An Old Wound Rears its Head . . .

A short time ago I asked the people on my writing blog to let me know what they wanted me to write about. (I was running out of ideas). And what should they ask, but how to write humor and how to put emotion into your writing?

*sigh*

I have no idea about how to write humor, so that’s something I’ll have to research. But the emotion thing . . .

I used to feel solid about reaching my readers emotionally until I got a harsh critique from an editor I was querying–they said my dialogue was sterile and emotionless. It drained my confidence, and I’m still getting over it. But instead of shying away like I would have at one point in my life, I moved forward. But I still couldn’t put my finger on what the editor was talking about. What connects readers to writing?

But thinking about this question my reader asked, I think I have it:

-Character

-Plot

-Word Choice

At the very least those three topics are a start. See, you need a character that readers will identify with—someone they care about. Otherwise, who cares if anything happens to them? Then the plot needs to create a vivid environment where they can feel the danger or sadness or whatever. Then the word choice will underscore the characterization and the plot. Stronger words=stronger writing.

As I continue to think about and prepare to post on this topic, I may come up with more ideas on how to put emotion in writing. But I’m glad I figured out where to start.

-:heart: M.R. Anglin

Advertisements

Why Horror is Horrifying

Hey, all!

Before I start on this, let me disclaim it. This is my opinion. If you don’t agree, please comment and say so. Just be respectful . . . not to say this is a controversial topic. I just think that there are different opinions out there, and I want to hear them–especially since I don’t watch horror often . . . it’s too scary. And I know there are horror writers out there. I’d like to hear what you all think.

***

Horror is a smart genre. Now, I’m not talking about the horrific, gory, messy kind of horror or the type with evil creatures that suck on human souls. The type of horror I’m thinking of is the kind that worms its way into your brain while you’re watching or reading it, causing you to jump at every sound and making you look over your shoulder long after you’ve finished it. That sort of horror may or may not have violence, gore, or evil creatures.

Why do I think it’s smart? Think about it. When you break down the storyline and think about it logically, it’s really silly. Take these three examples,

A flock of birds descends on a house and pecks the living daylights out of everyone who ventures forth. (The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock)

Statues of crying angels move when a person’s not looking and zaps him into the past when they touch him. (Dr. Who Episode 3.10 “Blink”)

Watching a video of random images causes the television to turn on, after which a small child to climbs out of it to murder the watcher. (The Ring)

To an ordinary, thinking person these scenarios are ridiculous. They shouldn’t cause you to turn and look over your shoulder or stay up at night in fear. Yet, these three shows scared the living daylights out of me, and I’d like to think I’m an intelligent person.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about word choice, color choice, music, etc. that create an ambiance that scares you further. (The Ring wasn’t filmed in subdued colors for nothing.) But why do some movies and books haunt the audience more than others?

In my opinion, the key is simple. They take an innocent or normal object and make it behave unnaturally. Why else do you think kids are so scary? Children are the epitome of innocence. When you’ve got a child being a heartless killing machine, it’s more frightening. And (and perhaps I’m being gender biased) it’s worse when it’s a little girl.

Same with birds. Pretty birds fill the air with song and beauty. Take those birds and make them swarm and rampage, and you get a horror filled nightmare. Don’t think the movie could have had as much punch if they used a bunch of hawks.

As for the Dr. Who episode . . . it has a double-punch. Not only are angels supposed to be creatures of good, but statues aren’t supposed to move. Yet these angel statues are covering their eyes, moving, and are planning evil for the main characters. Combine all that together and you turn the creep factor all the way up to 10.

While I don’t enjoy the genre, I do think horror is smart. How else can you take such ridiculous storylines and make intelligent people believe it enough to scare them? Take that into account the next time you write or read.

What about you?

Do you agree/disagree? What else adds to a scary or suspenseful story? What is the appeal to being scared out of your skull?

Author Q & A Part 3

Hey kids! A little later than usual, but here it is.

We’re here with the last installment of our author Q&A. You know our authors, so let’s get started.

9. What would you say is the key(or keys) to creating an interesting character of depth that truly connects with the audience?

Kat: Really getting into the character’s head and trying to see the world from their point of view. Thinking about how they would react–not trying to match their reactions to the plot you have created. Let them react the way they would react regardless of your plans.

Sandra: The character needs to be bigger than life yet real and flawed. Give him/her goals, but keep the goals just out of reach. And show us how the character feels when challenged. Don’t be afraid to be hard on him/her.

Beverly: WEOFR! Let me explain.

