Tag: Craft

Blog Re-Cast: Is Talent Overrated?

I will state this now, I am not a talented writer. I am a skilled one. My first few stories blew as many chucks as the next writer’s. I listened, studied and learned, and I still have more ways to go. For me, the first step in becoming a success at any endeavor is knowing and understanding what you don’t know. For more I suggest you read this great post from Anne R. Allen’s Blog – Is Talent Overrated? 8 Things That Are More Important Than Talent for Writing Success.

The Best Advice I Had Not Heard Yet

interesting artI sometimes surprise myself when I come across great advice from the most unlikely of sources. Case in point, while watching one of my favorite video game reviewers, Zero Punctuation,  I came across this little gem of writing advice.

“Is this the most interesting period of your character’s life and if not why aren’t you showing us that?”

Now let that sink in a little bit and if you have heard it before kudos for you. I had never heard it, but now that I have I feel silly that I hadn’t come upon it in my own way. I know as a writer I can get bogged down in trying to convey to my reader all the machinations that went on in my heard to get my characters to this point. This information can be useful, even necessary at some times but it should not come at the expense of keeping the readers’ interest meter in the red. The good news is as the writer if these periods aren’t the most interesting I can certainly make them that way. Details are not interesting. Characters and events are. A simple rule and a helpful one to keep on an index card by your computer monitor.

This also leads me to the use of prologues. A couple of my novels (currently shelved ones if that says anything) do make use of prologues, but I find myself drifting away from them. Think of it like this. How would you feel if your significant other came home from work one day and said? “I have the most interesting story about something that happened at work today, but before that, let me tell you how I got the job in the first place.” Kind of a buzz kill ain’t it. Before the comments section fills with angry protests on the right to prologue existence there are times when the prologue can be a very effective tool and fundamental part of the work, but it must be interesting. That is after all the message of that little gem of advice above.

What Writers Do

The other day my mind was wondering and I started thinking on how I would answer the question, what does a writer do that allows him or her to create such interesting works. I had to think about this a bit. All people have imaginations. All people grew up playing with action figures or dolls, imagining what it is like to walk across the moon or the concert stage. Even as adults people imagine what it would be like to get a bonus at work or hit the power-ball. The guy in the club imagines what he would say to the attractive girl across the bar. The woman at the bar imagines what she would say to the handsome guy should he come over. All this imagining, all these creative lines of thought are not too dissimilar from what writers do.

That is not to make writing sound easy. It isn’t. A writer just invest time and energy exploring thier craft. What I mean by craft is the act of putting words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs and paragraphs to pages. The rules aren’t so much rights or wrongs but goods and betters. I don’t think there isn’t a writer alive who at one point wished it was as simple as right and wrong. What the writer must concern himself or herself with is the way one word flows to the next. It is more than just relaying the story to the reader. You have to get the story into the reader’s mind despite the words. Attention to the craft of writing is what makes this possible. A successful writer is so comfortable in thier craft the writing never gets in the way of the story. That is the goal and that is what writers do.

Bending Time

I was reading and enjoying Melissa Marr’s spooky novel Graveminder when I came across several flashbacks. I had an idea that these events were in the past but to help that along the author chose to set them off by using italics. I have I already posted in here about my dislike of the overuse of italics in recent works. Well, I really did not enjoy reading 4 pages of italics. Flashbacks I like. They provide back-story and context for our characters in a way straight narrative sometimes cannot. I just do not want to have to read four pages of italics. I am enjoying the book so far and think the writer is more than capable of indicating to the reader that the next part is something that happened in the past. So I am hoping the italics thing was just an experiment.

It did get me thinking about how many ways there are to set off flashbacks. I don’t like to think of any technique in writing as wrong or right but for flashbacks I have come across one way that pretty much works all the time. Basically it involves the use of three, “had,” verbs. The technical term is the past perfect form of the verb. You use two to start the flashback, sending the reader back in time. The third one is used at the end of the flashback to pull the reader back into the present time. Like so.

