Writing 101

Monday 11/3/14

Finding Your Muse

 

1. Listen to music. Songs, and music in general, are great ways to boost your muse. The lyrics and the melodies that you listen to can help alleviate thoughts that might load you down, making it increasingly hard to "find muse" to roleplay with. One of the more classic advices for "finding muse", but it seems to work so well. 

2. Explore your world. This is something that is overlooked, simply because we go to and from the places that we need to - home, work, the grocery store, ect - but we don't take the time to enjoy them. So much happens around us - a bird that flies into a door, the girl who accidentally steps in dog feces, some woman two aisles over who slips on water that wasn't properly wiped up, the guy who parks his car "halfway" into the grass at an odd angle - there's ideas all around you, and they happen "naturally". Let them give you ideas to build your muse.

3. Begin writing anyways. You may not have ideas, but simply writing something down can help generate some thoughts. Consider it like brainstorming, and remember that you can always "start over" or revise previous thoughts before you finish any final drafts. Writing in and of itself, especially if you reread what you are writing as you let yourself think of new ideas, can help to generate thoughts as well. 

4. Socialize with people often. This can also be a key component of muse. If you surround yourself with several personality types in your daily life, you will see how each of them respond in normal situations "and" they can help to inspire some of the best stories. Just think of when your friend did something that was hilarious or that wasn't in his usual behavior and made you think. There are unwritten tales all around you. 

5. Read a lot of different tales. Even if you stick to one genre when you write yourself, you can borrow smaller concepts, personality quirks, or even scenery ideas, and so much more from reading several types of books. Each book was probably inspired from the author's own exploration of other books or tales and things that happened to or around them in their daily lives. If you aren't reading a lot lately, see if picking up a book once in a while doesn't help spark your muse some.

 

Source: http://www.wikihow.com/Find-Your-Muse

*************

Monday 11/17/14

Writers Block

 

What Causes Writer's Block

Writer's block is often caused by conflicted feelings. We want the writing to be perfect and we want the paper done as soon as possible. We know what we know but we don't know what our readers know. We know how the memo should sound, but we don't have all the facts we need. We know everything about the software, but we don't know what an article should look like. We know what we have to say but we are afraid that it won't measure up to our expectations or to our readers' expectations.

All of these feelings are natural and normal. Everyone finds writing a challenge. Many writers, however, compound their problems by employing weak writing strategies. When these methods fail, they give up.

Weak Strategies for Dealing with Writer's Block

Using trial and error

Since our short-term memory is limited, trying to juggle in your head all the possible ways to phrase something usually means we repeat the same rejected phrases over and over. One way to avoid this is to make a quick list of alternative phrases.
lnsisting on a perfect draft

Perfectionism is the surest way to writer's block. Expecting everything to come together at once leads to paralysis and heartache. Insisting on a perfect first draft is really much slower than writing several quick drafts focused on different goals.
Waiting for inspiration

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. What seems like inspiration is usually the result of internalized hard work. In a moment we'll talk about some useful strategies for pushing "inspiration" along.

Using words looking for an idea

We all know those phrases which click so easily into the keyboard but then go nowhere:

    due to the fact that...
    it is imperative that...
    a wide variety ranging from ... to....

These phrases can be building blocks but they won't help much until you know what you're building.

Effective Strategies for Avoiding Writer's Block

Taking notes

Jot down ideas and phrases as they occur to you. Free yourself from paragraphs and sentences for the moment--use flow charts, arrows, boxes, outlines, even pictures. Right now, you are worried about getting things down before you forget them.

Freewriting/Brainstorming

When you're not just blocked, when you're stonewalled, try freewriting. Sit down for ten minutes and write down everything you can think of about your topic. The object is to write without stopping for the whole ten minutes. If you can't think of anything to say, write "blah, blah, blah" over and over. If other things occur to you as you write, go ahead and record them, even if they are not directly related to your topic. These distractions may be part of what is keeping you blocked.

Freewriting is good for uncovering ideas--it's a good way to nudge "inspiration." But the main purpose of freewriting is to get you moving! Most of what you write in those ten minutes will go in the recycling bin, but you'll be warmed up and your serious writing should go more smoothly.

Brainstorming resembles freewriting but is more goal-directed. You start not only with a topic, say PROFS, but also with a goal: What do new users need to know about this system? Then allow yourself to jot down ideas for a set amount of time without censoring any possibilities and without striving for perfect prose. When the "storm" has passed, you can rearrange ideas, put thoughts into complete sentences, edit, and polish.
Piecework

Sometimes, starting at the beginning induces Perfect Draft Syndrome. It may be easier to get started if you approach the task sideways. If you've got a plan for the article or manual, choose a section from the middle or a point you know well and start there. Then do another section. After you've gained some confidence, you can work on the opening and smooth out the transitions.

