Category Archives: Writing Advice

From the Archives – Reading Fiction: Guilty Pleasure or Worthy Pursuit?

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

Reading Fiction: Guilty Pleasure or Worthy Pursuit?

In my former career as a “bean-counter,” I rarely allowed myself to read anything other than business books. Books were merely tools utilized to further my career. The payback period had to be short and the return on investment had to be high. I needed to see an immediate benefit, in the form of increased knowledge, from the time I had invested in reading. Time was money and I didn’t have the luxury of wasting it on nonsensical stories.

Somewhere along the way the joy I felt from spending lazy afternoons curled up with a good book was replaced by the notion that fiction held no value. Reading fiction had become a guilty pleasure. It was as if I had adopted an ascetic lifestyle, sworn an oath akin to celibacy, abstaining from the joy of reading, not because it was what I wanted but because it was expected if I were to grow intellectually. A work of fiction was just an invented story about people who never existed; and therefore, useless information. Nothing could be gained from it so naturally it held no merit. “Thou shalt not read fiction,” became my mantra.

On the rare occasion that I allowed myself to read a work of fiction I typically couldn’t put it down until I had finished it. I’d become completely wrapped up in this “sinful” pursuit, reading late into the night. These transgressions were worthy of a good self-flogging which often took the form of force feeding another business book. I never got much joy from reading a business book so it was  an appropriate punishment. I usually had to force myself to finish it and would skim pages just to get through it.

Then I’d come across a favorite quote, gaze longingly at the words, and marvel at how a single sentence could stir my soul. The longing to read good fiction would be rekindled. I found that despite my efforts to suppress my affection for fiction, abstinence made the heart grow fonder.

Now, I never miss an opportunity to read fiction. It transports you to different worlds that you may not get to explore otherwise. It allows you to see life through someone else’s eyes, to be exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking. It can deepen your life experiences.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~ George R.R. Martin

Reading fiction does have merit. It gets the creative juices flowing. It stimulates the imagination.

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d’Albert Einstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ~ Albert Einstein

Now, it seems I always have a book in my hand, and undoubtedly, it is fiction.

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The Three Dimensions of Character

In his book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks says you should “imbue your characters with three very separate and compelling layers—dimensions, in this context—that are carefully crafted to bring your story alive with resonant emotional depth.” If you choose to wing it, you most likely will end up with characters who are as flat as cardboard cutouts.

 TT is for Three Dimensions of Character

What are the three dimensions of character?

Let’s take a look at the three dimensions of characterization as defined by Larry Brooks, using a character from Harry Potter—Severus Snape–to illustrate them. Continue reading The Three Dimensions of Character

Building Your Story on a Solid Foundation

According to Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering, there are Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. I named them in the post, The Writing Book that Helped Me Win NaNoWriMo. Today I’m focusing on the fourth competency: Story Structure.

S

S is for Story Structure

Brooks says, “it doesn’t matter if you outline your stories or not, or if your words make the angels weep or not, because if what you’re writing isn’t hitting the page in context to solid and accepted—key word there—story structure, it’s doomed until it does.”

Brooks defines story structure as “what comes first, what comes next, and so forth…and why. And no, you can’t just make it up for yourself. There are expectations and standards here. Knowing what they are is the first step toward getting published.”

This doesn’t mean you’re artistically boxed-in by the structure. Brooks uses the analogy of constructing a building to explain the concept of story structure. You must have a solid foundation (story structure) upon which you place your artfully designed building (your unique story).

solid foundation building Brooks says, “Story structure is the sequence of scenes that results in a story well told. Story architecture is the empowerment of those scenes through compelling characterizations, powerful thematic intentions, a fresh and intriguing conceptual engine, and a writing voice that brings it all to life with personality and energy.”

In his book, Brooks names the four integral parts of story structure. I hinted at this four-part story structure in the post Late at Night I Toss and Turn and Dream of What I Need, when I discussed the four stages of the hero.

Four-Part Story Structure:

Part 1: Setup. The purpose of Part 1 is to set up the story. We learn about the hero; the world he lives in, his back story, and what he wants. At the end of Part 1 an obstacle to what the hero wants surfaces and the hero must go on a quest to overcome it.
Hero role: orphan.

• Part 2: Response. The purpose of Part 2 is to show the hero’s response to the obstacle that surfaced at the end of Part 1. He’s not heroic yet. He’s hesitant, fearful, and fumbles his way through a myriad of options, unsure how, even unwilling, to confront the antagonistic force.
Hero role: wanderer.

