Saturday, April 23, 2016

One Simple Way to Help You Write Better Fiction(language)

I think the tell and show problem happens because in the throes of creation we're grasping for main points of action and reaction and variations of them. We want to get them down before we lose them. I do this. A lot.

So what happens is we get the structure of a paragraph wrong for fiction. Our paragraphs, in an inexperienced writer this can be many, many paragraphs, become structured like we learned to structure them in our high school essays. Topic Sentence. Development of that topic sentence. Repeat and repeat and repeat.

We tell the reader what we're about to show them and then we show them.


And we don't see it because we tell ourselves we are showing. But the problem is we're telling first and then we're trying to show with the rest of the paragraph.  Causes lots of problems. For example, it drains a paragraph of suspense. If you tell the reader what will happen first and then show it, well they know, don't they. It makes the paragraph feel repetitive and sometimes clunky. Often it will even undermine development of the paragraph because the author won't see choices he would if he were in the mind of his character moving forward. Above all, it weakens the verisimilitude of the paragraph.

Instead of telling and then showing--just show. We want our paragraphs to stay in the POV of the character experiencing the scene. We want to experience it with them. See it through them.

Like I said. I still tell and show. But in revision I'm conscious of this problem and I look for it and do my best to stay in POV. I think it's made my fiction stronger. Hope this helps.

Friday, April 1, 2016


Once I know the ending, and sometimes this takes me a while, a draft even, I can start figuring out how to design my novel. I need to know where I'm going  to know how to get there, to make every scene work toward that destination. Endings, so important.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Write like You. Who can do that better?

Most important? Write like you. Who can do that better? Find your way of expressing your way.

It's hard at first. New writers often want to write like the writers they love. They mimic them in various ways. That's OK. Writers will get past trying to be the writers they admire if they keep writing. You can't be those writers. Only they can so...


Write what you love. Write what you love to read and watch. But also write from your passions, things that you care about, people, your life. You are unique and you will write in a way that is like no one else.

Put your quirks into your writing. The details of you will help shape the details in your writing.

Keep experimenting, evolving, trying new things that are just beyond your abilities. Being you doesn't mean you write one way. It means you write with all the complexity that is you. And you grow and change as a writer. Embrace that.

Tell the stories that you have to tell, that call to you at a particular moment in time. They're the ones you have to find a way to get on the page or screen or whatever. They're the ones that are most likely to teach you how to write them and others like them.

Writing is a journey. It's a life-long journey and the journey is what's most important. You may never find the perfect you or the perfect story but the search--frustrating, rewarding, infuriating, troubling, engaging--is one of the things that puts life in life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Take What Your Stories Give You

Big Believer in Boom Factor

I've written about the martial art of writing. I've done martial arts and I noticed that writing is like it in this way: you have to do a lot of things at once without thinking when you write. You can do this because you've studied each skill separately and because you've practiced a lot. I still think this is true. But I was thinking as I walked Merlin the dog

(which is where I do some of my best thinking, such as it is, which is why one of my best pieces of advice for becoming a writer is that you get a dog and that you walk your dog) that even though I now pre-write more than I used to and plan --as I'm working along but still--a lot more than I used to, I STILL DISCOVER new connections and twists and turns in plot and character and new setting ideas as I go along. I think this is because it's the mix, the way the various elements of writing interact  (language, characters, story, setting, conflict) and the way this creates new  insights and new--the technical term is BOOMS--BOOMS in the manuscript. You have to allow this to happen, throw out all your plans and plotting and whatever when it does. Because these booms--or sometimes just tiny and subtle shifts--help you to take your story to places you couldn't have imagined until you do-

To me, this is why formulas do not solve all writing problems as their proponents sometimes claim. It's a big reason why fiction writing can't be reduced to Step 1, Step 2...there's this constant interaction and it creates NEW. The writer has to react to NEW. If she/he does it well, finds the right moves, the manuscript improves. If not--

Learning skills, practicing skills will help you make those right moves but you have to be open to taking what your story gives you, too.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

