Tag Archives: creative writing

Pro-Tip: What Makes Strong Writing?

10 Mar

Across all genres and purposes, writers want to know the one thing they can do in order to ensure readers consider their writing “good writing.”

My first piece of advice is to get rid of the notion of “good writing.” Pitting yourself against other writers in order to determine if your creative vision is “good” will get you nowhere. Writing, even in the academic and professional fields where creativity might sometimes be limited by style sheets and strict requirements, is a deeply personal endeavor. It’s not just the final product that author’s judge, but their journey to get that product. Trying to put worth on an experience is like saying your dream vacation is only worth as much as the airfare costs. It discounts everything you get out of travel on an intellectual, spiritual, and physical level. Writing a text is a trip–maybe not always a vacation–but a trip nonetheless.

So, why would you try to qualify your path against someone else? And why would you settle on the achievement of “good writing” when that’s based on how similar your process and product is to someone else you consider “good?” Isn’t that just good mimicry? You want to be “good,” or rather strong, at what YOU do and how YOU do it.

Strive, instead, for strong writing, writing that holds it’s own regardless of how similar (or not) it is to the work of others you admire. Yes, we first learn by mimicking, in speech as babies, and as authors. But, at some point, you start to sound like YOU, and if you go around trying to decide if your writing, and therefore if YOU, are good enough, you’re likely to have moments of doubt. You might feel like you don’t measure up, like an imposter, like someone who isn’t REALLY an author because you haven’t done x, y, or z thing that some other person who uses the title of author has done.

Strong writing is original, written with pride (but not necessarily confidence because you can be proud of your effort and still worried about its outcome. Confidence takes time), and organizationally sound. Above all of the basic prescriptive grammar and mechanics rules, the tenets that say writing SHOULD be done a certain way, is organization. If you’ve got a solid structure that readers can follow, if it’s logically arranged, if it’s thoroughly explained and balances detail without crossing into the condescending, then everything else you do after that will fall into place. Proper grammar and following the rules (which you can purposefully break once you know them) is only useful if your thoughts are linked together in a coherent way. Every sentence could be perfectly constructed according to the textbook way to use punctuation marks, point of view, and tense, but a text still won’t make sense if the overall structure doesn’t carry your thoughts clearly.

What I’m getting at is this: You want strong writing, not “good” writing because strong writing is not a matter of opinion. A text either makes sense or it doesn’t. A text is either organized or frenetic. (Don’t confuse the organized or frenetic nature of a text with the same qualities of a character. Even pieces with chaotic characters are still organized as a whole, although let’s not get into the unreliable narrator discussion. It’s often an exception). “Good” writing will be different to every author and reader. Stop comparing yourself to other authors, and start holding your writing up to your past work. Are you improving?

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Pro-Tip: Drafting-Behind the Scenes

8 Dec

Hello, all!

I realize this website has become quite self-serving. I haven’t written a pro-tip in a while, but I’ve advertised the life out of my book.

Oh, well. Here comes some more–a pro-tip/advertisement hybrid.

I recently had two of my poems published by Life In 10 Minutes. The first was a characterization exercise for Acephalous. The second was a true-to-life musing about the holiday season.

For my characterization planning, I wrote from the point of view of Atlas to better get into his head. Even when characterization exercises don’t make it into the book directly, familiarizing myself with my characters on that level allows me to write about them as if they are each a real person. I highly recommend it.

There’s no right way to do this. For me, these things usually come in fits and starts in the middle of the night. The MEMO section of my cellphone is awash in brooding prose that has no bearing on my emotional state but that of my characters.

I know other writers who carry around a journal everywhere they go, just in case. That’s a bit much for me. No girl needs anything extra added to the weight of her purse. There’s enough in there already!

However, I am drowning in post-it notes. Someone out there, please invent a post-it note binder or portfolio so I can store these things with some logic.

Regardless of how you might choose to complete your characterization projects, I recommend that you do it somehow, sometime, before you write the final revision of a text. Acephalous is a different book from the version people test read, and it’s a good thing it is.

If your dialogue makes you outwardly cringe, try a character profile sheet or writing a poem from his or her point of view. It works.

