Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”.  It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection.  But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome).  Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction.  It needs to be a passion.  Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more!  If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it!  Make it a strength!  So be inspired, and keep writing!

Pixar's Writing Rules

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POV

POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process.  Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.

Mark Twain - History's Ink is Fluid PrejudiceRecently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley.  The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity.  PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.

When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene.  For example:  I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome.  The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship.  The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead.  The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently.  The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome:  The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself.  This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong.  By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.

POV - Screenshot Marvel's Avenger'sIn this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.

If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”).  Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc.  Keep writing!

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In Other Words – Make Every Word Count!

I’ve been out of WordPress-land for the past week or so; I’ve been focused on editing and didn’t want to blog until I had something worth writing about.  I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on & thinking about:

One golden rule in writing is to make every word count; along that yellow brick road are all kinds of signposts and potholes.  Signposts are things like “make verbs do the actions”, while potholes are “watch out for unnecessary words” – either for the sake of padding word count (e.g. for a short story or report that needs to reach a certain word count), or words that slip in needlessly.  Examples of unnecessary words are -ly adverbs (if we use the best verb, the adverb will be superfluous), strings of adjectives, really, very, and there is/are/were/was.  Recently I’ve been scanning my current manuscript for the kinds of words that slip in easily while writing in a flow; I have a list of things that I watch out for personally, and one item is “there”.  While I try to catch them as I write, sometimes I will intentionally use them as a “place-marker” – knowing that I’ll come searching for them later, find it, and re-write the sentence or scene with a fresher eye than I had at the time I originally wrote it.  That’s just me – I know myself, that I won’t leave things like that long.  If you’re not sure you’ll catch those sentences you want to improve on later, then mark them with a different coloured text, or an e-post-it, or something that will jump out at you.

Mark Twain - Very, Damn

Here are a few examples of sentences (from my current manuscript) with “there” before and after editing:

…there was a crisp off-shore wind… —> …a crisp off-shore wind blew…

…there was no recollection in his eyes… —> …no recollection flickered in his eyes…

…there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes… —> …amusement twinkled in his eyes…

…there was no sign of the HMS Norwich… —> …the HMS Norwich was nowhere to be seen…

…there would be dire consequences… —> …dire consequences would follow…

…there was a smirk on the captain’s face… —> …a smirk spread across the captain’s face…

Tightening up the wording makes the sentence less clunky and more precise.  Making every word count is not about reducing word count, although that will be a natural consequence sometimes; at other times, by changing the sentence to mean more precisely what you want to convey, it may result in the word count actually increasing.  Just make sure that the words you use carry their weight.  Waffling, rambling & repetition will not win us any brownie points; I could easily go into detail about the ropes of a ship of sail, but it would probably bore most readers to death!  Sometimes “less is more”; it’s enough to say “ropes”.  If I describe a surgeon’s table and list the instruments he’s about to use, it may be TMI (“too much information”) if using the word “instruments” is enough; if I want something more specific, then I could name a tool at a particular moment in the scene.  Though I like the (audio) book “The Host”, by Stephenie Meyer, my one gripe with it is what I call the “roll call” scenes – where the characters present are listed, as if in a roll call.  It’s TMI – it would be enough to say something like, “those I counted as allies were with me”.

Other times, a list of words may become a linguistic collage, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of a character, or a place, or a mood.  A classic example of this is Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky; most of the words are nonsensical, non-existent words, but they nevertheless paint a clear image in the reader’s mind.

It’s why writing is never an exact science, and why, as a writer, I can always learn something, always hone my skills.  If I ever become satisfied with my own level of writing, to me that’s a warning sign that I’m missing a significant moment of improvement.  That should never stop someone from publishing – from letting their baby grow up and go out into the world to make other friends – but in the writing and editing process, be prepared to let go of pet scenes, or even some characters, in favour of an improved manuscript.  Making every word count requires that we learn to recognise what counts, and what doesn’t.  So keep writing, and keep honing your skills!

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Interconnectivity

interconnectivity-internet

Interconnectivity

This weekend I led a singing workshop; at the time I was focused on the instrument as such, and the amazing, complex expressions the voice can produce.  I covered topics like anatomy, and the psychology of singing, as well as techniques and choices – the “paint palette” a singer can learn and use to produce a desired impact on the listener, painting an image before the mind’s eye through the choice of vocal colour and tone.  For me, the truest sense of interconnectivity in the context of vocals is that they are an expression not only of an individual’s anatomical uniqueness but also the personality, and even the spiritual condition.  I believe that we are created in the image of God – that is, a trinity:  We are body, soul, and spirit; and as such, when one area is facing challenges it will affect the other two areas, as well as the expression of the voice, tone, attitude and even the extent of the performer’s control over their vocals at any given moment.  [I also touch on this topic in my article about layering.]

