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Susan Staneslow Olesen: The Idea Factory

“I want to write, but where do you get your ideas?”

It’s hard for me to answer such a question because I’ve never had to think about it; ideas were just there. Writing is in my blood—my grandfather published a few books, my grandmother wrote poetry, my great-great-grandfather collected folktales, and my dad has articles published in magazines. I’ve been writing seriously since I was ten years old. I didn’t pursue writing as a career because it was something I already did well; there were other things I wanted to learn. Give me a class with a term paper and I knew I’d get a good grade.

Now, that’s not to say I never get writer’s block, or sometimes have no idea what to write. I belonged to a writer’s group for ten years, with monthly topics. Often I whipped off a piece that night or the next day, and goofed off the rest of the month. Sometimes I wrote three. Sometimes I started out with the topic in mind, but it took such a tangent you never saw it coming. Presented with the topic of “Hands,” I wrote about a magician’s assistant. For a theme of “Water,” I wrote a Greek-style myth inspired by a line of Pete Townshend’s song Hiding Out—“a waterfall of women weeping”—what an image! And yes, most certainly, I get overwhelmed when starting a new novel—even now, when I’ve written ten of them.

So, where does a writer get ideas?

The answer is: look around you. There isn’t a thing under the sun that isn’t an inspiration. Ants in the grass. A cat hugging himself in his sleep. A moth beating against a window. The fading sunlight creeping across a carpet. Every one of those has a story behind it. When? Where? Why? I needed a name for a lawyer, so I looked around me. Larry Lamp didn’t cut it. Marcus Driskin was named for a bottle of—you got it—dry skin lotion.

My first novel series, Best Intentions, arose from a short story I read in the back of a women’s magazine when I was about nine years old. It involved parents who abandon their five children at the side of the road, and how the oldest child—eight or nine herself—tries to make a home for her siblings in the woods. Using that theme of children abandoned, I invented a story of a large family whose mother dies unexpectedly, and when the father is sent to prison, they are legally abandoned into the custody of the eldest child (an overwhelmed 22-year-old in my story). That one small concept—children alone—turned into a five-volume sociological study of abandonment, depression, abuse, and the power of love and forgiveness. I joke it’s my Ph.D. in psychology. The two stories have as much in common as apples and oranges, but they came from the same concept.

In my second novel series, there is a simple line in Conflicts of Interest that says, “My second wife died of a medical condition.” It was only on editing that I wondered, what if the condition was suicide? Why? My head then exploded with possibilities, and a 40-page outline evolved almost overnight.

The best thing for a writer, the very best thing you can do to advance your writing career, is get outside and OBSERVE. Take notes if you have to, but your goal is to leave your abode and go feel the entire world with every one of your senses. Walk through your town, whether it’s New York City or a small village in the Punjab. See it with a child’s eyes, a child’s sense of wonder. What does it smell like, not just here, but there, too? Breathe in: smell the dirt, the pavement, the trees, the garbage rotting by the roadside, the skunk in the distance, fresh paint. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the air humid, damp, sticky, dry, cold, hot, is the wind blowing? Is the sun hot but the air cold? Hot like a lamp, or hot like cayenne at a Mexican fiesta? How does the air change after it rains? What does the pavement smell like after rain, awash in the metallic smell of writhing earthworms? Listen as you walk. What music do you hear leaking from cars or windows? What is it saying? Is there a busker on the steps of city hall, blowing a trumpet or sawing a violin?

Everything tells a story.

James Baldwin called it Experience. A writer needs to experience everything they can, and then write what they know. That’s true, but you can’t always experience something—not everyone will be an astronaut; no one knows what it feels like to travel to Mars; a woman (random, average) cannot know what it’s like to be a man, and a man won’t ever experience childbirth. We don’t know if an elephant feels sadness; we can’t all climb Everest; we don’t all have a twin; we may never undergo divorce or have a child kidnapped or find an evil clown in the sewer drain—but we can observe, ask people, read biographies and science books, and we can use those observations to project a sense of experience, remembering a time when we felt profound fear, and write what we know. Read. Read everything you can get your eyes on, even shampoo bottles. What comes into your head?

A short video on Japanese cooking I saw inspired a short story of a child getting expelled from school for using a similar method to cheat students out of money. Completely unrelated, but inspired by nonetheless. Knowing old glass has a tendency to slide downward over the millennia led to the scene in Best of Everything where newcomer Sarah gets off on the wrong foot, informing Grandmama that her expensive and rare artwork is being mistreated and starting to slide off the canvas. When the cat died of liver cancer, I turned the feeling of loss into a poem about two children playing in a real forest. You can read it here. A horrific nightmare I had in college became a character’s nightmare in a story.

Susan S Oleson kitty

You’ve lived on this planet for decades. What have you experienced? What facts do you know? Think of a fact, any fact, and use it to formulate a story. Monarch butterflies migrate. Chewbacca walks through the Death Star naked, and no one thinks twice. It takes, on average, twelve minutes for pasta to cook. Murders can happen in less time. (Okay, so now I have a picture in my head of a naked Wookie boiling water for pasta, but s/he is murdered, and a butterfly flies past the window. See how ideas multiply?)

