Category Archives: Deborah Ratliff

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART SEVEN: POINT OF VIEW

Understanding POV is essential, or ought to be.

Arthur Herzog

When we pick up a book to read, we expect to become lost in words, feel as if we are part of the unfolding events. How we participate in those events is up to the author and the point of view the author has chosen.

“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. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

— Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

The opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is considered one of the consummate openings in literature. Immediately, you know a great deal about the main character. A private detective who is “neat, clean, shaved and sober, which indicates he is often not and that he is meeting a wealthy individual, likely a client. This paragraph also indicates that you are going to experience the story through his eyes.

Point of view is defined by “Literary Devices” as “the angle of considering things, which shows us the opinion, or feelings of the individuals involved in a situation. In literature, point of view is the mode of narration that an author employs to let the readers “hear” and “see” what takes place in a story, poem, essay, etc.”

Point of View Syles

First-person:

“First-person narrators is the way I know how to write a book with the greatest power and chance of artistic success.”

― Anne Rice

The paragraph from The Big Sleep is an example of writing in the first-person point of view. We are experiencing the events through the eyes of the main character or at times, a secondary character, who is also the narrator.

We see what the narrator sees, only witnessing the actions of others but never knowing the thoughts of other characters unless they choose to disclose their thoughts through dialogue.

There are advantages to using this form of view. For the reader, it allows an intimate feeling with the character, you see, sense, smell, taste, what the character does. As a writer, the connection is personal, the character becomes an extension of your own persona. You see the events through your own eyes, tell the story in your own words. There are fewer filters as there would be if the writer were observing another character as in Third-person POV. In first-person, the character can express the thoughts they are feeling directly to the reader and provide exposition directly though memories.

While there are advantages to first-person POV, there are also disadvantages. The reader can never be certain of the narrator’s motives. Is this character being truthful, is there bias in how they think, are they providing the entire story.  The “unreliable narrator’ could misdirect the reader from the truth. It is also difficult for the reader to learn about the narrator’s description, not always necessary to the story but there are components of a character’s description that could impact a story.

This POV also presents only one side of the story, preventing both the reader and writer from seeing a broader view of the story and what the other characters are thinking. To capture the essence of the character, the writer must take care and skill to present the voice of the character, their mannerisms and how they speak to convey their personality to the reader. Another interesting aspect is that the reader will assume the narrator will survive the story which reduces the suspense.

One other note about first-person POV is that this style lends itself well to short stories where the impact of a single point of view can be effective. However, it takes a skilled writer to create a character strong enough to carry the entire story.

Some examples of novels in first person POV, in addition to Chandler’s The Big Sleep are Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Second Person Point of View:

Rarely seen in fiction novels, second-person POV is prevalent in non-fiction writing, especially instructional or how-to manuals, and in advertising. In fiction, the narrator is telling the story to the reader as if the reader is the main character.

Ginny Wiehardt, in her article on website thebalance.com, describes second person as “from the point of view of a narrative onlooker who is writing about you, the reader: ‘You went to school that morning.’”

While it is true that the reader will feel as if they are the subject of the story as it is directed at them, creating a storyline and characters to maintain the focus of the narrator is extremely difficult.

An example of second person in fiction is found in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Also called metafiction, this type of writing breaks the so-called fourth wall of theater or film by allowing the reader to be aware they are reading fiction. The first paragraph from Calvino’s work:

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – ‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

Unique to say the least and why second- person POV is used in instructional manuals and advertising where the writer wishes to have the reader be the focus. The phrase “You first measure two cups of flour,” or an advertising slogan such as Hallmark’s “When you care enough to send the very best” or Nike’s “Just do it,” are examples.

Third-Person Point of View:

By far the most popular point of view used by writers and the most familiar to readers is third-person. This point of view detaches the narration from the characters and readers and is the most objective of all the points of view. Characterized by third-person pronouns, he and she, or by use of the characters names, readers are on the sidelines and not participating in the story only watching the events unfold from several perspectives.

There are sub-groups within the third-person point of view, the omniscient and the omniscient limited.

Omniscient is the “all-knowing” narrator who is aware of the thoughts and feeling of all the character. This narrator is the most objective (first-person the least) POV and therefore, trustworthy.

