ABCs of Writing Well: R is for Reaching readers’ hearts

Good lord, I love Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling is a master of reaching readers’ hearts, and her series will stick with its fans for a long time for one simple reason. Characters.

Even as I type this I’m watching The Goblet of Fire for the millionth time, and loving the story all over again. What a well-written world that captures the imagination and a cast of characters that really brings it to life.

**Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead** 

(Actually, my entire blog may be one gigantic Harry Potter Spoiler, so…Be Ye Warned)

While watching the third movie, based on the third book of the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA), I was struck with the delayed gratification that Rowling must have experienced as people became familiar with her characters and with her world. As author and creator of her series, the back story and motivations, the hidden scars and deep-seated emotions of her characters were second nature to her. But to the reader, who doesn’t know the end of the story, certain actions don’t carry the same weight or emotional significance as they do for the author.

An example will help me explain what I mean. In PoA, Harry has a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin. Now, we only receive bits and pieces of Lupin’s back story, not learning the full extent of his relationship with Harry’s parents until much later. So, during a class exercise with a boggart, when Lupin throws himself in front of Harry to shield him from the thing that he fears most, the full impact of what he does is not quite clear the first time through.

For me, it didn’t really hit me until this time through (and trust me when I say I’ve read and watched this series more than a few times). Lupin’s love for James and Lily and for their son runs so deep that he’s willing to throw himself into the path of Voldemort…even a copy of Voldemort…, and in the end even meet death…in order to save Harry. And this time around, in finally connecting to Lupin and the depth of love that he has for the Harry, I burst into tears.

Which surprised me…because I had never cried at that scene before. Yet how could it possibly have taken me that long to really see into the heart of Professor R. J. Lupin?

Now…Rowling could have tried to rush me to that point. She could have tried to force more of Lupin’s story on me to begin with, so that I would be aware of the significance of that relationship before I reached that scene in the story. But…I doubt, if she had, that I would have had the same emotional connection to the character that I do now, that the power and the impact would have been so strong.

Do you see what I mean about delayed gratification on the part of the author? And on the part of the reader, although I didn’t really know what I was missing until today.

My point is, while I understand that, if the reader only knew what you know about your characters, they would love them more…you have to realize that the process takes time. Sometimes it takes a whole series to tease out the depth of love that one character has for another, to get to know and love a character so well that their heart becomes plain…and sometimes the reader has to love your series so much that they return to it over an over again before they really get it, before they really come to appreciate that one character that you feel like gets overlooked time and time again. But, if you’re patient, and if you’re a good story teller, that moment, the moment that you reach your reader’s heart, will be well worth the wait.

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Guest-blogging at DIY MFA!

Today I have a guest post on the DIY MFA community blog. Hop on over and check out my article “Why Hire a Freelance Editor?” Then leave me a message in the comments!

DIY MFA (Do It Yourself Masters of Fine Arts) is a great writers’ resource center, with tools and tips for doing your best creative work. They host webinars and courses to help you on your way to a successful writing career. Stop in and see what they have for you!

N is for Never Giving Up

The thing is, sometimes we hate our own writing. Sometimes a project starts out with so much potential and then suddenly you find that it’s gone terribly wrong… taken on a mind of its own and traveled to a place that you would never have taken it and that you never intended to go in the first place. That can be exhilarating, or it can be devastating.

At those times you may be tempted to scrap your project altogether… and that’s ok! It’s perfectly reasonable to take a break from your work and stretch your mind doing something else. Just DON’T throw away what you’ve already accomplished. Even if you hate it. Even if you think that you’ll never look at it again.

Put your work in a drawer (literally or figuratively) and give yourself some space… but NEVER give up on what you’ve begun. One day you’ll come back to it… 6 months… 2 years from now… and you’ll have a fresh perspective, a flash of inspiration that will help you to transform your writing into something new. But you can’t do that if you don’t have something to start with.

So get out there, get writing, and see where it goes! Then, if your project takes a turn for the worse, give it some time, some space… come back to it later. You might be surprised at what you find.

