Tag Archives: improving your writing

Why Conversational Writing is the Hot Trend

 

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For the past number of years, I’ve seen commercial writing shift from third person point of view to first person. At first, I couldn’t stand first person. It seemed somehow less than third. Perhaps this was because in some ways first person is more limiting than third person.

Third person point of view allows readers to see more of the world. They’re not trapped in one person’s mind. However, first person allows for an in-depth view of that individual. Plus, readers get to experience every facet of that individual’s personality.

Riding along with first person point of view was a more conversational tone. The writing was less formal; instead opting for writing that sounded the way people would speak. This meant stretching or breaking some grammar rules, which for a person who spent much of school studying Romanticism and learning about various style guides from APA and AMA to MLA was more than an irritation. This breaking of the rules would chuck me headfirst out of a book.

But, somewhere along the way, I began to enjoy the more conversational writing style. I discovered that I enjoyed breaking the rules—if there was a specific, vital reason—on occasion in my writing.

I found that conversational writing has some enormous advantages.

  • It’s easier to comprehend. While I’ve read and enjoyed many dense and literary books, I often find I develop a headache while reading them. My mind has to constantly work to understand the subtle messages buried in layers beneath the overt descriptions and statements. A conversational writing style foregoes this. Instead, it conveys the message directly to readers. Readers are able to more readily enjoy the book, and in today’s world, where fast reads are popular, conversational style is key.
  • It creates an instant relationship with readers. Since conversational writing often occurs with first person, readers feel like the protagonist is talking directly to them. They feel that they can relate to the protagonist as an actual person. With so many people stating that they read to escape reality, being able to relate quickly to a character is vital in drawing readers into a story. Plus, readers are much less likely to put down a book, if they feel they share commonalities with the protagonist.
  • Readers see it as more credible. A conversational style is almost like the protagonist is talking to a close friend. The protagonist is confiding all her thoughts and emotions to readers. Oftentimes, what the protagonist thinks is also what readers see on paper. Readers become an integral part of the story. They’re connected through the protagonist’s natural, authentic voice.

One of the best ways to create a conversational writing style is to speak aloud what you’re writing. If the words feel awkward on your tongue, then they’re going to be even more blatant on paper. However, one word of caution is to watch out for being too conversational. Many times in conversation people jump around from topic to topic. We’d probably all experienced having a conversation with a friend, where we’d talked for an hour or so, and then have no idea how we got onto the topic we finished the conversation with.

In writing, there has to be a clear line connecting bits of conversation. When readers become confused, they’re pulled out the story. Each time a person is jolted from the story, she is likely to put the book down, instead of continuing reading.

What are your thoughts on conversational writing?

(Photo courtesy of aj-clicks.)

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Making Sure Your Protagonist Beats Out Others

The protagonist is one of the most important attributes of a story. If someone doesn’t like your protagonist, for whatever reason, it’s highly unlikely that person will finish your story.

We all can probably conjure up a few short stories or novels we haven’t finished because of our dislike for a protagonist. The most immediate one that comes to my mind is from a young adult science fiction novel, where the protagonist consistently made the opposite of intelligent decisions and yet somehow survived and was lauded as a hero. It didn’t matter how many times other people were injured, captured, or died because of the protagonist’s terrible decision making skills, or how many times the protagonist had to be saved by others, the protagonist was still considered this fabulous, fantastic person, instead of the fool.

Other times, while the plot and backstory may have holes in it, the story can be immensely enjoyable because of the protagonist. One book I read was a young adult dystopian novel where the backstory was horrendous. There were too many inconsistencies to count, however I liked the book because of the protagonist. I found the protagonist funny and relatable. I couldn’t put the book down.

So, how do you create a protagonist that isn’t a flat cliché or someone that people would like to shove off a cliff?

One way is to make sure that the protagonist is integral to the story. That sounds obvious, right? But many times I’ve seen the protagonist being dragged by the story, instead of forging it ahead. While having a reluctant protagonist is one thing, the protagonist must have something else that makes him stand out from all the other potential protagonists for your story.

There’s a reason the protagonist is the protagonist. The story is best told from his point of view. In fact, the story couldn’t be told from any other person’s point of view without diminishing the story in some way. A few years ago, I read a book where one of the secondary characters stole the spotlight from the protagonist. I didn’t care about the protagonist; I wanted to know what was happening to that secondary character. The author might have been better suited using that secondary character as the protagonist.

Another way is to have the protagonist be more than the standard hero-type. When the protagonist takes on the role of hero and goes on a quest to fulfill his hero nature, the writing can turn shallow. It’s fine for a character to be the hero. The vast majority of protagonists end up saving someone or something. However, by avoiding using terms like “hero” and “quest,” you give yourself room to explore your protagonist more in-depth. There’s always more to a character, and every hero is not perfect. People have flaws, goals, dreams, problems…they’re a mixture of virtuous and selfish and driven and condescending and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes them this extraordinary puzzle to piece together.

