Here’s another excellent post from Writers in the Storm, this one by guest blogger @LoriAnnFreeland. Freeland shows both graphically and verbally how to apply “Show, Don’t Tell” in our writing–she calls these “The Three Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary.” One good tip: watch out for “emotion words.” They often mean you’re not using “showing” to best advantage. (Been there!)
Category Archives: Learning to write
Here’s some great help with a difficult concept:
Thanks to Lisa Hall-Wilson at Writers in the Storm.
I’m posting this list of writers’ lists of “rules for writing” just for fun. If we read one list a day, we’d be done in 41 days, and who knows what we’d know then that we don’t know now.
On the other hand, maybe we should just start with #42:
42. Phillip Pullman’s One Rule for Writing
“My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.”
I like this discussion from Roz Morris (via Chris the Story Reading Ape) at Nail Your Novel. I’m struggling with revisions to endings and this post gives me some useful questions to ask.
Exposition! Eeek! In my case, not so much a sign that I didn’t “explain” earlier as that I worry that I didn’t explain clearly or explicitly enough. I’m converting an expository section to a scene between two of the characters left standing. Not sure yet if it’s working, but it’s better than what I had.
So make use of Roz’s advice if it pertains to you!
It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem. We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?
Here’s a handy test.
You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.
This is like story endings.
A good ending
First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.
When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.
It fails the arrest test.
Which is this:
It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events…
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I’ve been deep in revisions of two major Works-in-Progress, with a resultant and perhaps regrettable absence from the blogosphere. The process has led me to think about the pros and cons of “infinite revision”—the impulse to come back to a supposedly polished manuscript again and again and again (and again. . . . ad infinitum).
The impetus for these revisions is twofold: first, responses from my valuable beta readers; and second, experiences at two recent “pitch” events, both of which I recommend: the one-day WritingDayWorkshop held in Louisville in April and the Midwest Writers Workshop “Agent Fest,” a Friday-Saturday affair in May at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
The fact is, every time I attend a conference to pitch or get feedback from agents and editors (REAL agents and editors, mind you), I come home thinking that before I can respond to invitations to send materials, I really need to revise the darn book again!
Which of course means that my pages are sitting here, going nowhere, instead of in an agent’s inbox.
It seems worth asking whether the gains from the process of re-re-revising in response to these conference experiences are worth the inevitable delay. Surely there should come a point when I hit “save” for the last time and say “Enough!”
Well . . . yes. But. . . .
Two major eye-openers from this pitch-conference process have driven my compulsive rewriting, leading me to propose that maybe, just maybe, I’m not wasting my time.
First, both conferences included a “first-page read,” a feature that seems to be gaining popularity. In the “first-page read,” if you haven’t experienced one, conference attendees turn in, anonymously of course, the first page of their book. During the session, a moderator reads randomly selected submissions aloud.
At WDW, agents had copies to read along, a modification of the original format that I think made it easier for them to hone their responses in a rapid-fire, somewhat artificial setting. Agents raised hands or voices when they “would quit reading.” As one agent at MWW pointed out, ordinarily agents would have already glanced at the query, so they might be more tolerant of less than perfect submissions than when hearing a page cold (especially late in the evening after a long day). Even with those caveats, seeing how a panel of agents responded to my first page has, each time, been one of the most valuable conference experiences I can report.
“The Three-Minute Pitch”
Second, there is nothing like having to explain your book fast to a potentially skeptical listener to make you home in on that perennially vital question: what is this book about?
Think you know the main conflict, what’s at stake, how the main character changes, and why readers should care? Give yourself the three-minute test.
To meet the format requirements at MWW, I honed my pitches to ninety seconds. By the time I applied advice from my writing groups, they took barely a minute. And they both worked.
Things I Learned from Writing Conferences (This Time)
From the first-page read, I’ve distilled a “rule” much more important, it seems, than common prohibitions like “Avoid adverbs” or “Use strong verbs.”