For developmental editing and good writerly advice, visit http://www.writingrefinery.com and follow my blog! http://writingrefinery.blogspot.com

M is for Motivation

Motivation, as defined by Merriam Webster:  the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something : the act or process of motivating someone

: the condition of being eager to act or work : the condition of being motivated

: a force or influence that causes someone to do something

Motivation, as it pertains to writing, can take two forms. First, there’s character motivation. I’m going to focus on villains here, because they usually get written as bad for the sake of being bad… and that’s not always the best, most powerful, or most plausible way to write a villain.

Understanding your villain’s motivations with regard to their actions will not only help you to decide what they do next, it will help your readers understand WHY they do what they do. Readers find “WHY?” very important, and if they don’t understand “WHY?” they’re liable to lose interest in your story relatively quickly.

It is possible to write a character that has no discernible motivations for their actions (take Iago in Othello, for example). We’re not all Shakespeare, though… And even Iago’s motivations can be teased out of the play if you want to look VERY deeply into it.

Instead, show us why your villain is bad. What does he stand to gain from his actions? Give us a snapshot of what happened in her past that made her the way she is. Take Voldemort, for example. Throughout the entire Harry Potter Serieshis most simple and immediate goal has been to kill Harry. Understanding WHY is very important, though, for Voldemort’s actions to make any sense to the reader. Also, Harry didn’t initially have to understand WHY Voldemort wanted to kill him. But in order to eventually defeat Voldemort, Harry would have to learn everything he could about his nemesis’s motivations.

In its other sense, MOTIVATION applies to you, dear writer. Find your story. Make it something you’re enthusiastic about. Because in order to succeed with your story, you’re going to be spending a LOT of time with it. And if you’re not motivated by the sheer joy of being with your story, you’re going to find the process of writing, editing, and publishing a very arduous one indeed.

Good luck and happy tales.

L is for Language

When drafting your piece, be it short fiction or long, it’s important to remember that the words you choose carry weight and that consistency of voice will add depth to your characters just as much as the actions and thoughts and feelings that those words convey.

When I’m writing a first draft, basically I’m grabbing at whatever words will do to get my point across. They’re like place holders. The first draft is a marathon and LANGUAGE doesn’t matter as much as getting the ideas down on paper.

When I’m editing, word choice becomes much more significant. The language I choose to describe a scene will greatly enhance the experience of the reader. Words hold powerful influence over how we perceive a character or setting.

Consider the following three examples taken from the first pages of three incredible books. (By the by, I’m moving in a few weeks, so all my Harry Potter books are already packed. These three books were chosen from what has not been packed yet.)

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The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his hoe; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased. The constant attention of r. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood to his wishes, which proceeded not merely from interest, but from goodness of hear, gave him every degree of solid comfort which his age could receive; and the cheerfulness of the children added a relish to his existence.

The Book of Flying – Keith Miller
I am dreaming. I’m dreaming of a city, a white city in the sun by the sea, a city of bells and birdcages, boatswains and ballyhoo, where heart-faced wenches lean bare-breasted from balconies to dry their hair among geraniums and the air is salt and soft and in the harbor sailors swagger from ships that bear cargos of spices. In this city a thousand doves live in the hundred towers of a hundred bells and in the mornings when the bell ringers toll a summons to the sun the doves scatter like blown ash across the tile roofs and light under eaves whispering lulling words to sleepers, bidding them stay in bed a little longer. And on the silver sky other wings rise.
—————————————–

In each case above, the language employed by the author paints a distinct picture. The narrative voice and the setting are solidified through the words chosen to describe the action. Imagine the picture you would get if the opening passage of the Hunger Games was written in the style that Keith Miller uses for the Book of Flying. You might not feel Katniss’s discontent or sense of urgency at all. Miller is painting us a picture of a beautiful land of enchantment. We couldn’t imagine otherwise after reading those opening words.

Jane Austen’s prose, far from being just a portrait of the times in which she lived, is calculated to give you an idyllic impression of the situation of the social class she is writing about, just before she smashes it all to pieces (ever so subtly and wittily, of course).

When they say a picture paints a thousand words… remember that a word, that LANGUAGE paints pictures as well. Choose your images with care.

G is for Genre

Knowing the genre you’re writing is important when you’re crafting your novel. Genre is more than “a term for any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment…” Genre is your novel’s home.

