Monthly Archives: October 2014

Look Over Here, No Here: The Art of Commenting

Writing isn’t just about writing. Yes, that’s a huge component of it, but if you want to improve your writing skills, you have to do more than write. One way that helps is to comment on other peoples’ writing.

I’m not talking about simply stating whether you liked or didn’t like something. And I’m not telling you to edit someone else’s work, or try to improve their work based on what you’d do if their story were yours. Look at someone else’s work on its own merit. Work on figuring out what that one, individual story is trying to do.

The goal with commenting is to help create well-crafted stories. You want to help other writers improve their work, and in doing so, yours will improve. Be honest…not mean. If you say something that’s a great idea, but makes the writer defensive, your comments won’t be heard.

It’s always nice to say something positive about the work. It’s easy to get on a rant about what’s negative, and though you should be honest, you don’t want to throw the writer into a black hole. Think how’d you feel if someone was so brutally honest with you, you wanted to crawl under a rock and never see the light of day again….Not a great feeling.

There are different types of comments you can give to other writers. I’ve listed some of the areas below:

  • The View From Above. From an overall perspective, how did you feel about the story or the chapter you just finished reading? What aspects stayed with you? What were the best and worst parts?
  • Let’s Get Technical. How was the plot of the story? Of the chapter? Was there a flow from beginning to middle to end? How were the setting, dialogue, and voice? How about the point of view? Where there some parts of the story much slower than others? Was the writing too choppy or flowery? Did the structure of the story or chapter make sense?
  • The Individual Moments. Were there any specific points in the novel that delighted you (this could be a positive emotion, like overwhelming happiness, or a horrible one, like feeling as if you’d experienced a character’s loss first hand – both of these would be good scenarios)? Was there a section that made you doubt the validity of a character? Was there a part that left you wanting more or less?
  • Think About Those Sentences. How’s the sentence variety? How about the word choice? Are there some words that don’t make any sense or throw you out of the story? Is the voice active or passive? Wordy? Too dense? What about the use of figurative language?
  • Why Continue Reading? What makes you want to read on? Do you want to read on? If you’re looking at a chapter, do you have a sense of where the story’s going?

When commenting, it’s important to address different areas. You want to be thoughtful and thorough. Explain why you said what you said. If you only state what was good and what wasn’t, the author won’t know why something works and another thing doesn’t. The author won’t know how to go about changing sections that didn’t work. So take the time and explain your thoughts.

How do you go about commenting?

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Characterization According to Aristotle

According to Aristotle, there are four essentials of characterization:

  1. Characters must be credible. 

Characters must be credible as human beings. In others words, readers have to believe a human being, in real life, would do what a character is doing. In real life, people have strengths and weaknesses. They love and hate. They like certain things and dislike others. Characters needs to be able to evoke emotion in readers, and in order to do that they need to be like us.

  1. Characters must be believable.

Characters must be believable as characters. For instance, character A needs to believable as character A, not B, not C, but A. If readers believe that the action a character commits would be done in real life, but not by that character, then you have a problem. Put differently, characters must be appropriate to themselves. A king and a peasant are two very different statuses, and so they’ll act differently from one and another.

  1. Characters must be consistent.

Characters must be consistent to how you make them. Or, if a character breaks consistency, then it’s a purposeful break and is big news. However, for the most part, characters need to be true to their natures. Their actions are rational, not giant leaps of irrationality. No sudden character changes. I recently read a novel where halfway through I had to stop and wonder what happened because suddenly a few of the characters were completely different. And it was a very sudden transition – one page they were one person and the next page they were completely different.

  1. Characters must be good.

This doesn’t mean that a character can’t have flaws. It’s good for a character to be flawed. Without flaws characters aren’t believable, and perfect characters aren’t usually all that popular. What is meant by “good” is that a character has some capacity for good. If the character is bad or evil, there’s a possibility for redemption – that’s what makes villains so tragic. They have the chance to be good, but they chose to go against that path, whether consciously or not.

And if the character is good, such as the heroine or hero of the story, they can’t be all good. Wickedness is mixed with goodness. People in real life aren’t one hundred percent good or bad. Characters shouldn’t be either.

The best characters are those who are caught in the middle, who struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. They’re the most realistic and the most interesting.

I See You: The Basics of Point of View

You get that small flash, that inkling, that spark for a story. But how do you go from that idea to a full-blown novel?

One major aspect is point of view.

Point of view (POV) is the relationship that’s established between you, your character, and your readers in a story. It’s one of the most basic elements of fiction.

There are two major concerns for POV:

  1. Whose story is it? What character will be telling the story? Is it Nancy, a 43-year-old waitress, who’s losing touching with reality? Is it Michael, a 25-year-old lawyer fresh out of law school? Is it Kate, a 15-year-old runaway? All three of these characters may be in the same book, but whose story is it? Is it Nancy, Michael, or Kate’s voice readers will be hearing?
  2. From what perspective will you tell the story? Which POV will the story be told from? First person? Third person? Omniscient? How about second person?

POV is a choice, and each POV has its advantages and disadvantages.

