Tag Archives: craft of fiction

Book Review: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

A major challenge I face in my work-in-progress is to convey the emotions of my main character in an effective way. Discussions with my critique partners led me to discover a great resource, The Emotion Thesaurus, by authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Writers often make the mistake of telling the reader how a character feels, rather than showing the reader. For example, “Mary was sad,” does nothing to make the reader feel what she is feeling. The writer is simply telling us how Mary feels. The goal should be to write emotion so that the reader is in the character’s skin and feels what she is feeling.

The Emotion Thesaurus breaks down each emotion into three categories: physical signs (how our bodies outwardly respond to an emotion), mental responses (the thought process that corresponds with an emotional experience), and internal sensations (the most powerful form of non-verbal communication, the visceral reactions to emotion).

“All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion,” Ackerman and Puglisi write. “It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story.”

After a helpful introduction that explains how it should be used, the book takes 75 emotions and, for each one, it lists physical (body language) cues, thoughts, and visceral responses associated with that emotion.

The authors caution that showing emotions is a tricky balancing act between showing too little and showing too much. They also say writers must be cognizant to not over-rely on dialogue or internal thoughts or physical descriptions.

They urge writers to identify the root emotion a character is experiencing and to utilize the setting as well.

There are also writing tips at the end of each of the 75 emotion sections.

The value of this book, as the authors state, is that it will “help writers brainstorm unique ways to express character emotions.” In the e-book edition, each emotion listed in the Table of Contents has a link to where that emotion appears in the book, making it easy to navigate.

I am confident that The Emoltion Thesaurus will help me to bring out emotion in a more powerful way.

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How Many Characters Do You Need?

Like the bromide about too many cooks, an overabundance of characters can spoil the novel. How many characters is too many? Well, like a lot of questions about writing, it depends. The type of story, the genre, the plot, can all affect how many characters show up in a novel. An epic like the Harry Potter series has a castle full of characters. A “quiet” novel that explores interpersonal relationships may have only a few.

I came across a helpful exercise by Janice Hardy in a June 2013 blog post.

Hardy’s exercise goes like this: Take a sheet of paper. Make two boxes in the middle, equally spaced apart. Write the name of the protagonist in one box and the name of the antagonist in the other. Write the names of other characters below the protagonist and above the antagonist, depending on which characters are connected to with character. Next, draw a solid line if the character is directly connected to the protagonist or the antagonist and a dotted line if indirectly connected. Finally, draw lines between the characters who are directly or indirectly related to each other.

“If you had a hard time finding room for all your boxes, that’s a red flag you might have too many characters,” she wrote. “Same if you have a lot of characters who have zero connections to your protagonist, but connections to other characters in the book. Lots of people with dotted lines to one person could be ones you can combine (like those extra thugs).”

The real value of this exercise, Hardy writes, is that it “forces you to think about how the various characters are connected.”

It is also visual. If your paper is cluttered with boxes, you just might have too many characters.

There are two main problems with having an abundance of characters, blogger and author KM Weiland writes.

First, when there are too many characters, the reader may be unable to keep track of who is who. Second, a writer who introduces too many characters runs the risk of fragmenting the narrative.

Most of the posts I’ve read on this subject advise something like this: How many characters do you need? Just enough to tell the story. That doesn’t fully answer the question, though. The real test for me is whether each character fulfills a purpose, either large of small. For example, let’s say the main character does something stupid as a teen-ager and is arrested. The cop who makes the arrest serves one purpose. He doesn’t need to reappear, unless he decides to mentor the young man.

Every main character needs a supporting cast. This cast can be small or large. It may include the following: sidekicks, mentors, confidants, spouses, siblings, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, enemies. You get the picture. The writer may not choose to include everyone on the list; she will choose carefully depending on the genre and the nature of the story.

A related question is how many Point of View (POV) characters should a novel include? Personally I have trouble keeping up with more than five or six POV characters, yet I’ve read stories with as many as nine and the writer was able to make the narrative work. However, it takes tremendous skill to juggle nine or 10 POV characters without diluting the narrative.

