. This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” can be helpful. It’s a lot like choosing the style of your clothes. That extra watch or scarf or colorful hat may be the right touch–or it may just be one step too far over the edge. But we are back to style. There are writers who can take things far too far and still make it work.

Narrative is all about the details. Is the sky black or inky? Or purple edged? Or pale blue-white, dotted with fluffs of gray? Those are the details that put the reader into the world, and that’s all about telling the reader those exact details. Don’t forget to layer specific details that weave into the style–the sense of smell is one of the strongest to evoke an emotion. Sounds can also act to bring in mood and emotion onto the page. We all have good and bad connotations associated with sounds. Taste and touch are also often neglected as “telling” details that help put the reader into the world. Smells can connect to a taste, bringing in a a bitter taste or a anticipating taste of something delicious. Touch puts the reader in touch with the world–the air, the weather, the heat, the chill, and all the reactions to the setting.

Again, this goes back to style. Some writers have a sparse style–the focus is more on dialogue and action and more on showing. Others have a talent with description and can weave a spell that keeps the reader going. Part of this is about the genre of the work Stories set outside the normal world tend to need more details–and often a slower pace that appeals to the reader–to bring the reader into the world. While action-based stories usually put the action first. It’s all about knowing what is your writing style, and using what you’re good at.

That all starts with being able to know how to show the character to the reader, but also knowing how to use great telling to pull the reader into the fictional world. More on that in February.

Setting the Mood

An open iron gate leads to an enchanting secret garden surrounded by ivy covered trees.

Something what sets a good story apart from a great one is the use of setting as a character. A setting is not just description of a place—it gives the reader more emotion on the page. It uses mood and vivid details to put the reader into the story. Setting is also as much about theme and motifs as anything else.

Let’s take a look at one setting, but given two very different moods and themes. Let’s put the main character into a summer garden—or, actually, two different summer gardens:

She pushed open the gate. It groaned on rusted hinges, barely yielding to her shoves. Ivy dangled low from the wall, browned and gnarled, and a willow tree in the corner sagged against the bricks as if braced for her. A wind whispered, dry and cool, brushing through the leaves as if warning the garden against her presence. Sweat trickled down her back and gathered on her brow, and the bees swarmed to her right, the buzz an angry sting of noise to break the quiet.

That’s garden one—now, same time of year, but a very different mood for this garden:

She pushed open a gate that squeaked on rusted hinges, yielding to her shoves as if grateful for someone to come at last. Ivy curled down from the wall in splashes of green against the red bricks. The willow tree in the corner stirred, the long fronds of leaves beckoning with a luxurious shade away from the heat that pressed down on her. The breeze brushed her cheeks, dusting away her sweat, bringing a sweet tease of wild roses and lavender and honeysuckle. Bees hummed through the dazzling colors at her feet, their legs heavy-bright with pollen, wobbling like drunk sailors in a welcoming port.

This summer garden has gone from a touch ominous to a lush romantic spot through word choices—this lets the reader into the world through the character’s senses. Obviously, in the first garden description, the mood is one of danger and tension. We’re going to have a theme of danger and suspense. The second garden offers a lighter mood—this is going to be a fun story, possibly with some hints in the theme of magic or romance.

That’s what description can do for a story—that’s what setting can do. Setting can anchor the reader into the world. It draws the reader into a place and time and into sensations that make the world come to life. It becomes a vivid character if the writer takes the time to develop all the characters.

All this starts with asking a simple question—what is the mood here? You can follow this up with—what would my character notice? You can overwrite—that’s always possible. But by remember mood and what is important to the story, that will tell you what you need in your setting.

Theme will also help you in that it will tell you what motifs you want to use over and over to better weave theme into your story. Perhaps your theme is about the masks we all wear to protect our inner selves, and so masks and their collection or use, or things hidden with shadows and shading will be part of the settings to bring this theme to the reader without hitting the reader over the head. Or perhaps the theme is about rebirth of self, and you want setting to move from winter to spring several times over to bring that them into the story in subtle ways. All this means the writer must pay attention to the real world and the fictional world.

