Category Archives: Tips for Writers

Trusting Your Gut Instinct

Credit: sharepickers.comm

Trusting your gut instinct is not as easy as it sounds. Years ago, when I first immigrated to Canada I worked as a secretary in a big paper company, right in the center of Montreal in the wonderful old SunLife Building. It was a great introduction to Canada, but I hated working as a secretary especially when I got promoted to be the Big Boss’ secretary. That meant I had to make him his daily cup of soup in addition to my other work. Grr, I absolutely detested it.

My Trigger for Change

But one day I visited a school friend of mine who worked at the World Bank in Washington. It was great fun until she made me cry. Yep, she got under my skin and made me feel awful because she made me realize one important thing (which I didn’t want to hear at that time) – I was in a job I hated and which did not suit me and … I could do so much better.

Once I got over my crying jag, I realized she was right. That’s when my gut instinct kicked in. I marched into my boss’ office (I wish I could say I told him where to stuff his cup of soup, but I didn’t) and quit to go back to university and get my Bachelor’s in Journalism.

That was the beginning of my belief in gut instinct. Whenever I’ve used it, it’s never let me down. When I’ve sat there analyzing my actions and decisions, I fall flat. My decision to become a writing coach was based on expertise – yes, but it was also based on my gut instinct that I could do the job. I had the qualifications, the knowhow and the temperament but most of all – my gut instinct told me I would be good at it. And it was right.

What does your gut instinct tell you?

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The Internet and the Writer

As a writer, I can safely say that the internet is a boon and a bane to me. So easy to waste time and energy getting sidetracked by Facebook, or by some research you knew you had to do. One click leads to another, and another and by the time you’ve scrolled through umpteen pages – it’s lunch time and you’ve written but a single paragraph.

1. Research

Everything is so much easier with the internet at your fingertips. Whether it be looking up a word or synonym in a thesaurus or finding the perfect name for your character from sites like fantasynamegenerator.com

I’ve researched agents, publishers, scrolled through dozens of blogs to learn about the publishing business, or to check on my favorite authors. You want it – it’s there.

2. Agent Tracker

Looking for agents for your book just became that much quicker and easier. All you need to do is type in your criteria into your favorite search engine and within seconds you can find all the literary agents you could possibly query.

3. The Miracle of Email

Once upon a time, you had to send your query and first pages in by snail mail. Not only did it cost a bundle, waiting twelve weeks or more for an answer was completely unfeasible. Nowadays, with a click of your mouse you can send your query out to as many agents as you want. How great is that.

4. Google Earth and YouTube

With Google Earth and the ever-expanding world of travel blogs, you can journey anywhere in the world and garner some cool virtual insight into places you know you’ll never be able to afford to visit. I had to do some research on Kolkotta and while I lived there when it was known as Calcutta, there’s a lot I’ve forgotten. Somewhere, someone has visited it and uploaded a wealth of information just for you.

5. Online Forums

I’ve used online forums like Absolute Write to check what others have thought of different agents – whether they respond back or just throw your precious words on the scrap head. I’ve also answered questions on sites like Quora so that others can benefit from something I know.

Just don’t waste your time.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

Rules for Writers

rulesRules I Agree With

Never open a book with weather – Agree (Boring)

Never use the words “suddenly”. Agree – within reason.

Winter 2016/2017
Creative Writing 101 – Tues. afternoons Jan. 10 – March 14 in Oakville – details HERE 
Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 11 – March 15 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 12 – March 16 in Oakville – details HERE

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Agree – it can become fatiguing quickly

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. Agree completely

Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK – Agree.

Carry something to write on at all times. Agree – you never know when inspiration will hit

If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick – Agree – don’t be stupid

If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page. – Agree. Doing nothing gets you nowhere

Give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Agree – it will bring your book alive

Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. Agree, within reason. If you keep changing your mind, you’ll get nowhere

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk – Agree, or sleep on it

Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. Agree – your job is to finish your book

Keep a diary. Agree – if you don’t you’ll regret all those great thoughts or character you forgot to jot down

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. Absolutely agree – don’t depend on just one idea

The way to write a book is to actually write a book. Absolutely agree – just do it.