What about you? How many characters do you create for each story? How many is too many?

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Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients

On the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey offers a recurring piece called Flog a Pro. Rhamey identifies six key ingredients that the opening page of a novel must feature: story questions, tension (in the reader, not the character), voice, clarity, scene-setting, and character.

Here he breaks down the opening page of the runaway best-seller Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

While it’s not a requirement to have all six ingredients, Rhamey writes, an author has a better chance of hooking a reader if many of these elements are present.

I am in the midst of refining the beginning pages of my work-in-progress and this effort got me thinking about effective beginnings. In researching this topic, I found a lot of advice from agents and editors about what not to do in the opening page of a novel:

–Start too slowly

–Dump a lot of backstory about the main character

–Include too much exposition

–Introduce the story with a dream sequence

–Begin with slam-bang action, mayhem, maybe even a few deaths. Action without context will only confuse the reader.

Here are more types of bad beginnings from agent Chuck Sambuchino:
Chuck Sambuchino

Rhamey’s list is a solid starting point, but it needs elaboration. There’s one more essential ingredient and it relates to one of his ingredients, character. One inviolate rule about effective opening scenes is the writer must make the reader care about the main character. What does that mean? To me, it means the writer must create an emotional connection between the reader and the character. This is by far the most challenging aspect of crafting an effective beginning.

I found a lot of great advice about opening scenes and I want to share it here:

This post is a fantastic mashup called the 21 best tips for writing your opening scene

Here are more tips from the Editor’s Blog. Here’s a post on how to hook your reader.

And some tips on opening sentences from the blog Fuel Your Writing.

Will Greenway offers eight rules.

Chuck Wendig, 25 things to know about an opening chapter is irreverent, funny and true.

To these many words of wisdom I add one more and this I cannot stress enough: spend whatever time is necessary to make the first scene sing. If you are not spending more time on the opening scene than on the rest of your manuscript, you’re not trying hard enough.

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Revisions: The First Read-Through

In a recent post, I wrote that the essential initial step to revise a first draft is to read through the entire manuscript with a hyper-critical eye. During this read-through, resist the urge to make changes on the fly. Look at the overall story. Take notes on individual scenes. Strive to take a global view. What you are looking at is the story as a whole and how it hangs together. Or not.

The first key question you want to ask yourself is: what is the essence of the story? What is the story really about? What is the (dare I say it?) theme of the story? We’re not talking plot here. We’re talking about the main character’s internal challenge. That’s what drives the story. Once you know what your story is about, the next key question is: does your first draft pay off the theme? Is it clear to the reader what the story is about? Does the main character’s internal struggle shine through to the reader?

Revisions are on my mind these days. I am going through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively titled, A Prayer for Maura. This was a National Novel Writing Month project from 2012. I really liked this story when I wrote it. I believed then, and still do, that it is a story that plays to my strengths as a writer and has loads of potential. Re-reading it for the first time, though, I realize it needs a lot of work.

I won’t go chapter by chapter, but I am four chapters into it and some of the scenes are good, while others just don’t work. Some need more setting and details, while others just don’t sing. Some of the writing is decent and some of it is, well, let’s say it is in need of some sharpening.

So far, I have resisted the urge to go in and start re-writing. I want to evaluate the first draft as a reader, but with the advantage of knowing where the story is going to go and how it is going to end.

At this stage, it is crucial to resist the urge to write or even edit. This is the thinking stage. The rewriting will come later.

What about you? How do you go about editing your first draft?

 

 

 

 

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Dialogue Tags: Keep It Simple

When it comes to using dialogue tags in fiction writing, I can sum up my philosophy in four words: he said-she said. That’s all you need. I could end this post here, but let me expand on the subject.

The worst offense in dialogue tags is to use fancy words for “said.” Why? The dialogue should speak for itself. Words like “opined” or “exhorted” or “exclaimed” get in the way. Leave your thesaurus in the other room when writing dialogue tags.

