Showing posts with label how to write well. Show all posts
Showing posts with label how to write well. Show all posts

Monday, December 12

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story

Be a Book Doctor: How to Evaluate Your Own Story

Book doctors are wonderful. A book doctor is someone who isn’t your husband/wife/parent/friend, someone who can be objective toward your manuscript, someone who can dispassionately evaluate the content and structure of your story. And this can be an enormous help, especially at the beginning of your manuscript when you’re working on your story’s overall structure and shape.

But you don’t have to send your story off to someone else. You can be your own book doctor. How? The first step is to put your manuscript in a drawer and try to forget about it for a week or two. When you take the manuscript out of the drawer you’ll be able to see it more objectively.

There are a few stories I wrote so long ago that I no longer remember them. Reading them again was like reading the work of a stranger. It was painful but rewarding! At the time I wrote it I felt that something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly needed to be fixed. When I reread the story after a period of years I realized that the story had no midpoint, no crisis, no moment of revelation. The good news: as soon as I saw the structural defect it was surprisingly easy to fix.

So, if you don’t want to send your work off to a book doctor then put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks. Reread the manuscript through from top to bottom and ask yourself the following questions:[1]


  • Does each scene have a goal and stakes? Does the main character want something in every scene, even if it is only a glass of water?
  • Do you include sequels after the scenes? Or even mini-sequels between scenes (this works especially well if you have one scene per chapter).


  • Does each act have a main overriding goal and are the stakes spelled out?

Overall Structure:

  • Is there a major turn/twist of the plot at the 25, 50 and 75 percent marks?
  • Is there a clear Call to Adventure?
  • Around the middle of the book—the midpoint crisis—the protagonist needs to understand the story world in a different light. Sometimes this information is about one of the characters—the love interest, the protagonist, the mentor, the protagonist’s helper—or about the Special World of the Adventure.
  • Is the Special World of the Adventure strikingly different from the Ordinary World of  the protagonist’s ordinary life?
  • Is the protagonist locked into the quest by the 25 percent mark.
  • Does the protagonist have an All Is Lost moment at around the 75 percent mark?
  • Is there a race to the finish after the All Is Lost point and before the climax?
  • Is it clear that the climax is a final test, one that at most one character can win?
  • Are the stakes cashed out and all loose ends tied up before the story ends?


  • What state of affairs would make the protagonist happy?
  • What danger/obstacle prevents the protagonist from achieving this happy state of affairs?
  • Does the protagonist have a moral compass? Does the climax hinge on a moral issue? That is, does it hinge on a point of selflessness vs unselfishness? (Selfishness: Abandonment of conviction for the sake of personal advantage. Unselfishness: Adherence to principle despite the temptation of self-interest.)
  • This is just something to think about, it’s not a hard and fast rule: Is the protagonist good but not the brightest penny in the jar or are they brilliant but morally flexible? It doesn’t always happen that the protagonist is one or the other, but there does seem to be a bit of a tradeoff between these two characteristics.

Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)

A few months ago I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. He is a master of telling folks how to make the most of their time. He helped me! In time for the holidays he's come out with another book: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. I haven't read it yet, but it's at the top of my to-be-read list.


1. Many of these questions I’ve taken from Janice Hardy’s wonderful article: How to Be Your Own Book Doctor.

Thursday, August 28

Six Ways To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm For Your Work In Progress

Six Ways To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm For Your Work In Progress

Enthusiasm. Passion. Inspiration.

These words are pale descriptions, gestures toward the drive that causes us to bury ourselves in basement offices and spend hours writing (and then hours more reading). 

I feel as though I’ve just come off a bender. For a week I’ve had that white hot passion of creation living inside me, almost like a drunkenness burning me up inside, driving me on.

It was wonderful!

And yes, I let everything else in my life slide and for that my apologies. I was programming, something I haven’t done in years, and it felt wonderful to flex those old muscles. 

Now, though, that the program is done the passion has bled away and I woke up today feeling decidedly uninspired.

How To Rekindle Your Enthusiasm

My renewed passion for programming made me think about my WIP and how dispassionate I feel toward it. I was looking for a topic to blog about. I don’t want to saturate you with news about my program and all the cool things I’m discovering, I’ll blog about that often enough in the days and weeks and months to come. But then I thought, well, that’s what I’ll write about, getting one’s enthusiasm back. (And, yes, I do this often; write the blog post I need to read.)