Example of Omniscient POV: (From Literary Devices.com)

Little Women (By Louisa May Alcott)

“Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt … Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression, which was seldom disturbed … “

“Alcott uses an omniscient narrator, as we hear a disembodied voice knowing everyone’s feelings and thoughts, exploring all characters from inside and out. Here, the narrator gives a description of the March sisters.”

Limited Omniscient is the third- person POV that can only share the thoughts and feeling of one character at a time.

Example of Omniscient POV: (From Literary Devices.com)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (By J.K. Rowling)

Harry had taken up his place at wizard school, where he and his scar were famous … but now the school year was over, and he was back with the Dursleys for the summer, back to being treated like a dog that had rolled in something smelly … The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high?”

“Rowling employs omniscient limited narrator voice, in which readers see what Harry observes, and know what he feels and thinks. They are, however, unable to follow what the Dursleys feel or think about Harry.”

Third-person omniscient is a powerful tool for an author and provides the richest experience for the reader. Knowing all of the information available allows the reader to connect with the characters interaction and become more involved in the story’s plot.

This POV does have one drawback, it does not provide the intimacy between the character and the reader that first-person POV does. It falls on the writer to create that relationship.

Deep Point of View

There is a relatively new (if you consider twenty years new) point of view being used increasingly in the self-publishing world.

Deep POV is third-person limited but takes the reader even deeper into the head of the character. It is designed for the reader to feel and see the story directly through the eyes of the character. This POV grew out of the show vs. tell movement where showing what is happening to the character is emphasized rather than simply telling the reader what is happening.

Dialogue tags and phrases like he thought or felt or saw are eliminated from this point of view which increases the intimacy with the reader.

Examples:

Third-person –

“Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. She thought that there was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around. She felt slime ooze between them.”

Deep POV –

“Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. There was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around, wincing when slime oozed between them.”

There is some debate regarding the use of deep POV and changing POV’s within the same scene. I know of an author who can accomplish that skill masterfully and doesn’t appear to be head-hopping. However, most experts recommend not to change POV in the same scene.

One of the best testimonials about deep POV I have read is from romance writer Michele Sayre:

“For me, Deep POV removes any sense of someone standing around telling the readers what’s going on. Instead, the reader is seeing what’s happening in the scene along with their thoughts and feelings.

I use Deep POV, which is third-person because I like the freedom to switch POV in a scene if I feel the need to. In first-person, I would have to have a scene break to switch POV, and that would throw off the pace of a scene for me. Also, since Deep POV is a limited POV (in that the reader only knows what the character knows in that particular scene), it can prevent info-dumping like you might see in an omniscient-type POV. So for me, third-person limited Deep POV keeps the pace up, info-dumping out of the way, and completely brings the reader into the POV character without any authorial input.”

Regardless of the point of view, you choose to write in, there is one very important consideration. Maintain the point of view that you choose throughout the entire piece. The greatest loss of credibility for a writer is to confuse the reader is to switch points of view within a story. Consistency is the key to a clear point of view and a satisfied reader.

 

“Consider the difference between the first and third person in poetry […] It’s like the difference between looking at a person and looking through their eyes.” 
― Diana Abu-JaberCrescent

 

Resources:

http://josephbentz.com/blog/publishing/creating-a-perfect-opening-for-a-novel-raymond-chandlers-the-big-sleep/

https://literarydevices.net/point-of-view/

https://connectusfund.org/11-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-first-person-narration

https://www.thebalance.com/the-second-person-point-of-view-in-fiction-writing-1277131

http://study.com/academy/lesson/second-person-point-of-view-definition-examples-quiz.html

http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-writing-in-second-person.html

https://www.thebalance.com/third-person-point-of-view-1277092

 

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Deborah Ratliff: The Art and Craft of Writing

While reading a book review by Parul Sehgal on the book Draft # 4, On the Process of Writing by John McPhee in the New York Times, I came across a line that gave me pause.

“…perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core…”

As a member of an admin team for one of the largest writing groups on Facebook, we strive to provide our nearly forty-thousand members with pertinent information on the writing process. We conduct workshops on genre, grammar, character development, point of view, and other skills with the intent of offering our members a foundation to build their stories upon.

