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Go With the Flow. How to Keep Your Reader Interested.

 

My job as an author is to tell the story in the best way possible, to make it flow seamlessly and get the reader to keep turning the page. — Patrick Carman
Let’s face it. We write for many reasons, among them because we want someone to read our words, to listen to our story. The last thing we want is for them to throw the book down after the first chapter and walk away muttering they will never buy that author’s book again.

How do we keep them from being disappointed? We write a story so good that they cannot put the book down. Creating that story is not difficult if you pay attention to story structure components as you write.

When structuring a story, character development is imperative. You must create a main character that the reader identifies with and cheers for as the story unfolds. Reveal their goal early and make it your reader’s goal as well. Building your world, whether it is a planet in a far-off galaxy, a fantasy kingdom, or a small town in the Midwest is also a very important component. You need to provide your reader with an environment that catches their imagination and makes them feel present in your world as they read.

Your story needs to be coherent and plausible regardless of genre. You can be as imaginative as you want, but even in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, your magic and technology must be conceivable.

Grammar and sentence structure should be correct. You can take liberties with dialogue but not with narrative. The narrative should be without grammatical errors which cause the reader to break their immersion in the story.

It is flow, created by how you assemble these skills, which takes your story from ordinary to one your reader cannot put down.

 

Flow

The concept of flow in a novel has an elusive definition. It borders on the adage that you will know it when you ‘read’ it. Flow is a combination of several factors that create a cohesive story. The question is how to achieve flow. There are a few critical things that you should do.

 

The Hook:

You must connect with your reader. If you do not, they will never become engaged in your story. First, your opening sentence/paragraph, known as a hook, should set the mood and grab the reader’s attention. The following paragraphs, few pages, or even the first chapter can set the tone and interest of your novel.

There are a few do’s to creating a hook:

  • Place your character in a unique situation.
  • Create an interesting image, often of the locale your story is set in.
  • Start at a crucial point in your story.
  • Create mystery, allow your reader to wonder the why or where or what of your story.
  • Highlight an unusual character.

 

Do not do these things:

  • Be overly descriptive.
  • Start with useless information.
  • Start with dialogue. No one knows anything about your character yet.
  • Include a lot of characters in your opening.

 

The last “don’t” is quite telling. We discussed earlier that your reader must develop a relationship with your main character. They need to identify, sympathize or empathize, and root for the main character to achieve their goal. The opening of your story is where you create that bond. If you attempt to introduce too many characters too soon, your reader may bond with someone you will not be focusing on. The connection between the main character and the reader must be strong.

 

Make It Clear:

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences. ~Somerset Maugham

Coherency is required. Well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and carefully chosen words present a clear message and allow comprehension. If your reader does not understand the story, they will not continue to read. Think of it as if you were giving someone directions. You should not say, “Go two miles and turn left,” nor should you describe all the businesses, houses, and landmarks on the way. The former is too little information, the latter too much. Choose the precise words to convey meaning. Extraneous words lead to confusion.

There must also be continuity. If you state your character is a redhead and four chapters later declare her a brunette, your reader will notice, and the flow will be broken. Maintain the information you present about your characters, locale, notable events, and the timeline. They must remain consistent. If they do not, someone who has become engrossed in the story will disconnect at the mistake.

 

Transition:

Sentence to sentence, or chapter to chapter, how you connect your thoughts affects the flow of your story. A transition can be carried out in many ways: a single word, a phrase, or a paragraph, bridging one thought to another, including emotion, time, location, or characters. A ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of a chapter is an excellent transition and follows the intent of the transitional paragraph to propel your reader forward and connect two segments of your story.

Choose your words carefully as you write the transitional sequence. Don’t embellish, but instead, provide concise meaning so that your reader reacts the way you intend.

 

Sentence Structure:

Think of a beautiful piece of music and how it varies in tempo and volume. Slow or soft to create a relaxed or somber mood; fast, building to a crescendo, to denote excitement, action, or power. The structure of a novel mimics the patterns we recognize in music. Notes or words matter and how the reader or listener responds reveals how successful we are in conveying our intended meaning.