The Great Swampy Middle of Despair

At the moment I’m slogging through the middle bits of a first draft. I’ve adopted Jim Butcher’s terminology for the middle section of a novel: the great swampy middle of despair. (I added the part about despair, but I think it fits.)

You saw or read Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” right? Remember the part where Frodo picks his way through the Dead Marshes. That, right there. That’s the great swampy middle.

So, today, I thought I’d write about how to rekindle one’s enthusiasm, how to fall back in love with your WIP.

1. Don’t get out of bed right away.

Close your eyes. Imagine. What story are you working on? If you’re writing a first draft, or are at the index card/outline stage, the first few moments of consciousness can be pure gold.

Keep your eyes closed. Don’t think about all the meddlesome, anxiety provoking minutia of the day ahead (the day crouching before you like a starving tiger). Don’t think about all the boring things, all the tedious tasks, you have to do. Think instead about the story you’re in equal measures discovering and creating.

Where did you leave off? What is the viewpoint character doing? (Or, alternatively, what is the narrator experiencing?) What do they want? Why don’t they get it?

Use this time of creative semi-consciousness to rev up your muse.

(Yes, you may fall back to sleep but that’s what the snooze button is for!)

2. Keep a writing journal ready to hand.

I never know when inspiration will pounce. I’ll be thinking about a problem, trying to solve it, then as I’m walking to my car with my arms full of groceries, bam! My unconscious births a creative solution.

If you’re anything like me you need to write this down. I can’t tell you how many times I had a revelation, one I was sure to remember it was so staggeringly obvious—and then I forgot!

The journal doesn’t have to be fancy. I have two, and both are plain. One is a simple lined book with a spiral binding. I keep the cover closed with an elastic band—but it works! The book is small enough to live comfortably in my purse. Now when I have an idea I have a place to write it down. I keep another journal with me during the day—I think of it as my RAM. I write everything in there, lists, little reminders, story ideas. It’s where I scribble out rough drafts for these blog posts! I leave it on my bedside table before I go to sleep just in case I have a story idea during the night.

3. Have a support network.

I have people in my life who know me well enough and like me well enough to badger me, to be the two year old in the backseat: Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you ...

Yes, you don’t want too much of that but I can’t tell you how many times just knowing there were people who would realize I was slacking off, how much that motivated me to shake off the blahs, the negative thoughts, and keep going. And not only to keep going, it helped fan the fading ember of enthusiasm, of passionate affection, back to life.

4. Have a system.

I almost entitled this point “outline” but decided against it because, while I think everyone would benefit from having some sort of system I don’t think everyone would benefit from outlining. Different strokes and all that.

Take where I’m at right now. As I mentioned, I’m slogging through the middle of my story, poised right between, right on the cusp, of my kick-ass protagonist confronting the Big Bad.

I think what was bothering me about the scene was that she was too passive. But anyway. I turned away from my slog to do something (for me) infinitely more pleasurable—write a simple VB program in an attempt to find an objective measure for whether (given my tastes and predilections) a book is well written.

That has taken me away from my WIP for almost a week, but I’m able to go back and reengage with my material because I made an outline.

Yes, things in the story have changed, have deviated in small and large ways from the outline. And that’s fine. That’s as it should be. A story is a living, breathing, entity that has a will and a trajectory of its own.

Still, though, my outline keeps me tethered to the main themes, it helps me keep in mind the major beats and why they’re there. It tells me where I’m headed.

So, that’s my advice: Have a system. It doesn’t have to be a detailed system. Your system may be to collect images of what your characters look like from the many interesting recesses of the internet and pin them to various boards using Pinterest. Or you may scout the internet for exotic photos that may become the various locations in your novel. Perhaps you even have it worked out that this location, these people, come onstage in the beginning, then we shift to this board of pictures over here for the middle and then ... and so on.

The important thing is to have something that will help you get back into the groove if life calls you away, interrupts your progress, and steals the momentum you’ve build up.

5. Do something you love.

Do something that feeds your soul. Something that, when you hold the image of it in your mind, makes you smile.

6. Imagine something wonderful.

Writing is imagining. Use your imagination to experience how you will feel, not just once you’ve completed the first draft, but once you’ve done the last edit, once you’ve received your manuscript back from your copy editor and, by god, you’re done! Finished.

It’s quite the feeling, quite the high to have not only birthed a story but shared that story with the world.

Our stories are potentially immortal. They carry with them a bit of who we are, a bit of our souls, ensuring that a part of us will live on. If that’s not something to get excited about, I don’t know what is.

