Tag: Writing Tips (Page 1 of 3)

#Amwriting October 30: Ready to Write

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starts Sunday November 1, but our preparation series ends today. Hopefully you have honed your tools and are ready to write. If you get stuck at any point, help is just a click away in the resources linked below.

 

 

Can you believe we’re finally at the starting line? Frankly, I’m a bit excited and frightened at the same time. I’ve done NaNo before, but this feels like it’s going to be an important year. Hope it is for you, as well.

Time to take a breath and get those last few things accomplished. I’m going to leave you with a list of a few writing  resources  in case you need assistance while in the throes of writing.

My last bit of advice, however, is to also be willing to ignore the advice. The most important thing is for you to write is your own unique story.

Resources

Visit the 30 Day Novel Prep Page for the links to all the posts in the series. Tip:  I’ve pulled out all the writing books I recommended in the various posts and have them together on a close-by shelf for ease of grabbing

My friend Shan Hays has some great suggestions about how to get into the writing habit. I’m going to try a few, like when I stop for the day I’m going to prepare a sticky with notes about where to start the next morning. Such a good idea. Now I’m wondering why didn’t I do that before?

 Blogs to Visit:

Anne R. Allen -writing and marketing tips by a variety of authors (plus awesome resources page)

Writer Unboxed

Jennie Nash Book Coach – often has free tips and resources in addition to her services

**Helping Writers Become Authors with K.M. Weiland – extensive resources on all aspects of writing, especially for the beginner. Excellent!

Darcy Pattison has a ton of writing advice that work for all writers, not only for children’s book authors.

Podcasts to exercise by (or do the dishes by):

Writing Excuses podcast  is like eavesdropping on a bunch of extremely talented writer friends.

The Bestseller Experiment podcast

Example podcast:

 

Write Minded – about inspiration and process, for example  NaNo prep with Alexis Daria

I’ve tried to keep the list short and to the point.

Do you have any writing resources you would recommend?

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Note:  I’ve been keeping these NaNo posts and some additional notes in a Scrivener file. I just looked and they add up to 49,986 words. With this post I will have written over 50,000 words about NaNo this month!

You can write 50,000 words, too. Now go do it!

Thank you for reading. Please stop by and let us know how you are doing through the month.

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#Amwriting October 29: Writing Process and Creativity

As we begin to wrap up the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, let’s talk about writing process and creativity.

Writing can be a real a mystery. Yesterday, while typing up a blog post about endings, I had an epiphany about the beginning line of my novel. Popped right into my head. What is up with that?

Because we are about to embark on what is the writing equivalent of a marathon, perhaps it is time to talk about the creative process. Where do these new ideas come from? How does imagination work? How do we encourage it?

Where do the ideas come from?

Experts suggest that ideas come from having a question in mind. Some problem — small or large — has caught the attention of your brain and now it is puzzling out the answers whether you are aware of it or not. The answer arrives in the form of an idea.

For my “beginning” example above, I suspect one of the articles I looked at while preparing the post on endings must have mentioned the importance of beginnings as well. Perhaps it was in a fleeting title in a related posts section that I barely glanced at. In any case, without conscious effort my brain began churning away at the problem. I didn’t even know it had been engaged until the answer arrived.

I like calling creativity a “muse” because it helps explain that sort of unpredictability. Elizabeth Gilbert has a wonderful TED talk about the fickleness of creativity, which I’ve shared in a previous post. It’s well worth visiting.

Tricking Your Muse

At some point during the course of writing your novel, your muse may decide to take a long vacation in Hawaii. Here are some ways to trick him/her/it back into the room.

1. Read over what you wrote the day before. Remember what you were thinking and what you were feeling, plus where it was leading you. If you can’t remember, don’t worry about it because that will take up more mental space. Ask yourself the question, perhaps out loud. “Where was I going?” Then play around with some of the other suggestions in this list.

2. Set a timer and free write for 15 minutes. During that time, send your inner critic on vacation, perhaps to Florida. No correcting yourself. Ignore spelling, punctuation, grammar. Also, no expectations. Write whatever pops into your head.

Recently, I was supposed to write a letter from one of my characters to another. It wasn’t working, so instead I free wrote a letter to my sister. Turns out I had been thinking about her. Getting my thoughts down on paper freed me to work on my novel again.