First Person

First person POV uses “I” or “we.” It gives the impression of the story being more real because it implies intimacy and immediacy. In first person, the author is pretending to be the character. (But be careful, make sure the character doesn’t morph into the author.)

First person works best in stories where voice is the most important aspect. It can make an otherwise unappealing character interesting because readers can see inside the character’s head. Also, events in the story don’t have to be as dramatic, or dramatic at all really. It’s the character’s internal process, his narration that shows the significance of the events. For instance, A&P by John Updike is about a boy quitting his job because three girls walked into the store. Doesn’t sound very interesting? But it’s a famous short story, one people comment on over and over again, because readers see into the protagonist’s mind. And what we see in there makes the story very interesting.

However, the success or failure of a story depends on voice. If the “I” in the story doesn’t attract readers, then they won’t read it. On a similar note, first person can make a story seem claustrophobic since the “I” can be very limiting. It’s a close up shot, where everything that is experienced, is viewed, felt, tasted, etc. through the main character.

Nowadays, first person seems very popular in young adult literature. Some examples are Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Thirteen Reasons Why, Delirium, and Vampire Academy.

Second Person

Second person POV is where the author makes the reader the character. The author addresses “you,” instead of “I,” “we,” “she,” “he,” or “they.” Second person is not common in today’s literary world. One more current example is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. (Excerpt from the novel’s opening: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”)

Second person can seem intrusive. It can provoke readers, which sometimes it a good thing. Many authors hope to incite questions, especially self-questioning. However, second person breaks down that wall between the fictional world and reality, and many times readers pick up a book because they want to escape for a little while, not be put on the spot.

Warning: There are some editors who say they’ll never publish a second person story because they think it’s gimmicky.

Third Person

Third person POV is the “he,” “she,” or “they.” It’s the POV where the author is hiding, so that readers aren’t aware of the author’s presence. Third person is one of the most common types of POV in literature.

There are two types of third person POV:

  1. Third person limited. The story is told from the character experiencing the action, the unfolding of events in the novel. The character must be present for any dialogue or action to occur. However, there is more wiggle room in third person limited than first person. Third person can pull away some, as well as incorporate multiple voices. Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy takes advantage of this.
  2. Third person Omniscient. This type of POV is where the author is sitting on top of a mountain with the reader and they’re watching all the little people below. With an omniscient POV, information, histories, futures, etc. can be related to the reader, even if the characters in the story aren’t privy to that information. Omniscience creates distance between readers and the protagonist. An omniscient narrator knows everything that’s happening, has happened, and will happen, as well as what all of the characters are doing and thinking. Read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens’.

What’s great about fiction is that the author can choose which POV to tell his or her story from. And what’s truly important is figuring out which POV is best for the story you want to tell.

What type of POV do you tend to write from? Why?

Categorizing Fiction: What’s Each Part All About?

Fiction is a conglomerate of information. It can’t just tell you something. It has to serenade you, pull you in…perhaps romance you a bit. Bottom line: fiction needs to suspend your disbelief.

So, how do we, as writers, go about this?

There are five main ways to categorize fiction. Each way adds to the whole of the story, creating a richer, fuller world.

  1. Narration. This tells you what happened. It’s the meaningful actions that characters do. Narration can sometimes include meaning movements as well.
  2. Description. This deals with details, often sensory details (taste, touch, smell, hear, see). Description includes giving details about people, places, actions, gestures, speaking, etc. It tells “how” something is done, whereas narration tells “what” occurred.
  3. Exposition. This is information that is told by the author/narrator to readers. Exposition has a bad rep (the whole “telling” vs. “showing” concept), but it is necessary in fiction because it provides context, meaning, history, etc.
  4. Dialogue. Spoken words.
  5. Internal. This includes the thoughts and feelings, both immediate and long term, of a character(s). The internal category gets inside the character, and involves a character’s internal reactions to something. For instance, two characters might see the same event, but their internal reactions will be different.

Narration and dialogue speed up the pace of a novel, while exposition, description, and internal slow down the pace. A big part of the reason why all five of these ways are important to include in a novel is because there are times in a story where you want the reader to go fast, and times where you want the reader to go slow.

Some common mistakes:

  • Description. It can be easy to bunch description together. For instance, describing every aspect of a character all at once (hair, eyes, body type, clothing, posture, personality, etc.). When you bunch your description, you (1) don’t include it anywhere else in the novel and (2) create an imbalance. You want to reveal details when they’re important. When you use the right details, at the right time, the story feels organic, connected.
  • Exposition. Just as too much exposition is a mistake, so is too little. There are some things/information you need to know to understand and grow attached to the character. For example, if a story begins in October, maybe the protagonist’s parents died four months ago, and that piece of information would help explain why the protagonist has a drug problem, and create some understanding, maybe even sympathy.
  • Internal. Don’t let your writing get too internal. It can be easy to get lost in a character’s mind, but that can result in readers falling out of the story. Also, sometimes showing or telling is enough. If you write, “She curled up into a ball and cried.” You don’t need to also say, “She was sad.” Readers already know she’s sad because of her actions.

Which of the five ways are you the best at? Which ones should you focus on improving?