Tag Archives: creative writing

The High Stakes of First Sentences

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You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time

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Often I hear about how people say they don’t have time to write. Their full time job, family, pets, etc. get in the way. I understand, and there are times when I believe that I have to choose between writing and working. However, even though I work full time, maintain a blog, participate in a critique group (which means spending time working on other people’s writing), exercise, and deal with the unpredictable speed bumps life chucks in everyone’s path, I somehow manage to write.

How is it possible to spend time writing, when you don’t have time to write?

Fight through the Sludge

Don’t allow yourself time off from writing. It’s easy to let one day off grow to two days, three days…until the time snowballs into weeks and then months. On the last day of my writing master’s thesis class, my professor told us that, once we step out of the classroom, most of us will never write again. More specifically, my professor was talking about how we wouldn’t write the genre/type of writing we’d just spent years working on to culminate in a novel/short story collection.

At first, I hadn’t believed my professor, but, after staying in contact with some of my classmates, I do. Many of them haven’t written anything creative since thesis…that was about 6 months ago, and, of those that have, they haven’t written much.

Their reason? Life got in the way.

Be Disciplined, Like a Samurai 

Writing a novel or short story takes time and effort. Anyone who writes knows that it’s not easy. Writing is exhausting. It uses a lot of brain energy, and it can be easy to come home from a long work day and just want to veg. I’ve done it. But writing is a skill, and every skill takes discipline.

One of the best ways to become disciplined is to be motivated. Motivation commits you to writing. Maybe a specific character in your story encourages you to write, because you have to tell that character’s tale. Perhaps you’re in a writing group and you’ve got deadlines to meet. Perchance you’re the type of person who’s motivated by visual stimuli. Create a writing space that you have to pass by on a daily basis. You could tape motivational quotes and pictures to the wall above your space.

Remember, as Robert Collier said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”

If you still think you never have time to write, here are some writers that became famous authors, while working full-time:

Anne Rice

Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, when she worked full-time as an insurance claims examiner and while she was grieving over the death of her 5 year old daughter.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while working. He continued to work, even as he became famous and earned enough money writing to be a full-time author. He taught at Christ Church until late in life, as well as being a mathematician and a photographer.

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle for 10 years, while writing for the newspaper the Dublin Evening Mail. He went on to manage Sir Henry Irving’s production company/venue: the Lyceum Theatre. While working as the company’s manager, he wrote and had published his first horror story, and eventually published his most famous work Dracula in 1897. Stoker worked as Lyceum’s manager for about 30 years.

(Photo courtesy of Tony.)

When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)

How to Swap Your Brain For a More Creative One

 

Ever have those moments when no light bulbs are going off in your mind? Maybe you have a project due or an article, or maybe you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper or canvas. You desperately need inspiration, but your muse has decided to take a vacation.7848411730_2042b607b4_o

Here are some suggestions to jumpstart your more creative side:

  1. Stop fretting and exercise.

I once had a professor tell me that if I was stuck, I should get up from my computer and walk backward around my house. She said that walking backward used a different section of the brain than sitting and writing, and that by using a different part of my brain, I might just become unstuck.

People who exercise regularly tend to be more creative than those who lead sedentary lives, a study found. Regular exercise stimulates convergent and divergent thinking, two forms of thinking vital to creativity. Convergent thinking is connected with thinking about a single solution for one issue, while divergent thinking is linked to considering various solutions for one issue.

  1. Be positive.

A good mood enables you to think more creatively. Ruby Nadler, a University of Western Ontario graduate student, said, “Generally, positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and flexible yet careful thinking.”

Mood affects “the way we visually process information.” A positive mood widens how much we see and comprehend. By having a wider visual field, we have a larger pool of ideas to generate content from.

  1. Flip the problem on its head.

Focusing on a problem from a new angle inspires you to see and think about the problem differently.

In Real Simple, the idea of cars is used to describe how problem reversal revolutionized all of industry: “Take Henry Ford. In the beginning, carmakers kept the vehicle stationary and had factory workers congregate around it to install parts. Ford’s idea was to keep the workers stationary and move the car from worker to worker. Thus was born the assembly line.”

