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Archive for the ‘Writing Craft’ Category

Many writing-related books and blogs I’ve read suggest using sensory elements to make the setting richer and more realistic. The toughest one for me to convey in my writing is the sense of taste. I’ve included scenes where characters were eating, but have been stumped as to how to describe the tastes without making it seem like a deliberate writer’s ploy. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a foodie, and absolutely hate cooking, but tastes are normally not something I think about—which makes them awfully hard to write about.

Yesterday 2 of my sisters and I spent the day sorting through the remaining items in our mother’s house, deciding what was worth donating, what should be discarded, and what we would keep to use ourselves—or save as mementoes of a woman who had impacted our lives more than any other. Afterwards, we went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant where each of us had taken our mother on many occasions. The sights, the sounds, the entire setting of that restaurant brought back memories that are precious to me, but the tastes were what reminded me most of my mother. I experienced firsthand how much emotion certain tastes can trigger, and how food really can have an important role in our lives.

All 3 of us chose chicken and dumplings as our main course, with cornbread to go with it, simply because that’s what my mom always ordered at Cracker Barrel. I even ordered lemonade and country green beans (not together!) in honor of her. As we ate, we compared our meals to the ones Mom had prepared for us as children. Her dumplings were heavier, somewhat doughier, but had a similar taste. I recognized the flavor of lard on the green beans; my mom always and only used lard as a flavoring. She saved the bacon drippings in a pink can next to her stove, and used it in beans, mashed potatoes, and gravies. It wasn’t until we all left home, and my dad died, that she started using store-bought cooking oils (Crisco), and that was only because she had no one to cook bacon for.

Memories of her will always be with me even though she is not; and though I may not be any better at describing tastes in my stories, I know that dumplings and green beans will forever remind me of my childhood and my mom.

 

 

What foods or tastes carry special memories for you? Which of the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, vision) is hardest for you to include in your writing? Do you agree that including tastes or descriptions of food in a story helps convey emotions or can have special meaning, or does it seem unnecessary to you?

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Rest assured that this is not just a rant, though it is a personal opinion post. There are plenty of writing-related things that annoy me, so I’ve restricted myself to those. I’ve also limited my list to things I noticed in traditionally published books, so some agents and editors apparently weren’t bothered by the things that made me cringe.

 

1.  Quirks.

I keep reading about the necessity to make our main characters recognizable, identifiable, etc., and having a personal habit or quirk is touted as one way to go about that. But please. Use those quirks in moderation or you will annoy your readers and make them hate your characters rather than identify with them. Here are a few quirks I’ve encountered that have been used enough to become cliché:

Rolling the eyes . Some characters do it so often that I end up rolling MY eyes. Even worse is when more than one character does it. In a book I read recently, it seemed that someone rolled their eyes in every scene. I still enjoyed the story, but it was distracting enough that it inspired this post.

Raising one eyebrow. That may be a unique talent, but it has been overused in books. And every time I read it, I feel challenged to attempt raising a brow of my own. I can’t actually do it, and I know I can’t, so it’s really annoying to read about characters doing it so easily.

Twirling her hair around her finger. Lots of people do that, so how original is it?

 

2.  Deus Ex Machina.

God directly intervening to solve a problem the protagonist couldn’t possibly have figured out, especially when the protagonist doesn’t show any signs of a close relationship with God, is cheating. I want to be able to figure out what happened based on clues in the story, not witness a miracle (actually, I would like to witness a real miracle), but unless the story involves miracles as an integral part of the action, don’t end with one.

 

 3.  Explaining the ending.

Ending with page after page of people talking about what happened earlier in the book, even explaining things to minor characters who appear out of nowhere asking personal questions they are not entitled by manners or relationship to ask, is unbelievable. It is obviously a means for the author to reveal what happened in the book—in case the readers didn’t, or couldn’t, figure it out. This is a violation of the basic writing mantra of “show, don’t tell.” A good resolution will tie up loose ends, but shouldn’t have to explain the story.

 

4.  Stupid protagonists.

If the main character repeatedly makes bad decisions, doesn’t use common sense, or behaves like an idiot for no apparent reason, in my opinion she/he is stupid. (A time or two is excusable, as no one likes perfect characters.) We all do dumb things occasionally, but unless it’s a comedy I want protagonists to be people I can respect—even if I don’t like them. When stupidity is the basis for the story conflict, it feels weak and contrived. A good plot won’t need contrived behavior to keep it going.

 

5.  Poor editing.

I love words. I adore sentences that flow smoothly through my mind, leaving a vivid picture behind. But when words are misspelled, or the sentence structure makes it difficult to understand, I’m drawn out of the story and into reality. If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t be reading. So let me enjoy the world you’ve created—edit your work carefully. If you need help editing, get it.

