December 26th, 2016
Turning Whine into Gold
If Facebook posts are to be trusted, all a creative writer needs to be productive is coffee, chocolate, and wine. Rather than flow rich with ideas and possibilities, the creative blood of many writers is a biochemistry experiment gone awry.
You already know why we rely upon caffeine, nutrient-poor snacks, and a well-deserved depressant in the evening to ease us toward sleep. Which is elusive, because the processed foods and wine we’ve consumed have secretly messed with our hormone cycle and at 3 a.m., BAM! Eyes wide open. Anxiety about our ineffective lives sets in. Perhaps even before last night’s wine is fully metabolized, we start caffeinating again.
Meanwhile, the brain fog resulting from these practices obscures the path to completing our novels. Many of us are skidding toward the end of 2016 with an energy balance in the red. The trials of the writing life—whether that means the tight deadlines and marketing demands of the published or the myriad uncertainties of the unpublished—have left us feeling exhausted, emotionally spent, and used up.
We are left wondering what happened to that creative life we intended to live. The morning pages, the artist dates, the photography walks. Reading whatever tickles your fancy. Stimulating conversations with other artists at a Parisian sidewalk café.
Oh. That would take time. And energy. Which makes me wonder if our beloved armchair addictions may be draining us more than nurturing us.
What if we replaced some of that coffee, chocolate, wine—and the time we spend talking about them on Facebook—with food and activities that actually nurtured us? We’d have the energy to be more productive. And once we are more productive, space would open in our schedules to engage in activities that renew our creative lives. That would be its own reward, and we wouldn’t “deserve” so much stuff that harms peak performance.
(This is a theory, mind you. Still working on implementation here.)
Creative writing is problem solving
Think of the advice you might give your teenage son the night before he must engage in a massive amount of problem solving. Say, taking the SAT. Add stakes: the outcome of the test will likely affect were he spends $200K+, the next four years, and his career beyond. Would you tell him to make sure he goes drinking the night before, stays up late, and then hops up on junk food and coffee the next morning?
Of course not. So why are we doing it? Think of all the problem solving required in our writing time alone: plot issues, word choice, scene structure, chaptering, pace, voice, and so much more. Then there is the energy required to keep you on an even emotional keel despite the head games inherent to a writing life. The energy required to come up with new ideas. The patience and stamina required to deal with day jobs, kids, spouses, elder care. We need healthy brains to effectively solve these problems.
I have a graphic representation of the creative life on my bulletin board. One arrow points to the top of a stick figure’s head, and says, “Fill your brain with all the information,” and another arrow points to the chair behind him and says, “and then sit a spell.” If your creative life is stuttering, how often are you filling your brain with new information and creative stimuli? How often do you give yourself time to sit a spell?
The irony here is that we all want to lead a creative life, but don’t give ourselves the time, inspiration, and nurturing that will allow us to do so.
What if we made the time?
If you are feeling stuffed, hung over, and sluggish after the holidays, you are ending the year at an emotional, psychological, and physical deficit. As we turn the corner, why not think about starting 2017 in the black?
What if we used the force of public commitment and state, right here and now, that we absolutely do have the time we need to nurture ourselves, accomplish our goals, and live the creative life we want—all while loving our families and friends?
It’s outrageous, right? But so is the notion that we will make enough money to become full-time writers, and we’re banking on that–while letting our health degrade.
So many voices fill my head right now. You will not part me with my coffee. Chocolate is healthy for you. I read about a woman who lived to be 110 and she had a glass of wine every day. And I’m well aware we all have ridiculous demands on our time that make us feel trapped. No need to share those, or to make excuses. Let’s head into 2017 with renewed optimism and commitment, shall we?
In the comments, write the words “I plan to recommit myself to a creative life by finding time to…” and then write one measure you could take to reinvigorate your writing life and/or improve the way you nurture your physical self. Let’s see if we can goose each other toward a more creative 2017!
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.
