Tag Archives: writing tips

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.

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Can Acting Help You Create Memorable Characters

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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.

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!

Michele Sayre: How to Use Deep POV to Avoid Info-Dumping

Writers do a lot of research and work to create the world in which their story is set. But a reader does NOT need to know all these details. They only need to know what’s important to the scene itself. And the key to that is asking why does the POV character notice this or that, or think about this or that? The single question of ‘why’ is very effective in editing down the most essential information in a scene.

Here’s an example from a work-in-progress of mine called ‘Not Enough Time’. In the very first scene I wanted to show the setting as I didn’t just want to put at the top of the page, Northeastern Colombia because readers wouldn’t know why I set the scene there. Instead, I wove in the details of that particular setting through my POV character Jake.

Jake continued to scan their surroundings without moving a muscle. The jungle threatened to overtake the dirt clearing and the only sounds cutting through the tense silence were the small birds flitting through the trees. But the oil fields of northeastern Colombia were hit on a regular basis and the two execs they’d been guarding were highly-lucrative targets. Yet… no sign of trouble at all the entire two weeks they’d been here.

What I wanted to create was an image of an oil field hacked out of a jungle, and the dangers surrounding it. It explained why my hero was there (guarding two oil company executives) and the conflict behind the setting (no sign of trouble despite the area getting ‘hit’ on a regular basis).

Another way to avoid info-dumping is not only weaving in the necessary details, but making sure those details advance the story. It’s all well and good to read description that looks great, but if it doesn’t advance the story then it’s pointless.

Here’s an example from a short story of mine. In this scene (the first one in the story), Emma meets Miguel, the man she’s come to write about. Except that she doesn’t recognize him when she sees him this way.

But as she raised her camera a man rose up out of the water in a huge rush like a god of the sea.

Slowly, she lowered her camera and felt her mouth fall open at the sight of the man now walking out of the water.

He was like a god- tall, broad-shouldered with washboard abs and dark curls of chest hair. He slicked back his thick black hair and smiled up at the sun, his black swim trunks clinging to his mid-section, outlining an impressive package.

Blushing hotly, she looked away from that part of him but it was too late. He was coming right towards her, towards the towel she stood right behind.

“Hello.” He called out with an accent.

And as he got closer, she realized with a huge blush of embarrassment this was the man she had come to write about.

Miguel Salvador, bad-boy chef and all-around hunk.

There’s a lovely shock to Emma upon seeing Miguel like this even as that shock turns to embarrassment when she realizes who he is. So not only do we have Emma’s observations and emotions in the scene, we also have the beginning of the story’s conflict.

Deep POV is about letting your characters tell the story and not about putting every little detail on the page because you want to show off your research and world-building. Remember, you have a story to tell and those details are just a part of the story.

Karl Taylor: My Thoughts on Dialogue

For me, the number one rule for writing dialogue is to keep it interesting. You don’t want your readers just skipping the dialogue hoping to find something more interesting. So you should leave out things like:

Char 1 “Hi.”

Char 2 “Hi.”

Char 1 “How are you?”

Char 2 “I’m fine. How are you?”

        Your reader’s mind will immediately shut this ordinary noise out and move on to find the next interesting action. Maybe you could liven things up a bit?

Char 1 “Hi.”

Char 2 “Oh, it’s you.”

Char 1 “I see you haven’t changed much.”

Char 2 “Unfortunately, neither have you.”

        You see immediately that these two have a history and it’s a stormy one. Immediately you wonder why they don’t like each other and it pulls you into the dialogue, hoping to discover what caused these feelings.

        Secondly, but just as important, the dialogue must sound realistic for that character, the mood he’s in and fit the situation. Someone who is ordinarily prim and proper and well-spoken won’t walk into an office for an interview with someone they don’t know and say, “Hey there jackass! How they hanging? I’m here ‘bout that job I saw posted.” The dialogue must fit the character and you must keep it consistent throughout the story.

        Situations will change dialogue. Formal situations like black tie parties or funerals tend to keep the language more formal too. Hanging out with close friends, drinking on a Saturday night will change the dialogue as well. The character’s mood also has a profound effect. If they just came from the funeral for the main character’s mother the dialogue will be much different than if it’s a bachelor party the night before his wedding.

