Writing Advice: “Stop When You Are Going Good”

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.  If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never get stuck.” —Ernest Hemingwlarge_3882941631ay

This writing advice from Hemingway has proved extremely helpful.  Day #16 of NaNoWriMo and I’ve reached 28,065 words.  I never expected to be this far along.  I was going to be grateful if I finished November with 10,000 words.  Now, I’m more determined than ever to finish with at least 50,000 words.  I haven’t “hit a wall” yet.  And I’m confident that I won’t, and that’s because I always, always stop writing in the middle of a scene.  Every day, every writing session, I stop in mid-thought.  I’ll jot down a few bullet points about where my thoughts have left off and save them for the next writing session.

When I do that, I’m constantly thinking about the scene I left off with.  Holding it close to me, the unfinished scene burns in my brain and itches to be complete.  But I let the scene continue to unfold in my mind’s eye, picturing the characters and the setting and the action, allowing it all to simmer and go in directions I hadn’t included in my bullet points.  Before the next writing session, most times I have the followup scene already in mind and have jotted down my bullet points for it.

This has been my practice every day since November 1.  And what’s great about this is that when I finally satisfy the desire to complete that simmering scene, I write even more than I what I had planned and quicker too because it’s been yearning to be completed — not only contributing to my word count, but also leading me to explore new ideas I didn’t know existed.

Thank you, Ernest Hemingway, for saying in simple words how to not get stuck when writing a novel!

Emulating a Favorite Author

This week’s assignment for the fiction writing workshop I’m enrolled in was to write in the style of one of our favorite authors.  I chose to “attempt” to write in the style of historical fiction author Philippa Gregory.  In emulating Gregory, I struggled with trying to make it sound like the voice of my character, but also incorporating my own style, plus, using elements Gregory makes use of.  The origin_2908092283problem with this is, everything the professor said not to do, Gregory does, and does it flawlessly.  I took particular note of her long, compound sentences, which she often uses semicolons with.  For me, the semicolon has some kind of stigma attached to it.  Some people are afraid of semicolons.  I’m one of them.

The use of compound sentences also goes against the grain of what I’ve been trying to do with all of my stories this term.  The professor advised us early in the term to keep sentences around ten words long, and I’ve been consciously making an effort to vary my sentence lengths.  Gregory doesn’t use a lot of short sentences, so I felt like I was regressing to my long-winded, rambling sentences I used to write before this term.  Gregory also uses a ton of adverbs, which I’ve been trying to limit in my writing.  I also keep Stephen King’s writerly advice in mind about adverbs not being a writer’s friend.  I tried to use some adverbs in this week’s story, but it felt like I’m telling the reader, instead of showing.  Another thing that goes against the grain that Gregory does is, she deviates from the he/she said/asked dialogue tags that the professor told us to stick use.  Gregory uses those simple tags, but more often she uses tags such as “she hissed” or  “he added.”  In a lot cases, Gregory uses adverbs with basic dialogue tags.  For example, “she said bossily” or “I said brokenly.”

It’s an odd feeling trying to emulate another author’s style.  It didn’t feel like me, and I felt like my writing was being held hostage because I was more conscious of trying to emulate her style.  I couldn’t get my story to flow out of my brain and onto the paper.large__12019033414  I kept teetering back and forth whether it was best to write the story first, then go back and emulate Gregory, or if it was best to incorporate her style into my story as I was writing.  In the end, I’m happy with my finished story.  My finished product came out more like my style but with a few stylistic elements I don’t typically use.  The professor will probably take points off for my long-winded sentences that I used with semicolons.  She won’t like how I deviated from the basic dialogue tags either.  But I followed the assignment guidelines and wrote in the style of an author I love.  I’m anxious to get my grade for this story!

Point of View: Third-Person Objective

I’ve been assigned the dreaded task of writing a short story using third-person objective point of view.  I say “dreaded,” since most of my stories are written from the first-person POV.  I also like reading first-person stories and novels because I feel more connected to the point of view character.  Writing in first-person POV is preferable to me for that same reason.  To write in third-person POV is a challenge for me in itself, but third-person objective is a completely different beast for me to tackle.

