Writing the Truth

Even if you’re writing a fiction novel, you’ll want to make sure that there is truth to what you’re writing. Are your characters believable? Are you consistent with their dialogue and personality traits? Like we’ve talked about before, you wouldn’t have a girl that’s afraid of the dark running outside in the middle of the night to check out a strange noise she heard. It’s important to avoid discrepancies like this in your novel.

At the beginning stages of your writing, you might still be changing and making adjustments to your story or your characters. Remember if you change something now, you should also be changing it in the rest of your novel. If a character starts out with blonde hair, but ends up having dark brown hair, unless you have a scene in which she goes to the hair salon, you need to make the hair color the same throughout. Your readers will pick up on this if you don’t. Likewise, if you change a character’s name, it’s very easy to hit Control R on your keyboard and replace the name in every instance in which it occurs.

It’s very important to stay in the writing mode while working on your rough draft, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes as you go. After all, that’s what writing is all about! And if you find that what you’re writing doesn’t sound real, or believable, by all means, change it! The most important thing about writing is to create the best experience you can for your readers. If it doesn’t sound right to you, it’s definitely not going to sound right to them.

Also, try to be as specific as you can with your details. Specific details are of utmost importance to the truth of your novel. If you’re talking about a bus, include a few describing details. What color is it? Is it a school bus, a greyhound bus, a city bus? If you go from “he got on the bus” to “he got on the blue school bus,” you create a scene your reader can picture, which will make all the difference in your novel.

Another tip I’ve learned that will help you always write the truth is to consider your five senses. Every scene you write, try to put yourself into it. Pretend you’re there. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste? Obviously, not all five will apply to every scenario, but chose the relevant ones, and use them. The more the readers know about your story, the more they will allow themselves to get lost in it.

Happy Writing!

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Write What Matters

If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers.  This doesn’t mean you should take on only big subjects – war, peace, love, hunger, oppression.  It means that if what matters to you is the way the light falls on the bougainvillea in the morning, that’s what you should write about.  If what matters to you is the relationship between sisters and brothers, then that’s what you write about.

Write about what interests you, what you don’t understand, what you want to learn more about.  Novelist Amy Tan said, “I write about it [mothers and daughters] because I don’t understand it, because it is such a mystery to me.  If it ceases to be a mystery, and if I were an expert on it, I wouldn’t write about it.  I like to write about things that bother me in some way, that I have a lot of conflict with.”

Reread your writing to discover recurring themes and images.  Look for hints and innuendos within spontaneous or stream of consciousness writings.  If you’re bored with what you’re writing or lackadaisical about your commitment, return to the idea that birthed it.  More than one writer has been drawn off track by comments from her writing group or misdirection from a friend.  “Let nobody, your mother, your grandmother, your agent, your publisher, your producer, let nobody tell you the creator what you should do,” said Roots author Alex Haley, who invested twelve years in writing his life-changing book.

Be a passionate writer. – Judy Reeves

Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

Guidelines For Writing Practice

We all know how important it is to practice your writing every day, or at least almost every day.  The author Judy Reeves has some great writing tips in her book Prompts and Practices.  Some of them are similar to things we’ve already talked about, but there are some new things, as well, and it offers great advice to all writers, whether you’re practicing or working on something.  Here they are:

  1. Keep writing.  Don’t stop to edit, to rephrase, to think.  Don’t go back and read what you’ve written until you’ve finished.
  2. Trust your pen.  Go with the first image that appears.
  3. Don’t judge your writing.  Don’t compare, analyze, criticize.
  4. Let your writing find its own form.  Allow it to organically take shape into a story, an essay, a poem, dialogue, an incomplete meander.
  5. Don’t worry about the rules.  Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, punctuation, or sentence structure.
  6. Let go of your expectations.  Let your writing surprise you.
  7. Kiss your frogs.  Remember, this is just practice.  Not every session will be magic.  The point is to just suit up and show up at the page, no matter what.
  8. Tell the truth.  Be willing to go to the scary places that make your hand tremble and your handwriting gets a little out of control.  Be willing to tell your secrets.
  9. Write specific details.  Your writing doesn’t have to be factual, but the specificity of the details brings it alive.  The truth isn’t in the facts; it’s in the detail.
  10. Write what matters.  If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers.  Be a passionate writer.
  11. Read your writing aloud after you’ve completed your practice session.  You’ll find out what you’ve written, what you care about, when you’re writing the truth, and when the writing is “working.”
  12. Date your page and write the topic at the top.  This will keep you grounded in the present and help you reference pieces you might want to use in something else.

First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Resistance

Here’s a quote from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield about resistance – one of the worst forms of procrastination:

If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge.  Defeating Resistance is like giving birth.  It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.

Take that, resistance.

Breaking the Rules

I broke my own rule and read over some of what I had written.  This turned out to be a really bad idea, because before I knew it, I was thinking “this is garbage,” and totally rewriting my most recent three chapters.  This wouldn’t be so bad if I had only corrected spelling and grammar and left it at that, but I took the story in an entirely different direction than I had planned, and now I’m left wondering which direction I should continue.  Either way, it’s going to make a whole lot of extra work for me.  Why didn’t I just resist the urge to peep?

Anyway, the last couple of days have been very slow in the writing department because of my breakdown, and my creativity doesn’t seem willing to allow me to write anything more in this story until I’ve chosen which path I’m going down.  After all, it would be pointless to finish both, wouldn’t it?

How to Write Dialogue

Dialogue is probably one of the most important things to master in your writing.  Dialogue creates action.  It shows rather than tells.  And it’s a great way to define your characters without stopping the story to write description, which will slow down your pace.