What I Really Mean Is (WIRMI)

When you're stuck in a quagmire trying to find the perfect phrase, switch to What I Really Mean Is and just say it the way you think it. Once you know what you mean, it is easier to refine the phrasing.
Satisficing (satisfy + suffice)

You "satisfice" when you take the first reasonable solution instead of searching endlessly for just the right word or sentence. If you're unhappy with the choice, you can bracket it and promise yourself you'll fix it later.

source:  http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/tips/writersblock/

*************

Monday 11/24/14

How to Structure A Story: The Eight-Point Arc

By Ali Hale

One of my favourite “how to write” books is Nigel Watts’ Writing A Novel and Getting Published.

My battered, torn and heavily-pencil-marked copy is a testament to how useful I’ve found it over the years. Although the cover appears to be on the verge of falling off altogether, I’ve risked opening the book once more to bring you Watts’ very useful “Eight-Point Story Arc” – a fool-proof, fail-safe and time-honoured way to structure a story.

(Even if you’re a short story writer or flash fiction writer rather than a novelist, this structure still applies, so don’t be put off by the title of Watts’ book.)

The eight points which Watts lists are, in order:

    Stasis
    Trigger
    The quest
    Surprise
    Critical choice
    Climax
    Reversal
    Resolution

He explains that every classic plot passes through these stages and that he doesn’t tend to use them to plan a story, but instead uses the points during the writing process:

    I find [the eight-point arc] most useful as a checklist against which to measure a work in progress. If I sense a story is going wrong, I see if I’ve unwittingly missed out a stage of the eight-point arc. It may not guarantee you write a brilliant story, but it will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of a brilliant idea gone wrong.

So, what do the eight points mean?

Stasis

This is the “every day life” in which the story is set. Think of Cinderella sweeping the ashes, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) living in poverty with his mum and a cow, or Harry Potter living with the Dursley’s.

Trigger

Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the trigger which sparks off the story. A fairy godmother appears, someone pays in magic beans not gold, a mysterious letter arrives … you get the picture.

The quest

The trigger results in a quest – an unpleasant trigger (e.g. a protagonist losing his job) might involve a quest to return to the status quo; a pleasant trigger (e.g. finding a treasure map) means a quest to maintain or increase the new pleasant state.

Surprise

This stage involves not one but several elements, and takes up most of the middle part of the story. “Surprise” includes pleasant events, but more often means obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.

Watts emphasises that surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable – they need to be unexpected, but plausible. The reader has to think “I should have seen that coming!”

Critical choice

At some stage, your protagonist needs to make a crucial decision; a critical choice. This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. Watts stresses that this has to be a decision by the character to take a particular path – not just something that happens by chance.

In many classic stories, the “critical choice” involves choosing between a good, but hard, path and a bad, but easy, one.

In tragedies, the unhappy ending often stems from a character making the wrong choice at this point – Romeo poisoning himself on seeing Juliet supposedly dead, for example.

Climax

The critical choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax, the highest peak of tension, in your story.

For some stories, this could be the firing squad levelling their guns to shoot, a battle commencing, a high-speed chase or something equally dramatic. In other stories, the climax could be a huge argument between a husband and wife, or a playground fight between children, or Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters trying on the glass slipper.

Reversal

The reversal should be the consequence of the critical choice and the climax, and it should change the status of the characters – especially your protagonist. For example, a downtrodden wife might leave her husband after a row; a bullied child might stand up for a fellow victim and realise that the bully no longer has any power over him; Cinderella might be recognised by the prince.

    Your story reversals should be inevitable and probable. Nothing should happen for no reason, changes in status should not fall out of the sky. The story should unfold as life unfolds: relentlessly, implacably, and plausibly.

Resolution

The resolution is a return to a fresh stasis – one where the characters should be changed, wiser and enlightened, but where the story being told is complete.

(You can always start off a new story, a sequel, with another trigger…)

**************

Monday 11/24/2014

Here are a few ideas on what makes good dialogue work:

1. Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition

When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things. You'll see things like:

"Remember that time we stole the frog from Miss Jenkins and she ended up giving us two hours of detention and that's how we met?"
"Yeah, totally! And now we're in 6th Grade and have to dissect frogs for our science project, which is due tomorrow. I don't know how we're going to get it finished in time."