How to accomplish flow with sentence structure:

  • Vary sentence type. Mix simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences
  • Be cognizant of word order. Do not start several sentences with the same subject. Mix up nouns, gerunds, prepositions, or clauses. A lack of variety can be both distracting and irritating to the reader.
  • Incorporate sentences of varying lengths. Sentences that are too long will often bore a reader, and a bored reader will quickly lose interest. Sentences that are too short will quicken the pace of the story and leave your reader breathless.

 

 Pacing the Action

 Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write because you need to make constant decisions. — Jean Hanff Korelitz

 

Without a doubt, following these suggestions will improve the flow. The pacing of your story, how quickly it unfolds, also helps with story structure.

With the skills discussed so far, you can achieve the action needed to move your story along and the quiet times to give your readers a rest from the action. These periods should alternate while propelling your reader to continue reading.

In your first chapter, you have ‘hooked’ your reader with an opening that intrigues them. You should also introduce them to the main characters, as well as the plot and your main character’s goal.

Throughout your story, you will provide plot points to move the action forward. By recognizing how to place your minor and major action, you can maintain a smooth flow. Think of it as waxing and waning as the story builds to the final climax.

When writing a novel-length story, writers, at times, find themselves with issues when writing the middle, referred to as the ‘saggy’ middle. It is easy to lose your way to the ending unless, even if you write with an outline, you have a mid-action sequence in mind to keep the reader involved.

Many writers start a project with the beginning and ending in mind. Add what you want to happen in the middle of that formula. You will find that the story will move forward with ease using the tools suggested and pace the action to keep a smooth flow.

 

Keeping the Flow

Writing, despite misconceptions by some, is not an easy task. To create a story that a reader enjoys from the opening words until the closing sentence requires hard work and concentration. There are no shortcuts. A writer must consider each word as important or not, use correct grammar and structure, and ponder every action and every repose before declaring a story finished.

As stated, flow is an elusive task but one that must be conquered so the reader can simply go with the flow.

by D. A. Ratliff

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Resources:

https://writeitsideways.com/6-ways-to-hook-your-readers-from-the-very-first-line/

https://literarydevices.net/transition/

http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/transitional-words.html

https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/pacing

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-do-Writers-Write-Quotes-from-Famous-Writers-on-Writing

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Fantasy Genre: The Spectrum of Magic

The Fantasy Genre

Fantasy magic

The Spectrum of Magic

 Many things separate the fantasy genre from other genres, the variety of characters – dragons, fairies, elves, dwarves, etc. – talking trees, or mystical locations, but none are as important as the magical system that you use.

As you create a magical system, there are acceptable patterns that you may follow. Remember to create a system unique to your story and always consistent.  Adam Johnson writes about magical systems and how to create them.

 

Hard magic, Soft magic, and the Middleground.

 

Soft Magic:

Soft magic is an underlying force that isn’t quite explained. An Example is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien never really explains the way his magic works so, we are left with a sense of wonderment and feeling like there is powerful energy at work in the background. He executes this well because he doesn’t use magic to solve the character’s problems. He doesn’t just have Gandolf teleport Frodo to Mount Doom because that wouldn’t make any sense to the reader and would subsequently make the magic and by extension, the whole story, seem weaker.

Soft magic can be a great tool for creating a sense of wonderment in your world. However, you must be careful in how you use it. When creating a soft magic system, you should do it in a way that just supports the characters and the feel of the story. You should not use magic to solve problems in a soft magic system. If you do, it will feel like you’re creating new rules for each situation to give your character a way out. That gets old really fast. Often, in soft magic, Spells won’t turn out the way the character intended them to. If something completely unexpected happens, that the character didn’t see coming, that’s ok because the reader didn’t see it coming either. So, in Soft magic, the Magic system should be there to support the ambiance of the story, not advance the plot. Unless the magic causes problems for the character, then, it’s perfect for the plot.