Guest blogger Alythia Brown put it better than I could on Joanna Penn’s excellent blog: “On your never-ending quest to find a new way to say he said or she said, please don’t go overboard with substitutes. If you pepper every speaking phrase with a fun-filled synonym for said, it can be distracting and, well, annoying. It takes the reader’s attention away from what the characters are saying. Said can somewhat pass for an invisible word. Readers are accustomed to and skim right over said. However, you should still be mindful of its word count in your manuscript and try to find creative ways to keep it down…”

My system for dialogue tags is:

First line of dialogue: character’s names (John said. Mary said).

Second line of dialogue: he said/she said.

All subsequent lines: no tags at all.

Here’s an example:

“You stole my cat,” John said. (Note the lack of an exclamation point. The words should convey the emotion.)

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mary said.

“Why?” he said.

“I’m allergic to cats,” she said.

“Yeah right.”

“Come to think of it, I’m allergic to you.”

This offhand example underscores another point about dialogue tags: let the action speak for itself. There is conflict and sarcasm (and underlying anger) in that scene, but I chose not to litter it with exclamation points or synonyms for the word ‘said.’ The words should carry the emotions.

Here are more tips on dialogue tags:

Fiction Writer’s Mentor

Writing-World.com

Lit Reactor

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NaNo Update: We Have a Winner

The muse is over-rated. Experienced writers know that. The best motivator is a hard deadline.

Last weekend I was ready to give up my quest to “win” the National Novel Writing competition for the third straight year. Winning means writing a 50,000-word first draft of a novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. By November 22, I had fallen behind—not by a lot but by enough. I was under 40,000 words with a week to go. After an unproductive weekend in which I did not meet the daily word count of 1,667 words on either day, I decided to pull the plug.

Then, on Monday, I changed my mind. I had come this far. I had written more than 35,000 words. I couldn’t give up. I had plans that night and when I returned home, I decided to write. It was nine o’clock and I was tired, but I would give it one more shot. To my surprise, I became immersed in the story and I wrote 1,800 words. Then, I wrote 1,800 words on Tuesday and 1,000 words on Wednesday. I even cranked out 1,000 words on Thanksgiving night. I was at 42,000 words with two days to go.

I knew a productive Friday could put me over the top. I went to Starbucks early in the morning and wrote 4,000 words. I took a break, did some errands and sat down and wrote another 3,600 words. I finished early Saturday morning and uploaded the novel to the NaNo site, where it was validated as a winner at 50,600 words. I was exhausted, but thrilled.

So what did I learn from this year’s experience? Let me share these lessons:

• Write every day. Our Municipal Liaison advised a first-timer that the key was to write every day, even if it’s not 1,667 words. The worst thing to do is to fall behind. Even when I was about to give up, I still sat down and wrote and that is one of the most valuable benefits of NaNo: the daily writing habit.
• Pressure produces creative ideas. I wrote myself into a corner. My basic story was over at 35,000 words. I had to invent a new story on the fly that put the main character in mortal danger and I did. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, though, without the intense pressure of a hard deadline. Otherwise, I would have procrastinated and ruminated for weeks.
• Fatigue is an excuse. Many of my writing sessions took place after nine o’clock at night when I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep. Often I wrote until 11 or later and produced some of my best writing.
• Challenging yourself produces results. I found I could do more than I ever thought I was capable of doing. I had been working on this piece for months as a novella and had gotten nowhere. Starting afresh under extreme deadline pressure produced a workable first draft.

To every writer out there who thinks NaNo is an impossible challenge, my advice is: Go for it!

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Getting Out of Your Box

It started as an experiment about a year ago. I was tired of writing stories in my chosen genre—family sagas. I yearned to try something new. Out of that desire grew an unwieldy novella called, Life of the Party. I wrote 56,000 words and I hated it, but I really liked one of the characters. He was a fledgling rapper named Shabazz Horton—a Kanye West wannabe who was working as a club DJ to raise money for his recording ambitions. I went back to the drawing board and decided to construct a short story trilogy around him.