Afterwards, the writer’s side of my brain kicked in and I began thinking of such things in terms of character development.  As I build a character’s profile, something must challenge that character or they’ll come across as flat and lifeless.  If a character had a traumatic experience with water as a child, they may have to face their fears through swimming across a lake, or getting into a rickety boat; if they’ve been abandoned by a parent, they may need to recognise a paralysing fear that keeps them from committing to relationships, and their arc may have primarily to do with overcoming that fear or not – it may be a side issue, but it will still add depth and humanity to the character.

Whatever weaknesses or challenges I decide on for a given character will guide the story to some extent; they will also influence their attitudes, responses and reactions in connecting with other characters.  These things will in turn influence the way they dress (rebellious, reserved, bold, fearful, quirky to keep people at a distance, etc.), the way they might walk or talk, or certain quirks like mannerisms or ways of speaking.  I might go through a list of a hundred related items (if they’re the main character, especially) to narrow down who the character is, even though most of it might not make it into the final cut.  The more I understand my character, the more consistent their responses, dialogues and actions will be throughout the story.

I just thought I’d share these thought processes with you, in the hopes that they can inspire you in your own characters’ developments.  Give them challenges, and find ways they can overcome (or be temporarily overwhelmed) in the midst of other more pressing issues, and (if you’ve chosen the path of hero-success over hero-failure) still find a way for them to triumph in the end.

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On Perceptions and Perspectives

I saw this image a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and found it fascinatingly creepy.  It’s a great example of perspective, thwarting assumptions, and the fact that the image automatically raises certain expectations – until you see the caption.  What our minds initially perceive may or may not be accurate; only when we see the bigger picture, or have more pieces to the puzzle, does that perception or perspective change, or get adjusted to a more accurate overall understanding.  Doing this with words is an art form:  It’s about building expectations and thwarting them without making the reader feel like you’ve drawn them in under false pretences.  If they can look back through what they’ve already read and realize that only their assumptions were wrong – that the writer never misled them, but they misled themselves – then you’ve managed to find that fine line!

 

kitchen-sink

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Say It Well

Let’s face it:  When writing dialogues between characters, repetition can tend to sneak up on us:  He said, she said, he whispered, she whispered, and so on.  There are a few tricks I’d like to share with you that I’ve learned along the way; one is regarding grammar, and the other is my own twist on dealing with the issue.

Regarding grammar, action verbs can often take the place of the more passive verbs (such as said):  “He said, ‘I’d like that.’” can be spiced up by giving him an action to do (“He picked up the travel brochure and flipped through it:  ‘I’d like that.’”)  The second sentence gives more context, and is more visually engaging for the reader.  Keep in mind that every word should count; don’t pad out the sentence just for word count, or make each exchange in the conversation a prop advertisement; but punctuating a dialogue with such moments can bring it to life.

My own twist is a literal one – a CD:  I took an old one, covered both sides with blank CD labels, and wrote all of the synonyms (listed below) for say and said in a spiral, starting in the centre, changing colours for each new letter of the alphabet.  To use it, I just put it on my finger and spin it around as I read through the spiral until I find the word that best fits my sentence.  I have several such CDs within reach of my computer (another CD, for instance, is for walk synonyms, and another for lie/lay); if you make enough of them, you could keep them in a CD pouch.  Here’s my list of the words around Say (click on the image to enlarge):

say-list

A word of advice to those of you for whom English is not mother-tongue:  Depending on the word, the sentence structure may need to be adapted.  If you’re unsure how to use a word, I would recommend looking it up on Wordnik, and reading the examples on the right-hand side of the page; then choose the sentence structure, prepositions, etc. that are more frequent than not.

I hope that this list helps you say what you want with the variety and precision you’re aiming for!  Feel free to reblog!  Feel free to print this list out and use it; if you pass it on online please put a hyperlink back to this blog, or recommend my blog if you pass it on by word of mouth… thank you!

If you can think of any words or phrases to replace say or said that I missed in the list above, please put them in the comments below!  Keep writing!

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Writing Trivia: Earthen Floors

I do a lot of research online; sometimes it leads down the oddest of trails, and those are always the fun ones to follow – the road less travelled, and all that.  I keep a storehouse of “odds and ends” information, the trivial bits and bobs that might come in handy as I create a new world for a story.