December 23rd, 2016
I do a lot of critiquing. As I get better at craft, I’m starting to catch the nuances of good writing; things beyond the basics of POV, show don’t tell, etc. They’re subtler and harder to spot, but I believe they can be the difference between a ‘good writer’ and a popular author. And yes, I have these same problems too.
- Tell us what we don’t know: Something happens – your character has a thought about it – someone speaks – your character has another thought. It breaks up and slows the scene, and it doesn’t add enough to warrant the break. Example:
When he stepped out, he had no smile for her. He avoided meeting her gaze. Even though his clothing was freshly pressed and his shoulders were back, he looked drained, as if he’d just run the obstacle course.
The presentation must have gone badly.
Do you see how the thought is not only unneeded – but that it weakens the sentences above it? And it slows the read. Write only thoughts that the reader couldn’t guess. That can be powerful – showing that the character is keeping something from the others in the scene.
Knowing I can’t go out there, the walls seem to crowd me, closer than they were a few minutes ago. Is it going to be like this until the trial is over? If so, my bail was a waste—I’m just in a cushier, more familiar prison.
Her sobs over the phone claw my insides.
- Anchor us in deep POV: Adam is the POV character below.
Halfway out the door, Adam grabbed him.
“Hey, lemme go!” The punk twisted to see who had the collar of his shirt.
Do you see how the way this is worded blurs and distances us from the POV character?
Better would be:
Halfway out the door, he grabbed the little thief.
Why? Because if I’m firmly in Adam’s POV, I shouldn’t have to use his proper name. The way it’s originally written, it’s distant; almost from a narrator’s POV.
Suzie’s face flushed red, realizing she’d just put her mother in the same category as the wino.
Again, we’re in Suzie’s POV. We don’t need her name. This is also a minor POV violation – Suzie can feel the blood in her face, but she can’t see that her face is red.
Better: Blood pounded to her face, flooding her with the realization that she’d just put her mother in the same category as the wino.
He watched Harper drive, hands ten and two on the wheel. We’re in his POV. If you say it, we know it’s because he saw it. Better: Harper drove, hands ten and two on the wheel.
- Unneeded dialog tags: I tend to notice these more, because dialog tags is one of my pet peeves. I believe that the only time you need a tag is when the reader wouldn’t know whom is speaking. And when you need one, there are a lot better ways to use it, than, ‘he said’. Besides, they’re distancing.
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.
Better would be:
“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.
This is a nuance, but can you see how the second is more natural and ‘flows’ better? It helps the reader be in the scene, instead of just reading about it.
“What was that?” she asked. It sounded like someone had pinched a baby.
Since there are only a man and a woman in this scene, and we know it’s not him from the line before, the reader will deduce that she asked this. Which means you don’t need the tag.
Margie Lawson is the Queen at this. You can read a blog she wrote about it, here.
These are small nuances, but important ones. The reader won’t think, “I don’t need that tag.” But these are the things that show an agent/editor or reader that you’re good.
- Telling, then showing: I see this a lot. Example:
It was insane to expect him to restrain himself. “That’s like sending an alcoholic into a bar that’s giving away free beer.”
I’d make the case that not only is the beginning unnecessary, it weakens the line of dialog. Showing is almost always better than telling, and both is always the worst.
- Over the top: Sure sign to an agent or a reader of a newbie author.
Exclamation points!!!! You get three per book. Use them wisely. (and yes, I have the same limits, and I hate them just as much). And never two pieces of punctuation at the end of one sentence. Yes, I know everyone uses it on social media – but you’re a professional.
“I know, right?!”
Along the same lines – repetition in general –
- Say it once-say it well: As a reader, we assume that if you wrote it, you meant it. Repeating it does not make us believe you more. Saying the same thing again in a different way won’t do it, either, and it’s irritating to the reader, who feels like you think they’re too dumb to get it the first time. If you feel like you need to do this, it’s because your original sentence isn’t strong enough. Go back and work on that until you’re happy with it. Try it. I promise you’ll agree with me.
