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Archive for May, 2009

Today is my birthday! To keep to my blog’s writing-related theme, I will point out that author Ian Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, and Noah Webster died on May 28, 1843.

Other interesting facts: there are only 211 shopping days left until Christmas; this is the 148th day of the current year; it’s been 4 days since the last new moon; Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was validated on May 28, 1533.

None of those things seems significant now, but I’ve come to the conclusion that even the most trivial events have an impact on the world. For instance, I bought a new kind of dishwasher detergent last week rather than the one I’ve used for years. This one is supposed to be eco-friendly, and comes in a lovely white container—symbolizing cleanliness, purity, etc. My kids decided to surprise me by cleaning up the house while I was gone last night, and my daughter did the dishes. She knew I always used “that yellow stuff” in the dishwasher, and unfortunately the only yellow dish detergent she found was Joy.

Did you know that if you put Joy in a dishwasher, it will make so many bubbles that the dishwasher will leak and flood your kitchen? It will continue making bubbles through at least 8 rinse cycles even if you scoop them all out and dry the inside of the dishwasher with a towel—repeatedly.

Who would have thought changing something as insignificant as the type of dish detergent we use would have an impact on our lives? Yet, it took up hours of time that could have been used productively—or at least pleasantly—and inspired this post. Now you’re reading about trivial events in my life instead of learning anything useful or socializing with your family. But don’t despair! I’m segueing into a writing-related subject now—making every scene, character, or action in your writing serve a purpose.

As you see from this post, everything can impact something else, so in a way is significant. However, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting or appropriate to include in a story. We need to focus on the things that will keep the reader turning the pages, events that are relevant to the story, setting, plot, or the development of the characters. Too much information is usually just as bad as too little; using the right amount of description is as important as using the right detergent. ;)

 

Anyone else have a birthday today?

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Working on My Writing

Several people I respect–including an agent, and a published author–have mentioned that the first priority for a fiction writer should be learning to write well, not building a platform or an online presence through blogging, Facebook, twitter, etc.  Learning how the publishing business works, how to get an agent, formatting manuscripts, and other business-related matters won’t help if the writing itself stinks. With that in mind, I’m planning on devoting more of my time to the actual writing, and less to other endeavors.

I will continue to post tidbits of information I find helpful, and link to sites I think others will find interesting. But considering how few people are reading my blog anyway, I think my time could be better spent writing stories and articles rather than lots of blog posts.

I’m going to try to post about 3 times per week; if something comes up, it might be less–or more. If anyone has a suggestion for a post, please mention it in the comments section and I will gladly try to work it into my blog. It’s hard to know what people are interested in when I get so few comments, and I see no point in cranking out stuff no one cares about. So, I’m off to work on my short story for the contest over on Editor Unleashed Forum. It’s for flash fiction, less than 1000 words, your choice of topic.

Check it out: http://editorunleashed.com/forum/index.php

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The structure of a short story or novel follows a pattern with a beginning, middle, and end. Each of the three parts of the story fulfills a distinct purpose.

The Beginning

Here the author hooks the reader by introducing the main characters and their goals, the setting, and the main conflict.  The mood and tone are set at the beginning, and should be consistent throughout the story. The tension will fluctuate, but overall the tone should be suspenseful, romantic, or whatever, from start to finish.

The Middle

Here a series of events or complications occur, leading to an increase in the tension. This is also where the characters change and grow as they deal with the conflicts they face. Some of the minor crises are temporarily resolved, but the story continues in the direction of a major crisis, or climax.

The End

Here the main conflict is resolved, and the loose ends are tied up. Tension falls quickly, and a good ending leaves the readers satisfied—even if they aren’t happy with the way things turned out.

This pattern is called the story arc; it can be visualized as an inverted check mark, with tension building to the climax, then abruptly declining. Depending on the type of story, the rise may be gradual or sharp, but the ending almost always comes shortly after the main climax. After all, the desire to see how the story ends is what keeps a reader turning the pages. Once they know how it works out, there is not much to hold their interest.