Photo credit: "Canon EOS 1N and Kodak Ultramax 400 - Cat shot" by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, August 22

Descriptivism and Word Lists

Descriptivism and Word Lists

In the next few weeks and months, in addition to looking at the abstract principles of writing I want to spend time examining actual writing. I want to dissect various novels in an effort to understand how they’ve been put together as well as what makes them work. 

“Very” is a four letter word

A few days ago I came across this article from “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.” It’s a good list. I agree with Mark Twain that the word “very” should be used sparingly, if at all, and there are other words and phrases (“it’s a fact that”) which don’t add meaning to sentences. The more unnecessary words a sentence has, the more difficult it is to read.

But one of the lists I came across included “you” as a problem word. Another listed “as.” Yet another advised writers to eschew “fierce” in favor of “ferocious.” 

Everyone has their own opinions on these things, and that’s as it should be—it would be intensely boring if we agreed with each other about everything—but in my humble opinion advising writers not to use the word “you” is crazy!

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

In linguistics there’s a distinction between those who champion one way of speaking over another—prescriptivists—and those who objectively analyze and describe how a language is spoken—descriptivists.

I’m more of a descriptivist. In that spirit, I wanted to spend time looking at various kinds of books and examining how they’ve been put together. I would like to discover, as much as possible, what makes them great (or terrible).

To start with, I think it would be illuminating to take a look at the words most commonly used in various kinds of books. That way, if I’m writing (for example) a mystery story I could look up what words mystery writers tended to avoid as well as which ones they tended to use. 

Note that this exercise isn’t about finding words a writer should use or those they shouldn’t; that’s completely up to the writer. There are no right or wrong words, but I think information about relative word frequency could be interesting and helpful. 

I propose to divide books up into two broad categories:

A. Best selling books.

For my purposes I’m going to count any book that has made it onto a national best seller list. For example, the New York Times Best Sellers list. Also, any book that has had a rank of 100 or less in the (paid) Kindle store is a best seller. (These books would be further divided according to genre.)

B. Award winning literary books.

This list would include books that won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize, the Edgar Awards, the National Book Awards, and so on.

I’m interested in what are the most commonly used words in books in each of these categories and subcategories. Further, I’m interested in whether particular words are unique to particular categories. However, since I do not have a lot of time to spend on this, I’ll initially limit myself to, say, 20 books in all. That is not going to be a representative sample (not even close!), but hopefully it will be enough to reveal an interesting pattern or two.

Weak Words

I’ve compiled a list of words I’m going to call “weak words.” These are words like “very” and “literally,” words that generally don’t add to the meaning of sentences and so serve only to bloat them, making them harder to read.

As a descriptivist it would seem to stand to reason that if there is a certain word every award winning literary book uses then beginning writers shouldn’t be encouraged to steer clear of it (for example, “you”). Similarly, if no literary book uses a certain word (for example, “very”)—or if only a smattering of them do—then it would be interesting to investigate further and see if there’s a reason for that.

I hope that when I’m finished with my investigation I’ll be able to publish an article entitled, “Top 10 Words Award-Winning Literary Writers Never Use.” (It would be interesting if there was a word that literary writers never used that best selling writers always did and vice versa.)

Although Stephen King generally isn’t regarded as a literary writer, I’m particularly interested in seeing the difference between the 100 most common words in Stephen Kings’ “Under The Dome” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”

Beyond Words

While I’m at it, I also want to take a look at the first 300 words of a few novels—novels I’ve loved, novels I would have been thrilled to write. I expect it will turn out that many of these novels communicate a lot of information quickly and in such a way that it draws the reader in. 

Specifically, I want to ask the following questions:

1. What is the narrative point of view?

Is it first-person, second-person, third-person? Does the POV alternate between viewpoint characters?

2. If the POV is third-person then:

a. Is the narrator ensconced inside a character (the viewpoint character)?
b. If yes to (a) is the narrator the same entity as the viewpoint character or are they different. For example, does the narrator know things that the viewpoint character couldn’t.

3. Does the narrator float between viewpoint characters?

4. How many of the characters are introduced? What do we know about them from the descriptions given?

5. What are the character’s goals? What is their motivation for pursing their goals?

6. Has the writer set up a time-frame in which the character’s must obtain their goal? (I like to think of this as a ticking clock.)

 I believe it will turn out that most novels establish the answers to these questions in the first few paragraphs.