3. Move to another scene or plot point and reverse engineer the scene you are stuck on later (a suggestion from yesterday’s post about endings.)

4. Check in with yourself. Sometimes we get so caught up in writing, we don’t take care of our needs. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Too warm? Too cold? Need a trip to the restroom? Tired? Are you wearing comfortable clothes? Are there noises that are distracting you?

Be careful, however, that you aren’t using a trip to the fridge as a way of procrastinating. If you just ate 15 minutes ago, hunger probably isn’t the issue.

5. Take a shower.  A shower combines gentle physical stimulation with a retreat from the world. It is a mini-vacation that might bring your muse back from hers.

6. Change venue. Take a walk, take a ride, drive somewhere new, write in the park, write in the basement. Maybe your muse will be intrigued by the novelty.

7. Join other writers. Writing is a hard thing to do and writing alone can make it more difficult. Try to find other writers and spend time writing together. Share experiences. Bounce ideas off each other. These days the meetings will probably be virtual, but that works, too.

8. Promise yourself a reward for finishing something. Positive reinforcement is good and it can be a simple as a piece of chocolate or five minutes on social media.

If none of these suggestions work, it might be time to take a long look at your project with an objective eye. Is your reader self trying to tell you there’s something wrong that your writer self doesn’t want to face? I once spent several weeks rewriting the first four chapters of a novel, spinning my wheels over and over. I couldn’t get past those chapters for some reason. Then, I figured out the glitch. My main character had no motivation to stay with the problem I wanted him to solve. In fact, he had good reasons to walk away. I decided to let him go and set the project aside for the time being.

Recharge Your Muse

If your creativity battery is simply low, there are ways to recharge that don’t require vacations to Hawaii. The tried-and-true way is to do some reading. In addition to any book you have handy, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It is full of chatty, but genius gems about writing.

In addition, look at art, listen to music, attend a play, or watch a movie. Let the creativity of others spark something in you.

Happy writing!

Do you have any other suggestions for keeping your creativity flowing? I’d love to hear them.

 

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 28: Where and When of Endings

As we near the finish of our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, it’s time to think about endings.

Where and when do you bring about your ending? Sometimes you might want to put the cart before the horse.

Writing Your Novel From the End

Much of this NaNo preparation series has been oriented toward starting your novel from the beginning of the story. But what about approaching it from the opposite direction? What about nailing your ending, then writing to that goal?

In a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Victoria Schwab revealed she writes the endings of her novels first. To explain why, she uses an analogy of baking. According to Victoria, you need to know whether you are making an apple pie or a carrot cake to decide what ingredients to assemble (although to be fair, genre will guide you to some extent.) Her analogy makes a lot of sense. Having a concrete, well-made product in mind could give you a clearer sense of purpose.

Reverse Engineering in the Middle

On the other hand, for some people knowing the ending can kill creativity or motivation to complete the novel. Even if that’s the case for you, there are times it might be beneficial to work backwards. In a recent webinar, former Police Captain and author Isabella Maldonado suggested reverse engineering as a tactic to get around plot holes or being stuck. For example, if you get stuck at the end of the first act (or whatever plot point you have at 25%), move on to the midpoint. Once you have figured out what needs to happen there, then 25% should come together.

Reverse engineering can apply to any point in the novel. Skip ahead to get unstuck.

 

Public Domain image from publicdomainpictures.net

Prolepsis

You can also play with endings with prolepsis, which is telling the reader from the start what is going to happen. In this case the story generally follows a normal timeline, leaving the reader to wonder how that ending is going to be true.

A. S. A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is a stellar example of prolepsis. In this case the protagonist states flat out in the second paragraph of the novel that she is going to kill her husband. The events then unfold in chronological order. It is one of my favorite novels (my review with spoilers).

Reverse Chronology

By definition, thrillers often reveal the killer(s)/antagonist(s) identity early on in the book and the central question is whether the protagonist will be able to catch them. However, we usually don’t know the answer until the end. Author Jeffrey Deaver wrote his thriller The October List with reverse chronology or what he called “a surprise beginning” (PW article). He disclosed the  ending at the beginning of the novel, then journeyed backwards in time to slowly divulge why things were not all that they seemed. That must have been incredibly difficult to plot, which is why he says, “Once is enough for me!”

Now that we are at the end of the post, I hope this has given you some ideas.

Are you going to apply any of these options to your novel?