 

Hard Magic:

Hard magic is where the author lays out the rules and applications for the reader. This is done so the reader can have fun and feel like a part of the magic. It also allows the author to come up with all kinds of tricks and twists within their magic system. These are my favorite types of systems to write. They allow me to have fun creating the system. As a reader, I love understanding the inner-workings of a magic system and seeing what the author comes up with and if it seems comprehensive to the rules set forth.

If you think of it in superhero terms, You are introduced to your hero then you are introduced to their powers. Once you know what their powers are, you already have a great idea of what they can do and what their limits are. From there the author can use those abilities to come up with a whole host of abilities that remain within that power set. Each new ability that makes sense will excite the reader and give them a greater sense of realism.

 

The Middle Ground:

The Middle ground is creating a balance between those two ends of the spectrum. It means giving your reader a good idea of what to expect while still maintaining a sense of wonder within the world. The Harry Potter series is a perfect example of a great middle ground magic system. Ms. Rowling gives us some general guidelines to how her magic works. We know that they need a wand and that they need to know the correct incantations. Those rules stay pretty consistent throughout the series but, She also adds new rules and new applications of magic in each book. This allows her to retain a great sense of wonderment over all. So, each individual book stays very consistent with the rules that have been introduced in that book. This means that her whole series was somewhat soft magic but, each individual book was hard magic. This created a wonderful balance that is a blast to read and easy to get lost in.

 

 Traditional Forms of Magic

  • Abjuration: The power to protect/heal.

The school of Abjuration is focused on defensive and healing powers. The can create physical and magical barriers such as walls and force fields. The create glyphs and wards to protect an area or person. Glyphs and wards have an incredible range of effects and intensities. They are activated by an enemy crossing into it or passing through it. Once activated, a ward will release the effect that has been stored in it. It can be anything from trapping the enemy to transporting them to another dimension, even instant death.

Abjurers also have potent healing magic. This can range from healing minor cuts to restoring entire limbs. Depending on your magic system, Abjurers can even bring the dead back to life.

Feats include:

  • Defense Powers
  • Force-Field Generation
  • Healing

 

  • Conjuration: The power to transport living and non-living things.

Conjuration is a craft that requires a great deal of Studying and research. There are several applications of this magic but, The primary way it’s used is for summoning. Summoning is The act of pulling a Creature/Demon or Entity from their realm or their home and transporting them right in front of the mage. Summoning can work a few different ways as well. The creature summoned can be under complete control of the mage, The creature could just attack whatever he sees, and the mage has no control. The Summoner must draw pentacles on the ground. One for themselves and one to contain the creature. From there, the summoner will employ tactics to either strike a deal with the creature or torture them until they agree to help.

Regardless of the tactic, the summoner must always be wary. The creature summoned is not happy to be pulled away from home and usually, want to kill the summoner. So great lengths are taken to ensure the casters safety and the creatures cooperation.

Summoners can also use their power to open portals to different destinations.

Feats Include:

  • Creation
  • Summoning
  • Teleportation

 

  • Divination: The power to gain information.

Divination is the school of magic that focuses on gathering information, viewing, and probability. A mage that uses Divination is often called a Diviner. Let’s say you encounter a new situation or machine. You have to experience the situation to figure out what will work and what won’t. After you learn how it works, you’ll start to learn why it works as well. A Diviner can skip those steps by looking at a situation and automatically seeing all the various outcomes for the situation.Divination can also be used to make predictions.

With the Aid of a crystal or a scrying glass, a Diviner can Watch things happen in real time as if he were there. powerful practitioners of the craft can even read thoughts from Far away.

  • Extrasensory Perception
  • Magic Sensing

 

  • Enchantment: The power to influence the minds/emotions.

Note:  This is the magical application of enchantment on another living being. Enchantment of objects follows a different set of rules and can have limitless outcomes.

Enchantment is the ability to control someone’s mind or their emotions. Enchantments can come in many forms but, it is important to note that it does not include possession of a host’s body. The Enchanter can only control the mind and the body, not enter it. Enchanters use this power to make people perform tasks or to tip the odds of a situation in their favor. It is sort of like hypnosis in a sense. In Star Wars, Jedi’s use a form of Enchantment that they call “The Jedi mind trick.” It is a strong power of suggestion that essentially brainwashes the subject. This can also be used for interrogation and the extraction of information.

