Tuesday Tip

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tip#1I want to start off by apologizing for not posting a tip last Tuesday. I should have had something prepared in advance since I knew the con was that weekend, but it was just such a busy week. I’d rather miss a post than publish a half-baked one. So here is last Tuesday’s tip today.

Let’s take a look at setting. “Look” is only one of the five senses we’ll be using to describe the world your character lives in.

What Should you Describe?

When introducing your readers to your world, it helps to think of the five senses and the 5 W’s.

Who: This is your character. How does your setting relate to them? Is this their home? What do they notice about their setting?

What: What does it look like? What landmarks, features, buildings, exist in this landscape? What items are important to your setting: a chipped coffee mug? A stack of books? A photograph?

When: This could be the year, season, time of day,etc. You always want to establish this early on.

Where: Does your novel take place in Colorado? Another galaxy? New Zealand? Psuedo-New Zealand?

Why: Why did you choose this place? Is the sunny east coast or an isolated mountain village the best setting for your novel?

Five Senses: Use your sensory details. But remember, the sights, smells, and sounds should be coming from your POV, not you. If your character is deaf, do not describe the sounds of a busy city. If your character is a child, don’t point out things that would not be at their eye level. Also don’t describe something as being soft or hard until your character has touched it. Describe things as they encounter them.

Info Dumping

Often, especially with new writers, descriptions of scenery are dumped into one paragraph like a dump truck unloading dirt. It might be tempting to tell your readers everything you know about your setting, but this is called info dumping. Instead of enhancing the plot, the scenery slows down the action, bores the reader, or distracts from the character or plot. Avoid info dumps at all cost.

  • Only describe what the reader has to know to understand the setting.
  • If your descriptions are a block of text or a paragraph, this is probably an info dump. Cut what you don’t need or spread out your description throughout the narration, so that there is something separating it. Describe the setting while your character moves throughout the world so your setting doesn’t stop the plot but flows with it.

Things to Avoid

  • Info dumping. See above.
  • Remember to describe the setting from the character’s perspective. What would they notice? A major pet peeve of mine is when authors describe the scenery as being “exotic” from their character’s POV. Don’t describe your world as being exotic if it isn’t for them. What you want your reader to find unusual (double moons, red lakes, man-eating trees, giant cats) will be common place to your character. You don’t need to force the image down your readers’ throats like a funnel at a frat party. A sky with two moons hovering over a red sea will sound unusual enough without your character pointing it out as being strange.
  • Not enough setting. Yes, it’s true. While a majority of writers seem to suffer from info dumping, there are those whose characters are floating in space. I recently read a sample of a book where I could not get a grasp of where the characters were.
  • Don’t overdue it. Have you ever red a book where the character seems to have control over the weather? It doesn’t always have to rain when the character is sad or storm during a battle. On the contrary, say you were writing a story about a missing person. They find the body on a sunny Easter morning. It may be more eerie to find a body on a sunny day rather than a rainy one. This also adds realism.
  • Do not start your story with a sunrise or sunset–unless this is an important image that has something to do with your plot. I once checked out three books from the library that all began with the rising of the sun. Not only is this overdone, but it’s often an unnecessary detail. If the sunrise is an important part of your setting, put it in, but try to avoid starting your book this way.

Creating Your Own World

If there is one reason I don’t believe in a god it’s because of this: No one can make a world in seven days. It’s taken me a year to fully develop my own. If you’re setting takes place in a real place, my suggestion to you would be to go there–especially if it’s somewhere tropical like Hawaii. For those of you creating your own world, you have a lot more planning to do.

  • Make it believable. Understand the laws of nature and science. Say your characters land on a planet with no oxygen. What does a planet without oxygen look like? What are the effects of metal when exposed to low levels of oxygen? What about the opposite? Your characters live on a planet with higher levels of oxygen. Not only would they have more energy than we do, but they would also have very large bugs. Research, research, research.
  • Create a world that enhances your plot. Don’t create a boring environment that will stunt your story. Make it vivid. Create a landscape that challenges your protagonist. Your character has been exiled from his tropical kingdom. On his journey to a new home, make him walk across a desert or a frozen tundra instead of a lush, green valley.

Plan your setting like you would your characters and your plot. Make it vivid, make it believable, but most of all, make it the way you want it.

Tuesday Tip

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tip#1Saturday, I encouraged you to write even when you don’t feel like it, but I didn’t explain how exactly. It’s easier said than done, and there isn’t one answer. There are more than one ways to start a fire.

Identify why you don’t feel like writing. For some of you it will be easy to pinpoint the cause.