By only looking at a problem one way, you limit your ability to generate new concepts. By changing up how you look at a problem, you expand your thinking and may not only find a solution, but start off a string of new, exciting ideas.

How do you bring out your more creative side?

(Photo courtesy of MissTessmacher.)

Eating for Creativity

 

1476058071_126e420a86_oIt’s a common known fact that what we eat effects how we feel. When we feel better, we tend to be more creative, which in turn helps us to write more detailed, emotionally impactful, and original content.

So, what are some types of food that can help us to be more creative?

Fruit

Fruit, like berries and avocados, is high in an amino acid called tyrosine, which helps stimulate production of dopamine. This protein helps keep our bodies and minds in good shape.

Lorenza Colzato, a cognitive psychologist, stated, “Food rich in tyrosine and food supplements that include tyrosine are a healthy and cheap way to increase our ability to think deeply.”

Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple products, believed that his creative ingenuity resulted from the high levels of fruit he consumed. Whether or not Steve Jobs’ fruit eating habits aiding in his technical ingenuity, you should avoid becoming a fruitarian, a person who only consumes fruits, because many other foods help fuel creativity.

Chocolate

Chocolate can help increase short-term cognitive functions, according to a 2007 English study. This is due to the flavanols contained within chocolate. Flavanols can enhance oxygen levels within the brain.

Dr. Ian MacDonald stated, “Acute consumption of this particular flavanol-rich coca beverage was associated with increased gray matter flow for two to three hours.”

I’d go with more natural chocolate, such as Enjoy Life’s vegan and gluten free chocolates. They contain less processed and artificial foods, and are stunningly delicious.

Complex Carbohydrates 

While carbohydrates are yummy, and you sometimes find yourself making excusing to eat more carbohydrates, not all carbs are the same. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and are better regulated by the body than simple carbohydrates.

So, as much as you may like white bread, trade it for some brown rice, barley, whole grain bread, or oatmeal.

Complex carbohydrates can increase glucose within the brain, and thus stimulate the brain. This means better memory and concentration, both of which are vital to creativity.

As Dr. Arnold Scheibel said, “Your body quickly takes glucose out of the carbohydrates and feeds it to your brain to help it function.”

General Information 

Other foods that are antioxidant-rich, such as beets, yams, and dark leafy green vegetables (I’m talking about kale, swiss chard, and the like), are excellent for spikes in creativity.

The bottom line: eat foods that are less processed because more processed foods contain chemical ingredients that aren’t natural to bodily processes. And, always, eat in moderation. Chocolate is good for you, until you eat too much. It’s difficult to be creative, when you feel like you’re going to vomit.

What foods do you find help your creativity?

(Photo courtesy of Yamanaka Tamaki.)

Thinking About Self-Publishing? Here’s A Quick Reality Check.

Self-publishing seems to be all the hype right now. Whether you first try to get an agent or go straight to publishers and are unable to get their attention, or decide to skip attempting the traditional route altogether, you’re looking into self-publishing.

It seems like a good deal. You don’t have to mess with any of the middle men, who take the majority of the money your novel makes. You have the freedom to choose how you want to represent your work. You even get to select what you want your book cover to look like.3407402643_7d11d2717f_z

You’ve heard the success stories:

  • Andy Weir’s The Martian was originally self-published in 2011. It’s now been re-released through Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of Random House, and was made into a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James was not only first self-published, but also was based on fan fiction. The rights for this novel were obtained by Vintage Books, a subdivision of Random House, in 2012. Selling over 125 million copies, this book was made into a movie that earned over $571 million worldwide.
  • Mark Dawson’s self-published John Milton series has sold over 300,000 copies. And while that in itself is impressive, Amazon pays for Mark to speak at seminars and workshops, sort of like their poster boy for the self-publishing world. To learn more about Mark’s success story, click here: “Amazon Pays $450,000 A Year To This Self-Published Writer.” 
  • Amanda Hocking self-published out of a need to make some desperately needed money. Over a period of about 20 months, Amanda sold 1.5 million books and made more than $2 million. To learn more about her story, click here: “Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online.” 