Show the reader right away, in your opening sentence or paragraph, what the character Wants. That’s our W. Then add the other letters . . . I will illustrate with an example.

Let’s use two of my own interests, bird watching and photography. We’ll call the main character, Maisie. Raised by a biologist and a zookeeper, Maisie wants to become the world’s foremost expert on something—anything! that will impress her parents. But so far all she has been doing is taking mediocre pictures. That is her WANT: to please her parents.

Now add Empathy. Something that makes us really care about Maisie. Let’s say that one day, Maisie is taking pictures out her window (maybe she’s obsessed with Rear Window, a bonus character trait), and realizes a nest of baby birds has been abandoned by their mother. Ru-roh! Now she must raise them, or she would be a terrible zookeeper’s daughter. And we wouldn’t like her.

For an Obstacle to Maisie’s goal, we will say that her roommate, a Siamese cat named Dexter, hates birds of any sort, or relishes them if you get my drift. (Sadly, Dexter probably ate the parents of the orphans.)

But! To add humanity, we need to add a Flaw that humanizes Maisie. Let’s say she has ornithophobia-the fear of birds and explain how she became that way. When Maisie had to sleep in her parents’ laboratory while they ran complicated experiments, the bird noises gave her nightmares. And being left alone added to her feeling abandoned, and that she must do something to gain their attention and approval. Armchair psychology may or may not be another of my obsessions hobbies.

99% of readers expect a satisfying Resolution. (Also called the character arc, but that makes an odd acronym.) So in our bird story, Maisie is able to raise the babies to fledge, and by watching her overcome her fears to care for them, Dexter is converted from a bird hater to an old softy who begins guarding the backyard from other not-so-nice felines. Maisie no longer cares about earning her parents’ approval, because in the end she has succeeded in achieving something she never knew was holding her back in the first place. We have a satisfying conclusion to her inner conflict. The original Want morphed into an even more satisfying moment of personal growth for Maisie.

To sweeten the deal (I like to blend a couple of endings to cover all possible Hallmark moment possibilities), Maisie later finds out that by training a basic instinct out of a cat, she has landed an article in a scientific journal, and her parents are at last proud of her. *Group hug.* And this ties up all our threads.

This has been a round about way to say, to give your MC depth, tell me, the reader, what it is they want, put them in a situation that seems hopeless especially in light of their want and weakness. Face them up to something that requires them to overcome an obstacle to make it out “alive.” Adding quirky animals helps as well. Who can resist a bucket of kittens, or a nest of baby birds?

Deborah: (Unfortunately, I added some questions at the last minute, and I don’t think Deborah saw them. So, she didn’t answer the last two. My fault =( -M.R. Anglin)

11. When having trouble thinking through a plot/writing ‘that one character’ or scene, how do you kick yourself into gear and write ahead?

Kat: My first answer is, see my answer to question number 3. My second is, pick a new scene to work on. Sometimes writing a scene farther along in the story will give you insight into what needs to happen in the scene you are stuck on.

Sandra: I don’t know that I do write ahead. Usually I take a long walk or sleep on it after a heartfelt prayer and the answer just seems to pop up. Then I go on.

Beverly A long walk, retail therapy, a shower, just getting away from the keyboard often unclogs the dam. I also read about writing or pick up a book in a similar style, and that helps get my brain revved. For my current nonfiction project, I’m reading about how the brain works, and it really is an organic, programmable tool that we assume cannot be affected, but science proves otherwise. (And is feeding my obsession interest in psychology.)

Also, knowing where you are going in a plot helps. Try skipping to a later scene and work backward. If I am hopelessly stuck, I play around with different resolves, different endings. I may introduce a new character or give an old one a new challenge. Playing “what ifs” with outrageous ideas adds zing and sometimes works to lift a sagging middle or detour a plot that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Sometimes I wonder WWSKD and that helps… What Would Stephen King Do? Come to think of it, I bet that jerk genius never gets stuck.

And always, remember the joy!

And that’s it. Let’s show love to the four authors who took time out of their schedules to answer our questions. Round of applause, people!

-M.R. Anglin

Author Q&A Part 2

Hello again, boys and girls. Here is part 2 of the author Q&A. You already know the authors (if you don’t or you want to see part 1 check out last week’s post), so on we go.

4. When you write a story, do you write with the intention of getting published, or simply write for your own pleasure? If the latter, do you go back and rewrite stories to prepare them for publishing?