 

Pro-tip: Writer’s Block

7 Oct

I’ll use myself as an example today. I sat here for a good 10 minutes trying to come up with a pro-tip for you guys about grammar or the publishing process–something useful. But, I just didn’t want to write about any of those things. Between past articles and teaching composition classes 4 days a week, I feel like I’ve said it all. So, instead of forcing myself to say what I thought YOU would want to hear–advice that caters to a very specific issue or topic–I said, “Screw it. I’ll say what I want to say,” and tackle a broader concept.

My first piece of advice on writer’s block is to stop trying to say what you think the audience wants to hear, and just do you. Get YOUR thoughts out first, whatever they are. Forcing your writing to fit others’ expectations rather than your own does no favor to the audience. It will sound forced, and they will notice. Plus, it doesn’t matter one bit if  your first, second, third draft is worthy of its audience. Whose is? Hemingway himself knew that first drafts are shit. His words, not mine.

So, don’t you think that makes a first draft a great time to experiment with your thoughts? Address audience needs later on when you’re revising. It will do no good to cater to the audience in those first few versions that no one will see anyway. That’s your time to decide what the heck you’re trying to say in the first place before shaping it to fit their expectations.

Once you get around to revising the more permanent versions, that’s when you have to ask yourself if you’ve followed through on all of the expectations you set up in your introduction. That’s when you consider what the audience already knows and what they still might need a little background or description to figure out. That’s when you assess your word choices and decide if your vocabulary meets the level/age of the audience, if your approach matches the goal of your text for that audience, if the tone matches the nature of the piece.

Second, don’t stop before you start! Many people are under the impression that if the first line, first page of a text isn’t catchy, then there’s no point in continuing. And, while an interesting hook is important, its existence shouldn’t be the reason you do or do not continue writing the piece. Writing and revising are recursive processes. This means that it’s never totally done. You will always go back and look at something you’ve already done and scrutinize it. It’s exhausting, but wonderful. This means what you write, no matter how attached to it you feel, is not set in stone. Write that crappy introduction and keep going! Go back to it when you’re done with the draft. Sometimes, it’s easier to write a snappy intro once the whole story or essay is finished. At that point, you know what you have to draw from, what’s upcoming, what you can allude to in the first few sentences.

Third, shut off the teacher’s voice nagging in the back of your mind. Even if that voice is your own. If the rules you’ve been taught about what you can and can’t do when you write don’t help guide your process, if they stall you out instead, ignore them (at least until you revise–some situations, like work and academics, do legitimately require a rigid standard of delivery and shouldn’t be ignored).

In writing, especially creative writing, there are very few rules that are law. Most are just stylistic guidelines based on a prescribed method of academic or traditional writing. This is called Standard Written American English. It’s the prescriptive norm of how “they” say English SHOULD BE used, including both grammar and usage. Sometimes those standards don’t allow us to convey the creativity or naturalness of speech we’d like. When writers take guidelines as law, they often catch themselves in a rigid process that can’t conform to the pliable, recursive nature of a text. Embrace the descriptive use of language. This is the way English is ACTUALLY used in every day speech: slang, colloquialisms, and regional/cultural dialects included. Doing so will help create realistic, relatable characters, natural settings, conversational dialogue, and a personable approach that engages the reader. Even in formal writing, this can be achieved by staying true to your authorial voice rather than trying to force it into the voice you think the reader is waiting to hear.

Most importantly, don’t blame the inability to sit down and write something on “the muse” not showing up. Writing is work. Whether your muse has shown up or not, you still have to in order to get something done. It’s not always an inspired, fevered gutting of the author. Sometimes, it’s just that thing you’ve got to get done today. Writer’s block is usually always rooted in some sort of anxiety: Can I do this correctly? Am I breaking the rules? What if it’s crap? No one wants to read this. I’m boring and there’s nothing original left in the world. How am I going to do this by the deadline? I’m afraid to say this. What if people think the main character is me?

Sound familiar? I get it. But who cares if it’s uninspired? You’ll get to fix it tomorrow.

For more reading on writer’s block and methods to move past it, read Mike Rose’s fantastic, albeit lengthy, Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.

 

Pro-Tip: YOU! Second Person POV

21 Jul

It’s been a long time since I posted a new Pro-Tip, so I thought I’d jump at the chance while there’s a lull in my schedule (read: my printer is SO slow).

