Category Archives: The Craft of Writing

5 ways to support the writer in your life

Do you know someone who is committed to the craft of writing? Congratulations!

Maybe this writer is a relative, in which case you have destiny to thank. Or maybe you’ve befriended someone who has been bewitched by the notion that stacking words one atop another to build a story can be fun and profitable.

Either way, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a writer, you’ve probably already learned a few things about this admittedly strange species:

She might have told you how she came up with the idea for her story and why it’s awesome.

He probably dished on the details about his creative habits or writing schedule or preferred typeface.

Perhaps she shared her protagonist’s astrological sign.

(On second thought, maybe condolences are in order.)

Here’s the thing about writers. We spend a lot of time alone, populating a private world with imaginary friends—er, people—and thinking about topics reserved solely for storytellers and serial killers (e.g., how much midazolam would it take to knock out an average adult male?).

Eventually, we need to come up for air and share some of our “head happenings” with the wider world…or, at least, with our most-trusted loved ones. (That’s you.) And that means his success as a writer depends, at least in part, on you.

So whether they are still in the planning phase, frantically pounding out the first draft, or up to their elbows in edits, here are a handful of ways you can support any writers who cross your path:

1. Encourage them

In addition to a killer concept and mad composition skillz, thick skin, a strong spine, and enough patience to fill a Buddhist monastery, a writer needs encouragement to survive.

Oh sure, we might be able to sustain ourselves for stretches on ego alone, but eventually our confidence fizzles, and refueling is necessary. We need to be told that we aren’t wasting our time. These proverbial pats on the back can take the form of compliments. For instance, if an idea they share sounds cool, tell them. If nothing else, praise their dedication to what so often can feel like a hopeless pursuit.

Face-to-face chats are great, but don’t forget about Facebook and Twitter and wherever else in cyberspace your writer roams. Follow their author accounts. Like and share their posts. Comment on their blogs. If you engage them online, others might also!

(Yes, I actually wrote the word “cyberspace.” Apologies.)

2. Read their stories

Every writer needs readers. This is true even before a book or short story is published. Alpha readers, beta readers, pre-readers—whatever you want to call the role, you are a prime candidate for being the first eyes on a story.

You aren’t obligated to give a thorough appraisal of the piece, and no one should expect you to play the part of proofreader, but some feedback is appropriate. What did you like? What felt a bit off? Praise is always appreciated, and depending on your rapport, constructive criticism can be very helpful too—emphasis on “constructive.”

But never leave a writer hanging. You gotta give ’em something. And if you don’t make it to the end of the novel—or even the end of the first chapter—let the writer know. You can soften the blow by saying something like, “I don’t think I’m your target reader because this part didn’t work for me…”

3. Buy their books

Encouragement can come in a variety of forms, including financial support. In fact, one surefire way to show the writer in your life that you approve of their writing is by sponsoring them. Just ask my wife! (Insert rimshot here.)

Sure, there actually are donation/sponsorship websites like Patreon, but the most forthright way you can support your writer is by buying her book. Even if you still have an early draft on your e-reader from back when you served as a beta reader. And even if you don’t plan to read the thing cover to cover. Owning a copy of your writer’s book proves, definitively, that you give a damn.

It’s not just about the money, either (though that helps). The more sales a book receives on a site like Amazon.com, the better its ranking becomes; the higher the rank, the greater the visibility—and, therefore, the greater the opportunities for additional sales.

4. Review their books

5-starsHere’s where support starts to feel an awful lot like work: After you’ve read the book, write a review and post it on Amazon and as many other sites you can find that carry the book.

Actually, this isn’t as onerous as it sounds. No one expects you to write a college-essay style literary criticism piece that compares your writer’s story to Great Expectations. A few sentences will suffice, and if you have more to say, great! Be honest, but if there’s a lot you don’t like, maybe focus on the stuff that shined. Then copy and paste copiously around the web.

Why are book reviews important? People tend not to trust a book until it has 100 or so reviews. Sadly, it’s the quantity of book reviews—more so than the quality of what’s written in them—that prompts customers to put a book in their cart. Ten 5-star reviews just seem less trustworthy than dozens of reviews that average to 3.5 stars. Strange but true.

