Category: Writer Resources (Page 1 of 8)

How to Study Fiction, Part 6: Words of Wisdom

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

I’d like to take a moment to interject something that came up in the middle of writing these posts.

I talked to multiple other intermediate- and higher-level writers on this topic, and what they mainly wanted writers going through a transition from beginning to intermediate writing to know was:

  • There is no finish line when it comes to learning about writing.  You will never run out of things to learn or relearn.
  • You will need other writers for sanity and support and getting better as writers more than you can imagine.  Invest in networking.
  • No words are wasted; nevertheless, there is an immense power in throwing out words.
  • Being able to write on command is an essential part of growing as a writer; “mood” can go to hell.  If you can’t write on command, you’ll never get in the zone where writing is easy.
  • On the other hand, you can’t rate everything about writing in terms of words per minute, or dollars per word.  Part of the journey here is becoming as much “yourself” as a writer as possible.  In other words, writing isn’t just craft; it’s an art.
  • You can’t see the patterns in what you write and what you love to write without a body of actual, finished work.

They also made a lot of smartass comments, but I’ll skip those 🙂

I felt like the journey from being a beginning writer to an intermediate one was very emotional and transformative.  There were days when something in my subconscious was running in overdrive so hard I could barely process the world outside me.  I went through terrible mood swings on a regular basis–great writer, terrible writer.  Great writer, terrible writer.

I believe that any field that is sufficiently complex and creative has a kind of process like this–cooking, music, woodworking, programming, martial arts–where you move away from the limitations and structure of following rules and head out into the wilder territories of, “We’re not sure, but try this…”

I firmly believe it’s a kind of magical process, and should be respected as such.  That is, a lot of work that occasionally produces sparks of something that are more than what they came from.  It’s wonderful.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 5: Productivity and Speed, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Resources related to productivity/speed issues:

  •  Look for good general productivity, happiness, and habit-changing books and websites, like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Eat that Frog.  They often talk about how to practically juggle conflicting priorities.
  • Look for good writer’s habit books, like The Artist’s Way or Bird by Bird, not to teach you how to write so much as to teach you how to survive the long haul as a creative person.  These books will help you dig down to your emotional fears about writing.
  • Sign up for a writing challenge that will definitely stretch you from your current habits, like National Novel Writing Month, in order to test your skills.  It doesn’t have to be NaNoWriMo, and failing one just means “this is not for me.”  Don’t harass yourself about failing any writing test.  Identify why you didn’t succeed, and look for a different writing test.
  • Start tracking your word count using different periods of time:  five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, etc.  When your words per minute peak, you’ve found your ideal writing session time.  (You can often string several shorter sessions together, with a short break to refill a cup of coffee between them.)  If you are totally against wordcounts, you can track pages per day–or stories per month.
  • Look for good books on building writing speed, like 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.
  • Make a note of any distractions that occur in your writing sessions and decide how to get around them.  To block selected sites on the Internet, for example, try Freedom software.  Make part of your writing routine handling distractions before they can occur.
  • When you write a piece of fiction, allow yourself to spell-check the work and look it over one time to review for missing pieces, oopsies, or extraneous pieces.  After that, send it to an editor for submission or a freelance editor to get it ready for indie publishing.
  • You don’t have to be perfect.  Intermediate writers are still better than 90% of wanna-be writers.  You are writers.  But, well, you’re not master artisans yet, and nobody expects that you magically turn into ones.
  • Other technical issues should be addressed later in the series 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

New series!  I’ve been studying fiction with a scalpel and a jeweler’s lens for a few years now, and I’ve found it immensely helpful.  I’m going to cheat a little and use most of a post that I typed up for the pacing series, which you can find here.

The issues are the same 🙂

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  Partly, it comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers seem to drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Let alone how to learn it.  More on that coming up.

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Pacing, Part 16: Wrapping up!

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

There’s still a lot more to cover on pacing, but now you’ve been introduced to the idea that pacing can work on pretty much every level (even high levels, as in the beginnings examples), so I’ll wrap things up here.

Pacing is about connecting form to content.  Any element of form or content can have a corresponding element on the other side of the equation.

When you find a short story idea that’s turning into a novel, it’s because your subconscious is trying to match the content of your idea (too complex to be a short story) with its proper form.  And vice versa.

When you struggle to make your characters do what you want them to do, it may be that the pacing of the characters is such that they want to act sooner, or later, or completely differently, than you want them to.

When you find yourself locked in the grip of writer’s block, it may be that you’re trying to fight a struggle between an outline that you’ve written, and the combination of form and content that you’ve set out on the page.

When you write a scene whose paragraphs and low-level pacing don’t resemble the content that you think you’re writing, don’t be surprised if a plot twist appears out of nowhere:  sometimes writing a discrepancy between form and content is the subconscious’s way of telling you that all is not what it seems.

I won’t get into it much here, but:

You don’t need to plan this all out, when it comes to pacing.