So much of this dialogue would already be already apparent to the characters. They'd know how they met without having to talk about it, they'd know they're in 6th grade without having to talk about it, they'd know the science project is due without talking about it. So it's very clear to the reader that they're not talking to each other: they're really talking to the reader.

Exposition and dialogue only really mesh when one character genuinely doesn't know what the other character is telling them and it's natural for them to explain at the moment they're explaining it. Otherwise, if you're just trying to smush in info, your reader is going to spot it a mile away.

2. Good dialogue has a purpose and builds toward something.

Sometimes you'll see characters in novels bantering back and forth in a way that is meant to reveal character or fill space. Unless it's just so insanely unbelievably clever that the writer makes it work, usually this feels hollow and, well, boring.

A good conversation is an escalation. The dialogue is about something and builds toward something. If things stay even and neutral, the dialogue just feels empty.

Characters in a novel never just talk. There's always more to it.

3. Good dialogue evokes the way people actually talk in real life without actually sounding precisely like the way people talk in real life.

Paraphrasing Elmore Leonard, good writers leave out the boring parts. This goes doubly for dialogue: it's usually best to cut to the chase rather than spending time on the pleasantries that normal people use in everyday conversation.

In real life our conversations wander around all over the place, and a transcribed real life conversation is a meandering mess of free association and stutters. In a novel, a good conversation is focused and has a point.

And in a novel, dialect, slang, and voice is used sparingly. Just a hint of flavor is enough. As my client Jennifer Hubbard wrote, "good dialogue sounds like conversation, but is not an exact reproduction of conversation."

4. Good dialogue reveals personality, and characters only very rarely say precisely what they are thinking.

Human beings are not very articulate creatures. Despite all the words at our disposal, words tend to fail us at key moments, and even when we know what we want to say we spend a whole lot of time trying to describe and articulate what we feel without being quite able to do it properly. We misunderstand, overemphasize, underemphasize, grasp at what we mean, and conversations go astray. So when two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking to each other, it doesn't seem remotely real.

Good dialogue is instead comprised of attempts at articulation. There's a whole lot that is kept back, because we humans only rarely really truly put our true feelings out there.

Now, this shouldn't be taken too far and a conversation shouldn't be an endless string of misunderstandings (unless you're Samuel Beckett), but the way in which characters express their feelings and how they articulate what they're feeling is one of the most important ways of revealing character. Are they reserved? Boisterous? Do they bluster? Hold back?

Characters who say exactly what they mean are generic. Characters who talk around their emotions and objectives are much more interesting.

5. Good dialogue goes easy on the exclamations and exhortations.

When a character overuses "Ughs" and "Blechs" they can easily sound petulant. When they overuse exclamations, they can exhaust the reader with their excitability. When they overuse verbal tics and crutches, they can drive the reader crazy.

Interjections and grunts are kind of like carpet cleaning concentrate. They must be diluted or you'll burn a hole in the floor.

6. Good dialogue is boosted by dialogue tags, gestures, and action, so the reader can easily follow who is saying what.

Poor maligned dialogue tags!!! Out there on the Internet it has lately become trendy for people to advocate stripping books of dialogue tags so that the person who is speaking is solely apparent through gestures and context.

This is overkill. Get behind me, dialogue tags, I will defend you until the end!

As long as you mainly stick to said and asked, your reader won't notice they're there, and they'll be way better able to track who is saying what. Yes, don't overdo dialogue tags and look for ways to add meaningful gesture and action to back and forths, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The key on the gesture and action is not to simply use it to break up the dialogue for pacing purposes, but to actually make it meaningful, which is hard to do.

7. Good dialogue is unexpected.

There's nothing worse than reading a stretch of dialogue where the characters are saying precisely what we think they're going to say.

The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us.

"Vladimir Putin!"

****************

Monday 12/1/2014

Writing Powerful Descriptions

By Jon Gingerich

Writing is an account of how people think. As a medium it's intrinsically empathic; it communicates patently human sensibilities. In order for a story to work, it needs to feel like real life, even when it’s actually something quite different. The more detailed and rich your descriptions, the better your writing will approximate the human experience, thereby establishing a connection with fellow minds.

The best descriptions are the ones that are completely original, easily understood and often reminisced. They're digestible yet impressionable, they say something profound but they’re palatable enough to be comprehended by anyone. It’s a difficult technique to master, an art form in itself, really.