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

 

#Amwriting October 27: Ways to Outline a Novel

If you have been following our NaNo prep series, now you should be ready map out your novel. Yesterday we went over the pros and cons of outlining. Whether you plan to outline or not, it pays to investigate some of the different ways writers organize large amounts of information. One might be the best way for you.

 

 

Tried and True:  Index Cards

The most common way to outline a novel is to write on index cards and arrange them as needed. There are many articles how to do this, including Three ways to plot with index cards.

More modern upgrades include using sticky notes, for example, The wall of sticky notes, How to plot a novel.

You can also use stickies for revising:

 

Sticky notes don’t need to be limited to neat, straight lines. You can plot a rising conflict by adding lines with painter’s tape, then post the stickies around it. If you are on Pinterest, check out this plot planners for writers board. WOW! I like the ones that add photos of characters as they are introduced. I might add setting photos, too.

If you prefer to type, some software offers virtual index cards, for example Scrivener.

Beyond the Index Card

As I said previously, there are as many ways to outline as there are writers. Yesterday we saw Kat use the 3 Act/9 Block/27 Chapter method on a dry erase board. She writes more about it on Be Your Own Mentor.

Gabriela Pereira outlines her novels like a subway map. Rather than indicating locations, the diagrams show the flow of the plot and subplots. If you are used to reading subway maps, this could be incredibly useful.

Another popular method for non-linear thinkers is the Snowflake method. For this one, you start with a single idea and build outward. The author now has books discussing his method. Evernote has a checklist that runs through the steps.

I’ve been attending a number of webinars lately and have noticed a buzz about Plottr. I haven’t tried it yet, but the colors and neat look of the examples definitely attract my attention. Check out the Primer on Medium. Available to try as a free 30 day trial (and no, I’m not affiliated).

The Flashlight Method isn’t about the physical aspects of the outline, but instead consists of planning the first few chapters prior to writing. The idea is once you start writing, you won’t be able to see the entire path, but you will see ahead as much as a flashlight (or headlights) will allow. You basically outline as you go.

If this isn’t enough, Chuck Wendig has a quick list of 25 ways to plot and plan. He mentions a “crazy person’s notebook” where he prints out sections and tapes it into a notebook.

I really like that idea. Maybe into a planner, so it’s a timeline, too. With pictures of the setting and the characters when they are introduced.

Wait, maybe I should write the novel instead.

How do you plan your novel?

 

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 26: Outlining Or Not?

For the last few days of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep, we are going to consider how to best get your novel onto the page. Today let’s explore whether you want to outline or not.

 

Do you need to outline your novel? Do you want to?

Whether or not to outline a novel before writing it is a highly individual choice.

Pantsers

Some people avoid outlines at all costs. People who abhor advance planning call themselves discovery writers or pantsers (because they write by the seat of their pants). Pantsers find having an outline — or at least knowing the ending — kills their creativity. The advantage of the pantser approach is that the story builds on itself organically. The disadvantages are that pantsers can lose their way and get stuck in the middle, or have to rewrite extensively during revision.

Plotters

Others say they would never be able to finish a novel without an outline. Writers who outline prior to starting a novel call themselves plotters. They develop an extensive plan of how the novel will come together before writing a single word. The advantage is that they can focus on creating scenes rather than the whole story. In fact, with a good outline they can write the scenes out of order and still keep the story growing. They are also less likely to have to revise heavily. The disadvantage is that if they follow a plot structure too rigidly, the resulting novel may feel formulaic.

The two camps sound diametrically opposed, but if you look more closely you will see the two processes have a great deal of overlap. Most pantsers have done some planning, although perhaps only in their heads. Most plotters find themselves rewriting their outlines at some point and sometimes abandoning them altogether.

Here authors Kat O’Keeffe and Alexa Donne explain the differences in their approaches.

 

They both make some excellent points, don’t they?

I’ve started a few novels that I haven’t finished, not because they were bad, but because I lost interest. I am happy to work on them until I figure out a good ending. Once the ending seems concrete in my head, I’m done. The puzzle has been solved. Therefore, this time I’m going to side with Alexa and be a pantser. Perhaps if I can keep the ending a mystery for long enough, I will finish this one.

Exercise:  Are you a pantser? Want to give being a pantser a try?  Pick a bit of backstory that you need to flesh out or a scene that might occur in your novel but you haven’t done any planning for. Use it as a basis to free write for about half an hour and see where it takes you. Anything surprise you? Did you struggle because you didn’t have a plan?