• Part 3: Attack. The purpose of Part 3 is to show the hero beginning to figure it out. He draws on what he learned in the wanderer phase and begins to apply it. He’s no longer reactive. He’s heroic and attacks the antagonistic force head on. Only the antagonistic force has become stronger and the hero must revise his plans.
Hero role: warrior.

• Part 4: Resolution. The purpose of Part 4 is to show the hero call upon all the knowledge, skills, and courage gained over the course of the story and use it to defeat the antagonistic force. He may even die in the process.
Hero role: martyr.

To learn more about story structure, read the post, Introducing the Four Parts of Story on Larry Brooks’ website, Storyfix.

Have You Met Captain Obvious? Master of Superfluous Redundancy

captain obvious

Fellow colleagues, if you’re not careful, Captain Obvious can make a cameo appearance in your own work. This unanticipated surprise visit can occur at the present time or at three a.m. in the morning. Captain Obvious causes words to blend together so you make unexpected mistakes in what you’ve written down by repeating words with the same exact meaning or adding an additional word  that is extraneous. Redundant phrases cause a cacophony of sound to circulate around your work. If, after careful scrutiny of your work, you’re absolutely certain redundant phrases are nonexistent or too few in number to worry about, reconsider. Your story can be completely filled with words you’ve repeated again during the course of storytelling. Don’t let your story depreciate in value. Learn about unnecessarily redundant phrases so you can positively identify them for complete annihilation. Pick and choose your words carefully so you won’t receive an unexpected surprise visit from the Master of Superfluous Redundancy.

RR is for Redundant Phrases

Did you find all the redundant phrases in the paragraph above? Let’s look at it again:

Fellow Colleagues, if you’re not careful, Captain Obvious can make a cameo appearance in your own work. This unanticipated surprise visit can occur at the present time or at three a.m. in the morning. Captain Obvious causes words to blend together so you make unexpected mistakes in what you’ve written down by repeating words with the same exact meaning  or adding an additional a word that is extraneous. Redundant phrases cause a cacophony of sound to circulate around your work. If, after careful scrutiny of your work, you’re absolutely certain redundant phrases are nonexistent or too few in number to worry about, reconsider. Your story can be completely filled with words you’ve repeated again during the course of storytelling. Don’t let your story depreciate in value. Learn about unnecessarily redundant phrases so you can positively identify them for complete annihilation. Pick and choose your words carefully so you won’t receive an unexpected surprise visit from the Master of Superfluous Redundancy.

captain_obvious rain

Click on the following links for more examples of redundant phrases and how to avoid them:

http://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-redundant-phrases-to-avoid/

http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/redundancies.htm

Don’t be a Passivist

JessicaAlbacowgirl

Heh heh. I thought that might get your attention. Now, are you here because of the photo, the guns, or to tell me I’ve misspelled pacifist?

Don’t worry. I’m not promoting violence, at least not that kind. I am promoting a little aggression toward the passive voice.

PP is for Passive Voice

What is passive voice?

Passive voice occurs when the subject and the object of the sentence get switched so the subject is receiving the action and not performing it. When this happens the verb switches from active to passive. Let’s look at an example.

Active Voice

Sally heard the familiar tune of a lullaby.

Passive Voice

The familiar tune of a lullaby could be heard by Sally.

“Sally” and “tune” are the subject and object of the sentence, respectively. When using passive voice, the active verb “heard” switches to the passive form “could be heard.” Do you see how switching to passive voice weakens and lengthens the sentence?

Let’s look at the opening line to a popular novel.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise by Toni Morrison

The white girl was shot by them first.

It doesn’t pack the same punch does it?

Using passive voice isn’t incorrect grammar usage, but using active voice is often a better choice.  Click on the article Active Voice Versus Passive Voice by Grammar Girl for more information.

 

cool-girl-with-gun-images-photos-0219230851

Now you’re armed and dangerous. If your writing isn’t strong, clear or concise, analyze it for the use of passive voice.

Go on. Get trigger happy. Pull out your literary pistol and pick off those passive verbs one at a time.

To see what other A to Z participants are blogging about this month, please click here to link to their blogs.

The Opening Line: How Do You Make It Memorable?

OO is for Opening Line

The Opening Line—probably the most important sentence you will write. Unlike the writers of the past, the modern writer in this fast-paced world needs to grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible or risk losing the reader altogether.

What makes a good opening line?