        Thirdly, the dialogue should serve a purpose. It should move the story forward or provide some important information for the reader. You don’t want your character walking through a busy office and write the whole, hi, how are you, I’m fine, how are you, business with everyone in the office. Unless one of these meetings is important to the story, you’d be better off just saying, He greeted all his fellow workers on the way to his cubicle.

Dialogue can serve to show conflict as well:

Char 1 “Hey Samantha.”

Char 2 “What the hell do you want?

Char 1 “Is that any way to talk to an old friend?”

Char 2 “You’re not a friend Johnny.”

There’s no doubt that Samantha doesn’t like Johnny. You can also slip in some exposition:

Johnny “We grew up as neighbors Samantha. We’ve known each other all our lives.”

Samantha “You ruined all that when you screwed my sister and then left her alone to raise the baby.”

        Another thing I want to leave you with is that you should never have long strings of uninterrupted dialogue. It can become dull or confusing as to whom is speaking unless you have Johnny said or Samantha said after every quote. So you should interject little moments of silence now and then.

Johnny “Do you agree with me or not Samantha?”

Samantha “I have a few more questions.”

Johnny “Questions? I’ve talked to you about this until I’m blue in the face!”

Samantha “I don’t know.”

Samantha threw down the box she was holding and walked away.

Johnny “What is it Samantha?”

Samantha “I hate you.”

You can have long conversations but you need to take a breath now and then.

        Lastly, you need to go back and read it out loud to yourself or have someone else read the lines out loud with you. If it doesn’t sound natural when you read it out, then it probably won’t sound natural to the reader either. Polish it up until it feels right. The details make the difference.

        Everyone has their own way of doing things and I don’t presume to be the “dialogue master” but hopefully something I said might prove helpful to you. Good luck with your writing.

Guest Post: John Yeoman

How to Bond With Your Readers: The Pain and Glory of Writing

Note from the Editor-in-Chief

We’ve decided republish this beautiful post by our treasured contributor John Yeoman as he unfortunately passed away unexpectedly this year.

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Have you ever shied away from writing a scene in your story because it was too painful?

Because it triggered memories you’d rather forget?

You were thrust back into trauma: a marital breakup, bereavement, personal humiliation or some other horrific event.

Yet, if you dumb down that scene you’ll wreck the storyEven if your experience is totally fictitious, it still hurts.

All great writing is a learning experience for the author.

We force ourselves into new places, dramas we may never have encountered, the minds of strange people whom we might never want to meet but must—somehow—portray.

It hurts.

And so it should.

Unless we force ourselves to feel our characters’ pain, the reader won’t feel it either. They’ll toss our story aside.

“It’s not real,” they’ll say. And they’ll be right.

I discovered this for myself when I depicted a funeral in an historical mystery novel set in the 16th century.

Imagine the scene. A church cemetery at midnight. No moon. Just three mourners holding lanterns. The narrator is burying his beloved wife in secret. She’d committed suicide so could not legally be interred in sacred ground.

Will her soul be saved? He doesn’t know. He prays beside the coffin—and is answered by a mocking owl.

I cried as I wrote that scene. Why? Too many funerals in my recent past perhaps, although their circumstances had been quite different. But had I skipped that episode and dismissed it in a single line—”And so the lass was buried. God rest her soul.”—it would have been a cop out.

I had to depict every graphic moment, even its fragments of noir humour when—in the darkness—the narrator falls into the grave, apologizes to the coffin then bursts into tears. Otherwise, his subsequent nightmares—vital to the story—would not have made sense.

 Face the pain and work through it.

Not only will your story gain strength but you’ll also grow as a person.

Aristotle put his finger on it 2400 years ago. When we live through an experience of fictional tragedy—on the stage or in our minds—we are ‘purged by pity and terror.’

Catharsis. It’s a cleansing experience. An inner confessional by which we are reconciled to ourselves and human nature.

Any author who is not a total hack does not write to change their reader—the attempt would be impertinent—but to change themselves.

Every story we write with feeling is a personal catharsis, a release of tension.

Do it competently and your reader will be changed as well.

Dare we bare our souls? And let it all hang out? And enrich our stories with revelations that will expose our most private feelings to the world?

