Writing Tools: Book, Blurb & Collage

Writing Tools Collage.jpg

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, Writing Tools, written by Roy Peter Clark. A great tool for any writer looking to hone their craft.  High-res version of the image is right here.

 

Another book read, another set of shiny pencils to toss into the toolbox.   Writing Tools, written by Roy Peter Clark, is a book I would highly recommend.  The book provides you with, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (which is emblazoned on the cover).

writing tool book.jpgEach strategy is a chapter/section of its own, and I found them to be very easy to read and understand.  Clark uses examples from published works to emphasize points and support his writing.  The quotes I placed in the photo are some of the one-liners he provides at the opening of his chapters.

Additionally, this book offers some really interesting tools and tips to work through common issues writers face.  I have referenced his work in past blog posts—most notably his strategy for busting up clichés (located here).

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is the sheer amount of well-written content.  Many of the non-fiction writing books I own have twenty chapters or so.  Some of those books stretch out concepts to fill space (at least that’s how it feels to me sometimes).  This book is very concise with information because it tackles fifty topics.

Topics range wildly but are organized into four main parts.  Starting with the basics of grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and usage, the author then begins to build on those basics.  Showing you how to achieve effects with these rules and make them work with you.  The idea is you need know the rules so you can manipulate them.  I love this kind of thinking.

[Editor’s Note]

This book continues to be a staple for me both as a writer and an editor.  When I work with clients, especially when they are working with a new manuscript, I like to address issues with potential solutions.  This book is handy because the material is condensed and easy to share.  I’ve used the contents within this book more than once during video and phone conversations with clients to help them understand why certain things they are doing go against the grain.  I’ve also used it to illustrate stylistic opportunities they could take advantage of to enhance their story.  It seems easier for folks to accept advice when the viewpoint is reinforced by other professionals.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Zen in the Art of Writing: Book, Blurb & Collage

Zen in the Art of Writing.jpg

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, Zen in the Art of Writing, written by Ray Bradbury. Clicking the image will take you to a higher-res version on my Flickr page.  This collage was created by me and is free to share.   

 

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is one of the most enjoyable call-to-action type books I’ve flipped through.  I know, I say that a lot.  But heck, it feels like Bradbury is slapping you on the back while you read this and whispering, “you got this,” from the grave. Before I get into the meat of the book, you can give it a glance on [Amazon] or [goodreads] if you would like.

A quick aside.  I purchased this book on Amazon, but purchased a used version.  It came to me from some small bookstore.  When I flipped it open…jackpot!  There was a message written on the inside cover.  I don’t know about all of you, but I love stuff like this.  Here is the message:

Erin,

Bradbury shares well, and with wit, the timeless creative spirit, objective and true. This work reminds me of the eternity I see in your eyes, in you. May it find and inspire your creative self well.

Joe

Joe, if you are reading this, I’m sorry man.  It looks like Erin was not impressed by Bradbury and sold the book despite your inspiring words.  I enjoyed the book though.

zen in the art of writing.jpgErin, if you accidentally misplaced this book, shoot me a message and I’ll get it back to you.  I hope you did find your creative self.  If you did sell this book, I hope you fall off your bike and knock out your two front teeth!  Okay, I hope nothing that bad happens, but sheesh, have a heart.

*Corey considers deleting the previous insanity then shrugs his shoulders instead*

Back to the book!  Bradbury’s book was very different than most call-to-action type books I’ve read.  There is a surge of energy behind his words and a contagious optimism.  Yes, he is realistic about some of the challenges, but there is still an undertone of positive lightning.

Bradbury offers a ton of takeaways and recommendations.  Some of them seem insane, and some of them make a lot of sense to me.  I’ve listed a spattering of them below.  They have been ordered from least insane to most.