I was recently writing an article for one of my other blogs (click here to read it), and came across an interesting article on the topic of earthen flooring; such an element could be used in historical fiction, science fiction, or modern eco-escapism fiction.

What I found fascinating is the way the writer describes her first experience of walking on such a floor:  The leathery softness, the warmth, the texture, and the creative possibilities this type of flooring allows.

Such things stir my creative juices, and I have to remind myself to finish my current manuscript before moving on!  But such an element will come in very handy for my next book, which is a science fiction story… and now, because I’ve shared it with you, I’ll know where to find it when I need it!

Click on the image below to read the article, and be inspired.  Keep writing!

Earthen Flooring

 

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5 Life Hacks for Productivity

Let’s face it… humans are creatures of habit.  That phrase often has a negative connotation; in a conference that lasts several days, people will tend to sit within a few chairs of the seats they sat in on the first day, whether they like the location or not; once a person starts hanging the loo roll on the dispenser either top or bottom, the other way is just wrong.  But habits can also work to our advantage, if we form good ones:  Cleaning up after ourselves should have been a habit formed in our childhoods; brushing our teeth, pushing a chair in after we leave the table, and dozens of other little habits are hygienic, energy-saving, and contribute to more harmonious relationships within our social and environmental landscapes.

Those of us who express ourselves through creative media (such as writing, arts or crafts) might tend to see ourselves or the expression of our craft as outsiders, or at least mavericks, when it comes to business practices.  However, there are many tools (such as the SWOT) and principles for increasing productivity in the business sector that we can and should apply to our creative streaks (if the intention is to take them beyond the level of hobby to a more serious endeavour).  One of those principles involves forming good habits.  Below, I’ve listed five things that I do to keep my creativity fresh, and thus keep the time that I spend writing more productive than it would otherwise be (I know from experience).  For practical purposes I’ll refer to the expressions from the perspective of a writer, but these hacks apply to any creative discipline.

5 Productivity Life Hacks

I’ve taken the liberty of making a “cheat sheet” as a reminder of these principles; if it’s helpful for you, feel free to print it out and hang it up where you work or write.

1)   Find your most productive time.

Are you an early bird, or a night owl?  Or are you a late-afternoon type?  Most people have 9-to-5 jobs that dictate when they have free time; but when you are looking for time to write, try to schedule it in your most productive time of the day.  I am an extreme night owl; I need very little sleep and work at home, so my time is flexible; yet my most productive time of the day is between 01:00 and 04:00, with the second-most productive period being late-afternoons. I know this about myself, so I use the less-productive times to get other things done that are no-brainers (housework, shopping, etc.).

2)  Use time management apps to focus your energy.

I have two (android) apps that I use:  “Clear Focus” and “atimelogger”.  The first app counts down from the time I set, with a five-minute break following; every three sessions, it encourages me to take a longer break of fifteen minutes.  The second app allows me to log how much time I spend in a particular activity; I have added customized activities such as editing and blogging.  I use these apps especially when I’ve got a dozen incongruous tasks on my to-do list – it helps me focus on the task at hand, thus being more productive.

3)  Learn a new skill.

That may sound a bit odd; after all, it takes time to learn a new skill, right?  But bear with me a moment:  The current thinking of today is that one should become a specialist; the thinking goes that if you focus your energy into learning one skill to a high degree, you will be successful in it.  But I have one word in answer to that:  Renaissance.  During the Renaissance it was considered ideal for one to pursue multiple disciplines; a gentleman of the time was expected to speak several languages, be well-versed in various scientific disciplines such as astronomy, botany, or medicine, and be eloquent with words through writing poetry, play a musical instrument, study philosophy, theology, and so on.  The standard was set, and met – think of all that was accomplished, discovered, and invented during that age!  Variety is the spice of life, and I find that iron sharpens iron – that one skill hones another.  So take some time to learn something new; it will stir the creative juices and get them flowing much more productively than if you stagnate in specialization.  And in gathering new skills, you will add to your arsenal of personal experience from which to draw on when fleshing out characters, worlds, scenes and dialogues.

4)  Create a music playlist.

Spotify is a great invention!  I have dozens of playlists, and depending on what I’m working on, I’ll turn on music to set the mood for a scene I’m writing (for me, it has to be just right or it can be counter-productive), or to speed me up or slow me down.  Music stimulates our creative energy, and helps our minds become more curious and more imaginative.  It affects our moods, and thus can influence the way we approach a particular scene or dialogue.  Just for the record, as I write this, I’m listening to the album Grace by Steven Sharp Nelson (of the Piano Guys).

5) Take breaks.