Once you can accurately identify the genre you’re writing in, all sorts of doorways and opportunities open up… and others close. A women’s fiction novel, for instance, is not likely to include flesh-eating space aliens or a guild of ninjas. But a sci-fi novel would definitely have flesh-eating space aliens… and maybe even that ninja guild, too, if they are from the planet Zarkon on the edge of Galaxy 5. Giving yourself parameters to work within helps you better deduce which of the zillion options for your story are the most compatible and which are the most likely to make sense to your readers.

A lot of writers get cagey when asked to define the genre of their novel. It’s like they don’t want to commit… or they think that they can reach a wider audience if they use more than one genre in their query letter or manuscript description.

This is a big no-no, though. Agents and publishers will put aside a novel that claims to cater to more than one audience because it seems to signal a lack of vision. A targeted audience and a well-defined genre are a must for query letters. If your book is as amazing as you know it is, it will shine in chosen genre and then from there other types of readers will likely pick it up.

There are SOOOOooo many genres and sub-genres to choose from, too. There’s no need to feel limited by having to choose one and run with it. So as you’re writing, consider your characters, consider how and where your story fits in the marketplace (HINT: this is important for self-publishers as well).

So what genre are you writing in today?

Here are a few suggestions! Can you think of more? Action and Adventure, Chick Lit, Children’s, Contemporary, Crime, Erotica, Family Saga, Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Gay and Lesbian, General Fiction, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Horror, Humour, Literary Fiction, Military and Espionage, Mystery, Picture Books, Religious and Inspirational, Romance, Science Fiction, Thrillers and Suspense, Western, Women’s Fiction, Young Adult.

F is for Feedback

Ok, so here’s a step away from the elements of a novel. This one is more focused on the editorial process.

Feedback.

I’m talking about taking your precious work that you’ve been slaving over for months (years for some of us) and sharing it with people whose opinions you trust and who can give you honest, constructive criticism for how to improve upon the clarity, structure and style of your work.

I  know, it’s a scary prospect. I have yet to show anyone more than the smallest taste of my own manuscript because I already know what the feedback will be.

Unfortunately, the main problem I see with manuscripts in the slush pile is lack of feedback. A manuscript that has been read and vetted by trusted critique partners and/or professionally edited has a lot better chance rising above the rest of the slush. A lot of authors would save themselves a giant helping of humble pie if they would only take the time to get feedback on their work and then put that feedback to work in a revision (or 10).

What’s your process like? Do you have trusted critique partners that you go to?

E is for Entry point

Entry point is where your story begins… When we crack the book open and read the first page, what is your character doing?

Do we begin at the beginning? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole , filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien begins by explaining Bilbo to the readers. It is our first encounter with a hobbit after all. Through the first chapter, as the action unfolds, Tolkien characterizes Bilbo so solidly that we end up with a vibrant picture and well-defined expectation of what Bilbo is like. And then he does something unexpected. The adventure is just about to begin… and what an adventure!

Are we in the middle of the action? “My husband’s mistress leveled the gun at me. Her perfect, blonde curls bounced as she took a firing stance in the doorway to the conference room. Our eyes met over the gun, and the alien clone holding me, hitched up my arm to use me as a shield. The clone adjusted the quiack knife against my neck to make sure I knew he meant it. My husband’s mistress, Trish, puffed her bangs out of the way and squeezed the trigger.” This was the beginning of a novel written by my blogging friend, the amazing and talented Rena. I won’t go into the reasons why she changed her entry point, but this, as one of her previous options, illustrates the idea of jumping RIGHT into the action. We learn a lot of details rather quickly about the characters and have immediate tension and excitement to draw us further into the story.

Does the narrative start in the past (to set the stage) and then jump to the present? The best example of this is still Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Chapter 1. Other examples frame this kind of entry point as a prologue. Example: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, “I remember being born. In fact I remember a time before that…” Depending on the amount of back story you need to set up your reader’s understanding of the current action, this can be a good idea… or it can be a bad idea. If the information in a prologue needs so very much to be part of the story, you might want to consider … making it part of the story!

Entry points can and do change over the course of drafting and revising. Sometimes skipping the set-up and heading straight for the action is the best thing you can do to jump-start a lagging narrative. Other times the set-up, artfully done, is required to help attach your reader to the main character. How does the current entry point of your WIP set the stage for your novel?

