Showing posts with label On Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label On Writing. Show all posts

Saturday, September 28

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

Book Outlines: Helpful or Harmful?

To outline or not to outline. There are few questions more contentious in the writing world -- and writers (God bless us!) can be a rather contentious bunch.

Here is my tl;dr answer: Ultimately, I think whether you should use an outline depends on the writer, and everyone is different, so there is no one definite answer. That said, I think everyone should try outlining at least once. Otherwise, how could you know whether it works for you?

Stephen King: Reject the Tyranny of the Outline

As you likely know, Stephen King doesn't like outlining. He writes:

“I’d suggest that what works for me may work equally well for you. If you are enslaved to (or intimidated by) the tiresome tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes,” it may liberate you. At the very least, it will turn your mind to something more interesting than Developing the Plot.” (On Writing, Stephen King)

I think I might talk about Stephen King too much but he is one of my favorite writers. And he’s straightforward, one of the traits I appreciate most in a person. I don’t always agree with King but what he has to say is well thought out and has worked for him over the course of decades, so it’s worth taking seriously.

Stephen King is exceptionally talented. His story, ‘It’ is one of my favorites -- after I read it I couldn’t use the washroom without fear for a couple of decades (especially at night). But, on the positive side, he gave me worlds to live in, he gave me characters I love and who have stayed with me. This may seem like an odd way of putting it, but it’s true: he gave me the gift of his thoughts.

I’m writing about Stephen King here because I think he is one of the best defenders, one of the best advocates, of pantsing.

Pantsing vs Plotting

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of constructing stories:

1. Plot a story 

Let’s talk about plot. In most stories the hero starts off in the Ordinary World, doing what he usually does every day. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes to school, wishes he was brave enough to ask Betty to the dance, gets bullied for his lunch money, etc.

This is where you show your readers your character’s soul, often by giving her a mini-adventure (think of any Bond film you’ve ever seen).

Then there’s a Call to Adventure (which is often rejected). The protagonist will be given a foreign dictator to subvert, or tasked with retrieving nuclear weapons from a sexy despot. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Often, the hero meets a mentor who gives him a gift that will aid him on his Journey into the Special World of the Adventure (Obi Wan Kenobi gave Luke the lightsaber that had belonged to his father). And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with a strongly plotted story. For one thing, it can help you determine early on whether the story works.

I’d like to make another point before I go on to the next section. You can have an outline without having a strongly plotted story. It all depends on whether an outline describes what is already in your story or whether it describes what you want to have in your story but isn’t there yet. I’ll talk more about this, below.

2. Pants a story

This is the idea that if you develop strong characters that the plot will spring from their actions. You put strong characters in a particular situation and then you say: What would these characters do in this situation? And then you write your answer down. That’s your story.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but years ago I read an article by Thomas Harris where he described writing his book, Red Dragon. His story emerged from what he saw his characters doing, from what he heard them saying. Psychologically, they were living, independent, entities. I think Harris is on the extreme end, he is an extreme pantser, but that’s the idea.

You don’t actually have to see and hear your characters for this technique to work! (Though it would help.)

My Experience

There are innumerable ways of writing a story, and I don’t think one way is intrinsically any better than another, it all depends on the writer using it, what is best for him or her.

When I pants a story -- when I start writing with a few characters and only a couple of ideas rattling around in my head -- I’ll often first write what I like to call a vomit draft. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it! ;)

The vomit draft is just that, I vomit up thoughts, thought fragments -- whatever -- onto the page. I ignore spelling, grammar, research, facts and good taste. No one will ever see one of my vomit drafts but me, it would be like walking out of the house naked.

I use a writing journal and so I scrawl this all out longhand, and that gives me the opportunity to incorporate images out of old magazines if they … how do I describe it? Sometimes an image will pop out at me. For example, I’ll see a woman’s hairstyle and I’ll realize, Yes! That’s what the protagonist’s hair looks like, so I'll cut the image out and paste it into my writing journal. (Yes, my journals look like something out of the film 'Se7en')

When I begin writing a story I try to write the story straight through and to be as brief as possible. If I realize I have to change something at the beginning of the story (e.g., the protagonist’s hair needs to be brown rather than blond), I'll make a note of that, but I’ll keep going.

Okay, my point is that at the end of this messy process I’ll have a pretty good idea of the story, of its shape. From that I can easily put together an outline. So … am I a plotter or a pantser?

For me, an outline is just a snapshot of where the novel is at, not necessarily where the novel needs to go. One of the HUGE advantages of using an outline is that it’s easier to come back to the novel if I have to break off working on it for a bit.

Just Do It

If you haven’t already found a method that works for you, for instance if you’re just starting out and wondering whether you should outline, then outline. At least try it out. Even Stephen King has tried it -- which is one reason he can confidently say it’s not for him.

An outline doesn’t have to be complicated. Just tell the story as briefly as possible and then break it up into sections. Identify the Call to Adventure, the confrontation at the Midpoint, the Final Showdown. Even if you only have those three things it can be a help. Or not.

