Posted by: writerjames | March 7, 2011

Don’t Lose Your Voice

I’m all for revising and revising and revising.  I’m also all for getting feedback from as many sources as possible.  I’m a member of a writing group, which I highly recommend, and I’ve gotten tons of great advice from other writers.  Hopefully, I’ve given them some too.

Sometimes, though, you can try TOO hard to take advice.  After a group reading, it’s not hard to fill pages and pages with things that the group says you need to fix or change.  Some of the advice you’ll get will be valuable, some will not.  Remember that it’s still your story.  You make the decision on what to change and what to keep.  You have to weigh each piece of advice individually and decide what to do and what not to do.

I’ve seen a writer make so many changes and revisions based on the advice of others that they lose their voice in the process.  This is what you have to be careful of.  If that happens, you’ve lost yourself in the story, and it’s become a homogenized lump of nothing.  It becomes a story by committee.

A good story is the most important thing, but a writer’s voice is a close second.  That’s why readers seek out more books by a writer they like.  Even if they read one or two books by a favorite author that aren’t good, they usually still keep reading his or her stuff because they like and know the voice.  They’re comfortable with it.

Let the story come from within, then revise and revise and revise… carefully.  Make sure your voice is still in there when you’re done.

James

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Posted by: writerjames | February 2, 2011

Don’t Be Defensive!

As a writer, it’s easy to become defensive of your work.  That’s your baby on the page, and no one better say it’s anything but perfect.  I myself have fallen into that trap many times, and I’m sure I will again.  In order to improve our work, however, we have to fight the urge to defend what we’ve created  so we can open ourselves up to making the work better.

When you’re writing something, it’s a work of art.  It comes from inside you, and it is shaped by your imagination and your voice.  After it’s written, though, you have to treat it more like a product.  You want to sell it, so you want to make it as valuable as possible to as many people as possible.  If you look at it that way, it’s easier to seek out both constructive and destructive feedback so you can improve the product.

In a writing group, it can often be easy to grow comfortable with the people you read with week in and week out.  Sometimes, when a new member comes in with new criticisms, our feathers can get ruffled.  We think to ourselves, “Who the hell is this person to tell me…”

Fight that urge.  No matter who it is, whether or not you think you’re a better writer than them (egomaniac!), listen to what they have to say.  Use it.  Remember that in the end, it’s about making your work better.  That’s what is most important.  Pull and use whatever information you can from whoever is willing to give it to you.  Exploit all criticism.

If you want everybody to think what you’ve written is perfect and never give you any advice, go for it.  Good luck.

If you want to make your work better, however, lower your defenses.  You’ll be amazed how much valuable feedback is out there when you make the decision to seek it out and use it to your benefit.

James

Posted by: writerjames | August 21, 2010

The Great Show Versus Tell Debate

Okay, I’m back.  I’ve been terrible about putting up posts, but in the interest of kick-starting myself back into gear, I’m going to get back to it.

Show versus tell is something we all deal with, and “show don’t tell” comes up at least a few times per meeting when my writing groups get together.  The question is, is it correct?

I contend that like most things in life (including politics), the correct answer is usually somewhere in the middle.  I say that as writers, we should show and tell.  Blasphemy?  Let me explain.

When you write for the screen, you have no choice.  You have to show.  Unless you take the narration shortcut, it’s hard to tell in a movie or TV show.  When you write for the page, however, you have the ability to show and tell, and if you focus so hard on one that you disregard the other, you’re leaving a valuable tool in your toolbox.  We can show and tell, indeed it is one of our advantages in print, and we should use it.

The key, I believe, is balance.  Sometimes you need to show a reader something.  Sometimes you need to just tell them.  As you read and write, you’ll see where each one belongs, and as others critique your work and make suggestions, you can adjust.

