Late-Week Motivation

chromatictypewriter

Being a great writer isn’t easy.  Nobody, except our ten-year-old selves, ever said it was.

Improving our writing is something a lot of us work on all the time, and it’s something that I think comes in two parts.  Two parts that I’ve written about before, and will write about again.  Two parts called study and practice, thought and application, reading and writing.  The two sides of a two-sided coin (as opposed to those three-sided coins, you know?).

The Tails side of the coin is important.  It’s about learning all of the things that would have taken several years to figure out on our own, plus all of the things we might never have figured out at all.  It’s insight and tips about the parts of writing we can imagine (plotting, characterization, prose, themes, techniques), as well as the parts we never even knew existed.  A few of those tips have even made their way onto this blog.  Reading books on writing like The Fire in Fiction and The First Five Pages, reading regular books, for fun or with a fine eye, and being on WordPress all fall on the Tails side of the coin.

But the Heads side needs time too.  Today is Thursday, it’s been a long week, and it’s almost the weekend.  It’s as good a time as any to close out Chrome or Firefox (or Safari or Internet Explorer for you less browser adept people out there) and sit at a desk or table.  Maybe make a cup of coffee and turn on a little music.  As good a time as any to do some serious work.  To write 1,000 words.  Not just any thousand, though.  Write a thousand words that you’ve really worked at.  Keep in mind three or four things you’ve learned about writing in the past couple of weeks and try to use them.  Don’t be clunky or force it, but don’t be mindless either.  Write until you’re finished, then sit back and feel accomplished.  Going into the weekend with that feeling will make the whole week a success. 

Because at some point we all have to stop searching for inspiration and realize that if we put in the work, we’ll get to where we want to go.  This is something that’s hard to remember when one success is the accumulation of a thousand days of effort.  It’s even harder when you’re right in the middle of your journey and stuck at day 500.  But if day 501 doesn’t happen, day 1,000 will never come. 

Happy writing.

What’s Missing From The Forest?

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Comparison: In writing – an analogy, simile, or metaphor.

“The trees were tall and dark, covered with twisting branches that reached for the dirt floor below.  A hundred shadows danced and shifted in the underbrush that marked both edges the path.  The air was warm and smelled heavy, like a spring night just before a storm.  Overhead, black leaves formed a canopy that blocked out all of the moonlight that found its way through the clouds.  Thick roots underfoot promised twisted ankles and bloody knees.  It was easy to get lost because there were no signs.”

What’s missing from the forest?  What do you think?  I described it, but did it resonate with you?  Can you picture it?  Do you even remember the details you read about the forest?  No?  Let’s try again.

“The trees were tall and dark, covered with twisting branches that reached for the dirt floor below.  A hundred shadows danced and shifted in the underbrush that marked both edges of the path, and thick roots underfoot promised twisted ankles and bloody knees. 

The forest was a nightmare.”

The description is the same, reworded a little bit, and I cut most of it.  But even though there’s less concrete physical description in the second one, I can picture it more clearly.  It resonates with me on something more than an intellectual level.  It’s anchored in my brain as a sense of the forest, of what it’s like to be among the trees, rather than an impersonal understanding of what might literally be in the forest.  I could even cut the first two sentences if I really wanted to, because they don’t necessarily stay with me as I read on.

‘The forest was a nightmare’ isn’t original, or particularly imaginative (and neither are either of the paragraphs for that matter), but it still does the trick.  It’s an example of what comparison can add to your descriptions.  

It’s also an example of what comparison can help you cut from your descriptions.  If you use comparison correctly, it allows you to cut a huge amount of extra words and sentences, all the while helping you paint an even more vivid picture.  I know that some people might prefer the first paragraph, and if you do just imagine adding the comparison to the end of that one.  Think about how that changes it.

Have you ever read a book that you thought was great, but just didn’t connect with?  A book that didn’t make you feel like you were a part of its world, didn’t make you feel like you could truly see everything that was happening?  A manuscript lacking in comparison often goes through your head just fine.  What it doesn’t do is go through your heart or your gut.

As a disclaimer: Comparison also slows a reader down, makes him or her think, and brings attention to your words.  Be mindful of where and how often you use it.

“Write smoothly.  Write quickly sometimes, slowly others, and on occasion somewhere in between.  Always move forward, even if you’re taking a bit of a winding route.  Write with good description on either side, but make sure you’re always driving towards the end.