When thinking about setting, bring in something more than sight. We all lean too much on the physical description of things we see, but very often it’s the aroma floating in the air or the notes of music lingering that really capture our imaginations. A touch of jasmine incense could bring in the exotic, or the sour note from an out-of-tune piano clattering adds a jarring feeling to the reader’s mood. Maybe it’s the taste of something—a spice that goes from nose to tongue. Or maybe it’s the shiver of fog on the skin. Go for the very specific detail.

When you’re editing, look at the writing to remove clichés and look for fresh modifiers—and watch those weak verbs.

Notice that in the garden above, I never write: “The garden was overgrown.” That is flat telling and robs the description of the vivid touches the reader needs to be inside that garden. “Was” becomes a weak verb in such a case. Notice the fresh modifiers—a breeze that dusts away sweat, a sting of noise. You may not come up with these in the first draft, so as you edit, look for fresh ways to convey the mood you want the reader to get from that scene.

By vivid, I mean VERY specific. If you don’t have the specific in mind, go hunting in your experiences or in your imagination.

Never been to the Redwoods, but need them in the story? It’s time to get a really good travel guide, or watch a very detailed documentary. Do the same for any profession you might give a character, or for that character’s background. This is the truth in the phrase “write what you know.”

Whenever you can, pull from where you have been and use your own experiences to give you that perfect smell, that right feeling on your skin, the sounds you heard, and the taste in your mouth. A vivid imagination can help, but so can stepping outside—close your eyes and put your other senses to work. What birds do you hear? What about traffic, or the lack of it. If you’re near the ocean, that tang of salt in your mouth will be noticeable—and perhaps that sand itching under your swimsuit as it dries. Think about what details will best realize your setting as a character and a mood, and reveal something to the reader without “telling” the reader that information.

Maybe your protagonist is an artists and the world is vivid colors—teal, azure, verdant green. Or what if your antagonist has perfect pitch and the least dissonate voice is a screech to her? Be picky about word choices, particularly when editing. In a second or third draft, that is a great time to read your work aloud and write in the margin the emotion you want, and then decide if the words pile into the correct cadence and mood.

Look for overused words. Do you repeat the same phrase too often? Is there a “pet” word you fell in love with that starts to hammer on the reader?

Remember that each new scene needs to be “set” for the reader—the reader won’t be happy if left floating in a void. It doesn’t take much—look at the paragraphs above for the garden. Four or five sentence can do the job. If you have a character in that description and that character’s viewpoint to layer in tension, the reader is going to be caught up in the moment.

Above all, take the time—don’t feel that you have to worry about “oh, it’s a slow pace with too much description.” That description allows the reader to settle into the story and the scene. If your setting is a character, that character can bring forward so many more layers to your story that it can move from just okay to a book a reader can’t put down.

Do More With Descriptions

Descriptions and narrative can be a wonderful tool for a writer. It is often overlooked by beginning writers—or those still learning their craft—in favor of going for scene after scene after scene. We’re all influenced by both the fast pace of modern life and the fast pace of movies and TV, but stories in print have advantages that the screen lacks. What can great description do for your stories?

"Use the right word, not its second cousin." -- Mark Twain

Set the World—Vivid, specific descriptions put the reader into the world you build. While you may be able to assume much if you’re writing in the modern world, you may still have unique places you want to bring to life. Don’t assume the reader knows what your fictional seaside small town looks like, or what the big city feels like—you may have readers who have never been and want to be transported. In a historical or fantasy setting, you have to build the world for the reader, and you don’t just want the reader to “see” the world, but to experience the sounds, the smells, to feel the weather, to have the touch of the wind on their skin and all of this takes vivid details. You want to layer in sensations for the characters, so they become the stand-in for the reader in that world.

Reveal Your Characters—What a character notices tells the reader a lot about that character. Is your main character a baker, and smells really matter? Does your character have an artistic bent and colors stand out right away? Is your character someone who pays a lot of attention to sounds, or to the clothes of others, or to cars, or to the status of others? Figure that out and weave that in. Maybe your main character is a little bit of a snob and the frayed cuff of a coat sleeve stands out. Or maybe your main character notices the laugh lines around a woman’s face before she sees the diamond and sapphire necklace around that woman’s neck. Again, vivid specific details matter the most. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader, but you want the right description to pull the reader into your character’s thoughts.

