Monthly Archives: December 2014

New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

The year is almost over. A new year is about to begin. These next days before we say goodbye to 2014 and hello to 2015 are a time to declare resolutions for the coming year. Some will resolve to lose weight or save money, but as writers, our New Year’s goal(s) tend toward writing.

341866875_a0e8c69f1e_oHere are some common resolutions for writers:

Make time for writing (consistently).

This is easier said than done. As writers, we know what we have to do to get a novel or short story written. We have to sit down and write. But, since most of us have jobs, families, various chores and errands, pets, other interests, trying to stay fit – not to mention needing sleep – it’s easy for our writing to get pushed to the side.

However, there is time to write. We just have to realize it. Even if it’s only for fifteen minutes on some days. Set goals for yourself. Maybe try to get 250 or 500 words written a day. Or work on outlining. Writing isn’t just about getting words down on paper. It’s also about doing research for your work, outlining your story, etc. There are some days where the time I allot for writing is all research!

If you write everyday, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes, you’ll find yourself accomplishing a lot more than putting off writing for a month and then spending seven hours in a writing fury. Not only will you have to remember what you’ve already written, but you’ll have to get back into your story. Both of which take up valuable time.

Finish or start your work.

Whether it’s a novel or a short story, you are determined to finish what you’ve started or begin putting that great premise down on paper. It can be frustrating to have an unfinished work laying around, but it’s easy to put off continuing working on it. The same applies for beginning a novel or short story. Why not write your goals down on a calendar or tell someone about your goals? Find a way to make yourself accountable to finish or start your work.

If you make the resolution to finish your work, that includes editing and revising. Make the work as close to perfect as you can. Then, reward yourself and work on a new goal: submission to agents.

Edit your work.

A fair amount of people think writing the novel is the hard part. That part is challenging, but what takes longer and is more demanding is revision. As the author, you get to a point in your work where it’s hard to see what needs to be improved. This doesn’t mean to stop revising. It means to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your work, unless you are one of those lucky few who can step back and look at their own writing from an objective point of view, as if they had never seen or heard of the story before.

(I only know of one person who can successfully take an objective view of his work, which is why I’m in a critique group. I don’t catch all of the little things (and the occasional plot hole) missing from my work, and I very much appreciate those people who take time to review my work. Without them, my writing wouldn’t be as clean as it is.)

Submit your work.

Don’t submit until your work is ready. It can be tempting to submit to magazines or literary agents before you’ve finished editing, or sometimes before you’ve completed the first draft, especially when most agents take at least four weeks to get back to you. Resist this feeling. By waiting until your work is ready, you have a better chance of getting accepted.

Get involved with other writers.

Be supportive. Writing isn’t easy and it tends to be solitary. Not to mention how writers tend to be harsh on themselves. I don’t know about you, but there are times where my negativity gets the better of me. The way I help overcome that? Knowing other writers, talking to them, and supporting them. I know I’m not alone with the emotions and negativity I sometimes feel, and it helps to both encourage other writers (and be genuinely happy for them when they get published) and hear other writers encourage me to continue pursuing my goal of getting published.

Call yourself a writer (and believe it).

This one seems deceptively easy. But saying, “I write,” is different than saying, “I’m a writer.” Writing is more than a hobby. If you want to get published, you have to commit, and one of the most important things you can do to help yourself commit to writing is to admit that you are a writer.

It’s a little scary to admit that, especially if you’ve never been published because you may fail and never get published. That’s something I think about a lot. One thing is certain though. If you don’t call yourself a writer – if you don’t make that commitment to writing – you will have a very difficult time being successful in your endeavors.

I’ve talked in terms of getting published. Not everyone has that goal. Regardless of whether or not you want to get published, writing takes commitment, and in order to do your best, you have to call yourself a writer. More than that, you have to believe it.

One of the best little bits of writing on writers I’ve read is from “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks. I first saw this piece on a Writer’s Digest blog (http://bit.ly/1c3L8ca) and liked it so much I thought I’d share it here:

We are lucky. Very lucky. We are writers.

Sometimes that may seem more curse than blessing, and others may not regard what we do with any more esteem or respect than mowing a lawn. To an outsider this can appear to be a hobby, or maybe a dream that eludes most.

