WriteOnCon is Almost Here!

Attention all Writer Friends!

The best news you’ll read today is that WriteOnCon is scheduled for August 26 – 27 = just over a week away!

This is a FREE online Writing Conference that helped me out tremendously last year. Anyone who is working on Anything should check it out. Heck, even if you’re not currently writing, you should still check it out because you’ll find loads of great information and tips! There will be guest speakers (you can watch the videos later if you’re busy during the day) and best of all, you can post your query letter, the first few pages of your story, and more in the forums. After you’ve done that, read what other people have posted, leave comments, and most will return the favor. I got some fantastic feedback last year that catapulted my writing into new areas that have been wickedly fun (so fun that I have completely ignored my blog lately).

Perhaps best of all, several literary agents and editors will be participating, leaving comments, etc.

So polish up whatever you’re working on (it does not have to be a completed manuscript) and get ready to post!

The website is under construction right now, but hopefully it will be up and running anytime. Here is the link: http://writeoncon.com

I hope to read some of your work soon!

-Craig

*Check out my posts about WriteOnCon from last year for a lot more info.

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Importance of Each Word

 

And … I’m back (after an inexcusably long hiatus)!

The following is an amusing +  true story that (spoiler!) demonstrates why word choice is important. Okay. That doesn’t sound like it will be funny, but read on….

I had been wandering through Costa Rica for nearly a month, practicing my Spanish, white-water rafting, touring beaches and rainforests, when I learned an important lesson regarding specificity. So considering I was there to contemplate life’s big questions, a lesson about precision was somewhat ironic. Yes, I was vacationing and having fun, but my ultimate goal was figuring out my future as a college grad entering the work force. And, I’m happy to say, it was on a beautiful mountainside hotel rooftop overlooking the unending Pacific, the glimmering dark water somehow melding into an infinity blanket of stars that reached back over my head, that I decided my role in the universe.

But that’s not the lesson I want to talk about.

About a week prior to my big epiphany, I had a boring yet fascinating conversation with a fellow American tourist. At first, it couldn’t have been more typical . . . except for his reactions to my answers regarding who I was and what I did for a living. His expression became confused, then amazed, and finally horrified.

Anyway, I had told him that after graduating from Sewanee, I moved back in with my parents for several months, working as a substitute teacher by day and as a waiter by night. But when I mentioned that simple, mundane, fact, his brow furrowed.

“Que?” he asked.

The conversation continued in Spanish, but roughly translated, I explained that I “worked with children, teaching them English, writing, or whatever was required, but after dark, I worked long hours, often not finishing until the middle of the night.”

“And then you taught children the morning after?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I was exhausted, but it was fun. And I was making a lot of money.”

“As a waiter?”

“Yeah. People liked me and I made big tips. I had several ‘regulars.’”

He shuffled a little farther away and sized me up, as though inspecting a potentially poisonous snake.

I didn’t know what his deal was, so I tried explaining again, but he cut me off. I laughed because both his reactions and the questions he asked were so ridiculous. But I played along and answered as best I could. A minute later, he excused himself and ran off, looking back at me more than once.

I relayed this conversation to a girl in a pub later that night and she stopped me, pointing out a simple error in my Spanish.

One word. That’s all it was. Just one simple word.

You see, in Spanish, the word for waiter is “camarero.” But I had messed it up, using “caballero” instead—the word for “gentleman.” Not a big deal, under normal circumstances, but then I considered my responses from the American Tourist’s point of view, and the conversation took on a whole new meaning:

“After teaching, I work as a gentleman, working long hours into the night. It’s exhausting, but a lot of fun. The money is great. I am very popular, good at my job, and people obviously like me. I get big tips and have several regulars.”

And that’s when his follow-ups got really weird:

“Do you serve women?”

“Yes.”

“And men?”

“Si claro! Of course!”

“And you like it?”

“It’s great! I have fun and make sure everybody else does too!”

And at that he shook his head, looking at me incredulously, so I said, “So I guess you’ve never worked as a gentleman.”