  1. You just don’t know what to write
  2.  You had a bad day at work
  3.  You had a fight with a spouse, sibling, or parent
  4. You are experiencing a loss or illness.

While it would be nice to put writing on hold until all your problems sort themselves out, you have to keep going. You do have to face your problems, but writing can be the perfect distraction from the things distracting you from writing. I know that sounds like a tongue twister, doesn’t it.

Outline

To get back into writing, start with an outline. You can outline the entire book, a chapter, or just what is going to happen in the scene you need to write.

Example: Buttercup goes on a horse ride and encounters three strangers on the road claiming to be lost circus performers.

I can hear your collective groans. I know a lot of people hate outlining. If you don’t like to outline, just call it summarizing. Same thing really.

Get some rest

It’s hard enough writing when you don’t feel like it. Now try forcing the words with no energy. If the thought of writing with no motivation makes you want to lie down and take a nap, go right ahead. Take a nap or a quick break. Once you’re recharged, get back to it.

Skip to the good parts

Someone once told me I had to watch “Brokeback Mountain.” I didn’t feel like watching it, so I skipped to the good parts. You know which parts I’m talking about. Don’t make me go into detail. It was a long movie, and I was just curious to see how Hollywood was going to pull that off. So I watched, collectively, about twenty minutes of the movie.

Sometimes, I feel this way about my own writing. I don’t want to write a particular scene because it’s boring. You can identify, I’m sure. Maybe you don’t want to write at all; perhaps it’s just the scene you are working on.

I prefer to write linearly from the beginning to the end. This is also how I eat cake and pizza. I start at one end and work my way back. Some people like to eat the icing-covered edge first or the crust of the pizza. They may even eat the bubble out of the center or scrape the icing off the top. This is how some people write. Feel free to skip to a scene you could feel motivated to write.

Play a movie or music

Whether it’s your inspiration, background noise, or the soundtrack to your novel, a movie or music can help you write. I like Pandora and YouTube. I created a separate playlist for each character.

Read to write

Reading can be very relaxing, inspirational, and motivating. A good habit to start: Read before you write. Everyday, I read ten minutes before I start writing.

Write

That’s right, just write. The very act of writing will help your writing flow. Be prepared to write utter crap. Be prepared to only write a hundred words.

There are numerous other ways to force yourself to write. Force is such an ugly word. How about motivate. Do what works for you. You must write. Remember you can’t wait for things to get better, for more time, or for more motivation. If you wait, it may never happen.

You, that’s right, you, staring at your computer screen. You’re reading this blog, you’re on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, IWasteSoMuchTime.com. Close the extra browsers, like or comment below, and then get back to writing, right now.

Tuesday Tip

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tip#1Last Tuesday’s tip was about character interviews, which is going to tie into this Tuesday’s tip. Compare the interviews of your secondary characters with your primary character’s interview. Which one is more interesting? If you didn’t answer in favor of your primary, there is a possibility that your secondary characters are stealing the show. Here’s how to spot those pesky spotlight stealers and how to put them back in their place–second place.

Let’s look at a few classic examples of when secondary characters run the show. Most of you are probably old enough to remember Steve Urkel from Family Matters. The nerdy neighbor was only meant to be a one-time gig, but his popularity with the audience won him an appearance on almost every episode. When I was a kid, I didn’t even realize the show was called Family Matters. I thought it was called Steve Urkel. That’s how little the family mattered to me. 

For those of you who don’t remember TGIF (I pity you), you are probably more familiar with Daryl Dixon from the Walking Dead. The silent, arrow-shooting side character is personally my favorite. What’s not to like? He has an interesting backstory, an ongoing conflict with his brother, and the potential for a romance (fingers crossed). In comparison, Rick’s conflicts seem to be wrapped up too quickly or dragged out too long. Who cares if Rick and his family die as long as Daryl lives. Let me know if you see any shirts that say “if Rick dies we riot.”  I thought not.

And who can forget the loveable Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack was a fun relief from the tiresome storyline of Elizabeth Swann and William Turner. Other fans must have agreed, because William and Elizabeth weren’t even in the final movie. Instead, we get an entire movie centered around Jack–except for the dumb side plots (don’t even get me started on the mermaid).

Before you take all the color out of your side characters in an attempt to regain your protagonist’s glory, remember, interesting side characters are not a bad thing. You want your side characters to be sympathetic and have their own arcs, but they shouldn’t shadow the main character.

So how do you know when a character is taking over?

