Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Reveal Your Characters Through Their Dilemmas

A great way to capture reader interest is to give the main characters of your short story or novel a dilemma that forces them to discover who they really are.

To make the most of this technique, consider these key elements:
  • Creating effective scenes
  • Depicting characters who are unaware of something critical 
  • Developing a character who has died
It has been said that first we make our choices then our choices make us. This is no less true of fictional characters. There’s nothing like being faced with a problem with far-reaching consequences to find out what you’re made of. When you give the people in your stories a life-altering problem to solve, you give them an opportunity to explore and discover who they are, warts and all.

To do this effectively, consider which major problem your main character must solve. Which problem will best drive plot, affect the other characters and serve the story?

To make this technique effective, each scene in your story must reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. In short, what do readers know after having read a scene that they didn’t know before? If the scene doesn’t build on the one before, to expand the reader’s knowledge, then it isn’t a real scene but needless repetition.

Another consideration is the paradox of depicting a character who's unaware of something crucial, for example, a wife and mother who’s always on the road for work and is unaware that her marriage and family are in shambles. The paradox for the writer is that although the character is unaware, the writer must be intimately familiar with these realities and depict them in a way that deepens the characters and propels the story with each new portrayal. In short, the character can be clueless in certain situations but she’s clueless for a reason, and it’s the writer’s job to artfully show why that is.

One major problem a character may face is one we face, too. What happens when someone important to us dies? One way to depict a key character who has died is through self-expression, for example, though letters or journals the person has left behind. In the tech age, cellphones can act as sound and/or video recording devices. However, in each of these techniques, the character is doing the telling or showing. And they may or may not be a reliable source.

A more powerful method is the recollections of others who knew the person. How do they remember her? What do they think of her now that she’s gone? What kind of legacy has she left behind? What were her secrets? Why did she keep them? What feelings does her memory evoke in others? To learn a masterful treatment of these questions, read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, either again or for the first time, to study how the author used other people’s memories, which varied from lionization to loathing, to reveal who Rebecca was.

Like a series of witnesses called to testify to the person’s true character and motives, this treatment allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the selective memories of others and their responses to those say as much or more about them as about the character, but that’s the point. The testimony of others is an effective way to depict a character who has left this mortal coil, with the added benefit that the portrayal is even stronger because the character is a haunting presence perpetually waiting in the wings.

Whether you’re writing flash or family saga, your characters aren’t who they are based solely how they grew up or where they live. They’re also who they are based on their choices, and that’s usually how they’ll be remembered.

For questions on depicting characters and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rearview: How and When to Use Backstory Effectively

Ah, backstory, that bane and blessing of the writer's existence. The questions writers in all genres often ask are what details about the past to include, how much to include and where to include them.

One definition of backstory is events that aren’t happening now but had a part in creating them. According to award-winning author Peter Selgin, “Whatever beginning we choose, there’s always another behind it, and another behind that.”

To use the backstory craft element effectively, writers of fiction and nonfiction can consider these three guidelines: Avoid putting it at the beginning of a piece. Use the right medium for the message. Aim for balance.

Backstory doesn't usually work at the start of a story because it slows the reader. Imagine a rail station master who announces a schedule delay then delivers detailed reasons why. While the information may explain long service will be out, especially in an emergency, what's usually first in importance is when you'll reach your destination.

Another consideration in effective use of backstory is the right medium for the message. Common fiction options include flashbacks, current scenes and dialogue. In nonfiction, you can include paragraphs explaining the history that led to a current event, for example, memories from an interviewee. But how can you tell which option is best for your project?

The answer depends on how much information you need to convey and how important it is. It’s generally best to convey only what's relevant to the piece and to present the information succinctly. This way you won’t slow the momentum of the work or bog readers down in a sudden influx of past events.

To decide which medium is best, consider where you are in the overall narrative. Do you need to slow the pace? Consider a flashback or informative paragraph. Do you want to build suspense? A smattering of dialogue or mini scene could be effective. As an analogy, take the ellipsis, which conveys words said but not recorded. In using backstory, pare down what you put into your medium to the essentials.

Another guideline is not revealing too much too soon. Instead, sprinkle bits and pieces of prior events throughout the narrative, to advance the story and reveal more about the people in it. And keep in mind that backstory can include elements as subtle as a scar on a woman's hand to a scene between a dying father and his daughter.

So, what's the perspective on backstory in a nutshell? Put it in the right place at the right time using the right amount of detail. Select the container as you'd select a gift box; pick the one that best fits what you're giving. Use only the information you need most at that point in your piece.