If you find outlining doesn’t work for you, if you find you don’t need it, then fine!

As always, have a good writing day and I’ll talk to you again soon. :-)

Monday, August 1

The 5 Best Books on Writing. First Book: On Writing by Stephen King

If I could only recommend one book on writing I wouldn’t hesitate. It would be Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.”

Why “On Writing”?

Stephen King is, in my opinion, one of the best writers of our time. I know not everyone will agree with that, and, if you don’t, I’d ask you to hear me out.

Prose and Plot

There are more (many more!) than two dimensions to any piece of writing, but here I’m only going to talk about two: prose and plot.

I think that where Stephen King excels is his prose, not his plot—though, don’t misunderstand, I think his plots are riveting. But it is his prose that immerses readers in his characters. It is the unrelenting intimacy one feels with his characters that sucks me into his stories, his worlds, and makes me sad when I have to leave.

Here’s an example. What follows are the first three paragraphs of “The Shining” by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker. As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk—under the circumstances.

Let’s examine this. And, please, keep in mind these are just my thoughts as a reader and admirer of Stephen King’s work. I’m not speaking from any sort of privileged position. I’d love to read in the comments what you think of these passages. 

In the first paragraph we are shoved into the mind of one of the two main characters in this story, Jack Torrance. You can't get more intimate than that. Also, this is emotional. No one thinks, "officious little prick" of someone unless they're angry, and anger is very personal, very intense. We are not only eavesdropping on Jack’s thoughts, but Jack’s thoughts are (depending on what you're used to) a little bit shocking. I mean, the very first thing we learn about Jack Torrance is that he thinks someone is an officious little prick. It paints a picture of Jack. Right off the bat it seems that he might have anger issues, perhaps he is someone quick to take offense.

That first sentence of “The Shining” is, hands down, my favorite first sentence of any book, ever.

The second paragraph is written in the third person but it clearly reflects Jack’s point of view. King uses the phrases, “prissy speed,” “small plump men,” as well as a suggestion that Ullman looked cold and dour, to paint a picture not only of Ullmen, but of Jack. These are Jack’s emotions, Jack’s musings, Jack’s thoughts. It also tells us, or at least hints at, why Jack is with Ullman. Jack needs Ullman to hire him for a job that is (he feels) far beneath him and he hates Ullman for it.

In the third paragraph we learn that although Jack is angry he is also reflective. Thoughtful. He realizes that perhaps he isn't being fair to Ullman and is honest enough with himself to realize that, under the current circumstances, it doesn't matter what Ullman is like, Jack is going to despise him. And Jack seems okay with that.

Interwoven through it all is King's voice. It is like a living thing, thick with emotion. It thrusts and gouges, revealing character.

I was planning on writing more today but ... I'm moving! Lots to do, lots still to pack.

In my next post I’ll pick this topic up again and talk about what I think is Stephen King's number one best piece of advice for writers.

Friday, August 29

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Using adverbs in dialogue tags: a matter of style or a sign of timidity?

Writers are often told not to use adverbs in dialogue tags. For example:

“You are dead to me,” he said coldly.

Or, worse:

“You are dead to me,” he whispered coldly.

(I bet you cringed just reading that!)

One reason adverbs are discouraged in dialogue tags is it encourages telling rather than showing. As Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

In “On Writing,” Stephen King tells us that fear lives at the heart of all weak writing. Specifically, the fear that readers won’t understand what we’re trying to communicate. King writes:

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

“You probably do know what you’re talking about, and can safely energize your prose with active verbs. And you probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly. Your man may be floundering in a swamp, and by all means throw him a rope if he is … but there’s no need to knock him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.”

Most authors love to use adverbs in dialogue attributions.

Stephen King admits he’s used adverbs in dialogue attributions:

“Is this a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do?’ The reader has a perfect right to ask the question, and I have a duty to provide an honest answer. Yes. It is. You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’m just another ordinary sinner. [...] When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.”

That said, King has used fewer adverbs over the years, both in dialogue attribution and elsewhere.

I say all this not to defend King, since he needs no defense, but to give you a feeling for the lay of the land. What I really want to talk about is not that we shouldn’t use adverbs in dialogue tags but, instead, whether this dislike of dialogue tags is perhaps one of those things that change with the times.

Adverbs in dialogue attributions, past and present.

Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” was my favorite book growing up. There was something about it, some quality. If you pressed me to put that quality into words I’d say it was magical and then feel disappointed in myself for under describing it. “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of the books that shaped how I think and what I like.

“A Wrinkle in Time” contained many tags (about 60) with adverbs in them. To put that in perspective, J.K. Rowling used fewer such tags in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” (about 40) and her book was over 20,000 words longer than L’Engle’s.