He snorted as if such a notion was impossible.

But I said, “I think everyone should work in the service industry for at least a little while. It teaches you a lot about what people truly want.”

And then he ran away.

And that’s how I learned that, in communication of any sort, every single word is vital. As Mark Twain once said, “use the right word, not its second cousin.” Because I did not follow that advice, I can only imagine what the guy I had been talking to assumed about my relationship with my 2nd cousin . . . who is a dude.

The point is: you want to be specific with your word choice. Always. When you’re writing or speaking publically, obviously, but even in day-to-day interactions, because a small mistake can send a wacked out and bizarre message.

In this case, the damage was minimal. In fact, I’d say the added bonus of my learning a valuable lesson is that there’s a guy out there telling an amazing “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story about the time he met a substitute school-teacher/bi-sexual male prostitute.

And that’s pretty cool.

 

Stagnation is Always the Enemy

As writers, stagnation is always our enemy.

This is true in several ways. Consider:

  1. We always seek to improve our craft—we are never fully satisfied.
  2. Our stories and characters must constantly grow, adapt, and change.

Although it may not seem like it, we grow every time we write. We think of new phrases, try new sentence structures, attempt new rhetorical styles, etc. The more you write, the better your writing will become. Of course, you can push yourself by setting yourself goals, attempting new styles, etc. Even if such exercises never see the light of day, they are valuable methods of improving your craft. We know this. You will keep the stagnation enemy at bay so long as you are writing and trying your best. If you are writing, you are evolving.

But it is equally true that our stories and characters can’t stagnate. They must evolve as well. In the past, I’ve written that a protagonist MUST change in the story (my two posts about “Transformation” in the Hero’s Journey). Change is inherently interesting. So if your character is stagnate and doesn’t change, you’ve written a boring story that violates perhaps the most fundamental principle of storytelling—that your characters will learn or be changed by what they experience.

In fact, every scene must involve change. If things are the same at the end of a scene or chapter as they were at the beginning, then that chapter should be cut or at least fixed. If nothing changes, there is no need for the scene.

When editing, go through each scene and identify what changes. If you can’t find something, ask “do I really need this in the story?” If you don’t absolutely need it, then you might just delete the whole thing (which might help your pacing). If the scene is necessary, at least re-work it so that something changes (arguing characters agree by the end, agreeing characters disagree by the end, have learned something that changes how they think or feel, something unexpected happens, etc.).

Keep it up! Keep working! Keep the enemy at bay!

Best of luck!

The Turn, Shift, or Twist

A turn, shift, or twist is a welcome element in any form of writing.

In poetry, the TURN or SHIFT is when there is a change in the speaker’s attitude or the tone, possibly leading to a Jerry Springeresque “final thought.” Here is an example: Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria.”

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.

I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.

If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”

And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!

So obviously the SHIFT is in the last stanza when the speaker casts away his feelings of isolation and desolation, instead pointing out that he has found joy in writing beautiful poetry (of course, you can interpret that differently—feel free!).

A non-fiction piece can easily incorporate a SHIFT if the author uses contrast, perhaps pointing out all the positives of a situation only to rip the rug out from under our metaphorical feet by then denouncing the subject and citing all of the negatives.

In fiction, we do the same thing, but we tend to call the SHIFT a TWIST (as in PLOT TWIST). If a character takes on a new attitude or something unexpected occurs, thereby changing the story’s established direction, we have our SHIFT/TWIST.

The SHIFT/TWIST is important, of course, because it revitalizes the reader’s interest. After 150 pages of a novel, we’re ready for something new—something that will catapult the story in another direction—forcing the characters to respond or to reveal themselves in new ways, pushing them out of their comfort zones. The twist may raise the stakes, be a kind of reveal (character has tricked or betrayed the hero), whatever. What the twist is doesn’t matter (okay, I’m lying—some twists are definitely better than others . . . but just go with it for now) since it can take so many forms. What matters is that there is one.