But there are subtle shades of repetition, and it’s easy to miss. Here’s some examples:
“Then why don’t you tell him, if it bothers you so much?” Richard visibly stiffened at Michelle’s suggestion.
First, the adverb is unnecessary. We’re in Michelle’s POV – so if she noticed, it had to be visible, right? Second, you should trust the reader to know that he stiffened because of what she said. It also breaks Margie Lawson’s rule: What’s the Visual?
Written this way, it would draw the reader closer:
Richard’s spine straightened and his lips pinched in his signature ‘irritated librarian’ look.
- Backload your sentences I have Margie to thank for this, also. Put the important word(s) at the end of the sentence for more impact.
I’ve got more male in my life than I need already.
I’ve already got more male in my life than I need.
- Favorite ‘author’ words. Everyone has them. Your ‘go to’ words. But they’re not words that everyone uses in everyday speech, so they stick out. Below are mine. My crit group gives me one to two of the following per book.
jerked, hipshot, full dark, tipped (as in chin)
Ones I see very often in others’ work are: Over, under, turned, back, down, up, just.
- Same old, same old body expressions. How many times have you read, ‘he frowned’ or ‘she straightened her shoulders’ or ‘lifted her chin’? Personally, I use sighing way too often. Why not freshen them, and instead of having the reader skim, give them a reason to pause?
She caught herself squirming in her seat and forced herself to stillness.
Vale clears his throat. A shudder vibrates up my spine.
Vale’s shoulders tip back, just enough to make the crease across the front of his shirt pull smooth.
Priss buried her nose in her cup.
- Throwaway words. I’m just becoming aware of how often I do this – throw in unneeded words at the beginning of a sentence. Margie calls this, ‘clearing your throat’ as a writer – you’re getting ready to write. It’s not only wordy, it’s distancing. I’m a big one on ‘when.’
When the woman touched his shoulder, the kid shrugged her off.
The woman touched his shoulder. The kid shrugged her off.
“Oh yes, I know what you mean.”
She knew it was hopeless.
See what I mean? They add words, but not meaning. Along those same lines:
Why use “moved” which tells us nothing instead of jerked (oops) jogged, or stumbled?
Why use “started” rather than just showing someone doing something? You can’t start walking, start making cookies, or start getting angry.
“Almost” is another word that doesn’t work very often. Either someone does something or doesn’t. How do you ‘almost’ do something like smile?
I think we often tell the reader much more than they need to know. In big ways, like backstory dumps, but also in subtle ways that are harder to catch. But they both irritate the reader – if you have enough of them, the reader will abandon the book. They may not even know why – just that it didn’t engage them.
See, readers want to be engaged. To think, and to figure things out – not just to have it all handed to them. In other words, they want to be in your story. A part of the action. All these nuances prevent them from doing that.
Here’s some examples of small ones:
“The small canoe rested in the water, floating beside a long wooden dock.”
Where else would a canoe next to a dock rest, but in the water? And if it’s in the water, it’s floating, right? See how neither of those references are needed? Use that room to put us in the scene; engage our imagination and our senses.
“A red canoe with wood trim bobbed beside the wooden dock, waves slapping its sides.”
Subtle? Yes, but I think it reads better—more descriptive, more engaging.
“None of these plants are used for food. They’re purely ornamental” See how that says the same thing?
A stiff smile on her lips…. Where else would a smile be?
“And you are. . .?” He let the question dangle. The dots show us dangle.
Sonja glared, and retreated a step back – retreated is back.
- Slip in snippets of backstory. Make the reader want backstory before you slip it in. How do you do that? In the first few sentences, raise questions they’ll be dying to hear answers to.
From my book, Reasons to Stay:
She stopped a few feet short of the open grave. Her mother was down there. Shouldn’t she feel something beyond tired?
“Come, Ignacio. It’s time to go.” A meager woman stood at the foot of the grave, her face and raincoat set in the same generic authoritarian lines.
Priss recognized a Social Worker when she saw one. Given her past, she should.
Your turn! I’ve just touched the surface.
Give us your tips with examples in the comments!