In fact, avoid planning as much as possible.  Give your subconscious as little as possible, and get out of the way.

Your subconscious is a drama queen, and it will handle the logistics of pacing for you, if you trust it.  Just step back, admire the work, and resist the urge to rewrite.  Fix the commas and let your subconscious get on with it 🙂

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Pacing, Part 15: Prologues (with Agatha Christie)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Do you need a prologue?  Are you allowed to have one?

Beginning writers are often advised to avoid prologues.  In fact, they’re often advised to avoid a lot of things that annoy editors and agents when handled badly.

But if you’re studying pacing…you’re probably no longer a beginner.  You can throw that advice out.  More on that later.

So can you get away with a prologue or not?

Two issues here:

  • Prologues slow down pacing, a lot more than it might seem at first glance.
  • Prologues require their own internal structure.

A story with a prologue implies that there is going to be a lot more plot than a story without a prologue.  This will be no straightforward story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem, makes one big push to resolve the problem, and voila! Problem solved.

If there is a prologue, this implies that there are at least two plots–the plot the main character thinks they’re addressing, and something else (a murder, a crime, a twist).

The Cask of Amontillado can’t have a prologue.  The structure of the story is just too simple to support it.

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a prologue.  The story starts with the rich dude moving into the neighborhood.  No further past details need to be explained in order for the reader to be entertained.  And no other plot is needed, either.

PROLOGUE

IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.

“I beg your pardon.”

A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.

She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!

“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.

He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.

“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”

“Yes.”

“A patriotic one?”

The girl flushed.

“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”

“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”

“Why?”

“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”

The girl held out her hand.

“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”

The girl smiled.

“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”

“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear.”

“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.

Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.

The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.

This is the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary.  Chapter 1 starts with two completely different characters, in a different time frame, with a completely different tone.

“Aha,” we say, “eventually the events in the prologue will become relevant.”  There is an open browser tab of the mind, as it were, that is continuously watching for the main plot to catch up to the prologue.

The prologue has a beginning, a demonstration that emphasizes the beginning (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), a climax, and an ending/wrapup that points its way out of the prologue and toward the main body of the book.  It makes us care enough to keep reading…but not enough to throw the book against the wall, in knowing that one of the characters, at least, is about to die.

If your prologue exists mere to tell the reader that the bad guys are going to do something nasty, well, you’ve wasted the reader’s time.  That’s what bad guys do.  You have to imply something unexpected will happen, and it must happen.  It’s kind of like a prophecy in a high fantasy novel.  It has to happen, it can’t be something that you already expected to happen, and it has to happen in a way you didn’t expect (but still in line with expectations).

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Pacing, Part 14: Beginnings (with Oscar Wilde)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Beginnings don’t have to start with summary; they can start with demonstration.  The demonstration should involve the setting more than it does anything else.  You might pull off extremely minor actions or dialogue, but try just using setting first.  It’s easier.

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

This is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s rich with detail, but doesn’t have as much of an attitude as Pride & Prejudice.  This isn’t a book about gently laughing at one’s neighbors and one’s self, but a book about image versus reality, and the contusions that living a false image can force upon oneself.

Note the longer sentences, longer paragraphs, more complex sentence structure, and the veneer of polysyllabic words.

This is going to be an involved kind of story with a lot of atmosphere, ripe with self-destruction.  Just look at the words:

  • smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes
  • hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs
  • sullen murmur of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass
  • circling with monotonous insistence
  • the stillness more oppressive

One of the tricks of pacing is that you can, by matching up form and content, foreshadow the events to come.  If you lay down the same pattern in the beginning that you do in the end, the reader will get a hint of the structure to come–even if you use elements with a different content.  The ostensible content of this beginning is about a garden, but the pacing shows a pattern of decay and oppression.

The content and form at the end are openly about decay and oppression, and the reader feels like it “must” be that way, because they have been observing the same pattern throughout the work.

Not every work uses foreshadowing, but a lot of masterpieces do.  Go back to the Pride and Prejudice example.  In the end, the main character gets married to a wealthy single man.  The pattern of the ending is set up in the beginning, in an even more obvious fashion than it is here.

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Pacing, Part 13: Beginnings (with Jane Austen)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

In the beginning of every story is a beginning.

This seems obvious, but it’s one of the hallmarks of an early writer to leave it off entirely and to start in what the writer thinks is in media res, or “in the middle.”

Without a proper beginning, the reader doesn’t have a chance to care about the story.  It’s still possible that they’ll enjoy and read the story–but only if the cover and plot description promise exactly what they want, or because they owe the writer a favor that makes them read past the beginning.

A beginning gives the reader whatever information they need in order to care about the story.

The most usual type of beginning involves a character in a setting with a situation they must deal with.  These three elements must be either summarized in an interesting fashion, or demonstrated in an interesting fashion.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

This is the opening of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.  It begins with a short summary, well pervaded with snark.