Rules I Disagree With

Avoid prologues – Disagree (I read them all and find them fascinating)

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue – Disagree – Said is one of the best dialogue tags to use, but mix it up every now and then for variety

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” – Disagree –  They can be powerful when used with a discerning eye

Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Bah – humbug – Disagree –  J.K. Rowling uses them by the handful – on each page

Don’t write in public places. Disagree – Write wherever is right for you

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

 

Strong Female Characters

 

hermioneTen Tips for Creating Strong Female Characters

1. Strong female characters should be people first and female second. The fact that they’re women shouldn’t get in the way of their other traits – whether good or bad.

2. All the women in your novel need not be sexy. Are all your male characters gorgeous with no other characteristics?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

3. Most women are not wispy waifs or voluptuous Victoria Secret models. A woman can be attractive and not fit a stereotype.

4. Just because a woman is competent, strong and independent does not mean she has to be a Plain Jane. Think Buffy, Hermione Granger and Scarlett O’Hara.

5. Making your female character good at stereotypical boy things like an auto-mechanic in order to depict she’s a strong character is a cop-out. Sure, she can be a mechanic if that’s what she likes to do, but don’t do it for reason.

6. A lot of women will probably notice bad skin or frumpy outfits on another woman, but beyond that they won’t scrutinize the other woman too hard. They’re way more likely to notice a snooty expression or a false smile.

7. Not all women want marriage and children. Some want one or the other, some want neither. Likewise, not all women want to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Some want to be psychiatrists or artists or teachers or musicians…or whatever else – just like men.

8. Female characters should probably not be solely motivated by a need to have the approval or attention of a man. Or all men in general, really. Female characters who do this ought to change by the end of the story, and realize that their happiness shouldn’t depend on the whims of menfolk.

9. Avoid overly ‘man-hating’ women. Being empowered doesn’t mean she’s terrible to men just for being men—it just means she’s not stepped on for being a woman

10. Don’t have a female character just to have a female character. Make her a whole person.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest:

Real People in Fiction

kim-karMany times your plot might call for using real people in your story – is that kosher? Can you do it without being sued? For example, you might want to use the crazy Hell’s Angel character who happens to live on your street or a celebrity you may have met, or know about. Would you be sued?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 

Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

A Short Guide

  • Rule for celebrities are different than for us common folk. Their names and faces are worth money, plus they have the dough to sue you if they don’t like, or object to what you have written about them. If it is a dead celebrity, the rule is different, although there are exceptions (people who have died in California and some other states still have rights or perhaps it is their estates that have the right – you will need to find out about this for sure before you write about someone from such states).
  • Generally, once a person is dead, their rights die with them.spock
  • Generally, you cannot use a live person as a character in your book because it invades their privacy and there is a possibility that they could bring a libel suit against you if you have them (as your character) say or do something that goes against what they might actually do or say in real life.
  • Cameos are acceptable, especially if you use an actual event they attended or spoke at. Anything that you cull from an interview with the person can also be used. You cannot change the facts. If you say that your character looks like Paul Newman in one of his movies, that’s fine.
  • Ordinary people like your weird uncle or crazy aunt also have privacy rights. They may not sue you, but they will despise you and perhaps turn your family against you … or they could lap it up. You never know.

Strategies if you have to use a real person

  • Change their name and details so they cannot recognize themselves
  • Don’t make them look absurd or turn them into criminals. Most people would love the notoriety, but you just never know

There’s no law against using someone’s story to inspire your own. In fact, it is a common way for authors to get ideas. Alice in Alice in Wonderland was based on Alice Liddell as everyone knows and there are so many others.