Feats include:

  • Invocation
  • Mental Manipulation
  • Emotional Manipulation

 

  • Evocation: The power to control the forces of Nature for a variety of effects.

Evocation is the practice of Calling forth energies to work for you. It can be summoning fireballs or affecting the energies in your own environment to achieve things like telekinesis. In the hands of an experienced wizard, the school of Evocation can be used to cause tremendous damage. Users of Evocation can call forth lightning and projectiles of concentrated magic energy.

  • Animate/Reanimation
  • Elemental Manipulation
  • Energy Manipulation
  • Telekinesis

 

  • Illusion: The power to create illusions.

Illusionists are often overlooked and thought of as being weak. This is not the case at all. Being able to trick the mind is an incredibly powerful tool. Creating illusions is pretty self-explanatory. The caster creates a vision of something that’s not really there. Seems simple right? The Illusionist, however, can be incredibly deceptive and has the ability to get themselves in and out of virtually any situation. The only downside for them is that their illusions must be real enough to fool even the most perceptive of people. If someone is very sharp mentally, they can see through the illusion for what it really is.

Some feats include:

  • Disappearing
  • Illusive Appearance
  • Psychosomatic Illusion
  • Subjective Reality: create illusions that become partially real.

 

Necromancy: The power to manipulate the forces of Death.

Necromancy is often regarded as the darkest of dark arts. Many of the spells and rituals require some or all of someone’s life force. So, you either have to drain them or kill them to gain the catalyst you need for power. Necromancers are obsessed with power and will stop at nothing to become more powerful. The ultimate goal of any necromancer is to become immortal. Necromancers can raise the dead from their graves and control legions of them depending on their strength and ability. They can speak with the dead and gain control over the undead, i.e., a powerful necromancer could control a vampire, but an extremely powerful vampire isn’t likely able to be controlled. If a necromancer becomes extremely powerful in his lifetime, he has a chance to come back to life as a lich after he dies.

Some Feats include:

  • Immortality
  • Undead Manipulation
  • Skin/bone grafting

 

  • Transmutation: The power to transform living or non-living

Transmutation is the ability to transform one thing into another whether the subject is living or not. Granted, as with anything else, there are varying degrees of difficulty. It’s one thing to turn a cup into a pencil but, quite another to turn a person into a plate.This can be used a wide variety of ways.

Some feats include:

  • Elemental Transmutation
  • Shapeshifting

 

Contemporary Magic

  • Blood Magic

 

The mage uses his own blood as a source of power. Blood mages can achieve incredible feats and perform incredible acts of power, all of which are considerably gruesome. The blood mage typically performs a ritual or speaks an incantation to build up the magical energy then, they cut themselves to release the magic along with their blood. So, essentially they pay for magic with their blood or their life force.

Blood Mages can also Twist and bend the blood of another to cause excruciating pain or to control them like puppets on a string. This type of magic is typically considered evil or taboo even in the most diverse of fantasy worlds.

As you create your magic system, remember that the desired goal is for your reader to suspend reality and engage in your world. Provide them with a structure that makes your magic plausible, and they will want to inhabit your world.

 

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Resources:

Article was written by Adam Johnson for Writer Unite! Workshop

 

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Author:

Adam Johnson

Since Adam Johnson was a child, he had an insatiable craving for a great story. Whether movies, comic books, TV, he was hooked on the story. An invitation to play Dungeons and Dragons led Adam to write a backstory of one of the characters, and the desire to write fantasy was born. When not writing high fantasy, Adam is restaurant management and a tattoo artist. He also serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

WU! Workshop: Fantasy Genre

Fantasy genre 1

 

The Fantasy Genre

 

According to “Cliffnotes,” Fantasy fiction is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least).

As “Cliffnotes” is wont to do, a very succinct description. Factual but an injustice to this wonderous genre. The very word conjures up mysterious adventures, characters, creatures and most of all magic. Fantasy is a tale about the impossible.

