Monthly Archives: March 2014

Kicking Writer’s Block to the Curb

Many writers have experienced writer’s block at some point. Whether it’s not being able to come up with an idea or having a ton of ideas but not being able to commit to any of them. Getting stuck on a specific part of an outline or chapter, hitting a dead end and not knowing where your story took a wrong turn, not being able to find the right words, or having your inner critic shoot you down.

Many think that writer’s block can be overcome through sheer willpower. We want it to go away enough, then it will. However, sheer willpower doesn’t work all the time because there is usually something internal going on that we may be missing.

This internal conflict may be fear. We may have a voice in our head that says we’re not good enough, that we’re never going to get published, that everyone will think our writing is rubbish, or it could be the opposite.

Veronica Roth has dealt with anxiety issues due to caring a lot about what other people think. When she got famous, her anxiety spiked because she was in the public’s eye, and every person that read her work, and some that didn’t, were weighing in their opinions.

Some of those opinions weren’t pretty, especially when it came to Allegiant, the final book in Roth’s Divergent trilogy. Commenters said she destroyed her career, they gave her book one star reviews, and there were even some death threats. Talk about being negative, and wanting someone to conform to what people believe an ending should be.

But before I go too far down that bunny trail, let’s get back to writer’s block.

How do people get unstuck?

First off, understand what’s going on in your head when you get blocked. To do this, you need to become aware, to consider alternatives. It doesn’t help to use trial and error, to wait for inspiration, or to insist on a perfect draft.

Heads up: Perfectionism is a very good way to develop writer’s block.

Work on separating your inner voice from the daily world. If you’re worrying about what to get at the grocery store, whether or not you got an A on your biostatistics test, if your boss was happy with your latest article, if your boyfriend is still mad at you for not calling him back, and the fact that you haven’t had time to workout for three days in a row, you’re going to have a difficult time delving into your creative side.

Some ways to help connect with your inner voice:

  • Take a break from whatever you’re writing and do anything that’s creative. Paint, take pictures, make a scrapbook, woodwork, work on your website or blog.
  • Exercise. Doesn’t have to be strenuous. Get up and dance, practice yoga, go on hike or a walk around the neighborhood. Go for a bike ride. Find something that brings you to a peaceful state.
  • Free write. Take fifteen-twenty minutes to write whatever comes to you. It can be completely random, grammatically incorrect, and with a ton of punctuation errors. Just write.
  • Eliminate distractions. Put the phone away. Log off Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and whatever else you use for social media. Clean up your workspace. Find a quiet place to work. Let your family know that solitude is important to staying focused.

Most importantly, let go of your insecurities. That’s a lot easier said than done. But once you work through your fears and not worry about what others think, you’ll find the creative side of you is readily available.

Two quotes for overcoming writer’s block:

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day…you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.” – Jennifer Egan

Have you ever had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Showing Vs. Telling

Show don’t tell is a piece of advice most writers have heard of. But what does this mean in practical terms?

First off, exposition is useful in your writing, as long as you don’t over-indulge.

Fiction is about creating an emotional link between the author’s story and the reader. As the author, we want to help readers create a “suspension of disbelief,” meaning the readers move past the fact that our stories are fabrications.

To do this, we make fiction as plausible as possible and go for the readers’ emotions over their intellect.

One of the top ways to accomplish these two acts is to show the reader what’s happening, instead of telling them.

Telling catalogs emotions and actions. Showing makes the reader feel like they’re in the story. It activates the fives senses, or at least some of them. It’s what the characters do and say that convinces the reader.

Work with immediate physical and emotional actions: wind whipped her cheeks, his face went ashen, a fist curled in her gut.

Use verbs to carry the description. There are so many verbs out there that it’s wrong to ignore them.

Maria walked down the hallway. VS. Maria slinked down the hallway.

The second sentence gives the reader a clearer image of Maria and her mood.

As different verbs can drastically alter the way a reader interprets a scene, sentences can too. Be wary of telling readers how to feel in a sentence. Don’t tell the reader to be surprised, shock the reader with your words.

