Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Story Craft

Is there such a thing as story craft? You betcha. Doctors learn to diagnose and treat patients, lawyers master the rules of law, plumbers plumb and scientists tap the secrets of the universe. So why is it so difficult for aspiring writers to believe they should learn how to craft a story?

Writing is Writing is Writing

No, it’s not. There are many different kinds of writing forms, and just because you can write an essay or a technical document does not mean you know how to craft a story. When I was a reporter/journalist/freelance writer, my world revolved around making sure I had the facts down correctly. One of the first things we learned was the upside down pyramid where you cram in all the most interesting information about the subject you are reporting on. That’s because chances are the reader may never get beyond the headline and the first paragraph.

While you do use a similar technique in crafting a story, you only give away enough to hook the reader and reel them in.

Crafting a story means exposing yourself by allowing your imagination to run free. And that can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and open yourself up to ridicule. But it can also allow you to create an incredible world with characters that are so interesting, they fly off the page and become real. As Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files says “Writing is the original virtual reality.”

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

1. It all begins with a workable idea. Ideas are cheap, and are everywhere. But your idea is just an extremely flimsy skeleton. The hard work is figuring out whether you have enough meat in that idea to cover those bones.

2. Structure and technique are necessary constructs that a novel must possess in order for the reader to not be confused about what’s happening. This includes choosing a point of view and deciding where to begin your novel. In media res which means ‘in the middle of action’ is the best way to begin. Capture and hook your reader.

3. Creating a plot (and sub-plots) that is cohesive, exciting and full of conflict for the protagonist. Throwing in a few red herrings helps, if you can carry it off. But most importantly, learning how to manipulate your reader’s emotions so he/she cares about the protagonist is one of the tenets of story craft. If you can get the reader to care, he/she will have no choice but to continue reading

4. Learn how to write engaging dialogue that furthers the plot, and has a specific purpose. Story dialogue, as I’m sure we all know by now, is not conversation. It should sound like a well-honed conversation, but devoid of all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and inane bits that conversation usually is jammed with. Dialogue is always there for a reason. Read it out loud so that you can ensure that it sounds realistic.

5. Think about a baseball player. They make it seem so easy to catch a flyball, or wham a home run. But that comes after hours upon hours of practice. Write, write and re-write until your story reads like it was so easy to write.

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

Writing out of Sequence

Credit: Twitter.com

Does it matter if you are writing out of sequence? Not starting your novel at the beginning, progressing through the middle and finally to the conclusion? Do you jump around and write the scenes that excite and titillate you, make you feel alive and then try and rope the scenes together to make sense?

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing.

Advantages to Writing out of Sequence

Crafting those crucial scene allows you to capture your characters’ thoughts and emotions and allows your own thoughts and emotions to flow. When they do -hey, there’s no better time to hit those keys.

Allows you to stay energized and get the best parts of your story down. Why wait, when you can write? Go for it. It can help your story take shape, and/or set it on a path you didn’t think of before.

Skipping ahead allows you to fight writer’s block. Perhaps one character’s needs and actions are clearer than another’s.

Disadvantages to Writing out of Sequence

It makes it difficult to know where to slot your already-written scene in. The scene stands out like a giant thumb, and can drive you crazy trying to figure out how and where to stuff it into your novel.

If you have written all the juicy scenes, it can sap the strength out of your writing. Leaving only transitional scenes to write can be boring, and taxing.

It can be risky. You might not know what to do with the scene once it’s written – it may not fit into your overall plot.

If you are a pantser, this might hinder you since you don’t necessarily know where your plot is heading to.

How do you write – in sequence, or out of?

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you from Writer’s Digest:

Instinctive Writing

Credit: mrmediatraining.com

Instinctive writing is like breathing. You do it naturally. If you pretend you are Robertson Davies (who I loathe) and try to write in his literary style (I call it dull and boring) you will fail. Similarly, if you mimic the high fantasy style of Georges R. R. Martin, you are dooming yourself to failure. That’s because you are not using your instinctual way of writing.

