Thursday, December 13, 2012

Create the Best Scene to Propel Your Plot and Reveal Your Characters

Revise scenes to enhance the story
Actor Jack Nicholson often offers directors more than one version of a scene. Why? Besides the fact that he's an outside-the-box thinker, Nicholson's rationale for doing a scene more than one way is, simply, choice — to provide the best scene for the story. Writers can benefit from the same approach.

If you're writing a story whose plot lacks forward momentum, or have created a character that isn't fully realized, try this technique:
  • Start with a blank page, and write a completely new scene, without considering for the moment whether it meshes with the rest of the story.
  • Put the scene aside for a day or two, then repeat the process.
  • Wait another day or so, then compare the three scenes the original and the two new options.
Now ask yourself these questions:
  • What does each scene reveal about your character(s)?
  • How would each choice affect the story as a whole?
  • Which option works best, or feels most real? Why?
  • If you're fairly far along in the story, don't start over.
Simply note what will need to change as the thoughts come to mind, and continue writing based on what you know now. You can use what you've learned to inform Draft 2 during the revision process.

What story are you working on that could use a fresh direction?

Happy writing!

For more tips, visit Word for Words, or visit Adele's blog.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Break Writers' Block the Old-Fashioned Way

Get past writers' block
More has been said about writers' block than most writing topics. The problem usually isn't that people can't put a word on paper, but that they're afraid to.

Some writers thrive on deadlines. Others dread them. Some fear the blank page. To others, it's a perennial fresh start. Of the myriad ways to deal with writers' block, one is to simply begin, even if all you start with is, "I'm not sure what to say."

When I reach an impasse while writing a story, I often stop writing the story and start writing to myself. I'll write something like, "I'm not sure what to say here, and the reason is …" It's similar to using the prompt "and then" to keep the prose flowing.

My approach, however, is to explain the problem to myself, since I'm not always sure what the problem is. I may think I know, then find it's really something else. I may fear something, or lack a key piece of information. Whatever the reason, I'm usually better off addressing it by writing about it. That way I keep writing, address the problem and move toward a solution all in one effort.

Suffering from writers' block? Send along your anecdote.

Happy writing!

For an online writers' workshop, visit Word for Words. For more on writing, visit Adele's blog.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Use a Point of View Change in Fiction to Reveal Your Characters

A POV change deepens your fiction
An MFA colleague recently explained how switching point of view (POV) from third person to first helped him relate to his main character. "I really got inside her head," he said.

The idea for the shift began as an exercise to deepen the story's main squeeze. In this case, what started as an exercise resulted in a much stronger character so much so the writer revised the manuscript to reflect the new perspective.

To deepen your main character, try switching to first person from third, and from a distant perspective to one that's close, as in the following examples:

John walked into the crowed room and looked around at the unfamiliar faces. How could he make a personal call in front of all these people?

He edged into the crowded room. He couldn't make the call now, not with everyone listening.

You may not revise your entire story to reflect the new POV, but revising a pivotal scene will reveal and enrich your character, and your story. The approach also works for going from one gender to another, and one age or stage of life to another.

What story are you writing that could benefit from a deeper main or key secondary character?

Happy writing! For more tips, visit Word for Words, or visit Adele's blog.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Settings, Seasons and Sensibility Create a Lasting Sense of Place

Details make the setting
Falling leaves, the scent of wood smoke, the feel of snow in the air yearning for a mug of apple cider yet? There's nothing like grounding prose in a season and sensory details to create a sense of place that draws readers in.

Even if you're not from New England, or the U.S., you might guess that the opening phrase typifies a region that celebrates autumn. If I were writing about an area where autumn is more austere, Scandinavia, for example, I'd describe the slant of the sun setting early on a windswept landscape. Can you tell I've been watching Wallander?

Writers imbued with a strong sense of place a phenomenon frequently found in those uprooted early in life from a place they felt was home often instinctually include sensory details. The key is to use spare, precise language. Note that the opening description, short as it is, includes at least three of the five senses. It's also key to use details that exemplify the area you're describing.

Seasons evoke memory, stoke the senses and create memorable settings. They decorate stories as you'd decorate your home, with originality and a unique identity.

What part of the world evokes your most vivid memories?

Happy writing!

For more tips, visit Word for Words, or visit Adele's blog.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Shape of Your Fiction Propels Your Story

A story's shape propels it
If you were to draw your story, what would it look like? A diamond, a square, an oval, elliptical, a double or triple helix?

Every story has a shape. For example, does your piece start with a tightly written scene that includes only the main character, then balloon to include a cast of characters and meander to end in a tightly written tight shot of one character? This story's shape, comprised partly of the number of characters and partly of plot, is elliptical, like a football.