Think of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. With the line, “The tiny insect-crawl of the second hand was the last thing she saw before the lights went out,” Harris focuses our attention before causing something to happen that makes us jump. Harris shows us something unexpected instead of telling us it’s unexpected.

Showing results in more writing than telling does. But that helps to relieve ambiguity. If we say that the house looked old, the reader is left wondering what “old” looks like in this context.

Saying that the house is choked with vines, its paint flaking, a few of its support beams peeking through the cracks, and its heavy, velvet curtains moth-ridden gives a much stronger image.

Dialogue is also a useful tool in showing, not telling. It can suggest a character’s background, self-image, intelligence, personality, etc.

For example, Jace Wayland’s character in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:

  • “And next time you’re planning to injure yourself to get my attention, just remember that a little sweet talk works wonders.”
  • Clary: “Don’t. I’m not really in the mood right now.” Jace: “That’s got to be the first time a girl’s ever said that to me.”

These two examples show Jace’s arrogance and charisma, and that he’s a bit self-centered.

However, there are a few arguments for telling instead of showing. One is briefness. As stated earlier, showing shoots up word count. If an event in your novel is relatively unimportant, it might be better to tell it. Two is recounting events. If your character is retelling an event that readers are already familiar with, don’t spend a ton of time on it. Gloss over it and get to the next big surprise.

For the most part, stick with showing, not telling. Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention. It draws them into the story.

Showing is a vital component of creating vivid stories that suck the reader into your world. So, remember these points when writing:

  • Don’t tell readers how to feel, evoke their emotions
  • Use strong and specific verbs
  • Use expressive dialogue that shows off characters’ attitudes and emotions
  • Use well-placed details to activate the senses

One last thing: If there’s a moment in your story or a story you’re reading where you don’t feel convinced, those are moments that are being told instead of shown.

Any specific novels that come to mind that tell instead of show? How about show instead of tell?

There Are No Rules

There are a countless number of books, websites, and classes designed to teach people how to write, including the rules associated with writing. Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Glitz, etc., has ten rules for good writing. However, W. Somerset Maugham, author of The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Elmore Leonard’s rules include:

  • Never open a book with weather.
  1. Rule: Weather is usually used as a conversational opening, when there’s not something better to talk about.
  2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Though weather is continued for the next paragraph, the main character is introduced after the opening line.
  3. The Rapture by Liz Jensen: “That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperature was merciless: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, then a hundred in the shade. It was heat to die, go nuts or spawn in…Asphyxiated, you longer for rain. It didn’t come.”
  • Avoid prologues.
  1. Prologues tend to be used improperly as massive information dumps, are too long, have nothing to do with the main story, can be folded into the main story, or are used to set the mood (which should be done in chapter one anyway).
  2. Prologues can be good, if used correctly: used for a critical element in the backstory or used to resolve a time gap with critical information
  3. i.e.: Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael novels both contain prologues that resolve a time gap and include important background information.
  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  1. There are plenty of published and successful books that use more than “said.”
  2. i.e. – Veronica Roth’s Insurgent, “‘She is not my friend,’ snaps Lynn.’”
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  1. Again, there are lots of successful novels that break this rule.
  2. i.e. – Delirium by Lauren Oliver: “‘Hi, Carol,’ Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us.”
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  1. Rule: When overused, an exclamation loses its meaning.
  2. i.e. – In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants five exclamation points are used within the prologue.
  • Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  1. i.e. – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants: “‘Oh Jesus,’ I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’”
  2. i.e. – Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories: “Funeral, he said suddenly. Going to my brother’s funeral.”
  • Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  1. Rule: Convey the feel of speech through expressions and phrasing, not misspellings, etc.
  2. i.e. – The Color Purple by Alice Walker: “My mama dead. She die screaming and cussing. She scream at me. She cuss at me. I’m big. I can’t move fast enough. By time I git back from the well, the water be warm. By time I git the tray ready the food be cold. By time I git all the children ready for school it be dinner time. He don’t say nothing. He set there by the bed holding her hand an cryin, talking about don’t leave me, don’t go.”
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  1. This is subjective. Some readers like description of characters, other do not.
  2. i.e. – In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, three men are described in one paragraph: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners…His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien…”
  3. i.e. – In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, it takes multiple paragraphs to describe Kennan: “…he did nothing but smile. / And he was devastating when he did. He glowed faintly all the time, as if hot coals burned inside him. His collar-length hair shimmered like strands of copper…tan and too beautiful to touch, walking with a swagger that said he knew exactly how attractive he was…he was almost average in size, only a head taller than she was. / Whenever he came near, she could smell wildflowers, could hear the rustle of willow branches…a taste of midsummer in the start of the frigid fall.”
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  1. Rule: Too much description and the story’s action comes to a standstill.
  2. i.e. – John Crowley’s Four Freedoms: A Novel has long, detailed descriptions of objects and places sometimes extending for over a page.
  3. i.e. – James Joyce’s The Dubliners: The Dead: “The middle of the room was occupied by two square tables placed end to end, and on these Aunt Julia and the caretaker were straightening and smoothing a large cloth. On the sideboard were arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano served also as a sideboard for viands and sweets. At a smaller sideboard in one corner two young men were standing, drinking hop bitters.”
  • Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  1. Rule: Readers skip thick paragraphs of prose, but not dialogue.
  2. This is another subjective rule. For instance, I’m not an erotica fan. I once bought a book thinking it was a fantasy adventure. It turned out that the book was more erotica than anything else. I didn’t finish that book, but gave it to a friend, who devoured it. So, where I found the sexual descriptions repetitive and rather boring, she was engrossed.