Write like a river.”

The first part describes the way you should write.  But do you connect with it, let alone remember it after you’ve read it?  Not really.  If you ask me I’d say that it’s the comparison at the end, ‘Write like a river,’ that drives it home.

You can also use comparison to paint a better picture of a person – not just how they look, but how they act.  In Noah Lukeman’s ‘The First Five Pages,’ he uses this example: “I’m suspicious and easily offended, like a hunchback.”  What does it mean if you’re suspicious and easily offended?  Plenty of people are.  That description goes in one ear and out the other (or in both eyes and out..whatever, your nose or something).  But being suspicious and easily offended, like a hunchback, brings a whole new meaning to the words because we understand the difficulties that hunchbacks must face, how their whole lives and the way people treat them can make them suspicious and easily offended.  The comparison is powerful.

We’re all unique, and we can all make comparisons that other people would never think of.  We can all be amazingly creative.  Take time to develop that skill and it will add something intangible to your stories, something that a lot of writers, even published ones, are missing.  Don’t find what’s missing from the forest, find what’s missing from your forest.

We write about dark alleys, sweeping vistas, bottomless oceans, forests, fields, cities, a back porch with a worn and comfortable rocking chair, a dirt road overgrown with weeds and flowers – but no matter what we write about, we all have the same responsibility.  We all have to make our world come alive.  Comparison is like music during an emotional scene in a movie – it turns the words in your head into feelings in your heart.  Try using it consciously and see what happens.

What do you think?  How do you feel about comparison?  Do you think it’s just a nice way to describe, or do you think it’s a powerful tool to bring your words to life?  Just for fun, what is your favorite example of comparison?

Sundays in the Fall

Fall

It’s almost the middle of September, and for a lot of us that doesn’t mean very much.  The weather is cooling off, there are a ton of holidays coming up, football is back, and for the most part our jobs and lives go on as usual.  Soon the leaves will change colors, and halfway home from work you’ll look out the window and imagine yourself sitting in the backyard on a cool afternoon, writing and sipping warm coffee.  The world is a riot of color and you’re inspired.  Unfortunately, many of us are often tired, or burned out from a week of work, and writing amidst the tumbling leaves will turn into watching Netflix amidst the tumbling couch pillows (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it?).

But today is Sunday, and for those of us having trouble writing, or telling ourselves that we’re really busy right now and will have more free time in the future, today can and should be a day to get a lot done.  Even if you’re already in a good routine, Sunday is a great day to write.  Writing makes a lot of us feel good, and going into the week after having a productive day makes a huge difference.  I hope everyone gets a lot done today.  I know I will.

I wanted to take a few lines to check in with everyone.  Many of you have been here for a long time and I could not appreciate that more.  It means a lot to me, and not just in the casual overused-phrase way.  Having everyone on this blog makes me really happy, which translates directly into more motivation and better writing.  So thank you.

How is everyone’s September going?  Do you like Fall?  Any big plans over the next couple of months?  How are you doing with your writing?  What projects are you working on and how are they going?

How to Write Well

River

Do you want to know what happens next?  Do you love looking up from a book and realizing you’re one hundred pages in and haven’t blinked?  Holy shit, is it tomorrow already?

Here is the fifth and final post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better.

Today’s topic is Fast Flowing Writing.

I don’t think this will come as a shock to you, but I read books because I love stories. 

I love words and good writing too, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t love them when they stand between me and the next part of the story.  I think that oftentimes authors get so carried away with crafting beautiful prose that they forget why readers are there in the first place.

To get the right balance of fast flowing words and enough description is like walking a fine line stretched between two buildings (a tight rope…get it?).  All the classic advice is important to listen to: make every word count, revision = first draft minus 10%, watch your use of adjectives and adverbs (if you find yourself using them too much you probably need a stronger verb/noun/comparison – think run fast vs. sprint, he was a really big guy vs. he was a bear).  But there’s a difference between bare bones prose and a fast read.  They’re both the same length, but one is missing something.

I’m not a huge fan of the descriptions ‘tight prose’ or ‘tight writing.’  The meaning behind the phrase is true, but the word ‘tight’ to describe writing just doesn’t work. 

Good writing is writing that is fast flowing.  Like a river (I just came up with that on my own).  Some writing can be like a creek, or like a lake.  Some can be like a waterfall.  Creeks and lakes are beautiful, but slow – more fit for a leisurely float than a joyride.  And waterfalls are more fun than creeks or lakes, but they move pretty damn fast and you’re going to miss a lot on your way down. 