Experience. Observe. Examine everything, as if you just landed from another planet and were trying to figure everything out. Everything you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear—grab it with both hands, let it sift through your fingers. How would you describe it?  Observe everything. Observance = experience. If you’re writing about Greece and you’ve never been there, take a trip if you can. If not, find a Greek festival. Watch the people. Listen to the language. Note the colors of the costumes and the dances and the rhythm of the music. Taste the food, or at least just look at it, noting the way a grape leaf looks rolled and stuffed and cooked, or the shine on a triangle of baklava, the way the walnuts spill between the layers of dough. Taste the sweetness of Ravani. At worst, find a travel DVD at your local library and take in what you can. Observe, observe, observe. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Take notes if you have to. Many foreign cities have webcams; view the landscape in realtime. See the buildings, note the colors. What does it make you think of?

As a writer, your job is to convey your story, to transmit the movie from your head to that of the reader. A successful story pulls the reader inside, connects with them not just visually with a painted scene, but emotionally, retrieving the smell of Grandma’s peach pie, the gold flaky crust with the tips of the edges just starting to burn, the way she twisted the peaches in the pan just so to make it look like a swirl when set on the table, with a dollop of whipped cream perched in the center, rivaling the onion domes of Moscow. To build up that illusion, to pull those memories from people’s heads that make your writing alive for them, you have to pull their emotions, and you reach those emotions by pulling out those details that trigger their memories, and those details come with observational experience. A good story takes place more in the reader’s head than on the printed page. Hair the color of rusted chains, bouncing in a confident rhythm as she trekked up the walkway, paints a dynamic picture that sticks in readers’ heads, lights their imagination, and connects in a personal way. Roan may not be a word everyone understands, but most people have seen rusted swings in a schoolyard, brownish-red. Shared experience. In The Shining, Stephen King mentions the way someone blows their nose, peaks into the hanky, then puts it away. You’ve seen people do this. A little detail, incidental to the story, but it makes the character pop from the page. You know people just like that. You’ve seen passing motorists pick their nose while driving. Perhaps you have a friend with an eye that has a tic; it twitches when they speak. Slide that fact into a character; instant association. Use that fact as the basis of a story. Perhaps the tic is a fatal flaw, giving away a secret.

Observe. Observe. Observe. The distant clang of church bells, tolling the hour. The rush of wind through pine trees. The headline of a newspaper; a magazine article on solar-powered cars. Listen to the conversation behind you in the restaurant. Teri’s husband blew another paycheck gambling, and Hope’s offered to front her $40 for groceries. Every one of these situations is a story. Writing dragons? Visit a pet store and watch lizards.

Go. Write. Write with passion. Use all that knowledge you spent a day, a week, a lifetime accumulating, and put it into your writing. Write with authority, knowing that your words are truth. Everything you see or hear is a potential character, a potential story, a potential detail to help bring your story alive. If one idea isn’t enough, list several: a blue car, falling acorns, the wedding ring, Billy the Exterminator, the sound of geese honking. The more ideas you list, the more your story writes itself. First day of school, shadows on the wall, grandpa’s missing teeth, misty rain, fireman. All that knowledge is in your head—or at least in your notes. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t overthink it, just let your story go where it wants. You’ll be surprised where you wind up.

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Susan S Oleson   

Susan Staneslow Olesen is an exhausted novelist and blogger for the Cheshire Public Library, where she also runs a writer’s group. A graduate of Wells College and The Chase Collegiate School, she has been a fruit picker, dial press operator, special education teacher, crisis intervention specialist, Disc Media Wizard, fostered 50 kittens, and is a 30-year foster parent to six children plus three of her own. She runs in circles and tears her hair out with her husband in Connecticut.

 

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Writers Unite! Tips on Writing! Inspiration…

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing: Read!

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Deborah Ratliff: Rules. Rules. There Are Too Many Rules!

Have you seen them? The myriad of articles posted on the Internet explaining all the things you must do to write the perfect story. Perhaps, you have seen the equally extensive list of articles telling you what you should not do. The problem? Not every article agrees on what is the correct or incorrect way to write.

What is a writer to do? How do we decide?

After years of writing business-related manuals concerning policy and training, newsletters, and research papers, I decided to return to writing fiction. My story construction skills were rusty, as was my grammar. In the corporate world, I was fortunate to have an assistant who proofed my writing. I was not so lucky in the private world. I knew I needed to hone my craft, and what better tool to use than the internet. I fired up Google and began to search for everything I could find on writing, and well, it was overwhelming. No matter the topic — how to write an opening line, how to create memorable characters, when to use effect and affect — the results of my search returned more articles than I expected. Faced with so much information, I wondered how I would manage to wade through and find what I needed to write “the great American novel.”

