Writing Advice

What do you feel most guilty about?

31 October 2014

From Humans of New York:

“What do you feel most guilty about?”

“Not finishing my novel. I’ve already built the room where I’m going to write it at my house in Sag Harbor. The walls of the room are painted Venetian red. It has shelves filled with every book I’ve ever read. There’s a scallop striped Victorian chair. A little pine desk— two feet by three feet, with all my pens lined up, and an 18th Century sang de bouef vase lamp. And there’s a French door with a step that goes out onto the roof so I can look at the clouds. I have everything I need. Except the time.”

Link to the rest at Humans of New York and thanks to Bill for the tip.

How To Create A Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story

30 October 2014

From io9:

A short story is like a chess game: The opening is a huge part of whether you win or lose. The first sentence of a short story doesn’t just “hook” readers, it also sets the tone and launches the plot. So here are the seven major types of short story openings, and how to pick one.

Sure, the opening sentences are important in novels, too. A strong beginning, in a novel, can help provide momentum that will carry the reader all the way to the last page, sometimes in one sitting. But short stories are different: the first sentence, or the first paragraph, often hangs over the whole rest of the story. Many short stories are really about one idea, or one situation, and that’s what the opening sentences establish.

. . . .

 2) The conflict establisher.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with an opening sentence that shows the exact moment when your characters knew they were in trouble. The classic “we were halfway to Mars when our fuel tank blew up” beginning. It creates a nice sense of urgency, and then you can go back and fill in the details once people are on board with the fact that exciting stuff is happening.

Why you might use this one: If you want to start your story with a bang.

Why you might not: If your bang falls flat, then your story is lost. This is actually a high-risk opening. It’s also easy to overuse the “starting with a bang” style. Sometimes you want to be a bit more subtle, and draw your readers in slowly before dropping the boom on them. Your readers may expect the rest of your story to keep that propulsive feeling, and to revolve around the incident you describe at the start, so you have a lot to live up to.

Examples:

“When it starts we’re in a hotel room, the two of us curled up on a double bed. It’s a two-star kind of place: cracks in the walls, curtains covered in faded daisies, the clinging smell of camphor attaching itself after the first few minutes of your stay. The television stutters as we flick through the channels, colours blending together and rendering the devastation a fuzzy blue or green. Still, we see it happen: the great machines of the merfolk coming up over the shore, rampaging through the city with devastating effect.” — Peter M. Ball, “On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk.”

“Hala is running for class when her cell phone rings. She slows to take it from her pocket, glances at the screen: UNKNOWN CALLER.” — Kij Johnson, “Names for Water”

“They left Abal in a hurry, after Ozma’s mother killed the constable.” — Kelly Link, “The Constable of Abal”

“I slammed the door in the child’s face, a horrific scream trapped in my throat.” — Nnedi Okorafor, “On the Road”

“When Denis died, he found himself in another place. Dead people came at him with party hats and presents.” — Rachel Swirsky, “Fields of Gold”

3) The mystifier

At first, it doesn’t entirely make sense, because it refers to stuff we don’t know about yet. Or it throws us into a situation without giving us all the pieces right away.

Why you might use this one: There’s nothing more intriguing than a mysterious situation, where you’re thrown in the deep end. People are willing to hang with you for quite a while to find out what this is all about.

Why you might not: The mystery has to be really cool, for this to work. Also, you’re asking your readers to work pretty hard — they have to ponder the clues you’re throwing at them, but then they also have to get into your world and your characters. I feel like the “thrown in the deep end” opening is the riskiest type, because it’s the kind that asks the most of the reader. You have to be pretty skillful, to unravel your cryptic opening at the same time as you’re introducing the world and the characters, and it’s a bit of a high-wire act.

Examples::

“I still have the dollar bill. It’s in my box at the bank, and I think that’s where it will stay. I simply won’t destroy it, but I can think of nobody to whom I’d be willing to show it — certainly nobody at the college, my History Department colleagues least of all. Merely to tell the story would brand me irredeemably as a crackpot, but crackpots are tolerated, even on college faculties. It’s only when they begin producing physical evidence that they get themselves actively resented.” — H. Beam Piper, “Crossroads of Destiny”.