Marc paused. He knew what he wanted to do, what he could do, but not what he should do. Flynn told him about the buckling in the hull a week ago. He had made his first mistake as commander then. He had looked into her eyes and saw fear. “What do you want me to do?”
I’m sorry but you are supposed to know what to do, you wear the gold bars on your sleeve.”
“I just can’t take a whole deck off line. That’s home to our most expensive suites, all the big wigs stay on that deck.”
“Inconvenience them or expose them to space. It’s still your call.” The way Flynn had said it left little room for debate.

Simple and direct with just a few extra words. To me, this is just a more natural way to read. That is not to say the italics would not work.

Marc paused. He knew what he wanted to do, what he could do, but not what he should do. Flynn told him about the buckling in the hull a week ago.
“What do you want me to do?”
I’m sorry but you are supposed to know what to do, you wear the gold bars on your sleeve.”
“I just can’t take a whole deck off line. That’s home to our most expensive suites, all the big wigs stay on that deck.”
“Inconvenience them or expose them to space. It’s still your call.” The way Flynn had said it left little room for debate.

Like I said it isn’t necessarily wrong. I don’t like it. I hate the thought that writers have come to use typesetting instead of writing to tell their stories now. If you have any thoughts let me know in the comment section. Is this a coming trend that I should just get used to? Do we as writers have a responsibility to maintain a certain integrity and level of craft at the risk of being old fashioned? And do pick up Graveminder it is an awesome story with great characters.

Tips for Surprising Your Readers

IMG_20130607_123445When I read, I envision each sentence as a path carved out by the author. The path twists and turns and along the way I encounter different sights, sounds, emotions, actions. I stay on the path until I reach the end of the story, which usually coincides with the end of the path. This is not too different from hiking along a path in the woods. Sure you are moving from point A to B but reaching that point is not really the goal. Reading, much like that hike in the woods, is not just about finishing the book. It is the journey that is the entertaining part.

As you read the path can be straight, curved, hilly or any combination. My favorite is when the path has not a neat twist so much as an interesting bump or wrinkle in it, something that makes me stop and examine it closer. Those are the surprises I like the best and I try to use in my own writing. Here are just a few of my favorites. Sure you plot could be full of surprises, in some genres it better be, but it’s the embedded surprises in your writing that will catch most of your readers. Here are some of my favorites.

Alliteration. Often when reading I pay attention to each word. In English we have some many words that mean the same thing so why an author chose a particular word is something that fascinates me. Simply put alliteration is the repetition of certain sounds in words. Alliteration is not as big a fixture in modern literature as it once was. Still I think it can, when used sparingly, surprise and delight the reader. Think about this, would you set foot in a tomb that, reeked of death, decomposition and decay? Granted those words all convey essentially the same thought but when put all together they give the description an emphasis any one alone would lack. Remember, like cooking with chili pepper, a little will do wonders but a lot will cost you friends and readers.

Synesthesia. Can you taste the color blue? What about a ring that sparkles so brilliantly it makes your ears ring in sympathy? Synesthesia is the impact of one sensory input being experienced by another. This is one of my favorite ways to surprise the reader and in turn to be surprised when reading. I love descriptions that go beyond words to actually bring me back to sensations from my memories. To do that you should try to avoid descriptions that treat senses individually. When you are at the movies the sight and sounds of an explosion hit you at the same time. There is no reason not to make use of a similar technique in your writing.

Meter. Poetry is distinct from prose in many way, one identifiable way is the use of meter in each line to develop a rhythmic motif. Now unless you are writing a children’s book you may not have given thought to the rhythmic flow of your sentences. But every once in a while it is good to use a sentence that stands out  from the ones around it, either by sight or sound. I am one of those readers who hears the words in my head when I read them so I am often keenly aware of meter even in prose. I trust others are too.

If you aren’t already, try slipping one of these into your writing and see what kind of reactions you get. You may be surprised.

Great Time at the Avondale Writers’ Conference

This past weekend I took part in the 3rd Avondale Writers’ Conference. I had the privilege of attending as both speaker and attendee. The air had a definite buzz. It was great to see so many talented people, so passionate about their craft. The sessions were all well attended. For my session, I had some 25 attendees and an interesting discussion on effective use of point of view. I especially enjoyed Ann Goldfarb’s session on Recognizing and Developing Mood in Writing. I picked up some very good tips there. I want to give a big thank you to the conference organizers, (too many to name but check them out here), and everyone involved in making it such a great event. I already have it on my radar for next year.