  1. Write every day.
    I like it.  Doesn’t have to be a WIP, but at least keep your fingers moving.  I even count these blog posts as part of my writing regiment.
  2. Read every day.
    Right on Ray!  You’ve got to eat your greens and gorge on desserts every now and then.
  3. Get out in the world and experience life to enrich your writing.
    As a hermit, this is hard to digest.  But I wasn’t always a hermit.  There was a time I sailed the oceans, traveled the world, spied on terrorists, and chased criminals.  I wrote a post a while back about how Herman Melville’s style and voice changed after he signed up to be a crew member on a whaling boat. It worked out well for him when he wrote Moby Dick.
  4. Utilize word association to generate interesting ideas.
    This is my kid of weird, literary science.  Bradbury has a list of crazy words and phrases he used to help generate fun ideas and concepts. He encourages the writer to choose things that resonate with them on some level and play with the concepts.
  5. A Refined ListActivate the readers senses.
    This is great advice.  It could have populated any of these first spots on this list.
  6. Make the skeletons in your childhood closet dance.
    This is probably great advice for some, but I had an awesome childhood.  Growing up on a farm and playing in the woods.  For me, this is a well with no water to pull out. But for some of you, this might be an exploding geyser.
  7. Write a short story every week for at least five years.
    For some of you, this is no sweat (I’m looking at you, Andrew and SDS).  For me, this seems a little intimidating, but hey, I can’t argue that it wouldn’t be effective.
  8. Play with story ideas for years before you bother trying to write them.
    This one is a bit harder for me.  Bradbury talks about twenty to thirty years being an okay amount of time to let a story marinate in your brain.  I guess because I write post-apocalyptic fiction I assume the world will have ended by then…
  9. Write like a man/woman possessed by the gods.
    At first I thought, heck yeah Ray—write the words, all of them!  Then he talked about how he would write the first draft on a Monday, the second on a Tuesday, and so on until the story was ready to mail out on Saturday.  While this was likely regarding short stories, and not full-length novels, this is still a tremendous pace.  I’m not sure I will ever be confident/skilled enough to pull this off even for a short story.

I know I almost always say, “This is a great book,” but this has become one of my favorites.  Between Ray’s shout-outs to his cats, to his infectiously positive prose, it’s hard to not find yourself giving him high-fives from beyond the grave while you flip through it.  If I am feeling cynical and need a boost, I’ll read On Writing, Bird by Bird, or Writing Past Dark.  If I’m feeling good, but want a couple extra jolts of inspiration—this is the book.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Description: Finding the Sweet Spot

A while ago (as this is a repost) I read an article by fellow WordPress maverick Raeanne G. Roy regarding the fine line we walk when deciding just how much description to provide the reader.  Her original post is located here.  I tossed my humble two cents into the comments box and went on with my day.

description meme.jpgThat evening I sat down at the appointed hour and began my own writing, and wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t stop thinking about description.  Suddenly, the wasteland renegades I write about were sporting sweaters with patches and rips and buttons, but not just any buttons, buttons made of bone, but not just any bone, the bone from a forgotten slave from a forgotten land.  I realized it was happening —gave myself a quick facepalm—then beat on the backspace for a few minutes.

With this in mind, I decided it wouldn’t hurt if I tossed some information into the blogosphere regarding description.  Then I could watch it float away like wasteland confetti.  Coincidentally, this confetti is not made of colorful bits of plastic, but actually the brittle, delicate pages from an old book. Not just any book, the good book. That’s right! Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  A first edition—the inside cover still faintly bearing the worn signature of…uh…erm…on with the blog!

As usual, I thought I would provide some examples from legit authors to steer us in the right direction.

Chuck Wendig provides some great (and often hilarious) nuggets of information regarding description in his book, The Kick-Ass Writer.  I earmarked this excerpt in particular:

“When Betty Crocker first started selling mixes, they were super-easy to make. Packet of powder, add water, and bake.  But they didn’t sell – in part because they were too easy.  It felt like a cheat.  So Crocker chose to leave out the egg – meaning, a housewife had to add an egg, an extra step.  And bam!  They sold like a sonofabitch.  The lesson is that your audience wants to work.  When they work, they feel invested. Hand them a pickaxe, a pith helmet.  Don’t give them all parts of the description – let them fill in details with their imagination.  Let them add the egg” (p. 95).

The Kick-Ass Writer

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, The Kick-Ass Writer, written by Chuck Wendig.  I wrote a post about this book here

The takeaway here is to not spoon feed the reader description (unless that description is made out of Betty Crocker cupcake mix).

Stephen King in his book On Writing discusses description.  He states, “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.  In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind” (p. 175).  While this a small excerpt of a larger explanation, what King seems to be driving at is this:  when you sit down to write those first details you see in your minds eye are usually the strongest ones.

Those first sparks are the bones of your description, and often times, they can support the muscle and meat that make up the scene.  The mistake I tend to make is I worry those bones are too feeble. So the black revolver in the hand of anonymous bad guy #3, becomes a pearl handled, laser engraved, .44 caliber, black and silver hand-cannon with a laser sight duct taped to the barrel.  I shall resist!