I am not alone. A member of Writers Unite! posted the following after receiving conflicting advice on how to write:

“Help! I’m a new author and have been networking with writers and editors. I’ve become so confused by all the different pieces of advice, I’m struggling to write a simple sentence. In the recent past, I’ve been told so many rules that I can barely keep them straight.”

The member went on to list examples of the rules as they have been explained to her.

  • Do not use descriptions
  • Show versus tell
  • Never make any cultural references
  • Do not give backstory on characters
  • Vary sentence length
  • Do not use adverbs.

Let us examine these rules.

 

Do not use descriptions.

Descriptions are the soul of writing. Not limited to location or characters, descriptive writing should include the five senses. Written images of a room may not be as crucial as whether it was hot or cold, what aromas did the character smell, did light spill into the room, or was it dark and eerie. A writer can easily bore their reader by droning on about the wallpaper or the carpet fiber or the tea cozy, but there are times when it is imperative to set a mood. How a person lives or the environment around them can be very telling as to who the character is and provides a great deal of depth.

The key here is to not overdo. Pay attention to what your story needs and nothing else. If you do write descriptively, pare down those words to include only what you need.

Avoid a litany of characteristics. “She was young, her hair long and blond, athletic build…” Instead, weave those characteristics into the story, “Preparing for her run, she pulled her blond hair into a ponytail…” and be certain that her “run” was essential to the plot.

 

Show versus tell.

The bane of every writer’s existence is this rule. Writing “experts” pound this rule into us at every opportunity. The fact is, it is a great rule and one that I fully believe in following. Anton Chekhov’s famous quote is the quintessential example: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This rule harkens back to being descriptive. Allow your reader to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see, so they become fully immersed in the world you have created for them.

Should you always show versus tell? Yes, however, there are times when it is acceptable to move your story along and tell the action, instead of showing it. Remember to keep those moments very rare. “Jack, his face reddened, hands clenched, spun and left the room, slamming the door behind him.” You have set up that Jack is angry, describing the sound of the door slamming is not necessary.

 

Never make any cultural references.

Ask someone writing historical fiction not to make a cultural reference, and they will laugh at you. This is a specific rule. If you are setting your story within an exact timeframe, then cultural references of the era are vitally important to the credibility of your work.

The obvious reason for this rule is a cultural reference will date your work. Again, you need to keep the context of your story in mind. There may be times when a cultural reference is integral to the plot. I think the mention of social media, cell phones, or Instagram, among other references is acceptable providing they remain general.

 

Do not give backstory on characters.

Really? Exactly how do we bring depth to our stories if we do not provide pertinent backstory? Once again, this rule harkens back to the use of descriptive prose and show vs. tell. Do not write copious paragraphs about your character’s backstory but show by intertwining the information within the events and dialogue.

 

Vary sentence length.

Again, I agree with this rule in general. You need to vary the length of sentences and paragraphs to keep your reader from being bored and to maintain the pace of the story.  Sentences that are too long can cause your reader to lose interest. Short sentences can make your work seem rushed and choppy.

However—and there is always a however—when writing a scene with high tension, short sentences convey that sensation to your reader. Short, powerful sentences describing fight scenes mimic the action. Longer sentences express your character’s thoughts and reflections and help slow the pace of the story when necessary. While this rule is one I believe writers should adhere to, it is also one to suspend when the story calls for it.

 

Do not use adverbs.

Short of a lesson on the use of adverbs, which could be extensive, let’s agree that too many adverbs are not a good thing. According to my go-to grammar guru, Grammar Girl, verb modifiers are often “redundant or awkwardly placed.” She quotes master writer Stephen King who complains about them in his book On Writing, saying, “’I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,’ but he doesn’t shout it loudly. He likens adverbs to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.”

Grammar Girl suggests that you use adverbs in dialogue if appropriate to how the character speaks. Otherwise, she proposes to “use them wisely and only occasionally.”

 

I return to the original question. What is a writer to do?

As I worked my way through the copious amounts of advice I came across, I began to focus on the advice of only a few “experts ” and to rely on grammar references like The Chicago Manual of Style and Grammar Girl for practical advice. Listening to too many voices will create chaos and fail to provide direction.

The reality is that these rules are guidelines. They can be bent or broken depending on the creative needs of the author. As you write, keep the “rules” in mind, they are designed to keep your work coherent and consistent but do not be afraid to go against the experts. Only you know what your story needs.

About the author:

Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. A few of her short stories appear in the Writers Unite! anthology Realm of Magic, published on August 1, 2018.

Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! which has 42,000 + members from around the globe.

Sources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/16383-don-t-tell-me-the-moon-is-shining-show-me-the

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

Make Every Word Count (Short Stories 101)

Our first anthology, Realm of Magic, will be published soon and that means our second anthology (genre romance) isn’t far behind. Submissions close in just a couple of weeks, and I know some of you are sweating over your word count right now, trying to get it down below that 5,000 mark. If you’ve submitted one major story already, you may even be trying to get it down below that 3,000 mark to qualify. It’s not easy to cut things out of your story, and most people don’t want to delete entire scenes that may be crucial to the plot. You may not be able to remove chunks to make it follow our guidelines, but there’s another thing you can try instead.

