Advice, Craft, Doubt, Fiction, Tips, Writing

The problem with reading how-to-write articles

It goes without saying that when you’re as good a writer as I am, you don’t need writing advice. OMG, I could hardly type that for laughing so hard! Seriously, like most of you, I still have a lot to learn about writing. And I’m always looking for that bit of golden advice that will make everything fall into place, giving me the ability to write nothing but astounding fiction thereafter. So, of course, I read my share of advice for writers, but I have to do it sparingly.

In the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest an article by Steven James, titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” caught my eye. He says, “Never let anything get between your story and your readers.” That’s solid advice and simple enough, right? Then he lists the five most common ways writers veer off-course.

  1. Overdoing symbolism/themes
  2. Trying too hard
  3. Failing to anticipate the readers’ response
  4. Using a hook as a gimmick
  5. Leaving readers hanging

Under each heading, he explains and gives examples of the mistake, and offers tips on how to avoid making it. I’m not going to quote too much for fear of copyright issues, so get a copy of the magazine if you can. I’ll talk a bit about one of his points.

Under #2, James writes, “There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent. So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change or remove them.” Remember, the heading is trying too hard, and here he’s talking about things like bolstering your dialogue with tags, such as adding “she joked” or “he mentioned in his fun-loving way” rather than making sure your dialogue is funny on it’s own.

Using excessive or inappropriate literary devices is another way writers try too hard. James says, “Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing.” If you vehemently disagree with that statement, you probably write high-literary fiction where the construct is foremost. For the rest of us, he says, we want our readers “to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it.”

Anytime you stop your readers with confusion, causing them to reread a passage or an earlier section to figure out something, or even to analyze your beautiful writing, you’ve failed. “You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story.”

I agree with all that. I even think I know and practice all that, and yet … every time I read advice like this, doubt creeps in, and I want to recheck everything I’ve written—even if published—to look for places where I’m guilty of bad writing. Of course, I don’t actually check. Well, maybe just one or two pieces. Or five. Okay, so you can see that if I didn’t pace myself in reading such advice, I might never be able to write anything new.

Craft, Writing

What’s the point?

I have a dead zone in my brain. You know, that place where things you try to learn just won’t stick? If the formula for calculating percentages doesn’t dwell in mine, it’s definitely in the neighborhood. (Don’t tell my math teacher son.) Most tasks involving word usage reside in livelier areas, but one that doesn’t is the “point” referred to in the title of this post. That would be, Point-of-View—or POV if you’re into acronyms.

Oh, not everything about POV falls into my dead zone. I understand that it refers to which character tells the story and from what distance. I know the relevant terms: single, dual, multiple, omniscient, limited, unlimited, first, second, third, close. I’m aware of at least some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in each, and I’ve written in all but one of them. Omniscient.

On second thought, I don’t remember everything I’ve written. I may have used omniscient at some point in my life, but probably by mistake. I’ve been told omniscient viewpoint was more popular in the past, so no doubt I came across it in the classics I’ve read. Today, literary writers most often use it. According to Elizabeth Lyon in Manuscript Makeover, it’s a viewpoint best reserved for use by “gifted” writers.

What I can’t retain is recognition of omniscient viewpoint—or maybe that it exists at all. Unless I’m forewarned, each time I encounter it I mistake it for an error, a POV slip by the author. (Revealing my ignorance today, aren’t I?) So, I go back and read about omniscient viewpoint and study the examples. I understand it. I think I’ll remember this time. Then whoosh, right into that dead zone it slips.

Maybe I’d have to use it in writing to make it stick in my brain. But I don’t want to. I’d probably do it wrong anyway. Lately, I’ve been looking at the characters in my WIP and wondering how long I can stick to my vow to write in single POV this time, but omniscient … nah.

Speak to me: What’s in your dead zone? Do you have any thoughts on omniscient—or any other POV? How’s the weather?

Block, Craft, Fiction, Inspiration, Motivation, Tips, Writing

A lack of ideas is not the problem

Last night, during a phone conversation with my youngest sister, she asked what I’m writing now. My answer was, “Nothing.” Her response, “Do you want me to give you some ideas?” You can probably guess my answer.

I don’t have a lack of ideas. I have a file full of story ideas, some with opening lines or paragraphs, and maybe the ending. Unlike for many of you, it’s not even a lack of time that keeps me from developing those ideas. I have plenty of that.