I heard a while back about a show and tell exercise that I liked.  With two different colored highlighters, go through a chapter or two of your work.  Everything that can be shown on a screen, like in a movie, highlight one color.  Everything that cannot be shown, highlight a different color.  This will give you a good idea if you’re leaning heavily one way or the other.  If you think telling should be used sparingly, you can find out if you’re following your own advice.  If you believe more in balance, like I do, you should see an equal amount of the two colors.

In the end, I think “show don’t tell” is overrated.  I think some of the best writers show a lot, and some tell a lot.  As long as your characters and story are compelling, and the reader is enjoying the ride, is it really that big a deal at all?

Posted by: writerjames | December 28, 2009

Creating 3-D Characters

Hollywood has been trying for years to perfect the three dimensional movie experience, and with recent advancements in technology, 3-D is better than ever before.

When creating characters, it is also important to make them 3-D, meaning characters so real that they jump off the page at the reader.

There are a variety of ways to accomplish this, but what I like to do is create a bit of a backstory.  When I create a character, I don’t exactly give a lot of physical detail, because I like the reader to paint that picture themselves.  What I do try to do is give them a backstory that comes out here and there in the character’s emotions, dialogue and action.  Though I never reveal a lot of the backstory for some of my characters, I always keep it in mind, and it helps to shape how that character behaves and speaks.

Another important part of creating a 3-D character is allowing the character to evolve as the story progresses.  I love a story where I have a first impression of a character, but somewhere along the line, they do something that surprises me.  Sometimes, it’s a good guy who does something bad, sometimes it’s a bad guy who does something heroic.

A good example of this is the movie the Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis.  I love the way the characters in that film don’t always do what you expect them to do.  For example, Wes Studi as Magua spends the entire movie trying to kill the daughters of Colonel Munro, but his council instructs him not to.  Later, after a battle, one of the sisters eases toward the edge of a cliff.  Instead of taking the opportunity to push her to commit suicide, he beckons her back.  Another character in the Last of the Mohicans, Duncan, spends the movie trying to kill Hawkeye so he can take Cora from her.  In the end, though, he sacrifices his own life so Hawkeye and Cora can escape.  It is this kind of character development that gives a story more punch.

In my book, the Nature of Sand, the main character spends his youth despising his older brother, a football playing brute who doesn’t understand or care for his little brother.  When the story jumps forward twelve years and the brothers meet again, they have both grown and changed, and their relationship changes as well.  It would have been easy to keep the characters locked into a mold, but because they’ve developed into different men, the story is much better and more real.

Try to keep in mind that people change in real life, so they should change on paper.  Avoid flatness as much as possible in your writing, and your readers will appreciate it.

Posted by: writerjames | November 6, 2009

Creating Character Names

Names are important for a writer, because they are the first impression a character makes with the reader.  Strong names can leave a good impression, and make the character more memorable right from the start.  They can create an image of a person all by themselves.

Early on, I found myself falling into the trap of boring names.  I kept ending up with characters like Mike Baker and Mary Brown.  Not very memorable.  So I started by looking at what makes a strong character name.

Andy Dufresne from the Shawshank Redemption.  Robert Langdon from the DaVinci Code.  Andy and Robert are pretty basic first names, but it’s the way they’re used that makes them more effective.  Andy was more fitting for that character than Andrew.  Robert was more fitting than Bob.

The last name can be a great place to make the name unique and memorable.  Using an uncommon name, unique spelling, or a name with a foreign origin can give it that pop you’re looking for.

Even in genres, where names are more unique than the real world, the name can go a long way to creating the character.  Frodo Baggins.  Zaphod Beeblebrox.  If you’re writing this kind of story, the gloves are off.  Have some fun.  Make it truly memorable.

I invested in a couple of second-hand baby name books, and that has helped.  One of them, Cool Names for Babies, has a lot of different and unique names, which is very useful.  It’s filled with names like Dakota and Leon, Rafferty and Indigo.  Cool names.  It’s easy, though, to go too far when populating your story with these characters.  They’re cool and all, but it’s important to realize that the world is also filled with Mikes and Marys.  Sprinkle evenly for maximum effectiveness.