But if that’s how they view you, they aren’t paying enough attention. If you are a writer–and you are if you actually write–you are already living the dream. Because the primary reward of writing comes from within, and you don’t need to get published or sell your screenplay to access it. …

Whatever we write, we are reaching out. We are declaring that we are not alone on this planet, and that we have something to share, something to say. Our writing survives us, even if nobody ever reads a word of it. Because we have given back, we have reflected our truth. We have mattered.

Enjoy the New Year. Embrace your resolutions. Write.

What resolutions are you making this New Year’s Eve?

(Photo courtesy of Naeema Campbell and Tim Hamilton)

That Pesky First Sentence

You’ve got the premise of your novel. You know your characters, the central conflict, and the ending. You may even know how you want to start your novel, but you can’t figure out that first sentence.3261090753_48fa0fe0a2

The opening sentence to a novel is very important. Many people, including a number of agents and editors, will not read beyond the first sentence if they don’t like it. (That’s a lot of pressure on the first sentence!) That’s why writing a stellar first sentence is monumental. More often than not, what you originally think of for the opening line is not what ends up as the first sentence.

That’s perfectly fine. In fact, in most cases, that’s probably a good thing.

Great opening lines lure readers in. They entice them.

First lines can be:

  • Vivid. “The rabbit had been run over minutes before.” Sabriel by Garth Nix

Most people have seen an animal that’s been hit by a car before, so this sentence sends an instant picture to the forefront of readers’ minds.

  • Create a specific image. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Readers get an image of a woman entering an apartment, who is identical to the narrator’s wife, but who doesn’t seem to be her. That’s distinct, and catches the attention. (For those familiar with psychology, Capgras Syndrome probably comes to mind.)

  • Ask a question. “They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.” The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

Who are the “Unregistereds?” Why are they being hung? With that first sentence, readers have questions they want answered.

  • Foreshadow. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Regardless of whether or not you’re a Twilight fan, the opening line of Stephanie Meyer’s preface leaves readers wondering what’s going to happen to the protagonist to make her think like that.

  • State something absurd. “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Really? A pleasure? Right away readers want to know what Bradbury is talking about.

  • Clear. “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 Olivier

Readers get a quick summary of the past sixty-some years, and also know what’s going to play a big part in the novel.

  • Short and to the point. “I am the vampire Lestat.” The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

This line does nothing overtly other than introduce readers to the protagonist. However, it’s a very impactful line, and says a lot about the character we’ll be following.

  • Surprising. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so what’s going on? One sentence in and there’s already an unexpected question in readers’ minds.

First lines vary widely from each other because books vary widely. A wonderful opening sentence for one novel won’t be right for another one. But what all successful opening lines do is capture readers’ attention.

How do you write a great first line?

Practice.

There’s no getting around it. Write an opening sentence, get feedback on it, rewrite it, get more feedback, and repeat that cycle until people are hooked on your opening sentence.

Another piece of advice?

Don’t fret too much about the opening line until after your first draft is written. As you write your novel, more ideas come to you, and your novel may take a drastic turn during the course of your writing. Once you have all eight-thousand or so words written, then go back to the beginning. Who knows? Maybe you’ll need to rewrite the entire opening to fit your novel’s ending.

What’s your favorite opening line from a novel you’ve read?

Are You Accountable?

With the holidays right around the corner, I wanted to talk about holding oneself accountable as a writer. What I mean by this is writing when you don’t want to write.accountability-inspirational-motivational-poster-art-christina-rollo

Whatever the reason, there are days when sitting down and writing seems like an impossible feat, so we procrastinate. During the holidays, it can get even harder to focus on writing. Maybe it’s due to having the entire family coming over to your house for dinner. Maybe it’s all the cookies you’ve been eating. Maybe it’s reasoning that your New Year’s resolution will be to write more, so you can put writing off until then. Or maybe it’s because you’re frazzled or fried and nothing is coming to you.

So, how do we keep ourselves accountable? How can we motivate ourselves to keep writing?

One way my friend did it was pay herself a dollar for every thousand words she wrote. By the time she finished her novel, she was able to buy herself a nice pair of boots for the winter. For her, having a reward at the end of the road was enough to have her keep going. For others, this may not work.

Another one of my friends told herself she had a choice. She could either write five hundred words a day or do five hundred crunches. She wrote more often than she did the crunches. For her, having a penalty for not writing pushed her to write.