“‘They don’t look very dangerous,’ Xiao Ling Yun said to the aide. Ling Yun wished she understood what Phoenix Command wanted from her. Not that she minded the excuse to take a break from the composition for two flutes and hammered dulcimer that had been stymieing her for the past two weeks.” — Yoon Ha Lee, “The Unstrung Zither.”

“Mariska shivered when she realized that her room had been tapping at the dreamfeed for several minutes. ‘The Earth is up,’ it murmured in its gentle singing accent. ‘Daddy Al is up, and I am always up. Now Mariska gets up.'” — James Patrick Kelly, “Going Deep”

“I remember the night I became a goddess.” — Ian McDonald, “The Little Goddess”

“Memory is a strange thing. I haven’t changed my sex in eighty three years.” — Vandana Singh, “Oblivion: A Journey”

“There is a magic shore where children used to beach their coracles every night.” — Sarah Rees Brennan, “The Spy Who Never Grew Up”

Link to the rest at io9

Cutting to the Heart of Your Story

27 October 2014

From Dave Farland:

Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”

I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.

Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.

The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.

. . . .

1) Do your characters do anything, or do they just think? Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.

. . . .

3) Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes. Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.

 

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

The Trouble with Writing

27 October 2014

From The Millions:

The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day.

. . . .

2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?”

I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off.

I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities.

I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out.

You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could.

3. It Never Gets Easier

The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.

The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.

. . . .

6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride

I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days.

One psychologist asked why I had quit writing.

I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write.

The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that–that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.”

. . . .

Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist.

Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.)

The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair.

As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Here’s a link to Michelle Huneven’s books

5 Biggest Mistakes When Writing Mental Illness

23 October 2014

From author, doctor and soon-to-be psychiatrist Rosie Claverton:

Madness in fiction, like most things in fiction, reflects and informs the popular view. If we write about terrifying, violent mad folk running about with machetes in our films, books and TV shows, the general public nod at how much that confirms their view of madness and cross the street when they see someone out of the ordinary. Or worse. Much worse.

At the bare minimum, we should get the facts right. Here are my Top 5 mental health myths in fiction that need to be kicked to the kerb.

1) Straitjackets and padded cells are not standard issue

Let’s start with straitjackets. We do not use straitjackets in mental health in the UK. They are cruel and dangerous. Short-term physical restraint is used during a psychiatric emergency and it is tightly-regulated, with training and a mountain of paperwork. If your character is spending time in a mental health unit, they will not see a straitjacket.

A bedroom in a modern mental health unit has more in common with a room in university halls than it does a padded cell.There are certain things which distinguish them – the furniture is usually heavy and secured to the walls or floor, and you won’t find hooks, nails, curtain rails or door handles, because we are safety conscious.

The Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), where the most unwell people stay, has a step up in safety features – most notably, a seclusion or low stimulation room. This small room has furniture made of the soft squishy blocks you might see in a children’s play area. The walls, however, are just walls.

Padded rooms do still exist in some facilities. They are for short durations where a person is unwell and very rarely a permanent residence. If your character is spending a week in a mental health unit for depression, they are really unlikely to see one.

. . . .

4) OCD is not about being a neat freak

My husband has OCD. When I mention this to people, I sometimes get the response “your house must be so clean!” Wrong, on so many levels.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves intrusive, unpleasant, horrific thoughts (obsessions) and the felt-necessary rituals to attempt to undo, remove or counteract the thoughts (compulsions). Cleaning, ordering and symmetry can all be compulsions, but they are almost always related to an intrusive thought – for example, “if I don’t wipe the table seven times, my children will die from ebola”.

Not “I like a clean house because I hate clutter”. Or the recent nonsensical trend in dousing children in alcohol gel (hint: it does fuck-all – let them develop an immune system).

And sometimes OCD has absolutely nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes it’s about checking the door is locked 99 times. Or repeatedly driving the same piece of road to make sure you didn’t hit anyone. Or repeating The Lord’s Prayer over and over again to protect your wife from being raped by a stranger.