5. Spread the word

Whether self-published or traditionally published, any writer worth his carpal tunnel will spend time and money on promoting and marketing his book.

But a single writer can cover only so much ground. Even Jesus saw the value of sending His followers far and wide to share the Good News, thus increasing His geographical footprint. I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a full-time missionary for your writer’s fiction, but if you come across folks who might like the novel, tell them about it.

Or, better yet, lend them a copy of the book.

Bottom line: Successful writers need readers, and as the friend or relative of a writer, you can make a significant impact on whether her attempt to “make it” as an author turns out to be a nightmare or a dream come true.

(Besides, haven’t you always wanted your name to appear on an acknowledgements page?)

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com).


What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In the first post on my blog, “One Million Words,” I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during early email correspondences with a new member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2014/07/22/what-to-do-when-writing-tips-contradict/).


Regardless of how, when and why — writers write

I was having lunch with another member of Allied Authors, and we began discussing writing — our writing — and we both admitted we weren’t doing much of that.

As I sat there and listened to myself, I realized what a phony I was. Because, people, writer’s write. If they don’t, they are not writers.

Duh.

And that brings me to this: When writers — successful ones, by which I mean published ones — speak of their challenges or how/when they write and their daily activities, each one, always, mentions having a daily schedule where he or she writes…wait for it…every day and usually at the same time of day.

These writers have different techniques. Some just write without knowing where they are going. They have the idea of a plot, but they let their characters tell them who they are and what’s going on. Some outline their novels first, and they tell their characters where they are going.

Again, both practices have led to success — published success — so that’s not the issue.

The issue is what is best for you and me.

Personally, I feel I have wasted much time and energy in “just writing.”

Now some would say there is no wasted time in “just writing” because that teaches us about what works and what doesn’t. Hey, okay. I like that idea…all the hundreds of pages I have written taught me something. To be honest (and don’t we love that comment, especially on court shows? “Judge, to be honest, I…” ), all those pages — some printed up sitting in boxes in the basement, some in my office and more recently taking up space in my computer — taught me something: I should outline my work and then write.

It’s time for me to get organized.

I have three novels written, all deeply flawed but, I believe, all with really interesting plots and characters. So what’s the problem? They don’t move. They don’t have the tension novels need to keep the reader interested.

Wow. I know. Now what do I do? Where do I go? Who’s on first.

Well, what I should do is quit writing about how/why/when to write and start writing.

First, a cup of coffee? Let the dog out?

You understand fully. And so do I. So will I or won’t I get to work? Will you?

I’ll keep you posted.

Maureen Mertens contributed this article.


Need to break through writer’s block? Consider A&P!

Artists have their brushes, easels and sketchpads; carpenters, their saws, hammers and levels; musicians, their pitch pipes, scales and embrasures.

As writers, we too have many and varied tools. Some are straightforward, such as vocabulary, basic understanding of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Others are more individualized and abstract, including our areas of literary interest, personal backgrounds and writing goals. (A blockbuster novel? The perfect haiku? An Oscar-winning screenplay?)

And perhaps there are a few that are too slippery and nebulous for easy classification.

I’d like to discuss one that, in my opinion, could be the Swiss Army knife for fiction writers when it comes to decision making and/or problem solving: Audience and Purpose.

Years ago, while teaching classes, addressing groups or conducting seminars, I was eventually (and inevitably) approached by confused/frustrated/stalled writers at a loss for how to proceed with their story or novel. They didn’t know “what to do next” or “how to write this part” or “why this scene doesn’t work” or…fill in the blank.

For many, perhaps most of them, a simple-but-not-always-easy Audience and Purpose (A&P) exercise might have been able to break the block and clarify not only what needed to happen, but also how it needed to happen.

While this tool can be applied to any piece of fiction (and can be effectively applied to nonfiction as well), I’ll frame it in terms of writing a genre novel.

Ideally, a writer will have some basic idea of the type of material he is writing — mystery, romance, fantasy, etc. — and this presents a broad A&P framework. On the surface, the use of this tool may appear obvious and hardly worth note. A mystery novel’s Purpose, its overall reason for being, is to present the reader with a puzzle (usually a crime) of some sort and the eventual solution of that puzzle. Broadly speaking, a mystery novel’s Audience is comprised of those who enjoy mysteries.

