Tag Archives: writing advice

NaNoWriMo: Nine, Ten, a Big Fat Hen

9 Nov

Still haven’t broken the 7k word mark.

Flippin’ flappin’ laptop. I need some smelling salts for the dadburned thing.

I am itching to rewrite many of those 7k words, realizing that my MC isn’t driving the action so much as going along for the ride. I have a good idea how to do it. But it’s Day Nine. I don’t think I should be going back at this point.

Anyway, a more helpful bit for my writer-readers (I hope)…

I read a great writing “rule” this week. More of a storytelling tip, but an important one.

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder talks about Act I being the Thesis (The Before picture), Act II being Anthithesis (Act I turned on its head), and Act III being Synthesis (getting chocolate in your peanut butter*). I’ve had a loose grip on the concept for a while, but it wasn’t until I read about Goldilocks on Wikipedia that I found a simple, concrete way of thinking about it.

Author Christopher Booker characterizes [the story] as the “dialectical three”, where “the first is wrong in one way, the second in another or opposite way, and only the third, in the middle, is just right.” Booker continues “This idea that the way forward lies in finding an exact middle path between opposites is of extraordinary importance in storytelling”.

I now have a simple test to apply to my manuscripts and a simple way of planning the basic flavor of each act in new stories. Act One is too hot/tall/hard. Act Two is too cold/low/soft. Act Three is where the characters mix elements of I and II to obtain the solution that makes everything just right. **

Also from Save the Cat is the notion that the hero and antagonist are often just opposite sides of the same coin. Two lawyers with different ethics in Pretty Woman. Batman and The Joker. Luke and Anakin. Etc. Helps me think about my characters and makes sure that one side of the coin isn’t out of proportion — they should be very nearly matched in scale and strength (whether they realize it or start out that way or not).

NPR is going to announce the winner of the Three-Minute-Fiction competition this weekend. I have no right to be nervous — implies I think I have a chance of winning — but I’m still a fidgety mess.

*My son is allergic to peanuts. I shuddered just typing the word. Used to love the stuff, but now it represents poison to me. So I guess, in my world,  my analogy only works if the MC’s solution is to poison the bad guys. 😉

** I was watching Fairly Oddparents with my son the other day and laughed to recognize the above structure in the 20 minute episode.

Timmy’s fairy godparents have a baby, and so they decide to “babyproof” all his wishes, making them all safe and soft. Timmy, as any normal kid would, feels frustrated, insulted. In the catalyst scene, he discovers there’s a clause in the fairy godparent contract where he can request a temporary fairy godparent if his are not satisfactory. His current godparents advise him not to do it, but he ignores them. We swing into Act II where he’s assigned an uber-macho, vain fairy godfather who is willing to grant all his most exciting and dangerous wishes. And escalate them. Fun and games ensue. Then Timmy starts to feel exhausted and threatened, but his new fairy godfather won’t relent, is only getting more and more violent. Timmy’s not sleeping, is constantly in peril, and can’t see any way out. The temporary contract is for one year or until Timmy explodes, whichever is first. The only way to get out of it is a clause where a kid can fire the temp if he balks at granting enough wishes. But what could possibly upset this new fairy godfather? Act Three begins with him realizing a plan — keep wishing for babyish things to humiliate the uber-macho fairy godfather — bringing Act One and Two together to come up with a solution. After wishing for macho fairy godfather to wear a baby bonnet and diaper on the field of a stadium full of his peers, he succeeds in making his new godfather release him from the contract so that he can return to his former set of fairy godparents.

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Dog Pile on the Slush Pile

29 Jan

I did it.

Earlier this week, I mentioned Nathan Bransford’s 4th Sort-of-Annual Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge. I wasn’t sure I should enter. But then Mr. Bransford posted something along the lines of Eh, Why not? Time’s running out. So I said what the heck. There’s safety in numbers. I joined the throngs in the soon-to-be slush pile. My entry is on this page, tenth from the bottom, I think (#1391). It starts, “Elizabeth fit her feet…”

My paragraph may never be read that deep in the pile, but the challenge is still proving useful. NB suggested his readers go through the entries to learn what works,what doesn’t work, and how the good ones start to stand out after a while. [Article here] Mr. Untitlement and I did just that last night, and doggonnit if NB wasn’t right. I printed the first 200 paragraphs (of more than 1500), and we went through, crossing out the ones that didn’t grab us. In our first sweep, we wound up with only 45 survivors. It was disturbingly fun and educational. You really do start to see patterns after a while.  I’m going to go through those 45 today and see how many I still like.

Meanwhile, I’m sure others are wrinkling their noses at my first paragraph and making big red Xs across it. So be it.

Even if you didn’t enter, I highly recommend taking Mr. Bransford’s advice to read the entries. It’s a true crash course on how to start a book.

Thanks a zillion to everyone who read and commented on my 99th page yesterday. It means a lot to me. If you haven’t read it and commented, then I’m taking my toys and going home consider giving it a look. Thanks again!

Brilliant Writing Advice

2 Jan

Possibly the best list of writing advice I’ve found in my quest for writing excellence. I’d like to turn it into a poster and hang it on my office wall. It was only after studying these rules that I was able to read my own writing without grimacing (or sighing and smiling sadly).

Written by Allan Guthrie.

Hunting Down the Pleonasms

I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.

  1. Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.
  2. Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.
  3. Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won’t say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they’re okay! What’s not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To ‘walk slowly’ is much less effective than to ‘plod’ or ‘trudge’. To ‘connect strongly’ is much less effective than to ‘forge a connection’.
  4. Cut adjectives where possible. See rule 3 (for ‘verb’ read ‘noun’).
  5. Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The ‘big, old’ man walked slowly towards the ‘tall, beautiful’ girl. When I read a sentence like that, I’m hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that’s probably a cue for a ‘noisy, white’ ambulance to arrive. Wailingly, perhaps!
  6. Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.
  7. If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.
  8. Show, don’t tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila’s face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let’s hope so. So cut it. If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!
  9. Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?
  10. Don’t be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named Si Coe.
  11. Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.
  12. Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you’re in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you’re already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren’t necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what’s confusing and what isn’t.
  13. Don’t confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.
  14. Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”
  15. Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.
  16. Start scenes late and leave them early.
  17. When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.
  18. Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.
  19. Don’t allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.
  20. Torture your protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.
  21. Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.
  22. Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make.
  23. Don’t allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.
  24. Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. ‘He felt’, ‘he thought’, ‘he observed’ are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.
  25. Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I’d gone to the hospital. They’d kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I’d seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I’d gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.
  26. When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene and cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.
  27. Don’t plant information. How is Donald, your son? I’m quite sure Donald’s father doesn’t need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.
  28. If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.
  29. Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.
  30. Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.
  31. Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John D. MacDonald put it: “Freeze the action and shoot him later.”
  32. If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.

Found at Absolute Write Water Cooler.