Short Stories

If this goes well, down the road I wouldn’t mind looking at the first 300 or so words of short stories and comparing the amount of information imparted there to the amount given at the beginnings of novels. It would be interesting to see just how much more information is crammed into the first few paragraphs of a short story.

That’s it! I missed a post this week so I’ll blog again on Saturday (tomorrow) and talk about my analysis of J.K. Rowling’s, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

Wednesday, August 20

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

Try-Fail Cycles And The Gap

As many of you know, I’m reading Robert McKee’s, Story. It seems like each page—certainly each chapterhe looks at an old concept in a new way, one that reveals fresh and previously unsuspected dimensions of the writer’s craft. Today, I want to talk about a concept McKee introduces, one related to but distinct from try-fail cycles: the gap. 

Try-Fail Cycles and The Gap

Try-fail cycles

We’re all familiar with try-fail cycles. The protagonist wants something. He tries to get it. A complication is thrown in his way. He circumvents the complication and forges ahead seeking the object of his desire. Another complication gets in his way. And so on until the end of the scene when the character either achieves his object of desire or is denied it. 

You see the pattern: desire, action, result. The protagonist desires something, tries to get it several times, fails each time because of a complication he didn’t foresee and then, finally, either achieves his desire or fails to do so.

The Gap

I think the gap is a part of many, if not most, try-fail cycles. Here’s how McKee explains it in Story:

“The protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach. Consciously or unconsciously he chooses to take a particular action, motivated by the thought or feeling that this act will cause the world to react in a way that will be a positive step toward achieving his desire. From his subjective point of view the action he has chosen seems minimal, conservative, yet sufficient to effect the reaction he wants. But the moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected.

“This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result, between what he thought would happen when he took his action and what in fact does happen between his sense of probability and true necessity.”

An Example of The Gap at Work: The Matrix

Mckee uses the script from Chinatown to illustrate the gap, and it is a terrific example, but I’m not going to use it. Why? Because McKee used it in his book of course it’s a great example! Of course it works! Instead, I’m going to look at one of my favorite movies, The Matrix.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Matrix where Trinity is sitting in a room with police officers encircling her, their guns drawn, ready to shoot. Remember it? That’s the scene I want to talk about.

There aren’t a lot of try-fail cycles in this scene. Police officers try to arrest Trinity (as their lieutenant described her, “one little girl,”) and she kills them. Further, she kills them by doing things like running along walls and using visually stunning martial arts moves. (Later on she discovers that agents—beings who can kill her—are after her, but that’s later in the sequence.)

There are three perspectives we can view this scene from: Trinity, the police officers and the audience.

The expectation of the POLICE:
The police officers assume that, though this particular situation may be a little strange, they can handle it. After all, it’s only “one little girl.” 

The reality the POLICE find:
The police find a young woman who has a fondness for black plastic, one who is a killing machine.

The expectation of the police and the reality they find are way off. There’s a huge gap. That’s part of what makes this scene interesting.

The expectation of TRINITY:
Trinity is suspicious that her line was tapped but she believes Cypher when he says it’s clean. She expects to receive the call that will allow her to escape the Matrix.

The reality TRINITY finds:
Not only doesn’t the call come, but police officers surround her, guns drawn. She’s not worried about the police, she knows she can handle them, but now she knows the line was tapped. How is that possible? What does it mean?

The expectation of the VIEWER:
The first time I watched The Matrix this scene was an eye-popper. I suspected Trinity was much more lethal than she seemed, but I had no idea what form that would take. 

The reality:
The entire scene was extreme. First, it is not very often that one of the good guys kills police officers. That was shocking. Second, the way she killed them ... I don’t think anyone had seen anything like it before. The combination of martial arts moves and special effects was cinematic eye candy.

In the end, what matters is the reaction of the audience, but the reactions of the characters feed into this. As we watch, we process the reaction of the police officers. We understand the gap between what they expected and what they found. We also understand the gap between what Trinity expected and what she found. This all goes into our reaction, it adds depth to it.


One of the things I like about McKee’s way of looking at scene building—his notion of the gap—is that it emphasizes the inner world of the character. It focuses the writer’s mind, as well as the readers/viewers, on the character’s thoughts and expectations. In so doing, it emphasizes that this inner world is going to be at variance with the world of the story. After all, if everything was exactly as our characters imagined there would be no story; at least, not an interesting one.