For questions on backstory and other elements of craft in fiction writing, contact Word for Words.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Two Heads — and Sets of Skills — Are Better Than One

All writers ask for help at some point, whether from a friend, family member or peer. One of the best ways to get assistance is from a writing instructor.

The fallacy about writing instructors is that those who can do; those who can't teach. But good instructors write and critique, and most have been where you are and understand the writing life. They may not become your best friend, but they’ll balance between objectivity and nurturing your talents.

Why Get Outside Help
Writers at all levels eventually opt for help because when we look at our own work it’s hard to see our mistakes, whether simple or complex. Simple mistakes, such as grammar, punctuation and spelling, can be easy to fix. But complex problems, such as structure and development, can be tricky. Instructors have invaluable knowledge of and experience in these areas and know how to apply their skills to your project.

Working with an instructor can save time, energy and money because a professional will help you complete your project correctly and help you achieve your goals. Why spin your wheels because you’ve missed an essential craft element needed to do well?

To advance your writing, you’ll need an outside perspective. If you want to make writing or communications a career or want your work published, it will constantly be read, analyzed and critiqued. Why not learn to work under these conditions with an instructor now instead of later? Writing instructors also have contacts in the literary field, and many have worked in it. As a result, they not only have wisdom but contacts.

What Writing Instructors Do and What You Can Expect
Writing instructors come in various flavors, but most will both proofread your work and help you improve it. Instructors scrutinize for big ticket items, such as overall form and structure. They also provide another set of eyeballs, a sense of the work’s weaknesses and strengths. They read to see whether your writing flows and make sense, and for gaps, such as missing transitions, explanations, examples or details. Practice is the stuff of all good communication so don’t be surprised if your instructor suggests another draft.

How to Work Well With an Instructor
To pair with an instructor who will be a good match for you and your work, ask someone who knows you for a referral. If one instructor isn’t a fit, try another.

Avoid reacting immediately to corrections, which are often more extensive and different from what you expected. Instead, put the comments aside, and review them later. When you return to the corrected work, review the corrections before passing judgment. Then test a few changes by implementing them. You’ll should see improvement and understand the methodology because you’ve seen both the before and the after.

When in doubt, ask questions. Even when you work with an experienced instructor, miscommunication can still occur so it’s best to understand each other upfront. Each instructor relationship is unique, so don't be surprised if your experience differs from that of others even after a referral. Critique, even when valid, is rarely easy to accept, but it can be an opportunity to mature. How you handle criticism now will set a precedent for how you handle it in the future. Remember, this is a learning experience—often for both sides.

Monday, August 27, 2018

On Storytelling: Tell Me a Story and Tell It Well

I was talking with a colleague about how we could partner to benefit an area cultural organization when she said, “I don't get enough stories coming in.” The context of the comment was that although people are adept at promoting themselves, their work and their organizations, they’re not always skilled at explaining why others should care about what they’re offering. This reminded me of a question my editor asked early in my press correspondence days and later when I showed him the first draft of a novel: “Why should I care?”

Hearing this question sparks varied responses among writers, but before we explore what the question means let’s start with what it says. “Why should I care?” In an always-on world where we’re constantly barraged by demands, real and manufactured, on our time and energy, this question isn’t general, as in “Why should we care?” It’s personal. “Why should I care?” The ability to answer this question within the context of story is the stuff of effective storytelling.

My editor’s comment about was meant to get under my skin, and it did. He was a curmudgeonly newspaper editor of the ilk a budding writer hopes for, the kind who can assign and edit pieces, who knows good writing, and who isn’t afraid to call out bad writing when he sees it. And, yes, there is such a thing as poor writing just as there is poor storytelling.

I vividly recall that same editor’s comment after one too many of my convoluted early pieces crossed his desk. “You may understand what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t. And if I don’t, other people probably won’t either.” If I was tempted to think he just didn’t “understand” my work, his opinion was validated shortly thereafter when my journalism instructor said the same in the same frustrated tone. She then explained that my pieces lacked organization. For example, in a personality profile, I’d have some details of the subject’s education in the lead, some strewn throughout the body paragraphs, and some at the end. When seasoned journalists scatter information throughout a piece like breadcrumbs, they do so for a reason, and they make sure to connect those details with their immediate and larger context. A novice oblivious to the need for such connections comes across as disorganized.

My problem was that I was writing the story largely as I’d conducted the interview. Once I learned the problem, however, I created a story template with one section for each element of the interview: lead, background, experience, education, future plans, personal observations, and “Anything you’d like to add?” For a long while, I kept to this order. The articles weren’t spellbinding, but they made sense. Once I became adept at using order, I began moving the sections around.