Kat: My whole purpose for writing started with a desire to be published. I know so many say that’s backward, that you should write for the love of it. But for me, the love of writing came AFTER the desire for publication. I don’t generally write stories for specific markets, but I do write each story assuming I will look for a home for it. I figure, if I have no intention of publishing a story, then why bother putting it on paper? If I’m the only one who is ever going to read it, I can just write it in my head and leave it there.

Sandra: Definitely to get published. There’s nothing more rewarding than developing our God-given gift for writing and seeing it materialize in print. Seems we all have a need to leave a legacy . . . bear a child, plant a tree, write a book! As for going back and rewriting stories . . . listen to your gut. Is it a story that needs to be written? Often it’s more inspiring and fun to move on.

Beverly: Always, always with the intention of being published. I find it makes everything higher quality. Just preparing a sample to take to a critique group, I pour pore over every sentence and paragraph. If I present a shabby sample, I waste our time. I’ve even edited my own shopping lists. J/K . . . or am I?

Deborah: Usually publication

Geez! We’ve got a set of ambitious people here! -M.R. Anglin

5. How long does it usually take for you to write a novel and is it a good idea to write two pieces at the same time? I mean, do you ever get confused or mixed up or can’t find the time for both? If so, how do you deal with it?

Kat: The length of time it takes for writing a novel varies from writer to writer and novel to novel. My first draft of my first novel was done in three months. But editing it took years, as I kept going back through every time I learned more about writing. The second novel was started while editing the first one, and I worked on it off and on over the course of a few years, but the actual time spent on it, including editing, was probably only a few months. I have a third novel in the works, which I started before finishing the editing on book one and the writing of book two. Do I get them confused? Nope. As for balancing my time on them, I simply work on what I’m in the mood to work on, keeping deadlines in mind.

Sandra: I’m very single minded. One project at a time. Keeps me focused. As for a timeframe, my first manuscript took years, my second about a year, my third I wrote in five months, but find it still needs a little work. My personal feeling is that it’s far more important to write a good book than to write a book fast. It takes time to learn how to write fast and well.

Beverly: Having written two books at the same time, I can definitely speak to that. And I wrote those while I was working a day job. So no, I don’t have any trouble keeping my work separate. What I do have trouble with is keeping all the ideas for new projects, new episodes of “Castle,” or reading every. thing. published. from distracting me. Discipline, organization, and hide the television remote!

Deborah: It takes me about a year to write and edit a book, but I have a lot of things going on in my life. I am working on two projects now, but one is fiction and the other is non-fiction.

6. Would you recommend that unpublished authors publish with a smaller company within their state (for a local audience), or with a large nation-wide one, such as Scholastic (for a more widely-spread audience but less individual attention by the company)?

Kat: I’m not sure what a local/state publishing company is. Small presses can publish internationally these days. I am with a small press. My books are found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s website, and many others.

Benefits of small press publishing include more say during the editing process, more say on cover art, more involvement in just about all the process. You can also reach niche markets more easily. Small presses give more control to the author.

But you won’t have the marketing power of a large publisher. Small presses tend to have small budgets.

Also, it’s a matter of who wants your book.

Sandra: Not sure if we’re on the same page here. My debut series takes place in my hometown in southern Minnesota; however, I live in California. The bulk of my marketing is focused on my hometown and surrounding areas.

Beverly: I’ve had experience with both smallish and largish sizes of book publishers, and I can tell you that in my case, the size or location doe not matter. What does? EVERY author is expected to market, market, sell, and market some more. Oh, and write that next book. Newbies, celebrities, every one of us are expected to. Except Stephen King. He can just keep writing. He has earned that right.

Deborah: Whatever suits the needs of the author.

7. Should unpublished authors who do not feel they could make a living on their writing alone pursue a career such as becoming an editor for other writers?

Kat: Well, you need to think about why you can’t make a living on your writing. Is it because your story telling or writing skills are lacking? Editors aren’t failed writers who defaulted into the job. Editing takes real skill. Not all editors are great writers, but it cannot be looked at as a back-up plan for those who don’t do well as a writer. It requires its own type of training and knowledge, and a real ability to find what does and doesn’t work in someone else’s writing. And it is something you must love doing because it is HARD WORK.

Sandra: There’s much to learn in any field we choose that can become invaluable in our writing . . . we learn about people, about how different industries work. I wouldn’t limit the possibilities.

Beverly: First of all, do not make the assumption that you cannot make a living writing. That could be whatchacallit, self-fulfilling. And I will not play armchair psychologist beyond that. But just don’t. That said, yes, I believe nowadays, every single skill helps. I’ve grown as a writer by hiring out as a freelance content editor. (My proofing skills would not make my English teachers proud, so don’t ask me to do that.) But the ability to work through a story, articulate what characters need to deepen the interest, what plot threads need tightening, is like practicing your tennis with someone who is learning to serve. You can’t help but get better at your own game.