So these two examples are basically saying, “take it easy with too much description,” but what exactly is too much description?  There are more than a few schools of thought out there.  Let’s talk about a couple.

80s montage.jpg

*cue montage music*

One is that you focus on describing people, places, and things that will reinforce the actions and emotions of your characters as they move through your story and shy away from stuff that is just, well, stuff.  The danger here is the reader can catch on.  If every building is a building, except for the one you spend a paragraph describing—they know something is about to go down in that building.  This can be a good and this can be bad.  It’s obviously an issue if you are trying to catch them off guard.  If your book is an 80s movie, sudden and uncharacteristic description of anything cues the montage music and lets the reader know the big boss battle is coming.

The other school of thought is you simply describe things instinctively.  Let your minds eye be the judge as to what is important at first.  When you come back through with the editing pen of fury (or doom), you can subtract or add.  By letting your creative side assign importance to the mundane you might stumble onto something more.

Example. The curtains were light blue.  Two pages later, when the protagonist pulls them open to look out the window, he realizes they are actually hospital linens.  Cool.  In my wasteland story, people re-purpose items all the time.  Maybe a doctor lived in the house, maybe there are meds stashed away behind the bookcase, maybe he’s down in the basement cutting someone to pieces while everyone is upstairs sleeping unaware?  This organic description while writing allows for the story to gain its own life outside of any rigid outline you have preordained.  As long as it doesn’t veer you too far off track, I think you’ll be all right.

different viewpoints.jpg

What do you see?

Lastly and most importantly, does the description enhance the reader’s understanding of the people and events happening in the story?  Delicious tidbits of description scattered throughout tell us a lot about the characters and world we are reading about, and saves us from beating people over the head with paragraphs of background information.  If one person observes a rifle of some kind, that tells us something about the person.  If another observes the same rifle, and concludes it’s a lightweight, 5.56, air-cooled, gas operated, magazine-fed assault rifle, with a rotating bolt, we can draw some pretty obvious conclusions about that character’s background without typing anything else.

Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers explain:

“…if you allow your readers to get to know your characters gradually, each reader will interpret them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.  Allowing your readers this sort of leeway in understanding your characters enables you to reach a wider audience – and reach it far more effectively – than would defining your characters before we get to know them or analyzing them afterward” (p. 26).

question markWell, I’ve scratched the surface with this post about description.  It’s a giant beast requiring many knives to bring down.  I would love to hear your two cents/insights regarding description and what you feel is vital to the story.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Free Writing: Exploring the Unknown

all work and no play.jpgSit around and talk with enough writers, bloggers, and creative types and eventually someone is going to talk about free writing.  For me, it always conjures up images of Stephen King’s The Shining and the endless iterations of, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Of course, tread in these waters long enough and sooner or later you will be getting drug advice from someone to, “Take your creativity to the next level man.”  Well, I won’t be offering any drug advice today.  Instead, I thought I would talk about two of the most common methods of free writing and give you all some pointers on what to focus on when taking advantage of this great creative tool.

Free writing is basically non-stop writing.  You set a timer, begin handwriting or typing, and do not stop moving your hands/fingers until the timer sounds. You don’t worry about grammar, or spelling, or even if what you are writing makes sense. What this does is connect your minds-eye to your medium and overrides the analytical part of your brain that wants things to be structured and tidy.  Whatever thoughts come into your head go down on the paper or screen unfiltered.

The two most common types of free writing are structured and unstructured.  We’ll begin with the latter.

freewriting meme (template).jpgUnstructured free writing is a way to generate new and fresh ideas.  Maybe you just finished writing your last novel and are sitting down to begin the next. Maybe you are sitting down  to write for the first time ever (good on you). Regardless, the cursor is waiting there, blinking, winking—by God it’s mocking you!  No ideas manage to find their way to your fingers. Don’t freak out, go freestyle!

Set the timer for ten minutes (or whatever time your comfortable with) and just start writing, even if you are simply writing, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over again.  Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith, explains that,”…even if you keep writing, ‘I can’t think of anything to say,’ over and over, eventually you’ll tire of this and ask why can’t I?  And then let the answer take you to a subject, which will the lead to another subject, and so on” (p. 47-48).  He continues on to say, “Or you might cheat a little and look around and see an object – a tree, anything – and start writing about it.”