Once I grew skilled at that, I started selecting and strategically placing details, making sure to create connections between them and their context of sections, adding transitions to make the points clear to the reader without dumbing down the material. Before I sent my first story with this new-to-me approach, I warned my editor, starting with something like, “Now that two years have passed …” It took that long to go from drill to skill, the drill of retaining the same format long enough for what I had practiced to pass into skill. Finally, I could swim without holding onto the sides of the pool.

This turning point was at once thrilling and scary. I had gone from reporting to storytelling while sticking to the facts. The same general principles of drill and skill apply to fiction:
  • Write a paragraph using the who, what, where, when, why, and how of journalism to explain your story to you.
  • Pay special attention to the question “why” and to how you answer it because your response will become the foundation of the rest of your piece. You might answer the question in these ways: Why is this story important to me? Why would it be important to others?
  • Consider the story within the story. Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg approach to writing was minimalist in wording and presentation but with a hundred feet of meaning beneath. Even if you don’t use what’s under your story, and it’s usually best not to, make sure you understand what the real story is.
  • When you tell your story, tell it with a specific audience in mind. This may be a friend, a mentor, a family member, a lover, a pet, or even yourself. It’s less important who the audience is and more important that your words aren’t an end in themselves. If they are, your audience will sense that they’re not important to anyone besides you and stop reading soon after they begin.
  • Consider answering these questions: Why do I want to write this story? How did it begin in my mind, and what keeps it going? The answers can help you determine the story’s scope and length, which is especially handy when you’re deciding whether your piece is flash, short or novel.
Telling a story well means telling it with the kind of generosity of heart and spirit that doesn’t pander to the audience on the one hand or talk largely to itself on the other.

What story are you working on now? Why are you writing it? Is there another story you’re not writing, perhaps one you fear writing but would be worth exploring using the above questions?

Prompt: Write a logline of 25 words or fewer. A logline is an ultra-short description of your story that will force you to make sure you know what the piece is about, help you decide whether the story worth telling, and pitch it when the time comes. Here’s an example from FilmDaily.tv (see if you can tell which film it describes): “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”

The late Ursula Le Guin, a master storyteller and teacher, said, “Once we’re keenly and clearly aware of these elements of out craft, we can use and practice them until—the point of all the practice—we don’t have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills.” For more, see Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Study Poetry for Variety and Depth of Prose

When writers ask how they can improve their prose, their question often assumes there’s one specific thing they can do that will immediately make their writing better overall. A more realistic way to approach the notion of better is one piece at a time, with guidelines along the way.

The first default answer to the question of how to write better is to read more and to read better quality writing. Reading and studying poetry—good poetry—is a great approach. Why? Because poetry is all about imagery and sound, and in good poetry no words are wasted. If a word is there, it’s necessary, and it’s precise. Here’s an example from “Still I Rise”, by Maya Angelou.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

It helps to read a poem at least three times: once silently, once aloud, and then aloud again with emphases on different words. Once you’ve really heard the poem you can better analyze it. Once you analyze it you can do a better job of applying what you’ve learned to your writing.

For example, in the first line of the above stanza of “Still I Rise”, “moons” comes before “suns”, the words are plural, and the word “like” is repeated. For more than one reason, such as the night of adversity coming before the dawn of a new day, the moon reference comes first. The plural of “moons” and “suns” gives the sense of the passage of time, a lot of time, and the references are reminders that the moon and sun go through stages and mark off seasons. The word “like” is repeated for emphasis.

Why these choices? First, there is an inevitable quality to the appearance of the moon and sun, as affirmed in the second line’s reference to the “certainty of tides”, and there is the sense of a great reach up and out of the water into the sky with the comparison to “hopes springing high”. What if Angelou had used “aspirations” instead of “hopes” and “leaping” instead of “springing”? Aspirations is a longer, less accessible word that feels academic, as if it comes from the mind. Hopes come from the heart. And given the reference to water in the word “tides”, it’s more appropriate for these hopes to spring up like a fountain than to leap up, for example, like a deer from the earth.

While writers may downplay the value of a thesaurus, it’s a great way to write more precisely. Take, for example, this sentence: A bird sings joyfully in the summer sunshine. The grammar is fine and worse sentences have been written, but it’s a generic sentence that lacks a sense of place. Here’s an alternative: Perched atop the maple, the cardinal trills in the midsummer sun. In the second sentence, the details are more vivid and specific, including the type of bird, its location, its song and the time of day.