There are a plethora of workshops, seminars, web pages, articles, and books dedicated to the craft of writing all designed to make us better writers. These are all mechanical tools. We worry about whether the verb tense agrees, have we used certain words too often, did we slip into the wrong point of view? Necessary concerns for the process of writing for we must know how to construct a novel.

Yet, the technical aspects are not enough. There is one very important component to writing, and without it, the words are meaningless. I was in a writing group once with a woman who fancied herself quite the writer. Reading her work, it was flawless, the perfect sentence structure, not a comma out of place, the proper rise and fall of action, the perfectly written novel. Only one problem, it was emotionless. Flawless technically but emotionally void. It lacked passion and passion comes from inspiration. Inspiration is the art of writing.

Merriam-Webster defines inspiration as “a: divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation, b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions; c: the act of influencing or suggesting opinions.”

Often inspiration manifests itself in the word muse. In ancient Greece, the nine Muses were the providers of inspiration for creativity among artists and philosophers of the times. Over the centuries, the word muse has become a symbol of inspiration.

The muse of today can take many forms. Surveying a group of writers from all levels of ability uncovered a variety of sources the writers turned to for ideas. Many writers spoke of music, an image, a broken toy, a wooden box having inspired them. One describes the sights, sounds and smells from a brightly lit carnival framed against a dark sky, all sparking a thought leading to a story idea. A teacher stated that introducing his students to the literary masters inspired him to write.

Inspiration is a process of immersing yourself in your surroundings and opening your mind to new ideas. Simple enough it would appear, yet there are hundreds of tips on how to increase creativity available on the Internet. Everything we can touch, smell, or see can be the inspiration needed to spur our writing.

The fact is these are only stimuli to prompt an idea. I believe there is a deeper concept at work when discussing creativity in writing.

If we return to the quote that inspired this article. Sehgal’s book review of McPhee’s Draft # 4 mentioned the the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world.”  It is the world we paint with words, the impact that we leave with our readers, in addition to the inspiration we gather along the way.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote an essay in 1850 called, The Philosophy of Composition, in which he discusses how good writers write well. He writes,

“There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.”

Poe is making the same argument that Elif Batuman made in “The Possessed,” her study of Russian literature regarding the notion that writers focus more on the craft than the art of writing.

“All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

Poe argues that to be great, literary works should be short in length (thus his penchant for poetry and short story). The writing must be well-crafted as there is no argument that the craft of writing must be precise and correct. However, his third element, a “Unity of effect,” represents the creative spirit of the work and comes before all other components.

In his essay, Poe states an author must know the ending of the story and the emotional impact he or she wishes to convey before beginning to write. Only then can the writer properly decide the “tone, theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot.” It is this effect that impacts the reader and allows them to feel the emotion the author intended. It is the power of the words to convey a broader meaning.

Writing is more complicated than it initially appears to not only readers but those who choose to write. As Poe stated, most authors would “positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes… at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair… at the cautious selections and rejections.”

To write, we must be open to the inspiration around us, take our cues from whatever source available. We must also know the craft, the show vs. tell, the proper grammar, the art of foreshadowing, all the mechanical parts that create a story.

However, Poe’s “Unity of effect” provides the most valuable component. It is the ability to create a mood, to make a reader laugh, or cry, or flinch in terror. It is the ability to paint the image in a reader’s mind with words as if painting on canvas for the eye to see. It is the lingering thoughts, joys, doubts left when someone reads the last sentence. It is the intangible quality of the author’s intentions and how each reader perceives intent that divides a forgettable story from an unforgettable one.

When you begin the process of writing, and your muse has spoken, and a story idea is swirling in your head, do not forget to consider first what you want your reader to take away from your writing. It will make your story greater.

 

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Resources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/books/review-draft-no-4-john-mcphee.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FWriting%20and%20Writers&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=9&pgtype=collection&_r=0

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inspiration

https://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcmpb.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Philosophy_of_Composition

 

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

 

A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.

 

Types of Characters in a Story:

 

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.

 

The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.

 

Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.

 

“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.

 

There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.

 

How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.

 

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed

 

Resources:

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3055:are-travis-mcgee-and-john-d-macdonald-still-relevent-&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters

Writers Unite! on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” Radio Program

Once again, Writers Unite! has appeared on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” radio program, which airs on WNZK, Detroit, Michigan. Host Paul Reeves and I discussed our sister Facebook site, Writers Unite! and the third installment in our series Writing Your First Novel, To Outline or Not to Outline.