Even though a certain portion of us won’t be doing any serious outlining, over the next few posts we’re going to take a look at how plotters create their outlines. It turns out that there are as many different ways to outline as there are writers.

Start with Kat’s videos:

Kat’s 3 act / 9 block / 27 chapter video 

Kat’s outlining example video

Alexa’s  “I Hate Outlining” video

Have you decided whether you are going to make an outline for your novel?

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

 

#Amwriting October 25: Summaries and Half Scenes

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) starts in seven days. Yikes! Time to get your affairs in order, in more ways than one. Today let’s get our non-writing lives organized, pull scenes together more, and learn about the cement that flows between scenes:  summaries and half scenes.

 

Organization for Life and Novel

If this is your first NaNo, I highly recommend visiting the official website and signing up. Once inside, go to the Writer’s Resources tab, scroll down to NaNo Prep. Half way down the page is a button for downloading the NaNo Prep Handbook. Check it for great suggestions on how to get household chores done ahead of the writing marathon you are about to embark on. Now is the time to organize your space and take care of all the errands. I’ve been vacuuming like crazy — who knows when it will happen again — and stocking up on groceries. Any spare time you can open up by preparing in advance will be well worth it.

The good news is that while you are cleaning and running errands, you can also be planning your novel. Play with scenes in your head. Tell yourself parts of your story while you are traveling. Jot down notes while dusting. It will be time well spent.

Because we’re doing chores today, our lesson will be brief.

Summaries and Half Scenes

Scenes are the main building blocks of novels, but there are other formats that you may not have heard about. Summaries and half scenes can fill in between scenes to help carry the plot along.

Summary

If your story jumps ahead in time or has a series of events that would bog down your novel if you wrote each one as a scene, then it is possible to tell your reader about the gap as a summary.  A summary is a quick overview of what happened (not in real time), rather than the play-by-play drama of a scene.

Example:

During the ensuing five years, Carrie married her high school sweetheart. She still missed John, especially when she went to the movie house on Fifth Street, the one where they had had their first date. But over the years, the pain had faded…

Half Scene

A half scene is a mix of scenes and summaries. It may have short bits of action or dialogue interspersed with sections that tell more than show. Flashbacks often take the form of a half scene.

Walking along the park, the waft of jasmine in the air brought it back to me.

It was my freshman year of college and I was drowning. Few students were as ill-prepared for college life as I was, but then in Chem 101, I dropped my books and he — my knight in shining armor — helped me pick them up …

If you’d like to learn more, writing guru Marylee MacDonald has full articles about half scenes and summaries with some more advanced examples.

How is you preparation going?

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

 

#Amwriting October 24: Thoughts/Feelings in Scenes

For our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, we are drilling into each of the components of scenes:  description, action, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. Today let’s reflect on thoughts as a way to reveal feelings.

For our series, we have already mentioned the importance of incorporating emotions ( emotional content in novels) and that your character should react to events/action (reflection. )  Now let’s delve more deeply into the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish these things in a scene.

You can show how a character is feeling several ways.

1.  Simply say what they are feeling.

“I am sad today.”

However, “on the nose” dialogue is usually undesirable. Also, people don’t necessarily know exactly how they are feeling or don’t want to reveal it.

2. Add body language to the action beats.

“You were supposed to do that yesterday.” Jane crossed her arms over her chest.

Done properly, body language can be effective. On the other hand, it can be open to misinterpretation. According to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, folding your arms across your chest can be a sign of annoyance or sadness.

“You were supposed to do that yesterday.” Jane crossed her arms over her chest, then stomped her foot.

Now we can clearly see Jane is annoyed.

3. Reveal feelings through thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I meant to do that last week,” John said. Too bad he couldn’t hit a redial button on his life.

A characters thoughts can give away his feelings. John regrets that he procrastinated.

Where do you add thoughts in a scene? In addition to sprinkling thoughts into dialogue (via action beats) or during action, larger snippets can be included in times of reflection.

Example of character naming her feelings in her thoughts.