Yes! Here are three ways to do it without (too much) pain:

1. Accept that people have felt almost all emotions. 

There’s very little you can tell people that they haven’t felt themselves.

The days of readers being ‘shocked’ by revelations in literature ended with the 19thcentury.

Even then, their shock was mostly sham. Privately, Victorian readers lapped up the indiscretions of Madame Bovary, Moll Flanders and Tom Jones.

Write those scenes of pain, scandal or revelation well, and your readers will relate to them. Because chances are they’ve experienced something like it themselves.

Or they know someone who has.

Those scenes are true.

2. Don’t think that scenes of intimate confession will reflect badly upon you.

Readers fall in love with authors who, through their characters and events, disclose their own fallibilities.

UK novelist Sharon Bolton has publicly admitted that she writes her gruesome crime scenes to exorcize the demons in her own soul.

Do we think the worst of her? No. Readers rush to clasp her hand at literary events and her novels are bestsellers.

US crime queen Patricia Cornwell portrays herself in her bitter, tormented heroine Kay Scarpetta.

Few readers would like to meet Scarpetta in the flesh but Cornwell has so many adoring fans, she has to hire bodyguards when she appears in public.

3. Use the painful scenes as opportunities for personal growth.

Creative writing has often been prescribed as therapy for people who are stressed.

Why?

By writing out difficult experiences, we gain control. We structure them. We impose order on random pain.

So we own it.

The secret here is not to wallow in reminiscence—at least, not beyond the first draft.

Go back. Edit it ruthlessly. Crisp up those long tortured descriptions.

Anguish piled upon anguish will bore the reader. Read it again in a few weeks’ time and it will bore you too.

Pack all that trauma into just one eloquent line. Then pain becomes metaphor. (We can handle metaphor.)

And move on.

That’s what our own lives should do, after periods of stress. Creative writing helps us do it.

But ruthless editing is the key. Be your own best friend. Spill it all out. Rein it all in.Then move on.

How to go beyond the pain and glory of writing to bond with your readers

Bare your soul.

Expose your most private feelings to the world.

You’ll not only create a story that will live because it’s ‘true,’ you’ll write one that will help you to live.

To get over past traumas.

And move on.

Have you ever read—or written—a story that helped you get over a painful event? Please leave a comment below! Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful response.

About the author: 

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, taught creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

 

Rick Jensen: The Writer Must Tell the Truth.

I am a cynic. Not a miserable grouch who doesn’t like anything, but a person who questions things, questions everything. I am passionate about many things but I also have doubt and trepidation about many things. The way I view being a cynic is not as a critic, but as someone who looks for the truth.

All great works of art tell the truth, this doesn’t just mean non-fiction, documentary or a true story but in a work of fiction also, a painting or a song the truth is there. This is a universal truth, something meaningful to others.

You need to ask yourself, what speaks to you? When you read a good book or story or article is it good because of the words used, the poetic structure, and the fully formed characters? If truth is there all of that matters, but it is beyond the writing on a technical or creative level and in the message and how that message is relayed to the reader.

I have always loved writing, when in school we had “story writing time” which was often when the teacher didn’t know what else to do, I loved it. When the teacher asked what we’d like to do I was always straight in there asking to write. I’ve always been creative in many ways, being a writer was one of my dreams, I make music, I take photos, paint and make films but as I grew older writing got pushed to the background. I eventually found a career in social care and as a once voracious reader of fiction found my reading habits turned to sociology, psychology and journals in my field and all related to my work. I grew up loving horror, movies and books and I wanted to do that, create horror stories but over time that dream faded, I eventually wrote my first book which was non-fiction about my career working with people with learning disabilities.

During the process I had more self-doubt than I had for years, I wondered is this good enough? Can I really tell these stories? Does anyone care what I have to say? But I knew I had to write it, whether I published it or not, it must be finished.

I did finish, and publish. What I learned the most was that the book had to tell the truth, my truth, the truth about my work, it had to be honest and that lead me to realise that all art, particularly writing must be honest.

As a natural cynic I’m very hard to argue with. Cynicism can protect us from what’s real, things should be questioned but often the cynic won’t take on what they need due to over-questioning, this comes close to narcissism, to an egocentric way of not having to deal with something they don’t like the idea of, I’m right and you’re wrong. The cynic criticises, which is valuable but the cynic can miss what is truly important. But ultimately, the cynic looks for truth, if the cynic has eyes open, they will be the first to see the truth.