What you don’t hear so often are the hundreds of thousands of people who self-publish in the hopes of making enough money to quit their day jobs and end up not finding success.

Talking Writing’s article “Three Money Lessons For Starry-Eyed Authors” discusses the truth of self-publishing.

In this article, three lessons are addressed:

  1. “There’s Way Too Much Competition”
    1. It’s really easy to self-publish. Therefore, everyone and their grandma feel like giving it a try. On one hand, it’s great that people have the freedom to see their work published. On the other hand, most times the work wasn’t ready to be published, or in some cases, should have never seen the light of day. (I’ve seen multiple self-published novels that have misspelled titles.) It’s this other hand that causes a lot of problems because (1) your work gets lost in the noise and (2) a stigma forms about self-publishing.
  2. “Literary Fiction Is Still the Ugly Cousin”
    1. Literary fiction, as opposed to genre fiction, has never been all that great at selling books in the traditional publishing world. Literary fiction sells even worse in self-publishing.
  3. “You Can Drive Yourself Insane Tracking Sales”
    1. Having the ability to check real-time sales is both a blessing and a curse. When your book is selling well, you get a positive boost every time you check your sales statistics. However, when your book isn’t selling, the real-time sales can become a black hole that takes over your life.

These three challenges aren’t meant to deter you, if you’re interested in self-published. They’re here to show you that you most likely won’t get rich quick with self-publishing and that self-publishing involves a lot of work (potentially more work than traditional publishing because you are responsible for doing and paying for everything). But, like with everything, self-publishing presents opportunity, and with opportunity, there’s always a chance of phenomenal success.

Have you ever self-published or been interested in self-publishing?

(Photo courtesy of khrawlings.)

Squeezing Creativity From a Dry Spell

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Creativity is the life force of writing. It’s what makes readers feel alive, and is what captures and keeps their attention. Without creativity there would be no stories. So, what happens when creativity suddenly refuses to strike?

Writers can’t write.

They must find a way to reinvigorate themselves, or their work will come out feeling stilted and forced.

How do writers recover from a dry spell? Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of different ways from a number of writers.

  1. Free write. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. Verbal vomit, in many ways, can lead to new ideas, even if the free writing itself isn’t all that great.
  2. Gain a writing persona. Create a separate writing personality, someone other than you to write for a bit. Your hands will still be doing the typing, but you’ll be on a beach somewhere, while your persona gets the creative juices flowing.
  3. Learn something. Pick up gardening, astronomy, cooking, yoga, Russian, anything that might interest you. Read a few textbooks too. The more you learn, the more information you have to create from.
  4. Meet someone new. Each new person you interact with comes from a different background, and has a unique perspective. Never been far away from home? Go someplace utterly different and strike up a conversation.
  5. Keep a journal with you at all times. You never know when inspiration will strike. Perhaps the sun glinting off a rusty sign, or a man weaving straw hats on the boardwalk, can be used as part of a scene.
  6. Time yourself. Give yourself a set amount of time to focus on writing. It can be fifteen minutes a day, or thirty minutes every other day.
  7. Get outside. Yes, allergies can be a pain in the butt, but being outside can breathe creativity back into you. Go for a hike or a jog, or find a bench by a river and people watch. Heck, stare at the way the sun highlights the green in the trees’ leaves.
  8. Be in the zone. This term is usually applied to athletes, but it works great for writing too. When you’re writing, focus all your attention on writing. In fact, with whatever you’re doing be in the moment, whether it’s reading a book, washing the dishes, or participating in a conversation.
  9. Be open to everything. Judgment hinders creativity because it limits how you view the world. There’s a reason the saying, “Never judge a book by its cover,” has stuck around.
  10. Screw it. Not everything is going to always work out perfectly. There will be roadblocks, hiccups, and mountains. Recognizing this will allow you to move past the traffic jam. One of the great aspects of writing is that you can go back later and edit, so let a chaotic mess crash all over the page. Who knows, something great may come of it.

Have more ideas? Post them in the comments section

(Photo courtesy of subflux.)