Structured free writing allows you to expand or build on an idea you already have.  You have a great idea for a character, plot, world, or conflict; it just doesn’t have any depth yet. Fear not, the solution could be a few minutes away.  The only difference between unstructured and structured is this time you have a jumping-off point. Exactly like in unstructured, you set a timer and begin writing.  Again, don’t worry about spelling or if it’s making sense. Just run with it.  Run with it until your stomach churns and you begin to vomit those words onto paper straight from the creative whirlpool of you mind.

spilled ink.jpgIt’s always easiest to start structured free writing by beginning with a character, conflict, or setting in mind.  The reason for this is simple, for the most part, we enjoy stories because of the characters, conflicts, and settings.  Is it any surprise these things are typically the most enjoyable to write about?

So here’s the premise.  Take the rough image of the character you are thinking about creating, toss them into a situation, set the timer, and see where you two go together. Launch them into space; write their birth; write their death; write about what they do on the toilet; write about what they do between the sheets; write about their awkward teen years; write about that one time they ate a sandwich and got food poisoning—just write.  Set the timer and don’t stop.  

Will you get anything usable from this?  Who knows.  What it is doing is cementing in your mind who your characters are and what they are about.  We all have that friend or family member we know so well we can pretty much guess what they are going to say or do in any given situation.  If we want believable characters, then we should know them just as well (if not better).

Conflicts.  Who doesn’t love a good conflict?  So maybe you have an idea for a conflict and nothing more.  No real characters or setting.  No worries.  Set the timer, start writing about the conflict and don’t stop.

Maybe they are in space/underwater and running out of air?  Maybe they are mortally wounded?  Maybe they are navigating a particularly annoying dinner party and one of the guests is a shape shifting, man stealing, Jezebel?  Who cares?  Pick a route and run with it.  Don’t like it?  Switch.  There are no rules except that you don’t stop.  When the timer is done check out what you have written. Chances are some characters might have wormed their way into existence and some imagery related to setting can be gleaned.

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Many times the biggest issue stopping writers is self-doubt and being overly critical.  We all have story to tell that is trapped away in our heads.  Unfortunately, we stress about structure, grammar, and all those details that don’t really matter so much in the creative process (that’s why revision and editors exist).  Free writing is the heart bypass that allows nutrient rich blood to flow through your creative veins.  When you free write, you do so knowing it’s going to be choppy, sloppy, and insane—there’s no fear of judgement.

As this is a repost, I had some excellent input from past comments.  Amanda, at Mind the Dog Writing Blog, was kind enough to recommend the website Life in 10 Minutes.  Taking her suggestion, I visited the page and was greatly impressed with it.  The page has links to workshops and examples of excerpts.  If you wanted to browse some examples of what can be accomplished, this is a solid place to check out.

question markHave any of you had success with free writing?  Have you heard of or developed different methods?  I’d love to hear about it.  It’s always interesting to see what materializes when I use this technique.  If anything, it’s a nice departure from my normal analytical methods.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Feature Friday #4 (Bloggers & Books)

feature-friday

Another week, another Feature Friday highlighting some great bloggers.  I missed out on last week due to Hurricane Matthew, but I’m excited to get back into the rhythm.  This week I wanted to highlight a few bloggers who are writing amazing content, coming up with creative solutions, and sharing their experiences.  All said, these three are offering up great posts every week.

spotlight-facing-rightThe first spotlight shines for Sharon Hart over at curioushart. Sharon is a regular contributor here on QE and also writes some spectacular posts.  Those posts include flash fiction, writing advice, and enjoyable insights into life in general.  Her personality and experience as a teacher really shine through in her posts and make them very enjoyable to read.

Sharon was kind enough to share an experience with me, and it was so insightful I wanted to be sure to share it with all of you.  I’ve talked about the struggle of writing a book blurb in the past, and Sharon’s method of tackling it is pretty ingenious.

Since April 2016, I have been participating in a weekly flash fiction writing exercise. Each week I download a picture prompt and I write a story of 150 words or less related to the picture. This practice has really sharpened my vocabulary, grammar, and content. It has turned out to be useful as well.

I had been struggling for weeks to write an engaging and informative back cover description of my book. I finally decided to treat it as a flash fiction story. It worked. Using the same process I use for the flash fiction, I was able to craft a decent description.

I highly recommend the exercise.

What I love about this bit of advice is it highlights the importance and usefulness of consistent writing practices.  Even this blog, for me, has impacted my writing in a positive way.  I feel the more often we sit down and flex our writing muscles the more multifaceted they become.

spotlight-facing-rightThe next blogger I wanted to spotlight is Sinister Dark Soul (or as I like to write, SDS).  Another regular contributor here on QE, SDS writes complex, compelling, and sometimes frightening poetry.  Can we expect anything less from someone who has a site tag that says, “Do you feel safe?”  After reading a few of his pieces…the answer is usually “no.”