Consider this a primer for writing good descriptions (here’s your first lesson: “good” isn’t a suitable or sufficient way to describe anything). To make things interesting  — and very embarrassing for me — I’ve dug up several of my own stories from years past to illustrate some truly awful blunders in description, each of which poisoned workshops at varying times during the earlier half of the last decade. Be warned: some major toadstools lie ahead.

Appeal to the senses

Words with strong sensory associations always increase your chances of yielding an empathic response. Why? When you appeal to our sensory faculties, you’re inviting us to imagine how something feels. Literally.

In order to maximize that empathic response, try to appeal to all the senses as often as you can. Don’t just tell us what something looks like, tell us how it sounds, how it tastes. Recent studies show words containing sensory descriptions are so powerful they even stimulate areas of the brain that aren't used to process language. When we read a detailed account of how something smells, for example, our sensory cortex gets a signal. In other words, the brain often treats real experiences and reading about them as the same thing. If you really want to place your reader in the story, your writing should take advantage of our collective faulty wiring whenever you can.

The same applies to our relationships with the laws of physics. Words describing motion can stimulate the motor cortex, which is responsible for coordinating body movements. If you really want to simulate motion, try doing this while varying the rhythms in your sentences. Want to increase action? Put your subject directly before the verb. To slow down the motion (in other words, to add emphasis), shorten the sentence. If you want to bring things to a stop, try replacing a conjunction with a comma: The fields are barren now, deserted. Here’s another trick: if you want to temporarily “stop” time, try removing the verbs altogether.

In order to maximize that empathic response, try to appeal to all the senses as often as you can. Don’t just tell us what something looks like, tell us how it sounds, how it tastes. Be specific

Avoid summary in your descriptions. Offer concrete information, engage us with moment-to-moment details, tell us about each detail, and how they affect the senses.

One of the most practical — and indeed, easiest — ways of laying out a descriptive foundation is to envision each scene before you write it. Literally close your eyes, see the scene and then write it down. For the time being, just let the image do its work; look closely at the objects in the scene, and describe them in a manner that’s as painfully specific as possible. Now — to establish storytelling authority — make sure the description is told from the proper subjective viewpoint: tell us how the character or narrator would see things from the POV you've established.

Here’s an especially bad slice of description from a story I wrote eight years ago:

Example (bad): It is hot.

“It is hot” would be fine if I were filling out a police report, or even writing a piece of journalism. But this was intended to be a work of fiction. Clearly, I hadn’t yet realized that by generalizing and not appealing to the readers' senses I missed an ideal opportunity to connect with empathizing human minds.

Example (better): The heat is oppressive, sweltering and exhausting, it sticks to the skin and makes ovens out of parking lots.

Some things to always consider when you’re writing a scene: do your word choices paint images, do they place us in the moment? Do they make us participants in the story instead of mere observers? Not only is this new sentence more specific, it brings in a few common experiences associated with heat (sticky skin, broiling parking lots), thereby placing readers into the action and increasing the chances of an empathic response.

Limit modifiers

It’s bad timing given my last example, but try to cut down on your adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers don’t specify words as much as you might think. More often than not, they actually abstract a thought, so sentences that rely on modifiers for descriptive strength are building on faulty foundations. You’ll be more successful if you instead find the verb that perfectly portrays the image you’re envisioning. When you edit your work, spend considerable time scrutinizing your sentences to make sure the action maximizes full descriptive potential.

Example (bad): They arrived at the house just behind the streaming line of fire trucks, their street alive in the opulent glow of lights and sirens, their house ablaze in a perennial bloom of orange and yellow.

Unfortunately, this story was published before I possessed the wherewithal to edit such obtuse overwriting. Looking at it five years later, the sentence would have been fine if I simply cut down on the modifiers and let the action breathe.

Example (better): They arrived at the house just behind the fire trucks, the street alive in a glow of lights and sirens, their house ablaze.

Notice how this version places an emphasis on the verbs. Moreover, there’s another advantage gained here. In the first version, the sentence ends with a description of the colors of the blaze, hardly essential information. Now emphasis is placed on the most important information in the sentence (and in this case, the entire story): the burning house. If you want to draw extra emphasis to anything, put it at the end of the sentence. Placing it at the beginning is a close second. Never bury important information in the middle.

Use figurative language

Ever wonder why metaphor and analogy are such powerful — not to mention, popular — tools? Figurative language is an unmatched ally in descriptive pursuits. It gives the writer a chance to deconstruct a specific, subjective event and recast it into something familiar.