Hmm…

In all the books I’ve read on the craft of writing, I don’t recall reading about the formula to writing a memorable opening line. If you know it, please do tell.

After analyzing some of my favorite opening lines, there doesn’t seem to be a  common thread that runs through each of them. They are all different. Some are long (A Tale of Two Cities) and some are surprisingly short (A Christmas Carol). What is it about these opening lines that make them so memorable?

My favorite opening lines contained at least one of the following:

• Imagery
• Contrast
• Intrigue
• Unique voice
• Compelling Mental Picture
• Sarcasm
• Shock
• Fear
• Dialogue

Imagery

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Contrast

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Intrigue

“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Unique Voice

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Compelling Mental Picture

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Shock

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Sarcasm

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Fear

“Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Dialogue

And this one comes from our very own Sarah M. Cradit:

“‘All I’m saying is, Deliverance was based on a true story.’” The Storm and the Darkness by Sarah M. Cradit

 

What do you think makes a good opening line? What is your favorite opening line?

Here is a link to more famous opening lines from Wikiquote.

To see what other A to Z participants are blogging about this month, please click here to link to their blogs.

 

From the Archives: How the Life of a Writer Resembles a Bee

To celebrate the one year anniversary of my blog (March 13th), I’m publishing select posts throughout the year under the title “From the Archives” for those who may have missed them the first time around. Next up…

 How the Life of a Writer Resembles a Bee

On this journey to becoming a published author, I’m discovering that the life of a writer resembles a bee, a very busy bee. I’m not referring to a queen bee or a drone, but a worker bee.

Honey Bee in Sunlight
Honey Bee in Sunlight (Photo credit: Scott Kinmartin)

The worker bee buzzes from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen to make honey, but that’s not her (yes, a worker bee is female) only job. She builds the honeycomb and keeps it clean. She makes wax. She cares for the babies and protects the hive. When she finds a good source for nectar and pollen she buzzes back to the hive and communicates the good news. She is a social creature that shares her discoveries for the benefit of the hive. She collaborates with others to make something sweet. She is a very busy little bee.

So how is the life of a writer like a bee?

The days when a writer could simply collect thoughts and ideas and write a novel (as if writing a novel were simple) are long gone. No, writers, that is not your only job. You need to do your homework.

  • Read books on the art of writing.
  • Read books on formatting your manuscript, query letter and synopsis. I’ve read a dozen or so over the last few years and recently ordered several more.
  • Read the top rated novels. I started a project over a year ago to read the Modern Library’s Top 100 novels and recently merged it with Time Magazine’s Top 100.
  • Read current bestsellers.
  • Read books within your genre.
  • Read books outside your genre.
  • Research the submission process.
  • Research agents too. Read their blogs and get to know their likes and dislikes. After all, you hope one will represent you some day.
  • Read the blogs of authors they represent.
  • Read those authors’ books too.
  • Read…A LOT.

Of course most of you know that already, but did you also know that you are expected to market and promote your work? I’m sure visions of book tours and interview flash across your mind as you think, “Uh, duh. I knew that.” Let me rephrase that then. Did you know that you are expected to market and promote your work before your book has been published?

I didn’t know that. I neglected to read anything on social media. I skipped those chapters in the books I read. That comes later, after you’re published, right? Wrong. A writer needs to create a buzz, a following, prior to becoming published. In this technology driven world the best way to do that is through social media. Agents are more likely to take a chance on you if you can show that you have a presence on the internet.

Take a lesson from the honey bee. She visits several different sources (species of flowers) to make honey. Writers should do the same when writing and publishing a book. Don’t trust just one source for information. Read about the mistake I made doing this in my post, Word Count for Novels. Be social, like the bee. Flutter among the cyber flowers (blogs, online forums, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, author and agent websites, etc.) and make friends. Collect all that you have learned and create something that, like honey, lasts. Then go back to the hive (the internet), do the crazy bee “waggle dance,” and share what you’ve learned.

If you don’t have a blog yet, start one. I know. It’s a little intimidating at first. Creative people tend to be more introverted so this “social media thing” can push us out of our comfort zone. You may wonder if anyone will be interested in visiting the microscopic spec in cyberspace that is your blog. If you are like me, you may feel more like a bumble bee: poorly designed for flight. Sure, it may be a little difficult to get off the ground at first and you may wonder if your paper-thin wings can support your awkward body. You may fumble a bit, but remember:

“Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.” Mary Kay Ash

Defy physics and reason and soon you will be soaring high. Plus, I’ve learned that writers, by nature, are generous people. The followers will come.