Second Person Point of View is the least commonly utilized POV for fiction, and the hardest to use well. Second person POV is the “you” form of narrating or discussion. This POV places all of the actions of a text on the reader, as if he or she is the one doing something. This method is useful for creating suspense in text, as well as to discuss the “general you” of human-kind. It’s also a helpful tool in marketing and how-to writing, like a lot of my advice on this website. In addition, second person also effects some suspension of disbelief because it requires the readers to pause their individual worldviews and personalities and inhabit the mannerisms, emotions, actions, and context of the text’s “you.” For advertising especially, it entreats the reader to say, “Yeah, I DO need to go buy this/do that.”

Fiction Ex: You pull up to the curb and cut the engine, noticing there's already a 
light on inside. You know you left the house dark when you went out hours ago. The 
sight is alarming. Your hairs raise. As you approach the door and extend your key, 
each step brings you closer to confirming your worry. The door is ajar. You can hear
your heart thumping in your ears, a symptom of the fight or flight response. 
Responding with the former, you kick the door wide and enter, shouting, "I'm calling
the police." 

Advertising Ex: You can't miss this sale. Find all the great styles you'll need for
that beach vacation. Come shop TODAY!

Notice in the examples that the narrator doesn’t draw any attention to himself. This differs from a first person, “I,” point of view and from a third person point of view where, though the narrator doesn’t interject his own worldview, the narrator also doesn’t discuss the reader.

Sometimes first and third person narrators will occasionally talk directly to the reader. It’s a unique method of storytelling similar to breaking the third wall in film. Whether the primary POV is first or third person, a narrator makes personal interjections directed at the reader. This isn’t an easy voice to pull off, and I generally allow the reader to feel as much a part or observer of the text as he or she desires depending on their own levels of empathy, introjection, and interest in suspending reality. However, I won’t be the one to say, “Never do it!” Talking directly to the reader lends a certain casual feeling to a story, and can be very inviting to a reader because it asks the reader to join the conversation or play a role in the events. Read the example below to see the difference in tone provided by talking to the reader while using first person POV. Notice also that the first example is in present tense and this example is in past tense. I did this to display that tense choice does not exclude any POV options.

Ex: I pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. I noticed there was already a light 
on inside.  

You know, I'm pretty forgetful, but I'd bet you $50 I hadn't forgotten to turn it 
off.

I'm sure I left the house dark when I went out hours before. The sight was alarming. 
My hairs rose. As I approached the door and extended my key, each step brought me 
closer to confirming my worry. The door was ajar. 

I bet you saw that coming. 

I could hear my heart thumping in my ears, a symptom of the fight or flight 
response. I don't know if I made the right choice; you'll have to be the judge of 
that. I kicked the door wide and entered, shouting, "I'm calling the police." 

You're going to laugh at me when I tell you what happened next.

Essentially, a text doesn’t qualify as second person POV just because “you” is used in the narrative. The designation of POV is most easily assigned by looking at who in the narrative is completing the actions of the story. 

The Takeaway:

First Person: I, as the narrator (and often main character), do things within the story, and the other characters are seen through my eyes and worldview.

Second Person: You, the reader, do things withing the story, and the other characters are perceived by your worldview.

Third Person: They, the characters, do things within the story, and they are perceived by a named OR unnamed narrator that, depending on limited or omniscient knowledge, has varying degrees of insight into each character’s worldview.

 

 

 

12 Years to Get to the Trash Can

7 Jul

I’ve gotten some amazing, useful feedback from the test readers who’ve returned their comments so far. I can’t wait to get the rest and to start rewriting Acephalous Book 1 (which very well could become a longer, single book that’s not part of a series).

Some items I plan on changing include:

-POV shift from 3rd person limited to 3rd person omniscient. Though I value the challenge the former POV presents to an author–successfully presenting all of the characters in a rich and emotionally arresting way without getting into the inner thoughts of most of them–I feel like I’m missing out on opportunities to better link my readers to the characters’ emotions, fears, and motivations, to add history and detail to a scene without narrating or telling.

-Structure/Order of Events. I’m looking to get to the action sooner than the current version does, and to reel people in with the mystery and intrigue of Breena’s situation by making the dreams she experiences carry more weight.

-Character Behaviors. The characters are still hollow at this point, as is usually the case in any initial shell of a story. They aren’t fully independent, separate, complete people in the world of dreams or reality. They each have the beginnings of uniqueness, but undermine their own existences by contradicting their thoughts with their actions, cultivating dislike through unrealistic dialogue, or failing to display their importance to the story. The goal is for each character to sound like a real person, their own person, rather than sound like different variations of me as the author.