As you can see from the examples I’ve provided above, Maugham may be right. Leonard’s list of ten rules can be counted more as suggestions, observations, and helpful points than as strict letters of the law. If they were, these rules wouldn’t be contradicted.

With writing, it isn’t a linear process. There are no definite steps to follow. You move forward and backward. You write something brilliant one day and then the next you have no idea why what you wrote the previous day was so good. Eventually, if you stick with it, you finish writing a story.

Fiction writing holds no absolutes. There’s no right or wrong way to write your novel. There are suggestions and insights from successful authors. But, the only true measure of what kind of shape your novel is in is by how well it’s received by you and your readers.

Do you lean more toward Maugham or Leonard’s belief about rules for writing?

[Elmore Leonard’s rules from The New York Times “Writers on Writing; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”]

That Pesky Opening

A novel’s beginning is sometimes one of the most difficult aspects a writer faces. It gives the first impression, and, as we learn growing up, first impressions are very important.

The writer must grab a reader’s attention from the first sentence and continue to keep it. (And I’m not just talking about once a book is published. Many agents won’t read past the first line – the first paragraph – of a submitted novel if it doesn’t grab their attention.)

As much as writers hope that readers would give more than the first page or so of a novel a chance, for the most part that’s not the case. Hooking readers from the get-go is necessary to keep them reading.

Some examples of attention-grabbing opening lines:

  • “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty three since the scientists perfected a cure.” – Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell
  • “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.” – Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone.” – Gone by Michael Grant
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Once that opening line or two is written, the rest of the page needs to continue to draw the reader in.

There are many ways to catch and keep a reader’s interest. Here are some more common ways:

  1. Start in the right place. Begin at the start of a conflict and build momentum from that first moment. If you start the novel by discussing something interesting that happened before the novel began, think about including that interesting event instead of simply talking about it (showing vs. telling). Likewise, including long, winding descriptions or a flashback before the story has moved forward at all isn’t all that compelling.
    1. In Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly, the author begins with the main character getting caught in the rush at the post office when one of the dead comes down the street. (Opening line: “‘Dead!’ a woman screamed. ‘It’s the Dead!’”)
  2. Include action. This does not mean throwing in a random car or plane crash. Every action needs to have context. Without meaning behind it, action becomes pointless. Action doesn’t have to be huge, it can simply be the character standing at a street corner and turning left instead of right like she has done every day for the past three years.
  3. Don’t jump ahead of your readers. Two points here. One: have your readers care about your characters before you put your characters in jeopardy. Two: don’t make the beginning confusing, even if the opening ends up making sense later. If readers don’t care or if they’re confused, they will most likely stop reading.
  4. Ground your characters. Set the scene. You can have great dialogue, but if the reader has no idea where the conversation is happening, it takes away from the novel. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, include paragraphs of background at the beginning. But including a couple of lines depicting laughter, the clanking of glasses, the thudding of feet against concrete, the screech of a bird, or the rich smell of hazelnut coffee will help readers to visualize where the conversation is occurring.
  5. Don’t forget the momentum. The opening should show off the character’s distinctive voice. It should show the audience the point of view the story is being told from, as well as introducing readers to the plot.
    1. The Giver by Lois Lowry quickly introduces the main character and his voice: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.”