In fact, we often use anecdotes and stories from our own life to kick-start our novels. And that’s great. It brings a certain veracity to your story. Just remember that there are others who are involved as well who might take exception to what you say – it is part of their life too, after all.

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Writing Good Prose

proseWriting good prose is an art worth cultivating. Many writers are adept at it, while others aren’t so good. Develop this skill if you expect to become a published author.

You probably have one short paragraph to capture a literary agent’s attention before they toss your masterpiece aside. So what should a budding novelist do?

Winter 2016/2017
Crafting Your Novel – Tues. afternoons Jan. 3 – March 21 in Oakville – details HERE 
Crafting Your Novel – Wed. afternoons Jan. 4 – March 22 in Oakville  – details HERE
Crafting Your Novel – Thurs. afternoons Jan. 5 – March 23 in Oakville – details HERE

Sharpen Your Writing Skillssharpening-steel-app1

An agent will be able to tell almost instantly if the writing has an amateurish cast to it. You may have the most intricate and exciting plot and a climax to beat all others but if the reader doesn’t get past your poor writing, your novel will never get published. Get rid of flat, boring writing. Juice up your prose, give your words depth and excitement. Grab them by their consonants and make them pay you for using them.

Good Quality Prose

Toss the hackneyed, trite and well-worn phrases. That means no clichés please. They’re stale, dull and often inaccurate. What exactly does ‘fit as a fiddle’ even mean? Invent your own metaphors and similes. They’ll freshen up your narrative and give it your own creative twist.

Simple and Direct

dickensLeave Dickens where he belongs – in the nineteenth century. His convoluted prose might have brought him top dollar and earned him a place in the classics but let’s face it – who talks like this anymore? “What extravagances she committed; what laughing and crying over me; what pride she showed, what joy, what sorrow that she whose pride and joy I might have been, could never hold me in a fond embrace; I have not the heart to tell.” This type of monologue worked for David Copperfield. It will not work for you. Instead, try being simple and direct. Say YES to short, active sentences and a resounding NO to passive, tortuous language.

Your Reader is Not a Fool

Hitting the reader over the hat with a fistful of adjectives will show you for what you are – an amateur writer. Good writers know to use them judiciously. Trust in your reader to use his/her head. Several adjectives in a row will most often, weaken your sentence. Delete some and see for yourself.

To Be or Not to Be

This verb, in all its different forms, can dull your prose and squash your writing. What are the different forms of ‘to be’? They are: ‘am,’ ‘is,’ ‘are,’ ‘was,’ ‘were,’ ‘be,’ ‘being,’ ‘been,’ and the future ‘will.’ Notice how often you use them and watch how they can turn a sprightly phrase into a stodgy, boring union of words.

Check out these articles from Writer’s Digest:

1. Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?
2. Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Horror.
3. How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens.

Foreshadowing or Telegraphing

banner_helpfulhints_lgWriters need to know whether they are foreshadowing or telegraphing in their stories but not everyone understands the difference.

By now, most of us know that we should go back and touch up our stories so that there is a hint of foreshadowing – so that our readers can look back and think ‘aha, that rascally author hinted at X, X and X and by god, I didn’t know it at that time.’

If you have done that, hurray and kudos to you. You’ve done it right.

If, on the other hand, you’ve dropped so many HINTS (and I use caps for a reason) that the reader has an easy time figuring out what will happen – you are guilty of telegraphing your plot instead of foreshadowing it.

Under no circumstances should your reader guess what your story is all about. After all, why bother reading it then. Right?

Sometimes, though, authors get so muddled up that what they think is foreshadowing is actually telegraphing. Make sure you are not guilty of this common mistake.

Foreshadowinghow-to-use-foreshadowing

In foreshadowing, the author drops enough hints so that the reader can whap the side of his/her head and think ‘oh god, I should have figured that out.’ It’s kind of like a mystery in many ways. Random characters that are woven in and out of the plot so that the reader questions who, what and why they are there is good. They should be able to be tied together by the end of the book and when the reveal is done, it should be a ‘eureka’ moment. That is good foreshadowing.