Talk to Your Readers

When I started this latest novel, I wanted to write high fantasy. It’s not an instinctive way of writing for me. And what I found was, while the nub of the story was exactly what I wanted – the style sucked … big time. I was copying someone else’s style, and of course, it didn”t work. Only when I used my instinctive style (which is more conversational, and in the contemporary/urban genre) did my story start to pop, and work.

Can Instinctive Writing be Taught?

Yes, I think so. If a writer is struggling and his/her prose sounds stilted – STOP writing immediately. Get a recorder, or your phone and tape what you want to say. Better still, tape yourself telling someone else your story. Chances are the words will flow because you’re allowing your instinctual self to take over. Not thinking about words, and phrases, and sentences – just the story. You can fix the flow later. What you want is the raw emotion and power that flows out of you.

I’ve said this so often I’m sick of hearing it from myself – but, GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel a character must say or do something even though it’s not in your plot outline – go with it.

Write the Clichés

Sounds like crazy advice, but this is your first draft and if the cliches allow you to show what your character feels or does – go with it. You can fix up the clichés later.

Stop Line Editing

You can do this later. Instinctive Writing means go with the flow. No over-analyzing and over-thinking. Let your gut take over.

 

 

Cliches and How to Ditch Them

Cliches creep into your writing without you noticing them. I just started the first draft of a new novel, and discovered that not only was the working title a cliche – the entire piece I’d written was full of them. I counted perhaps four in the first chapter alone. Shocking, but it’s a first draft so who cares? The purpose of a first draft is to get your story down. Finessing comes later.

Once I noticed the amount of cliches, I started to look for them in my student’s work and discovered something noteworthy. You can often ditch cliches and your sentence not only works fine, it sounds better and the meaning comes through even stronger.

You can find any amount of cliche examples if you troll the internet, but here I’ve chosen some examples from work I’ve edited and critiqued. Once these writers realized their attraction to cliches, they ditched them and came up with novel ways of re-arranging their sentences and pumping up the originality

Examples of cliches (with apologies to my students)

He sucked in his breath
Blood rushed to his face
With a deep breath
Chalking it up
Caught in the crosshairs
Blood pounding in her head
Whipped around the corner
Stifling a cry
Heart jumped in her throat
Time stood still
Sweat rolled down my neck
Chin trembled
Breath bursting from puffed cheeks
Chill ran down her spine
The hair on her arm stood up

The problem with cliches is not that the words used are inappropriate – sometimes they can be just the wording you need. The problem is they have become trite through over-use, and it gives the impression that the writer is lazy and un-original.

Once you clue in to your cliched writing, you will discover that it’s quite easy to come up with new ways to say the same thing. Don’t believe me? Try it, and find out.

Aspiring Author Advice from Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is author of one of my favorite fantasy series: The Dresden Files. He’s also pretty inspiring when he rants. Aspiring authors – read on for great advice I pinched off his Live Journal blog.

The Most Important Thing an Aspiring Author Needs to Know

I’ve been giving a lot of advice on technique in this journal, an introduction to the craft and science aspects of writing a solid story. Now I’m going to briefly venture off into new territory. I thought I’d start by telling you the most important thing you need to know if you want to be a professional author: TANFL.

There Ain’t No Free Lunch.

Nothing worth doing is easy. Nothing worth having comes free. That’s as true in life as it is in your prospective writing career, but I think it’s important enough that it needs to be said.

Writing is a LOT of work. Breaking into the industry is a torment worthy of the fifth or sixth circle of Hell. Face that. Expect it. Deal with it. It’s going to be difficult.

It’s difficult from the get go: you’ve got to work your tail off and give yourself carpal tunnel just to make it to the front of the rope-line outside Club Author. There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get in. There probably aren’t going to be very many people who are actively supporting your efforts. You’ll probably have more than one person say or do something that crushes your heart like an empty Coke can. You’ll probably, at some point, want to quit rather than keep facing that uncertainty

In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it’s important:

THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.

And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you’ve wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can’t handle it.

But here’s the secret:

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.

No one but you.

If you want it, you have to get it. You. An author can’t help you. An editor can’t help you. An agent can’t help you. If you want to climb that hill, the only way to do it is to make yourself do it, one foot in front of another, one word after another. It will probably be the greatest challenge most of you have ever faced.

And here’s the kicker: THAT IS A VERY GOOD THING.