How do you finish a first draft? Low Expectations

 The trick to writing and finishing a first draft of a novel is simple. Ready? Low expectations. I’m not saying you should adopt this as a philosophy for life, but for a first draft of a novel,  absolutely. A first draft is a pale version of what you will eventually revise your novel into. If you accept that, you can allow yourself, give yourself permission,  to write it, to progress onward through the fog. Yes, the draft will be very much less than you want. Yes it will be so much less than the best you can do.  Yes, yes. But constantly stopping to revise, being disappointed by the awkward language or the less than compelling narrative or the development of character, can wear you down and cause you to give up.  And that means never finishing. LOOK, of course, sometimes you should give up. Sometimes the draft just isn’t working. But many times writers quit simply because they get discouraged by how much less their first draft is than the vague but compelling first vision they had for their story. Don’t let that stop you.        


            One way I think about this is my first draft is like a movie that is out of focus, and with a soundtrack that’s a little off--bits of dialogue going in and out, the wrong songs…you get the idea.  My first draft might have nice moments here and there but overall it’s an embarrassment.  My next drafts are my attempts to bring the story into focus. I do this in a number of ways. I make my description more concrete, more sensory. I tighten info dumps. I give dialogue subtext. I work on the precision and flow of my language. I go through the plot for weak moments. I deepen characters. I try to make motivations clearer and on and on…there are so many things I do. And I get to do this because that’s what REVISION is. And for me writing is revising. I get something on the page and then I work with it and work with it and it gets closer to that vision that  inspired me to want to write the story in the first place.
            But to get to that I have to endure the first draft, parts of which, by the way, are very fun because I discover all kinds of things. That said, it’s never easy—low expectations.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Characters Who Surprise

There are so many things to talk about when you get to thinking about character. We want characters who surprise us--in a good way. By that I mean not in a WTF way--that character would never act like that. Or, I don't understand at all why that character would do what he did or think what he thought. One of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have them feel a character is inauthentic, that he is doing things because the author needs him/her to do them. But a real surprise that fits with the character, those can really involve a reader.

One way to do this is to have the character play against a certain Trope. See this clip from Firefly for a great example of this. The hero acts in a very different way than most heroes and it both reveals characters and entertains...

Another way to do this is to make a character act against some controlling belief they have in themselves. Like they think they're evil and they have done lots of evil things because of this. But some shift in the plot causes them to see the event or time that makes them believe themselves evil in a different light. This causes them to do something that is surprising and different and that also makes their character grow. Anytime a character's actions can advance both character and plot, that's a good thing.

Another way to make a character different (and so surprising) is just to put a character in a situation that would usually be taken by a different kind of character. Make a Buffy a vampire slayer instead of the heroic warrior or make a detective have some personality trait that seems like it would make it hard for them to do the job but, in fact, also helps them to do it. For example, MONK. Not your usual tough-guy detective and interesting because of that.

In screenwriting there is this idea that audiences love the familiar and strange in plot. They want to recognize the type of story they're being told but they want to have twists to it that make them feel they're watching something that is also completely new. I think this is something to shoot for with characters. And one aspect of that is creating surprises.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Story ideas are everywhere

When people learn I'm a writer (at a party or some social event--not a writing function), they often tell me they have an "idea" for a story. It is a great idea they tell me. An idea so original that they are certain it will make them a million dollars. They simply don't have time to write it. Maybe I would like to write it and we'll split the profit 50/50?


Their idea--if they manage to tell me over my protests that I couldn't possibly rob them of half their million dollars simply for writing a few hundred pages --is usually very bad. It frequently isn't even an idea, just a vague notion or a family anecdote.

But even good ideas are fairly common.

An idea for a story, to me, involves a character in some kind of situation. In my writing class last week, after some examples, I broke my class up into four groups and gave them each ten minutes to come up with ten story ideas. All four groups did and two of them came up with more than ten. In ten minutes, the class had 45 story ideas. Granted, not all of them were stellar, but many of them were pretty darn good. This just illustrates how ideas are everywhere. The hard part is not coming up with  ideas but developing them into a full story. If you find the right idea--one you can be passionate about as a writer, one that engages and interests you--that is a great start to writing a story.

Or so I think today.