For last names, I still find myself looking in a lot of different places for ideas.  I try things like phone books, yearbooks, CD covers, and the internet.  Websites are filled with government legals, family trees, stuff like that.

In my current story, a lot of characters have Mexican names, so I’ve used the internet more than anything else.  I also like to use nicknames.  One character in my story is called Little Paul, which fits him very well.  Another, an older Mexican-Apache man, is called Tio, which is Spanish for uncle.

Naming characters can be a struggle.  I think I’ve probably had to work harder to name some of my fictional characters than my wife and I have to name my real daughters.  Crazy, but true.  If you have naming ideas, references that you use, or tips or tricks, let me know.  It’s something I still struggle with, and I’m sure I’m probably not alone.

James

Posted by: writerjames | October 25, 2009

the Nature of Sand

I’ve decided to go ahead and upload the first six chapters of the book I’m working on, the Nature of Sand.  I’ve spent a couple of years now on this story, and I’m hoping to finish it soon.  It has gone through a lot of revision as I’ve continued to evolve as a writer, and I’m anxious to hear what people think.  Thanks to Jason Kimerling, a graphic artist friend of mine, for designing the cover art.  Please feel free to click the link below, give it a read, and let me know what you think!

James

Nature of Sand First 50 Pages

TheNatureOfSandCoverV2

Posted by: writerjames | October 16, 2009

What Can a Writing Group Do for You?

When I decided back in late 2007 to try to make a serious run at getting my first book done and in some kind of shape, I found and joined a writing group.  There are different kinds of groups out there, and I believe there are several that meet in the Dayton area, but I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I just joined the first one I found.  Luckily, it turned out to be a good fit for me, and I’m still there.

My group meets twice a month in a local book store, and we meet for two hours or so per meeting.  There are usually around ten of us, and we take turns reading our work and then providing feedback.  The goal of this particular group is for all of us to be published authors, so the intent of the feedback is to provide valuable input from both a reader’s and an editor’s perspective.  We each have experience and knowledge that we’ve gained from industry books and magazines, and from publishing contacts, seminars and conferences, and we try to bring that knowledge together to benefit the group.

There are other kinds of groups out there, and recently we’ve had discussions about them as we debated whether or not we’re doing things in the most productive way.

Most notably, the two other types of groups we discussed are “fluff” groups, which only seek to compliment each other’s work, and “destructive” groups, whose primary purpose is to tear each others work apart in an effort to improve it.  Our group, we decided, is sort if in between “fluff” and “destructive”, which seems to work for us.

First, we try to highlight the positives we hear in the work, which I think is important to hear as a writer.  Sometimes something like, “I really loved the tension between the two characters,” can be just the boost you need to keep going.  Second, we try try be honest about what needs to be fixed or improved upon.  If a character seems one-dimensional, we say so.  If a conversation feels flat, we say so.  If an entire scene feels unnecessary or awkward, we say so.  Often, the advice can lead to extensive rewrites, but as they say, sometimes you have to murder your darlings.

In fact, it was a comment at a meeting that led me to completely rewrite one of the characters in my book.  People kept saying that Jake, the teenage journalist in my book, felt too goody-goody.  He was a great guy, and he was perfect, and everybody liked him, and he was… boring.  When I first heard these comments, I dismissed them.  Then I heard them again, and I listened.  And I realized they were right.  When I rewrote the character as a cocky, know-it-all kid with a chip on his shoulder about money and materialism, it provided a much richer relationship with his depressed and reclusive lottery-winning uncle.  Now there was great tension there, and the whole story made more sense.

Besides the feedback and advice, there are many other benefits to joining a writing group.  Just the exercise of reading and revising, with the feedback of several peers to draw upon, can strengthen you work.  As you begin to hear patterns and constant reinforcement of good writing habits, your own writing will improve.