I think the real benefit of a writers’ conference comes when you step outside of your head and really listen to the other writers and speakers. Too often we can crawl into a shell of what we think we need to know or do to further our writing. Some of us may read book after book on a being successful writer. Others may hop from conference to conference searching for that golden ticket to the best seller list. Still others hunker down and defy the world to ignore their fresh take. Anyone would tell you the best advice is the advice that works. The only thing in your control is listening to all the advice you can. I am not a big fan of the industry that has cropped up around producing writing success, that includes the books, magazines, pay to enter contests and, yes, conferences, yet I suspect at some point the developing writer will distill it all down to that special elixir that will work for him or her. So my advice, keep reading, keep learning, keep your ego in check and keep writing.

“Rules? They’re More Like Guidelines”

I wanted to share with you a couple of links to blogs that have featured two different posts on writing rules. Speaking for myself, I have followed, broken and even forged a few of my own rules. Is there a rule for every situation? Is there a list of all the rules you will ever need to know? Is posting a string of questions as annoying to read as it is to write? We may never know. Still when it comes to writing there are certain accepted practices that any writer would be well advised to adhere to. Then there are the things that just seem archaic and out of place. Yet, since we have no way of knowing our readers expectations when it comes to what they will accept as, “good,” writing we owe it to ourselves not to stray too far from the trusted path. That is where the rules come in, but maybe it is better to treat them more like guidelines.

Kurt Vonneguts Tips for Writing Fiction/ Courtesy of Michael Bradly via Michael Bradley Time Traveler.com

The Writing Rules/ Courtesy of Rachelle Gardner via Rachelle Gardner.com

Italics Are Not Your Friend

I have begun to notice the over use of italics in fiction. It’s always bugged me but lately it seems to be on the rise. So I am going to say it now and you are free to disagree. New writers, if your “literary style,” involves italics as a means to show what your characters are really thinking get a new, “style.” Better yet read a few more books on writing.

Italics can be used effectively. In cases where something is being read by a character in the story or they are listening to a recorded message, italics can set this apart from the rest of the text and call attention to it. Another good use for italics is when you have a word in dialogue that needs that extra bit of emphasis.

If that is not the case it is just sloppy writing. The writer is using format to do the work that they should be doing. Would you let a pencil sketch in the margin replace your description of a character? I guess if it is a graphic novel or a picture book, but that is not what I am reading. To demonstrate this, I came up with a couple of examples to show how italics are a crutch, and a wobbly one at that. Mind you they were created to exaggerate my point so take with a large grain of salt.

As I headed to the cafeteria, Morgan passed me in the hall. Her long black hair shone even in the florescent lights and her tight navy blue skirt hugged her hips. What I wouldn’t do to put my arms around those hips. She stopped, turned around to look at me and took a couple steps closer. This was it.

“Great job on figuring out that numbers error. That could have set the whole project back weeks.”

“Thanks, just part of my job.” Would this be a bad time to ask you to marry me?

Morgan nodded, turned around and continued on her way. Another golden opportunity squandered. Great job idiot.

Here is it without the italics.

As I headed to the cafeteria, Morgan passed me in the hall. Her long black hair shone even in the florescent lights and her tight navy blue skirt hugged her hips. The city is full of stories of unrequited love; this one is no different. Still, a guy can hope and dream, right? What I wouldn’t do to put my arms around those hips. She stopped and turned around to look at me. I looked up at her and our eyes met. The world moved us closer together.

“Great job on figuring out that numbers error. That could have set the whole project back weeks.”

“Thanks, just part of my job.” The corners of my mouth turned towards the ceiling. She looked at me and I at her. I could see her in a white dress and veil and me in a tux standing on a beach somewhere in Hawaii. I longed for the words, “I do.” Did that just come out of my mouth? Morgan stood there silent and just  a little confused. “I do that as part of my job, I meant to say, you know error checking.”

Morgan nodded, turned around and continued on her way. Another golden opportunity squandered. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and headed back to my desk. For whatever reason I wasn’t hungry any more.

I would much rather read the latter than the former. So remember if you have something you need to convey nothing does it better than plain black marks on white paper or screens.