Control Pacing—A story can move too fast. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, the action just becomes action without any emotional stake in the outcome. The reader also can use a breather between too much action—you can wear a reader out if it’s just one thing after another with no relief. Descriptions can help you slow the pace as much as you need by bringing in a change of scene where descriptions matter to put the reader into a time and place. It can help you slow the pace between scenes to give the main character time to regroup and make new plans. It can also help you weave in backstory.

Set the Mood—A great story has a theme and it has a tone or mood. Descriptions are a huge part of this, ranging from the storm battered coast with a leaden sky and a crumbling castle outlined in a brief flash of lightning to the rolling, endless prairie grass dancing in a breeze scented by a cascade of wildflowers that dot the landscape, to the crowded streets of a city with gleaming skyscrapers and the rush of buses and taxies and the blare of sirens in the background. The details you weave in can set an ominous mood or a romantic one, or can increase tension or layer in the details that make the reader want to cozy up on the couch with a tea and dive into your world. We are back again to needing vivid specific detail. If you don’t know your world you must invent or you must research so that you can bring this world to life. You need to know not just the sights, but the sounds, the aromas, the feel of the place.

Is a Vital Part of Voice—A writer’s voice is one of the most powerful tools to hook a reader into wanting more of your stories. You have to discover your voice and develop it—writing is a craft to learn, and then can become an art to practice. Is your voice best suited to sly comedy or to tense drama? Look at your bookshelf for what attracts you most. Do you have a voice better suited to the modern world or to a historical era? Is your voice best for the old west or for a pirate’s adventure on the high seas? Every writer has to figure this out, and then use description as part of that voice. This is how you phrase things, how you view the world, how your characters view the world. Do not be afraid if your voice works better with omniscient viewpoint instead of third person, or go for first person if that’s the voice where you feel comfortable. Beware following trends—if a voice isn’t right for you that story’s not going to work.

Description takes all your skill as a writer to make the writing disappear for the reader, to bring the reader into your fictional world and show the reader this world through your characters’ eyes and through the vivid details that you weave into your story. You have to choose the right descriptions for the place and time—not just the era, but the month, the week, the day, the hour. Vivid, specific description—not just yellow, but vibrant lemon—make the world come to life for the reader, and that’s one step closer to making your characters come to life.

How Much is Too Much? The Art of Backstory

Stack of old books

Backstory is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving forward not backward. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense—or the reader may not care enough to keep going.

There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you with the art of backstory.

Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself. It is quite possible that you—the writer—needs to know this information, but the reader doesn’t. When in doubt, save the backstory for later.

Can you show the reader instead of telling? What you tell a reader doesn’t have the same impact as showing. Instead of telling the reader the hero is a great guy, show him being great. Instead of telling the reader the heroine knows how to knit, show her doing. Look for places where backstory can be revealed to the reader instead of being told to the reader—it will make the story and backstory more interesting.

Does the reader really need to know this now? Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate worlds. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But there really is an art to backstory, which brings us to…

Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it down to just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to weave in—not as big chunks. Tease the reader with some information without doing a dump.

How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done—or cut down on it as you edit the second draft.

Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add conflict by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’.

Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of week. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. If the scene is dragging pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing, time to add a touch more backstory. Another reader can be a great help here.

Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more. But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?

Is less skimping on detail? Details are what create the world for the reader and put the reader into that world. It is possible to be so worried about pacing—and a slow story—that you end up robbing the reader of a rich and vivid world. This is where the reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the world—this is where you can weave in a character’s backstory by how that character experiences the world and their emotions. An artist has a different experience than a soldier—someone who gardens sees the world differently than someone who is city born and bred and couldn’t care less about the outdoors. Use the details to show the world to the reader through a character—it is a great place to use bits of backstory to enrich the story.

