Tag Archives: writing advice

Easy and Simple Aren’t the Same for Motivation

Recently someone asked me how she could motivate herself more. That’s not a rare question. Many people ask themselves how they can be more motivated to lose weight, run faster, eat better, get that job promotion, finish a novel… I’ve asked myself countless times how I can be better motivated.8078194256_db53b66f8d_k

Lately, something I’ve struggled with is going through beta reader feedback and editing. I keep finding other things to do. I realize that I’m making excuses, but even though I acknowledge this, I can’t bring myself to focus on editing.

That’s unusual for me, so when someone asked me how to improve motivation, I thought about what I’d want to hear. Better yet, what words would work to motivate me?

I’ve never been the type to seek out motivational quotes. More often than not, I roll my eyes at inspirational sayings. They seem cheesy and hollow. They don’t resonate, and when something doesn’t resonate, how can it inspire?

I started searching for the right way to answer the question of motivation. How could I inspire this person?

There wasn’t a correct answer. Each solution was personal. I couldn’t give that individual what she wanted. Because I could talk and talk and talk to her about inspiration and do anything and everything I could to motivate her, but the bottom was that she had to find what worked for her.

All I could tell her was the words that inspired me:

“When you get into a tight space and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

— Harriet Beecher Stowe

Life isn’t usually easy, but think of the things you’re proudest of. Were they easy accomplishments? Or did you struggle and persevere?

Was the effort worth it?

(Photo courtesy of Luke Kondor.)

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Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)

 

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

Why Writing for Yourself Isn’t Always the Answer

When I began writing, I couldn’t decide whether to write for the audience or myself. Writing for myself meant exploring content that was important to me. I believed that by writing for myself I would create intensely honest and captivating work. By writing this way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to impress anybody. I wouldn’t be hindered by the constraints of genre or age group. As Cyril Connolly said, “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

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However, I wanted to get published. And, when you’re trying to get published, it helps to know your audience. It helps to write for your audience.

I’m not saying to give up your unique voice, writing style, interests, etc. All those are important in creating a compelling piece of work that differentiates itself from what’s already been published. What makes your book unique will be what ultimately gets you a book deal.

But you need to write for someone. Too often, when you write for yourself, the plot, characters…something ends up being inconsistent. You’re too close to the story to realize that there are plot holes or other aspects of your work that weaken it.

At the same time, simply saying that you’re writing for young adults, military personnel, or housewives isn’t enough. Why? Because these are generalizations of people. They’re too vague. Think about housewives. They come in all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Their life experiences differ vastly. Let’s compare two housewives:

Housewife A: Her name is Aubrey. She is 24 years old, was born in Louisiana to a white mother and a black father. Her father died of lung cancer when she was 17 years old. She started college with her long-term boyfriend and was majoring in English—she wanted to be a middle school English teacher—when her mother was in a car accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. Aubrey dropped out of school to help her mother recover. Her boyfriend graduated and proposed to Aubrey. They married and Aubrey’s husband moved in with Aubrey and her mother. Aubrey was planning to go back to school, when she found out that she was pregnant. Aubrey is excited to be a mother, but while she loves the idea of being a stay-at-home mom, she hopes to one day go back to college and receive her degree.

Housewife B: Her name is Mary. She is 47 years old, was born in Connecticut to a white mother and father. She grew up wealthy, attended boarding school, and knew that she would be a housewife just like her mother. She graduated college with a degree in sociology, but was more interested in field hockey and her sorority. Those were the girls she’d know for the rest of her life. She ended up marrying her college boyfriend, who came from an equally wealthy family of doctors, who served on hospital boards and had stakes in three hospitals. They both signed prenuptial agreements and their parents bought them their first house, in Connecticut, as an early wedding gift. Mary has three children: two boys, both who play lacrosse at their boarding school, and a girl, who plays field hockey and tennis at her boarding school. Mary loves her life of private clubs, yoga, and martinis with the girls, but she secretly wishes that she had a more exciting sex life.

These housewives are extremely different. If you tried writing for both of them, your work would turn out inconsistent. So, choose one of the housewives to write for.

Whenever you’re writing something, choose a person that you’re writing for. Maybe this person is real or maybe it’s a persona you created. Ask yourself who this person is, what this person wants, why this person want what he wants. Learn about this person well enough that you know him inside and out. Then, write a story for that person. This will help you stay focused and consistent. This will keep readers invested in the reality you created, instead of being ripped out of it by some inconsistency.

When the writing and revisions are completed, you’ll have a piece of work with a firmly identifiable audience, and a work that has a great chance of grabbing an agent or editor’s attention.

(Photo courtesy of victorio marasigan.)

Why Reading Only One Genre Hinders Creativity

 
In order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. What do I mean by that? I mean that you need to read a wide-range of creative pieces.

17318222086_ce8de2611c_o.jpgWhile it’s important to read books in the same age group and genre you write in, it’s also vital that you read outside what you write.