Yet another one of my friends took a different approach. She made herself accountable to her critique group. She set up weekly deadlines for herself and gave her critique group permission to bug her whenever she missed a deadline. It worked. By effectively giving herself bosses to report to, she added pressure to herself to write. She hadn’t been good at answering to herself – she was able to make up too many excuses why she couldn’t write – that she had to find others to answer to.

Since writing is such a solitary pursuit, it can be hard to stick to it, especially if you’re not the best self-motivator or all that great a structuring your time. Some solitude is necessary for writing. I have a tendency to shut my door every time I get start writing, and my favorite time to write is when I’m the only one home.

But too much alone time can hinder your writing ability. Writing is not easy. Externally, it’s very difficult to get published. The publishing world is not a friend of unpublished writers or debut authors. Internally, writers tend have voices in their head telling them that their writing sucks and that they’ve got no talent. Both of these things can make it very difficult to continue forging ahead on your own.

By making yourself accountable to someone else, you also get a support system. When I first started actively pursuing writing, I went at it alone, and that was fine for a little while, but I find myself much happier having the network of writers I do now. We help keep each other motivated and accountable, and we all know how challenging writing can be. Plus, by having a support network, we go to writing conferences and readings together, we critique each other’s works, and we share in both the ecstatic nature of writing and its pitfalls.

How do you keep yourself accountable?

Don’t Be Like Alice: Ground Readers in Your World

It’s never a great experience feeling like you’re falling down a rabbit hole. It’s even worse when readers aren’t grounded in your story.

What’s meant by grounding?

france-hot-air-balloons5
The best way to think of grounding is as the thick piece of rope that tethers a hot air balloon filled with hot air to the ground. Without the rope, the balloon would float on up into the sky.

Looking at grounding a different way, it’s the story’s setting. It’s where your story takes place.

International_hot_air_balloon_festival_in_leon_guanajuato_mexico_02There are three ways to ground a story:

Time. There are two main meanings of time in a story. The first is the time over which a story takes place. Does the entirety of the story happen over the course of a week? A month? A year? How about each chapter within the story? Does, say, chapter one occur during the mid-afternoon? What if the protagonist doesn’t know the time of day? Similar to this is the time period in which the story occurs. Many romance novels relate to the time period they occur in. A Victorian romance is not the same as one that takes place in Ancient Greece, and neither of those two romances are the same as a modern day one.

The other meaning of time deals with time in relation to what else is happening in the story. For example, the protagonist has cancer and has three months to live. He has a bucket list and he wishes to complete his list before he dies. Another example is a character who gets infected with a lethal virus and has seventy-two hours to save himself before he dies. A third example is a protagonist who has to find her missing friend and shelter before sundown because that’s when all the supernatural creatures come out to play.

Place. This is the storyboard. It’s what the audience is seeing, where the story is taking place. A good way to think of place is in terms of a movie. If your story was a movie, what would movie goers see on the big screen? The location of the story changes how the story is perceived by readers. A setting in a small mid-Western town is very different than a story taking place in New York. More so, a story occurring on a different, exotic world is significantly different than a story set on Earth.

Event. What is the key event in a given portion of the story? How are other aspects of that story grounded around that main event? For instance, if the main event of a story is a massive explosion at an amusement park, what leads up to that event? Likewise, what follows that event (the primary, secondary, and tertiary fallout(s))? What are the relations of smaller sections of a novel to the goal of the piece?

It’s easy to skimp on the setting of a novel, but without a clear picture of time, place, and event, readers won’t be grounded. So, take the time to flesh out your setting. Make sure readers will be grounded in your story.

How have you helped ground your story?

What’s in a Scene? Part 2. (Creating Smooth Transitions in Writing)

take ownershipIn this hectic world we write in, transitions are what keep our ideas together. They are what make our stories flow. Without smooth transitions, our words are unable to make music.

Transitions establish coherent connections between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. In basic terms, transitions direct readers. They show readers what to do with all the information that’s being presented to them. They give readers cues to understanding how our ideas go together.

Without effective transitions, readers are jolted from the story. Think of it like a winding river, readers are floating along blissfully, when suddenly they hit a massive rock in the middle of the river. Ouch! Don’t let readers hit the rock. Guide them around the rock, so they can continue to float contently down the river.

