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!)
Tag Archives: how to write a book
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 kinda needed this. Maybe you will, too.
One summer between college semesters, I wrote a book. I had only written several full-length novels before this, so it was not a publish-worthy book by any means. But I was proud of it. And after passing it around to a few friends who were genuinely interested in reading it (and did so — bless them!), I handed the book off to my mom.
She read it (bless her!) and gave it back to me. Of course I asked her what she thought of it, and because I was old enough at that point to handle the truth, she gave me her honest opinion.
“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” she said. “It was just too dark for me. Not my kind of book. But I’m proud of you.”
Aw. Thanks Mom.
This was the first — and certainly not the last — time I learned the difference between…
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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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Here’s a terrific follow-up to an earlier post of mine, “Why I Quit Reading Your Book.” The Red Ant hits some specifics that resonate for me. Especially this one, which addresses a problem I’ve seen over and over:
So you have a great plot and good, strong characters (quirky individuals or admirable, real people), and now… nothing keeps happening. The characters chat, hang out, look at the landscape, wait for the curtain to go up so the show can start… how long will you keep the reader waiting?
Folks, something has to happen—fast. Not necessarily a bomb going off, but something. Some really great advice from a conference I attended: Start with conflict, not crisis. Get those characters arguing about a challenge or a problem that’s got to be taken care of. They’ll start talking, and you and your readers (me, at least) will soon be taking sides!
I also echo the points about finding the balance between too much and too little world-building. Exposition and description piled up in the first pages are static. Get people doing things, and let their world settle into place around them.
More great advice in this post. Check it out!
I just came across this post again:
Back then I thought she had nailed it. I still think she does, as do some of the commentators. I agree with Roughseas that it’s more than just Voice; but I also agree with Virginia, there has to be Voice.
In the Land of Fairies and Storytellers
Ireland is amazing. (I knew it would be.)
Almost everyone I encounter here is a natural storyteller. So it’s hard to understand, if this comes so natural to people here, how others can struggle to write so it engages the reader.
You write a story the way you would tell it to a crowd of avid listeners.
Those passages that make you blush? Strike them from the manuscript! The parts where your audience starts yawning and looking around? You know you’ve lost them, you need to intensify the writing. Maybe lie lower on the description…
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In my own writing and in my various writing groups, I’ve often focused on the need for a “story question.” Basically, if you don’t have a story question, you don’t have a story. You may have a diary, or a set of episodes, or a journal, but you don’t have a story.
I discovered, though, that I was conflating “story question” with a related term, “plight.” I’ve twice posted—my own thoughts and those pilfered from other bloggers—about this mystery word, “plight.”
“Plight” is what Donald Maass calls “the story beneath the surface.” An important difference between the two: You must have a story question to have a story. A plight is that extra something that elevates your story out of the realm of the mundane.
Basics first, then: what is a story question?
The story question is generally the immediate and concrete problem or goal or issue demanding resolution. Will they escape the marauding hordes? Will they escape the flood? Will the detective find the murderer? Will the evil bully get his or her comeuppance?
A story question does not have to be this simple or easily solvable, but it must be there. Will she stay in the unsatisfying job or leave it? Will he reach his goal of becoming a great rap star? This is where the classic “rising action>crisis>climax>denouement” structure comes into play. The plot rises through all the character’s efforts with obstacles at every turn, to finally reach an answer: “yes or no.”
In a multistory serial, like, for example, Lord of the Rings (a great source of examples), each of the books is built around a story question: will the troop survive the obstacles posed by the various segments of their journey? Each book ends with a “yes” (for most), and each of the first two sets up the question to drive the next.
Even the most supposedly literary of novels/stories (I suppose with a few really outlying exceptions, but I can’t name any offhand), poses this type of “will they or won’t they” question. The “what will happen to them next?” is the page-turning element.
A story can function quite well on this simple principle. If readers are interested enough in the will-they-or-won’t-they, they’ll keep reading. And it doesn’t take a lot of “literary skill,” whatever that is, to build a story like this. All you need is someone about to fall off a cliff or a ravenous lion leaping out of the brush.
Of course, even with a strong story question, pace and the empathy of characters can affect whether readers keep reading; for my part, I’ve now abandoned two John Grisham novels and won’t try a third because they were sooooo darn slow and didn’t offer me particularly interesting or engaging characters to fill in the slow spots. But most of us have favorite stories based simply on a “what will happen next?” or “what is the answer to the puzzle?” question. (See. e.g., Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity.)
So what is this other thing, “plight”?
Plight comes into play when the entire “what-will-happen” plot asks a second-level question. In my view, such plots almost always ask of the character(s), “Who am I?” Or more precisely, what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person can I become—or fail to become?
My ideal novel has both these elements: a “will-they-overcome-the obstacles?” story question, and a plight question: “If they do (or don’t), so what?” A story that engages on both levels uses the plot question, the simpler one, to confront the main character with the larger one. Here you are in this demanding concrete situation. How you respond will tell you (and us) something about who you are.
Let’s look again at Lord of the Rings, in which the story question repeatedly puts the characters in a position where they must answer a larger question: whether or not they can resist the temptations offered by the various detours they can choose—detours involving character and heart. For Frodo in particular, the story events ask, “Are you Gollum? Will you give in like Gollum did?” This is the characters’ plight, their struggles to see where they stand in relation to these larger questions of identity and choice, which loom over the whole trilogy and bind it together. It’s not just a story of kids in the woods who have to escape the latest tiger. It’s about a tiger who asks, “Are you ready to show me who you are?”
I’d argue that most stories, maybe especially those written for younger audiences, work to create such a story-behind-the-story: the
response to the tiger defines character and teaches how to confront fear. That all sounds so simple and self-evident, but of course it can be monstrously hard to achieve.
But I’ve begun to think more and more in terms of these issues when thinking about future books. As a pantser (really don’t like that word, but it does capture the mindset), I often find that the plight takes shape slowly. I’m thinking about a new book in which thinking through the plight before beginning to write seems to be helping. As I work out the immediate problem my developing character must solve, I also find myself thinking, “Okay, he solves that problem, but so what? How will his success change him? What does it matter to his confrontations with the world he has to negotiate every day?”
An important difference between story question and plight is that plight questions can remain open-ended whereas story questions cannot. People can reach turning points in their understanding of who they are, but still have more work to do. Not all tests are as definitive as Frodo’s. Not everybody just retires to a nice hobbit life.
But that’s one thing that makes a character memorable: the sense that they have a life after the book, they’re part of an unfinished journey where we might meet them again—maybe, in fact, not in a book.
So my do-as-I-say-and-I-hope-as-I-do rule: Look first to see if you have a story question that plots the sequence of events in the rising-action-crisis-denouement structure. If not, no story. But then step back and ask, “Once that question is answered, so what?”
That’s where you might discover the element that makes all the difference, your character(s)’s plight.
Do you have favorite books in which the “yes/no” story question asks characters to confront a larger plight?