Change the attitude even slightly, and the opening becomes that of a completely different book:

Everyone knows that rich single men are prey.  Too bad for them.  Every rich man has a woman’s name all over him, but hidden, as if it were under the silver scratch-off paint on a lottery ticket.

Please note the way the change in attitude (similar but not identical) is reflected in the change in pacing, on the paragraph, sentence, and word levels.

More on how to demonstrate, rather than summarize, in a bit.

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Pacing, Part 12: If not the Hero’s Journey, Then What?

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

I just spent the previous post in the series ripping apart the Hero’s Journey, or at least the fact that it’s not the end-all, be-all that some writers make it out to be.

But if you’ve spent the last umpteen years memorizing and internalizing the Hero’s Journey and it’s not all that’s out there, what is?

I’m going to skip over the content of various plots so we can focus on just the form for now.

We touched on this in the Amontadillo posts: you can add different elements to a plot in order to fill it out or strip it down, as the story demands.

What are these elements, if they’re not things like “the mentor” or “moment of death”?

  • Beginning/Setup.
  • Setting.
  • Character/Character arcs.
  • Try/fail cycles.
  • Backstory.
  • Demonstration.
  • Summary.
  • Reversals/plot twists.
  • Subplots.
  • Spinning wheels.
  • Climaxes.
  • Endings/Wrapups.

A lot of these are somewhat arbitrary; you can always rename them, remove them, or add more.  You get to build the structure that you want to build–and you can build new tools, consciously or otherwise, in order to get that done.

Which ones do you use for any given plot, though?

This is something that goes beyond the scope of the series.  I will talk a little bit about beginnings, so you can see an example.  And then I’m going to need to start wrapping up.

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Pacing, Part 11: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Here are the stages of the Hero’s Journey:

  •  Departure.
    • Call to Adventure.
    • Refusal of the Call.
    • Supernatural Aid.
    • Crossing the First Threshold.
    • Belly of the Whale.
  • Initiation.
    • The Road of Trials.
    • The Meeting with the Goddess.
    • The Woman as Temptress.
    • Atonement with the Father.
    • Apotheosis.
    • The Ultimate Boon.
  • Return.
    • Refusal of the Return.
    • The Magic Flight.
    • Rescue from Without.
    • The Crossing of the Return Threshold.
    • Master of Two Worlds
    • Freedom to Live

Wait…aren’t those the stages you’re familiar with?  That’s because what’s being taught as “The Hero’s Journey” or the monomyth currently…isn’t.

The Hero’s Journey doesn’t apply to every story; it doesn’t really even apply to the ones that people say it’s being used on–a bajillion Hollywood movies, for example. What most people use is an adaptation by Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.  His structure in its earliest format became commonish knowledge in 1992.

The point being here is that the plot events impose a certain pacing on a story.  The same number of events, in the same order (more or less), the same trials, the same resolutions.

Whether that’s the most appropriate pacing or not.

You can struggle to push that template onto “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it would screw up the story if you tried to write the same revenge story using the Hero’s Journey plot.

I’m making a big deal of this because continuously using the Hero’s Journey is something that will leave you blind to pacing at the plot level.

Stories shouldn’t be built the same way, even at the plot level.  Every story has an appropriate plot that fits it.

And that plot is not consistently the Hero’s Journey.

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Pacing, Part 8: The Cask of Amontillado

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

It’s a big jump, going from “The Quick Brown Fox” to Edgar Allen Poe, but I think we’re ready.

Take a moment to look at the story, here.  Whatever you do, don’t stop to read it.  Bah!  Just skim through it.  We’re just going to look at form and not content for now.

Take a look at:

  • How long the story is (you can always copy/paste the story into a word processor document and count the words, if you like).
  • How long the paragraphs are (ditto).
  • The pattern of long vs. short paragraphs (long-short-long-short, or long-long-long-short-short short, etc.).
  • Where the long paragraphs are (in the beginning? in the middle? in several places?) vs. where the short paragraphs are.
  • What are the paragraph patterns at the beginning and the end of the story.
  • Do long paragraphs contain long sentences, short sentences, or a mix?
  • Are the dialogue sentences longer or shorter than the descriptive ones, in general?
  • Of the two characters, who has the longer dialogue sentences?
  • Of the two characters, who has the more complex sentences (that is, the sentences with the more phrases in them)?
  • Who has the longer words?

As a rule of thumb:

  • The average length of a word in English is 5 letters.
  • The average length of a sentence in English is 15-20 words.
  • A line of printed text is about 10-15 words in a book.
  • A medium sort of paragraph in fiction is about 3-5 lines, or 30 to 75 words.
  • A medium-length short story is about 3,000 to 6,000 words.

Imagine that very short paragraphs of 10 words or less are yellow, short pararaphs of less than 3 full lines are green, medium paragraphs of 3-5 full lines are blue, longish paragraphs of 5-7 full lines are purple, and very long paragraphs are red.

What are the main colors used in this story?  Would the pattern be mixed or consistent?  What is the longest stretch of one single color?

If you’d like, now you can stop to read the story.

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