If you stay the course and break in, you are going to acquire a ton of absolutely necessary skills. You have to learn to motivate yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it: Discipline. You’re going to have to learn the ropes of the business, and how to work with an editor: Professionalism. You’re going to face what might be years of adversity, facing a monumentally difficult task and you’re going to overcome it: Confidence. You’re going to do it with very little active support, and when you look back at this time in the future, you’re going to know that it was something YOU did all by yourself: Strength.

TANFL, guys.

Breaking into the business is a daunting challenge. But you aren’t going to BEAT that challenge. You’re going to transcend it. The very nature of the adversity is going to give you the strength and skill you need to overcome and succeed.

You want in? Here’s what you do:

1) Make up your mind that you are going to protect your own dream. If you’ve got its back, your dream is invincible.

2) Cultivate patience. Prepare for the long haul. Building your skills to a professional level can take years. So can building your professional character.

3) Put your Butt In the Chair and start writing. Period. No excuses. There is no substitute for BIC time. It’s part of the price you pay.

4) When you get done with a word, write another word.

5) Repeat steps 4 and 5 until your dream comes true.

Secret number 2– THE PAIN IS WORTH IT. If it had taken me TWENTY years instead of nine, IT STILL WOULD BE WORTH IT.

Cause here’s what you get: ding.

When it’s all done and you’re holding your first novel in your hand, you’re going to look back at your breaking-in period and wonder what all the drama was about. All the things that wrenched you inside out during the torment will suddenly seem small and unimportant. Know why? Because much like Scott Pilgrim, you have leveled up. Ding.

You’re going to look back at that time with pride, having overcome seemingly impossible odds against succeeding. You’re going to look at upcoming challenges as if they were a bottle of champagne to be savored and then gleefully smashed.

The true reward of breaking into the industry against all the odds isn’t money. It isn’t fame. It it isn’t respect.

It’s you.

It’s confidence. It’s satisfaction. It’s well-deserved pride. Suddenly, the other challenges in your life are going to dwindle as well, because you know you’ll be able to handle them.

TANFL.

Ding, baby. Ding.

Go write.

 

Plotters and Pantsers

Credit: Ann Again

Plotters and pantsers is a literary phrase often used by writers.

I confess I’m a pantser. I’ve tried hard to plot. In fact, right now I’m in the midst of an excellent book on writing called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. And everything he says makes absolute sense … except for the fact that I find it overwhelming. He’s fantastic; he gives you examples for everything he talks about … but nevertheless, if I was to follow everything he mentions I would go raving mad and totally incapable of writing a single word.

Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files (which I love – please God, let him finish the damn books) has a whole series of articles on writing a novel. He breaks down the craft into more manageable nuggets which I will paraphrase and share in forthcoming posts – sometimes teaching someone else something helps to drill it into your own brain. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

The final person who I’ve looked to for help is Chuck Wendig whose maniacal posts are not just a hoot to read; they actually do help you to understand some of the ways you can improve your writing skills.

But the bottom line is when you are writing your first draft, it’s just too difficult to think of breaking everything down and plotting your story with a mind to symbolism, theme, moral argument, beliefs and values, desire, drive … yikes! I’m already getting a headache.

I think that all comes after you’ve got the essentials of your story down. I start with an idea, and that idea changes many times before I’ve got it down pat. Once the characters have some kind of personality, I let them do the talking, and let them suck me into their world and tell me what they’re doing and what the plot is; what they have to overcome and how they plan to do it. That, to me, is what pantsers do (so called because they fly by the seat of their pants).

Plotters of course plot everything out before they write – and that’s a good thing if it works for you.

Plotters or pantsers – let me know what you are.

Intro to Novel Writing

This Intro to Novel Writing post is for newbie writers who’d like to take a stab at having the best fun in the world.

Step 1 – Put on Your Thinking Cap

Every successful book starts with a kick-ass idea. Without that, you’ve got nothing. So, how does one come up with that awesome idea?

What best-selling author Stephen King does is to ask the question – what if? He says he then takes two unrelated ideas and sees if he can get them to work. That’s how he came up with the plot of Carrie. Two unrelated ideas – adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. With over 50 published books (most of them best-sellers) his formula apparently works!