It’s not about a bit of spit and polish.

Link to the rest at Swords and Lattes and thanks to Jayne for the tip.

Here’s a link to Rosie Claverton’s books

War on #amwriting

22 October 2014

From Medium:

Writing is like asthma. It used to be cool to be prescribed a blue inhaler and get excused cross-country running. Now, the only exceptional kids are those with fully operational lungs.

I realised the full extent of my hatred for unpublished novelists during an evening of drinking craft beer with a friend. It’s something I like to do, drinking beer, often also tweeting #amdrinking to let my thousands of Twitter followers know that I’m drinking beer because that’s how Twitter works. We wore plaid shirts and talked about craft beer, craft coffee and vinyl. And, after I’d returned from the toilet, he revealed that he wanted to quit being a lumberjack (or whatever it is that he does – facetiming Japanese businessmen) to write a novel. It would be a novel easily translated to cinema, he said. It would be a novel about his boyhood and the middle-class struggles he faced. We’ve all got one in us, he said, meaning a novel. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, he said, apart from the bit about Switzerland and cuckoo-clocks. That was Orson Welles.

I knew all this. And I told him so. But what I didn’t tell him was that there’s lots of stuff we all have in us, a spleen for example, but decide not to share. I didn’t say that. I only said that his book sounded ‘neat’.

This casual plan for a future novel-writing is indicative of the literary world’s failing health. We must wake to this imminent danger. Soon, more people will write fiction than read it. Much like my parents’ inevitable adoption of Facebook, I dread the day Dad announces he’s writing a novel set in an alternative reality where the Nazis won after all. I’d rather bring up my son in the Third Reich than a world in which nobody reads fiction but everybody writes it.

The internet has mutated reasonable people into wannabe writers. Starting a novel is the middle-class equivalent of getting a fake tan and manicure, sure that you’re only an audition away from pop chart success. I blame JK Rowling, rich beyond our wildest dreams, her origin myth reliant on the image of a knackered Dell laptop in an Edinburgh cafe. It’s like the X Men but if the X Men had convinced themselves of their mutant powers through overuse of the #amxmen hashtag, rather than concrete proof of superhuman ability. We are blind to the harsh truth-light-radiating facts such as ‘half of self-published authors earn less than $500’, facts written about in newspapers by professional writers.

NaNoWriMo’s got a lot to answer for. In 2012, the website says, ‘341,375 participants started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.’ That figure is coming up to 10% of total local election votes cast in the UK’s 2012 local elections. That’s a political party of novelists, if you concede that writing a novel makes you a novelist.

. . . .

NaNoWriMo must be the worst thing that’s happened to literary agents since alcoholic lunches fell out of fashion.

. . . .

Don’t call yourself a novelist unless you’re paid to write novels. You take your clothes off every day but you don’t introduce yourself to strangers as a stripper, right?

Link to the rest at Medium and thanks to Ben for the tip.

Signing a Publishing Contract

11 October 2014

What to Do Before Signing a Publishing Contract

Column by Brandon Tietz at LitReactor

Writing a novel is damn hard. Selling one to a publisher, in its own distinct way, is even more difficult because you’re essentially convincing a company to gamble on you and your work. This is part of the reason self-publishing is booming right now. Searching for a publisher is both a hassle and a blizzard of heartbreaking rejection, so when you actually do get an offer, it’s a huge moment. So euphoric that emotion can often blind the writer to those important details on what’s on the actual contract. It amazes me how many authors took their time working on their novels only to sign a contract after skimming it once. It’s not an iTunes update, guys…read the damn thing. Here are some key things you should know before signing on the dotted line.

Who Are These People?

I will go on record and say that I have scared away authors from a publisher I went through because it was a sub-par experience. They’re out of business now, if that tells you anything. What I’m saying though is that you should know the publisher before you sign any sort of contract that binds you to them. Now I don’t recommend asking authors whether they do or don’t like the publisher while you’re querying, but after you get the offer, feel free to reach out and get a feel for how they’re handling their business. Unhappy authors are usually a good indicator that you should tread lightly.