Is the backstory missing? It’s quite possible that an idea has carried you away—it’s a great setup, or scene, or concept, but is that all it is? Did you flesh out the characters—or did you dump them into an idea? This is where a character won’t really make sense because the motivations are missing due to not having any backstory. If you don’t know your characters, the reader won’t either. This is where you want to know WHY do the characters act as they do—and why a character might act ‘out of character’ as well. This is particularly important for antagonists. It’s not enough to have the bad guy kidnap the heroine—you need to know WHY he would think this is a good idea, and why he is a good guy in his own mind. It’s not enough to have the ex-girlfriend cause problems just because you need that story idea to work—there needs to be backstory here for her about WHY she would do it (and it needs to be more than ‘to get her boyfriend back’—why would she want the guy back? What’s her deeper reasons and motivations? What’s her backstory?) A lot of times, you as the writer need to know this—then you can figure out if it belongs on the page of the story or just as background you’ve developed so that the characters have strong motivations for what they want.

Finally, did you make it interesting? If the backstory is boring to you, it’s going to bore readers, too. Making it interesting means great writing—clean prose, cutting repetition, and really good editing. Making it interesting means compelling information that fascinates you—and the reader. Lean into your strengths here. If you do great dialogue, do more of that to weave in the backstory in an interesting scene with action. If you do great description, use that skill to make the backstory a compelling read.

The good news in all of this is the more you work on your writing—scene structure, story pacing, character development—the better you get at it. But you’ll also find yourself studying other writers and how they handle backstory, which can destroy your reading pleasure. You’ll end up reading like a writer. But you’ll get ideas on how to deal with the art of just enough backstory.

The Story’s in the Details

Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?

A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.

Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you  notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.

The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.

Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)

The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.

All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.

I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.

This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.

Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.  

You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.

Positive Proofing

When writing, there is one thing you can never do enough of and that’s proofing. I find it takes several passes—and several sets of eyes—to catch all the typos, find the awkward sentences, punch the dialogue, trip over the things that clunk, and sharpen the descriptions. A great book to help you learn to be a good editor on your own work is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King. In the meantime, these tips can help.

First off, do multiple edits, looking for different things in each pass. It is hard to catch everything in just one edit.

Do an edit on dialogue. This is the time to cut every extra word—what doesn’t improve the writing will detract. Double-check your punctuation. Keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style handy to look up anything you’re not sure about. Know your weaknesses—if you’re bad with knowing when to capitalize a proper noun, or have a hard time with commas, or don’t know when to hyphenate, Strunk & White can help you.

Do an edit just on descriptions. Are you weaving in the senses, or just leaning on visuals? Can you be more vivid and detailed without being overly wordy? Are you showing enough, or telling too much? Look for those “writerly” phrases that may stand out too much—those darlings that don’t really belong. You may have a lyrical passage that throws the reader out of the story and back into “reading” instead of being caught up deep in the story.

Do an edit just on each main character. Is the viewpoint slipping in spots? Does that character’s voice stay consistent to that character? Does the protagonist have a strong arc?

Do an edit just on each scene. Do you have conflict in every scene? Is it building to an outcome?

Do an edit just on pacing. Does the story flow and does tension build? Do you foreshadow the ending?

Do an edit just on theme. Do you realize the theme? Do you weave in theme with metaphor and really explore your theme?

Once you think you’ve got all your edits in, rest the story. Give it a couple of weeks or more to become fresh again.

Print out your work for proofing. The brain wants to put in things that it thinks go into place, breezing right past the missing word, the misspelling, and the wrong punctuation. To trick the brain into giving you new eyes, a different perspective is needed. A couple of more things to do is change the color of the paper—go from white to pink or to green—and change fonts. Anything to make the page look fresh to your eyes.

Read your work aloud, and try to get through as much of the book in one sitting as possible. This is very important. If you trip over something, the reader will as well. Mark stumbling places and come back to them later for revisions.

Mark anything that might need a fact check. It might be just checking that you got the setting right, or the historical details, or maybe you got the streets in a city wrong or the wrong kinds of plants for your setting.

Remember that if you rewrite anything, that work needs revision so it doesn’t stand out as “first draft” when everything else looks more like polished third or fourth draft.