To accomplish all of this (and, doubtless, the many more decisions I’ll make as more feedback comes in), I plan on performing a total re-write of the test-read version. I’m going to work page-by-page to recreate each with fresh words. The plot will stay essentially the same, as will the basis of the current characters, but by rewriting in one stretch of time, I will have a more homogeneous text. As it is, I can still tell which sections I wrote as a high school student and which sections come from master’s degree me. It doesn’t mesh.

I’ve worked for a long time to get the story to a coherent shell to share with others for input. It’s a tricky stage where it’s complete enough to call a story, but too rough to call publishable. This version is a husk of what it could be, and it’s always hard to let people read something that I know is not finished. I always pray those reading realize it’s still just a draft, that I wasn’t passing it around as a sneak peek of the completed story. (Read: Yes, you’ll still need to buy the real one to find out what happens even if you test-read it.) The text that will go on sale by the end of next year won’t much resemble the one they read, and I’m thankful. Even Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” For me, while I’m much more proud of the story than what I put in the toilet, and while I wouldn’t store the book alongside your manure fertilizer, it is a first draft of sorts. It took 12 years and who knows how many full overhauls to get to the state where I handed it out for critique, but, in terms of publication readiness, the 2015-2016 version of Acephalous is the first draft. It’s the first draft I’ve had printed and bound; it’s the first draft I’ve let people see; it’s the first draft to be acceptable enough to consider moving forward.

Rewriting is the stage where many aspiring writers quit. We get through the feat of finishing something as huge as a novel and realize that, even though there’s a finished story with a beginning, middle, and end, it’s not acceptable in its current state. It would be easy to stare at the piles of commentary and say, “There’s still so much left to do…” and never say anything else about the project. It can feel overwhelming to think about how many little (and major) things need to change, but authors press on because the satisfaction of creating a viable beginning, middle, and end isn’t enough once people have read it. Viable doesn’t mean finished once someone points out what’s lacking. Personally, I’m thrilled to rewrite and leave the opinions of Mr. Hemingway in the dust.

 

To Plan or Not To Plan

19 Apr

Are you a “watch the weather forecast and pick your outfit accordingly” kind of writer, or a “put something on and hope you don’t sweat or freeze” kind of writer?

In life, I’m a weather watcher. In writing, I’m a forecast gambler.

A lot of authors will swear by their various methods of planning–storyboards, character charts, webs, lists, outlines, the list goes on. Planners are the ones paying attention to the forecast of their story–deciding on the mood, action, tension, and characters ahead of time. And, lots of authors swear by the process of writing to discover. They throw on whatever they want to wear at the time, maybe bringing along a plan B outfit just in case, but allow the climate of the story to shift on its own, and then adjusting the characters to be appropriately dressed after the fact.

With the former, authors benefit from economy of time. Planning, if you are the type who works well with such structure, means that very little writing time is wasted on things that don’t make it to the final copy. Characters are fleshed out before they even enter the story, plot has definite direction, and the motivation and drama of the story is decided, meaning you already know what characters want, why they want it, and what happens when they try to get it. These are great things to know in advance. I wish it was easy for me to write in this manner, to sit down and say, “Today, I’m going to make this happen.” Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to answer any questions about my characters or plot before getting to a moment in the story where a certain question must be answered.

The latter is my preferred method because I write first drafts off of train of thought. Authors don’t necessarily know where the story is going when it starts, which can be liberating. In addition, having no plan releases an author from the feeling that preconceived ideas about the story must be adhered to. It’s hard to let go of a plan you’ve spent a lot of effort on, even when it’s not working. If it’s not the first book in a series, there’s some direction left over from the books before it, but as a stand-alone plot, very few factors are decided. To dive right in rather than to plan means that characters truly drive the story, and they grow with the plot. Nothing is decided until it has to be, and nothing is permanent. I think this is a good way to prevent myself from writing what I would do rather than what the character would do. This method may produce more loose ends to revisit, but as long as you can keep track of following through on those connections, you can be assured that actions true to the characters are taking place.

Leave your thoughts on the planning process in the comments below!

 

 

Pro-Tip: Characterization

6 Oct

How do you talk to your friends? To your family? Bosses and coworkers?

For every person and situation, there is a way we present ourselves. Why should this be any different for each of your characters? It shouldn’t.