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From the third-person objective point of view, the narrator cannot read the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters.  The narrator may only describe what is seen or heard, as if they were a fly on the wall or a spectator in the stands.  The actions, dialogue, and descriptions of the characters can be explained, but no judgments can be made.  This has been a struggle for me because I keep wanting to describe what a character is feeling or thinking.  I began writing sentences such as, “Her cheeks burned in embarrassment,” but caught myself and backspaced.  A fly on the wall couldn’t possible know that a character “felt” embarrassed or that her cheeks “felt” hot from embarrassment.  That would be making a judgment, and that’s the whole point of third-person limited.  Your narrator cannot make judgements.  While writing my story using this POV, I have to keep reminding myself that third-person objective is like watching a movie.  A character’s feelings and thoughts are only revealed by what they do and say.

In his book, Master Class in Fiction Writing, author Adam Sexton points out the pros and cons of third-person objective POV.  He notes that third-person limited is one of the least used POVs, but that it works for John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”  According to Sexton, one reason why more novels and stories aren’t written from this POV is because it challenges readers to draw their own conclusions.  On the other hand, Sexton claims that it can be a good thing because it makes for more active reading, rather than passive.

As writer, third-person objective point of view has been quite a challenge.  But I’m keeping in mind a passage from Sexton’s book: “If you force yourself to write a story from this point of view…you will discover just how much information you can communicate to your readers dramatically rather than explicitly — how very possible it is to show rather than tell.  And that can liberate a storyteller, as well as empower her.”

 

photo credit: Lívia Cristina via cc

Writing Short Stories Under Strict Word Counts

A new fiction writing workshop began for me this week.  I’m a bit sad because it’s the last workshop I need towards my B.A. in creative writing.  On the other hand, just like all the other writing workshops, I’m tasked with writing a short story each week for six weeks.  This is a great thing, but the challenge is that I’m under strict word counts for each story.  This week’s story is limited to 1,500 words.  If I go over that limit, I’ll automatically lose 15% off of my grade.  On one hand, having word limits is a great way to make me choose every word carefully.  It also ensures that each word drives the story forward.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and which includes a strong character who faces conflicts, who then comes to a resolution — all within 1,500 words.  And since I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research for my stories and want to incorporate my findings in order to embellish the characters, plot, and setting.  Needless to say, my weakness with these very short stories is that my endings are rushed.  a_mileI feel like I’m making my poor characters run as fast as they can, only to have them slam into walls.  Even though I move the conflict and action up in the story to be early on in the beginning, there’s still a setting to create, at least two rich characters to develop, and dialogue that needs to be exchanged between them.

The instructor of the workshop acknowledged the struggle over word count and provided some tips:

1) Write a story with no more than three locations. Try to start the course with just one location in your stories (often, that number increases, but the attempt will harness you).

2) Have no more than three characters. You can briefly mention a character in dialogue, but in a story this short, your best bet will be to keep it simple. A conversation between two characters, an interchange, even just a reflection from one person, is going to be stronger as you can really go in depth with your work.

3) There’s usually no need for an extensive vocabulary in short stories. Too many large words often make writers sound pompous, even if that’s not intent. It’s actually considerably harder to write a story with a limited vocabulary.

4) Vary sentence length: General rule of thumb is to never have a sentence longer than 10 words. There are some exceptions (maybe one sentence is very long), but you lose the reader in those sentences, and losing the reader is the worst thing that can happen to a writer! As well, make sure to have some VERY short sentences for variety.

5) Dialogue tags (s/he said) can sometimes be cut altogether.  I often see people for variety writing a different thing each time: mumbled, proclaimed, mused, murmured, spoke, inquired, exclaimed, etc.  If you’re going to use dialogue tags, honestly it’s MUCH stronger to stick with “s/he said.”  The others are distracting.  When used in major moderation, a particular line of dialogue can be emphasized.  If done too often, the words lose meaning.