This penchant has lead me to be highly critical, particularly of people. The inspiration for my writing has been people, the people I have worked with, the people I know and anyone I encounter or observe in my day to day experience and I try to write about the truth of experience and what I see.

What has made me good at my job is an ability to read people, I analyse behaviour whether it be a person with Autism presenting behaviours that challenge us, or whether it be managing a staff team I employ the same skills. Life is essentially just behaviour analysis, every day in every interaction we are assessing each other’s behaviour, finding ways to communicate, creating and resolving conflict. Some people do this very naturally, other’s need to work harder at it, the writer see’s this, the writer can articulate this continuous cycle of interactions and problem solving, and put this into a story so the rest of us can also understand it. This is the truth I’m talking about, the truth of the world, the reality of how people behave and interact, how people want and need, how people love and hate. You can relate this truth through a fantasy about dragons, or a horror about demons or a comedy of errors or a romance. Sometimes the truth of things can be better related through fiction, abstracting concepts and putting them into an epic poem or a historic saga may help people to see what you’re saying.

Many people can be disdainful of what might be “low art” or “trashy” but honestly, I enjoy Transformers as much as I like Stanley Kubrick films, I like pulp horror and detective novels as much as I like Thomas Pynchon, they offer different things but what always appeals in any work of art is that universal truth about ourselves, our behaviour, the human condition. George Orwell’s animal farm may feature animals as it’s protagonists but it’s considered a classic because it tells the reality of how humans behave, which is why it speaks to us. Think about your favourite book and you’ll probably find the same. When writing, this is what I seek to do, and what I hope others see in my work.

I won’t try to offer advice to other writers, I’m still learning myself, but in everything I do I consider the philosophy of it, the values that underpin it and why I do what I do whether it be an impulse or a well thought out process, all writers should assess this in their work, what are you trying to say?

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Rick Jensen has worked in the field of Learning Disabilities and Autism for over 15 years as behaviour and service development specialist. His first book “Being a Support Worker” is about this work. Rick also writes for his own blog The Everyday Behaviour Analyst and is working on his next book which is a collection of short pieces about how people behave collected from the blog and unpublished pieces.

https://everydaybehaviour.wordpress.com/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Being-Support-Worker-Learning-Disabilities-ebook/dp/B01IZWKGN0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1472491527&sr=8-1&keywords=rick+jensen+being+a+support+worker

 

Dan Ellis Crime Fiction: Why Your Character Might Commit a Crime – What Can Social Science Tell Us?

“He was slouched in a worn armchair positioned in the centre of a cluttered dingy living room. The amber streetlight permeated through the yellowed net curtains. The flicker of the TV screen gently illuminated his motionless face. A burnt out cigarette was wedged between his bloody fingers, and his other hand gripped an empty bottle of scotch. For hours he hadn’t moved, contemplating what he had just done.”

If you write crime fiction, there is no doubt you’ve had a character in a similar scenario to this. They have just committed a crime, attacked someone, killed someone perhaps? The reasons why they may have done this are probably tied into specific events in the character’s life or their personality. Or maybe the plot is to blame – the treacherous conditions you have forced them to go through?

But if you are looking to base the characters’ actions in reality. To create a set of circumstances that are believable and grounded in widely accepted theory, social science can help. I want to take you through some basic criminological and sociological explanations (without the jargon!) of conditions that may push your character to do the dirty deed. Just some questions to think about when you are planning a story or building a character.

What sort of person is most, or least likely to murder someone? What sort of background or upbringing makes the ideal recipe for a criminal? Or what in particular about a society creates the ideal environment for criminality?

Are we in control of our actions?

Let’s take the individual. Do you believe that we are rational actors that make our own decisions? Or do you believe in the idea that there are bigger forces in play that push us into certain behaviours?

These are good questions to start with when creating a character or setting up the ‘laws’ of your story. Depending on which one you lean towards will result in different characters and suit different plots. For example, a rational actor that consciously makes their own calculated decisions is very different from an actor that is not in control and has been influenced by various factors that ultimately have made them act irrationally.