The human mind is engineered to see patterns. Anytime you disguise a comparison as a statement (which is what happens with a metaphor) you’re bringing the subject into a new relationship. You’ve established one pattern as being analogous to another pre-existing pattern, and we begin to see a small part of the world in a different way. It takes some creative know-how to make figurative language fly however, and metaphors that are confused, off-base or cliché can ruin an otherwise stellar piece of writing. The analogous relationships you establish have to be earned.

Example (bad): The overcast September sky stared back under a blanket of ashen gray.

First of all, I could happily live the remainder of my days without ever hearing clouds being referred to as a “blanket” again (ditto for “cotton”). Description this familiar tells me I wasn’t particularly inspired when I wrote it, back in 2005. Then there’s the semantic clumsiness of it all. “Blanket of ashen gray?" Why not just write “ashen gray blanket,” or better yet, “gray blanket?” Finally, do skies really “stare back?" The figurative appeals here (clichéd metaphor, awkward personification) seem careless, even lazy. If I were to rewrite the phrase today I might say something like this:

Example (better): There was an orange burn where the sun had been, and the mutilated animal shapes of cloud lay scattered in the tear of dusk.

It’s overkill, but you get the idea. Say something that both reconstructs the subject and enables the reader to see the world in a new, yet recognizable, light.

Also, avoid well-worn words and everyday figures of speech. Describing a farmhouse as “quaint," or using phrases like “before he knew it,” are so familiar the reader treats them as boilerplate and usually skips over them entirely. Always try to describe something in a way that’s never been described before.

If you want to draw extra emphasis to anything, put it at the end of the sentence. Placing it at the beginning is a close second. Never bury important information in the middle. Get to the point

If there’s a single take-away I want readers to get from a column that focuses on description, it’s this: avoid obfuscating and pointless over-writing. It’s not the job of the writer to besiege the reader, either with a litany of unimportant details or some long-winded, faux intellectual attempt at armchair discourse. Unfortunately, it seems nearly every writer (myself included) goes through this cringe-inducing phase where we pillage the dictionary or treat our keyboards like calculators. Works resulting from this mindset offer very little descriptive assistance for the reader, and a lot of later embarrassment for writers guilty of these storytelling snafus. When it comes to description, focus on the most telling details rather than caving in to your writerly proclivities to lean on the pen. You’ll thank me later.

Example (bad): He wondered if there was some deeper meaning to it, if the heat spoke of the true workings of this city, the only place he’d known really, and if he tried hard enough he could find an answer that satisfied him, an explanation beyond what those fortunate to have everything and those cursed with nothing have always been forced to accept, if nature’s brutality revealed a final authority, and man’s need to find reason with it was little more than a grotesque delusion that he could make sense out of nothing.

What a mess! Sentences like this reveal a practice that’s very common today, where writers spin these syntactical Triple Lindies in the hopes they can somehow scare people into liking their work. There’s a sort of bullying insecurity afoot here, because the delivery seems to operate off the idea that if readers don’t like the work, clearly it means they “didn’t understand it.” In actuality, this hat trick works on very few people, and incidentally, what’s on the page here says very, very little. This section’s descriptive duties would’ve been much more effective if I had ditched the dime-store existentialism and described instead what the character was thinking, in terms more fitting of his POV. The fundamental disregard to work within the descriptive framework of the character I established — to choose authorial square jawed smugness instead of revealing things the way the character would have seen them, in other words — reveals a rudimentary mishandling of narrative. In the end, it’s the writer who suffers the most from this kind of cloying pedantry, because he/she has deliberately girded the sentences’ potential strengths with mindless clutter.

Example (better): He wondered if the heat revealed nature’s final authority, and that man’s need to find reason with it was little more than a grotesque delusion that he could make sense out of nothing.

The sentence’s newfound pith reestablishes some aphoristic value that was completely submerged in the verbiage. It’s still not a very good sentence, mind you, but it’s far less annoying than what was on the page before. Maybe someday I’ll go back and further try to clean up this mess-terpiece, but until then I’m more than happy to let my purple prose serve as a lesson in moderation and sensibility. Here’s hoping you can also learn from your mistakes — as well as mine.

 

 

 


Random Story
Heavily Broken by WhitneyJT (NC-17)

I'll be there if you break I'll be there if you crumble Come to you if you come undone Catch you if you stumble I'll do what it takes to put the pieces back in place If you break… -Frankie J Addison Miller understands rejection better than anyone else. After finding out a devastating secret growing up, she’s left in the...
Featured Review

Alysen Blaine said: Yes. Yummy. Very, very yummy.

Author's Response: Numnum. You like seafood too then ;)
 
 


Connections