Rivers are great, though.  They have rapids that will make your heart race, beautiful scenes on either side, every once in a while a tributary will speed them up (side plot or converging characters, maybe?), and no matter what, even while you’re admiring the view, you’re still being swept forward.  So take out the extra words and sentences and make sure you’re moving.  If there are 9 sentences in your paragraph you can probably improve it by taking one out and making it 8.  Turn a creek into a river, but be careful you don’t take it too fast or you’ll drop over the edge and miss something while you fall.

And that’s why you should write well, but not necessarily tightly.  To me ‘tightly’ implies a lack of beauty, and just because your writing flows fast doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.

So write like a river.  And remember: I just made that analogy up on my own, nobody else has ever said it before, and you heard it here first.

Disclaimer: Some people prefer long, meandering prose, and it definitely has a place in certain books.  Just make sure you understand both sides of the story.

How do you prefer to write?  Fast-paced?  Long descriptions?  Somewhere in between?  A word at a time during commercial breaks?

The Truth About Backstory

Do you know what your one defining moment was?  Do you even have just one?  How old were you when you figured out what you wanted to do with your life?  Do you even know what you want to do with your life?  Do you remember what you did in kindergarten? I know that I don’t.  Probably picked my nose and knocked a ton of shit over.

My point is that all of our pasts have holes in them.  Lots of blank stares, raised eyebrows, and shoulder shrugs.  Probably a lot of made up stuff too.

So here is the fourth post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better. 

Today’s topic is Leaving Holes in a Backstory, alternately known as We Don’t Care About That.

First and foremost, avoid the info dump.  It’s slightly useful, but unbelievably boring information.  And no, we aren’t fooled because you put quotations around it.  It’s been said a million…now a million and one times and it’s just as true as the first time it was said.

I don’t know about you all, but I love the mystery of an awesome character’s past.  A huge driver for pushing through eight more chapters at four in the morning is to find out what Really (capital R) happened all those days or years ago (this is actually the premise of a ton of books, right?).

And just like you or me, a character doesn’t have ten pages of records describing all the important parts of their life.  A reader can pick up a hint here, a line there, a thought back behind them, and piece it together themselves.  It’s much more satisfying that way, and it’s much more interesting.  Don’t relinquish your hold on a character’s backstory just to make the reader like them from the beginning.  

As an extreme, boring, and one-dimensional example: What is more interesting? A detective whose wife was murdered three years ago goes on a rampage of revenge against a man who kills his friend’s wife? Or, a detective (whom we like and cheer for because of who he is) goes on a rampage of revenge against a man who kills his friend’s wife, and towards the end of the book we find out what we’ve slowly come to expect – that his own wife was murdered six years ago.

And don’t forget to leave holes.  If I’ve met you the chances are that I don’t know the name of your childhood pet or the name of your high school, and I certainly don’t care to learn those things about your protagonist (unless, you know, it’s super relevant and you can disregard everything I just said).

So be mindful of how you reveal your character’s past.  Depending on how you do it, it can be one of the biggest and most powerful drivers of your book.

Seriously, though, what did everyone do in kindergarten? I think I mostly napped and had snack time, something wasted on five and six years olds when there are poor high schoolers (read: working adults) out there falling asleep at their desks.

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(Way to avoid info dump bro)

Messages and Questions

What are you trying to tell the readers of your stories?  What are you trying to ask them?

There are plenty of answers to these two questions, but up until a couple of years ago I never had a good one, no matter what I was writing.  It always ended up being something along the lines of, ‘I’m trying to tell them a good, entertaining story.’  That isn’t enough.  

Sure, a good and entertaining story is more important than a message or question, but it’s important to have both.  And before you object to this, understand that I don’t mean you should force a message or question down your readers’ throats.  That’s worse than having no message at all.

Still, don’t underestimate the importance of having a clear message or question in your book.  If you can figure out what it might be before you start writing, or after you have a clear idea where you’re going, it’ll bring a cohesiveness and sense of meaning to your story that might have been lacking before.  And don’t feel the need to find places to add this into your writing (themes are undertones, not focal points) – if you have the answer in your head while you work it’ll come out naturally.

Don’t just answer it in your head, write it out.  See what happens.

Happy Labor Day.