Two other elements of good poetry are theme and variation. Returning for a moment to the Angelou poem, there is a sense of both hope and adversity, as found in the refrain “Still I'll rise.” This sentence is different from the title “Still I Rise”. The sentence implies that at times it’s only by sheer force of will that I’ll get up from the place where others have relegated me. In the title, however, the rising is ongoing, like the return of the moon and sun with each day and changing seasons. The element of the eternal in the title may even result partly from that force of will. The selections of “I’ll rise” and “I Rise” are intentional, and the choices were made with the poem’s theme of overcoming in mind.

Sometimes writers think longer or more complex is better. Rather than strive merely for complexity, strive for precision in your prose and variation in sentence structure and length. Listen to how your work sounds. Use the same guidelines as you would for reading a poem. Read once silently, once aloud and then aloud again with emphases on different words. How does the writing sound? Does it have a lyrical or musical quality? Does it evoke an image? Maya Angelou’s "Still I Rise" appeared in 1978. The words mattered then because they evoked and honored history and because the words claimed a future. Choose your words wisely so that readers will remember them, too.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Logistics of Writing Yield Self-Discovery

Logistics questions, such as how to find the right age audience for your work, describing your writing, and crafting an author bio and a synopsis, are invaluable for writers for two main reasons. First, they help you learn to present your writing to the world. Second, they help you understand who you are as a writer and where you want to go with your work.

Finding Your Audience
To determine the best age of audience for your work, write first; decide later. Emerging and established fiction and nonfiction writers often enjoy reading and writing in varied genres. I worked as a development editor for Scholastic Publishing when the Harry Potter books were the rage but didn’t read them because young adult (YA) isn’t a genre I usually write in or read. Three years ago, on a friend’s advice, I read all the Harry Potter books and loved them. I still don’t write YA, but I do read and edit it and enjoy the stories.

Once you get writing fiction and/or nonfiction, aim to develop a body of work—three or four pieces, to start—that you then polish. To determine the age of audience that best fits your creations, consider who would enjoy reading them. You might show the pieces to a trusted mentor, faculty member or friend, and listen for this question: “You know what this reminds me of?” If they don’t offer the insight, ask. But ask after they’ve read your work instead of before so that the question doesn’t lead in a particular direction.

As you reread your work, ask yourself the same question. What you’ve written might remind you of a particular piece or writer. Besides these steps, a Google or Amazon search on your working title will yield a sense of how your piece could be categorized and whether others have written something similar.

Describing Your Writing
The above steps also apply to describing your writing, but it’s impossible to choose one description to cover all your work. Most writers branch out into new genres, styles and media, and these are likely to morph further as you hone your skills and as new categories are created. Meanwhile, to describe something you’ve written, compare it to similar works, contrast it with other works, and note its main differentiator from other stories. To hone this skill, reduce your description word count to 100, then 50 then 25. The exercise will help your writing, too.

Describing Your Writing Self
Besides describing your writing, you’ll need to describe yourself as a writer. The usual first step is to create a list of writing credits. You probably have credits even though you may not think so, for example, blog posts, newsletter blurbs, and online comments. Maybe you’ve even edited or given feedback on someone else’s writing. You may have done an internship that required writing, reading or editing (proofreading counts here). Just make sure your list is accurate and factual.

Writing an Author Bio
You can then develop the list into an author’s bio; do a Google search to find examples. But what if you’ve never written a thing that has seen the light of day except as reflected from your laptop, iPad or iPhone? Not to worry. You still have experiences, priorities and aspirations. Here’s an example of how to present them. “Adele Annesi is a first generation Italian-American inspired by the land of sunflowers. Her heritage, culture and travel have provided insights into this rich and varied society that she is using to craft a series of short stories set in il bel paese.” Writers even talk about their pets and hobbies, the more original the better.

Crafting a Synopsis
I’ve saved tips on writing a synopsis for last because it’s among the hardest forms to write and usually isn’t required until/unless you’re pitching a novel or a nonfiction book. The reason it’s difficult is because it requires you to condense a long work into a short space, and because the requirements vary depending on what and for whom you’re writing the synopsis. In reality, a good way to learn how to do this is via Google search, including in the search box the kind of synopsis you need (book, essay, novel, etc.). Four reliable sources to add to your search box are the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Poets & Writers, The Writer and Writer’s Digest.

Like other writing questions, logistics queries are often best posed once you start writing. But you don’t need a large body of work to learn how to present your writing and yourself to the world. Exploring questions about audience and self-description en route will help you understand who you are and how you write, which connects you with kindred spirits. Since you and your writing will change, you’ll keep discovering new insights along the way.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Created to Compel: The Pros of Prologues

There may be as many cons as pros to prologues, and telling a story's end at its beginning can be especially risky. But choose your details well, and this doesn’t have to be the fate of your prologue or your novel.