The finding that surprised me the most was from “The Goldfinch.” In that novel about 200 of the dialogue attributions contain an -ly adverb. That’s more than are in E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” and James Patterson’s “Along Came a Spider,” combined. Actually, Patterson’s book only contains four such instances.

Even “The Maltese Falcon,” one of my favorite books, contains around 50 such tags.

Could it be that our attitudes, or perhaps our tolerance for, adverbs in dialogue tags has changed over the years? For example, the dialogue tags in “Never Go Back,” published in September 2013, are adverb free. That’s right, the book contains no tags with adverbs.

But, against that idea, “Lord of the Flies” was written in the 50s and only has six or so adverbs in its tags. And Jim Butcher’s latest book in the Dresden Files series, published just this year, contains well over 100 dialogue tags with adverbs in them. 

Perhaps one could argue that, at least in part, whether to use adverbs in one’s dialogue tags is part of one’s writing style. Yes, Stephen King attributes use of adverbs to timidity—and he may well be right—but perhaps adverb use could also simply be a component of an author’s voice.

The most interesting thing that came from my investigations into using adverbs in dialogue tags is that the practice seems to cut across the literary/genre boundary. That surprised me. Of course, this could simply be an artifact of the small sample sizes I’m working with!

What do you think? Is the use of adverbs in dialogue tags a weakness—a sign of timidity—or is it simply a matter of style?

Thanks for reading!

Photo credit: "Boat Abandoned On The Beach" by A Guy Taking Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, October 11

What Is Writing? Telepathy, Of Course!

What Is Writing? Telepathy, Of Course!

What is writing?
To answer this question we need to examine what we're doing when we write, when we tell stories. In other words, what is the essence of story telling?

Here's what Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, has to say:
Writing, in its most essential sense, is an artificial means for getting thoughts and images which reside in YOUR brain over to the guy holding your book in the most effective and accurate fashion possible, so that the reader will successfully translate your thoughts into HIS brain. The written word uses symbols to describe sights, sounds, and situations, in order to let the reader create the story inside his own imagination as he reads.

Writing is the original virtual reality. (Jim Butcher, Story Craft)
(I find it hugely interesting that in my all-time-favorite book, On Writing, Stephen king describes writing as telepathy. Same idea, different expression.)

To make sure the transmission of thoughts, images and feelings goes well we work on the art and craft of writing. Jim Butcher calls it Story Craft. He writes:
Story craft, writing technique, story structure. They're all different names that mean the same thing [...]. They describe the practice of methodically approaching the writing of any given story with a definite, specific goal, and a plan for making that narrative engaging and entertaining as possible. (Jim Butcher, Story Craft)
In other words:
Simply put, story craft is nothing more and nothing less than manipulating the emotions of your reader. [emphasis mine] (Jim Butcher, Story Craft)
To write well, we must evoke emotions in our readers. There are two key things here: emotions and readers. Currently I'm writing a series on how build and use a writer's platform to attract readers. Next week I'll talk more about how to make our characters likable.

Good writing. Cheers!

Other articles you might like:
- On The Art Of Creating Believable Characters: No Mr. Nice Guy
- Perfection Is The Death Of Creativity
- What Is A Writer's Platform?
- Does Every Writer Need A Platform?

Photo credit: Mario Pleitez

Saturday, October 6

Jim Butcher On Writing

Jim Butcher On Writing

Jim Butcher's posts on the art and craft of writing are the best I've read and have been of enormous help to me. I often recommend these posts but haven't found any one place where all the URLs are listed. True, most of them can be found on Jim's Livejournal blog but they appear (as one would expect) in reverse order and there's no index.

I likely haven't gathered all the links to all Jim's articles on writing so if you know of one that isn't listed, please mention it in the comment section and provide the URL if you have it. Thanks!

Jim Butcher's Posts On Writing
These posts are all from Jim Butcher's Livejournal blog.
- Story Craft (Sept 21, 2004)
- Conflict, Logical Response, Point of View (Sept 23, 2004)
- Fundamentals--Story Skeletons (Sept 29, 2004)
- Characters (Feb 10, 2005)
- The Great Swampy Middle (July 11, 2006)
- Scenes (Dec 28, 2006)
- Sequels (Dec 29, 2006)
- Story Climax (November 19, 2007)
- Putting It All Together (April 23, 2008)
- The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know (Nov 3, 2011)

From Magical Words:
- How to build a Villain, by Jim Butcher (August 1, 2011)
Jim Butcher made some great writing related remarks in the comment section; I provide a summary here: How To Build A Villain.