Here are a couple of sites that go into more detail on how to structure a story:

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm

http://www.bloomington.in.us/~dory/creative/class9.html

 Edit February 17, 2010: I ran across a great post by Justine Lee Musk on writing opening hooks. It’s informative and very entertaining.

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Do you prefer stories that keep you on the edge of your seat right from the start, or ones that gradually increase the tension and conflict?

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One of the first things people see when browsing for something to read is the title, and it may entice them to take a closer look at the book, story, or article. But what makes a good title?

An effective title should be interesting, convey the tone or central idea of the story, and be easy to remember. Of course, there are lots of published books with titles that are long, don’t give us a clear idea of what the story is about, and may not be easy to remember. The story is the key, and no title will be good enough to turn it into a best-seller, but it might entice an agent or editor enough to take a look at the rest of the submission.

A working title may end up being changed, either by the author as the project progresses, or by the agent, editor, or marketing department before the book is published. Even so, we should spend some time thinking about a title as it will be what people refer to when talking about our manuscript.

Titles are not copyrighted so you may see several books with the same name. Avoid choosing one that’s already identified with a book in your genre as it may suggest yours is not original, or be confusing to readers. Keep in mind that a controversial title may attract some people but will possibly discourage some from reading the book, and aim for originality without purposely antagonizing your potential audience.

If you are having trouble coming up with a title you like, try brainstorming using some of the following ideas:

1. A key word or phrase that runs through your story.

2. The name of a character or place important to the plot.

3. A word or phrase that may have a hidden meaning revealed in the book.

4. A popular expression related to your subject.

5. A play on words.

6. A word or phrase that not only typifies this book, but will work well as a category in case you write a series. A couple of authors who’ve done that successfully are Sue Grafton, with her mystery titles that follow the alphabet, or J.A. Konrath with titles that refer to popular drinks.

A common length for titles is 3 words; one word titles can also be effective, but longer than 6 is uncommon. The easier it is to remember, the better for marketing via word of mouth, so avoid words that are hard to pronounce or nonsensical until you are so famous that people can simply say, “(insert your name)’s new book.”

What method do you use to come up with a good title?

 

Update September 18, 2009: Agent Jessica Faust, at Bookends, LLC has a post on this subject today that gives insight into what she looks for in a title.  Here’s the link: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/09/choosing-title.html

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I’m revising the opening chapter of my novel and struggling with whether to begin with a scene that jumps right into the action, or one that gives insights into the plot and the personalities of two of the main characters. I’ve repeatedly read that we have to hook a reader with the opening sentence or paragraph. While I agree with that sentiment, I’m not sure how to apply it to my story.

Readers have different tastes, and though they may like the same genre, they may not be hooked by the same things. I’ve been researching hooks to help me resolve this dilemma and I found some useful tips.

For a hook to be effective, it should do at least one of the following:

1. appeal to the readers’ emotions

2. raise questions about what will happen

3. reveal something that isn’t anticipated

4. indicate that something is about to change

How do we accomplish this? Perhaps by starting the story at the point where a change is taking place. Maybe the main character is facing a major crisis, an unexpected encounter, or a difficult decision. Reveal enough about the situation to make readers curious, and withhold enough to make them read on for the answer to the questions the hook raises.

People want to read about interesting characters doing something interesting, not wade through a boring description or explanation of the back story. If the opening introduces something unique happening, or about to happen, chances are you have an appealing hook. Then you just have to worry about keeping them hooked through the rest of the story…

Here are a couple of sites that offer useful tips on hooks:

http://www.sandrakischuk.com/toolbox/hook.html

http://www.ehow.com/how_4556500_write-hook-fiction.html

 Edit October 25, 2009: Here’s another excellent site I found which explains the importance of an opening hook, and how it must be supported by what happens later in the story: http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue27/writinghooks.htm

 Edit September 23, 2010: I like the explanation of the difference between using a “cold opening” and “in media res” that I found at http://beingabetterwriter.blogspot.com/2010/09/post-19-building-better-opening.html

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Do you generally like to start a story in the middle of the action, or prefer to get to know the characters a little before jumping into the main conflict?

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