If an opening is done well, readers will feel that internal tug to keep reading. They may ask themselves why the grandmother felt the need to burn those letters, how a group of people could allow someone to be chosen at random to be sacrificed, where a girl’s brother disappeared to all those years ago, or the identity of a shadow following a young mother in a picture that was taken the night she was murdered.

Have any suggestions on ways to write a great opening?

New Adult Fiction: Filling in the Gap

There are children’s books, young adult novels, and adult books. Now, there’s a new genre on the rise: New Adult.

Though new adult fiction has been around for a number of years, it’s only recently that it’s becoming a more common term.

New adult fiction is aimed at readers who are typically between the ages of 18 and 30. It’s a genre for those who enjoy young adult but are looking for more mature topics, without jumping into characters nearing middle age.

These books bridge the gap between young adult and adult populations. They reach to both older teenagers and adults, and tend to focus on the transition from innocence into complicated adult issues. These issues could be living on one’s own for the first time, losing one’s virginity, the trials of one’s first professional job, preparing for a wedding, etc.

In young adult books, sexual interactions and more gruesome or socially unacceptable acts of violence tend to be alluded to instead of shown in any sort of detail. New adult books include more graphic scenes, both violent and romantic.

However, there has been some hesitation about new adult fiction. Books falling into this genre find themselves in the in-between territory. Stuck between adult and children’s literature (children’s and young adult), there is some difficulty finding the genre its own bookshelf.

Here’s a short breakdown of genres to help with differentiating new adult from already established genres:

Young Adult

  • Age appropriate for 13 to 18 year olds (the high school age or those about to attend)
  • Coming of age, but not in a hugely graphic manner and usually without losing all of one’s innocence
  • Easy to comprehend tone (aka fast reads)

Young adult books are stories with language that is easy to read and to the point. They are the PG-13 rating of movies.

Sample Books: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Lightning Thief, Delirium, A Great and Terrible Beauty, The Golden Compass

New Adult

  • Age appropriate for 17 and older (undergraduate, graduate school age)
  • Main character typically 18-25 years old (instead of 13-17, like in YA)
  • Contains both straightforward writing and adult situations
  • Deals with life between the end of high school and full-fledged adulthood (i.e.- you’re legally an adult but you’re not quite ready to be completely on your own)

New Adult books contain some of the same aspects that young adult books do, but with adult situations added in (i.e.- steamier physical interactions) or situations that are harder for younger teens to relate to (i.e.- getting engaged, first professional job, college, having a baby, etc.)

Sample books: Easy, Losing It, Beautiful Disaster, Slammed

Adult Fiction

  • Adult audience, so technically ages 18 and up. However, many adult books include main characters and situations that teenagers won’t relate to and that 18-25 year olds may have difficulty relating to.
  • Can have either straightforward or more complex writing that takes longer to digest
  • Typically includes sexual scenes, sometimes cursing
  • Erotica is considered adult

Sample books: A Game of Thrones, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Da Vinci Code, Jane Eyre, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Notebook

The new adult genre is in the midst of development. This can make it difficult for them to find homes among traditional agents and editors. Therefore, some new adult books have been self-published instead of going the traditional route. For example, Beautiful Disaster was self-published in June 2011 by Jamie McGuire. It was picked up by Atria Books and published through them in August 2012.

Literary agents and publishers are starting to pick up on the new adult genre as a potential moneymaking category (it certainly has a large enough audience). However, this genre is still budding and isn’t seen in traditional bookstores.

Without support it will not grow to the likes of young adult and adult.

What do you think about new adult as an emerging genre?