Writers Unite! will be a regular monthly guest on the “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” program. We are looking forward to being on the show each month to discuss the writing process.

(https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/pwr/episodes/2017-06-05T10_40_50-07_00)

“Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” airs live each week on WNZK, 690AM, in the Detroit area from 11:00 a.m. – Noon Eastern Time. The show is also live streamed on Tunein.

http://tunein.com/radio/WNZK-690-s21615/

Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART FOUR: Plotting YOUR STORY IDEA

Sing to me, Oh Muse… “

— Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse.

Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.

Story vs. Plot:

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014

Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

Story Structure:

One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure.  The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience.  While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.

There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.

The Beginning

The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.)  You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.

The Middle

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The Ending

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

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While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.

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Up next:  Writing Your First Novel  Part Five: Developing Memorable Characters

 

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Resources:

https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/nine-muses-in-greek-mythology/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot

https://www.nofilmschool.com/2014/07/martin-scorsese-difference-between-story-plot

 

 

Write Your First Novel Part Three Plotter vs Pantser: To Outline or Not to Outline…

“Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going, that she sits down at the computer to find out.”

Writers, when they aren’t writing, love to talk about writing. It is, after all, our passion. A favorite topic of these discussions, and one that garners a lot of questions is “plotter vs.  pantser.” Do you outline your story before you begin to write or do you run with the idea that pops into your head without a care?

The discussion on how to construct a novel, outline or write without a plan, is one that elicits many opinions. There is no right or wrong way, the method used to write a novel is subjective and personal.

I admit to being a pantser, a writer without a plan. An idea will come to me, and I feel compelled to begin writing immediately. I formulate the beginning and end of the story in my head and work out how to get from Point A to Point B as I go along. Main characters come with the idea, and secondary characters materialize out of thin air as needed.

“Romance author Jane Graves, who identifies herself as ‘a big time pantser’ says ‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. That’s when I start having revelations and seeing things I never saw at the synopsis level. For me, it’s kind of like remembering the words to an old song. If you ask me the words, I can’t tell you. But if the song comes on the radio and I’m in the middle of listening to it, I can tell you what comes next.’”

Pantsers usually cite one main reason why they prefer not to outline. They thrive on the unrestricted flow of creativity, which not having a plan gives them. Personally, I enjoy experiencing the story as it unfolds naturally. I don’t want to know what my character’s favorite food is or exactly where a murder is going to take place until the scene evolves. I prefer the characters surprise me.

Another reason is the tedious process of plotting out the story before writing. Many pantsers, this one included, feel very confined by a detailed plan. Outlining is akin to writing the story prior to writing the story.

There are problems with writing without a plan. You can write yourself into a corner, discover you have a major plot hole or realize the beginning of your story may be the middle and you have to develop further back into the story instead of going forward. A major criticism of this writing process is that without planning it often requires considerable rewrite to attain plot cohesion.

I suspect pantsters will admit they do some planning. Complex plots and numerous characters can be confusing. Some writers will sketch out chapters or write down key plot points as they develop them to keep track. I admit to doing both, I am notoriously horrible at remembering character names, so I keep a character list. I have also discovered that creating a chapter list, noting the significant plot events of the book helps keep me focused. My chapter notes are fluid, changing as the story unfolds, and my brief notes perhaps only a cryptic “ body discovered” but does help with keeping an even pace throughout the story.

Plotters, or outliners, on the other hand, thrive on detail. They wouldn’t dream of writing, some quite meticulously, without planning the entire story. Spreadsheets, index cards, journals, loose paper, word docs, all serve as platforms for the all-important outline. During the years JK Rowling was publishing the Harry Potter series, she gave a television interview where she discussed the large spreadsheet she created to plot out and track events in her epic novels. The enormous undertaking required to produce a series like Harry Potter underscores the plotters’ belief in planning. Multiple characters, plotlines, and volumes require attention to detail and even as a pantser by nature, I can see the value of plotting.