Nova is a super-spy from the future. Nova’s mom has called and says she wishes Nova could come home. Nova responds:

“You know it’s only for three more months. ”
Nova had been proud when the admin picked her for this duty and it turned out she was good at it. If she admitted it, the best in the current year, with a 96% closure rate. The psych team had warned her it would be lonely. She’d be isolated for the most part. But she didn’t feel lonely. Instead she felt guilt, because she liked this streamlined version of her life. Only her work. No distractions. No responsibilities. She missed her daughter, but only when her past life intruded. Like now.

 

Tips for Evoking Thoughts/Feelings in Your Character

1. Trigger a feeling by having your character encounter a sound, smell, or visual signal. It can a direct response to the stimuli.

When I returned home, Todd was baking. I bathed in the soothing scent of cinnamon and pumpkin. Heavenly, All was forgiven.

2. Flash back to a memory that evokes emotional experiences.

The first church bell announced the hour. The loud clang shook me to my core. A fear from childhood. The church bells ringing had meant I was late. When I arrived home, she would be waiting. Angry and waiting.

Writing Tricks

1. You can use syntax and punctuation to further express feelings.

For example, a run-on sentence can show excitement.

“I knew it would be a long shot, but I went for it anyway and they really liked it and I can’t believe that they gave me the trophy.”

Pauses can add the feel of someone holding back their anger.

“You. did. not. do. that.”

2. Interjections are direct expressions of feelings.

  • “Phew, I’m glad that’s over.”
  • “Oops!”
  • “Whoa! I want to see that again.”

Exercise:  Go over a scene you’ve written and see if you can add more emotional depth using some of these techniques.

 

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

#Amwriting October 23: Dialogue

For our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, we are drilling into each of the components of scenes:  description, action, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. Today let’s have a conversation about dialogue.

 

Dialogue is a verbal exchange between two or more characters in written format. We all know how to have a conversation, right? What possibly could go wrong?

Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

1. As with other components of your scene, make sure your dialogue serves at least one purpose. Keep these questions in mind:

  • Is it revealing character?
  • Illuminating the relationships between characters?
  • Adding tension?
  • Advancing the story?

2. Use proper punctuation and grammar. Dialogue has specific rules, such as where to place the commas, where to place the quotation marks, and how to use paragraph breaks.

For example, you should begin a new paragraph every time a new person starts speaking.

“It’s about your brother,” her mom said. Nova sighed. “What is it this time?”“Wasn’t his fault.”“Of course not. What happened?” Nova watched a young couple walk by, a golden retriever in tow. It tried to sniff her, but they yanked it away. “He had this one girlfriend. Rhonda. But then he got interested in another girl. A woman actually. A married woman.” Her mom was silent for a moment.“And?” Nova said, although she didn’t want to hear any more. “The woman got jealous of Rhonda. I think she knew he’d never be hers. Gees, she’s married. What’s she thinkin’?”Nova’s earpiece beeped. “Hold on, Mom. I’ve got an important communication coming in.”

Like this:

“It’s about your brother,” her mom said.

Nova sighed. “What is it this time?”

“Wasn’t his fault.”

“Of course not. What happened?” Nova watched a young couple walk by, a golden retriever in tow. It tried to sniff her, but they yanked it away.

“He had this one girlfriend. Rhonda. But then he got interested in another girl. A woman actually. A married woman.” Her mom was silent for a moment.

“And?” Nova said, although she didn’t want to hear any more.

“The woman got jealous of Rhonda. I think she knew he’d never be hers. Gees, she’s married. What’s she thinkin’?”

Nova’s earpiece beeped. “Hold on, Mom. I’ve got an important communication coming in.”

If you are unsure, there are many article and videos online to walk you through it.

3. Real people don’t all sound alike. Give your main characters differences in their speech patterns. It will make your dialogue more interesting, plus you’ll be able to get away with using fewer dialogue tags because readers will be able to tell them apart more easily.

Do you hear the subtle differences in speech between Nova and her mother above? Nova’s mom is less formal and uses more contractions.

J.K. Rowling gives her character Hagrid a distinctive voice.

“Well, yeh might’ve bent a few rules, Harry, bu’ yeh’re all righ’ really, aren’ you?”

4.  On the other hand, don’t  go overboard with unusual accents.  Uncommon accents can be hard to decipher and can pull a reader out of the story. If one of your characters is from an area known for a strong regional accent, it may be possible to use it moderately at first to suggest the sound to the reader and then subtly back away.