Other Jim Butcher Resources
- Subterranean Press: Jim Butcher by John Joseph Adams (Winter, 2009)
- Interview with Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files (July 26, 2011)
My favorite quote: "[I]t’s easy to come across as witty in a book as long as you spend enough time in your head having conversations with imaginary people".
- Jim Butcher Interview - Ghost Story (YouTube Video) (August 1, 2011) 
- Sword & Laser ep. 16 - Author Guide to Jim Butcher

- The Butcher Block (2006 to 2009)
An irregular podcast about all things Jim Butcher as well as the things Jim's fans find cool.
- Geeks Guide To the Galaxy: GGG#45 (Sept 24, 2011)
Featured guests have been: George R. R. Martin, Richard Dawkins and Ursula K. Le Guin among others. Sept 24, 2011

Jim Butcher's Website & Forums
- Jim Butcher's Website & Forums
The following links will likely require you to register on Jim's site:
- Dresden Files Word of Jim (WoJ) Compilation.  
- Old School Email List. Contains material that predates the forums.
- Jim Butcher's posts on Amazon and elsewhere.
- Twitter tidbits.
- Transcriptions of various audio and visual sources.
Thanks go out to Serack and the other folks over at Jim Butcher's forums for compiling this information and making it available to the public.

- Jim Butcher in the Speculative Fiction Database
- Jim Butcher on Goodreads

Other links you might like:
- Jim Butcher, Harry Dresden and the Dresden Files
- Jim Butcher: Cold Days, The Next Dresden Book, On Sale Nov 27th, 2012
- 3 Ways To Create Incredible Characters

Photo credit: Unknown

Friday, September 14

Stephen King: How His Novel "Carrie" Changed His Life

Stephen King: How His Novel "Carrie" Changed His Life

How Tabitha King rescued her husband's manuscript of Carrie from the trash is one of my all-time favorite stories. I've heard it many times over the years, sometimes from Stephen King in one of his forwards, sometimes from other authors. The best version I've read comes from Stephen King's book "On Writing":
I had four problems with what I'd written. First and least important was the fact that the story didn't move me emotionally. Second and slightly more important was the fact that I didn't much like the lead character. ... Third and more important still was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. ... Fourth and most important of all was the realization taht the story woudln't pay off unless it was pretty long ... You had to save plenty of room for those pictures of cheerleaders who had somehow forgotten to put on their underpants--they were what guys really bought the magazines for. I couldn't see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn't like and wouldn't be able to sell. So I threw it away.

The next night, when I came home from school, Tabby had the pages. She'd spied them while emptying my waste-basket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, smoothed them out, and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on with it, she said. She wanted to know the rest of the story. I told her I didn't know jack-shit about high school girls. She said she'd help me with that part. She had her chin tilted down and was smiling in that severely cute way of hers. "You've got something here," she said. "I really think you do." (pp. 76 to 77)
Boy, did he! A few pages later King writes about receiving a call from Bill Thompson telling him that the paperback rights to Carrie "went to signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars. (p. 86)"

Stephen King writes of his reaction:
I hadn't heard him right. Couldn't have. The idea allowed me to find my voice again, at least. "Did you say it went for forty thousand dollars?"

"Four hundred thousand dollars," he said. "Under the rules of the road"--meaning the contract I'd signed--"two hundred K of it's yours. Congratulations, Steve."

I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept. Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I'd only met once face-to-face was telling me I'd just won the lottery. The strength ran out of my legs. I didn't fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.

"Are you sure?" I asked Bill. (p. 86)
On Writing is a marvelous book on the craft of writing, as well as a wonderful autobiography. No other book has had the impact on my writing this book has and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

What is your favorite writing story?

Other articles you might like:
- How Do Writers Get Their Ideas? Neil Gaiman, Seth Godin & Stephen King
- Stephen King's Latest Book: A Face In The Crowd
- Quotes From The Master of Horror, Stephen King

Saturday, August 18

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Eliminating Passive Verbs

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Elimiating Passive Verbs

Elizabeth S. Craig writes about passive verbs:
What people sometimes confuse as passive voice is really the use of static verbs instead of dynamic (or active) verbs.  But frequently editors will ask you to reword sentences with static verbs because you could write a stronger sentence with dynamic verbs. Journalist Constance Hale wrote an interesting article for the New York Times in April about static and dynamic verbs and some subcategories of each (I loved her list of wimpy verbs.)

Although hunting down “to be” words isn’t necessarily going to help you create active voice sentence structure, if you have a lot of linking verbs in your story, you might want to make sure you’re showing, not telling.  So even though Anna was mad isn’t passive, it might make for stronger writing for you to say Anna slammed John’s plate on the table in front of him, making green peas fly off.  Frequently, when writers talk about finding linking verbs in their manuscript, they’re really advising us to avoid using weak verbs.
Read the rest of Elizabeth's article here: Passive Voice with Elizabeth S Craig.

If you're looking for a good article on the passive voice and how to avoid wimpy sentences I highly recommend Elizabeth's article. 

Another great article on how to avoid passive sentences is the one Elizabeth recommended: Make-or-Break Verbs by Constance Hale. Here's a sampling:
Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” and the former are also known as “linking” or “copulative” verbs.) Static verbs stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage. Dynamic verbs thunder in from the wings, announcing an event, producing a spark, adding drama to an assembled group.
. . . .
Power Verbs Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject of a sentence into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs — and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he could gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger or sashay? Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers. Erase eats hungrily in favor of devours. And whatever you do, avoid adverbs that mindlessly repeat the sense of the verb, as in circle around, merge together or mentally recall.
This reminds me of the advice Stephen King repeated gave in his book On Writing to use strong verbs and, as much as possible, avoid the use of adverbs and even adjectives.