 

What type of things pull you out of a story? What is your number 1 reading-related annoyance? What type of character quirks do you think are effective, and which ones do you consider annoying? Can you think of any “stupid” protagonists that are not annoying? Do you have any quirks?

 

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I have habits, some good some bad, which structure my life and determine how I spend my day. For example, every morning before I get out of bed I pray. As soon as I get up, I straighten the covers and pillows so the bed will be ready and welcoming when I need it again. Next I turn on the coffee, feed the cats, and sit down to read my favorite blogs. From that point on, I’m usually at the mercy of whatever life throws my way.

One activity I want to add to my list of habits is writing. Oh, I write every day—lists and letters and reminders—but that’s not the kind of writing that will achieve my dreams. Like millions of others, I aspire to complete a novel. A good novel. To do that, I need to improve my writing habits. There are many changes I could make that would probably help me be more productive, but my research suggests that there are certain habits that are essential for someone who hopes to make writing a profession. I read many suggestions, but the following 4 seem the most crucial to me.

 

1.      Read everyday

Read a wide variety of books, not only for pleasure but also to analyze what works and what doesn’t. Immersing yourself in the written word will add to your knowledge, increase your vocabulary, and improve your understanding of how language is used.

2.      Learn new things

You’ve probably heard the advice to “write what you know.” The wider the range of your experiences, the more realistic you can make your writing. Often it’s the little details that you include that help readers visualize a scene. Enrich your life and acquire a goldmine of information to use in your stories by stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things.

3.       Make writing a priority

Productive writers work a regular writing routine into their lives. The amount of time devoted to it varies widely, but there needs to be a commitment to writing. Continually placing writing at the bottom of your priority list makes it difficult (or impossible) to achieve success as a writer.

4.      Finish what you start

It’s common to work on more than one project at a time. A problem arises, though, when writers skip from one manuscript to another without ever finishing what they start. Or when they try to attain perfection, or avoid failure, by working on one project for years…and years…and years, and never submit it. At some point you have to say it’s as good as it’s going to get, and send it out.

 

 

Are you satisfied with your writing habits? What helps you be productive, and what interferes with your productivity? Do you make an effort to learn new things in order to add spice and authenticity to your writing?

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As 2013 begins, I hope to move forward in areas where I have been lax, such as writing blog posts. I’ll maintain the writing-related focus of this blog and, while I make no promises, I plan to post a minimum of once a week.

I’m at a crossroad in life and am not yet sure of what I want to do. Sort of like my cat.

Safety first!

Safety first!

He’s kept indoors 99.9% of the time and when let loose outside never ventures beyond the safety of the deck. He nibbles on the grass growing next to it, but won’t step out of his comfort zone to see what he could see. I don’t want to be like him.

I want to jump off the deck and wallow in the grass, figuratively speaking. I want to revel in whatever the new year brings me; to do things I’ve never done before—in reality, and in my writing.

 

Looking for adventure!

Looking for adventure!

 

Look out world; here I come!

 

What about you? What are you hoping to achieve in 2013? Are you setting specific goals or making any changes? Are you looking forward to anything special this year?

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My latest addiction is TheJigsawPuzzles.com. As a child I enjoyed working jigsaw puzzles with my mom and grandmother, but with an active family and 5 cats I’ve never had a safe spot to lay out the pieces of a traditional puzzle in my own home. Problem solved! With virtual puzzles, I don’t have to worry about losing pieces or keeping tiny feet from destroying hours of work. And puzzles can be a lot of work.

Putting together jigsaw puzzles may seem a wasteful use of time to some people but it has helped me get a clearer focus on my writing goals. Here are 4 analogies I’ve noted regarding jigsaw puzzles and effective writing techniques.

 

1. Working on a project I truly enjoy makes it easier to get through the difficult parts.

Whether it’s a puzzle or a story/article, if I’m not interested in the subject matter and hit a rough patch, it’s tempting to quit. External motivations such as money or praise from others may help, but the internal satisfaction I get from doing something I enjoy is often the primary factor in achieving my goals

 

2. Having a clear idea of the big picture helps tremendously.

I choose puzzles that fit my mood, and sometimes they involve lots of colors and unfamiliar subject matter. Having a picture of the completed puzzle to refer to as I work helps me organize the pieces and determine their approximate placement when I get stuck. The same holds true with my writing. I’m not a strict outliner, but knowing the basic story and key plot points or talking points helps me stay focused on the end result.