Some stories include several twists, and these can be riveting (Dan Brown’s novels come to mind). BUT, just having a twist doesn’t guarantee your story will resonate. I’d suggest checking the following:

  1. Does the twist, even though it is a surprise, still make sense? Having some hint earlier on, even if vague, will help. If a character changes attitude or reveals something, this needs to make sense for that character.
  2. Does it move the story forward? While the twist may include discovering something that happened long ago, this new information should still serve as a kick in the pants to the characters. They need to react, in the present, and move.
  3. Does the twist help establish your theme? Since the twist moves the plot and is important to the characters, perhaps it should be connected to whatever it is your story is indicating about human nature, life, the laws of the universe, etc. So if the twist is a reveal, then perhaps you are working with themes including:
    1. Appearances can be deceiving
    2. Trust (perhaps that trust is hard since people are liars?)
    3. Nothing is as it seems
    4. Ignorance (we don’t know all the important information)
    5. Secrets

Whatever the theme, see if you can make it “pop up” elsewhere in your story.

Good luck!

WriteOnCon – Great advice on queries, voice, the market, and more.

Writeoncon 2013 has ended, but you can still read all the articles, watch the videos, and get loads of great advice on everything from how to write a great query letter (check out my revised one here), obtaining the right voice for your story/narrater, trends in the market, editing tips, and tons more. Everything is absolutely free, so nothing is stopping you from learning and getting involved.

Check out the writeoncon.com posts and bookmark it. The site may provide future forums for authors to share their own work, critique others, and make valuable contacts in the writing community.

Speaking of which, THANK YOU to all those who critiqued my query and writing sample during the online convention. I made some new friends and received excellent feedback. Before I brave the slush pile, I will revise a bit, concentrating on my voice so that the narration sounds less adult and more in keeping with the Young Adult genre–a bit more intimate and closer to a teenager’s style. Fortunately, as those of you who know me well can attest, I’m ridiculously immature. So I think I can handle the teen voice better than what currently exists in the manuscript. Wish me luck!

Why Outline?

There are so many variables to weigh and balance when starting a novel, it is silly not to spend considerable time mulling things over, working out the conflict, major scenes, character background and personality, setting, deciding on a point of view, and a thousand other things before you actually begin writing the book.

Some people dive right in and just start writing, claiming that they don’t know what will happen or even “who did it” in a murder mystery until the characters reveal it to them . . . though I suspect these claims are false and yield shoddy stories.  Still, maybe that approach will work for you, but most of us need to plan well in advance.

For the ending to satisfy, you should consider it when you write the first page. I can’t imagine any novelist is like Mozart, seeing the entire story before him all at once in one fantastic flash of inspiration. Therefore, if you just start writing before you have a good idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there, you will likely end up getting lost. At the very least, your opening will not be as effective as it would otherwise be if you could lay some subtle groundwork. If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll probably write some okay stuff, get stuck, not know where to go, realize you should have done something else 40 pages ago, scrap the last 40 pages, etc.

I wrote “essays” on each of my main characters. I pretended that my novel was already written and a professor told me to write a character analysis of each major character in the book. Basically, I looked at their personalities and histories, then plotted their character arcs—figuring out how they would change during the story, which scenes would catapult that change, how the background info was relevant (or not) and how to reveal it during the story, etc. This was a huge help!

I also wrote brief paragraphs about what I consider my main themes: explaining each theme, how it is introduced, developed, and what the story says about it in the end. If I found that a theme got “dropped” somewhere, I had to make decisions: do I scrap that element of the story? Do I find a way to “bring it back in” by the end? What changes would need to be made? How would this decision affect other factors in the story?

Use the computer, note cards, post-its, or whatever you want—but get organized before you actual begin writing that novel.

Keep in mind that IT IS OKAY TO DEVIATE from your outline. And you will. When you do (usually because your characters demand it), you may be able to easily steer the book back on course. If you can’t or the characters won’t let you, you’ll need to start outlining again from that chapter onward. Or I suppose you could go back and revise the character so that he/she would make a different series of decisions that would allow the book to remain pretty much on track with your original outline—but even that involves going back and doing a lot of rewriting and seems odd.