Dialogue should serve a specific purpose.  It could show conflict between characters:

“I can’t believe you did that to me!”

It could bring up new information:

“You’re married?”

It could help the readers to get to know your characters better:

“Today’s my birthday.”

It can be the start of a new chain of action for your story:

“You’re moving away?”

It can even foreshadow your climax:

“He’s going to kill you.”

Try to avoid small talk.  Good dialogue needs to have a point, and a purpose for being in your story.  It needs to advance the plot in some way.  If it doesn’t, you might want to consider removing it, or adding some element of conflict to it.

Dialogue can be tricky to write when you’re first starting out.  Each character needs to have his or her own voice.  You’ll want to decide which words are in each character’s vocabulary.  Do they have words or phrases that they use often?  Do they have a funny way of wording things?  Is this character a big talker, or are they very brief and to the point?  Do they talk slowly or quickly?  Do they tend to speak positively or negatively?  What is his or her viewpoint? What sort of a mood is this character in?  These are all ways to control how each character sounds.  Once you have this down, your reader should be able to determine which character is speaking just by reading the dialogue.

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid clutter while writing dialogue.  Again, this will slow down your pace.  It’s best to let the dialogue speak for itself.  Here’s a great example from The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.

“Spit it out,” she said, fiddling with his necktie.

She seemed unable to make eye contact with him.  That confirmed it for him.  He thought he’d be on safe ground telling her why he’d been so cool toward her lately.

He yanked the tie from her hands.  “I don’t trust you.”

He adjusted the knot and made sure the point of the tie touched the middle of his belt buckle.

Now, see what this same scene looks like without the excess description:

“Spit it out,” she said, fiddling with his necktie.

He yanked the tie from her hands.  “I don’t trust you.”

A great way to improve your dialogue is to read good dialogue. Try reading screenplays, which are basically all dialogue. Notice which words the writer is using, and how the dialogue itself tells the story, rather than relying on description. Notice how it keeps the plot moving. Practice this in your own writing.

Elements of a Best-Seller

Today I want to discuss the elements of a bestseller. Obviously, not all bestsellers can be considered great literature, but what most of them have is a story that keeps you hooked and wanting to read more. The way they accomplish this is by keeping the story moving. We’ve talked in the past about keeping the reader in the action, and that’s exactly what you’ll notice when you’re reading a bestseller.

Let’s take, for example, the Twilight series. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer is pretty good at keeping the reader caught up in the story. She throws in little bits of suspense here and there to keep the reader hooked. And it works. Even though nothing too bad ever happens to any of the major characters, there is always the threat of something happening to them that looms over the story, keeping the plot moving. That’s what you want to do in your story.

Keep in mind, though, that your readers trust you, and it might not be the best idea to keep foreshadowing action without ever letting it occur. This can become frustrating for your readers after awhile. So plan some kind of action for your story, and write towards it. I once heard someone say that you should always be writing toward your climax. So it might be a good idea to figure out what your climax is going to be right away. It will give you a direction to work in, and not only will that give your story momentum, it will keep you writing.

Probably the most important component of a bestseller is believable characters. Not all best sellers are well written, but they do have a magical way of connecting in an intimate, personal level with the audience. This is accomplished through characters that the reader can relate to. The author Peter Rubie, once wrote that “the story is not about what happens, but the character to whom it happens.” You might have a good plot, but if the reader doesn’t care about the character it happens to, your have nothing.

Make your characters feel like real people. Give them thoughts and feelings and flaws. Make them people that your readers will like and understand. Use your story as a way for your audience to get to know your characters gradually. If you put everything you know about a character right in the beginning, a reader is going to wonder: “why should I care about this character, anyway?” Think about it this way – when you make a friend, you don’t find out everything about them right away. Little pieces of their lives unfold naturally over time as you get to know them. It works this way with characters, too.

Writing Challenge – Day 3

Today is Day 3 of the Novel Writing Challenge. How is everybody doing? So far, I have 13 pages finished. This is proving to be easier than I thought.

Today, I want to talk about first drafts.

The first draft is probably the hardest and most nerve-wracking part of writing a novel. I know in my experience, especially when beginning a novel, I start to have various self-sabotaging thoughts about my work. Is it any good? Who’s going to want to read it, anyway? What if my writing sucks? What if everyone hates it? Is it believable?

If you’re a perfectionist – and even if you’re not, these kind of thoughts can completely put a stop to your efforts. You may be tempted to go back and read what you’ve written and make changes. This is not the time for that. This is the rough draft stage, which means that you need to write and write and not think about what you’re writing. When you’ve completed your novel, then you’re allowed to go back and make your changes.

The reason it’s important to keep going is that if you allow yourself to stop and read what you’ve written, you take yourself out of the action. You put yourself in the mindset of an editor instead of the mindset of a writer. There’s time to be an editor later. Right now, you need to be a writer. You need to be thinking about what happens next, rather than wondering how you can make it better.

The first draft is going to be terrible and full of flaws. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time. But the important part is to finish the first draft. Keep plugging away. Keep focusing on the end result. Remember that nobody is going to read the first draft but you.

A professor once told me that first drafts are meant to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. Don’t think about it. Just write. Worry about spelling later. Worry about how you’re going to word things later. You can always go back and add descriptions and take out adverbs and make things sound better. That’s where your perfectionism will come in handy.

Right now, focus on the magic of the story. Let your imagination run wild. Ignore the words, ignore the flaws, and definitely ignore that annoying little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you it’s no good or that other people might think it’s stupid. This is your chance to be creative. Give the world something they’ve never had before – a story by you. You can do it!

Happy writing!