Tag Archives: writing workshop

Deborah Ratliff: The Art and Craft of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Resources:

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

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

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

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

 

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WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Six: Building your world

 

“One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I’m giving the reader details that the character cares about rather than details that I care about. I’d say that’s key to world-building.” 

― Jessica Andersen

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One of the joys of reading, and there are many, is becoming lost in the world the author has created. One moment you can be in your familiar environment and the next, transported to an alien world, a medieval village, or a busy city street in present day. My favorite quote about writing is one by the author of The Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin:

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

George R. R. Martin,  A Dance with Dragons

A thousand lives. Indeed, we can live a thousand lives within wonderful and unique environments created in a writer’s imagination.

One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is presenting the world in which the story takes place. Often the setting a writer creates provides the framework for a story, but at times can be an integral part of the plot. Offering a detailed world that your character will inhabit enhances your reader’s enjoyment.

There are three basic world building categories, the Imaginary World, the Alternate Reality World, and the Real World.

The Imaginary World:

The most common world building takes place in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Two of the most famous worlds created in these genres are Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Two different worlds, both complex and memorable and totally alien to the world we live in, yet as we will discuss later in this article, elements of the familiar remains.

Your first step in creating your world is envisioning the society you want to portray. Once you establish that concept, it is time to create your world. The number one rule I try to follow when writing is to keep my story plausible. To do that when you are creating a world you need to establish familiar characteristics.

Let us use a science fiction story as a model and consider some questions to identify your world.

  • Where are you in the universe? Are you in a binary sun system or on a moon? Is there a nebula filling your sky?
  • What is the climate? Is your planet arid or covered in vast oceans?
  • What do the inhabitants look like? What do they eat? What are their values, their customs, their clothing styles?
  • Describe their government systems. Are the people agrarians or industrialized?
  • Do they value education? Do they love music and art?
  • Are they peaceful or warlike?

There are many sites online that provide templates with questions like the ones above to help you define your world. Remember, however, that many of the elements that you choose for your world should not appear in your story unless pivotal to the plot. Focus on the aspects that drive your story and add other pertinent descriptions as warranted.

The fantasy and sci-fi genres can also collide with reality, and one of the most popular examples is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Set in England, both the modern-day world and a magical realm exist together. The contrast between reality and fantasy allows the reader to relate to the story.

“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.”

― M. John Harrison

 

The Alternate Reality World:

Another type of world building is creating alternate realities. Dystopian and Utopian novels, subgenres of science fiction, and alternate history falls into the alternate reality category. These stories occur in recognizable environments where a single event changes the path of history.

The what-if scenario of alternate reality fiction explores the mistakes and the triumphs of mankind’s history, offering insight into what could have happened if reality had taken a different path.

  • What would have happened if the outcomes of the World Wars had been different?
  • What would the consequences have been if certain evolutionary events had not occurred?
  • What if aliens had visited or a climate altering asteroid hit the planet?

What is extremely important in this category of world-building is the establishment of historical references. If you are going write about the outcome of a World War, you must do the research and know the facts about the war to the point where you make that change. Following that event, you should maintain as much reality as you can to add credibility to the story.

Dystopian, utopian, and post- apocalyptic fiction has become very popular with many written in the young-adult genre. These stories take place after a major catastrophe or event has occurred leading to totalitarian or environmentally degraded systems or in the case of a utopian society, idealistic. While most of these stories will reference the catastrophe that befell the society but in the case of some stories, the events are at times never revealed. As the writer, you should decide how much information you give or keep from your reader and how it will affect your story.

 

The Real World:

All other genres fall into this category. This is the world as we know it. You choose a real location for your stories often for a certain ambiance or familiarity that you want to convey. The more familiar you are with a location, the small town you grew up in, where you went to college, or a place where you lived for many years, the easier it will be to transport your reader into the environment.

You have choices, you can set your story in a real locale or a fictitious town using the knowledge of the community. When using real communities, the use of accurate landmarks offers reference points for your reader to gain a sense of place. It is advisable not to use the names of commercial enterprises or professional services to protect privacy.

If you choose a locale you are not familiar with, say you want to set a story in Colorado at a ski resort, but you have never been skiing, then you must research the area. The optimal way to conduct research is to pack your bags and visit the location, but that is not always practical. Fortunately, we now have at our fingertips the magic of search engines on the Internet. Use those search engines, use YouTube, use Google Earth’s street view to explore the setting. It might not be the same as being there, but these invaluable tools allow you to describe the story to your readers and make them feel as if they are there.

A note about historical novels, readers of this genre are often very well versed in the era they enjoy reading about. It is imperative that you research such things as clothing, food, transportation, music, mores, weaponry, vocabulary, any nuance of your story. If you cannot verify an item or word, etc. you wish to write about, do not mention it. It will only discredit your work.

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World building provides the canvas for your story, but you should remember that your setting is as important as the story and characters that you create. In some novels, you may need only the sense of an urban setting or a small-town ambiance, for another, you may need the power and danger of a mountainous terrain or the vastness of a stormy ocean. Regardless, give your reader what you see, hear, taste and smell when you think about the locale you have chosen and how that makes you feel. Do not tell, show, be descriptive, let them smell the fresh bread from the bakery, feel the cold, icy snow, hear the sirens or the dogs barking.

Balance these three components, story, characters, and setting, and you will capture your reader’s imagination.

 

“I’m not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I’m just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride.” 

― Kameron HurleyLightspeed Magazine, October 2013

 

Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/408441-a-reader-lives-a-thousand-lives-before-he-dies-said

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Quote Resources:

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

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