5. Use dialogue tags and action beats to avoid “talking heads”.

Dialogue tags are the words that tell the reader who is speaking and how.  Action beats are short sentences that come before, between, or after dialogue. They tell us more about what the character is doing, feeling, or thinking. In the quote below, the dialogue tags are marked in red, the action beats in blue.

“You take the bus?” Nicky asked.
Lauren’s perfect posture slumped a tiny bit. “My parents took away my car.”
“Bummer.” Nicky wasn’t surprised. Lauren did have a reputation. “Why don’t you get one of those ride services?”
“They took my phone and allowance, too.”
“That sucks,” Nicky said.
Lauren’s manicured eyebrow twitched as she studied Nicky for signs she was making fun. Apparently appeased, she said, “Tell me about it. I hate my parents. They’re never there when I need them, only when I don’t want them.”

6. Mix things up from scene to scene.

It can be easy to fall into a rut when writing dialogue. You might do exactly what you did in the last scene, which can get repetitive and boring for the reader. You can change:

  • The amount of dialogue you include per scene — shorter is better.
  • How you break the dialogue up on the page.
  • Up the tension between characters
  • Use more subtext (what is being left unsaid)
  • Cut small talk or greetings/goodbyes
  • Change the pace. Use short sentences in an action scene, longer sentences when one character meets another for a first date.

A great video about subtext

7. Avoid “on the nose” dialogue, which is stating the glaringly obvious.

Example:

“I’m really sad my cat died.”

In fact, most people are more likely to withhold information during a conversation than overshare. Play with that instead.

8. Also avoid “maid and butler” dialogue, aka “as you know.”

Sometimes an author needs to explain something to the reader that the main characters would already know, such as how to use a specialized piece of equipment, what happened at a party last week,  or what the effects of a certain disease might be.  For example, avoid having  one doctor say to another, “As you know, Bob, diabetes can cause eye damage.” Instead, have the doctor explain the details to a patient (or medical student) and allow the patient to ask questions as a stand in for readers.

All in all, don’t get too caught up in the dos and don’ts. Writing dialogue can be a fun change of pace.

Exercise:  As a way to discover how much you can actually leave out of dialogue and have it still make sense, try this modified version of an exercise from Writing Excuses podcast:  Either take dialogue that you’ve already written or write a scene that is heavy with dialogue, then remove every third line. Does it still make sense? Can you fix any problems with an action beat or two?

Do you enjoy writing dialogue?

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Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.

 

#Amwriting October 22: Writing Action

For our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, we are drilling into each of the components of scenes:  description, action, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. Today is action.

 

Action Is All About Verbs

The action part of a scene occurs when someone or something acts. They do something. It is all about verbs.

Action doesn’t imply, however, that your characters must be fighting, kicking, or running. They can drop a spoon, pet a dog, or kiss. That’s action, too.

Verb Are Complicated

I have a huge pet peeve about how writers talk about verbs. I cringe when I hear people who should know better say you should use “active” verbs and not “passive” verbs when they really mean “strong” versus “weak” verbs.

Why is calling verbs active and passive incorrect?

There is actually a case when active/passive is correct. In grammar, active and passive have specific meanings. If you do something, that is active voice. If something is done to you (by someone else), that is passive voice.

Example:

  • Active:  Janie hit the ball.
  • Passive:  Janie was hit by the ball.

Although passive voice does have its place, your main character should be as active as possible.

When is active/passive incorrectly applied?  The meaning gets stretched when it is applied to any verb with a “to be” form and -ing ending.

Wrong:

  • Active: Janie hits the ball.
  • Passive: Janie was hitting the ball yesterday.

Those verbs are not active and passive, but instead reflect the time when the actions occurred. Those verb forms are called tenses.

  • Simple Present: It happens today.
  • Present Perfect: It has happened before.
  • Simple Past: It happened yesterday.
  • Past Perfect: It had happened before yesterday.
  • Future: It will happen.
  • Future Perfect: It will have happened before tomorrow.
  • etc.

When the action is ongoing for a length of time, we use a “to be” verb plus -ing ending:   It is happening today.

My suggestion is that we call these verbs strong/weak instead. Whenever you use a “to be” verb or a “to be” verb plus -ing ending, that will be called weak.

  • Strong:  Janie hit the ball out of the park.
  • Weak:  Janie was hitting balls yesterday and is tired today.