One of the serious issues that plague many writers is their inability to finish a project, short story or novel because they lose track during the middle. While a beginning and an ending are often known, how to navigate through the story to reach a conclusion often eludes them. Planning each scene, or chapter can help with this issue by providing the impetus to construct a solid middle.

There is a downside to plotting. I had a conversation with a writing coach, who loved the index card process and told me that I must write my story on the cards and then write my first draft. I didn’t. Writing a detailed outline, including every scene, every nuance to me defeats the point. When the last index card includes the words, ‘the end,’ I’ve already written the book. I don’t choose to write it again.

Also, plotting to such detail boxes one into a corner. If you have an epiphany in the middle of writing based on a detailed outline, you have two choices. Chuck the outline or rewrite it. Rewriting is tedious and time-consuming and unnecessary.

I suspect most of us are a combination of a plotter and a pantser. How much of each of these processes we embrace depends on our need for direction. The one thing I have noticed is our predilection to choose one of these styles seems to follow how we go about our daily tasks. Some calendar everything, make copious lists, some (like me)  ask, “Was that today?” What is important is choosing the writing process that offers us the most productivity and the most joy.

 

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Quote Resources:

http://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds/

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Write Your First Book  Part Four: Plotting will be posted soon.

Writing Your First Novel Part Two: The Question of Genre

Writing Your First Novel

Part Two

The Question of Genre

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“Readers will stay with an author, no matter what the variations in style and genre, as long as they get that sense of story, of character, of empathetic involvement.”  — Dean Koontz

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From the first children’s book, comic book, or novel that we choose, we begin to develop our sense of what type of story we are drawn to read. For me, I was intrigued by mystery and science fiction at a very early age. In my teenage years, romance entered the mix, and I soon found that my favorite stories to read were combinations of these separate genres.

In Part One of the Writing Your First Novel, we discussed the importance of reading and how it impacts your writing skills. One of the strongest influences of reading is an enhancement of vocabulary. Many of us tend to use the same words in our everyday speech. Reading will expand your selection of words and enrich your writing. Reading also provides an awareness of sentence and story structure and correct grammar. Reading current work allows you to discover the latest trends in the genre can assist in helping you decide the focus of your novel.  Choosing popular works within a specific genre allows you to explore the latest trends and can help you decide the focus of your novel.

Merriam-Webster defines genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” Fictional genre is further categorized into specific topics such as romance, mystery, science fiction, historical, contemporary or young adult among others.

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“I had always wanted to be a writer who confused genre boundaries and who was read in multiple contexts.” — Jonathan Lethem

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The traditional brick and mortar publishing houses have long categorized novels into specific genre descriptions. Even though there are numerous sub-genres under those headings, a cozy mystery or detective novel will still be displayed under the ‘Mystery’ banner in a bookstore or library. Based on statistics and marketing plans, it proved easier to control the advertising dollar and consumer focus if novels fit a certain niche. Shelving of books in a retail store is coveted and easier to acquire shelf space for a book in the single mystery genre rather than one in the mystery/science fiction/romance genre. What area of the store do you place a book of mixed genre? It’s a publisher’s marketing nightmare.

That issue has changed considerably with the advent of on-line publishing and search hashtags which have allowed authors to market their works in multiple genres. When genre lines are blurred, the only limitation a writer has is their imagination. Shelf space is no longer a consideration when as Lethem says, “boundaries are confused.”

The question you should ask yourself is what genre do you feel comfortable writing. I have seen numerous writing ‘experts’ say you should write what you know. The problem for me is that I love science fiction and murder mysteries. But, I have never been in space, and I haven’t committed murder, so I don’t have those experiences to draw from when writing. Author John Grisham is a lawyer and his stories center on his experiences practicing law. Not all of us are afforded the luxury of writing with such skill sets. What do we do?

We read, read, and read more novels in the genres of our choice and we do the necessary research to provide plausible details to your writing.  There are certain patterns and expectations that exist within genres, and your reader will feel cheated if those characteristics of the genre are not present. A noir murder mystery novel needs to have a dark, sparse, gritty quality that you will not find in a cozy murder mystery.