Deborah: Very few authors make a living at just writing books.

8. What is the best way to start a career in writing?

Kat: Write. Read. A lot. Study the craft. Find amazing critique partners. Write more. Read more. Bust your tail writing. Write the best book you can possibly write, polish it to the brightest shine, and start submitting it. Oh, and remember, even doing all that will not guarantee anything.

Sandra: Read how-to books on writing, attend writers conferences, get in a good writers critique group, submit articles to magazines, enter contests, and read, read, read.

Beverly: Have your head examined. Seriously, it’s a tough, brutal business. If the urge doesn’t pass and you must continue, then take a class or several, get in a critique group (a real one with scary people who carry red pens, not a rubber stamping club), go to writer’s conferences, and begin introducing yourself as a writer. Oh, and sit down and write, and write until you are finished. And then begin something new. And show said pieces to said scary people with red pens. You will survive. No tombstones say, “Died of embarrassment at first writer’s group.” I’m fairly certain. And read. Read about writing, and read what other people are writing in your genre(s).

Deborah: (not sure about this one)

Let’s all give a round of applause to these lovely ladies for answering! Thank you, authors. And I hope you writers out there are enjoying these answers.

Next week, we’ll finish it up!

-M.R. Anglin

Favorite Books

My first college writing instructor drilled the following into my head: to become a good writer, you must become a good reader.

And he wasn’t the only one. I remember another professor later in my college years who did not excuse his students for not reading because they didn’t have money for books. “You have the library,” he would say.

I’ve held that guideline to my heart over the years. Though I’m not a prolific reader, I really enjoy reading. So why is reading so important to a writer? Well, books can give you good ideas, can expand your vocabulary, and can teach you something new. In addition, they can also tell you what’s going on in the marketplace–what publishers are looking for.

But perhaps most interesting for a writer is that they can teach you how to write. For instance if, after reading a good novel, you sit and dissect what you liked about it you are actually training yourself to recognize what’s good in your writing.

Conversely, if you read a horrible novel and pick apart what you hated, you are training yourself to recognize flaws in your writing.

So not only does reading entertain and stimulate your imagination, it can also be an active part of writing. (Is there any wonder why I love books?)

That said, I want to know what is your favorite book? Is it an all-time favorite or a recent read? What did you like about it? You can also put down a book you disliked.

Here’s some of my favs:

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster . . . an all time favorite. I love his play on words. He uses grammar, math, and language to weave a wacky world that I love.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien . . . I just think this book is one you can read over and over again without getting tired of it.

The Last Dragon by De Mari . . . Such a simple, sweet story that turns into a love story at the end.

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy . . . a slow, boring start, but it gets sooo good at the end.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis . . . a boy and a talking horse. What could be better?

There are more, but I’ll stop here.

First Lines

After a long silence, this week’s thought is brought to you by NetRaptor’s art blog . Yes, it’s an art blog, but occasionally she talks about writing.

The blog in question talks about great first lines. The first line of your story is arguably the most important sentence. Not only do professionals say this, but I can tell you this from experience. After all, many times I go to the bookstore, read the back of a book, and then if it looks interesting, I’ll read the first few pages. If the first few paragraphs don’t grab me, I’ll put it back. In fact, that’s the reason I never read Eragon or Ella Enchanted even though they’re supposedly good books . . . the first few paragraphs failed to grab me.

Here are some great first lines in my humble opinion:

  • No one believed it at first. Not even a little.
    Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe
  • Rat did not know which was worse: being hungry all the time, or being lonely all the time.
    Space Station Rat by Michael J. Daley
  • Her parents were going to kill her for this.
    Voices of Dragons by Carrie Vaughn
  • Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the class–last seat, last row.
    There’s A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar

What makes these lines great? They make the reader ask questions. For example, what did no one believe? Why was Rat hungry and lonely? What could this girl be doing that’s so bad that her parents would kill her? Why is Bradley sitting in the last seat, last row?

Those questions make the reader keep reading to find out.

So, what are your favorite first lines? What do you think makes a good first line? Do you have a hard time thinking one up? Any advice to give someone who is struggling to come up with a good one?

The Author’s Responsibility

Today’s tip is brought to you by Rachelle Gardner’s blog. She is a literary agent that writes a blog to help writers traverse the publishing world. It’s interesting stuff.