Photo credit: "trinity river, fort worth, texas" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 23

Spice Up A Boring Scene With Conflict

Have you ever written a boring scene? Of course! We all have. It’s called a first draft. Today, though, I’m talking about scenes that have snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions and yet are better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

When presented with a scene like this a writer has two choices: cut it and send it to the great recycle bin in the sky or make it work. One way to make a lifeless scene work is to add conflict.

On Monday, I began looking at how conflict can add interest to what would otherwise be a boring scene by examining a scene from Michael Bay’s movie, "The Rock." Today I’m going to talk about Chris Winkle’s article: “Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story."

1. Put the good guys and gals in a jar and shake!

Give the protagonist’s allies deep and abiding differences. Give them differences that can make it impossible for them to work together, even though they're both--theoretically--on the same side.

The classic example here--it even has a trope named after it--is Leonard McCoy and Spock. These characters embodied two opposing states or qualities: Reason/logic versus emotion.

For example, this is a familiar scenario from Star Trek: A member of the away team has beamed down to a hostile world. He is in trouble. If the Captain doesn't intervene, he'll die. The problem: If the Captain uses advanced technology to rescue the team member, then he will violate the Prime Directive. (Like that hasn't happened about a zillion times!)
Spock: You can do nothing, Captain. To interfere would violate the Prime Directive. Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. The crewman must be sacrificed.

Bones: Spock, you pointy-eared hobgoblin, do you have ice water for blood?! He is our crewman; we can't just leave him out there to rot. It's not civilized, it's not human.

Spock: Doctor, I fail to see what his species has to do with it.

Kirk: Gentlemen!
Or the difference could be more light-hearted, Bones looking forward to the diversions of a pleasure-planet versus Spock's complete disinterest.

2. Ramp up the protagonist’s inner conflict.

Protagonists are just like your average human--even when they’re from another galaxy. They want things that are mutually exclusive. For example, they want their parents to be proud of them but they also want to live their own lives as they see fit. Sometimes these two goals coincide--often they don’t.

Spock’s father wanted him to attend the Vulcan Science Academy but Spock chose, instead, to join Star Fleet. His father was not pleased. It made those rare times when he stayed on the Enterprise especially interesting.

3. Have a strong rivalry between the protagonist and the scene antagonist.

Winkle writes that what is important in an enemy is that “their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s.”

For instance, if a scene is dragging but you don’t want to cut it then think about introducing an enemy, one whose goals and methods are opposite to those of the protagonist.

Winkle suggests that to amp up the interest you could make the scene antagonist someone who the protagonist hurt in the past or vice versa.

4. Cripple your protagonist temporarily.

Take a proverbial crow bar to your protagonist’s kneecaps right when he needs them the most. (This is what happens at the Major Setback.)

For example, perhaps the hero has something, perhaps a magical gem, magical powers or perhaps a person (for instance, his mentor) he counts on to help him achieve his goal. Take this away, take away his support system, and take it away at the worst possible moment. (for example, when Obi Wan Kenobi dies in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”)

Or you could disgrace your protagonist socially. Perhaps your protagonist is the CEO of a company that needs the goodwill of its investors to bring her plans to fruition. If she is disgraced, this backing will disappear. Alternatively, perhaps the protagonist is about to sign a lucrative, life changing, contract with a large company when pictures of her posing beside dead exotic animals surface.

5. Bring on the destructor!

Winkle’s subtitle for this point is “Unleash Disaster,” which is a much better subtitle, but I re-watched “Ghostbusters” last week and couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever played “SimCity,” you know the unholy glee of unleashing a disaster on your unsuspecting Sims. It can be entertaining to sit back and revel in the destruction, comfortable in the knowledge you’ve saved the game.

The same thing goes for your story. Winkle writes:

“There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are traveling. They’re also a great option if you need a conflict that only shows up once, then disappears.”

Well said! And it can be a good way of killing off unnecessary characters.

Natural disasters can transform a setting in short order, mixing things up, introducing multiple sources of conflict: food and water shortages, different and more severe weather patterns and of course all sorts of wild and hungry beasties wandering around.

Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story,” by Chris Winkle is a terrific article, one I highly recommend.

That’s it! If one of your scenes drags, how do you fix it?

Photo credit: "max" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 21

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Today I want to take a look at Michael Bay's movie The Rock and examine how Bay uses conflict to keep our eyes on the screen.

The Importance of Conflict

At the time The Rock (1996) was released several critics were less than kind. Though generally positive in his comments, Roger Ebert pointed out that the movie borrowed from: The Fugitive, Bullitt, Escape From Alcatraz, The Third Man, Alien, Die Hard and Pulp Fiction.