The key, I believe, in successfully writing a multi-genre novel is balance. One of the genres chosen must be the primary focus of the story, while the other one, two, or more genres should support. For instance, I wrote a science-fiction/murder mystery/romance novel where the overall science fiction theme is the focus, the murder mystery is the vessel to deliver the story, and the romance builds tension as the two main protagonists, who are emotionally connected, face danger. Throughout the novel, any of these components may take the lead in scenes, but the story balance remains the same.

I do hold to the theory that any genre can mesh with any other, and the combinations may open new vistas for your readers. The fact is these genres are a measure of what can and des occur in our lives. While there may not be dragons in our real world, we have fears that manifest themselves as such and can be symbols within a story.

One thing to remember, throughout this process of learning to write you should also be writing. Details can be added or corrected in the editing process. The important task is to write and to write until the story is complete.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part Three:  To Outline or Not to Outline…. (Pants or No Pants)

Coming soon…

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Resources:

https:qute//www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/genre.html

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/genre

 

Writing Your First Novel

One of the common questions asked by novice writers on our sister Facebook site Writers Unite! is “How do I start?” To help new writers with the daunting but fun task of writing, I have begun a series of articles on how to prepare writing your first novel.

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Writing Your First Novel

Part One

Read

 “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

All those words Gaiman speaks of rattle around inside of us. Eventually, the urge to allow them to escape becomes overwhelming. Time to write a story.

Fledgling writers come from all walks of life with a wide-ranging knowledge of the writing process. I remember my own experience when I decided to begin writing. Writing was not new to me, throughout my career I had written research papers, manuals, newsletters, speeches, and advertising copy.  However, crafting a fiction story was something I had not done since college. I recognized there was a lot to learn.

The question is where to start?  We can jump right in and begin to put words to paper or screen but are we providing ourselves and our future readers with the best effort we can make? Before we write, let’s explore the steps we should do to prepare ourselves to be good writers. Let’s begin with reading.

Read

What better than a book to fuel the imagination. One of my favorite quotes is from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Reading the works of others is fundamental to the writing process. Any genre and any author (even a not so skilled author) can provide you with useful information. I do recommend selecting best-selling books in the genre/genres that you wish to write in, as well. Successful works related to the story you want to write can provide you with trends and what the readers of the genre prefer.

What you do you as a new author gain by reading? There are several reasons:

Vocabulary:

Reading increases vocabulary by presenting words we may not hear or see on a normal day. A diverse vocabulary is a great asset for any writer by providing an enhanced collection of words that convey the meanings and emotions of your story. A large vocabulary also provides alternate word choices which improve your writing style.

Grammar:

Grammar rules are analogous to rules of the road. Authorities expect us to obey the speed limit, stop at red lights, and follow the other traffic laws. Otherwise, chaos ensues on the roads. The same is true for writing. Grammar rules provide a framework for writing a clear and concise story that a reader expects. When reading, pay attention to sentence structure, verb choice and agreement, how complex or simple the sentence are. You will begin to acquire a feel for the author’s style which can help you find your own.

Plot Structure:

Read to understand how the author constructed their story. How do they open their novel, what hook did they use to draw you into the story? Notice the author introduces their main and secondary characters, build tension toward the climax, or employ foreshadowing, plot twists? Learn what techniques work to provide the reader with an exciting and emotional experience.

Trends:

While you should read all genres for a better overview of style, you should also select numerous books within the genre that you wish to write in. Trends are not only for clothing, but genres are also subject to the latest fad or the focus of a best-selling author. Knowing what your potential reader might prefer when choosing a new novel. A word of caution, trends fade, and by the time your novel is ready for publication, some other trend may have taken your place. Write your story the way you want.

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In subsequent articles, we will look at these topics in more depth as well as other tools for the novice writer.

(Quotes: https://www.brainyquote.com/)

Deborah Ratliff: Radio Interview “Dr. Paul’s Family Talk”

Host Dr. Paul Reeves asked me back on the “Dr. Paul Family Talk” radio show this morning to discuss the phenomenal growth of the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! and discuss our new blog, “Writers Unite!”  We also discussed the upcoming Writers Unite! Short Story Contest which will launch in January 2017.

When I first appeared on Paul’s show in July 2016, our Facebook page membership was just over 6,000. Today, November 28, 2016, we reached over 20,000 members.  An amazing accomplishment for a writing group barely a year old.

Here is a link to my interview. Hope you enjoy!