Make Every Word Count

One thing I’ve noticed through selecting and editing the submissions: some writers manage to jam-pack a whole lot into a small word count, while others spend a lengthy amount of time on only a couple scenes. If those scenes are where your story takes place, so be it. But if you find yourself having to cut your story down to just a couple scenes for it to qualify, you may want to look at removing filler words and condensing sentences before you throw an entire setting away.

Simple is best. You need to make every word count in a short story. If one sentence kind of explains what’s happening but the second sentence clarifies it, delete the first sentence. Edit the second to make sure its meaning is clear and can stand alone. Here’s an example from the novel I’m working on right now (Reigning Fire—The Aldurian Chronicles Book 3). I’m always going through and removing redundant sentences like this:

“Shut up!” I released the leukos I’d been absorbing. It exploded from my core, hitting him in full force.

It’s a fantasy novel, so ignore the weird words.

These two sentences are repetitive. I can merge them together to keep the intended meaning.

“Shut up!” Leukos exploded from my core, hitting him in full force. 

I could rework that to make it even tighter—and I will later—but I wanted to give you a simple example of how to clear out redundant sentences and shorten your word count.

Another way to shorten word count is to cut out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. When you’re setting a scene or describing a character, get to the point and then move on to the action. Less is more. Use one or two informative helper words versus three or four that don’t really offer anything to the story. Don’t neglect description altogether, but make sure you use words to your advantage here. Many times a bigger word can replace a few small words. That saves your word count for harder to describe situations or scenes that are a bit more complex.

I’m not saying grab your thesaurus and replace every small phrase you can find with a word your reader would have to look up to understand, but be mindful as you’re writing to consider concise ways of expressing yourself.

Prepositions also tend to fill the pages in a story. Training yourself to look for and remove the ones that aren’t needed can give you more room to develop your characters or plot down the road.

Always skip the dull parts. A short story should be well-paced. There is little room for messing around, so if you can develop your characters without having to slow the plot, you’re going to have a much more powerful story in the end.

As you’re editing your story and trying to cut down that word count, go into it with the mindset of making every word count and it will be much easier to let go of parts that might offer poetic prose but offer nothing in way of character or plot progression.

However, something more important to keep in mind: clarity trumps brevity. Your sentences need to be clear before they are concise. You can’t cut out vital information for the sake of staying under that word limit. Get creative. Find a way to clarify your story without spending a long time explaining it.

And remember, for the Writers Unite! Anthologies Series, you have a 5,000 word allowance for your first story with no minimum requirement! We have received stories that range from 200-5,000 words so far, with some poems being a bit under that range. We’ve had some great stories come in through the submissions portal, and eagerly await YOUR submission.

But you have to be a Writers Unite! member to contribute.

Join the Facebook group Writers Unite! here to get the details on submitting to our current anthology: Writers Unite! Facebook Group


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strong-willed—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

You can follow her by clicking the links below. 

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Guest Blog: Write What You Know — David Reiss

Once upon a time–when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was still in high school–I had a wonderful English teacher who treated his students as peers and insisted that we all call him by his first name; his enthusiasm for literature and drama was outright contagious. He convinced me to read outside my preferred genres, and he pushed me to write, write and write some more. A tremendously harsh critic, he somehow managed to be supportive even while delivering the most ruthless dissections of my prose. I was a bitter and catastrophically depressed teenager who approached each school day with apprehensive dread, but for his classes, I held a genuine anticipation.

Until one lecture when he insisted that creating compelling fiction required that we ‘write what we know,’ and all my enthusiasm burned away into ash.

At the time, I thought that he meant that our prose should be limited to our experiences and our areas of expertise. I couldn’t imagine any subject less interesting or worthy of consideration. How could the experiences of a morose, sheltered and awkward kid be relevant to the life of an inhuman denizen of a fantasy dungeon? I wanted to write about dragons and laser pistols, camaraderie and adventure!

I occasionally wish for a time machine so that I could leap across the years and smack my younger self on the back of the head. Because the truth is every experience is something you can learn from. I may not have ever soared above a battlefield then folded my wings to drop into combat like the gryphon protagonist from one of my short stories…but I knew the feel of wind against my face and could add that sensation to describe my gryphon’s flight. I knew what it looked like when a hawk stooped towards its prey. I knew what anger felt like, and fear, and hope, and sadness.

To ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean to write about yourself. It means to use your personal experiences to lend the power of authenticity to your prose.

