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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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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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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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Plot Thots: 14 Tips from Steven Spielberg

Steven SpielbergHappy New Year!  2015 has begun, and with it I’ve begun the research for my next novel; this one, 18th century historical fiction (rounding off the Northing Trilogy with the final book), is taking me back into the world of workhouse orphanages, royal naval vessels, and 1760s fashions and mores.  As I research, read, take notes and wiggle my way into a mental corset (to limit myself linguistically, morally, historically and socially to the times), I can still take advice from a more modern medium:  Films.

I like to listen to good film commentaries, and one of the best teachers in the field is Steven Spielberg; he not only discusses the filming process itself, but the thought processes and philosophy behind his decisions and choices.  Here are a few notes I’ve taken from his commentaries, and where I noted the particular film, I’ll let you know in case you want to hear it for yourself:

14 Tips from Steven Spielberg:

  • Give environments a “used” feel – gritty, creaky, broken-in.  Don’t explain every little detail, but take some things for “granted” to give an authentic feel. (Star Wars)
  • The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between dreams and films – emotions will be touched equally.
  • Running gags create humour (e.g. Indiana Jones hates snakes).
  • One problem solved leads to another.  One bad decision leads down – the main character must either decide to be redeemed by good actions, or be ruined (e.g. Darth Vader).
  • If you have point A & point B of your plot, don’t be afraid to explore, to fill in the blanks to get you from A to B!
  • The clothes have to match the characters to be believable.  (Can you imagine Indiana Jones without that iconic hat?)
  • If you edit cerebrally, you will lose feeling; rather, edit to “it feels right.”
  • Sometimes you need a pointer scene, though it needs to be subtle:  “This is where we are; this is where we need to be; this is how we get there.” (e.g. strategy scene before Luke destroys the Death Star)
  • If there’s no emotional connection, there’s no point in doing something for narrative clarity.
  • 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.
  • Get under the skin of a character, or culture, or landscape.
  • Every act has three events.
  • What is your main character’s “third place”?  The first place is home; the second place is work; the third place is a socializer.
  • Establish the mystery, and then begin peeling layers away.

[Plot Thots is my own shorthand for anything to do with mapping out a storyline.]

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Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

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Politeness Cultures

I recently came across a very interesting TED video addressing the differences between the American and British cultures on the specific aspect of politeness.  I grew up in the Midwest of America, emigrated to Scotland, lived in England for a while as well, and have friends scattered all over the “British Empire” & Commonwealth; I now live in Switzerland (adding several “Germanic” mentalities to my experience in that process!).  What the speaker (Lynne Murphy) observes makes a LOT of sense on both sides of the Puddle (Atlantic).  I share it with you because as a writer I know that those subtle, unspoken, unwritten differences in the ways people interact with each other and show their masks, or as Lynne calls them “faces”, make or break the authenticity in writing both prose and dialogue.  Click on the image below to watch the video; it’s 18 minutes long, so please watch it when you have time to focus! (By the way, the two cartoons below illustrate perfectly the difference between the “positive” face and the “negative” face.)

Politeness Politeness2

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Simply English, not Simple English

No VowelsThe following poem has been floating around for years; it’s so popular because it’s a great encapsulated example of the weirdness of English as a language!  It’s also a great exercise in stretching your vocabulary, being more aware of how to say words that are often only seen written and never heard pronounced.  And if you come across a word you don’t know, or could swear it’s pronounced differently than the rhyme of the poem indicates, I challenge you to look it up (Wiktionary is an example of a good source which shows how various dialects of English pronounce words if there is more than one option); and if you feel completely overwhelmed, click on the cartoon above to watch someone else chew their way through it!

Simply English

Dearest creature in creation,

Study English pronunciation.

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

Tear in eye, your dress will tear.

So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word,

Sword and sward, retain and Britain.

(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as plaque and ague.

But be careful how you speak:

Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;

Cloven, oven, how and low,

Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,

Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,

Exiles, similes, and reviles;

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,

Solar, mica, war and far;

One, anemone, Balmoral,

Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;

Gertrude, German, wind and mind,

Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s OK

When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour

And enamour rhymes with hammer.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,

Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,

Neither does devour with clangour.

Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,

Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,

And then singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,

Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.

Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.

Though the differences seem little,

We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.

Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Mint, pint, senate and sedate;

Dull, bull, and George ate late.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,

Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,

Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the differences, moreover,

Between mover, cover, clover;

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,

Chalice, but police and lice;

Camel, constable, unstable,

Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,

Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour, but our and succour, four.

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, Korea, area,

Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion and battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,

Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.

Say aver, but ever, fever,

Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Heron, granary, canary.

Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.

Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,

Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.

Ear, but earn and wear and tear

Do not rhyme with here but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,

Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,

Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation — think of Psyche!

Is a paling stout and spikey?

Won’t it make you lose your wits,

Writing groats and saying grits?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:

Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,

Islington and Isle of Wight,

Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough?

Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?

Hiccough has the sound of cup.

My advice is give it up!

 

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One-Sentence Stories

One of the most challenging things as a writer is to remain succinct; “every word counts” needs to be printed on the back of my hands whether I’m working on a book manuscript, writing to a friend, or answering grammar questions on a forum I lead.  Occasional ramblings are far more acceptable than chronic ones; everyone has a friend, acquaintance or family member who rambles (or – you know who you are!):  I have a neighbour near our building who can turn the reply to a simple, “How are you?” into a 45-minute explanation of how her cousin’s frog’s nephew’s classmate’s teacher’s son’s uncle came by with a blue – or was it green?  You know the kind of green that looks like wilting grass, no, that’s too yellow… by the time she takes a breath she’s gone down so many detours I have NO idea what she’s talking about, or even what the original question was.  Needless to say, when I’m on a deadline I politely avoid that side of the house.

I’ve come across a website that would be a literal impossibility for that neighbour, and would even be a challenge for many of us who consider ourselves to personify the phrase, “brevity is the soul of wit”:  Click on the image below to see “One Sentence – True Stories Told in One Sentence”.  Take the challenge – can you write a story in one sentence?  And take inspiration from the site as well; there are some great starter-sentences there that could be expanded upon to make a short story, or even a novel.

Note:  Since this was originally posted, the site at the link below has gone offline.  Instead, just go to Google and search for “one-sentence stories“, and you’ll come across several great options.

That One Sentence

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