If you get feedback about your writing and the comments contain words like “choppy,” “abrupt,” “how is this related?” etc., then you may need to work on your transitions. Some other hints you need to focus more on your transitions are:

  • Readers have trouble following your train of thought (not what’s in your head, but what’s down on the paper – what’s in your story).
  • Your story jumps from one idea to another like rapid fire. When people think, their thoughts tend to hop from point A to point B, skipping everything in between. In writing, you have to put at least some of that in between down on paper, at least enough to help readers make the connection you’ve made. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve all read at least one book where we don’t understand how a character reached the conclusion she did. It’s jarring when that happens and we’re left unable to suspend our disbelief.
  • Writing in chunks. This is where you don’t write in sequential order. You may write the first three chapters of a novel and then skip to the middle of the novel, or you might write all the romantic scenes before going back and writing the action scenes. It’s perfectly fine to do this…I’ve done this. What’s important to remember is that you can’t just paste these various scenes together. You need to write in transitions.

Each transition is an opportunity to keep readers invested. It’s also a chance to have them smash into that rock in the middle of the river.

Here are some tips on avoiding that rock:

Chapters (scenes)

It’s easier to have smooth transitions when a novel is from one point of view (POV). However, many writers elect to have multiple POVs throughout their story. The key to making a multiple POV novel successful is by having clear transitions from one character to another. This doesn’t just mean putting the character’s name at the start of each chapter, but also making each character distinct from the others. If your characters sound the same (and this especially applies to first person narratives), then people will forget halfway through the chapter which character’s perspective they’re reading from. (I don’t know about you, but that’s one of my pet peeves in literature. I can’t stand being partway through a chapter and suddenly having no idea which character’s perspective I’m reading from.)

Regardless of whether or not your novel’s one POV or multiple, creating smooth breaks between chapters is important. How a chapter ends should entice readers to move on to the next chapter. If you’ve ever done or watched relay racing, the break between chapters is the hand off, where the baton transitions from runner A to runner B.

When you’re ending a chapter, think about what you want readers to take to the next chapter. What should they worry about? What should peak their interest? If you can’t answer these questions, then the chapter hasn’t moved the story forward (each chapter should bring something new to the story).

Other things to consider:

  • What triggers the chapter to end?
  • Why does a new chapter begin where it does?
  • Has the tension increased? Changed in any way?

Paragraphs 

Like chapters, every paragraph should have a point. Paragraph transitions let readers know when you’re connecting two ideas or moving on to a new topic. They bring continuity to a novel.

Paragraphs do not exist in a vacuum, therefore it’s vital to have each paragraph unfolding into the next. A good way to think of this is like a puzzle. Each paragraph is a puzzle piece and they all must fit together to create a coherent and engaging whole.

In order to create smooth paragraph transitions, you need to identify how the paragraphs are related (find the relationship between them). Some questions to ask yourself: Does the next paragraph make a similar point? A new point? Provide emphasis? Elaborate? Contradict the previous information?

Once you know the relationship, you can choose words or phrases to aid in paragraph transitions. These can be more traditional statements, like “also” or “in addition to,” or they can be more like clues being dropped for readers to collect. Paragraphs should unfold information to readers in such a way that readers feel they’re the ones piecing things together, not being told the story.

Sentences 

Transition sentences are usually the first line of a new paragraph. However, you can also find them as the last line. And then, each sentence must relate to the next one.

As with paragraphs, you can use words like “now” to help smooth over your transitions. Imagery is also a great way to bridge sentences because it’s what shows the five senses. In the end, if you have a common denominator, you can connect any sentence to another sentence.

For example, “I’ve never been much of a people person. I tend to prefer sitting off by myself and living in a dream world. My imagination is much more interesting than day-to-day life, but when I met Sarah, that all changed. Her fantasies were just as grand as mine. We’d spend hours off in the woods together fighting trolls and goblins, rescuing babies that suddenly transformed into fire-breathing dragons. One even turned into a unicorn, except it tried to kill us with its horn and when it farted toxic rainbows came out of its butt.”

Creating those smooth transitions takes practice. The more practice, the better. And like with almost everything in writing, most transitions aren’t going to be perfect the first time through, and that’s okay. When you’re editing, you’ll go back and work on honing them.

Have you ever gotten feedback on “choppy” writing and weren’t sure what to do? Did you know what to do?