Good old J.K. Rowling and Georges R.R. Martin are past masters at this. Read, read and read these type of books to figure out their sneaky ways.

One great way of foreshadowing is to plop in clues after you have finished your first draft. Drive your readers insane. They will thank you in the end when they read your very satisfying ending that doesn’t gel with any of the theories they have formed in their own minds.

Telegraphing

telegraph-sounderHow often have you seen a movie where you have figured out the plot before the end? Isn’t it a massive disappointment? What’s the point of watching (or reading) something where you can predict the end?

Most of the fun is trying to do so, but not actually being successful.

If someone can guess correctly what’s going to happen to the main character, you’re telegraphing. This often happens when you are telling too much in your novel. Go back into your draft and obfuscate, confuse and muddle up your story line.

Bottom line – foreshadow, but do not telegraph.

Check out these articles from Writer’s Digest:

1. Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?
2. Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Horror.
3. How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens.

Backstory Basics

Credit: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com

Credit: http://emmawaltonhamilton.com

Backstory is all those fun, murky or intriguing little details of what happened before your hero’s crappy day that you portray on page one.

It gives reasons and excuses for events that happen in the now of your story. But it is crucial to remember that backstory isn’t now. And if you dump too much of the past in one shot, it will take the reader out of the action of the story. And leach out all the emotional power out of your story action.

What’s its Purpose

  • It’s what makes your opening page possible, inevitable, engaging.classic-backstory
  • It’s the history of both your story world and your characters. It’s the events and people who have shaped characters and story setting.
  • It is NOT your unfolding story but it is everything that makes that story possible and necessary and inescapable.

Backstory accounts for the why of the story events and actions that occur at the top of your story. It’s the explanation for your hero and villain’s attitudes and motivations and drives

How to Reveal Backstory

You can slip it in so it seems incidental, as if you were revealing something else, or you could explain it plainly so there’s no doubt you’re writing a paragraph of backstory.

Use both methods but know that they create different effects.

When backstory is dribbled in, revealed piecemeal, the reader learns a character, gradually developing an understanding of his motives. When laid out though exposition, the reader is clearly told what’s happened and perhaps how it affected character or elements of the setting such as how her father beat or abused her, or perhaps because she was forced to go to church. Who knows?

Direct explanation CAN pull the reader out of the fiction. Use it sparingly, because you don’t want the reader to feel he’s being lectured. Rather, you want them to get to know a character the same way we get to know people in the real world.

Show backstory through:

  • sections of exposition, perhaps at the top of chapters and scenes
  • dialogue
  • character thought and reflection
  • flashbacks
  • a prologue

Show backstory to:

  • reveal character motivation
  • slow the pace
  • set up subsequent scenes
  • provide meaning for events and character action and reaction
  • add veracity to a character’s stands and personality
  • provide distractions and murky motives and red herrings (yes, you can manipulate backstory for purposes other than straightforward revelation)

Remember the Paul Masson wine ads? We will serve no wine before its time? That should be your pledge regarding backstory: Never too early and always just enough.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest

Voice in Writing

what-voice-should-use-useVoice is the distinct style that you bring to your writing … and you need it big time. Think about listening to a person who has a boring, flat, monotone voice. Do you phase out and almost fall asleep listening to that person? It’s the exact same thing in a novel. If the voice you choose to write in has no color, no personality and no rhythm, your reader will glaze over and toss the book.

You can develop this voice only by allowing your inner self to run free. If you constantly worry about how someone will judge you by the words you use, you’ll end up getting stuck and your dry and boring prose will show it. Forget about what others think, let you imagination soar and allow your characters to shine through.