If you answer yes to several of the following:

  • Does you secondary character have several exotic features?
  • Does your secondary character have interesting quirks?
  • Does your secondary character have too many aspirations/conflicts?
  • Are they really fun to write? By this, I mean do you write most of your scenes from their perspective instead of your protagonist’s viewpoint?

Remember, your protagonist is your primary character. Primary means FIRST. Secondary means SECOND. Now, let’s keep them in order. If your protagonist is standing in the shadow, here’s how to pull them back into the light.

  • Your primary character should be the one with the most at stake. If your main character fails, does he/she lose more than the secondary character? If not, you might want to up the ante. The main character should have more conflicts or at least greater conflicts than the side characters. If the side character teams up with your primary to obtain lost treasure, the main character should be after something more precious than gold. Arguably Pirates of the Caribbean did this well. William Turner wants to rescue Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates. Jack simply wants his boat back. A person is worth more than a boat …ship.
  • The protagonist, not a side character, should be responsible for the resolution of conflict. This means the protagonist destroys the villain or instigates the outcome. Does the protagonist always defeat the bad guy? Not necessarily. Let’s look at Gladiator and Braveheart. In Braveheart, William Wallace doesn’t defeat the villain directly. The king dies of an illness. Heck, he doesn’t even make it to the end of the movie, but his followers are so inspired by his sacrifice they charge the battlefield to win their freedom. Likewise, in Gladiator, Maximus defeats the villain (10 points for villain conflict resolution), but it is ultimately Senator Gracchus who will reinstate the senate and bring Rome back to glory. In both these examples, the heroes die before the end, but the victory could not have been gained without them taking action.
  • Make sure most of the book is told by your protagonist’s perspective. Narration from a side character can be beneficial to learn more about the main character and give away information the primary does not know, but if the scene can be told better by the protagonist, it should be.
  • Make sure your protagonist gets more stage time than the secondary. Keep a list of scenes and record the characters who appear. Go back and count the number of appearances each character makes.
  • Make sure your audience will connect with your primary. Readers need to empathize or sympathize with the character. Usually the main character wants something difficult to obtain. They need a plight, a conflict, a reason to do everything they do.
  • Make sure your main character has a complete arc. Did they change in the end. Did they act upon this change? If they didn’t, this is probably why your main character lost his charms.  An arc is like a lover. The more stale and stagnant it gets, the more you look elsewhere for satisfaction. You might find yourself cheating on your protagonist with his sidekick. Dun-dun-duuun!!!
  • Find out what your supporting character means to your protagonist. All characters should have a purpose. Does he highlight a flaw your main character has, does he help or hinder your main character, are his conflicts connected to the plot? If you said no to any of these, your secondary needs to be changed.

Go through both these lists to identify why your main character is not holding a candle to your secondary character. Is this secondary character more interesting because they have more flaws and your main character is too perfect? Do they have more at stake? Do they have more goals? You might have to go back and redesign your characters. You may even have to do the unthinkable–remove them.

Tuesday Tip

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tip#1Happy Tuesday, everyone. Does anyone look forward to Tuesdays? At least it’s not Monday, right? Tuesdays seem to be a little underrated. We like Wednesday because it’s halfway through the week, Friday because it marks the end of the work week, and Saturday because it is the weekend (unless you work Saturdays like I do). There just isn’t anything special about Tuesday except for  Blu-ray and DVD releases. Here’s something new to look forward to. Beginning today, I’m going to start giving out writing and editing tips every Tuesday.

For my first Tuesday tip, I want to talk about sentence variety.

With over a million words in the English language (approx. 1,025,109.8 according to the Global Language Monitor), how is it possible that sentences can become redundant?

It’s always a good idea to start at the beginning. So, let’s look at the first word of the sentence.

Opening words

Here’s a quick exercise you can do with your writing. Pick a chapter, any chapter. Circle or highlight the first word of every sentence. Do you see a pattern forming? Do you notice a lot of repeating words such as the, it, I, in, he, she, or this.

While a strong sentence often starts with an article or a subject, a good writer uses a variety of sentence openers. The solution is to rephrase or rewrite the sentence so that the article, name, or pronoun doesn’t come first. No one likes rewrites, but small changes can have a big impact. Below are some suggestions for rephrasing.

Example: Bob walked down the street and waved at the dancing children.

*This sentence starts with a subject. If you’re tired of reading Bob’s name, take the action Bob performs, add -ing to the word, and place your new word at the beginning of the sentence.

Revision: Walking down the street, Bob waved at the dancing children.