You can find good ideas everywhere. Look up unusual and interesting facts, take an actual murder case or an event you’ve read about or seen on television and make it your own. Change the characters and the setting – perhaps even certain elements of the event and throw in some other incidents and voilà – you’ve got the possible foundation for a great story.

Step 2 – Elaborate Your Idea

Now it’s time to do some serious thinking. You don’t want to just copy a story you’ve read somewhere. That would be plagiarism. What you want to do is take the scenario you’ve come up with and figure out who the main characters are (more about this in the next step). Next, it’s time to let your mind wander and wonder:

  • I wonder what would happen to character X if he was an athlete, or an alien, or secretly married to twins.
  • I wonder what would happen if character X spent his/her childhood as a changeling, or his parents were Russian spies, or perhaps he can remember NO childhood. What caused his amnesia?
  • I wonder what would happen if character X was really a fairy or an alien pretending to be a human? Or what if character X had the power to annihilate the world by clicking his fingers – what would happen?

Step 3 – Characters

Novels are populated with people. So you must come up with a main character who the story will be about. For example, J.K. Rowling’s famous series Harry Potter is … about Harry Potter. But Harry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Harry interacts with his friends Ron and Hermione and with his enemies like Voldemort. He has a family, albeit one that hates him, and interests like playing Quidditch and getting into trouble.

So too, must your characters.

Who are the characters that will people your world? Does your main character have a family? Has she lost her family in a vile and cruel way, or maybe she grew up in foster homes. Give her a background, physical traits and a job. Give her likes and dislikes.

Step 4 – Conflict

Interesting stories are full of struggles. If your hero gets the girl right away – where’s the story and why would anyone care enough to read to the end of the book. The characters in your story need to have a quest. There must be something they hope to achieve and there must be something or someone who is always in the way, preventing them from getting to their goal. The bigger the struggle to overcome, the better the book.

Step 5 – Sub-plots

No character in real life or in a novel lives in a vacuum, pursuing just one thing in life. In reality, we might be accountants who enjoy writing the next great novel at night; we might be a mild-mannered journalist by day and Superman by night. So too, your characters. Give them layers – that’s what a sub-plot means. Perhaps your hero is trying a man for murder, but that’s not all he does. He probably has a love life on the side and perhaps it’s not going well, or maybe his mother has upped and married a man who is younger than him and because of that your hero can’t concentrate on the job he’s got to do. Have fun coming up with sub-scenarios.

Step 6 – Read & Write

Read books in the genre you are writing. Romance writers should be soaking up as much romance as they can. If you’re reading about it, that’s fine. If you’re experiencing it, even better. If you enjoy writing thrillers, read them as well. A good writer is a voracious reader. Learn from the books or soak it up through osmosis.

Now comes the toughest, but most fun, part. SIT DOWN AND BEGIN TO WRITE.

Congratulations & Next Steps

If you’ve followed Steps 1 – 6, you’ve generated a few solid ideas and have come up with a plot line or two. You’ve learned a few techniques and you’re raring to get started. Do it. Start writing. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’d like input from others to find out whether your story is actually interesting: are your words making sense? are your characters compelling? do you even have a plot?

Beyond-the-Lamppost Weekly classes can help you.

You can join the Lamppost Writers Weekly Classes held in Oakville, Ontario. There is something for everyone to choose from. Small classes of not more than 8 students mean lots of individual attention to focus on your writing’s strengths and weaknesses.

OR

Sign up for the 12-week Online Creative Writing Classes. Each week you’ll send me 3-5 pages of your novel and each week you’ll receive in-depth feedback on your work to help you grow as a writer. Also expect to receive a weekly handout to help you understand the intricacies of creative writing.

Writing Fantasy

The biggest Do of writing fantasy is letting your imagination run free – after all, it is a fantasy that you are writing. However, within your fantasy world you need to have some rules. You get to make up the rules, but … you must abide by them – and it must be believable. It helps to make notes on your fantasy world, giving it a history and peopling it with characters so that it becomes real to you. But unless you are writing high fantasy, you won’t need to reach to the level that J.R.R. Tolkein or Georges R.R. Martin went to. (Is there some spooky coincidence to them both bearing the R.R. middle initials?)