****

Conclusion

Don’t be blinded by your contract. Signing a bad one can be the thing that ends up screwing you over for the life of the novel. Do your research, ask questions, and for the love of God, don’t be afraid to ask for changes if you don’t like something. If three author copies sound low—ask for more. If you don’t want your book assigned to a certain designer—ask for an alternative. A contract is an agreement between two parties…not one party telling the other how it’s going to be.

Read the rest here.

From guest blogger Randall

Creating Characters and Grading Research Papers

11 October 2014

 

From Roger Colby at Writing is Hard Work

This week has been hectic.

The 11th grade research paper was due and I have been in the middle of grading them. Such is my life.
However, in the midst of this, I have been thinking about what makes excellent characterization as I construct my newest character driven novel series.

In Orson Scott Card’s book Character and Viewpoint, he states that when creating characters, writers must ask three questions: “Who?” “So What?” and “Huh?”

What Scott Card means by this is that we first must answer who the character is, why the reader should care about the character and then finally the writer must remove all doubt about whether or not the reader should follow this character throughout the writer’s narrative.

****

I put together a few tips of my own that will address Scott Card’s questions concerning crafting characters, and I hope they help you as well:

Real World Avatar –

I found a neat little feature on Scrivener used for character creation that allows me to insert a picture of my character in order to reference that particular character. This has allowed me to peruse Google images for an actor or actress or even concept art (for aliens) that would be a visual representation of the character I am creating. For my main character I envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch (if my book were a film) and so I inserted a picture of that actor on the character biography page. This helps me answer the “who” because my main character (if my book were a movie) would be played by Benedict as my first choice.

****
Curious Development –

The character must have something happen internally to them in the plot that drives us to follow them to the end of the novel. If we do not create these curious developments we will find our readers leaving half-way through the novel to find something else to do. This requires us to create some kind of secret about the character that is only hinted at throughout the core of the plot and then revealed later. This element needs to be a mind-blower, something that probably might be out of character for them, but not enough that it defies logic. Life itself is not logical at times, and if we can translate that to text, we’ve done our job as novelists.

Well, now that I’ve shot out these few tips for the week, it’s off to grading the rest of the research papers. I only have seven left.

Cheers!

Read the rest here.

From Guest Blogger Randall

6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters

28 September 2014

From Writeonsisters.com:

I’m sure most writers know how to craft a major character; they understand the importance of their leads and that they should occupy the most page space. Yet every story needs supporting characters. Today, it’s all about the minor players, those characters we see briefly and yet are so well written they’ll stick with us.

. . . .

Give them a reason for being there. I know it’s tempting to flood your pages with all the colorful characters your mind can dream up, but if characters have no role to play in the plot, they need to go. Remember it can be a small part, or even an addition to the subplot, but they should serve a purpose.

. . . .

Tie them to a fixed place or single role. Context helps readers keep characters straight. If you confine the minor character to a single location or the same job the reader is more likely to remember them. Keep that helpful teacher at school, or make confusion over seeing the teacher in a new context part of the exchange.

. . . .

Although great minor characters help every book, in series books they become an even bigger asset. Put simply, minor characters make your world building feel real.

Link to the rest at From Writeonsisters.com

The Source of Bad Writing

27 September 2014

From The Wall Street Journal:

Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?

The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.

. . . .

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. In the textbook experiment, a child comes into the lab, opens an M&M box and is surprised to find pencils in it. Not only does the child think that another child entering the lab will somehow know it contains pencils, but the child will say that he himself knew it contained pencils all along!

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

. . . .

There’s an old saying that for the want of a nail the battle was lost, and the same is true for the want of an adjective: the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War is only the most famous example of a military disaster caused by vague orders. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 has been attributed to poor wording (operators misinterpreted the label on a warning light), as have many deadly plane crashes. The visually confusing “butterfly ballot” given to Palm Beach voters in the 2000 presidential election led many supporters of Al Gore to vote for the wrong candidate, which may have swung the election to George W. Bush, changing the course of history.

. . . .

A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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