Nevertheless, Ebert concluded his review of the movie by saying:

"No matter. Director Michael Bay ("Bad Boys") orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense. And it's interesting to see how good actors like Connery, Cage and Harris can find a way to occupy the center of this whirlwind with characters who somehow manage to be quirky and convincing. There are several Identikit Hollywood action stars who can occupy the center of chaos like this, but not many can make it look like they think they're really there. Watching "The Rock," you really care about what happens. You feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that's part of the ride."

Roger Ebert, to my surprise, gave The Rock 3.5 out of a possible 4 stars.

I agree. I watched this movie to be entertained. Well, that, and to try and understand why Michael Bay's films work. (And, despite what his numerous critics say, they do work, especially at the Box Office.)

Here's why I think Michael Bay's movies work: Conflict. Namely, the expert management of sustained conflict. 

(That, and keeping the viewer slightly off-balance, not giving them a chance to look away. This, though, is more about cinematography. By the way, one of my marvelous Google+ contacts, +Chris Pitchford, shared this link to what I thought was a valuable, thoughtful, analysis of what makes Michael Bay's movies work: Michael Bay: What is Bayhem?)

In any case, as I watched The Rock I thought about Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and thought about how these tips/tricks could be seen in Michael Bay's work.

For example, Winkle writes: "Conflict is what makes a story interesting."

And I think that the success of The Rock supports that point.

For example (spoiler warning) the last scene of the movie has Stanley Goodspeed (played by Nickolas Cage) running from a chapel towards a beaten up old car. The car has a "just married" sign taped to the back and tin cans have been attached to the bumper via string. Stanley's bride--still wearing her white wedding dress--is behind the steering wheel watching for her husband. Stanley bursts out of the chapel pursued by a cleric who passionately accuses him of filching something. Cage hops in the car and his bride floors it. The car shoots forward, trailing streamers and a host of tin cans. As the car pulls away Stanley examines the package he absconded with: a roll of microfilm. The tiny package holds the governments most guarded secrets: Who shot JFK? Do aliens exist? And so on.

The scene is very short. The needed information is communicated--Stanley found the microfilm--but what could have been a fairly dull scene was turned into a spectacle, something that didn't give the audience the opportunity to look away--not that we wanted to.

And how did Michael Bay accomplish this? Through conflict. Through spectacle. The conflict: the cleric pursuing Stanley. The spectacle: a cleric chasing a groom out of the chapel he was just married him. Their getaway car trails paper streamers and tin cans. That has to be the worst getaway car in the history of movies! But that's just it, the whole thing is over the top. 

Cage finding the microfilm could have been dull. It's not like at the end of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where we see the warehouse that seems to stretch to infinity, providing another (similar) hint of mystery. It is as though the movie says: here are the secrets worth knowing. And then they are placed beyond our reach.

In my post on Wednesday I'll talk about Chris Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and explore how inserting conflict into an otherwise lackluster scene can help make it pop.

Photo credit: "Kidzilla Babysitting" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 3

Roy Peter Clark Tells Us How To Write Better Prose

Sometimes I make the most wonderful discoveries.

Case in point, two days ago, as I wove my way through the jungle of the Internet I came upon Roy Peter Clark and his book Writing Tools. That would have been wonderful all by itself, but it got better!

Next I discovered Mr. Clark had narrated 50 podcasts, one for each chapter in his book ... and that each chapter's narration was only about 2 minutes each! And it's free! If you'd like to take a look, here's the link: Roy's Writing Tools.

So far I've listened to the first 10 podcasts. At that time I'd been putting the finishing touches on a story and I think it helped polish up my prose.

By the way, I had no idea who Roy Peter Clark was so here's a short bio:
"Roy Peter Clark (born 1948) is an American writer, editor, and teacher of writing who has become a writing coach to an international community of students, journalists, and writers of many sorts. He is also senior scholar and vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a journalism think-tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, and is the founder of the National Writers Workshop. Clark has appeared on several radio and television talk shows, speaking about ethics in journalism and other writing issues." (Roy Peter Clark, Wikipedia)
Enough background, let's jump in.

10 ways to make your prose stronger


1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.

This is called a right-branching sentence which is one that has the main clause on the far right. If it were on the far left then--you guessed it!--we'd call it a left-branching sentence.