It’s also not a lack of motivation keeping those stories unwritten. To be a successful self-published author, you need to put out good work often, at least until you’ve built up a reasonably sized back catalogue. That’s serious motivation.

I’m just waiting on that spark of inspiration. Wait! Don’t roll your eyes. I know the only way to write is to write. I know writing is work. Hard work. I know you have to get your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. But for me, a lot has to happen before I get to that point.

Yes, I could review the notes I’ve made on one of these ideas and just start typing. I might get something solid—a paragraph of narrative, a bit of dialogue—but I’d also get a lot of garbage. I get impatient—overwhelmed—by garbage. I’m lazy. For me, it’s too much work to cull the few salvable bits from the reams of dross. That’s why I can’t participate in NaNoWriMo.

I think one of the hardest things for me as a beginning writers was to discover what method to use. Some authors write longhand on paper. Some write, then rewrite starting from scratch. Others plan out their entire story in detail before they write the first word. Still others, keep writing to the end of a draft without even a glance back at what they’ve previously written. It took me awhile to discover none of those worked best for me.

As I began writing this post, I had a particular short story niggling at my brain. I’ve been stuck writing it because I need to make a decision about the villain. However, halfway through writing this post, another story came to mind. It’s one I wrote almost seven years ago, but never felt satisfied with. I don’t know why it resurfaced now, but suddenly I have an idea how to revise it. I’m excited to get to work. My Muse will sort out that villain another day.

Be ready. You never know when inspiration will inspire strike.

Craft, Fiction, My Books, Novel, Scene, Tips, Writing

Why use graph paper to write a novel?

As a rule, I don’t write my fiction by hand, and I’ve certainly never written it on graph paper. But recently, in the middle of a session working on my next novel, I went to the supply closet and grabbed my graphing pad. For the next couple of hours, I did my WIP “writing” with pencil and ruler. Why?

I write fiction by “sight”, meaning I have to see it as a mental movie before I can write it out. Several scenes in my new story have characters moving about a large house that I couldn’t quite envision. I had a clear picture of individual rooms, but those rooms’ relation to all the others in the house stayed a bit murky. I needed to draw the floor plan.

That may seem nitpicky, but it bugs me if I can’t picture locations when I read a book. I want to see the “movie” while I read the same way I do when writing. And if I, the writer, don’t visualize the scene clearly, it’s likely my readers won’t either.

I expect I’ll have to map out the grounds around this house too, for logic’s sake. Heck, I might even sketch the exterior of the house for inspiration. That probably won’t figure in the cover art though. I have a different vision for that.

Your turn: Do you use any unusual tools to aid your writing?

Craft, Fiction, Novel, Writing

Who’s telling your story … and when?

In my last post, I said it was time to write my next book. Some of you may have noticed a post or two in the last few weeks indicating I’d already started that book. If you go back a few months, I talked about another book I’d started. Yeah, I’m having problems making a decision and sticking to it.

Last night, I opened one of the books and read the opening. I liked it, but something was off. I felt distanced. So, I closed the file and went to bed. Of course, I couldn’t fall asleep because I kept trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I finally drifted off considering a change in point of view.

Most of the time, I write in close third. That I recall, I’ve never written in second, but for certain pieces, I’ve used first person. This morning, I opened a copy of my new manuscript and started changing the POV to first. After a few paragraphs, I stopped to listen to the reader in my head and discovered she was proposing another change.

Without looking through dozens of files to tally them, I think I’m safe in saying I usually write in past tense, but my inner reader suggested present tense for this novel. I haven’t studied point of view and tense. I mean, I know the differences, but I’ve read only a little about how the various combinations affect the story—or rather the reading of the story.

Fortunately, I hadn’t written very far into the book, so I don’t have to change much. I’m enjoying the challenge, but will the changes work? I don’t know. The short opening scene will probably need to be moved further into the book. Maybe I’ll substitute a new one. I may have to break my vow and seek feedback from a writer friend or two at this early stage.

I hope you’ll share your wisdom on tense and point of view with me. I know I have writing books on the shelf that would help, but I also know if I open them, I’ll be distracted for days. So …

Discuss, please:  Do you have a favorite POV or tense to write in? If so, why do you favor it? Have you ever forced yourself to try a new tense or viewpoint? Is there a certain type story you think works best in first person present tense? Is there a type you’d hate to read in that POV and tense?