NOTE: It is true that you can discover a lot by writing, but if you do so without an outline or map, the writing will be without direction. As a result, you’ll end up cutting much of it. You might surprise yourself and come up with some fascinating characters, scenes, and plot points, but most likely, you will have to rewrite much of your work, so outlining can save you a lot of time. Diving in and writing while brainstorming might give you a rough draft. More likely, it can be a useful way to get to know your characters, but you’ll still have to do major revisions—possibly even starting over once you do know where you want the story to go. I know several authors journal as a character. They are often surprised by what the character will reveal to them during this process and some of that information makes it into the book. But that’s a journal. It isn’t the novel. That’s the author “doing research” to get to know the character and those journal pages will not be in the novel itself, so journaling is not writing the novel.

Writing Physical Description – Part One

In my post about “Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1,” I wrote that you should “Avoid the temptation to describe your main character [on the first page or even in the first chapter].” However, I didn’t provide much insight into how to write physical description. So here we are.

There are no “rules” to writing description because it is a product of your own style. Hemingway gives us very little in the way of description while Stephen King can go on for pages. When I read The Stand twenty years ago, I remember stopping and thinking, “My God. He’s written six pages describing an abandoned military facility. There aren’t even any characters!” Now, to King’s credit, I also noted that his elaborate details enabled me to vividly picture every brick of this complex. Obviously, my reaction is also an indication that despite King’s talent, the passage was still long for my personal taste.

I cannot write like Stephen King. I will never be able to include such rich and graceful detail. My prose is average; it serves its purpose but lacks imaginative description or an abundance of figurative language. Therefore, I would never attempt to imitate King and therefore I lean toward the opposite approach: providing little description and counting on the reader to supply the rest.

Even if, like me, your prose isn’t going to win you any awards, you might still be tempted to provide plenty of minute details so that the reader pictures exactly what you have in your own head. Resist that. Instead, keep the description pretty quick and short. There are advantages to minimal character description. Yes, you will want to provide the reader with a good idea of what the main characters look like, but you can leave “a little room” for the reader to supply the missing pieces. I see two advantages:

  1. Minimal description will quicken your story’s pace.
  2. When the reader uses his/her own imagination, he/she becomes part of the creation and can become more invested in the story.

Do you want to provide details about your main character’s face? I only describe a face if there is something peculiar or memorable like facial hair, a scar, the color of lipstick, if the person appears plump or thin, etc. Readers seem happy to supply the particulars of the face. If you supply it for them, readers might not feel like they “know” the character—the character may appear as a stranger in the reader’s mind. I can think of exceptions to this rule (I’ve included Ichabod Crane’s introduction at the bottom of this post), but I think it’s generally good advice to provide the outline or skeleton of a character, dress it up with some meat and clothes, but allow the reader to unconsciously help out.

Providing a single telling detail is often more effective than a summary description. EX: “His neck was a molting snake.” See? Can’t you picture that guy? Did you imagine him as old and wrinkly? If not, is the image in your head a vivid one? If this is a minor character, this brief description is all we’ll need. If it is a major character, you can be more descriptive later, but this lays some good “ground work” so we won’t be surprised later when you tell us that this character is elderly, has a skin condition, was in a fire, etc.

Reading description is boring from a modern reader’s standpoint—it brings the story to a halt. You don’t want to slow down on the first page or even in the first chapter. Can you wait a chapter or two before describing your character? Try it. I bet you’ll end up making that description a more natural/less forced part of your prose if you hold off for a while.

Read the following description of Ichabod Crane, the protagonist from Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Note that Irving does describe his face. More importantly, look at the specific details he provides. Irving’s writing is vivid and original. Even without the sentence describing Crane’s face, the description would still be fantastic. Enjoy it for yourself.

“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”