An area of criminology called cultural criminology suggests that people get a buzz from committing a crime, there is a certain thrill element. So here, the actor is fully aware of what they are doing and they have proactively planned to do it, or even built a sub-culture around it. Good examples here would be joy riding or graffiti.

Graffiti is an interesting one because many graffiti artists don’t consider it to be a crime in the first place. This is something else to think about in your story’s world – what sorts of crimes are taken seriously? If a certain type of crime is not heavily enforced or does not carry a particularly harsh penalty, are people more likely to do it?

What about a serial killer? An obvious type of criminal for a crime story. This generally tends towards psychological explanations, but sociology has something to say too. It has been found that many serial killers or people that have murdered someone have had a traumatic experience of sorts. Perhaps as a child they were abused or witnessed horrific violence.

These are probably the more popularised theories of crime given the amount of movies and books based on killers. But the question here is, are they making rational decisions – or have they been influenced by external factors that have pushed them to commit the crime?

Does our socio-economic background determine our criminality?

This area of social science asks what influence a person’s environment has on their actions. The example of a murderer’s upbringing I mentioned earlier is an example, but it is more than just childhood experience.

Take a thief. They may be choosing to steal or get a thrill out of it, or maybe they have a starving family and have no choice in the matter. But going deeper than this, if they live in a deprived area where the authorities are less present, it’s probably more likely that there will be more theft going on.

Broken Window theory suggests that if a certain type of crime appears in a certain area and is not dealt with, it will become more commonplace. So if a drug dealer starts dispensing on a particular road and is never approached by authorities, it’s likely that more dealers will start operating in that area – this can then affect the residents growing up in that environment – or your character!

They may have had a poor education, in the academic and social sense. In this case they may not have developed appropriate morals, or the line between good and bad is distorted. They may not comprehend or understand the consequences of their actions. In a similar way, they may not have fully developed their social interaction skills. Here, they may become agitated or violent just because they feel they are not understood, or struggle to get their point across to someone in a collected manner.

What sort of society creates criminality?

When you are deciding on the setting of your story, the country will make a big difference in how crime is represented. Crime in Western countries like Britain or USA will be very different to crime in third world countries like Libya or Niger.

Depending on how the fabric of society is weaved will affect how its citizens perceive and react to crime. The government is probably the most influential institution here. Does the government enforce its laws appropriately? Are they locking people up for no good reason or torturing people? All of this will affect each and every citizen. The better the country governs their society and responds to crime; the less likely crime is to occur (well, that’s the theory).

Similarly, how are the countries citizens treated? Are there extreme policies in place that pressurise people’s everyday lives? For example, austerity measures in Britain which make it difficult for people on low income to get by, coupled tensions and conflict between different groups. Or, if the government are seen to exclude a certain group of people in society, like youths, this could encourage disorder such as riots.

Another example of this, and again a very popularised one, is how the criminal justice system works. Is it fair? Is justice delivered? If a murderer is released without charge how might that impact the victims – it could lead to vigilantism. What about prisons, if your story is set in a prison, how are the inmates’ rights upheld? Are they physically abused? All of these factors will all affect how your characters behave in any given situation. So it’s worth checking out government policies or researching where promises haven’t been kept – anything that might push someone into angst and act irrationally.

So I hope that this has helped to get your creative juices flowing! There is definitely a lot to think about in creating a relatable criminal story, but social science has endless amounts of answers that can help add depth to a crime fiction story.

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Dan is the creator of the Facebook group ‘The Crime Writers Den’, aspiring novelist, and social science student. The group has enabled writers to connect with criminal justice professionals, to help with technical questions, and just to chat about crime in a fun and supportive environment.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/631273680370573/?fref=nf

Love to Read in Order to Write

How can someone be a writer if they don’t like to read?

Personally, I don’t think you can be a writer without a love for the written word. To me, it would be like a musician who doesn’t love music, or any other creative-type who doesn’t love what they create themselves.

A writer creates using the written word. And to understand how to do that, you need to study, or in this case, read. And not just in the genre that you love to write in, but across the board. Words have to be a wonder and a revelation to you in addition to making you feel things both good and bad.

So, what do you learn as a reader in order to be a writer?