* * * *
Days Made of Glass:
Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.
Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.
When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.
It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.
December 19th, 2016
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
We’ll come back to that in a minute.
Story is important. What we do is important. My guess is you believe that or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. I had that knowledge driven home one year on vacation.
Welcome to another installment of Writers in the Storm. I hope you get two things out of this essay: first, a reason to believe your writing is important and second, a reason to believe in stories with happy endings.
The Importance of Story
My friends and I visited Stratford-on-Avon (yes the Stratford-on-Avon). I had just broken in to fiction writing, selling short stories to Analog Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov’s, and others. Outside the building I saw a framed poster advertising a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, an event to raise money to restore the house, and Charles Dickens was one of the performers. And I felt this flash, this epiphany, and it hit me that I was part of that tradition. Sure, they were generals in the writing army and I was the second assistant to the junior file clerk, but I was part of it.
Story is important. You believe that, but if you’re like me every now and then you need encouragement. Writing is tough. That early sale to Asimov’s? It fell through and it took months to find another home for the poor story.
There are times for most of us when we are looking at a rejection letter or facing the dreaded “what happens next?” when we ask ourselves why we’re doing this. I want to offer a surprising reason to believe that what you do is important, one that you may not have thought of. And my reason is more important than I realized when I started writing this essay. Your writing may save the world.
As writers we are immersed in daily-changing memes, currents of thought. One enduring current is the fear of the rise of the machines — artificial intelligences that are smarter than we are.
What if the machines don’t do what we want them to? In the classic Stanley Kubrick film, 2001, HAL killed the rest of the crew and was trying to kill his pal Dave. In Her (2013) Samantha the AI thanks her boyfriend Theo the human for teaching her to want. A good thing? But those are only movies, right? Okay, how about your autonomous self-driving car hearing you talking about trading it in. What if it doesn’t want to go?
The good news is there are people worrying about the problem, and they have a range of solutions. Okay, a little bit of background on artificial intelligence.
There are two kinds of AI, “Weak” and “Strong.” Weak is the kind that speaks up from your dashboard to tell you that you have missed the turn and it’s recalculating. It’s with us now, everywhere, like in your appliances. (Side note: some researchers are very worried about the security of this “internet of things” but that’s beyond the scope of this essay.)
“Strong” artificial intelligence is self-aware. It’s Skynet, or the Matrix, or Samantha and it’s around the corner, a decade or two away. But, it’s not too early to think about teaching a machine ethics. Well, the first problem is deciding what good behavior is. And that’s where we come in.
One promising solution is being developed by Mark Reidl at the Georgia Institute of Technology: read the machines stories.
Read the robot stories that show things like being helpful, polite, not destroying civilization. So you don’t want to read HAL a story where everybody dies.
Back to Dave and his little problem with HAL. The latter is the “strong,” AI that runs the spaceship and HAL has, well, he’s gone off the deep end, his elevator no longer goes all the way up, he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal. You get the idea. What happens when your AI gets cranky? The dreaded “blue screen of death” takes on a new meaning when it’s in your self-driving car or the 757 landing at LAX.
Yep, a culture’s fiction embodies the best (and of course, the worst, in the antagonist) and one way to teach an AI — the more recent term is “Artificial Life” but that one kind of makes me nervous — to be good is to tell it stories that show good behavior rewarded. And what better group of writers to do that than romance novelists?
In Defense of the Happy Ending
In my mystery stories things usually work out, and I suspect that is true for yours, too. And yet everywhere we see the reverse, “a bittersweet tale of love gone bad,” “a grim exploration of the angst inherent in modern life,” “a futile effort to break the chains of (fill in the blank).” You won’t find this in my writing. To quote a recent Nobel Prize winner, “It ain’t me, babe.”
Joy is important. There’s not enough of it to go around. Comedy, a close cousin to happiness, is hard. Don’t believe me? Check out an interview with Jerry Lewis called, “No Apologies.” He tackles this issue head on and makes a case that if you want horror, just pick up a newspaper. Comedy, and I would widen that to include all happy endings, is harder.