 

3. Breaking the project down into smaller components keeps it from being overwhelming and provides structure for areas that may be ill-defined.

The larger the puzzle the harder it feels, but there are ways to make things more manageable. Putting together the outside pieces first is very helpful, providing a framework and a place to start building connections as well as reducing the number of loose pieces I have to deal with. It hints at what goes in each area, so when I’m sorting through the remaining pieces I have a general idea of where they may belong.

When an idea or scene doesn’t seem to fit what I’m currently working on, setting it aside until the writing project is further along may help clarify where it should go. In the same way, formulating the beginning and end of a chapter, scene, or paragraph helps determine what is needed in the middle.

 

4. Knowing the basics of how things work and customizing the process to fit my needs increases the likelihood of achieving my goals.

Each puzzle site I’ve visited operates in a slightly different way, and it took a while to learn how to navigate them comfortably. The online site I like best lets me see a picture of the complete puzzle as I work, has a button that lets me automatically separate the edge pieces from the others, has a timer I can use to pace myself, and lets me choose how many pieces I want the puzzle to contain and the style of the cuts. By customizing a puzzle to fit my interests and abilities I don’t get overwhelmed with something I’m not capable of handling. With practice, my skills improve and I’m able to take on more complex puzzles. I’ve also learned how to upload my own pictures and turn them into custom puzzles to share with friends.

The process of becoming a successful writer requires an understanding of how the writing and publishing process works, and also requires some customization to meet our individual needs.  Each of us has different experiences and skills, so our roadmaps to success may follow different routes.  Being aware of our strengths and weaknesses can help us figure out where we need additional help to achieve our goals, and we can work on those areas first in order to maximize our chance of success. When writing, knowing where to look for help with grammar issues, being aware of the proper format for the type of writing we are doing, and understanding how to use the basic features of our word processing program will make writing projects less stressful and more professional in appearance. Understanding how agents and editors expect us to submit our work to them, and following their guidelines, will give our submissions an advantage over our less-knowledgeable competitors.

 

 

Do you enjoy working jigsaw puzzles? What is your favorite way to “waste” time? What writing resources do you recommend for people who might be struggling down the road to success?

 

 

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While my husband and I were having breakfast together at a local restaurant a few days ago, I noticed that he was almost finished whereas I had barely eaten any of my meal. I asked him why he eats so fast, and he replied that he doesn’t—he just gets done first because I never stop talking long enough to eat.

When it comes to writing, I think there are many of us who spend more time talking about it than working towards our goals. We have reasons, many of them good ones, why we have to do other things before we can complete our novel, memoir, or other projects, but that doesn’t change the fact that we aren’t achieving the success we hope for.

One factor holding us back may be a lack of time management skills. I know it’s an area I struggle with, so I did some research. Here are some of the ideas I’m hoping will help me manage time more effectively:

  • Set realistic long-term and short-term goals.

Knowing what we want to accomplish is the first step toward getting it. If we separate each big goal into smaller ones, it will keep us from feeling overwhelmed and we are more likely to succeed.

  • Set priorities, and stick to them until they change.

Every day, figure out what’s most important and work those into our schedule, allowing more time than we think we need because everything takes longer than we think. Life has a way of throwing obstacles in whatever path we choose, so we need to be flexible.

  • Develop a routine that fits our lifestyles.

We all have different responsibilities, talents, and personalities, so we mustn’t get hung up on what people say we should be doing. If our priorities don’t allow for a regular routine, so be it. We should do the best we can, when we can, and not get discouraged by comparing ourselves to others. Giving up is the surest way to fail.

That last point was one I made up myself. Apparently I lost the focus of my post somewhere along the way and started thinking philosophically instead of practically. If you want more specific tips, here are a couple of sites that I thought were especially well-written and helpful.

Top 10 Time Management Tips

13 Tips for More Effective Time Management

 In closing, here’s a bit of advice that I’ve always followed: Try not to stress over what doesn’t get done today, because it will probably still be waiting for you tomorrow.

 

Do you struggle with managing your time? What are some ways you fit writing into your schedule? What’s the most useful tip you know of for those of us needing to improve our time management skills?

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One type of writing that I enjoy is journaling. While it’s similar to a diary of events or thoughts, a journal typically includes introspection on what is written.

There are many reasons to keep a journal. Here are some that I think are helpful for writers:

  • Prods our creativity
  • Helps develop writing skills
  • Captures experiences we can use in stories
  • Keeps us in the habit of writing regularly

There are many benefits for non-writers, too, and for me these are even better reasons to keep a journal:

  • Allows us to see how our attitudes and thoughts have changed over time
  • Becomes a record of our lives that others may one day appreciate reading
  • Helps us sort out our feelings
  • Relieves stress by clearing out the clutter in our minds

 

A journal doesn’t have to follow rules. It can be as detailed or vague as we want it. Whether we are writing whatever comes to mind, or following a structured theme, it can help us discover more about ourselves as well as document our thoughts and experiences.