I began forming a new plot around Shabazz. He would be caught in the middle of a sticky situation in which his boss, the club owner, was a drug kingpin under investigation. A police detective would lean on Shabazz to cooperate with the law, but Shabazz would be loathe to turn against his boss.

It was a story with all kinds of possibilities, but I kept going down rabbit holes. I rewrote the beginning four times, the most recent about two weeks ago. Something wasn’t working. When I get stuck like this, the first question I ask is this, “What is the heart of the story?” This triggered several other questions. What is the main character’s journey? How will he be transformed? I knew the answers to these questions, but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I was veering off into a police procedural and that wasn’t the genre I intended. I also suffered from an utter lack of knowledge of the culture of the club DJ and rap music in general. I follow rap to some degree, but not enough to write with authority about it.

My solution to these problems presented itself when I was searching for a story idea for the 2013 National Novel Writing Month competition, which begins November 1. The pressure of a 30-day deadline will force me to just write and (I hope) after I havae a 50,000-word first draft, I will have figured out some things about this story.

Am I sorry I went off-course for a year and abandoned the genre which is my strength? Not at all. It’s healthy for writers to get out of their boxes and try something completely different. Even if the story never sees the light of day, it will challenge the writer and open new vistas. I will return with new energy and purpose to the comfort of family sagas when I finish this work-in-progress.

What about you? Have you ever attempted to write in a different genre? How did it work out?

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That Elusive Thing Called Motivation

Robin LaFevers wrote an excellent post on Writer Unboxed on the three stages of commitment to the writing craft that writers must go through to reach the goal of truly becoming a productive and fulfilled writer. LaFevers identified three progressive levels writers must reach to achieve an ideal state: discipline, dedication, and devotion.

“At its most positive, discipline is the building of new muscle stage,” she wrote. “Discipline is the axle grease we apply to our flighty, frivolous, perception of what is actually involved in learning how to create something.”
The next level is dedication. “Dedication implies a level of mastery. It is the point at which you no longer need to apply discipline because your creative work flows out of your own organic desire to do that work…”

The ultimate level a writer should want to reach is devotion. LaFevers wrote, “Devotion implies joy and zeal and ardent affection…It is a process oriented stage. It encompasses dedication and can appear from the outside to look a lot like discipline, but its origins are very different. When we are devoted to something, there simply are few things on earth we’d rather do or spend time with.”

At some point, LaFevers wrote, a writer’s internal motivation should shift from discipline to dedication. Ultimately the goal is to get to the devotion stage. “The story becomes the most important thing—the characters, the truth, the world—are all more important to you than your publishing contract.”

I wholeheartedly agree with LaFevers. However, while devotion is what I strive to achieve, I’m stuck in the discipline bucket. It’s not that I’m not trying to get to the next level, but external factors keep getting in the way. The biggest obstacles are time and competing priorities. This may seem like a copout, but work is busy and my personal life has suddenly gotten active, which is good for me but bad for my writing habit.

While I have limited time, I recognize I must make the time to write. I do it every year during National Novel Writing Month, which begins in less than a month. It’s hard to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. It’s incredibly hard. It takes 1,667 words per day, every day, for 30 days. And yet I’ve “won” the last two years. Will I get to 50,000 words this year? I don’t know, but I am going to try.

One of the best points Robin LaFevers made in her post was that the writer must get past the discipline part to reach the devotion stage. The writer must master and live the daily writing habit. That’s where I need to get back to in order to reach the highest level.

What about you? Where are you on the spectrum from discipline to devotion?

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Book Review: Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, By KM Weiland

There are many fine books on how to structure a novel. James Scott Bell’s classic, Plot & Structure, comes to mind. Add to the list author and blogger KM Weiland’s latest book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.

Weiland takes an analytical approach to the topic, but writes in clear prose and uses examples from film and literature to re-enforce her points. The book is divided into three parts: story structure, scene structure, and sentence structure. Like Bell, Weiland advocates the three-act story structure. She takes the reader through the various plot points that propel the story forward. She also covers topics like effective beginnings, opening chapter pitfalls, introducing characters, stakes and setting, and when to bait the hook and when to initiate the inciting incident.