SDS is one of my daily stops for dark and intriguing posts.  I will say, many of these posts are not for the faint of heart.  Regardless of your tolerance for macabre writing, there is an undeniable quality in his words and strong themes which carry over from one piece to the next.

The layered and overlapping world SDS has created is vast and growing.  If there was a central location in his world, it would be Black Winter.  It is populated by some of the most interesting characters I have found in poetry.  It’s not a place you want to vacation (unless you are a very dark soul yourself).  I don’t have a specific post to recommend because I enjoy them all.  With that being said, if the darker side of life (or death) appeals to you, SDS will surely make your most sinister dreams come true.

spotlight-facing-rightThe last blogger I wanted to highlight is M.L.S. Weech.  It’s no secret, Matt and I are old friends from our time in the Navy as renegade combat cameramen.  I also edit his books.  However, I’m not featuring him for those reasons (though, you should check out his upcoming book Caught).  I’m featuring him because he has been writing some truly outstanding posts since transitioning his blog to WordPress.

Matt not only writes books, he also teaches other people how to write (both personally and professionally).  These traits and background make him a wealth of knowledge and this is reflected in his posts.  I would encourage you to check out his Writing Tips category.  It is populated with posts ranging from writing mechanics, to staying motivated.  His book reviews are also brilliantly written.  They tend to avoid bias, spoilers, and focus on the mechanics the author used in the book.  Each one is an essential case study into the writing style of the author.

thanksI wanted to take a moment to thank all three of these folks for (1) contributing regularly on my page, (2) being a source of inspiration, and (3) consistently encouraging enjoyable discussion about both fiction and non-fiction.  You all keep me inspired to continue learning everyday.

hourglassThat’s it for today!  If you would like to be featured next Friday, contact me.  It always helps if you let me know what specific post you would like to be featured.  My goal with Feature Friday is to connect like-minded individuals with one another.  The blogoverse is a giant place, and it’s nice to be able to provide some navigation. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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A Setting Writing Checklist

A Refined ListMost writers I work with tend to blend outlines and instinctive writing together.  There are exceptions.  Some are renegade mavericks who wander into the jungle with a machete and hack away a path.  Others spend months plotting all the paths, sub-paths, and hidden passageways before they type a word.

Regardless of the method, when the sky parts and heavenly light blasts down on the freshly minted manuscript, most writers are going to need to address descriptive setting elements.  The method I employ is starting at the chapter and working my way in toward the sentence.  

I’ve talked about setting before in the past.  We’ve hammered the following topics:

glasses-icon.jpg

This image was created by Jess Tahbonemah and is the property of M.L.S. Weech.  Any use without his permission is prohibited. 

Let’s take a day and merge the concepts together into a step-by-step checklist. 

Step 1: Think big by addressing setting on the chapter level.  This is where the article I wrote on anchoring the reader might come in handy.  Make sure when the chapter opened you took a sentence or two to address when and where the character(s) are.  If you aren’t writing in 1st person, you might need to clue the reader into who is present.

There are methods you can employ which could preclude you from having to clue readers into who is present.  M.L.S. Weech, Robert Jordan, and many other authors utilize chapter icons.  These icons offer a visual cue to the reader as to who will be present in the chapter.  The glasses icon I added is one of Weech’s, and you can check out more of his Caught icons here.  While this method is a great tool, you’ll notice most authors who do this also anchor the reader in each chapter with their words.  It’s a double whammy! 

Smell the Napalm

Step 2: Isolate the character(s) in the chapter and determine from which POV the setting is being viewed from.  From what I’ve gathered, writers who pump out large, daily word counts struggle with this the most.  This is because they can sit down and write more than one chapter in a session.  Their mind latches onto a single way of thinking (POV), and despite the change in character, the setting description will bleed over.  This is perhaps the easiest way to bamboozle a reader. 

I can think of many times where I was reading a passage and assumed the description and setting information was coming from Character X.  It wasn’t until I got to a character name that I realized it was coming from Character Y.  It’s important to switch descriptive gears when we switch characters.  Mindful consistency is going to be key.  It is important to consider how the characters’ arcs will impact their view of their world at any given time.  Even the most optimistic character is going to look at a flower and want to stomp on it every now and then.

jetpack.jpgStep 3: Think scene by scene.  Within the chapter there can be multiple scenes.  These are typically indicated by a shift in place, action, or perspective.  The writer usually accomplishes this by pulling in or out with description.  Each one of these shifts is an opportunity to provide a couple sentences, or even a few words, to indicate setting and how the character perceives it.