Not exactly a breakthrough realization.

Taking it a step further is still rather straightforward. Readers seeking and expecting a nice, cozy whodunit comprise a somewhat different Audience from those seeking a hard-boiled, double-fisted, take-no-prisoners tale or readers with a yen for a detail-rich police procedural or any of the other guises a mystery might take. While the overall Purpose might be the same (present and then solve the puzzle), the Audience, and therefore the approach, will vary.

Okay…still pretty obvious. Big deal, right?

Let’s take it deeper. While the overall Purpose may be to solve that puzzle, it’s not the only thing that happens. (At least I hope not). There are characters to meet, settings to explore, moods to create, relationships to develop. While these sub-Purposes may be colored by the overall Purpose, they are not controlled by it.

If, for example, your protagonist develops an attraction to or even a relationship with another character, and you want your reader to “approve” and be happy for them, this short-term Purpose will dictate your literary decisions.

(Note that your short-term Audience for this could briefly be different from your overall Audience. These readers perhaps want to see sexual tension and sparks or the signs of a happy romance — issues perhaps far removed from the crime under investigation. More on that below.)

An action-packed chase or fight or deadly confrontation presents us with a slightly different Purpose and a slightly different Audience — one that hopefully is worried about your characters more so than simply the solution to the puzzle/crime. You now wish to frighten readers, increase their heart rate, make them fear the outcome, and so you make appropriate creative decisions: short, sharp, hard words; brief, brutal sentences; short paragraphs (leading to faster page turning, a physical/psychological trigger).

Or perhaps you choose to use pages-long sentences with no punctuation or breaks in the action or chances for the reader to catch his breath or slow down or even think clearly because everything is happening so quickly that there is no time no time no time at all and the physical and mental rush of reading with no pause takes the reader’s breath away and that’s just exactly what you wanted to do…

At every level of the novel, there is an Audience and a Purpose. They can vary throughout and can have an impact on the writer’s decisions, both big and small. Take character names, for example…

Mystery and thriller writer Lawrence Block’s somewhat comedic Burglar books feature a bookstore owner/burglar whose criminal exploits often make him the suspect in a related murder, which he then has to solve to clear his name. The stories are light and fun, and the protagonist’s name is Bernie Rhodenbarr. Another Block series features an alcoholic unlicensed private investigator; this not-especially-pleasant ex-cop is named Matthew Scudder. Block had a specific Purpose for choosing those names, and those names have resonated with the Audience for each series.

A similar Purpose, however, does not necessarily dictate a similar approach…

Children’s book author Betty Ren Wright and Stephen King both have similar Purposes: give the readers a frightening thrill. But their Audiences varied considerably. Wright’s approach would not have given King’s Audience (adults) nightmares, and King’s approach would have given Wright’s Audience (small children) too many.

Let’s stick with King for a moment more for a bit of over-the-top-obvious fun.

If one of his sleep-with-the-lights-on books had cause to introduce a small town auto mechanic, we might expect him to be shirtless; wearing grease-stained, smelly bib-overalls (broken strap on one side); having unkempt dirty hair; holding a beer can in hand; unlit cigarette stub in mouth; one unfocused eye skewed off to the side; left foot dragging a bit as he shambles out of the filthy garage’s dim shadows.

If King wished to scribe a category Romance, however, both his Purpose and Audience would change. While the mechanic would doubtless still be shirtless (to show those ripped abs, of course), his clean, flowing hair would frame a strong, smiling face populated with piercing blue eyes, a strong chin, gleaming white teeth and perhaps the hint of his having forgotten to shave that morning. Although working as a mechanic that day (covering for an ill employee), he’s actually the owner of the immaculate garage, takes in stray animals, is a passable cook and writes poetry.

Okay, okay, I know…it’s a bit much.

Throughout our books, we may have a single overriding Audience and Purpose in mind, but it is a mistake to be unaware of the shifts in both that take place throughout the entire narrative. Individual scenes may have Purposes (and Audiences) that vary from the book’s overarching A&P, as can individual paragraphs, sentences and words.