(https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/pwr/episodes/2016-11-28T13_43_14-08_00)

“Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” airs live each week on WNZK, 690AM, in the Detroit area from 11:00 a.m. – Noon Eastern Time. The show is also live streamed on Tunein.

 http://tunein.com/radio/WNZK-690-s21615/

Deborah Ratliff: The Writer’s Voice and Other Elements of Style

As I write this, the manuscript for my first novel and I exist apart. The words I’ve written now in the capable hands of my editor. It was a conversation with him regarding my writing idiosyncrasies that provided me with a clearer insight into my writing style and the voice I choose.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of writing to comprehend is the concept of style. Like fingerprints, one author’s style of writing is unique from another’s and can vary depending on several factors, including the intended audience. Sentence structure, word choice, and the more elusive writer’s voice constitute the elements of style.

Before I returned to writing fiction, a passion from my youth, I wrote professional articles, policy and procedure and training manuals, newsletters, and advertising copy. At times, I might work on policy in the morning, a newsletter in the afternoon. What I failed to realize was I was changing my writing style to fit my readers.

Let’s look at how the description of a thunderstorm varies from one audience to another.

A scientific journal article on the elements of a thunderstorm would present a technically correct explanation of how warm moist air rapidly updrafts into cooler layers of air forming cumulonimbus clouds. Precipitation follows, and cold air sinks creating downdrafts and winds. Electrical charges build up in the water and ice cloud particles and release as lightning, which heats the air with such intensity producing a sound wave we know as thunder.

A storyteller would write of the darkening clouds, the rising winds, a prickly feeling on the skin as the storm intensifies, the driving rain, brilliant lightning flashes, the roar of thunder. Thus, setting a mood or a backdrop for the characters to interact.

The same author can write in an impersonal, technical style or in descriptive prose. It is the choice of words, sentence structure, and the author’s voice that creates style.

Word choice:

Writing experts teach authors to eliminate unnecessary words. To be concise, to choose the best word, an action verb demonstrating a physical or mental act or a concrete noun conveying sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to convey meaning. We limit our use of adjectives and adverbs and the overuse of certain words such as ‘as,’ ‘that,’ and ‘it.’ Polysyllabic words, alliteration, and consonance create flowing sentences, while onomatopoeia and monosyllabic words can break up the flow.

Sentence Structure:

Good writers carefully structure sentences to extract the most meaning and to facilitate flow. When constructing a sentence, vary the length of the sentence to achieve different rhythms. Also, consider the word and phrase placement within a sentence which can emphasize the sentence meaning. Removing unneeded, vague or repetitive words, and including subordinate phrases and clauses will tighten up a sentence and make it more readable.

Voice:

The most subjective of the three elements of style is voice. Voice is unique to each writer and impacted by the author’s personality and one element of style, word choice.  Whether detached, passionate, objective, humorous, serious, it is yours.

This discussion of style brings me back to my conversation with my editor. I had two repetitive issues in my writing. The underuse of the word ‘that’ and my love of run-on sentences.

Somewhere, while reading what all the writing ‘experts’ suggest, I took the suggestion to eliminate the word ‘that’ where I could. Apparently, there are times when that makes a sentence clearer. My editor decided to replace those I had eliminated in my own edit. Then he read the story again and took them out, deciding the inclusion interfered with my writing style.

The run-on sentences are another issue and result from my desire to write with a smooth flow. I wrote a short story for a challenge a few years ago and received this critique, “Great story, well-done, but use an ‘and’ every now and then.” Apparently, I didn’t heed that message.

My editor offered the following advice. That the choice to construct sentences in this manner was mine. It was my style of writing and my decision to change them. It was at that moment I realized I had the final say on how my book would read.

Granted, I am at liberty to make these choices because I am self-publishing. I doubt the editor of a traditional publishing house would allow me the leeway of making these decisions for myself. The fact is I respect my editor and will likely take his advice, but his words made me realize that the style I choose to write in, my writer’s voice is mine.

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Deborah Ratliff is an administrator for the Writers Unite! Blog and Facebook page. Her first novel, Crescent City Lies, a murder mystery will be published in the Fall of 2016.

Personal Blog: the coastal quill

Author Page: D.A. Ratliff

Facebook: Writers Unite!