Beware Cliches

Whether you are writing high or low fantasy, or even urban fantasy – there are many creatures
that have now become cliches: dragons, vampires, and werewolves are common examples. Does that mean you can’t use them? Not at all. It means you need to find something fresh about them – forget twinkling vampires – Stephanie Meyer beat you to that in the Twilight series, plus that was the weakest point in her book, if you ask me.

World Building

This is the fun part. You get to decide what type of a world it is, whether magic is a natural resource or a treasure that only few can possess. You get to create continents and oceans and people. You are a God, but just like God put certain physical rules into place – you have to do the same. He was consistent. Gravity is something that is felt over the entire world – not just in North America or Asia. In the same way, make sure you remain consistent in whatever you choose.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America‘s website is a resource that all fantasy writers should explore. This particular page (see link above) lists tons of questions which will help you build your fantasy world.

Staying Focused on a Single Story

Credit: Attitudes 4 Innovation

I know I have trouble staying focused on a single story – and that’s good and bad, depending on how fast the ideas flow and how fast you write.

Staying focused on a single story allows you to put all your efforts into getting the manuscript done, polished and edited and finally out the blinking door and onto a literary agent’s doorstep. Then, you can start on something else.

But having more than one story going at a time works for those of us who find that if they’re stalled on one plot line, can continue working on something else at the same time and – voila! At the end – you have two novels for the price of one!

Pulled in all directions? Have great story starts that go nowhere? Mind too full of ideas? Here’s what to do.

How to Keep on Track

1. Weekly classes definitely help to keep you on track since you are forced to cough up 1,500 words each week. The pressure, as many of us know, forces the brain to produce.Look at the Big Picture

2. Set a goal and tell the world … or perhaps just those who are supportive. If you know you have a deadline of a year to complete your novel, and you have a personality that sets store by deadlines – you will honor it and reach your goal. Give yourself some motivation for getting there. It could be anything – from a new app to a fancy new outfit – whatever will give you the impetus to get there.

3. On the flip side of goals and deadlines are penalties which you can give yourself or a trusted accomplice to exact. It could be monetary or whatever you determine, but it must be something that will hurt, if even just a little bit.

4. Force yourself to write or dictate into a phone a certain amount each day. I find that inspiration often hits me when I’m walking Indy, so I always carry my phone around and talk into my memo app. I may look like a fool to people who pass me by, but hey! who’s laughing when I’m that much further along in my manuscript.

5. Brainstorming with your writing group can also help to keep you on track. Enthusiasm is infectious and if your writer friends are enthusiastic about where your story is going and what your characters are doing – you’ll get fired up again and the creative thoughts will begin to flow again.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest

Capturing Ideas

Credit: Clarice Bajkowski

They’re everywhere, but capturing ideas and transforming them into a coherent and gripping story is what’s difficult. In fact, sometimes ideas can be overwhelming. It’s tough to actually sit down and convert them into something worthwhile. Other times, it’s a challenge to carry through on an idea and see it to the end. Is it good? Bad? Indifferent?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In writing, there is first a creating stage–a time you look for ideas, you explore, you cast around for what you want to say. Like the first phase of building, this creating stage is full of possibilities.”

Capturing Ideas

In this technological age – the phone is king. There is a notepad ready, so you can let your
fingers do the walking or (if like me – you are walking your dog) you can turn on the microphone and let the ideas reel out of you and into your trusty phone. Just be prepared for some nonsensical words – I find the mic is great at substituting silly words for what it thinks you are saying. Speak slowly and clearly, or you’ll find you have created a new language that is incomprehensible even to you!

You can also use the camera to capture images that inspire you.

Photo courtesy of waferboard on Flickr

Notepaper and pen or pencil is still a writer’s best friend. Never leave home without it. Your phone may die, technology may come to an end, but if you’ve captured your ideas on paper, you’ll breathe easier knowing your thoughts are there for you to retrieve when you need them.

Sticky notes are another great tool for capturing ideas that pop into your head when reading a novel. Something a character says, or a phrase that catches your eye could lead to something momentous. Grab a sticky note and paste it in the book along with whatever it is that gave you your eureka moment.

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