These are valid tips.  But Number 4, a sentence never being longer than ten words is doesn’t seem realistic.  That’s where my focus lies with this week’s short story.  My goal is to keep my sentences simple within my story.  When writing under strict word counts in the past, I watched the word counter on my document as I typed.  But this time I’m going to try a different approach.  I’m going to write the first draft and include everything and anything I want.  After that draft, I’ll take out my hatchet and trim and cut and cut some more.

A Brief Review of the Snowflake Pro Software for Writers

I’ve mentioned before that I’m using Randy Ingermanson’s nine-step Snowflake Method to structure my historical novel.  After months of teetering back and forth on whether to buy his Snowflake Pro software, I broke down and bought it.  Ingermanson claims from the beginning that Snowflake Pro is not a novel-writing program.  This is a good thing because my choice for major writing and writing scenes and chapters is Scrivener.  But Snowflake Pro has been a fantastic tool for me to get my ideas down in an organized way — from character development to a ten-page synopsis that I can import into Scrivener, which is where I can carve out my scenes and get to the heart of my writing.

The Pros in a nutshell:
• Minimal interface with no settings (except to choose one of three fonts)
• Simple to use
• Comes with examples (Harry Potter Book 1, Gone With the Wind, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride and Prejudice)
• Lecture Notes, Help Notes, Audio Lecture

The Cons in a nutshell:
• $100 price tag, but half price if you purchase Ingermanson’s Writing Fiction for Dummies
• No spellchecker, no indications for misspelled words
• No note pad or area to jot down ideas

With its minimal interface, Snowflake Pro has no bells and whistles. There’s no distractions, and I’m focused on my writing.  It has only three fonts:  Helvetica, Courier, and Times New Roman, along with the ability to change the font size.  Another feature I like is the estimated pages count alongside of the word count.  But one problem is that that information isn’t shown for each of the nine steps.  For example, Step 5 (the expanded character synopses), says that minor characters should be around a half a page or 300 words, and main characters should be a full page or 600 words. For this step, there’s no word count nor page count.

One of the most helpful features of Snowflake Pro are the Lecture Notes, which describes what to do for each step.  There’s even lecture audio, which is also fantastic, and Help Notes too, which give even more help with that particular step.  One problem with the Snowflake software is that it doesn’t detect misspelled words.  DSC03757I’ve become accustomed to right clicking red underlined words and choosing the correct spelling. Most people don’t know this about me, because I hate to admit it, but I never learned touch typing.  I type using the “hunt and peck” method.  Meaning, I look down at my fingers a lot when I’m typing to hunt for the right letter and peck it once I’ve found it.  I’ve become quite speedy at this crazy method.  But here’s the problem:  I make a lot of typos.  While I know how to spell a word if I’m writing it with a pen and paper, typing words out is different.  My fingers think before my brain and results in mistakes like “becuase,” instead of “because.”  I use a Macbook Pro and not only do most apps have spell check, but it will also auto correct.  Other writing applications, such as Scrivener, will autocorrect a common word like “because” right as I’m typing.

I also wish Snowflake Pro had some sort of scratch pad or notes area.  As a historical fiction writer, I’m constantly doing research.  Here’s what I realized while using Snowflake Pro:  I also have Scrivener open at the same time so that I have a place to put my research!  At first, I questioned why I needed to have two novel-writing programs going at the same time.  The answer is, Snowflake Pro allowed me to get crucial aspects of my novel down in a quick and organized manner.  But with the amount of historical research I do, I’ve found that I cannot live without Scrivener.

Simplifying the Character Creation Process

I now have a complete cast of characters for my historical novel, but it was quite a journey to figure out what worked for me.  Just when I thought they were fully developed, I read another article or listened to another podcast about character morality, believability and plausibility, goals and motivation, action and essence traits, integrity and descriptive markers, internal and external qualities, and strengths and weaknesses.  Feeling overwhelmed by this vast, complicated list?  Yes, I was too.  Oh, and how about putting them through the Myers-Briggs test?  Yes, I did that for two characters and got even more confused with the differences between INSTJ and ESFP.  None of it made much sense to me.  It became counterproductive and took away from using my own intuition to sketch out my characters.