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Have you ever heard a person in real life state that they’re going on a quest? I’m not talking about children playing make-believe. I’m talking about individuals that are firmly grounded in reality.

It’s rare to hear someone declare they’re going on a quest or that they’re going to be the hero. Most often, people become heroes because a situation demands it. There’s a quote from the TV series Lost Girl. It’s when Kenzi is talking about her personality. She states, “General cowardice with moments of crazy bravery.” This quote holds a lot of meaning because Kenzi sacrifices herself for Bo, the series’ protagonist, on multiple occasions. Kenzi is an incredibly caring and giving individual, but she’s also sarcastic, dramatic, a bit selfish, and a thief. She’s complex, and in the end, she’s also a hero. One that people can relate to.

Having a phenomenal protagonist means delving into the core of human emotion. It doesn’t matter if your story is based in the ABC Galaxy that was discovered in 2206 and was colonized in 2447, and you’re protagonist is a dog-bee-human hybrid. Human emotion and strife and success is essential to a protagonist. The common ground that readers and fictional characters connect on is what makes readers respond to characters.

(Photo courtesy of Courtney Wright.)

Terrible Writing Advice From Bestselling Authors

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I have a tendency to research on to the Internet. From investigating how to write to dissecting other authors’ works, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with the vast, conflicting amount of writing advice that exists. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had moments where you glared at your computer screen, because you’d read so much clashing advice that you developed writer’s block.

From Elmore Leonard’s belief that adverbs are a “mortal sin,” Mark Twain’s statement: “When you catch an adjective, kill it,” to Anne Rice’s idea that there aren’t “any universal rules,” it’s easy to get lost in the massive pile that is writing advice.

I could choose to not go onto writing blogs. I could ignore the Internet, but I keep searching for that piece of advice that will be that perfect kernel of wisdom. After all, bestselling authors should know how to delve out writing advice. They are successful authors.

However, like so much else in life, writing advice is subjective. Take Kurt Vonnegut. He states that the first rule for creative writing is “Do not use semicolons.” Numerous authors use semicolons. It’s challenging to find a novel that doesn’t at least use one semicolon.

If you use a semicolon, does that mean you’re not a good writer?

Claire Messud, Virginia Woolf, and William James would disagree.

Another one of Elmore Leonard’s beliefs is that writers shouldn’t “go into great detail describing places and things.” Many of my professors demanded more detail in my work and that of my cohorts. They wanted to have a pristine image of what was going on.

While the rest of this particular Leonard quote explains why writers should avoid too much detail—it may bring the action to a standstill—nit-picky advice can cause substantial harm.

Too often writers get bogged down with the rules of writing. We’re supposed to study and learn from the greats, but at some point we have to distinguish ourselves. Find our voice. Writing is mysterious. It’s a process unique to each writer. What works for one person, may not work for another.

Advice that shuts a writer down isn’t beneficial. You want advice that inspires you. That motivates you to write. More than that, you want to have something that resonates with you.

If you pay too close attention to what others say is good writing, you may lose your distinct voice. The most successful writing, is writing that doesn’t sound identical to anything else. And while some writing advice is reassuring, it’s important to realize that you can step off the well-worn path of writing and chart a new course.

What’s some of the worst writing advice you’re received?

(Photo courtesy of Byron Barrett.)

Bleeding Out: Transmitting Raw Emotions onto the Page

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Emotions are an extremely important part of writing well. In real life, they connect people to each other. In literature, they connect readers to the characters. Without emotions, people wouldn’t be able to feel a story, and if they can’t feel a story, then they can’t relate to it.

Think about some of your favorite stories. How did they make you feel? In all of my favorite books, I’ve felt like I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster. I was able to experience every emotion the protagonist did, whether that was fear, anticipation, excitement, panic, dread, or love.

Our brains are wired to process other peoples’ emotions. When a friend loses someone they love, we feel that loss. When a person yawns, we yawn. When we read an article about a deceased soldier being flown home, or a lion being injured, hunted, and then killed, we experience sadness or anger, perhaps both.

When we are able to put raw emotions onto the page, readers are able to sympathize. Our emotions resonate with them.

But transferring raw emotions into our writing isn’t easy – it’s exhausting – so how can we do it effectively?

  1. We have to feel. Putting up a wall between us and our characters will only harm our writing. If we distance ourselves from our story, readers will know. They’ll be able to feel it through our words. So, imagine scenes as if you were there. Sit back and close your eyes and picture yourself in your characters’ shoes. What does each character see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and feel? Once you can clearly picture and feel a scene, then we’ll be able to write it down in a way that readers will be able to fully experience it.

An author friend of mine has gotten so sucked into her own writing before that she sometimes finds herself crying because her characters are heartbroken, or her heart is pounding and she’s sweating because her characters are filled with apprehension and fear.