The fantasy genre is part of speculative fiction which includes science fiction, superhero fiction, and horror/paranormal fiction. These speculative subsets differ from fantasy in one major component, plausibility. The characteristics of these genres need to reflect a familiar world. We measure the concept of space travel against our knowledge of physics. To have a superhero character, people of “normal” abilities must exist. Fantasy does not need that restriction. Trees can talk. Horses can fly. And magic exists.

Neil Gaiman in Stories: All New Tails writes, “I love the word ‘fantasy’… but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination.” 

Fantasy need not be realistic. However, there are common characteristics that must be present.

Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre 

  • Magic: Fantasy must include a system of magic and that system have established rules that are followed. This element of the story alone separates fantasy from other genres. Creating a unique magical system is one way to set a story apart from others. Remember, magic is a character in your story, create a memorable one.
  • Characters: The development of characters, while very important in all genres, is paramount in fantasy. The scope of a fantasy story lends itself to larger than life characters and to quite a few of them. While you will always have your hero and evil villain, you may have many main characters and strong secondary characters to drive the story.
  • The Challenge: The core of your story is the challenge facing your characters. Conflicts that both drive them toward and keeps them from their goals create tension and interest in your reader. With an extensive cast of characters, conflict can be internal, between friends or between enemies. To create a cohesive story, there should be one arcing storyline which includes all your characters striving for the same goal.
  • Environment: Where does your story exist? When you create your imaginary world consider its terrain, flora and fauna, its social structure, educational systems, entertainment, military, and how it is governed. The more intricate you construct your world, the more drawn your reader will be to it.

In addition to these basic characteristics, fantasy also has many sub-genres, each of which brings unique characteristics of their own. Marcy Kennedy compiled a list of the most popular fantasy subgenres on her webpage, www.marcykennedy.com.

Fantasy Sub-genres:

Historical Fantasy – Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real-world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what makes superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e., not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an iconic sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually usually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.

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Regardless of the type of fantasy that you choose to write, remember the world you are entering is full of magic, wonder, and the impossible. It is your job to take your reader there with you.

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Resources:

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/cliffsnotes/subjects/literature/what-is-fantasy-fiction

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/745687-i-love-the-word-fantasy-but-i-love-it-for

http://marcykennedy.com/2014/04/crash-course-fantasy-sub-genres/

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Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/D-A-Ratliff-594776510682937/notifications/

Blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

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WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Eight: Grammar

 

 “People who cannot distinguish between good and bad language, or who regard the distinction as unimportant, are unlikely to think carefully about anything else.” 


― B.R. Myers

 

When I was in elementary school, I cheated. I cheated when I was forced to participate in spelling bees. A pastime it seemed my teachers thought was the most fun a student could have. I didn’t. And no, I did not write words on my palms or sneak a peek at the teacher’s word list. I purposely misspelled words that I knew how to spell so I could stop playing.

Spelling was never fun. Science was fun. Spelling was tedious, science was exciting. The quicker we got through the English lesson, the quicker I could do a science experiment.

I managed to get by with my little scheme for a while but never try to outwit a teacher, it rarely works. She caught on, and I had to play without missing words she knew I could spell.

The truth is I did well in English and literature, but my focus was elsewhere, my loves in school were science and chorus. Consequently, my knowledge and skills in grammar arrived by rote, not by interest. I should have been wiser.

Grammar is the foundation of communication. Without proper grammar, our thoughts cannot be expressed except as incoherent ramblings or incorrect meaning. I learned the hard way that grammar mattered in all aspects of life.

As a college freshman majoring in a science discipline, I took my first exam in Microbiology 101, my major. I was certain I had done well, plus there were ten bonus points. When I arrived at the class lab the day following the test, the lab instructor informed me that my professor wanted to see me.

Entering Dr. Weaver’s cramped, dark office crowded with antique scientific equipment, I was petrified. Maybe I hadn’t done as well as I thought. He motioned for me to sit and then handed me my exam. I had gotten a score of 103. Relief washed over me, then concern. What had I gotten incorrect? I knew the material.