This is another habit that runs counterintuitively to conventional wisdom, but being “so close to the forest that you can’t see the trees” is never a good thing; staring too long at a problem, or a blank page, will get you nowhere fast.  Frustration builds, making any mental block that much thicker.  Set it aside; get some fresh air and exercise, airing both your mind and body.  By putting space between ourselves and the issue, we often gain fresh perspective.  Think of it as a backward approach to moving forward.  As Steven Spielberg advises, contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.  Some of my best solutions or plot twists have come while doing a craft.  By the way, crafts encourage abstract thinking, problem solving, and creative perspectives.  To apply this, take a 20-30 minute break after you complete a particular element; sometimes it actually helps me to start that new element before taking a break – it gives my mind time to percolate away from the computer, yet gives me a starting point when I return to work.

I hope these hacks encourage you in developing and honing your craft.  Keep writing!

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If These Walls Could Speak

There’s just something about abandoned places that speaks to me; each one has a unique history, and an ending that seems somehow premature.  Whether it be a shopping mall in Thailand now occupied by goldfish; cities within range of the radioactivity of Chernobyl; an island that was once inhabited but now forlorn; an underground station or even an entire train station in the middle of an inhabited city, or an abandoned house, they each have a story to tell.  If their walls could speak, what would they say?  What have they seen?  What would they have liked to see but were prematurely cut off from the habitation or transient experiences of humanity?

DSCN5118 - Overtoun House

Overtoun House. Image Credit: Stephanie Huesler

I once lived in a manor house in Scotland, called Overtoun House; it was often my home over the years that I lived in the UK; once we moved away it fell into disrepair, ransacked by vandals and left to rot by the town council that was charged with its maintenance.  Several years ago I went back to visit and actually cried at the state it had fallen into – it was literally like finding a good friend face down in the gutter.  Finally, a few years ago an organisation moved in to restore the building to its former glory, and it will be used to house women in distressed circumstances.  My husband and I met there in 1991, and this past summer we went back for a visit; it was comforting to see her in good hands once more.

If you google “abandoned places”, you’ll find thousands of photos and stories just begging to be told:  Salton City, former Olympic venues, World War Two installations, train stations, castles, theme parks, homes, libraries (abandoning books is just wrong), subway / underground stations, shipwrecks, asylums, private homes, and even (most tragic of all) the abandoned dead in the “death zone” of Mount Everest.  Each one with a history and a reason they were abandoned, yet also an inspiration for writers to dig below the superficial surface to create an untold tale.

If those walls could speak to your inner writer, what would you hear?  Write it!

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SWOT Analysis in Fiction

Writing fiction often brings the writer to a crossroads:  Should I take my character(s) down this road or that?  Will they decide this or that, and what will the consequences of either choice or decision be?  Which would fit best into my plot?  All of these questions can be answered by applying a corporate business tool called the SWOT analysis chart.  I have this baby hung on a magnet strip near my desk, along with other prompts such as the sensory image, and I apply it frequently.  Just last week I faced a crossroads:  Would A) my character run away, or would B) another character (or C) take her away?  On the latter question, I had another two options (thus, B & C); I needed the SWOT.

SWOT Analysis Chart, Watermark

This image shows you the variables of each option; internal vs. external influences or attributes of a situation or choice; helpful vs. harmful in reaching the character’s goals, or the consequences of the choices laid before you.  What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of each path at your character’s feet?

I’ll give you the example of my thought process as I applied it to my historical novel’s fictional situation:  If my character ran away (A) , the strength would be that she would be taking her destiny into her own hands – it’s what you want your main character to do; the threat would be that such an action might raise assumptions that would damage her reputation (was she pregnant?).  The opportunity of doing things in her own timing was overshadowed by the weakness of practicalities:  How would she, without support, get from her family’s estate to Portsmouth, at least a good half-day’s journey by carriage?  If the “B” character (her mother) took her to Portsmouth, the main character would be passive in the decision – the action would happen to her rather than her controlling or causing it.  The opportunity of solving the weakness of “A” by giving her a ride to Portsmouth was a strong incentive, but would raise a bigger threat in that it might seem like the mother was being just as manipulative as the father, forcing the main character into making a choice to suit the mother, which wasn’t the case.  If “C”, her future husband, came to sweep her away from the problems at home, again it would seem that the main female character wasn’t strong on her own two feet, or was too pliable and passive.

I took each scenario through the SWOT rigorously, and in the end I decided – well, when the book comes out next year, you can find out for yourself!

Applying such tools helps you focus your energies on finding solutions, rather than finding yourself stuck in writer’s block.

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