Most obvious to everyone but slow-witted overachievers like me: BE CLEAR. Those agents wanted to be able to locate themselves in space and time in the company of a recognizable character. They wanted to be able to figure out, duh, what’s going on. And all this, of course, with only the tiniest touch of backstory. A hard lesson for those with unquenchable literary aspirations. Turns out all that energy devoted to haunting and mysterious hooks and complex, original metaphors would have been better spent on who, what, why, and where.
From the three-minute-pitch process, I’ve learned something else I sort of already knew but kept resisting: even the most complex plots, with the most tortured and nuanced characters, must have a throughline.
This rule is not in the least simple. It points to a tenet of structure as old as storytelling but one easy to overlook. Even if you are creating convoluted characters who wander all over their own emotions and tangle with fifty secondary characters and subplots, the book has to be about somebody who wants something and will pay in spades if he or she doesn’t get it.
That’s the throughline. Finding it is like that old story about chipping away parts of the marble that aren’t the statue. At some point, what your character wants, why she can’t get it, and what will happen if she doesn’t has to emerge from all the stuff that only supports your story, however important all that other stuff will ultimately turn out to be. The extras won’t work if they have nothing to hook onto.
Bottom Line: Sorry, You’re Not Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Any of Those Wonderful Folks
It’s tempting to think that our writing is so special, our creativity so rich, that any agent or editor who opens our file will be so entranced that clarity and throughlines are simply beside the point.
I fully acknowledge that there are literary geniuses for whom this is true. But two hard facts I’ve come to accept more and more: we first have to get our files into that agent’s inbox, and a clearly stated throughline is our best chance of slipping them in there. That throughline, which a three-minute pitch forced me to write, is also one of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where my book goes off track and w
Second, you are almost certainly not the genius who can transcend clarity once your first page is up for scrutiny by people who might actually pay you for the rest. Your genius—okay, my genius—will remain undiscovered if an agent or editor chooses “Move to Trash” before finishing that first page.
Quick Caveat before You Infinitely Revise
Choose your conferences carefully. It’s fun and often inspiring to attend lectures on how to do this or that in your story (“Make Your Characters Dynamic!” “Build Conflict!”). And it’s nice to chat with a “real author” who has agreed to critique your work
But conferences aren’t cheap. You can get “how-to” in spades online. And authors, bless us, don’t come to the chat thinking, “Would a publisher be willing to PAY FOR this book?”
With infinite revisions already behind me, I’ve found that someone who comes to my work with that question looming—who has made me do the work to answer it—is the only one who can definitively tell me whether I should revise again.
Okay, so when do you decide, “I’m never revising again”?
I often turn to Connie J. Jasperson for good common sense about writing, in this case an issue that looks as if it ought to be simple, yet plagues many of us. I also note the use of an em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue–another use that can be overdone! (em dash intended). Thanks, Connie!
Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.
I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.
Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.
So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t…
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This article (via that incredible resource, Chris the Story Reading Ape) rings so true for me. I, too, have “lost novels,” one of which actually got published, to my everlasting regret—even with a supposedly top editor! Just goes to show you (me): it’s YOUR book, and you are the one who either makes it work or not. K. M. Weiland’s focus on story—on structure, on having an arc that provides readers with the narrative pull to keep reading: vital. I’ve written and reblogged about that (just some examples), because I learned the hard way. Take her advice to heart.
Do you have a “lost novel”? What did you take away?
on Helping Writers become Authors:
Mistakes are unavoidable. To fear them is to fear life itself. To try to eliminate them is to waste life in a futile struggle against reality itself.
I daresay no one has more opportunities to learn these truths than does a writer.
As writers, our lives are a never-ending litany of mistakes. Certainly mine has been full of mistakes—everything from the opening sentences I wrote for this post, thought better of, and replaced—to literally hundreds of thousands of deleted words I’ve carefully saved from all my rough drafts—to entire story ideas (representing hundreds of hours of dedicated, hopeful work) that have proven themselves unsalvageable and earned a dusty place in a back corner of a closet shelf.
I won’t say I don’t regret these mistakes. I do. I regret the wasted time and effort. I regret the bereavement of loving and nurturing something that never…
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