  1. Show instead of tell. In some of the workshops I’ve been in, one of the most common critiques is that writers are telling a story rather than showing it. They’ll say that a character feels angry rather than showing anger. For example, “Sally is filled with anger when she sees Rex with his new girlfriend,” rather than, “After spotting Rex with his new girlfriend, Sally rushes out of the party, and when she gets home, she grabs the nearest kitchen chair and hurls it across the room.”

Showing emotion has a much stronger impact than telling it. This is because showing keeps readers immersed in the story. They are in “feeling” mode rather than “thinking” mode. If you say a character is sad, then the reader has to think of sad memories in order to experience the emotion. But, if you show sadness, instead of naming it, then the character will automatically feel the emotion.

Also, by showing emotion, readers connect with the characters, and will want to continue reading. Often when emotions are stated, readers don’t care about what happens because they haven’t bonded with the characters.

It’s not easy to let raw emotions out. It means having to dig inside ourselves to find those emotions, but it will be worth it because then our stories will successfully carry emotion.

As Ernest Hemingway says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

How do you go about bleeding on the page?

(Photo courtesy of SeRGioSVoX.)

Don’t Careen Off that Ledge: Keep on Track with Your Writing

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It can be a challenge to stay focused on your writing, especially if you don’t have anyone helping to keep you accountable for your novel. So what do you do when you’re sitting in front of your computer, staring at the word document in front of you and feeling like you would rather be anywhere else but working on your novel?

One thing to do is to give yourself some space from your writing. If you’re sick of your novel and are being unproductive, then it would be better to take some time off from writing. The trick here is to give yourself a time limit. Whether its three days, one week, or two weeks, you have a set date at which you’ll go back to your writing.

Another option is to make a writing schedule. This has two parts:

  1. Set dates for your writing, such as when you plan on having the first three chapters written by or when you want to have the first draft of the novel written.
  2. Know your most productive writing time. Are you most creative and focused in the morning, afternoon, evening? Try to work your schedule around to be able to write when you’re most productive.

Join a critique group. This is a great way to be held accountable for getting pages written by a certain date. Plus, you’ll be getting feedback on your writing and you’ll have a support group made up of other writers, who understand the frustrations, high points, and pitfalls of writing.

Break the novel down into scenes. Sometimes thinking about how you have to write an 80,000 word novel can be daunting, and discouraging. So rather than focusing on the big picture, think of the novel in terms of scene. A scene isn’t that big. It’s typically a chapter or part of a chapter. Before you know it, your scenes will add up to that 80,000 word goal (or whatever word count you’ve set for yourself).

Probably the most important thing to remember is that writing should be fun. It’s so much easier to write about something you enjoy, and since writing a novel is a huge endeavor, why would you spend so much time writing something you didn’t enjoy?

How do you keep yourself on track?

(Photo courtesy of Pixshark.)

The Art of Metaphor

In its most basic sense metaphor is a figure of speech where something is used as a representation of something else, particularly when that something else is an abstraction. An abstraction is an idea that isn’t concrete or tangible. We can’t see, hear, smell, taste, or touch it. Freedom, absence, and truth are all abstractions.

In a broader sense metaphor is part of imagery, using words to evoke specific sensory experiences. Metaphor compares and links an unknown to something known, so that readers can understand the unknown. In essence, metaphor helps to bring insight into some aspect of the human predicament, the deep thematic truths that are the heart of a piece of writing.

There are two parts to a metaphor:

  1. Tenor– this is the thing that’s unknown; the abstraction; the truth/ideal to be illuminated and made concrete/tangible; the subject of the piece
  2. Vehicle– this is the image that’s created to make the unknown (the subject of the metaphor) known

Quick tidbit: Every simile is a metaphor, but not every metaphor is a simile. A simile compares two unlike things using “like,” “as,” or, “seems.” For example, “He was like a wet dog,” or, “She was as angry as a hurricane.”

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Personification and allusion are both types of metaphor. While personification attributes human qualities to inanimate objects/ideas, allusion makes unacknowledged references to famous literature, art, mythology, politics, places, events, etc. With allusion, authors expect readers to pick up on and understand the reference without being overtly told it. In order to successfully make an allusion, you must know your audience.

An example of personification is, “The flowers danced in the wind.” Dancing is a human attribute. To describe the movement of the flowers we relate it to something humans understand and can picture: dancing.

An example of allusion is, “Don’t be Romeo.” Romeo is referring to the protagonist, Romeo, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

As much as metaphor can be explained, recognizing and creating metaphor is not something that can be learned from others. In order to create metaphor, a writer must be able to perceive similarity. He must be able to see correspondence, the perception of similarity where there isn’t any.

Metaphor is a great way to boost your writing. Done well it can take your writing to the next level.

How do you use metaphor?

(Photo courtesy of Marketing for Hippies.)

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)