Here's an example of a right-branching sentence:
"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain." (Stephen King, It)
That's the opening line from Stephen King's It. The core sentence reads: The terror began with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

Beautiful! We're oriented immediately. What is King going to be talking about? The terror. What about the terror? How it began. Then he goes on to talk about a boat made of newspaper. My reaction: That is a mighty odd way for something referred to as "the terror" to begin. Instantly, I'm interested.

But anyway, that was a digression. A right-branching sentence gives us the subject--the doer--and the verb--the action--right up front so that when we pile on qualifiers there's less of a chance readers will become confused.

Clarity is king! (Yes, that was a little punny.)

2. Order words for emphasis. Place strong words at the beginning of a sentence or at the end.

It's the same with paragraphs. The first word of a paragraph, as well as the last, should pack a punch. Here's an example from Shakespeare:

"The Queen, my Lord, is dead."

There we have the emphasis at the end. Pow!

3.  Use strong verbs.

We've heard this advice before but it is so very true. Strong verbs help create interesting, engaging, stories.

Strong verbs:
- Create action
- Save words
- Reveal the players

Ian Flemming, creator of James Bond, was particularly skilled at using strong verbs. Here's the key: we want our characters to preform the action of the verb. For example:

"Bond climbed the stairs."
"Sunlight filtered through the curtains."

Simple. Uncluttered. Clear.

Mr. Clark quotes George Orwell as saying: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

4. Use passive verbs to showcase the victim of the action.

It used to be that when folks stressed the importance of strong verbs I'd wonder: Is there really no place for weak verbs? There is!

Mr. Clark uses this sentence to demonstrate this point, it's from Steinbeck:

"The night was loaded with omens."

Steinbeck could have written, "Omens loaded the night," but Mr. Clark writes that this would have been unfair to both the night, the omens and the music of the sentence. I agree.

5. Use adverbs to change the meaning of a sentence.

When I first heard the advice to forgo using adverbs I was boggled. Why the hate for adverbs? How else should we say something like, "I was not able to go"?

Of course it's not adverbs, all adverbs, so much as it is "-ly" adverbs, adverbs such as justly, enthusiastically, dismally, loudly, and so on.

For instance,

"Turn down the music," she screamed loudly.

Typing that hurt! Why? Well, how else would one scream other than loudly? "Loudly" doesn't add anything to that sentence and so works counter to our over-riding goal: clarity.

But what about,

"Turn down the music," Jan screamed weakly.

That gives us something new. "Angrily" or "desperately" wouldn't have worked as well because often--though not always--when people scream they're angry or even desperate. However weakness isn't part of the concept of screaming so it's adding something new, perhaps even something unexpected. Why is she weak?

Perhaps it would be better if we wrote something like:

"Turn down the music," Jan screamed, or tried to. What came out was an unintelligible sound, a dry rasping, nearly drowned out by the pounding of her heart. She couldn't catch her breath. There was someone in the house, someone else, someone who shouldn't be there, but who could hear anything above the discordant jangling of the music? Clinging to the banister, she gasped for breath and with a trembling hand reached for her asthma inhaler.

Or something like that.

In the last example I used words to try and paint a picture. I wanted to show the reader that Jan was desperate and give him or her a peek behind the curtain, give him or her an idea why Jan was desperate.

Rule of thumb: Use "-ly" adverbs only if they change the meaning of the verb. For example, "She smiled sadly."

6. Take it easy on the INGs.

Minimize ING endings, use "s" or "ed" instead. Why?

a. Adding ING adds a syllable to the word.
b. ING words tend to resemble each other.

Which sentence do you prefer?

i. My friend Kelly likes to walk, run, cycle and swim.
ii. My friend Kelly likes walking, running, cycling and swimming.

7. Don't be afraid to use long sentences.

Mr. Clark writes that length will make a bad sentence worse but it will make a good sentence better.

Here are some tips on making long sentences work:

a. Have the subject and main verb come early in the main clause of the sentence.
b. Use the long sentence to describe something long. For example, a long elevator ride, trip, walk, etc.
c. Let form follow function.
d. Write the action of the sentence in chronological order.
e. Use long sentences alongside sentences of short and medium length.

8. Establish a pattern and then give it a twist.

Mr. Clark tells us to build parallel constructions but cut across the grain. For example:

Parallel: Faith, hope and love. (Each noun has equal impact.)

Parallel with a twist: Faith, hope and being kind and nice to your neighbors even though they're terrible to you.

Pure parallel structure: boom, boom, boom.

Parallel with a twist: boom, boom, bang.

Mr. Clark points out that Superman doesn't stand for truth, justice and patriotism, he stands for truth, justice and the American way. Two parallel nouns with a twist.