Sometimes you need to use the “weak” verbs to be precise about the timing of events and that is perfectly okay. Avoid, however, overusing them throughout a scene when the stronger forms of the verb will work.

Rant over.

Exercise:  Write a paragraph reflecting action. Check your verbs to see if you can make them stronger. Also, look for synonyms that may make your verbs more precise.

 

Example:

A collision had snarled traffic on the freeway, making Neri Clausen more than twenty minutes late on her first day as a deputy U.S. Marshal. As she dashed toward the Federal Building in downtown Dallas, something squished under her shoe. No time to assess the damage. She sprinted across the street, through the glass doors, and headed for security. After she skidded to a halt behind the man with the enormous white cowboy hat waiting to pass through the metal detector, a bad odor assaulted her. Dog feces. A brown smear encircled her mirror-polished black Chelsea boot. The brand new one she had paid a nonexistent paycheck for because she needed something both stylish and practical.

Crud. Literally.

The elevator doors closed behind her. She peeked at her boot again. The brown goo went deep into the detailing on the toe. It wasn’t going to be easy to wash off. She had seconds to decide whether to present herself to her new boss wearing fetid shoes or with the battered flip-flops she carried in her bag for a trip to the swimming pool later. The two other people in the elevator wrinkled their noses in disgust and inched away. Flop-flops it was.

 

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#Amwriting October 21: Description in Scenes

Now that we are working on scenes for our NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) prep series, let’s spend the next four days drilling into each of the components:  description, action, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. Since a new scene often starts with description, let’s tackle that first.

 

Description:   The Definition

To make sure we’re all on the same page, the description component of a scene allows the reader to picture a place, person, or thing (or feeling) in their mind. Ideally, it should excite all the reader’s senses with concrete details. It is painting and sculpting with words.

How much description to include and when to include it will depend on genre and your personal style. The common advice is that a thriller will have a lot of action and little description, whereas a literary novel will often revel in description.

Examples

Regardless of genre, some writers make their descriptions sparkle. For example, in her essay, “The Map of How to Write,” Mary Sojourner uses description to take us on an intense emotional odyssey. Her personal style is to use amazing, surprising descriptions throughout her work.

“The sun is a platinum disc trapped in a web of dark branches on the surface of the water. A breeze moves over us. Sun and water-trees shudder.”

Typically, a mystery novel would have sparser descriptions, but ace novelist Raymond Chandler makes his descriptions into intriguing poetry. The beginning line of The Big Sleep:

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. “

No cliché “It was a dark and stormy night…” for him.

The next paragraph describes the entrance to mansion he’s visiting.

“Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and convenient hair. The knight…was…not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.”

Although it seems like he’s engaging in some playful, offhand remarks, this paragraph mirrors later themes of his main character rescuing people in trouble. It is golden if your description can serve two –or more– purposes.

Upping Your Descriptive Writing Game

How do you write memorable, vivid descriptions?

1. Stomp out all clichés.

Instead of:

  • Shiny gems
  • Armed to the teeth
  • Black as coal
  • Bird’s eye view
  • Crack of dawn

Try:

  • Fish scales reflecting sparks of sun
  • More weapons than brains
  • An ebony cat on a moonless night
  • Drone view
  • Salmon pink glimmer at the horizon

2. Get into your character’s body and describe what he/she/they experiences through all their senses. Be as concrete as possible.

A character having a bad day at the gym:

Her leggings were too thick, trapping the heat of her body as she moved in rhythm with the rest of the class. Perspiration gathered at the small of her back and trickled across her skin. She caught a whiff of garlic and panicked that she smelled as bad as she felt, but it was the boy next to her. The ache in her head worsened as they spun left, then right. Where did her teacher get those hiccup sounds she called music, the bargain bin?

Revisit our post about setting in layers, which discusses what a given character will observe.

3. Don’t be afraid to pull out similes, metaphors and other literary devices. In the second Raymond Chandler example above, he used the personification of a stained glass window to great effect.

4. KISS: Keep it simple and keep it short.

We’re writers. We love words. As much fun as it is to write three paragraph descriptions, too much wordiness bogs readers down. If readers dislike the descriptions too much, they will start skipping those paragraphs and may miss out on some vital parts of your story. Write with your reader’s comfort in mind.

Exercise:  Write a description of a place you enjoy visiting using all the senses you can pack in. Now pare it down to only a few sentences. What can be combined? What can be cut?

Share the result in the comments.

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