So, “and he folded her into his strong arms and whispered, ‘l love you,’” is not only satisfying, not only reflective of reality, it also may be important in ways we cannot envision.
With luck, when HAL says, “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that,” Dave will say, “Hal, remember that Jayne Ann Krentz story I read you? And how the hero and the heroine cared about each other?”
“I liked the dust bunnies, Dave.”
And the spaceship door swings open . . .
And story saves the world.
I’m interested to hear how you feel about the long tradition that we are part of, and how stories might be used in the future to train thinking machines.
James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.
For More Information (and for fun) —
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot and the rest of the robot novels. He invented the Three Laws of Robotics in the 1950’s and more than half a century later they are strong candidates for implementation. On top of that, these are good stories.
Popular Science, The New Artificial Intelligence. Special Issue, (2016). Lots of intriguing ideas as well as a good definition of the kinds of AI.
Foreign Affairs July/August 2015. “Hi, Robot: Work and Life in The Age pf Automation.” A good, detailed discussion of the social implications of machine intelligence and how we might get along with them.
2001 (1968) no discussion of AI is complete without HAL singing, “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls the AI’s circuit cards.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) The US turns defense over to a supercomputer, only to find that the Russians have done the same. Colossus takes over, and assures its creator that mankind will eventually love it.
Her (2013) Touching man/OS love story marred (IMHO) by really rough language.
The Matrix (1999) All three, but the first is the best. It’s almost a throwaway, but watch one of the characters choose blissful illusion over nasty reality. Video game, anyone? At least in this future the machines find humans useful — as batteries.
Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) The alien machine built around the Voyager probe is searching for meaning and regards humans as an infestation.
The Terminator (1984) All I need to say is, “I’ll be back.” Once again man is an infestation that needs to be wiped out.
December 16th, 2016
Stories should be a true experience for readers. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. This depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful as readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean. This not only delivers another shade of meaning to whatever is being described, it also promotes word economy because, by its very nature, symbolism allows us to convey more.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute. But as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize this personal symbol for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer that draws readers deeper into the story. The setting itself can become a symbol as a whole should you need it to. A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary.
More often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize. Choosing something within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently. In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
Motifs: Symbolism on a Larger Scale
Connecting readers with our stories is what we all hope to achieve as authors. This is why the stories we write often contain a central message or idea—a theme—that is being conveyed through its telling. Sometimes the theme is deliberately included during the drafting stage; other times, it organically emerges during the writing process. However it occurs, the theme is often supported by certain recurring symbols that help to develop the overall message or idea throughout the course of a story. These repeated symbols are called motifs.
For example, consider the Harry Potter series. One of the motifs under-girding the theme of good vs. evil is the snake. It’s the sign for the house of Slytherin, from which so many bad wizards have emerged. Voldemort’s pet, Nagini, is a giant snake. Those who can speak Parseltongue (the language of serpents) are considered to be dark wizards. By repeatedly using this creature as a symbol for evil, Rowling creates an image that readers automatically associate with the dark side of Potter’s world.
Because motifs are pivotal in revealing your theme, it’s important to find the right ones. The setting is a natural place for these motifs to occur because it contains so many possibilities. It could be a season, an article of clothing, an animal, a weather phenomenon—it could be anything, as long as it recurs throughout the story and reinforces the overall theme.
Themes can either be planned or accidental. If you know beforehand what your theme will be, think of a location that could reinforce that idea—either through the setting itself or with objects within that place—and make sure those choices are prominently displayed throughout the story.
Need a bit of help finding the right symbol for your story?
Did you know we have a comprehensive Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers? Stop by sometime and explore the many possible symbols that can be used to enhance the deeper themes in your writing.
How have you used symbolism and motifs in your writing? If you haven’t, how would you like to use them to enhance your writing?
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of five bestselling writing books, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. She is passionate about helping writers succeed. Her site, One Stop For Writers is a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description, story structure, and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and at her blog, Writers Helping Writers.