At any point, a writer should be able to answer these questions:

  • Right now, right here, what is my immediate Purpose? (To Frighten? Inform? Titillate? Move?)
  • Who is my immediate Audience? (Someone who wants to be frightened? Wants to learn? Wants a sensual thrill? Wants to be brought to tears or laughter or…?)
  • And how do I best fulfill that Purpose for that Audience?

The best writers tell the tales that move and compel them, and I caution you to please not mistake this particular tool for a cure-all formula or template. It’s simply a way to approach problem areas in our writing. In fact, the whole Audience and Purpose approach might best be served by ignoring it during the heat of a first draft and bringing it to bear only after the tale has been committed to paper (or computer file).

Once you know the basic story you’re trying to tell, then you’re able to go back and tell it well.

The next time you find yourself losing story focus, adrift in a sea of “what comes next?” or simply unsure of the best way to approach a particular scene or sequence of events, the A&P technique might just become your best friend. Give it a try.

If this tool helps you in any way, I’m delighted. If not, then my Audience has not been satisfied, and my Purpose has not been fulfilled. My apologies.

Jack Byrne contributed this article.


Dissecting the difficulties of writing a sequel

Writers tend to be their own worst enemies.

Sure, some amateurs might cast aspersions at agents and publishers who reject their works. And maybe published authors occasionally gripe about critics and other ungrateful readers who fail to find the genius in their words. Some scribes might even eye a fellow writer with envy, casting a commercially successful contemporary in the role of rival.

But at the end of the day, a writer is solely responsible for the success of a story. Notice I didn’t write “the sale of a story” or “positive reaction to a story.” I happen to believe that a story can be perfectly wonderful without having earned a single cent—or even a second pair of eyes.

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What’s inside a successful, satisfying sequel? | Image by Retama, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether a bestselling novelist or an introverted dabbler, each writer decides which tales get told and which don’t, whether a concept is worthy of composition or destined to be forgotten. The writer hones her craft, or she doesn’t. He perseveres or surrenders.

Don’t get me wrong. Obstacles abound, and the outside world conspires. For instance, I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t wish he had more time to devote to writing. However, external forces can be overcome—or at least mitigated—if the will is strong enough.

But a writer’s mind can be a dangerous thing.

Perhaps the most notorious form of self-sabotage is writer’s block. A related syndrome—which can traipse hand-in-hand with writer’s block—is a phenomenon that transcends writing (and the arts as a whole) to plague anyone who has tasted some measure of recognition in her field: the sophomore slump.

Or, in this case, the mind games that a writer’s brain engages in when he worries that what he produces next will pale in comparison to the premier effort.

A few years ago, I read a book by a first-time author and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—not because he was newly published, but because I was burned out on the sword-and-sorcery fantasy genre and was pleased to find a tale that made it feel fresh again. I eagerly awaited the sequel I knew was coming.

And waited. And waited. And…

I can’t, with all certainty, ascribe the tardiness of the sequel to a sophomore slump (though I’m withholding the author’s name and book’s title just in case!), I’ve heard enough stories of writers who miss deadlines on subsequent assignments to suspect that many writers do, in fact, psyche themselves out when it comes to book number two, regardless of whether it is a direct sequel or not.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. Before a writer has a contract for a book, she operates on her own timeline. She can take as much time as she can to prepare her first novel, moving words around on the page for months before she decides it’s ready to send to an agent or editor. She can take a decade or more to make his first book as perfect as possible. But a publishing house won’t wait that long for the next offering.

I’ve been thinking about sequels a lot lately. Even as my diligent agent continues to shop around If Souls Can Sleep, the first book in my Soul Sleep Cycle, I’m rethinking and reworking Book 2 (tentatively titled Almost a Fantasy). During a recent conversation with my agent, he mentioned that because the events in If Souls Can Sleep and Almost a Fantasy take place concurrently, I should consider the possibility that Book 2 could be a better entry point into the series—that Book 2 might make a more suitable Book 1 (and vice versa).

Granted, this is a somewhat unique situation. Most series move forward in a linear and chronological manner. The plot of Book 1 precedes Book 2, which precedes Book 3, and so forth. However, in the case of the Soul Sleep Cycle, I envision the possibility that some events in Book 3 could even take place prior to those in Book 1 before eventually catching up—and passing—the timelines in Books 1 and 2.