Consider the article listed above about stitching transitions into setting.  This is especially useful when analyzing how your character moves scene to scene.  Your creations may walk, run, drive, jetpack, or teleport to different locations within the chapter.  Look to see if there will be value added by injecting setting details into those transitions.  

crystal ball.jpgStep 4: Go inside scenes and address paragraphs and sentences.  This is where the real work starts to happen.  This is also where self-study and understanding of your genre will come into play.  It’s the dreaded show versus tell, devil in the details tedium.  

As the writer, you likely have all the answers.  Try your best to think like the reader and look for areas where they will have questions.  These are some of the most common questions I ask writers: Where are they?  How did they get here?  What does this look like?  How does he/she feel about this?  

Be mindful of these “constants.”

Constant 1: Think about where you are in the book.  Setting information has a cumulative effect.  If you’ve done a solid job building up, setting can be less about “stuff” and more about how people view “stuff.”  In essence, setting can become more emotional and less physical.

Constant 2: Show versus tell is something that I tend to address at the scene level.  Again, I don’t advocate the use of one or the other universally.  The article I linked offers a tool to gauge intensity within a scene and this can help determine the amount of showing or telling you need to do.  It’s not foolproof, but it’s something to consider.

Types of Conflict

Constant 3: For areas of the book that are conflict driven, consider if the setting is running against the characters. More often than not, you want the setting to act as a barrier to character goals.  Sure, you can toss down a yellow brick road to help them find their way, but make sure it is loaded with poisonous flowers and wicked witches.

Constant 4: Look for those “ly” adverbs and decide whether they should live or die. I’m not in the business of adverb annihilation, but if the adverb is being used as a crutch where a few words of insightful information could have been added, it’s time to reappraise.

Constant 5: Make sure to inject sensory details throughout.  You can refer to the article I linked at the beginning for more info on this subject if you require it. 

question-markThat’s it for today!  I wanted to take a day to compile our examination of setting into a larger tool.  I hope you found some of this information useful.  For my own study, I’m curious about what elements of setting, if any, you struggle with.  In revision, is there a certain method you employ to address this?  Do you have a checklist of sorts?  I’d love to talk about it and advance my own knowledge.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp! 

Copyright Info (final)

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge.jpgI recently had a friend contact me because an editor had given them feedback that mentioned, ‘the curse of knowledge’.  My friend mentioned it for two reasons: they weren’t entirely tracking on what it meant, and they knew I blog about writing and thought I could mention it in a post.

There’s a touch of irony in having an editor tell you to avoid the curse of knowledge.  It becomes even more ironic when they don’t explain exactly what it means.  I’ve seen a few explanations of the term, but to put it plainly, it’s when a writer makes assumptions about what their readers know and end up writing above their heads.

Here’s a non-fiction example.  When I was a journalist in the Navy, we were instructed to break down our writing to the grade school level.  This tailored our writing to a wider audience and made it more accessible to the average reader.

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The Naval Postgraduate School wasn’t a terrible place to be stationed. 

Then, later in my Navy career, I got stationed at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The students at the school were senior officers from all branches of the military and from allied countries.  The focus was mostly on advanced science and technology projects.  I was told to step up the complexity of my writing because now the average audience was perceived to be more intelligent.

I remember being assigned a story about a professor and some students who were developing free electron laser technology to be used on ships.  The idea was to use directed energy to blast incoming rockets and projectiles out of the sky before they would reach a ship. The professor’s name was Bill Coulson, and I was super excited to talk about something that hearkened images of the planet Alderaan being destroyed.

When I sat down with Bill, I asked him to describe the scope of the project.  The explanation was interesting, but very confusing.  There were lots of technical terms and science jargon.  After he finished, I asked in the nicest way possible if he could explain some aspects of it again, but dumb it down for me. He obliged.

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At this point in time I didn’t know a lick about ‘the curse of knowledge,’ but in retrospect, this example really illustrates it well.  Bill, due to his technical experience and level of knowledge, glossed over some facts that would be essential to my story.  By glossing over, I do mean, used scientific jargon very few people truly understand.  I needed a way to write those bits of information in a way for the average reader to comprehend.  For me to do that, I needed to understand it myself.

complex description.jpgThis is an important concept to think of when you are writing.  I find that many times people who use lots of technical terms and jargon do so for two reasons: sometimes they don’t really understand what they are talking about themselves, and sometimes they are afraid to be seen as simpletons by peers.