When you think everything is perfect, that’s the time to bring in a beta reader or two. This is again about getting those fresh eyes. Have the beta reader mark up where the pacing drags, or where something isn’t clear, or where there’s a plot mistake, or anything else.

Once those corrections are in, you’re now ready for a copy editor to go through it and again flag typos, mistakes of punctuation, and plot holes. And, yes, they’ll be there.

Depending on how many issues a copy editor finds, you may want a clean revision to go through yet another copy editor for fresh eyes to make sure you caught everything.

None of this includes a development edit—meaning having someone look at the story early on to catch issues of characterization or plot or pacing that need major revisions. All this proofing work is done long after you know you have a solid story, with good pacing and a great character arc.

A word of warning here—you can polish and edit the emotion out of a scene. If a scene is working, and the emotion is on the page, be careful with your edits. Do light revisions just to smooth out any mistakes or typos and don’t overwork the scene.

You want to also make sure any revisions do improve the original. It is easy to end up with just pushing mashed potatoes around on the plate instead of making everything more palatable. This is where having that printed version of an early draft can help you—you can compare the two and really see which is better.

All this sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it will give you a much stronger story if you take the time to do your best to get the story in you head onto the page in a way that flows and make the writing invisible to the reader.

Why You Need a Theme in Fiction

Theme is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of any writing instruction. This may be because it’s highly personal–or because some writers instinctively know how to weave in theme, while others don’t. I had to learn about theme, and its importance to make a story resonate.

I learned about them when I learned about story structure. It’s a vital element. Theme is a writer’s touchstone. It not only makes a story resonate, it tells you want needs to be in a story, and what should be left out.

Using theme in all major turning points makes a story structure work. It creates the main character’s arc.  Think of the movie Casablanca where Rick has the papers of transit–and keeps getting hit with choices about who is he going to give these to–and he starts off all hard-nosed and making choices about selling them, not giving them to anyone who is desperate….but at the end he gives them to Ilsa and her husband so they can escape–those papers are used to SHOW Rick’s changing through the choices he makes and becoming the hero we really want him to be. That’s theme at work.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on theme for Hearts Through History this October.

We’ll cover:

  • What is theme—a clear definition.
  • Why does a story need a theme?
  • What is too specific, and what is too vague?
  • How to find your theme.
  • Distilling your theme to one sentence.
  • Relating theme to characters.
  • Developing goals and motivations around your theme.
  • Weaving theme into turning points in your story structure.

A great theme can be explored over a lifetime of work—but if you’ve never thought about what theme can do for your stories, or if you struggle with keeping a story on track, this workshop can give you some new writing tools.

Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:



Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly


Point of View — The Value of Variety

InkyI finished Dean Koontz’s book Devoted not that long ago (wonderful book by the way–I highly recommend it), and it got me thinking about how omniscient point of view is sometimes a neglected art. The POV, by the way, is expertly handled by Koontz who uses the point of view–changing/shifting and swapping–as only a master can. (How lovely to have the dog’s POV–actually, several dog’s POV–as a main element in the story. The story wouldn’t have worked without that.) And that left me wondering if it really is a matter that omniscient POV can be tough to pull off gracefully.

Now…first person is easier in some respects. One person, one point of view, and that’s that. However, I’ve read really weak first person that gets stuck in too much I…I…I. The best Urban Fantasy pulls off great first person ( Rebecca Roanhorse springs to mind–fabulous books and great writing that pulls you in).

Then there’s third person, most commonly used for romance, since it lets you swap between characters but you can still do deep POV. This is my preferred way to write viewpoint. However, I’ve often dipped into first person for a scene and then switched it over to third person to get that deeper point of view. I find this lets me dig more into my characters’ emotions, which is important with any romance (or almost any novel).

But I’ve heard from young writers that they’ve been bashed when using omniscient, and accused of “head hopping” which is not really a valid critique if you’re using omniscient, which can be a powerful tool.