I remember when teachers used to say, “Don’t start a sentence with ‘because,’” or “You can’t use contractions in formal or serious writing.” And they had lots of rules about slang. To a point, those rules were useful. In the context of their classrooms, they were golden. Following such laws ensured decent grades. After all, breaking a rule so explicitly stated would render the teacher unable to take you seriously beyond that point.

But now, it’s time to forget it. It’s rubbish. Rules like that have a place in the classrooms of the teachers who value them and little place else. Try writing a realistic character without breaking them. It’s nearly impossible if you want that character to sound like someone you could really meet. And that’s the key—creating characters that we see ourselves and others in, even when the character isn’t a human. Characters are textual embodiments of our human experience. Even a talking dog on Mars will be based on the actions and emotions we know because it’s impossible to invent an emotion or characteristic fully new and alien. It may seem different but, somewhere at its core, every new creation of fiction is rooted in the human experience. If characters aren’t experiencing and acting organically as you or I would, then what are they? Caricatures of prescriptive rules, rules which tell us how language ought to be but do not reflect how language is actually used.

Example: “Tom, it is late. I find we will miss the movie if we do not leave now. Are we not going to the movies after all?”

“No, Summer, we are not. I have to complete this project for chemistry lab. It is due tomorrow, and I neglected to begin work earlier. I am very sorry.”

Ok, so there’s nothing technically wrong with that exchange between Summer and her boyfriend, Tom. The scene is clear. But how forced did that feel? If you were Summer would you talk like that? If you were Tom? Maybe if this was an exchange between Data and a Vulcan… otherwise, I doubt it. Plus, would a Vulcan actually forget to do his homework? I digress.

Many readers play the scenes of a novel like a movie in their minds. Less visual learners may not, but chances are, they at least listen to the soundtrack of the words. Reading a conversation like the example is as awkward feeling as it would be to watch that scene play out in real life. It doesn’t flow. It sounds like a business exchange between strangers, not a dispute between partners, lovers. The formality slows the natural rhythm of reading. It gets in the way. In more colloquial speech, the words run together. They sound in a reader’s head as they would out of the reader’s mouth. Smooth, easy, and with more personality.

When writing, make sure you’re not stalling the tension and momentum of your scenes by being overly formal. Fiction novels aren’t research papers, agent queries, resumes, or instruction manuals. Make your characters talk like real people.

Since you’ve thrown out all of those rules I mentioned earlier, replace them with this: Each character must have a unique and realistic voice that reflects personality. All quirks will at that point appear purposeful because they will be unique to the character.

Perhaps one character really DOES talk that way in the novel. The choice to leave the dialogue formal, or fully informal, at all times, or even riddled with slang or nonsense words would be obviously purposeful to your readers because no one else would be quite the same. The way we talk is a part of our personality, and it is no different for the characters you create.

Keeping that in mind, let’s try the example again.

“Tom, aren’t we going to the movies? We’ll be late.”

“No, Summer. I’ve got this project for chem that’s due tomorrow. I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

OR

“Tom, we’re not going to the movies, are we?”

“Nope. I just remember I have a chemistry project due in the morning.”

“You promised.”

“I’m sorry.”

“See, you always do this. You plan all this great stuff and then you’re all, ‘Oh, well, I gotta do this instead.’”

“I don’t sound like that.”

OR

“You ready to go, Tom? We need to leave now.”

“I’m doing this chem lab. I can’t stop in the middle of it.”

“Really? You knew we were going out at 4. You saw me getting ready. Why did you start the project if you knew you couldn’t stop until the end? Why didn’t you say something an hour ago?”

See how a simple exchange can escalate if you let the language develop to who the characters are individually and what their situation is as a whole? With additional characterization and narration, the reader may already know or soon learn that these two always bicker, that she’s a little spoiled, but that her irritation is justified due to his aloof attitude and transient interests, or maybe it’s a first fight and the reader has to continue to find out if their relationship can withstand it. With more surrounding description, the reader should be able to say these sentences in the voices set up for each character—the reader’s own variation of what the author has led her to imagine.

The takeaway here is, within reasonable consideration of appropriateness to your target audience, abandon all rules that don’t suit the reality of a character or scene. If your character uses contractions in speech or starts sentences with “because,” let him. If the scene requires slang, go for it. If your protagonist only curses when surprised because she hates to be surprised, let it fly, but only in the proper scenarios. Stay true to the character. All of them should talk in the text like they would talk to you in real life.

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico,

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

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