Now, about that first conclusion.  When I ask someone to break something complex down and they can’t, I often wonder if they actually know what it is they are talking about.  In the example I offered, Bill had no trouble simplifying some very advanced engineering and physics concepts to their bare bones.  He truly understood the content; I just needed to filter and understand it myself.

In regards to being afraid to look like a simpleton, that’s something we just need to be able to get over unless we want to only appeal to the most pretentious readers (and those blow-hards are probably going to criticize your work no matter what).  When I interviewed Bill, I could have just nodded my head and dumped all of the content he gave me into the story in its raw state.  But that would have been a disservice to him because a story of this nature helps spread the word.  If no one understands the science, then it’s harder for him to get grants to pay for all of his cool toys.

Navy_laser_shoots_drone..jpgI‘m not saying my story helped change the world, but these lasers are on ships now…

[Side Note:  If you are still reading and are thinking, QE tell me how to build my own laser weaponhere is a cool pdf Bill put together that talks about the evolution of the tech. Good luck…

The curse of knowledge also manifests in a lack of detail.  Some writers make the assumption, because they are so close to the story, that everyone may know what it is they are describing.  Because of this, they strip the setting of detail and only offer a skeleton.  Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, states that, “Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…” (p. 72).

We want people to remember our story.  It’s often why it’s recommended to anchor the reader in setting early in chapters.  When people recall a story, they often recall it in chunks (our brain chunks information to help us remember it).  For them to remember a specific chunk/chapter, it’s vital for the storyteller to anchor them in each chapter and paint a brief picture.perception-quote

Whether you are bamboozling people with complex language, or stripping things down, the best way to cure the curse is to step outside of your own perception.  Put another way, it’s a fools errand to solely apply your own judgement as to what other people understand.  If you want to know what people think, you need to ask them.  This is why it’s of vital importance to pay special attention to your beta and alpha readers (your editor might be able to offer some insight too).

question markThat’s the breakdown of the concept.  I may do one future post on this that discusses some of the misconceptions and beliefs behind the curse.  Let me know if this is something any of you are interested in.  Have any of you fallen victim to the curse?  Have you read the work of someone afflicted with it?  I’d love to hear about.  I’m also very open to more solutions.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.

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From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.cat hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Monsters: Book, Blurb & Collage

Writing Monsters

A collection of phrases and quotes from the book, Writing Monsters, written by Philip Athans.  If you click the image you will be teleported to my Flickr where the image lives in high-res.  As always, it’s free to share and use however you would like.


W
riting Monsters
, by Philip Athans, has been on my list of books to showcase here on QE for a while now.  Why?  Because it is one of the most entertaining and well written books I have found on the subject matter.  Before I go into my blow-by-blow, you can check out the book on [Amazon] or [goodreads].

A Refined List

There’s a big list of things that really made this book appeal to me.  To make my bias apparent, I’m going to make a slight deviation from my normal blueprint and offer a short list.  Some of these things may seem silly to you all, and some of these things may make you foam at the mouth and impulse buy the book (or snag it from the library).

  1. Philip Athans is awesome.  There, I said it.  I’m a fanboy of his, and he actually maintains a WordPress blog called Fantasy Author’s Handbook, which he updates every Tuesday.  There is a massive amount of information to be mined from his page.
  2. In our continuing study of character archetypes, I wrote a post called Writing Characters & Role Playing Games a few weeks ago.  In it, I talked about how the computer game Baldur’s Gate blew my mind and really made me examine character archetypes when I was younger.  Well, Philip Athans wrote the book on it.  By that, I mean he literally wrote the official Forgotten Realms book, Baldur’s Gate.
  3. Why am I sharing all of this?  For transparency.  I’m obviously biased toward this author, and I like to be honest with you all.  With that being said, let’s talk about this book.

writing monsters.jpgThis book, for me, is solid because it covers a wide range of topics regarding how to write monsters.  More so, because it uses a number of examples and cited works to bolster and emphasize points.  Athans uses examples from literature (spanning from historic works all the way to modern time), movies, and even video games.  For my gamer friends (console, computer, and D&D), you are going to feel very comfortable flipping through these pages as Athans uses these mediums as tools to provide information to the reader.