IMPORTANT: These types of sentences are tricky because you can accidently create dangling participles. Remember this trick: The subject following the comma is the person or thing doing the action.

Example: Walking down the street, the  children were dancing.

*This is wrong because the children are not the ones walking down the street. Bob disappeared entirely from this scenario. This sentence implies the children were dancing while they walked down the street.

Another way to add variety is to start your sentences with transitional words or phrases such as a prepositional phrase.

after all, afterward, also, although, and, but, consequently, despite, earlier, even though, for example, for instance, however, in conclusion, in contrast, in fact, in the meantime, indeed, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, regardless, shortly, still, that is, then, therefore, though, thus, and yet

 

Example: The cat sat on my book.

*There’s that pesky the at the beginning.

Revision: When I sat down to read, I noticed my cat was on my book.

Revision: Even though my cat has a bed, she sat on my book.

Now that articles and names aren’t  always at the head of the line, let’s look at your sentences to eliminate repetitive sentence length.

Read your sentences out loud. Do you sound halting and choppy like you’re talking in Morse code? Or, do you need an inhaler at the end of your long-winded sentences to catch your breath? Alternating long and short sentences throughout your manuscript is a great way to add rhythm and sentence variety.

Example: I went to Walmart. My family came with me. I was looking for bananas. Walmart did not have bananas.

*Too many short sentences.

Revision: I went to Walmart with my family to buy bananas. Alas, there were none.

*By following the long sentence with a short one, the sentence flows and sounds more natural.

If you have too many short sentences, combine them to make longer ones. Don’t forget your conjunctions (and, but, for, or, so) and subordinate connectors (after, although, as, as if, because). I also recommend combining sentences when several sentences are about the same topic.

Example: McDonald’s has a high turnover rate. McDonald’s doesn’t pay employees enough money.

Revision: McDonald’s has a high turnover rate because employees aren’t paid enough money.

You can also use relative pronouns (which, who, whoever, whom, that, whose) to combine short, choppy sentences, or sentences that give away redundant information.

Example: My car caught on fire. I got it for my birthday.

Revision: My car, which I got for my birthday, caught on fire.

There you have it–multiple ways to add some variety to your sentence wardrobe. Please check out my blog next Tuesday for another tip.

 

Forming the “Write” Habit

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I’ve heard it said that for every break you take from writing, it takes ten days to get back into the habit.

Ten days seems to be a popular truism. Everywhere advertisements promise you can lose weight or quit smoking in just ten days. Maybe there is some truth to the ten-day rule–or maybe it just looks good in print. After ten days of not running you lose muscle. I guarantee if you don’t go to work in that time span you won’t have a job.

There is a fallacy to the ten-day rule. Ten days is hardly enough time to form a habit. If forming habits could be done in a snap, we’d all eat well, exercise, show up to work on time, take our vitamins, and we’d never lose our keys. Another popular truism is the twenty-day rule, which my boss is a firm believer. Instead of ten days, this rule promises you can form a habit in twenty days.

It’s more beneficial to know how to make and keep a habit than to know how long it takes. For starters, you must first have a goal. This is the big picture you want to achieve. Without a goal, you won’t have the motivation to keep going. Do you want to publish, write a trilogy, become a best-selling author?

Second, you must complete smaller task that will help you achieve the major goal. With writing, it’s simple: WRITE. Set a quota. It can be pages, wordcount, or time limits. Let me just start by saying, you don’t need to write for hours, or give up an entire day (As much as we’d like to have an entire day to write). Even ten minutes a day counts. If time is the real issue (not browsing the internet, checking Facebook, and posting on Twitter) start by writing ten minutes every day. If you have more time, write for 20-30 minutes. I always shoot for no less than an hour. In that hour, I may only write a paragraph (or a sentence on really bad days), but it all adds up.

Taking a day off here and there isn’t that detrimental, but significant lapses will set you back. Real life example/cautionary tale: I haven’t written since April 28th. If I do my math (let me just take off my shoes), I’ve taken roughly two weeks off. When I opened my word document I had to go back and read a few pages to find where I left off. Not only that, but it took me forever to start writing and what I did write is cringe-worthy. The process of getting back into the flow looked something like this.

Ready to write after two weeks: full of optimism

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Reading what I wrote: realizing it’s crap

give up

Giving up: napping is easier

Let’s face it, your writing will suck after a break. It’s like when you return to work from vacation and it takes a day just to get back in the flow.

So let’s say you’ve missed a day, a week, a month, or a year (it happens), it’s never too late to start writing again. So whether it takes ten or twenty days to get back into the flow, it all begins with day one.