Writing Tip: “Sense” Your Scenes

I try to read a book a week; it’s usually on a Saturday, when I have time to sit down and read a good chunk at a time.  This past weekend I read a book which prompted thoughts around this concept of “sensing” a scene, and reading it aloud to hear any howlers that might have crept into the writing.  The author of that book obviously did neither, though her editor might have told her to beef up descriptives – so they were clumped all together, staggering me as a reader to a halt while I tried to figure out the context of the pages of descriptives before remembering what the characters were doing there in the first place, and often the dialogue sounded very stilted (e.g. using “vocalized” instead of “shouted” – the latter of the two would have fit into the character’s time and place far better) – a good reading-aloud editing session might have done wonders for the novel.

SensesThis image is one I have printed out on a card and hung near my desk when writing; it reminds me to apply all of my senses to a scene, to enrich the imagery and draw the reader in.  Describe the sights, smells, sounds, feelings and taste of a scene; make it a sensory experience and it will be far more memorable; this is done through sentence structure and the pacing of those elements, but sometimes also through “camera angle” – looking at the scene from a particular perspective.  How does your character feel in the moment?  What are their perceptions?  Does a smell remind them of something or someone?  Here are a few tips to achieving these goals:

  1. While adjectives are useful for adding colour or depth to a sentence, think of them as pepper; too much can spoil the scene.  If using more than one to describe a noun, familiarize yourself with the rule of order for adjectives.
  2. Use action verbs rather than passive/being verbs with adverbs.  E.g. “She stumbled down the hill” rather than “She went unsteadily down the hill”.
  3. Most importantly:  Read your sentences and scenes aloud!  I cannot stress this enough – if it sounds choppy or stilted to your ears, or doesn’t sound like something your character would say or do, then change it!

Writing is a dynamic process, and being a writer means constantly striving to improve oneself – building vocabulary and learning how to use words effectively, building your knowledge through research, studying, and reading, reading, reading!  Keep on writing!

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Writing Tip: Dealing with Boredom

boredomIf you’re bored with the subject you’re writing about, it won’t work to try and think your way out of it, or to convince yourself to write.  I know all too well that when that’s the case I can find a million things that are suddenly far more pressing, like cleaning out a (clean) cupboard or repairing a household appliance.  But often, boredom is an indication that we don’t know enough about our subject matter, and that our writing has simply subsided into going through the motions.

There’s a simple solution:  Find out more!  Read more on your topic; travel to the location; find maps from your time period; investigate the place with Google Earth Street View; go to a museum; ask questions; look for original documents; engage your senses to gain more knowledge and understanding about your theme.  As you find out more, write scenes to inform your work, or a dialogue between characters that will inform you about their situation, setting, personalities or role in the story as a whole.  Beware of your motives in extended periods of research, however:  Are you procrastinating, or percolating?

I look at it this way:  If I’m not getting anywhere with a manuscript, I can either give in and call it “writer’s block” and allow it to paralyze me, or I can proactively work against that block in what I call “percolating mode” – thinking around the problems that I’ve run into, and use the time to inform myself, learn about the time period, and investigate aspects of the story that I am interested in.  That block may be like a boulder in the stream’s path, but my writing, like water, will eventually find a way around it.

Let that boulder of a writer’s block make you stronger and more diversified – and keep on writing!

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On the Other Side of Silence

“If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence. “

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Poet

Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall

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Writing Tip: Layering

Lightning BugIf you’ve ever painted a picture more than a colouring book or a paint-by-number, chances are you’ve learned something along the way about layers.  Layering is also a digital graphics technique in programs such as Photoshop, and as each layer is made, the image changes, taking on the shapes or colours as you add the consecutive elements.

Besides being a writer, I am also a vocal coach.  I only take on students who are already in bands, or preparing for recordings or competitions, and one of the things I teach them is layering within a vocal performance:  The nuances of thoughts, the power of imagination, the colouring of the vocals through not only the physical placement of the tone within their instrument (their body), but the placement of their imagination.  One can communicate boredom or interest or empathy with the exact same wording by merely varying the intonation, and that comes through the layering of the performance.

Writing is much the same way:  It is through the employment of grammar, spelling and punctuation that we signal the reader to prepare for a particular experience; as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  

Oh, the difference between, “It was rainy last night,” and “It was a dark and stormy night”!

So the next time you feel like your manuscript or poem is falling flat, take a minute to think about the layers, and see what creative brush strokes you can give your work.

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Never Give Up

I love this image; I used to have a tea mug with a similar image to the one below, and it made me smile every time I used it.  There are times in our lives when we might feel discouraged, or overwhelmed at what we have to do or to go through.  If you have a goal or a dream, just keep putting one foot in front of the other – do something each day, no matter how small or insignificant that action may seem, toward reaching that goal.  Eventually you’ll get there!never-give-up

“Don’t give up whatever you’re trying to do — especially if you’re convinced that you’re botching it up.  Giving up reinforces a sense of incompetence; going on gives you a commitment to success.”

George Weinberg, English writer, activist

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7 Steps to a Powerful Opening

bottle-opener - millennium-falcon-

A powerful opener…

Anyone who writes novels worth reading can tell you that, as with any relationship, the first impression you make is the most important.  You know that you need to get your character from A to Z through the story, but how you introduce A is more important than B through Z – in other words, if you lose your reader’s interest from the get-go, they might not stick around long enough to find out where you want to lead them.  Here are 7 steps to remember that will lead you to that great first impression:

  1. Dive in! Hit the ground running!  Begin your story in the middle of an action scene, or in the middle of a conversation.  Let your reader feel like they’re eavesdropping on a decisive moment in your character’s life.  Make them wonder, make them ask questions they want answers to!  Who’s speaking?  What’s the context?  Why is there X problem / challenge / discussion?
  2. Make your character human: Give them sympathetic traits, a relatable nature, and attitudes that readers can identify with.  Do this through dialogue and actions, or by internalization (getting inside the character’s head, an “inner dialogue”).  It will help you to prepare your main characters by writing out a biography for them.  Give them memorable names (not complicated ones, or names that are difficult to work out how to pronounce).  The main character must be somewhat larger than life (more interesting than the average person in some way); do this through giving them idiosyncrasies, habits, a quirky sense of humour, etc.
  3. Romance: If your character is real, there will be romance – some kind of heart-to-heart relationship that touches that key human emotion.  I’m not talking about slutty romance novels; I’m talking about real human connection and rich emotional landscapes, whether it’s a small-town story, a science fiction planet, or a war zone.
  4. Supporting character: This might be a sidekick, a friend, partner, companion, or even an object or pet.  It is someone or something for the main character to share their experiences with.  The supporting character should contrast your main character – perhaps someone who asks the reader’s questions, or wants explanation of terms or concepts the reader might not be familiar with, without becoming “teach-y”.  They might be the voice of reason to an impulsive main character, or the voice of adventure to a staid hero/heroine.
  5. Antagonist: This opponent is an obstruction to the main character’s goals.  They create problems, sometimes danger.  They may be human, or non-human (e.g. man vs. nature), or may be an internal struggle of the main character (haunted by their past, or an addiction, a weakness such as impatience, etc.).
  6. Emotion: Build an emotional landscape (this links closely with # 3).  Show the main character as life-like, and develop relationships, or show struggles the character has with particular issues that give them depth and breadth.
  7. Style: Bring it all together in a style unique to your character’s voice and biography.  Show their feelings, conflicts, adding complications and subplots to take it deeper.  In your first chapter the goal of your character should come out – what their desires are, their determination, problems to solve, etc. – without making the arrival at that goal all too obvious!

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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