Dr. Weaver noticed my confusion and smiled, a rare thing for him to do. He told me that I had done very well, but he wanted to discuss what I had not done well. Spelling. He had circled a few scientific words but told me he did not count off for spelling those words during the first semester, everyone misspelled names of bacteria. I misspelled seven common words, and he took a point off for each one.

He explained that while I had an excellent grasp of the subject matter, I needed to understand that how I presented my thoughts would influence how people perceived my credibility. Words matter, and the grammar used to structure those words matter too.

Let’s look at one of the classic examples of how grammar affects the meaning of sentences.

“Let’s eat grandpa” vs. “Let’s eat, grandpa.”

I doubt anyone doesn’t see the issues with the lack of a comma in the first sentence. The reasons for proper grammar are obvious.

 

General Reasons to Practice Good Grammar

In general, proper grammar is essential to communication, which, as stated earlier, is vital to all facets of life. The above example concerning grandpa shows how we emphasize ideas conveys meaning. For our thoughts to be understood, they must be conveyed with clarity and precision.

In business or social situations, first impressions are important. We are often warned ‘not to judge a book by its cover,’ an idiom that cautions us not to judge people by their appearance when first meeting them. First impressions no matter how hard we strive to be unbiased do matter. Whether the first time someone meets you is in person or via the written word, how you communicate with them is a sign of your intellect and education.

Proper communication also provides credibility, crucial as you build a career or a personal relationship.

 

Grammar for the Writer

Ask writers for their pet peeves about grammar and the list is endless. Confused words, dangling participles, incorrect verb tenses, their vs. they’re vs. there are among the errors cited. Yet, ask these same writers if grammar is important when writing and the results can be confusing. The answer is often no.

One of the components of writing is referred to as the writer’s voice. According to the website Pub(lishing) Crawl, “The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can be thought of in terms of the uniqueness of a vocal voice machine.”

This definition is why there are conflicts over how writers perceive grammar. We develop a unique manner of presenting our work. The voice we present to the world is ours and ours alone and at times, to impart our personalities we may break the rules. We may write a sentence of a single word or offer a fragment of a sentence for emphasis. Poetic license allows us to depart from convention.

A bit of liberty in writing complete sentences for emphasis is one thing, but we have discussed that grammar increases clarity of meaning and raises our credibility. These two concepts, one writing correctly and the other taking poetic license, seem diametrically opposed yet remain an issue of contention among writers.

My opinion is that dialogue can be written as people talk, in slang, in sentence fragments, keeping grammar deviations to a minimum. The narrative of a story, however, should follow proper grammar.

As important as these general reasons for using good grammar are there are specific reasons for writers to understand the value of communication.

  • The ‘experts’ who offer writing advice suggest that we write our first draft without concern about grammar or sentence structure. We should write to get the story out. Errors can be corrected on subsequent edits. I disagree. I think we should make a habit of using correct grammar from the beginning. The editing process is difficult enough without adding to issues that can be dealt with as you write.
  • You will be offering your manuscript for review by beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. The novice writer with little experience needs to establish credibility. Sending a manuscript for evaluation with punctuation and spelling errors and poorly constructed sentences will not instill the confidence necessary to be taken seriously. That is not to say that any writer, regardless of experience, should submit a badly written manuscript at any time. They should not.
  • Many of us write simply for the pleasure of writing. The art of weaving words into a story brings a great deal of satisfaction. I suspect, however, that we also write for the pleasure of others. If we want our readers to become engrossed in our stories, root for our heroes, then give them a well-written book. If it isn’t well-written, it will be left unread.
  • The last reason to practice good grammar, respect for yourself. Writing a novel is not an easy task, but if you make an effort to create a well-written and well-crafted novel the results will be worth the time.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” 

― Dorothy Parker

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Resources:

http://ask.dailygrammar.com/Why-is-grammar-important.html

www.publishingcrawl.com/2013/06/24/literary-voice-developing-it-and-defining-it/

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

 

Deborah Ratliff: The Art and Craft of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Resources:

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

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

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

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

 

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART 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.