Good writing!

Other articles you might like:
- Stephen King: 15 tips on how to become a better writer
- What To Write About: Fiction That Sells  
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments

Photo credit: photo by Vincepal on Flickr

Tuesday, May 29

Stephen King: 15 tips on how to become a better writer

Jon Morrow tells us that On Writing by Stephen King has become "the most popular book about writing ever written, pulling in over 1000 reviews on Amazon and selling God only knows how many copies".
Here’s why:

The book is… magic.

I’ve read On Writing from cover to cover at least five times, and each time, I saw a noticeable improvement in my prose. For one, it teaches the fundamentals of the craft, which is something no writer should ignore, but it also sort of rubs off on you.

You can’t read On Writing and not come away with a smile on your face. Where other writing books are focused on the mechanics of the written word, King shows you how to capture the joy of the craft. You’ll find yourself wanting to write, not because of fame or fortune, but because it’s fun, and there’s nothing else you would rather do.
- Stephen King’s 20 Tips for Becoming a Frighteningly Good Writer

I agree with Jon, but feel the need to add that, for a week after reading On Writing, I had the most frightful case of writers block. I think it was because I kept second (third, fourth, fifth, ...) guessing every word I wrote. My fault, absolutely, but just sayin'. If you're anything like me, you might not want to read it before an important writing deadline.

Here is advice King gave to writers, I'm paraphrasing:

1. Write for the joy of writing.

2. Writing is about enriching the lives of those who read your work as well as enriching your own life.

3. Don't set your sights too high. Forget about pleasing all your readers all the time. Forget about pleasing some of your readers all of the time. Try to please some of your readers some of the time.

4. Don't come lightly to the blank page. Have something to say and say it.

5. If you're just starting out as a writer, get rid of your TV.

6. Here are the two most important things writers do: read a lot and write a lot.

7. Remember: Art is a support system for life, not the other way around.

8. Formatting matters.

For instance, if all your paragraphs are long, the eye tends to tire. Mix it up.

9. Writing is thinking, but more refined.

10. "Write with the door closed, and rewrite with the door open."

In other words, write the first draft for yourself, write the second draft for your readers.

11. Read the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly. If you don't spot terrible writing in others' work you're less likely to spot it in your own.

12. Writing is work. It's a job. Writers write.

13. Be able to describe things, anything, "and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition."

14. Resist the status quo. Describe the world you see, write about it. If some folks hate this, you're on the right track.

15. If a piece of writing works, keep it, if it doesn't, throw it out. Doesn't matter "how boringly normal or outrageous it is".

This seems to go hand-in-hand with King's advice to kill your darlings. If a piece of writing, no matter how brilliant, doesn't move the story forward then get rid of it.

Well, that's it! I think we can all agree that if we did those 15 things we'd be better writers. I know I would be.


Thursday, May 10

Neil Gaiman Interviews Stephen King, King talks about Dr. Sleep

Neil Gaiman and Stephen King are two of my favorite writers, so I was looking forward to reading King's interview and it didn't disappoint.

I was hoping King would say something about the sequel to The Shining he's been working on, Dr. Sleep. Everyone I've talked to about King doing a sequel has looked at me and said, "He's doing a sequel?" as though they must have misheard.
I did it [wrote Dr. Sleep] because it was such a cheesed-off thing to do. To say you were going back to the book that was really popular and write the sequel ... People think of that book, they read it as kids. Kids read it and say it was a really scary book, and then as adults they might read the sequel and think, this isn’t as good. The challenge is, maybe it can be as good - or maybe it can be different. It gives you something to push up against. It's a challenge.

I wanted to write Dr Sleep because I wanted to see what would happen to Danny Torrence when he grew up. And I knew that he would be a drunk because his father was a drunk. One of the holes it seemed to me in The Shining is that Jack Torrance was this white-knuckle dry drunk who never tried one of the self-help groups, the like Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought, okay, I'll start with Danny Torrence at age forty. He is going to be one of those people who says 'I am never going to be like my father, I am never going to be abusive like my father was'. Then you wake up at 37 or 38 and you're a drunk. Then I thought, what kind of a life does that person like that have? He'll do a bunch of low-bottom jobs, he'll get canned, and now he works in a hospice as a janitor. I really want him to be in a hospice worker because he has the shining and he can help people get across as they die. They call him Dr Sleep, and they know to call for him when the cat goes into their room and sits on their bed. This was writing about guy who rides the bus, and he's eating in a McDonalds, or on a special night out maybe Red Lobster. We are not talking about a guy who goes to Sardi's.
King's explanation/description makes me want to read the book; it also nicely explains the title, which I was curious about.