First, the craft of writing: spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You have to understand basic structure in order to learn how to communicate not only clearly, but effectively. You have to study words and their meanings, and their usage in order to find the best ones to express your thoughts and feelings.

Second, you have to read stories in order to understand how they are told. This would be the mechanics of plot and character development. In order to understand how a story is told with a beginning, a middle, and an end, you need to see it in action. Books are not built like sand castles on the beach, but like houses and buildings. Once you understand working structures then you can build your own as every story has to have a solid foundation.

Third, when you read and are emotionally engaged you’ll see how that was done. For example, when I read ‘The Hunger Games’ about halfway through that book I felt this immense emotional churning inside of me. I was feeling what the main character Katniss was feeling, and I was blown away by how incredible and well-done the writing was to make me feel that way. I was reading the story and not only wanted to know what happened next in terms of the plot, but with the characters, too.

Writers don’t just create words and stories out of thin air. They not only read and study, but they also live. A good writer is an observer of human nature, and they read other observations in order to hone their own observation skills. Because writing is not just about putting words down onto a page: it’s about putting observations and feelings into words. I have been touched and moved and inspired by so many writers over the years that in a way my writing is a way of paying that forward.

My advice here then is this: if you don’t love to read then you need to figure out why and overcome it. Because if you don’t have a love and passion for the written word, you won’t be able to convey that with your own words as love and passion are the heart and soul of good writing.

Creating Your Fantasy World

Not everyone will want to do this, but for those of you who do, I thought I would share my experience with it, with you. I wanted to create a world that would be the home base for all the fantasy stories I had rattling around inside my head.

 I know there are now online websites where you can now go to create a map for your world but when I created my map, home computers were pretty much non-existent and the internet was nothing I’d even dreamed of yet.  Even if I were creating it today, I would probably still start out the same way.

I ordered some hexagonal map paper (roughly 32in X 16in) and created my continents. I made the land masses fill most of the map since the vast majority of my stories would take place on land. I did place create an ocean that surrounded all the land masses and a large bay to provide an obstacle to overcome. I then placed mountain ranges, deserts, jungles, swamps, and plains. I then started placing lakes and a network of rivers.  Lastly, I created islands in the bay and the surrounding ocean. I then looked at maps of earth and the individual continents to compare them to the one I created. I wanted my map to be consistent with earth’s as far as the layout of mountains, deserts, jungles, plains, etc… It was my own creation but it still had to make sense to my future readers. I adjusted the map until I was happy with it and then moved on to the next step.

I took another hexagonal map and copied the outline of my previous map onto it. I think bought some map colors, created a color code for the different terrains and colored in all the different regions. I had just a couple more steps then I could start creating stories from my own world.

My next step was to create a list of the creatures that would inhabit my make-believe world. I was excited about it so I may individual index cards for each creature. I used the traditional fantasy creatures I grew up and created some of my own.  I bought a couple of index card boxes and organized them as intelligent, domestic, sea dwelling, etc… I made a list of all the creatures and then I got another hexagonal map and copied the outline of my world onto this map. I went down the list of my creatures and used this third map to place each of my creatures in its proper terrain, making sure to spread the intelligent creatures out so that each would have its own little nation to populate. I made sure to put the races in proper relation to other races that they have relationships with, good or bad.

Now that my general home world was set up, it was time to get down to writing my first story. I wanted to begin with one of my intelligent races that I created. I chose the Swads as they were one my favorites. The Swads were a peaceful race that lived in the plains, alongside a river. They created cities made of stone and they used canals to move around the city.  They redirected water from the river to fill their canals with gates on either of the city to control the water level. Then I chose another of my races that were warlike and had them invade the Swad territories.

I was all set to go except for one thing. I had no idea how to write. I was twenty years old with a vivid imagination but no writing skills at all. At first, I didn’t let that phase me. I had to use a notebook since computers and word processors were still years away. I got up to about forty-five written pages and made a major mistake. I went back and reread it. I rewrote those same pages so many times I lost count and I was never happy with it. That was a very long time ago but I still have what I’d written. I may go back someday and give it another shot. Who knows? Though I never finished that story, I kept the map and I still use it as the setting for my stories even today, over thirty years later. There’s nothing else I’ve ever had that I got so much use from. If you write fantasy, I would suggest you get a pencil and let your imagination soar.  

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