There is a secondary meaning as well, and it is one that I try to take to heart more as an adult author: Research, knowledge and the acquisition of new sensory memories can make your writing more compelling. It’s tempting to feel content that having swung a baseball bat is sufficient experience to write a scene in which an armored knight wields a mace, and it is true that being able to evoke the memory of how your grip strained or how your shoulder shook at the moment of impact is important. But spending time researching how maces were used historically can help create a more powerful scene. Look up how much real maces weighed. Research the kinds of wounds that a mace caused. If you can, make a mace and create new sensory memories by beating up an old tire. Interview experts and NEVER rely on anything you saw in a Hollywood blockbuster movie because Hollywood is a lying liar who lies.

Try new things! Get your hands dirty in the garden, take a lesson in welding, bungee jump, hang-glide. Eat exotic foods and learn to mix cocktails. Live.

So, my advice to an aspiring author is this: Write what you know because you know much more than you think. And never, ever stop learning because who knows what you’re going to want to write about tomorrow?

About the Author:

While growing up, David Reiss was that weird kid with his nose in a book and his head in the clouds. He was the table-top role-playing game geek, the comic-book nerd, the story-teller, and dreamer.
Fortunately, he hasn’t changed much.

David is a software engineer by trade and a long-time sci-fi and fantasy devotee by passion, and he lives in Silicon Valley with his partner of twenty-six years. Until recently, he also shared his life with a disturbingly spoiled cat named Freya.

(Farewell, little huntress. You were loved. You are missed.)

David’s first book, Fid’s Crusade, has just recently been published; this was his first novel-length project, but it certainly won’t be his last—he’s having far too much fun!

Mr. Price’s Dinner Table – Deborah Ratliff

 

Location, location, location.

How many time have you heard that a business’s location is essential to its success? It is. The same is true for the site of your story. Choosing a small town, an urban environment, or an alien world instantly sets the mood, the culture, and the anticipation for your story. Choose wisely, and the location becomes another character in your writing, adding depth and complexity to your plot.

Why we choose a location varies from our own experiences to the genres that we write.  I set my stories in the world that I know best, the Southern United States and often in New Orleans. To explain how I decide, I need to take you on a journey to my childhood.

I am a Southerner and quite proud of my roots. Growing up in South Carolina I was fortunate to have parents who saw no color differences in their fellow man. People from all walks of life and cultures visited our home.

Memories of my childhood remain clear today. The mimosa tree that I played under in our yard. Houses where all doorways, windows, and chimneys were trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The dime bags of boiled peanuts sold on the street. The ‘air-conditioned tree’ at the Herlong Orchard peach stand where the temperature was twenty degrees cooler in the shade and the water stored in a metal canteen was ice cold. While there was a horrible undercurrent of division and anger in this place I love so much, there was also a goodness of soul. Family, friends, food, and good times existed as well.

My father worked at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina where at the time hydrogen bombs were being made. With workers from all over the world employed there, as a child I met a variety of people. One of my father’s best friends was a bear of a man, a Navaho by the name of Jess Brown. His wife Athea, a small, plump woman who might have been a better cook than my grandmothers, was like an aunt to me. I am about one-sixteenth Cherokee and Jess, and Athea gave me a sense of what being Native American meant. Proud, hard-working, gentle people.

Another friend of my parents impacted my life more than I realized. Mr. Price. Honestly, I am not sure what his first name was, my parents never called him anything but Mr. Price. He was older, a slight man, regal in bearing, with snow-white hair and a thick Southern accent that held a lilt of his mother’s heritage. She was a Cajun from southwest Louisiana, and it was his reminisces about his mother’s upbringing that fueled my love of the Cajun culture.

Mr. Price was called a ‘bachelor.’ In the South in those days, an unmarried man of means, a patron of the arts was referred to in that manner. Anyone who has read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt will recognize who Mr. Price was. Polite society did not mention the word homosexual as that wouldn’t be gracious and respectful.

We often had Sunday dinner at Mr. Price’s home, a large two-story house near downtown Aiken. I remember the opulent crimson flocked wallpaper in the parlor, the glittering crystal chandelier in the dining room, and fresh flowers everywhere. While I loved to have dinner in the dining room,  if the weather cooperated, we would often eat on the back terrace surrounded by a formal garden.

Dinner? Not what you might expect for a South Carolina gentleman. While on occasion we might have shrimp and grits or barbecued chicken, we often feasted on shrimp etouffee or jambalaya, dishes Mr. Price’s mother made when he was small. At age ten, I had my first taste of that Cajun chicory coffee at his dinner table.

I was mesmerized as he would tell us of his parent’s home in Lake Charles, and his grandparents’ house in the country nearby. He would spin tales of fun in the bayou, and I was hooked for life. While I loved South Carolina, my heart drifted toward Cajun Louisiana. His memories stirred emotions in me that I have kept to this day.

When I began to write fiction again a few years ago, I knew I would set my stories in the South. While I have never sugar-coated the problems the area has, which are no different from any other part of the United States, there is an ambiance and tone about the South, the southern coast especially, that is alluring. When I began to write it was Louisiana that I set my first novel in, New Orleans specifically.

Having visited New Orleans a few times as an adult, I discovered that my writing muse was a resident of the French Quarter. New Orleans, the bayou, the jazz, the beignets, the sultry weather, all characters in themselves and ones I find creeping into my writing.