Let me give you one more excerpt. Here King is talking about something he mentioned in On Writing .
I never think of stories as made things; I think of them as found things. As if you pull them out of the ground, and you just pick them up. Someone once told me that that was me low-balling my own creativity. That might or might not be the case. But still,  on the story I am working on now, I do have some unresolved problem. It doesn’t keep me awake at nights. I feel like when it comes down, it will be there...
This has just scratched the surface of Neil Gaiman's original interview with Stephen King. Gaiman has put the unabridged version up on his site, it's over 4,000 words and well worth the read.

Neil Gaiman interviews Stephen King.

Photo credit:

Thursday, May 3

Character Names: How To Create Them

Dan Schmidt, over at The Write Practice, has excellent tips on how to pick character names.

I don't know about you, but I find choosing character names agonizing, so I love reading advice on the subject.

Without further ado, here are Dan's tips (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Mine Your Contacts
Dad suggests using the names of the people around you. Your friends, relatives, acquaintances, the pizza boy, your waiter. I try to keep a notepad with me at all times in case I get inspired on the bus. After this, when I hear a name I love -- and I'm guessing we've all had this experience -- I (hopefully!) won't just think, "Wow, that would make a great character name" and then forget all about it, I'll write in down.

Dan suggests changing the name in subtle ways so it's not obvious where it came from, just in case the person we received inspiration from reads our story one day. Excellent advice! Especially in the case of a villain. I can think of a time or two someone ticked me off and I thought of them when writing an unattractive character, best not to make it too obvious.

2. Interesting Street Names
I had never thought of this before, but Google Maps provides oodles of street names from all over the globe. At the very least, looking at maps would be a great way to get inspiration for naming.

3. Movie Credits
Again, this was a point I'd never thought of, but Dan recommends studying the names of the cast and crew listed at the end of a movie. Awesome tip, and something I'm definitely going to do after this. Or try to do, I have a memory like sieve.

4. Think Outside The Box
Dan mentions the name of one of his favorite characters came from a length of PVC piping. This is awesome advice, to be constantly on the lookout for anything we can incorporate into our stories.

5. First and Last Names Don't Have To Go Together
Dan suggests keeping different lists for first and last names. He mentions using index cards, but I imagine that computer files would work just as well (he sounds much more organized than I am!).

6. Create A Cast List: Make Your Names Work For It
Don't accept any old names, put them through their paces. Write a list of all the names in your story and check to see that most of them start with different initials, that they have a different tone and that the name has a realistic feel.

7. Read the names out loud
Your book may one day be an audiobook, so someone may have to read all the names you've used. Make sure they are pleasing to the ear (or not, depending on the kind of character they name). Vowels are you friend. Dan advices asking a friend to read all your character names aloud. This is great advice, but if you can't manage that, I often like to have my stories read back to me by text-to-voice programs. The first time I did this I was amazed by the number of typos I caught.

8. Google it
You don't want to a real person as your arch villain, at least I wouldn't! Especially not if it's someone I might actually meet. Awkward.

I hope this list will be of some use. It's based on Dan Schmidt's post here: 8 Tips for Naming Characters.

Links:The Write Practice

Photo credit: Webdesigner. (I generally try to have some kind of connection between the topic of my post and the image I use, but today I couldn't find anything so I chose a Pirate. Why? Because Pirates are cool! Aarrrgggg.)

"Character Names: How To Create Them," copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.

Monday, April 30

Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive

In the final installment of the Starburst Writing Method we're going to take the scenes we created in the last two installments and use them to write our rough draft. We want to be true to the characterization and plot we have so lovingly developed over the past few weeks, while being careful to maintain and develop narrative drive.

So, first things first. Let's discuss narrative drive.

Narrative Drive
What is narrative drive? Larry Beinhard in How To Write A Mystery says it best:
Narrative Drive is what sells books: To agents, publishers, readers. We all know near-illiterate, insultingly dumb books that (a) have made the bestseller list to our incredulous envy; and (b) have had us reading them even as we say to ourselves, "My God, why I am reading this brain-damaged idiocy?"

What is narrative drive? The best way to discover narrative drive is to read material that you can't put down, but you don't know why. It should not have literary merit (whatever that is) or have real and fascinating characters or be informative about subjects that interest you.
I think of narrative drive as that indefinable something that grabs you by the throat and pulls you -- at times kicking and screaming -- through a book. For me Stephen King's Misery is a prime example of this. Please don't misunderstand, I think King is a fabulous writer and Misery was probably one of his best works. It's just that I hate the particular kind of psychological terror he portrayed in the book and yet I couldn't stop reading. It was the last horror story I read for a good long while.

Now we know what Narrative Drive is, let's move on to the important bit: How do we infuse our stories with that quasi-magical quality that will keep good folks up far past their bed-times?