I think part of this is a stylistic choice. Urban Fantasy–first person. Thrillers or suspense–omniscient. Mystery–pretty much first person, but some will go for third person. And romance–third person, except for those break-out books that dare first person, but rare to find omniscient unless you step back in time. I’ve been enjoying the reissues of Elizabeth Cadell’s books which are a delight, and were written decades ago when a novel was a novel and she’s not shy about mixing up point of view, as well as putting in romance, suspense, mystery, a murder in some, and even paranormal if the story goes that way. A true story teller with a gift.

All of this boils down to what does the story need? What’s the writer’s preference? And how is the story best told. Thankfully, with self-publishing the world seem to be getting back to a good story well told, and “the rules” can be bent to suit the tale. It’s about the writer using their skills to the best purpose. Which is how it should be.

Wounds & Warriors Workshop

Early AmbulanceThe idea for a Wounds & Warriors workshop for writers after I became an EMT in New Mexico–because too often our characters get hurt and either recover ridiculously fast or have injuries that are just not plausible. What I realized was that most of us get our ideas from movies and TV–and boy do they get it wrong. Which means if a writer wants more accuracy it helps to know what are the common misconceptions and how do you go about better research.

In the Wounds & Warriors workshop I’m teaching in February for the Hearts Through History writers, we’re going to go over a lot of different information—and you’ll have a chance to ask about specific situations, including how your protagonist might care for himself or herself after something bad happens. But it’s good to know a few basics:

  • A person can bleed out quickly. The average person has about five liters of blood—loosing even one liter (one large soda bottle) of blood is bad. Confusion and weakness sets in. That person the bleeding to stop and fluids to be put back in.
  • Head traumas are dangerous—some of the most dangerous ones are those where the person feels fine but was unconscious. This can mean there is an internal bleed and that could kill within forty-eight hours.
  • Almost everything causes nausea—hit on the head, you wake up throwing up or wanting to throw up. Getting shot—your body tries to dump the stomach so it can focus on other things. This is never pretty and so gets skipped over in most fiction.
  • One issue can hide another—and people aren’t always honest about what is the real problem. As Dr. House said, “Everyone lies.” And not always intentionally. Sometimes folks just forget, and this is particularly true when stressed.
  • Children are not small adults—their bodies can’t compensate as well, so when they use up their physical resources, they’re going to crash fast. A sick kid is often a critical kid.
  • Extreme heat and extreme cold are deadly elements—and any injury makes them even more so. If you want to add more tension to a scene, use the weather.
  • CPR can and does save lives. Even more importantly it can mean the difference between someone coming back fully functional or with permanent damage. But a lot of folks are afraid to dive in and help—it take training to make sure you just do what you’ve trained to do.

Ultimately, you want to know what’s plausible for your situation—even if you’re writing about vampires and werewolves, know the rules so you can know how you can break them. Research your injuries before you write them and never assume. You’ll be able to get away from the cliché of that flesh wound in the shoulder that the protagonist survives or the knife fight that somehow ends up with no one disfigured or with permanent damage.

The other thing to keep in mind is for your own safety. What should YOU know (just in case)?

1-Document your medications and history (and get your loved ones to do this). Paper, phone, whatever—just have it written down (VialofLife.com)

2-Keep your document/medications handy! It is so hard in an emergency to make sure these are not forgotten.

3-Do an DNR if you do NOT want CPR or extreme life-saving measures.

4 –Wear a medical ID bracelet and/or necklace for those REALLY important things (as in allergic to penicillin).+

5-Put “ICE” in your phone—“In Case of Emergency” contact, just in case you are in an accident and cannot talk.

6-Educate yourself! Take a CPR class! Know how to stop a bleed. Keep children’s aspirin around if you’re not allergic. (1 in 20 deaths from stroke, heart attacks are the no 1 cause of death in the US, what do you do for allergic shock?) The life you save may be your own.

7-If you—or a loved one—is allergic to something (anything), keep an EPI pen on hand.

8-Keep a “survival/emergency” kit around and fresh! (www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/checklist_1.pdf and http://www.redcrossstore.org/item/321406)

9-Remember your pets! They have emergencies, too, and in a disaster they’ll need water and food, and possibly first aid.