One of the best aspects of this book is the detailed explanation how to handle the third act. This is where books succeed or fail. Weiland presents a comprehensive analysis of the climax, resolution and effective endings. “The Climax is where you have to pull out your big guns. This is a series of scenes that needs to wow the reader. Dig deep for your most extraordinary and imaginative ideas,” she writes.

She advises writers to set up the ending by foreshadowing it. “Inevitability and unexpectedness are the two key ingredients necessary in every perfect ending. And yet they’re incompatible…The trick to successfully combining inevitability and unexpectedness rests primarily upon two different factors: foreshadowing and complications,” she writes.

While the section on story structure is worth the price of the book alone, Weiland offers a detailed discussion of how to build effective scenes in the following section. Weiland breaks down the Scene (capital S) into two segments: scene and sequel. The scene is the action part and consists of three elements: goal-conflict-disaster. The sequel is the reaction part of the Scene: reaction, dilemma and decision.

Some of the insights I found most compelling included:

“Character and change. That’s what story is all about. We take a person and we force him onto a journey that will change him forever.”

“Readers love action (whatever its manifestation), and authors can’t create a story without it. But without character reactions, all that juicy action will lack context, and, as a result, meaning.

This book is an essential resource, especially for new writers.

KM Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the author of six novels and another excellent craft of fiction book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Her blog, Wordplay, is an excellent resource for writers.

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Beware the Dreaded MacGuffin

If you are an avid consumer of movies or books, you’ve heard the term “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is a commonly-used plot device in films and literature. A MacGuffin is simply something that the protagonist pursues. It could be an object or a person or something more abstract.

Here’s a good working definition from Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.

Here’s another definition from the website, TVTropes:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

The term apparently originated in 1939 with Alfred Hitchcock, though some have traced its origins to Rudyard Kipling. One of Hitchckock’s screenwriters, Angus McPhail, used the term, relating an old Scottish tale:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Here is a further explanation from TVTropes:

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Therein lies the problem with the MacGuffin. Its interchangeability means it doesn’t matter what the writer chooses as the MacGuffin. In theory, I try to avoid using MacGuffins, but, in practice, it’s nearly impossible. A fundamental principle in fiction writing is to put challenges before the main character. There are only so many original ways to devise challenges. The Harry Potter series, which I loved, is loaded with MacGuffins. The same goes for the Steig Larssen series. Yet, in both cases, the authors made them work again and again.

Another form of a MacGuffin is the “plot coupon,” credited to film critic Nick Lowe (not the rock star). A plot coupon is something, or a series of things, the main character needs to obtain to cash in later. As is the case with the MacGuffin, the thing itself is not significant, but the character must have it. The seven horcruxes in Harry Potter are good examples of plot coupons.

So what are the guidelines when it comes to MacGuffins and plot coupons? I couldn’t find any in my limited research, but here are a few ideas. The MacGuffin must be:

• Appropriate to the genre. In science fiction, it is usually something mystical and powerful. In a romance, it might be a thing one of the love interests needs to obtain before a relationship can happen.
• Hard to obtain. If the hero comes up with the key to the treasure chest in the first act, that hissing sound is the tension leaving your story.
• Imaginative and original. Powerful weapons and secret formulas make good MacGuffins, but they are old and stale tricks. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harry Potter series was JK Rowling’s use of inventive and imaginative MacGuffins. This is easier when the author is building a world, but authors of stories grounded in reality must challenge themselves to come up with original MacGuffins.
• Remember, the MacGuffin is not significant to the story. It is a device—an obstacle put in the way or a mystery to be solved.

My original intent here was to write a post cautioning writers against using MacGuffins. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that MacGuffins are often necessary to create or sustain tension, but should be carefully considered.

What’s your opinion on MacGuffins? How do you use them in your stories?

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