Whether your journaling is autobiographical, free-writing, focused on a particular topic, or a mixture of those things, it can be a useful and fun hobby. There are many sites that provide creative suggestions for journal topics, as well as ideas for creating personal journals.

Here are 2 sites with articles about journaling that I found helpful:

Your Life is Your Story  On starting a journal; has many helpful links.

Infed: Writing and Keeping Journals  Discusses learning from the journals we keep.

 

I haven’t kept a regular journal for a year or two, but started a new one this week as part of a study course I’m taking. Although I usually keep my entries in Word documents, I’m also going to print off the ones for this journal and keep them in a 3-ring binder. I only have a few entries so far, and the binder isn’t fancy—but I like it. It feels right for what I want to accomplish, and easy.

My journal on Revelation

Do you keep a journal? What topics do you write about? Do you use bound journals, notebooks, binders, or computer files for your journal entries? Do you have any tips, or know of helpful sites for more information on keeping a journal?

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Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience.  The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation.  Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.

Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words. 

Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.

 

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What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation?  What type of words do you view as “neutral?”  Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?

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I’ve frequently heard that writers are supposed to “show instead of tell,” but that isn’t always easy to do. When it comes to settings, I think it can be especially hard.

 

Setting is more than a location or time period. Among other things, it provides a frame of reference for readers, affects the tone, supports a theme, and adds to characterization. It can also detract from those aspects of a story if the setting isn’t appropriate or memorable.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words, but unless we’re writing a picture book we must depend on words to convey our meaning. Long narratives describing the setting can be overwhelming and boring, and many people skim over those kinds of passages (me, too!). It can be more effective and interesting to integrate specific, important details of the setting into the story itself, allowing readers to imagine the big picture.

 

To illustrate my point, I’ve included a few photos from my recent vacation. With each, I’ve added a basic caption regarding the setting; underneath I’ve mentioned why the picture is memorable to me. I hope those comments will help you get a feel for the setting where each one occurred. (Plus this gives me a chance to share a few of my favorite vacation photos without violating my blog’s writing-related theme. :) )

 

Conservatory at the Bellagio hotel

Thousands of flowers blended with fountains, birds, and storybook characters in a fantastic panorama at the Bellagio hotel.

 

Bally and Paris hotels at night

The lights at night made even conservative structures like the Bally hotel appear amazing, while turning the beautiful ones into spectacles that took my breath away.  

 

Dinner on Thursday

This decorated chicken breast resting on a few pieces of asparagus was the main course in the most expensive meal I ever ate.

 

view from the plane before takeoff

I never expected to see palm trees lining the roads while mountains loomed in the distance. Nothing at all like rural Indiana.

 

 

Here’s one where the setting wasn’t important; it was the people I was with that made this one memorable.

Lisa and Carol

I don’t even remember exactly where we were, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep plodding along. Getting a picture taken with my daughter gave me a welcome break without having to whine that I was tired!

 

For more information on setting, I recommend these sites:

 

My post from 4/13/10 on the importance of setting.

Setting Is More Than Mere Time And Place    An article on setting. The site also covers many other writing-related topics.

Setting: Writing a Story With Atmosphere This article discusses setting in some depth. It also contains lots of helpful tips on writing novels.

 

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Do you focus on the setting as much as you do the plot and characterization? Is setting important in nonfiction? What details do you like to know about the setting when you’re reading a book? Have you gone anywhere interesting on vacation this year?

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Each event in a story takes place within a scene, showing the reader the action as it happens.

Short stories typically consist of only one or two scenes, while novels contain many. They vary in length, with some only a few paragraphs long and others covering many pages. However, most scenes follow a pattern similar to the typical story arc, beginning with a hook, building conflict or tension in the middle, and ending with a change in time/place, or a suspenseful moment (cliffhanger).

Each scene should serve a purpose in the story. It might:

  •   introduce or develop a conflict, theme, or character
  •   establish the setting (time period or place)
  •   create atmosphere (romantic, suspenseful, etc.)
  •   provide information that moves the plot forward

An author may use exposition to summarize what’s going on rather than including scenes to show all of the action as it happens. This provides a transition between scenes, and helps adjust the pacing of the story.

  

 

How do you determine if a scene is necessary? Do you like scenes that end on cliffhangers?

 

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