Instead of trying to keep each of these crucial aspects of character development straight, I went forward and developed my characters according to my gut.  I had to simplify this process.  That’s not to say I didn’t keep all that writerly advice in the back of my mind.  But I noticed that when I focused on one character at a time, using my own instinct, all those essence and action traits, all their strengths and weaknesses, all the facets of their personality came through.  defaultI tossed aside the notes I had taken about what the heck essence traits were.  I didn’t rack my brain to figure out what action traits to attach to each character.  Those traits and qualities all began to attach to my characters while I was writing.  I made my characters fit the mold, rather than using the mold and shoving my characters into it.

Rather than going through Myers-Briggs testing for every character, I looked at strengths and weaknesses of the various zodiac signs.  Whether you believe in astrology or not doesn’t matter.  It’s the strengths and weaknesses listed in a clear and concise fashion that I grabbed from that gave me ideas for my characters.  For instance, one character from my historical novel-in-progress is an arrogant attorney.  By looking at the strengths and weaknesses of different signs, I was able to say, Yes, he’s confident and has a zest for life, but he’s also domineering and melodramatic.  I was able to give my character a personality by choosing a few traits from the strengths and weaknesses under random zodiac signs.  In turn, the character’s actions and why he behaves the way he does automatically revealed itself, to the point where I had a fully developed character.

What helped me further in my character development was the wonderful books written by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi entitled The Negative Trait Thesaurus:  A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws and The Positive Trait Thesaurus:  A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes.  Listed in alphabetical order, each book contains a range of traits, from flirtatious to diplomatic on the positive side, and antisocial to self-destructive on the negative side.  For my confident and melodramatic attorney, I scrolled down the list in both thesauruses and found more and more traits that suited the character.  Using the example of my attorney being melodramatic, The Negative Trait Thesaurus listed possible causes of that trait, such as being praised for shallow or theatrical behavior as a child, among other possibilities.  I was then able to write backstory for this character.  Just seeing the possible reasons of why a character acts a certain way helped me develop his past, present, and future.  As I wrote, all those other nuances came together without me knowing it; those action and essence traits, motivations and goals, morality and integrity.

I’ve also taken Kurt Vonnegut’s tip and made sure each of my characters want something, and as he states, it doesn’t have to be big.  As far as making sure my characters encompass other aspects, such as believability, I’ve found that it became common sense as I went along.  I wouldn’t have my arrogant, melodramatic attorney be gullible and weak-willed, unless there was a very good reason.  Who knows, maybe that will be part of his character arc, the way he changes as my story progresses.  He must make a journey in the story before I can have him play with his core traits.  At least for now, I have a cast of characters who have solid, individual traits and who will change according to how badly I torture them.

11 Great Podcasts for Writers

I’ve gotten tons of helpful advice from these podcasts for my novel-in-progress. Everything from character creation and dialogue tips, to plot and conflict building, plus how to stay motivated.

Note:  Clicking on the links will take you directly to the podcast feed and automatically open the application you use to listen to podcasts.

1.  American Writers Creative Writing Podcast by Tom Occhipinti

2.  The Creative Penn by Joanna Penn

3.  The Creative Writer’s Toolbelt by Andrew J. Chamberlain

4.  Dead Robots’ Society by The Dead Robots’ Society

5.  I Should Be Writing by Mur Lafferty

6.  Inside Creative Writing by Brad Reed

7.  The Narrative Breakdown by Cheryl Klein and James Monohan

8.  The Secrets Podcast for Writers by Michael A. Stackpole

9.  Writing Excuses by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Daniel Wells

10.  The Writing Show by Paula Berinstein

11.  The Writing University Show by The Writing University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pitfalls of Hoarding Character Worksheets