I’ve met countless individuals, who adamantly refuse to read outside a limited range of writing. One such conversation I had with another person, when like this:

Me: I just finished a fantastic book!

Person: Yeah? What’s it about?

Me: These shadow divers—deep wreck scuba divers—who discovered a mysterious sunken German U-boat about two hundred thirty feet deep and some thirty miles off the New Jersey coast. No one knew the U-boat was there, and no one could identify it. That U-boat was considered one of the last great mysteries of Word War II.

Person: Wait. Are you talking about a non-fiction book?

Me: Yeah. It’s incredible and hard to believe that something like losing a U-boat could happen.

Person: I only read fiction. I like books that allow me to escape.

It stung to hear that person say that to me, mainly because a few years ago I’d have said the same thing. I was adamant that because I was a fiction writer I couldn’t learn anything from non-fiction. After all, fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction, wasn’t grounded in reality. Non-fiction was, and it was often dry and hard to get through.

I was wrong on multiple counts. One: Fiction is based in reality. The story may be situated on a different planet or have supernatural creatures, but the core of the story is grounded in human traits and emotions. Fiction is often used to explore controversial topics that are occurring in reality.

Two: There are many aspects of reality that are unbelievable, so much so that they seem to be fiction. Some of the atrocities I’ve read about in non-fiction have inspired my fiction pieces.

Another example conversation occurred during a writing workshop and went something like this:

Person: [shuffling my submission given to them the previous week] I don’t read fantasy or young adult, so my feedback probably won’t be any good. [A few others in the room nod in agreement.]

Me: That’s okay. I’m sure you’ve provided better feedback than you believe.

[Person stifles a frown.]

The person in this conversation was someone who only read and wrote literary pieces. More so, this person looked down on people who wrote fantasy and young adult. That translated into every interaction I had with that person, and that person’s attitude made it difficult for me to remain objective, when critiquing their pieces. I’m not a huge fan of literary works, however I still read them and try to glean the message beneath them.

While literary fiction holds value, so does fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, adult and young adult. Every story introduces you to a new interpretation of an aspect of reality. When you dive into a story, you put yourself in the characters’ shoes. You never know what you’re going to learn or what’s going to inspire you.

Fiction and non-fiction—any well-written story—can deliver meaningful lessons that have a powerful and lasting impact on readers. Don’t limit yourself because of pre-conceived notions about what you believe is good and what isn’t.

What do you think about reading widely?

(Photo courtesy of Isabelle Blanchemain.)

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.)

How to Start a Piece of Fiction

Where do stories come from? Are they born from birds with eagles’ beaks and tails of fire? Do they originate from springs with waters so crisp and clear you’d stop aging if you drank from them? Can you reach up into the sky and pluck stories from clouds?

That would be cool. But where do stories come from?

Everywhere.

They can come from an experience you or someone else had. Or they can start with something you heard. What you heard set off a spark. It inspired you.

Perhaps a story began with a character. Or a complication. The exploration of an idea. Maybe the story came from the question “what if.” Toni Morrison got the idea for her novel, Beloved, from an old newspaper clipping of a mother murdering her baby, just before she was dragged back into slavery. Morrison was interested in why the mother killed her child. What would drive a mother to murder her infant?

Twilight came from a dream Stephenie Meyer had.

A story can even begin with a sentence. Whatever causes that first spark, that bit which makes you want to examine an idea. Makes you need to explore it. Obsess over it.

A few tips on starting a novel:

  • Get it down. Whether the idea or words are good or not, write it. Put it on paper. Any negative emotions that come up (“This is stupid,” “No one thinks I’m a real writer,” “This is such a waste of time,” “I suck at writing.”) shouldn’t stop you because emotions change. Something you hate now, you may love later. The opposite also applies.

There’s a quote a professor I once had said. One of his former students said it to him. I’ll say it to you guys.

“It’s amazing what you can do as a writer, when you don’t care about what others think of you as a writer.”

  • Write what you know and don’t worry about what you don’t know. Many novels are written piece by piece, and then put together. Write the parts of the story you can picture clearly. You’ll figure out what you can’t see down the road, if you need to.
  • If you hit a roadblock, jump over it. There’s really nothing in fiction you can’t get away with. You make up the rules, the laws. If everyone is blue and can fly, then so be it. And if you get stuck, skip over it and come back. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing (Unless you feel like your head’s about to explode, then take a short break. Go for a hike. Watch something that makes you laugh).

In the end, you can get an idea for a story anywhere and start a story with anything. The key is to persist and not get overwhelmed. Don’t talk yourself out of completing a story, or even starting it. Get an idea, write it down. Flesh it out. Mold it. Sculpt it. And when you do get another idea, jot that one down too, so when you’re finished with the one you’re working on, you have another idea to build with.

Where do you get your ideas?