I don't think there's any recipe for imparting narrative drive to ones story, but one of my writing instructors had this to say:
Begin and end each scene with a question that the reader will be compelled to answer and they will be hard pressed to put your book down.
 An Example
Here's the opening sentence of J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
For me that sentence raises the questions: Who is it that Mr and Mrs Dursley are comparing themselves to? Who is it that isn't normal and what is it about them that makes them this way?

Here's the last sentence of that same chapter:
He [Harry Potter] couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: 'To Harry Potter -- the boy who lived!' 
 I'm left wondering why people need to meet in secret, what happened to Harry Potter and why he is so important to so many people.

Not a bad way to start a book!

Wrapping Up
By now, if you've been following along, you should have a rough draft of a story and I find that's often the hardest part. The next hardest part is finishing the darn thing!

I think the real trick of being a professional writer is simply finishing what we start. We all feel at a certain point that what we're writing is complete drivel but the professional writer battles through the feeling, revises, rewrites and ends up with something they're proud of where the rest of us (and I'm too often in this camp!) become discouraged and  bury our effort in the bottom drawer of a desk drawer, or under our bed, where it will languish for the next few decades.

This series of articles on the Starburst Method has been a rough draft for a book I'm putting together. The book will include more material -- for instance, I'd like to have said something about pacing.

 The Starburst Method, Part 1: A one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 2: Developing our one sentence summary
The Starburst Method, Part 3: Creating a five paragraph summary
The Starburst Method, Part 4: Developing characters
The Starburst Method, Part 5: Creating a five page summary
The Starburst Method, Part 6: Developing scenes
The Starburst Method, Part 7: The character grid
The Starburst Method, Part 8: The rough draft

Further Reading:
Writers Despair
Writers: Don't Despair

"Writing: The Starburst Method, Part 8: The Rough Draft & Narrative Drive" copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.

Sunday, April 29

6 Rules of Writing from John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck and his six rules of writing

I love reading the writing advice of great writers. I hardly ever follow it, but still ...

Here are John Steinbeck's six rules of writing:
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
For myself, I am constitutionally unable to keep from revising as I go, but find it interesting, enlightening even, that nearly every professional writer, blogger, etc., I've ever read on this subject has expressed the sentiment in (3) -- write for one particular person. It can be an idealized person or it can be a real person, but write to someone.

Rule number six I am definitely going to try!

Cheers. Take care and thanks for reading. :-)

- The six rules I list are taken from Maria Popova's marvelous article, "Six Tips on Writing from John Steinbeck".
- I just came across this article: George Orwell's 5 Rules for Effective Writing.

"6 Rules of Writing from John Steinbeck" copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward.

Wednesday, April 25

Writers: Don't Despair

At nineteen they can card you in the bars and tell you to get the fuck out, put your sorry act (and even sorrier ass) back on the street, but they can’t card you when you sit down to paint a picture, write a poem, or tell a story, by God, and if you reading this happen to be very young, don’t let your elders and supposed betters tell you any different. Sure, you’ve never been to Paris. No, you never ran with the bulls at Pamplona. Yes, you’re a pissant who had no hair in your armpits until three years ago – but so what? If you don’t start out too big for your britches, how are you gonna fill ‘em when you grow up? Let it rip regardless of what anybody tells you, that’s my idea; sit down and smoke that baby.
- Stephen King, The Darktower 1: The Gunslinger, Revised Ed.

At the end of the 2010 Surrey International Writer's Conference Robert Dugoni gave a rousing speech entitled, "This Day We Write!" based on the one Aragorn gave at the Black Gate. Close to 1,000 writers were on our feet stamping, clapping, hooting and chanting. There were even some tears. But, mostly, there were face-splitting grins. We left that conference the most inspired we had been in our lives!

One of the things good writing can do, something that is often ignored, is this: It can inspire.

Today I was going to do a follow up on an article I wrote some months ago, Writers Despair, which was about how traditional publishing has changed over the years and how this change has effected writers, especially midlist writers.

But I'm not going to do that.

It's true that many writers despair, and with good reason. Their series have been dropped by publishers, their contracts haven't been renewed, their new work hasn't been accepted. It's not hard to find these stories and it's not hard to find credible predictions that the trend is not only going to continue, but accelerate.

But wait! There's good news. Actually, there's good news and there's great news.

The good news is that good writing will always have an audience. Heck, as Stephen King would stay of James Patterson, it doesn't even have to be all that good! (BTW, I've read a few of Patterson's books and enjoyed them. Personally, I'm rooting for the man, it's great to know a writer can make the kind of money even the CEO of a multinational corporation would be envious of.)

That was the good news, here's the great news: writers now have the ability to create our own audience, one that the vicissitudes of the publishing industry can't cut us off from. We do this by putting up our own websites, by blogging and by being open to the possibility that a self-published book or two could get us exposure and some money without making us a pariah in the industry.