Steps to find the right voice for your story:5-steps-to-finding-your-writing-voice

  • Know the genre of your book. After all, someone writing a kid’s book will write in a different tone to someone writing a romance.
  • Visualize the characters. One of my writers (you know who you are) is fantastic at bringing to life old Hollywood characters. When I read her versions of characters like Ava Gardner and Truman Capote, I feel they come straight to life for me. The rhythm, cadence and choice of words are bang on. You can do this by watching, listening and imitating until you get it down pat.
  • Point of View is also important as the entire story unfolds through someone’s eyes and thoughts. Even omniscient voice must have a distinct personality – that of the narrator’s.
  • Choice of words can affect the voice of a story. Teenage girls talk in a particular rhythm and use specific slang. Some of my writers are really good at transcribing this particular voice (you know who you are) and when they sometimes falter and allow their own voice to show through – it is noticeable and jarring.

tonegraphicIs Tone and Voice the Same Thing?

No. Voice provides the personality of the story while tone sets the mood. And this mood is set by the author. It depends completely on whether the author wants the story to unfold in an amusing, grave, edgy, tragic or romantic effect – you get the drift.

Movies do tone perfectly. When you see a movie, you can immediately figure out they way the director wants your mind to work by the way the music builds. Jaws is a perfect example – when that ‘dadadaddadadada’ music starts up, you just know that shark is going to come and do something horrible. We even use that sound effect in our daily life when we want that same effect. That’s the tone of the movie.

Think about these aspects when writing your novel and make sure it is consistent throughout the novel.

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Convincing Dialogue

talkThe best way to write convincing dialogue is to remember that dialogue in fiction is NOT conversation.

It is a way of furthering the plot. It is never used just for the heck of breaking up the narrative.

If you listen to people talking in daily life, they use a lot of ‘hems’ and ‘haws’ – they leave sentences hanging and sometimes lose the thread of what they want to say. Donald Trump is a perfect example. Listen to him, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He makes no sense at all.

In fiction, people talk it perfect sentences and they don’t waste valuable time making small talk. In fact, even greetings are short and to the point, if used at all.

What Can Dialogue Do?

Dialogue in fiction is used to propel the plot and to flesh out personality traits or characteristics conversationof the people populating your story.

  • Give a character a speech impediment or accent (just don’t overdo it or it will cause problems) or even have them mis-use words. Ex: Mrs. Malaprop from Dickens
  • Use them to bring in backstory in a natural and convincing manner
  • Fill in gaps in the storyline through a dialogue between two characters
  • Gossip or talk about another character thereby allowing the reader to discover more about the absent person
  • Allow one person to eavesdrop on another’s conversation

Potential Mistakes

  • Having dialogue for the sake of it. Dialogue must always have a purpose.
  • Unnatural speech. Let the dialogue flow naturally. Make sure the speech is right for the character talking. Example: if the character is uneducated, he will talk a certain way. If a character is a teen, she will speak like someone in high school with slang words (don’t overdo or you will date your piece).
  • Very long monologues can be boring. Break up the speeches with some give and take between the characters and also make sure we know what they are doing while they are talking.
  • Dialogue tags should be unobtrusive. Once in a while, you might want to use an adjective or adverb, but use sparingly.
  • Go easy on the accents, or jargon, or slang. A word here and there to give the flavor of what you’re trying to convey goes a long way.
  • Try varying your characters’ speech patterns. We all have different ways of talking. I have a neighbor that starts every line with “Nothing …” and then launches off into a long story. Give your characters some personalized traits.

So even though dialogue is written as if two people are conversing, somehow you have to convey that it is natural. Not an easy task to do. The best way you can do this is to write the dialogue and read it out loud. When you read it out loud, certain aspects will stand out and you’ll be able to adjust so that the words flow more normally.

When you read a book you enjoy, parse it to see how the dialogue is written. I will often devour a book I enjoy and then go back and read it at leisure to understand why I enjoyed it so much. What worked? What made it so compelling? This is why it is so important to read if you want to write. You can learn so much.

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