I suppose “straightforward” just isn’t my style.

So I now find myself dealing with some of the inherent challenges of writing a sequel, only they are exacerbated by the fact that the sequel could be the prequel, so to speak. One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked of any sequel is how much of the first book’s plot needs to be filtered into the pages of its successor.

Readers need reminders, but a writer can’t spend too much time rehashing what came before. Prologues and introductions can help set the scene for readers who are new to the series as well as readers who didn’t immediately pick up Book 2 after closing the cover of Book 1, but such devices can do only so much.

It takes a deft hand to weave relevant details into the narrative at the right time, to provide readers with helpful sips of backstory rather than drowning them in oceans of exposition.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if there is to be a sequel to the sequel—that is, a Book 3—one must decide where to end Book 2. How much should a writer save for the third entry of a series? And how much should she know about what is to come in Book 3 so that she doesn’t paint herself into a corner, as it were?

When it comes to trilogies, whether books or films, the second installment tends to be the weakest. (Yes, there are exceptions, you rabid Empire Strikes Back fans!) Generally speaking, the first episode of an epic franchise is the strongest. It’s the audience’s first thrilling glimpse at a new world and new characters. The best first books do the same thing: leave the reader wanting more.

Book 2, on the other hand, can’t provide that magical first kiss of Book 1; neither can supply it the climax everyone expects at the end of Book 3. So what do writers do with Book 2? Build upon the problems of Book 1, set up the dominoes for Book 3, maybe toss in a new character or two. Those aren’t the only options, of course, but all too often the second installment serves as the less exciting but certainly necessary scenes sandwiched between the engaging beginning and the awesome ending.

If a series, such as the Soul Sleep Cycle, ends up being four or more books, the challenge to sustain a high level of interest only grows from novel to novel.  Every book must have its own story arc—a worthwhile and autonomous beginning, middle, and an end. That is to say, even the middle of a bigger story needs its own satisfying ending. (Yes, you can leave some plot points hanging to entice the reader to return, but sheer cliffhangers are cop-outs.)

One would think that building upon an existing work would be easier, but I contend that writing sequels becomes an increasingly complex process. Maybe over a long enough timelines, the pros and cons of developing sequels vs. starting from scratch for each standalone even out. Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly dig into the conundrums of rewriting a novel that could end being Book 1 or Book 2.

If nothing else, it will force me to make sure both books can stand firmly on their own.

As for why fantasy and science fiction stories so often become series—from the ubiquitous trilogy to those best-selling, never-ending saga—is a topic for another day.

Perhaps a sequel to this article about sequels…

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2014/03/21/dissecting-the-difficulties-of-writing-a-sequel).


What aren’t your characters telling you? (And what aren’t you asking them?)

A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who is trying to write a story. She has characters, plot and setting in mind. She even has a few scenes mentally scripted out.

Overall this lady has a start to a book. The difficult issue at hand is starting the process of writing itself. She knows the characters in passing, but not well enough to get in their heads and let the words flow out.

So I shared with her a tip that the Allied Authors of Wisconsin shared with me: Interview your character.

I thought it would be easy enough. Just imagine yourself in a room with this other person and ask them questions. I’ve done it before, and it works great.

Then, a few weeks ago, we were eating sushi and talking about life. I brought up her book and asked how it was going. Miserable, she confessed that she had gotten nowhere from the last time I talked to her. Apparently, she put the heroine in a room, and the gal just crossed her arms, refusing to talk.

“OK, what did you ask her?” I asked.

The questions were complicated and required the character to relive painful memories or detail out descriptions of her life — things that would be hard for any person to adequately answer in real life, especially to a stranger.

It was at that point I knew that something I thought would be simple had been taken to a level of complexity I never anticipated.

“Don’t start with the hard stuff,” I suggested. “Get her to open up with the easy things.”

“What easy things?” she asked.

And I started to list off some simple questions.

  • What’s her favorite color and why?
  • What does she like to eat?
  • What does she do in her spare time when at home alone?
  • Whom does she talk to?
  • Does she read? If so, what?
  • What kind of music does she like?
  • What’s her nickname, and who gave it to her?