Writers aren't always conscious of shape while writing a first draft, but must become aware of it during revision. Intentional symmetry not the same as a forced or contrived form provides structure, is satisfying to the reader and establishes the writer as a deliberate and intentional craftsperson.

To discern the shape of your story, follow these steps:
  • Use your opening scene as a starting point, and draw a line outward, or inward, as your story expands or contracts based on the number of characters and continue drawing the line to the end.
  • Draw a mirror image of the line.
  • Repeat these steps in a separate drawing to represent the main plot points or events.
What do you notice about the two lines? Where do the expanded or contracted scenes intersect with the major plot points?

Tips: Where your story broadens may be where it needs trimming. Where it narrows may be where it needs expanding. To determine whether to expand or trim, consider what's happening at those points. Are the events essential? Can they be pared back or cut entirely?

Remember that the shape of your story creates the movement that propels it.

What are you working on that could use reshaping?


Happy writing!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mining Family History for Fiction and Creative Nonfiction

Mine your history for stories
Everyone has family of one sort or another, and most people can mine their family history for stories. But developing a story for fiction is different than you may think.

Going through personal or family history for story ideas doesn't have to mean an arduous search of archives. To select a unique idea worth developing, ask yourself these questions:
  • What person in my family (including me) do I find most interesting, and why?
  • What turning point occurred in this person's life that forever changed it?
  • What pivotal incident led to the event the one without which the turning point wouldn't have happened?
  • What was the main outcome of the event?
  • What was the most important consequence of the event, especially for that individual?
To fictionalize this story and elevate it to a more literary level, ask yourself these questions:
  • What if the person was of a different race, ethnic background and/or gender?
  • What if the turning point occurred at an earlier or a later stage of the person's life?
  • What if the pivotal incident occurred in a different setting, or was a different incident altogether?
  • What if the main the main outcome of the event was the opposite or vastly different from what happened?
 Making these changes will change the story and its ending, enabling it to become uniquely yours. The key to this approach is having some affinity for and/or experience in how you answer the questions. For example, if you change the setting, do you have some knowledge of the new locale? Truth is, after all, still stranger than fiction.

Tip: To add spice to your story, consider this adage from John Updike. There's the story you're afraid to tell others and the story you're afraid to tell yourself. That's the one to write. What aspect of your story are you afraid to tell?

Happy writing!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reveal Your Story With Symbolism and Motif

Symbols and motif deepen writing
If you've heard it once, you've heard it countless times: Show; don't tell. Fiction writers usually accomplish this through dialogue and scene, conveying what's in their characters by what they say and how they respond to situations. This approach works well for characters, but what about theme and storyline?

One way to reveal the story and theme of a piece is through symbolism and motif. First, a few definitions: 
  • Theme: The writer's main concept, subject or topic (e.g., bad things happen to good people)
  • Symbolism: An action, idea or object that means more than what's on the surface (e.g., a doorway can signify change, death or birth)
  • Motif: A recurring element of symbolic significance (e.g., a door, doorway, foyer or entrance all possibly pointing to change)
Let's say, for example, that yours is the story of a child who's ill and may die. What words in this mini-scene convey more than their literal meaning?

Colin stood in the doorway of his son's hospital room, watching the small, sleeping form lying so still in the bed. The lights on the monitor blinked intermittently. Should he call the nurse again? he wondered. He hated to do it, but this was his only son.

Which words stand out as freighted with potential? Look at those in bold to see if you agree:

Colin stood in the doorway of his son's hospital room, watching the small, sleeping form lying so still in the bed. The lights on the monitor blinked intermittently. Should he call the nurse again? he wondered. He hated to do it, but this was his only son.

Depending on whether the boy in this story will live, here are other words and concepts to tinker with: Collin's name, the son's name, the name of the hospital and the nurse's name. The more specific the wording, the more likely the son will live. Using specificity in this way, that's what the writer indirectly conveys to the reader.

The best time to address symbolism and motif is in the second draft. These generally aren't techniques to impose on a work as you're creating it, but gems already in the piece that you polish to reflect the story once you know where it's going.

What are you working on that could benefit from wise use of motif and symbolism?

Happy writing!

For more tips, visi Word for Words, or visit Adele's blog.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Take It on Faith, Belief and Unbelief in Writing

Belief matters in writing
In writing and matters of faith, it's easy to go to one extreme or the other: be heavy handed, or avoid the subject. Yet, what characters believe about the workings of their daily lives is a reality, so why not consciously address this spiritual aspect? It's a great way layer their personalities and deepen your writing.