9. Let punctuation control pace and space.

We punctuate for two reasons:
a. To set the pace of the reading.
b. To divide words, phrases and ideas into convenient groupings.

A sentence with no punctuation but a period is a straight road with a stop sign at the end.

A paragraph with a lot of periods in it will have a lot of stop signs and therefore a slower pace. This is good for providing clarity, for conveying emotion and for creating suspense.

Comma: Speed bump
Semi-colon: A rolling stop
Parenthetical expression: A detour.
Colon: Flashing yellow light that announces something important is up ahead.
Dash: Tree branch in the road.

10. Prune the big limps then shake out the dead leaves.

Simply put: Cut big then small. Mr. Clark holds that creativity must be moderated by cold-hearted judgement.

Brevity comes from selection not compression. Lift entire blocks from the work.

- Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
- Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
- Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
- Mark optional trims, then decide whether they should be actual cuts.
- Murder your darlings.

That's it! I hope you found something that could help put a little extra zing in your writing.

Once again, these points have come from Roy Peter Clark's series of podcasts entitled Roy's Writing Tools.

Photo credit: "STHLM #17" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, August 7

Kristen Lamb: 5 Steps To Writing Success

Writing Success
Writing Success

Kristen Lamb writes the best posts! I love her writing style; it feels as though just the two of us are sitting together, having a cup of coffee, chatting.

Yesterday Kristen came out with another fabulous post, this time about how to unlock writing success.

1) Passion
Obviously writers need passion, but a lot of the time this ingredient is overlooked. Kristen writes:
This should be a, “Yeah, no duh,” but, sadly, it isn’t. I meet a lot of people who say they want to be a professional author, but the second they face any opposition or criticism they give up. Here is the thing, if we really LOVE it, we won’t give up.
2) Self-Discipline
It may seem counter-intuitive, but my experience has been that the more you write the more you can write. For myself, this has become apparent through blogging. Each weekday I post two blog posts, one per day on the weekend/holidays.

Of course, life happens. But, usually, generally, that's my blogging schedule. And you know what? I've found I can sit down and write more fiction! (* knock on wood *) The blank page doesn't invoke in me the horror/anxiety it once did. Kristen writes:
One of the main reasons I am such a proponent of blogging is that it trains writers for a professional pace. It trains us to meet deadlines. Disciplined people work no matter what, and they finish what they start.
I have a feeling that, compared to Kristen I'm something of a wuss, but she's right: Writer's write.

3) Humility
Kristen says it best:
I used to have a problem with deadlines and self-discipline. I had the attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat. That was why I began blogging. I knew that those character flaws would always limit me. Even though it was embarrassing to admit I had some deep flaws, it would have been impossible to ever combat that weakness if I hadn’t mustered the courage and humility to recognize where I fell fatally short.
I love that description! "The attention span of a crack-addicted fruit bat." Describes me to a tee! So nice to know others suffer from that particular malady.

My theory is that many writers are held back from writing because they feel they must be perfect, that what they write must be perfect. In my view, as long as someone holds on to that idea the act of writing will be fraught with anxiety. It is when we let go of expectations--those of our parents, those of society and, most importantly, our own--that we can be free to express who we really are.

4) Healthy Relationship with Failure
 Kristen writes:
If we aren’t failing, then we aren’t doing anything interesting. Expect failure. Better yet, embrace failure.
Amen! Another person to preach this particular message is Seth Godin, and I couldn't agree more. I think it ties in with what I said above about letting go of the idea that we must be perfect. We need to allow ourselves to fail. Repeatedly. Unless we embrace failure, we'll never succeed.

5) Be Bold: Try Something New
This point is mine, you can't blame Kristen for it! :p If you've been writing mostly in, say, the paranormal genre shake it up and try writing something for another genre, romance for instance. They say that variety is the spice of life, try something new! Often times doing something unusual or uncommon can refresh our daily routine.

To read Kristen Lamb's entire article, click here: Unlocking Your Great Future—5 Keys to Writing Success

Well, that's it! I hope you have a productive writing day. Cheers!

Oh, by the way, Kristen Lamb has set up an archive of royalty free images over at Flickr called, Wana Commons. Nice!

Further reading:
- Query Tracker: Keep Track Of Your Stories
- Twylah: Turn Your Tweets Into A Blog
- How To Sell 100 Books Per Day: 6 Things You Need To Do

Photo credit: The Grant Goddess Speaks