On a recent Sunday, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final “Parts Unknown” episodes. We lost a unique individual with Bourdain’s death. A talented essayist on life and culture and how food is intrinsic to our existence, not only for sustenance but for our soula. This show centered on Cajun Mardi Gras as celebrated in Southwest Louisiana.

We know of Mardi Gras as a glitzy party of drunken revelry, resplendent with cheap shiny beads, gaudy costumes, and over the top parades, as well as – well – fun. Bourdain showed us a Mardi Gras few outsiders know,  celebrated away from the French Quarter. Equally as gaudy and drunken but steeped in tradition and meaning.

Despite the commercial decadence of the more popular party in the French Quarter or the more traditional decadence of Cajun Mardi Gras, the spirit of the Cajun people, their passion for life, food, and even voodoo fuel my imagination and my soul.

I realized how ingrained the Cajun world was to my writing when I recently started writing a short story for a romance anthology. I struggled with setting and story until my muse left the jazz bar in the Quarter and reminded me, I was a mystery writer. I knew where I belonged. My story is now a romance between a TV reporter and a detective brought together over a dead body.  The location you ask? The French Quarter.

There is something about the tenor and vibe New Orleans that touches me.  A city steeped in tradition and like Anthony Bourdain, unique.

After writing my first novel, Crescent City Lies, a mystery set in New Orleans, I realize that the Cajun culture remains embedded within me, sparked so many years ago at Mr. Price’s dinner table.

Location, location, location.

(photo from https://www.visitaikensc.com/groups)

Consistency is Key (The Self-Editing Guide Part 10)

Consistency is Key. We’ve all heard this bit of sage advice at least once in our lives—probably more—but you might be wondering how it pertains to writing, or even self-editing, for that matter. Fortunately, these wise words can be applied to many aspects of life, including the art of creating worlds.

You want your readers to trust you. You want them to believe your words and accept your world while they are immersed in it. Otherwise, they may not experience it the way you hope they will. There has to be a touch of reality in your creation, regardless of the genre (even fantasy and science-fiction worlds will probably have some sort of explanation for why things work the way they do). One way to instill that believability, is by keeping your story consistent. Even the most cunning and intriguing lies start to unravel when the teller doesn’t keep to his original story. When people find holes in your story, they start to feel disconnected and duped.

Here are a few things to consider and look for when reading over your novel for consistency:

DESCRIPTION: When describing your world or its inhabitants, it’s important to keep notes so you can remember the details when referring to them again later. Your readers get a visual when reading about your character stumbling through a giant academy that was once an ancient castle, and if later you describe the structure, its materials, or even its history differently, you run the risk of putting your reader off and giving the impression that you threw the story together with little consideration for the mechanics of it all.

The same can be said for describing your character as having red hair and a button nose in one scene, and then later mentioning her raven black locks with a long, pointy nose in another without having any significant or bizarre events that would explain such a transformation. And as Deb, our fellow Writers Unite! admin, has said once or twice, no description is still a description. If you don’t describe your main character in the first scene or two, your reader will fill in the blanks in their heads. So it might do more harm than good to suddenly take the time in the middle of the story to describe him or her because the reader might disconnect from the character. They’d imagined him or her one way for hours, but now you’re telling them the character looks another way. Be consistent. Make descriptions early on and stick to them. That way, your reader can get lost in the world you’ve built for them.

CHARACTER PERSONALITY: Your characters’ personalities are part of what drives the story forward and creates tension for your readers. The characters should come alive in the readers’ minds and feel like a real person. One way to destroy any chance of that happening is to be inconsistent with their personalities. If one moment Jane Doe reacts peacefully and calm to a rather serious situation, and then in another she panics and has to be counseled, the readers are going to wonder why her personality has changed so much with no significant events to explain the transition. You can’t let plot decide how your characters react to something. You can’t decide that the female protagonist needs to be swooned by the male protagonist so she should act weak and needy when he’s around or available to swoop in and save her, but then have her be a total badass when he’s not—all because you want her to end up falling for him in the end. Life doesn’t work that way, and neither should your stories. Decide early on how your characters will handle tragedy, and stick to that. Whatever you throw their way, consider their reaction, depending on their level of tolerance, their limits on stress, their overall development, and then have them respond accordingly.

PLOT: The number one thing many readers will notice is a hole in your story. Plot holes are sometimes difficult to catch, and often times, I read books where the author left one or two and I’m forced to ignore it and continue reading if I want to enjoy the book. But I also know as a writer that they’ve probably combed through that book three or four times fixing the plot holes they did find, and this finished product is what we are left with after most were taken out.

Sadly, many readers aren’t so forgiving when they find a plot hole. Some even look for them for pure entertainment—and with good reason. Have you ever looked up your favorite television series online to see what others were saying about the latest episode and stumbled across a fresh list of plot holes just published on a fan site? And as you read through, did it change your opinion of the episode? Things you hadn’t even noticed were inconsistent, now stood out like neon signs. One rule the writers had set in stone in season one was now being trampled on in season three. That is how a reader feels when they become immersed in your world, and then your story starts to unravel and contradict itself. This is a result of poor planning on the writer’s part, and it can be avoided.