The plotter (and semi-hoarder) in me has spent more time collecting character sketch worksheets than I have writing. It became an obsession. A word of caution before you do a Google search for “writing worksheets.” You’ll waste valuable writing time visiting websites and downloading worksheets. The time I spent searching for and hoarding character worksheets had me questioning my true motivations. I asked myself, “Is this current obsession with worksheets an excuse not to write?” Meaning, if I was searching for worksheets, then I wasn’t writing. And yet, it seemed like I was working on my novel because the time spent searching and downloading character sheets were to assist me in writing my novel.spiral-notebook-paper-texture

I kept the idea of subconsciously sabotaging my writing time in the back of my mind as I continued searching for the perfect worksheet. But when one character worksheet sprawled over five pages without me adding the name of the character, the pantser in me took over. If I spent the time filling in the entire sheet for one character, I wouldn’t get to the heart of my writing. I’m not saying that a writer shouldn’t spend time with their characters and know them inside and out. What I’m saying is, to get a first draft finished, there’s a simpler way to get to know your characters. Once that draft is complete and I move on to the second draft, then maybe I will return to that five-page character sheet and see what is applicable to my characters. There’s items on the sheet that don’t apply to my characters. For example, it asks what your character’s favorite movies are. Considering my characters are living in the sixteenth century, they aren’t patrons of the movies. This may be true of characters in the science fiction or fantasy genre too, but there’s always possibilities.

For my first draft, I focused on the basic necessities when it comes to characters. I’m a strong advocate for Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for writing a novel, and I followed Step #3 to develop my characters:

• The character’s name
• A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
• The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
• The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
• The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
• The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
• A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

After I had that crucial information for each character, I added other details, such as their birthdate, physical description, personality, and personal history.  I wanted to focus on characters’ personality and their personal history, which proved to be more challenging for some characters than others. I’ll explain my process for how I uncovered those details in separate a article. For now, my hoarder tendencies are in remission, allowing me write instead of wasting time.

5-page Character Worksheet

Just Another Plotting Pantser

I’ve had a nagging desire to write a novel for the past two decades.  While working on short stories in a writing workshop, a fellow classmate recommended the book No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month.  After reading the book, I was confident that I could sit down and write without any thoughts about plot, characters, or setting.  I knew that once I began, ideas would stream out of my brain and onto the page, but fear delayed me for weeks after finishing Baty’s book.   I gave a bit of thought to the main premise of my novel during those fearful weeks, and I was ready to become a pantser — the fly by the seat of your pants type of writer.15975_wpm_hires

But when I sat down to write those first lines, I couldn’t do it.  It didn’t feel right.  I had a short synopsis in my head, and yet I felt as though I had absolutely no directions, no roadmap, no GPS signal.  Aside from being a creative writing major, I’m also a history major, and it was my inner historian that said, “Wait, what time period are these characters living in?”  Once I asked that question, more and more questions emerged.  Questions about where I was taking my characters and what was going to happen to them was turning me into a plotter.

With plotting, though, I ran into a different problem.  Outlining was counterproductive because I felt like I was trapped inside a box, but I needed some way to get this novel started.  I had a synopsis, a few characters in mind, and how I wanted life to torment them.  The researcher in me read dozens of articles on writing novels, and I can’t recall where I first heard of this method, but it’s called the Snowflake Method.  Randy Ingermanson is the creator.  This helpful way of writing (I don’t dare say “planning”) gave me the ability to get my ideas down in a cohesive manner, and then spread my wings from there.

The idea of the Snowflake Method is to start with a single sentence summary of your story.  The next step is to expand the sentence into a paragraph, and you keep expanding until you can carve out scenes from what you have written.  15984_wpm_hiresThe same process applies to characters.  You start with a simple character worksheet, filling in basic aspects, such as their goals and motivation, then you expand on the characters.  When I began writing with this simple process, for both the plot and characters, ideas gushed out of me like a water main break.  I have the best of both worlds.  I have a roadmap that guides me, yet I can change direction if I wish, and I have the ability to write by the seat of my pants as I’m developing my plot and characters.

Needless to say, I’m no longer discovering whether the pantser or plotter method is best for writing a novel.  Both methods have proven to be counterproductive for me, which is why I consider myself a Plotting Pantser.