What could we publish? A professional writer usually has a backlist, and it's generally not the case that all those books/short stories/articles are in print. Too often it has been the case that fans have wanted a book but they can't get it. Also, every writer I've met has manuscripts wedged into shoe boxes languishing under beds. Granted, many of those works were first attempts and should stay in exile, but many times they have been rejected, not because they weren't good, but because the publisher couldn't figure out how to market them. Joe Konrath has made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling books his publisher rejected.

I'm not saying that if others can do it then so can you. I'm saying: If others can do it, then why not try? What's it going to cost you? A bit of time and money.

I want to make it clear that I'm not bashing publishers. I know being a traditional publisher is one of the highest risk endeavors on the planet. Restaurants are notoriously high-risk but when restaurant owners get depressed they say to themselves, "It could be worse. At least I'm not a publisher." Traditional publishers, especially small or medium sized publishers, are in business because they love books and are passionate about writing. A few years ago I took a publishing course taught by the owner of a small literary press, one of the most successful small presses in the country, and he approached his work with an evangelistic furor. These men and women are dedicated to their craft.

Unfortunately, though -- and small and medium sized traditional publishers would be the first to tell you this -- it is vanishingly unlikely that the overwhelming majority of writers who are published by them -- not those who submit their work, but who are accepted and published -- will be able to live on what they are paid.

But that doesn't mean you can't make a living as a writer. Times have changed and we must change with them.

This pep talk was as much for me as for anyone else. I think, really, it comes down to this:
Write what you are inspired to write, get what you've written out to people however you can, through any medium you can, and eventually success will follow.
I believe that.

Recommended Reading:
Stephen King: On Writing

Other blog posts of mine you might like:
Writers Despair
How To Publish On Amazon
The Starburst Method

Stephen King's Greatest Lesson For Writers
Surrey international Writers Conference
Robert Dugoni

Photo credit: Recruiterpoet's Blog

"Writers: Don't Despair!" copyright© 2012 by Karen Woodward

Saturday, July 30

Stephen King On What A Successful Novel Should Be

Stephen King has written an introduction to a new edition of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Here is an excerpt:
To me, Lord of the Flies has always represented what novels are for; what makes them indispensable. Should we expect to be entertained when we read a story? Of course. An act of the imagination that doesn’t entertain is a poor act indeed. But there should be more. A successful novel should erase the boundary line between writer and reader, so they can unite. When that happens, the novel becomes a part of life – the main course, not the dessert. A successful novel should interrupt the reader’s life, make him or her miss appointments, skip meals, forget to walk the dog. In the best novels, the writer’s imagination becomes the reader’s reality. It glows, incandescent and furious. I’ve been espousing these ideas for most of my life as a writer, and not without being criticised for them. If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination, the most potent of these criticisms go, then analysis is swept away and discussion of the book becomes irrelevant.

I agree that “This blew me away” is pretty much of a non-starter when it comes to class discussion of a novel (or a short story, or a poem), but I would argue it’s still the beating heart of fiction. “This blew me away” is what every reader wants to say when he closes a book, isn’t it? And isn’t it exactly the sort of experience most writers want to provide?

Nor does a visceral, emotional reaction to a novel preclude analysis. I finished the last half of Lord of the Flies in a single afternoon, my eyes wide, my heart pounding, not thinking, just inhaling. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since, for 50 years and more. My rule of thumb as a writer and a reader – largely formed by Lord of the Flies – is feel it first, think about it later. Analyse all you want, but first dig the experience.

Read the entire article: Stephen King on 'Lord of the Flies'

Monday, November 8

Query, Synopsis and First Three Chapters are In The Mail :-)

Today I (finally!) mailed off the requested materials for my story, Until Death, to Harlequin.   Yea!  My writer friends told me that I simply had to celebrate this milestone so I treated myself to a tall eggnog latte and holiday gingerbread at Starbucks.  Yum.

I had planned to mail the Synopsis out a week ago but one thing after another came up until I felt like Sisyphus, but instead of pushing a rock up a hill I was trying to put my query in the mail!  Most of the things that came up were silly things like not realizing I had to buy US stamps for the SASE and my printer running out of ink -- instances of Murphy's Law rearing its ugly and unpredictable head.

Talk to you tomorrow. :)

Saturday, November 6

On Writing by Stephen King

 For years I have wanted to read Stephen Kings book, On Writing.  Last week I broke procrastination's steely grip and picked up a copy.  Wow!  I wish I had read it when it was first published.  Death to Adverbs!  We'll let the occasional adjective live, but only on prisoner's rations.  I realize I'm flirting with cliches and other bad habits, but it's fun and that's what writing should be, right?

Today I’ve been looking through some of my favorite books with a critical eye.  Do they rely on adverbs or the passive voice, etc.?  The results have been interesting.  I opened a friend's book to a random page.  Those paragraphs which had few or no sentences using the passive voice, adverbs, etc., were much easier to read, they flowed off the tongue.  It makes me feel like a dunce, I should have realized this before.  Better late than never.