Even if you prefer to write without outlining your story first, which is perfectly acceptable, you need to at least write a short synopsis of how a few things work in your world. It can be a short story, it can be a paragraph of pure telling, it can be anything you want. But you need to organize the thoughts spinning around in your head before you can get it all out on paper. It takes most of us days, weeks, and even months to get it all written, and by then it isn’t so fresh in your mind. Some vital things may get lost by the time you get to that point if you don’t have something to refer to. And when you’re done writing your story, you need to comb through it with an editor’s eye, searching for any inconsistencies.

Event Dates, Times, Etc.: This may seem insignificant, but it is one of the little things that stand out the most when a reader is experiencing your world for the first time. Take your story seriously. Create a world with consistent time, and make sure the hours pass at a realistic rate. If you’re writing a science-fiction or fantasy novel and time passes differently in your world, let your reader know. But make sure you stick to that new law of nature and make it believable. If you have a huge event coming up in three days’ time, don’t write only one days’ worth of plot and then have day three pop up out of nowhere. You have to follow your own rules before you can expect your reader to accept them.

One of the most important aspects of successful storytelling is consistency. The best way to make sure your story is just that, is to write a solid background—whether in paragraph or list form, whether you draw your characters or find pictures to describe on Google, find a point of reference and return to it when needed. Follow this advice, and I can guarantee your story will be much more enjoyable.


Jessica Victoria Fisette is the author of The Soul Reaper series, Fragments, and The Aldurian Chronicles. Her hobbies include discovering the benefits of natural medicine, wine tasting, and trying new recipes in the kitchen. She likes to unwind by typing out a scene or two in her latest obsession or indulging in a good book. Having been passionate about writing since she was a little girl, she is constantly coming up with new ideas for future stories and creating unique, strong-willed—albeit flawed—characters to overcome the difficult obstacles she places before them. Having spent all her life in rural Southeast Texas, she appreciates the tranquility of country living and hopes to implement such a love for nature into her beautiful, ever-so-curious little girl.

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Balancing Life and Writing (Guest Article by Clara C. Johnson)

Balancing the time to write, attending five classes a week, homework, studying for exams, working a full-time job, and spending time with loved ones seems to be for the talented juggler, but I am here to tell you that anyone can do it if you can learn to manage your time well. Unfortunately, many (including myself) heard the famous writing advice that in order to finish your work in progress (WIP) and to become a better writer, you have to write literally every single day. Fact of the matter is, we all have responsibilities outside our writing such as jobs, family, and school that must take priority. In addition, suffering from health complications can also affect your ability to achieve this goal. Frankly, it can be quite impossible for anyone to write every day!

First, I must offer an adjustment to the advice. I think if you plan to become a writer, you should THINK about your WIP every day. This is a much simpler way to help you stay focused on your goals. A simple drive to the grocery store or sitting in the doctor’s office can be a wonderful time where you can think on what you want to do with your WIP. Whether you consider the plot, characters, or a scene you want to add/change doesn’t matter. The overall goal is to get your brain fired up!

As a college student, much of my thinking throughout the day is on all the school work I want to get done by a certain time or studying for an exam I have to take soon. A great tool I learned in my Creative Writing class was to keep a small notebook with me at all times. This notebook is something you should take with you everywhere. Write down your thoughts or describe something you see that interests you. What you write down doesn’t have to necessarily relate to what you are working on right now. An example could be this: you are driving to work, and you notice an old house that burnt down. It may be something you have seen a hundred times before, but you are filled with questions as to what happened to the house that caused the fire. You start to think; what if it was a faulty appliance? Some kids who thought it would be fun to play with fire? You could write this observation down in your notebook for later consideration. An entire story could be written based on this burnt down house.

While this may have nothing to do with your current WIP, you have given yourself a writing prompt. Writing prompts can be a great way to help get your creative gears rolling. You never know, maybe that burned down house could be a vital resource for a story you will work on in the future or your current one. Now, I know not everyone can carry a hefty notebook with them everywhere they go. For you, this “notebook” could be an app on your phone or tablet. There are many different apps you can use for storing your notes. Notecards can work too! Test which method works best for you. As long as you are comfortable with your format, it will benefit you.

My notebooks vary now. I have everything from full-sized notebooks, a small journal, and now a binder to separate my WIP. I spend most of my “plotting” time for my stories in between classes if I get all my homework done early. Sometimes, all I am able to write down is the description of my character’s appearance or personality. The goal is to be able to jot down your ideas onto something for later consideration. Regardless of the format you use, this is the best way I’ve discovered to keep my writing going.