One way to explore the spiritual dimension of your characters is get at the "why" of their decisions. Each day, people make choices that range from whether to stay married to a cheating spouse to which way to walk to the pharmacy. The man married to the cheating spouse may stay with her because he believes divorce is wrong, or because she's the breadwinner. The elderly woman who walks to the corner pharmacy a different way each day may believe it's bad luck to use the same route twice in a row.

Of course, other factors such as finances, age and culture enter into decisions, but so does what characters believe and why they believe it. So take the advice of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa: "To be an artist means never to avert your eyes." Don't be afraid to go there.

Tip: Consider a story you're writing where the main character must make a major decision or a minor that will change the course of his or her life and the story. Explore the underlying reasons for his or her choice.

For more on spirituality and writing, visit Adele's Blog, and "A Writer's Unexpected Emotional Journey."

Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Finding the Right Words to Improve Your Writing

The right words improve wour writing

Becoming a better writer is like moving to a new city. Acclimating yourself to an unfamiliar neighborhood takes time, but once you know the streets and landmarks, you find your way with greater ease.

One of the hardest things for me when I began freelancing was finding the right words. I wrote long, cumbersome sentences not because I was esoteric, but because I didn't know better. It took two years to feel comfortable enough with newspaper writing to venture into a more creative approach, and to find one precise word to do the work of a phrase.

If you're a comparatively new writer, or if you want to take your work up a notch, read and write well and widely. in all genres and styles, to all manner of length restrictions and deadlines. That includes poetry, which is richest in imagery and precision. But above all, write, write, write.

Here are helpful resources:
The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual
The Careful Writer
The Chicago Manual of Style
The Elements of Style
Webster's New World College Dictionary
Words Into Type 

Happy writing!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Consider a Cross-Genre Critique Group

When people ask about critique groups for writers, I generally steer them away from those that don't address their genre. Yet, cross-genre sometimes works best.

MFA on Enders Island
I recently took a cross-genre workshop on spirituality in writing through Fairfield University's low-residency MFA program. I was privileged to work with award-winning poet Baron Wormser, acclaimed author Marita Golden, and writer Father Paul Fitzgerald. And that was the key to why the group worked great faculty who didn't just manage the workshop, but also taught it. Each brought his or her genre expertise to the table, and kept us on track when we strayed.

Also a plus was the fabulous class of talented writers who gave astute, respectful and constructive observations instrumental in taking us from one writing level to the next.

Looking to broaden your field of vision? Consider a cross-genre workshop with these attributes:
  • Seek a structured critique environment with experienced authors who respect each other's work.
  • Look for a group with the level of talent and experience that will bring your work to the next level.
  • Visit the group for a firsthand sense of the dynamic, and to see if the feedback is constructive.
  • Look for a group that includes poets.
For questions about cross-genre critique groups, contact Word for Words.

Happy writing!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Finding the Flash in Short Fiction

Find the flash in your short fiction

As e-readers and devices get smaller and time gets shorter, here's how to edit short fiction to reveal the flash:
  • Remove all unnecessary words.
  • Replace ambiguous and long phrases with one precise word.
  • Delete repetitious images and concepts.
Now that you've pared the verbiage:
  • Use one image to replace descriptive narrative.
  • Use one scene to represent the story.
  • Pare dialogue to the essentials.
  • Incorporate characters' thoughts in the dialogue.
Repeat the entire process. Now flash your audience.

Tip: This is also a great way to force yourself to edit your work to the essentials.

Resource: For more on flash, visit the Writers Digest article "What Is Flash Fiction."

Happy writing!

For more writing tips, visit the Word for Words Online Workshop, and Adele's blog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Story Titles Are Important for Writers and Readers

A colleague recently asked me to read the first draft of a captivating personal essay, but something was missing the right title and the real story. A third of the way into the piece I found both. Interestingly, the discovery of the title brought the discovery of the real story.

A story's title reveals its heart
Titles are important because they're like rudders, guiding writer and reader along the story's path to its heart.

Here's how to find your title (and possibly your real story):
  • As you reread your work, what word or phrase stands out, and why?
  • Does it capture what is or should be the essence of the piece?
  • If so, how?
  • Does the story change with the new title?
  • If so, in what way(s)?
  • Is the title original without being flashy and detracting from the story instead of substantiating it?
  • Does the title reveal the heart of the work without giving too much away?
Titles are important because they keep the writer and reader on track.

What story are you working on whose title you're unsure of?

Happy writing!

For more tips, visit my online workshop, Word for Words.