This progressed into more detailed questions. However, the restaurant was closing, so we made a promise to meet on the weekend, and I would help her through the interview process.

That Sunday we started with her heroine and the male counterpart. The questions were simple at first, like the ones from earlier in the week. Eventually, they became more detailed, more personal. The very cores of the characters were examined, and painful past events, guilty feelings, and revelations that my friend had never known about her characters came to light.

In four hours we did more than what had been accomplished in the prior months.

Now this is not to say I am a miracle worker. I am not. This gal could have done the whole process on her own. The problem was overthinking the solution and making life far more complicated far too quickly.

Long story short, here are some things you may want to keep in mind when starting an interview with a character:

  1. Start out with easy questions — topical things that help you flesh your character out.
  2. Then get into more detailed questions. “Why,” “when,” and “how” are fantastic vehicles to dive deeper into a character’s psychosis.
  3. Ask the tough stuff once you have a better impression of who the character is in your mind. Even the little details that seem superficial can mean a lot.

For example, her character loves to watch classics movies and movies from the ’80s because that was what she used to watch with her parents before they died. Why is this important? The character is holding on to her past too tightly and is trying to remember all the good things about her childhood while punishing herself with the same memories.

This information came from the questions “What do you like to do in your spare time?” “Why do you do this?” “How long have you been doing this?” and “What do you feel when you do this?”

As a side note, if you have multiple characters and one refuses to talk…stop the interview. Move to the next character. You may find that you learn more by asking your other characters for their impressions of the silent one. Later on, go back with that uncooperative character and tell them what the other characters’ impressions of him/her are. You may find your silent partner starts talking.

If they don’t, well, silence can be golden. Maybe you learned more about that person than you ever thought you would, even with a “failed interview.”

Also, although the process might be unfamiliar, never feel stupid about this process. If need be, write up a list of questions and have someone else ask them instead. Then you can answer for that character.

Personally, I prefer to just sit in the room of my mind and not only listen to what the character is saying, but what they are doing and how they look. Body language is a marvelous thing, even imaginary body language. Your characters may have various tells and quirks that they don’t even know they have. One character of mine, Zander, likes to chew on his hair. He doesn’t realize he does this. How do I know? I watched him do it while interviewing him.

As you progress, you may want to have characters that are close to each other sit in subsequent interviews together. Their speech patterns, their body language, and even their interaction can be valuable.

For instance, when I did this with Zander and his sister Gwen, I realized that Gwen would lightly smack Zander’s shoulder when he started chewing on his hair. She never said anything, but it was how she reminded him not to do that. Gwen and Zander are both introverts, but while Zander shrinks inside himself and lets his sisters do all the talking, Gwen will force herself to be a happy and gregarious person. But they only take on these roles when they are together.

It can get complicated, but starting simple can take you further than you think. As the saying goes: you must learn to walk before you can run.

Alexia Lamont contributed this article.


Watch out for these five overused words

When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.

One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better.  Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college.  After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas.  A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.

And then...

“And” and “then” can cause problems on their own. But when they team up, watch out!

And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!

Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite.  Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.

(Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader.  But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation.  It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)

The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress.  A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.

As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.

Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:

Then

“I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value.  Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order.  The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences.  So in most cases, “then” is redundant.

Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification.  Just be sure to use it sparingly.

Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”

Also

Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence.  It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.

Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection.  The same is true for the context among sentences.  There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.

Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.

And

I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.”  The result, I posit, would be awkward at best.  But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.

Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences.  “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.

Consider this example:

“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind.  On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work.  Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”

That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly.  Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome.  Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.

(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)

Said

When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue.  In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”

And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.

More on that here.

All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.

Was

“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary.  Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.

Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.

Let’s look at that last sentence as an example.  I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.”  The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.

Another example:

“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”

Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”

Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc.  Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.

I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often.  How often is too often?  However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.

For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post.  If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.

Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.”  For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.

But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.

The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own.  Their danger comes from numbers.  Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.

The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words.  They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.

David Michael Williams contributed this article (reprinted with permission from http://david-michael-williams.com/2013/06/20/watch-out-for-these-five-overused-words/).


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