Reading aloud is also good for a writer.  Sometimes you can write something, read it countless times, and you won’t hear something that’s wrong until you hear it out loud.

Another benefit is that by hearing the work of others and providing feedback, you will learn to analyze and provide feedback like an editor would.  In time, this will help you to be more critical of your own work.

The other benefit to being in a group is that it will encourage you to focus on your work.  Oftentimes, I find myself writing a scene and looking forward to reading it specifically to my group.

So if you’re an aspiring writer, and you’re ready to get serious about sharing your work with the world, start with a local writing group.  Not only will you feel less alone as a writer, you’ll feel more focused and knowledgeable because you’re commiting yourself to improving your craft.

James

Posted by: writerjames | October 7, 2009

Stephen King’s On Writing – Required Reading

On Writing

If you’re a writer of fiction, you need to read Stephen King’s On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft.  Period.  End of story.  If you don’t want to read it, get it on CD.  King himself is the audio reader, which makes it even more interesting.  This is how I first heard it, then I rushed out and bought the book.  I’ve read or listened to it four or five times now, and I get something different and useful every time.

I don’t care if you’re a fan of King or not, this no-nonsense, cut-through-the-bull book is an invaluable resource for creators of fiction.  The fact is that King is one of the most prolific, talented, and disciplined writers of our time, and this is like a master course from the man himself.

The first half of the book is King telling his life’s story, from childhood all the way up to the car accident that almost took his life (Stephen finished On Writing as he recovered).  This part of the book alone is worth the price.  As King recounts the spike on his bedroom wall where he hung countless rejection letters, the sale of his first novel, Carrie, and his battles with substance abuse, it’s hard not to get caught up in both the tragedy and the triumph of his story.

What follows his story, though, is a front-to-back writing seminar that covers both the business of writing, and the writing itself.  It is this part of the book that will open your eyes as an aspiring writer.  Take notes or use a highlighter, because he moves fast, and he covers a lot of valuable information.

A few of my favorite points:

  • If you’re going to write, you also have to read.  A LOT.
  • Commitment is important.  King recommends writing 2,000 words a day to start, every single day.
  • Don’t plot out a story.  Create interesting characters, drop them into an interesting situation, and show what happens.  Don’t worry about plot.
  • Turn off the TV.

While I don’t necessarily agree with or practice every single thing King recommends (the TV thing is hard for me sometimes…), I love this book, and I highly suggest you read it if you’re serious about being a writer.

If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.  And if you’ve read other books that you feel are equally valuable, let me know about them as well.

James

Posted by: writerjames | October 4, 2009

The New Wild West

I just attended the Writer’s Digest Editors’ Intensive event this weekend, and my head is still spinning.  Aside from the fact that I got great feedback from Alice Pope about the first fifty pages of my manuscript (which she seemed to really like), I also came home with a lot of valuable information about both the traditional query-agent-book publisher route, and the new wild west that is the electronic world of books.

As a writer, I’m amazed at what we were told we could do online without in any way affecting our attempts to go the traditional route.  I guess I always thought it was taboo to do things like put chapters of a manuscript online for people to read, but apparently I was wrong.  Not only is it okay to do these things, it seems like it might help your chances of getting published.  If you are able to grow a following online before you even land an agent, it’s proof that you can build an audience.

There are other possibilities as well in this new frontier where there are not yet any set rules.  New technologies such as Amazon’s Kindle, the iPhone, and others are pointing toward a future where it may be possible to be a successful writer without going the traditional route at all.  With a small amount of knowledge, you can put work up for sale on the internet, effectively bypassing the agents and publishing houses altogether.  This may seem ambitious, but it is possible.  The kicker is, even this doesn’t have any bearing on a print deal, because the two worlds are completely separate.

I left the event this weekend feeling excited about the opportunities that are out there in the online world.  This is my first ever blog, so I’m learning as I go, but I plan to keep heading west and panning for gold.  We’ll see what happens…

James

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