Even then, I have days to a week where I can’t get the time to do it. It’s frustrating and annoying, but I want to say that it’s okay to take small breaks. Things come up, and you may have a couple rough days. Life happens to all of us, and there is little we can do about it. I believe as long as you eventually find the time, you will do it if you truly are passionate about it. Writing is not for the faint of heart and it can seem impossible to do it as regularly as you want. My best advice is to organize your schedule. Set aside time to write and take advantage of the down time you have in between classes, work, or whatever else you need to get done that day. If all you get done is just jotting down an idea for your WIP, that’s okay! As long as you keep up with it and forgive yourself when you can’t do your writing, I’m positive that you will be able to reach your goals! Focus on what you need to do and what works best for you. Each and everyone one of us are different. No two writers are the same.


Clara C. Johnson is a small-town girl who dreamed of magic, swords, and dragons. For the past decade, she has written poetry, short stories, and a novel. She is currently studying English at Penn State University in between drinking too much coffee and writing her next project.

Can Acting Help You Create Memorable Characters

actors

Whether I’m writing a comic, a blog post or a screenplay, the cornerstone of my writing remains the character.

From the very first moment you welcome your reader, and he reads your first paragraph, you want to make sure he knows:

  1. Whose story is it?
  2. What’s happening around the character?
  3. What’s at stake for the character?

This is because, from Shakespeare to Ibsen, the whole idea of dramatic writing revolves around the character: The one we root for, and the one who moves the story along with its actions.

But building character for fiction requires a deep understanding of human motives. A knowledge I had no access to until I shifted my perspective to a more experiential approach: That of embodying characters myself.

That of Acting.

And it changed me, it made me more aware of human dynamics. From the very first moment I started reading Lee Strasberg, Stanislavski and Grotowski, I noticed the similarities between my career as a psychologist, dramatic writing and those stories I wanted to create. 

But the real question is: Can acting work for you and your fictional characters as it worked for me?

Even without knowing you, and whether you suffer from stage fright or no. I do believe a short acting workshop can help you breathe life into your characters.

Here’s why.

Acting is a space for practice and creativity

Think of acting as a playground for discovery. Your own.

Acting will help you find your voice and it will give you a thorough understanding of your body language. All of this, on a playful and safe environment.

In this controlled space, you’ll have the opportunity to test, propose and create with others. It’s human interaction at its best.  

When you get back to your writing space, you will find how the relationships and interactions between your fictional characters become more natural and innovative.

Acting can teach you how to show, don’t tell

Regular conversations might sound like this:

“I’m sad;” “I don’t want to be here;” “I’m about to cry.”

I know, it sounds dramatic, but it has nothing to with dramatic writing. These are real life examples, yet you’re writing fiction. And since there’s no emotional value behind those phrases, we’re taught as writers to show and never tell.

Acting is no different. That means dialogue remains an extension of action. For example, a good actor on a good play wouldn’t tell the audience he’s about to commit suicide; no, we would see the signs: the gloomy tone of his voice, his gaunt appearance, his vacant stare and saggy posture. The way he thinks of life and the places he visits on a regular basis.

He’s hinting us. He’s suggesting and planting an idea. And we follow him along because we want to know if he’s going to survive or not. He’s in control.

That’s the power of character.

Acting teaches you to put yourself out there

Ok, all of this whole acting thing might sound promising. But what if you have stage fright? Or, you are self-conscious about your body, or your voice, or the way others look at you…

Just… don’t freak out. I feel you.

See, I’m an introvert. I like to read, spend time on my own, and sometimes too much social interaction can leave me heavily drained. Yet I’m so comfortable with myself that I can give a speech, act or sing in front of an audience –without fainting.

I had to learn that from scratch though. And acting helped me a lot.

Before acting I was afraid of looking at people in the eye. I was insecure. I didn’t know what to do with my body, how to move or whether to smile or not. I felt people would just laugh or criticize everything I did. But even when I forgot my lines, or made a mistake, I would just try again.

I didn’t die.

And that’s a huge lesson for us writers and aspiring authors. Acting teaches you to put yourself out there. It will help you with your pitching and that arrogant publisher. You will become more in control of yourself. And that confidence will translate into your writing. You will suddenly become less self-conscious about what you produce and you won’t feel afraid of being vulnerable.

Should you take acting classes?

I don’t think acting is for everyone, and I’m not encouraging you to pursue an acting career. But I do believe that it can critically improve your writing.

It worked for me, and my screenwriting feels more natural ever since.

Even if it doesn’t improve your writing you will have some fun, you will find an alternative way to express yourself creatively, and you will exercise too. Besides you can meet some interesting people in your classes –they could even end up as potential characters for your fiction book.

If you liked the article feel free to share it. Or, if you have any questions about acting and writing you can leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to help.

Happy writing –and acting.

Dan

Find me on my blog Fourth Walled

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Dan de Abreu is dedicated to helping  others aspiring authors while studying the relationship between psychology and writing.
He holds a BA in psychology and  works as a copywriter, screenwriter, and comics writer.
His longtime goal is writing scripts for his own animated short films.