Oh, and by the way, my name means “honey bee.” So, you see, I have been a very busy bee, indeed.

Against Idleness and Mischief

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skillfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.

In Works of Labor or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

Isaac Watts

Taxes, the Blood Moon, Passover, and the Monomyth

Yeah, I know. I’m a day late with my “M” post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge, but I have a good excuse: taxes, the blood moon, and Passover.

Huh? How did those even relate? They all happened on the day I was going to prepare and publish my post on the monomyth.

I filed my taxes about a month ago, but I’ve been helping my brother with his business and personal taxes (this is what happens when you’re the CPA in the family) and it took longer than expected.

There was a perk to it, though. I stayed up so late working on the returns that I was still awake for the blood moon. I stepped onto the back porch with my husband and daughter (who insisted on being awakened at 3 am for it) to view the first of four lunar eclipses that will occur over the next two years. I’d like to say the view was spectacular, but I think I was too tired to be impressed. I think I said something like, “Yeah, that’s cool. I’m going to bed now.”

If you missed the blood moon, click on this CNN article to see pictures. The image I saw was similar to # 18.

How did the start of Passover delay my post? It didn’t. I just thought it was interesting that it occurred on the first of four blood moons that will appear over the next two years and that major religious holidays will occur on each of those, as well. Do I think it’s a signal of the end times? No, I’m just fascinated by coincidences.

Anyway…let’s discuss the monomyth.

MM is for Monomyth

The monomyth is the basic structure that is repeated in stories throughout the history of the world. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says: Continue reading Taxes, the Blood Moon, Passover, and the Monomyth

Writing a Logline that Hooks the Reader

LL is for Logline

Screenwriters use a logline when pitching a movie script, but it can also be helpful for novelists to learn the essentials of an effective logline. According to Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, “a logline is like the cover of a book; a good one makes you want to open it right now, to find out what’s inside.”

What is a logline?

A logline is a one or two sentence description of what your story is about. It answers the inevitable question that is asked when you announce you’re writing a story.

What’s it about?

To novelists it’s better known as the hook or elevator pitch of your story. It must grab a potential agent or reader’s attention and make them want to learn more. If you can’t boil your story down to a one or two sentence description, then you may need to reevaluate it. The idea should be crystal clear and concisely communicated. Today’s fast-paced world of internet, smart phones, and social media leads to information overload and short attention spans. An intriguing logline is the lifeline that hooks the reader to your story.

Snyder says the logline must satisfy the following components to be effective: Continue reading Writing a Logline that Hooks the Reader

Just a Position on Juxtaposition

JJ is for Juxtaposition

What is juxtaposition?

jux•ta•po•si•tion [juhk-stuh-puh-zish-uhn] noun 1. an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.

Juxtaposition is a literary device used to create a vivid mental image by placing two dissimilar things side by side. Imagine trying to understand the concept of darkness without comparing it to light. It is much easier to grasp a concept when contrasting it with its opposite or something vastly different.

One of the most well-known uses of juxtaposition occurs in the Old Testament of the Bible:

Ecclesiastes 3
1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

How is juxtaposition used in literature?

Here are a few examples:

In book titles

Juxtaposition in book titles sparks interest in the story. Consider the following examples:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

In Settings

• To set the tone of the story

One of the most memorable opening lines in classic literature is from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

• To contrast the opening image with the final image

One way to show how much has changed over the course of the story is to contrast the final image with the opening image. The best example that comes to mind occurs in the novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

The first scene shows Lennie taking long gulps of water from a deep green pool. George walks up behind him and scolds him for drinking from a questionable water source. George is obviously concerned about Lennie’s well-being.

The last scene shows George and Lennie at the same pool with Lennie drinking water from it once again. They sit and George instructs him to look out over the pool and imagine their future together. From behind him, George retrieves a gun from his pocket and shakily places the gun to Lennie’s head.

In Characters

• To create contrast between characters

This is often done between the hero and the villain. We all know of the typical villain dressed in black and the hero of course is wearing white. Consider Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. One is evil and draws power from the dark side. The other is good and reflects the light.

• To create contrast within a character

The contrast within a character creates interest. It makes them more memorable. A villain that is just plain evil is boring, but what about a serial killer who affectionately cares for his invalid mother?

Can you think of other ways to use juxtaposition in writing? Can you think of other examples of juxtaposition in book titles? In settings? In characters?

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