Writing Monsters also does a phenomenal job of defining the physical, psychological, and emotional characteristics of monsters from almost all genres.  While this book is shorter and more current, at times I felt like I was reading the “monster version” of Joseph Campbells’ book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  The only difference being Campbell provides a sweeping mythological look at the hero throughout time, while Athan pinpoints certain monsters to drive the purpose of his book.

The book is broken into three main parts: What They Are, Why They’re Here, and How to Write Them.  While all parts are very insightful, I found the chapters within, Why They’re Here, to be especially enjoyable.  In this section of the book, Athans talks about monsters as metaphors, obstacles, agents, sources of pity, sources of magic or technology, and how they bring out the good and bad in people.

In short, if you are struggling with coming up with concepts for monsters, or simply curious about them, this book provides some very interesting and fun information.  Also, this book serves as a great tool to find other relevant sources of inspiration.  I did a quick scan of the cited sources and Athans uses more than thirty books and short stories to drive his narrative.  That by itself is a gold mine if you are entrenched in these genres.

question-markThat’s it for today.  If you are curious about some of the other writing books I have read you can check out a listing of them I made by clicking right here.  I’m constantly eating my greens, and I encourage you to do the same.  If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear about it!  I’m always looking for more books to devour.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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World Builder’s Disease: Knowing the Sickness

World Builder's Disease.jpgWorking as an editor, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with other writers.  For me, getting to be a part of the process of creation is very rewarding.  However, it doesn’t come without peril.  Part of being an editor, much like being a doctor, is that you have to develop a sort of bedside manner.  When you look into the eyes of a vulnerable writer during review and utter, “My concern is that you have developed late stage World Builder’s Disease,” you need to be able to at least explain the nature of the sickness.  (Okay, I might not say it just like that — but I’m trying to make a point).

Some of you may already know, but World Builder’s Disease is basically when a writer gets so lost in the backstory of the world they are creating that they produce endless pages of history, character background, cultural information, and setting.  The characters, conflicts, and actual telling of the story become secondary to this grand history and complex world.  The book begins to look like an anthropological dissertation, instead of a story.

If you are completely unfamiliar with this term (or concerned that rash on your neck is actually World Builder’s Disease manifesting physically) there are a few sources I would recommend checking out.

The first thing to do would be to swing over to Writing Excuses and listen to the Season 3, Episode 1 podcast titled World Building History.  I’ve mentioned this website in a few of my posts already and will continue to do so.  There’s a reason the website is listed as one of the top 101 websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.  It’s an awesome source of information.

Gentleman World Builder.jpgNext, you should review, (The Dreaded) World Builder’s Disease from The Writersaurus blog. It’s a fun read and a very descriptive look at the menace.  This blog is loaded with some fun, writing specific, content.

Finally, check out the article The Truth About World Building Disease, from the website, The Worldbuilding School.  The article offers a basic explanation of World Builder’s Disease and explains some causes.  If you wanted to get a map illustrated for your work, this would be a good place to check out.  Additionally, if you are suffering from a lack of world building, this is a good place to start getting the gears moving.

Now for my two cents.  I feel writers have the most trouble recovering from this because the words are coming easily.  We hear this all the time: “Just write.  Meet those daily goals. You’re right if you just write.”  I still agree with these statements.  Just because you have a stack of paper with no real story, doesn’t mean its useless.  It just doesn’t have use as a publishable story just yet.

history.jpgSo if you have sat down and blasted out inches worth of unrelated historical information regarding a world, character, or item — don’t despair.  Set it aside and use it as part of your reference material.  Try sprinkling in some of it as descriptive beats and reveal the history throughout the course of your book.  Maybe you can set up a wiki page for your readers on your blog or website that lists this extra information after the book drops?  Or you could use this extra info to market your book before release, like I’ve been doing with my Wasteland Wednesday posts.

Regardless, unless you are working against a deadline, or have finished the book only to realize half of it is historical information (i.e. not characters dealing with conflicts), then don’t stress it.  Everyone’s creative process works differently.  Some people have the easiest time writing their characters, some people surge when they write conflicts, and other people create unbelievably complex worlds, histories, and cultures.  A blending of these things is what we need.

question-markAre you a sufferer of this affliction?  Do you know someone who is?  Do you have a cure that works for you?  Let me know.  While I don’t have a magic elixir, sometimes just addressing it works as a soothing balm.  Thanks for reading and be sure to stop by tomorrow.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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