The blog entry I’m talking about today is about the importance of mastering the craft of writing.

To summarize the entry, she believes that publishers are starting to spend less and less time on pre-publication editing, and so producing a quality manuscript will be increasingly left to the writer. In other words, it’s more important than ever for you to learn the writing rules and use them (and at times, break them) well. If not, readers will be less likely to read your work or recommend them to their friends. This goes for those who are traditionally published as well as those who self-publish.

I believe that the biggest mistake many new and aspiring writers make is not spending enough time revising. The first draft is not the end of it. You have to go back and revise and revise and revise to make sure your writing shines.

I suppose that is why you are visiting the tips on this page, but I don’t think this is enough for most people. If you can take a writing class, take it. Look in your city; perhaps you can take a free class at the community center (I did that once). In fact, I took writing classes in college, online, and at a community center. Do what it takes to keep learning.

According to this agent, it may be increasingly your responsibility to make sure your work is the best it can be.

Do you have a question about the way the publishing community is changing? Do you like or hate those changes?

Looking in the Mirror

Today’s tip comes courtesy of an article I read the other day, Notes from an Editor. Read the article. It details the sort of things editors wish authors would look for before submitting manuscripts.

Today I’ll focus on the part that says, “Refrain from having the main character look in a mirror, a reflective object, or anything else of the sort.” I’ve done it before; it’s an easy way to get a character’s description without moving out of POV. However, as the article says, it’s trite.

But there are other ways to get across a description. One of my favorite mechanisms is having the character compare himself to someone else.

For example,

Marjorie hated Chloe. That cheerleader couldn’t seem to do anything wrong. Everyone loved Chloe . . . from her clothes straight from Paris to her blonde hair styled with curls.

Marjorie’s straight, flat, mousy brown hair paled in comparison. And her clothes . . . hand-me-downs–dirty, stained hand-me-downs. There was no way she could ever compete.

(I’d fix it up better, but you get the point)

So what about you? Do you have a description device that other writers can use? Or do you have a pet peeve that other writers should avoid?

Solution to Writer’s Block?

From what I hear, writer’s block is a horrible condition. When a writer has it, he cannot write.

Beyond that, I can’t say what writer’s block is like because I’ve never experienced it–at least I don’t think I have. Judging by the reactions I’ve seen, it’s a safe guess that if I don’t know if I’ve experienced it, I probably haven’t.

I say this not to brag, but because I think I know why I’ve never experienced it, and I want to share.

To me, creativity/imagination is like a muscle–if you don’t use it, it will atrophy–that is, whither away. Now, I suppose this is the reason why many professionals say that writers write everyday. They want to keep that muscle sharp, and practice makes perfect. If you don’t write, you can lose it. So, writers write everyday–whether in a journal or on a blog or working on a story . . .

I think that’s where the trouble lies.

You see, if creativity/imagination is like a muscle, you have to rest it. You can’t work on your biceps everyday or else you’ll hurt yourself. In fact, if you have to take a day off when you workout so that your muscles can heal and build themselves up.

So, we have a bunch of writers who are writing everyday and not giving their creativity a chance to rest. Eventually, that will catch up to them. Writer’s block may be your creativity/imagination crying out for a break. Just like a workaholic will break down one day, your imagination may break down also.

The solution? I think that every writer should write 6 days a week instead of 7. Just take a day off. No matter what, do not pick up the pen or turn on the computer to write. Watch a movie or draw or do something inspiring, but don’t write notes, blog, or anything else. Give your mind a day to rest, and I believe you’ll be more productive overall.

That is what I do. I don’t write on Saturdays. I may think of a story or try to work on a plot in my mind, but my pen does not go to paper nor my fingers to the computer. I turn off my writer’s mind and let it rest.

Now, you may say. But I’m inspired or I have to write this or I won’t get it done. Yes, you will.

Think about it. Will you get more done if you take one day off a week but are more productive overall or if you work yourself into the ground and are blocked for two months in a row?

I can’t say for sure if that’s the reason I’ve never had writer’s block, but it’s the only thing I can think of. Besides, I once tried writing everyday, and you know what happened? By the second week, I could feel my imagination/creativity getting tired. I actually felt it!

So why not try it out for a month and see if you feel a difference? If you have writer’s block, stop trying to force yourself out of it. Simply let you mind rest and try to exercise other forms of creativity. Do something inspiring or draw or something. Every once in a while, pick up a pen and do some freewriting. It may just be that your mind is crying out for a break. So give it what it wants.

Those are my thoughts. Let me know yours.