Choose your details well, says Janet Burroway in the classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, and the result is a memorable sum of parts that yields a greater whole. The key is to start with a not-to-be-skipped opening and continue consistently to the tale's end. And when you use details, says Burroway, choose details that are sensory and matter to the story.

Starting a story by telling its ending, for example, as author Sara Gruen did in Water for Elephants, instantly raises questions. In this case, questions are good because they pique the reader’s curiosity; once that happens we’re hooked. In Elephants, the sensory details in the prologue, from the lingering smell of grease to the choice of music, are also details that matter because they literally set the stage for the life of the story’s narrator, Jacob Jankowski.

On this foundation, Gruen builds a strong narrative, starting with the first words spoken in Jacob’s no nonsense voice of experience. A nonagenarian nearing the end of his life, Jacob is still a pretty sharp cookie. Pulled in by the details of how his life began, we find ourselves hoping he stays that way.

To enhance the novel’s strong tone and memoir style and ground it in reality, Gruen uses sensory details throughout; in the death of Jacob's parents in a motorcar, for example, she does a masterful job of using detail to both bury and reveal the theme of survival. She then unfolds the tale of Jacob’s early days in veterinary school at Ivy League Cornell and the loss of his family and dreams. Since these are revealed in scene rather than through narration, the reader discovers that these are the first of many tests of Jacob's backbone. We know he survives; it’s in the prologue. What we’re interested in is how. We may even learn from him.

This is the writer’s task: to ground a story in a concrete, albeit created, world. The only way to do this well is to do it with the right details right from the start. "As a writer of fiction you are at constant pains not simply to say what you mean, but to mean more than you say," Burroway notes. "… if you write in abstractions or judgments, you are writing an essay, whereas if you let us use our senses and do our own generalizing and interpreting, we will be involved as participants in a real way."

Whether you opt for a prologue for narrative pull or start your story in medias res, the only way to reach a strong and satisfying conclusion is to engage the reader from the get-go with details that engage the senses and the mind.

For more on the use of details, see Janet Burroway's classic Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft.

Coming in September is the Ridgefield Writers Conference. For information and registration, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Tips for the Submissions Process

It’s easier than ever to submit your writing for publication but harder to have the work published. Two keys to having your writing considered are knowing the publication and following the guidelines.

  • Genre: Make sure the publication considers writing in your genre, and adhere to the parameters.
  • Deadlines & Reading Periods: Many journals set deadlines and reading periods by genre so make sure you’re submitting at the right time.
  • Submission Methods: Most publications have an online portal; others direct writers to email. Use the method the publication specifies.
  • Formatting: The guidelines specify whether to attach your work, for example, as a Word document, or include it in the body of an email. Online portals usually require the upload of a specified file type.
  • Fees: Whether they’re called reading or processing fees, many literary journals now require a fee to submit work, so it’s up to you to decide whether the journal is worth the investment.
  • Print, Online, or Both: Some literary magazines are e-zines, meaning they’re online only. Few are print-only; most have a web and print presence. The better journals have at least one annual print publication, but pay attention to where your submission would appear if accepted and whether online acceptance also allows for print consideration.
  • Feedback: Some literary journals, such as Under the Sun, offer feedback whether the work is accepted or not. These journals are especially friendly to emerging writers.
  • Payment: Many literary magazines pay writers for their accepted work and not just in copies. As you gain experience, consider sending your work to publications that offer monetary remuneration.
  • Prior Publication: Some publications accept and even welcome previously published work. But be honest about when and where the original work, including blog posts, was published.
  • Rights: Given the ubiquity of web content, more publications specify the rights they offer in return for publishing your work. Among the most common is First North American Serial, the right to be the first publisher of your work one time in North America.
  • Simultaneous Submissions: If you send your work to more than one publication, seek journals that accept simultaneous submissions. Most publications do but ask you to let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. If a publication says “no simultaneous”, respect the journal’s requirement.
  • Theme: Because of their longer shelf life, anthologies are great places to send work. Since many are theme-based, check the specifications on how tightly or loosely the theme is interpreted.
  • Contact Information: Some publications read blind, meaning they don’t want to be swayed by what your name may tell them about you, so make sure you follow the parameters.
Duotrope, NewPages and Poets & Writers Classifieds are free online resources for places to send your work. When in doubt about whether your piece is a fit, query the journal’s editor. When when you send your work, make sure it’s polished and original. If you’ve made it through the above list, you’ll make it through the guidelines.