D is for Dialogue

(Reposted from Fairbetty’s World)

The general feeling is that if dialogue in a scene needs the tags, it’s poorly written; that writers should aim for conveying emotion through the characters’ words instead of spoon-feeding it to the readers in the narration. It is the mark of an insecure writer that he feels the need to give you information that should have been conveyed in the dialogue, to make sure the reader understands that his characters are emoting or what the scene is supposed to reveal. Trust the reader to figure out what the dialogue “means”. And after having a couple of critique partners review it, if they point out that a run of dialogue really is too obscure, then take the time to re-write. Beats are easy to add where they are needed. It’s harder to extract them, I find.

In the book “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and David King, the authors suggest:

“It’s best to replace only a few of your speaker attributions with beats. A beat after every line of dialogue is even more distracting than too many speaker attributions. What you want is a comfortable balance.”

I tend to agree with that sentiment. Too many tags or beats in a run of dialogue can throw off the momentum of the scene so much that the readers forget what the characters are talking about by the end of the page!

I don’t think that all beats and tags are bad. I do think a writer needs to choose her beats wisely and make the most of them. First she needs to understand the anatomy of the scene she is writing: What are the key emotions at play here? How fast is the exchange between characters supposed to feel? What else is going on in the scene? and Which actions are important to the development of the scene?

And now, because examples in real life are always fun, I’m going to borrow from J.K. Rowling to illustrate my point. What I love about Rowling is that she’s not perfect. But her characters emotions are perfectly conveyed.

……………………………………..
Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”:
“I DON’T BELIEVE IT!” Hermione screamed.
Lupin let go of Black and turned to her. She raised herself off the floor and was pointing at Lupin, wild-eyed. “You– you–“
“Hermione–“
“–you and him!”
“Hermione, calm down–“
“I didn’t tell anyone!” Hermione shrieked. “I’ve been covering up for you–“
“Hermione, listen to me, please!” Lupin shouted. “I can explain–“
Harry could feel himself shaking, not with fear, but with a fresh wave of fury.
“I trusted you,” he shouted at Lupin, his voice wavering out of control, “and all the time you’ve been his friend!”
“You’re wrong,” said Lupin. “I haven’t been Sirius’s friend, but I am now–Let me explain…”
“NO!” Hermione screamed. “Harry, don’t trust him, he’s been helping Black get into the castle, he wants you dead too–he’s a werewolf!”

Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”:
“There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore’s voice. “On the contrary… the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.”
Harry felt the white-hot anger lick his insides, blazing in the terrible emptiness, filling him with the desire to hurt Dumbledore for his calmness and his empty words.
“My greatest strength, is it?” said Harry, his voice shaking as he stared out at the Quidditch stadium, no longer seeing it. “You haven’t got a clue… You don’t know…”
“What don’t I know?” asked Dumbledore calmly.
It was too much. Harry turned around, shaking with rage.
“I don’t want to talk about how I feel, all right?”
“Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human–“
“THEN–I–DON’T–WANT–TO–BE–HUMAN!” Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments from the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room. It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright, and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!”
“I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE–“
He seized the table on which the silver instrument had stood and threw that too. It broke apart on the floor and the legs rolled in different directions.
“You do care,” said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
………………………………………………

These two scenes illustrate very different emotions. Characters in both scenes do a lot of yelling, but the timing of the dialogue is the key to the emotions in each scene. In the Prisoner of Azkaban scene, the urgency of the scene is conveyed by quick back-and-forth dialogue. If you remember the same scene in the movie, there are a lot of actions that the characters take (i.e. looking to and from one another; Hermione steps in front of Harry to shield him from Sirius and Lupin; Lupin reaches out to implore Hermione to listen). None of those actions are portrayed in the dialogue, because to add them, while giving you a physically more accurate description, would take away from the momentum of the scene. The readers can just as easily imagine the action as they read the dialogue.

In the second scene, from the Order of the Phoenix, the dialogue progresses much more slowly. The emotion  in this scene does not come from a rapid-fire exchange (although Harry does do a fair bit of shouting), but from Dumbledore’s slow and calculated responses. The deep feelings of regret and care for Harry that Dumbledore expresses come to light through his patience in allowing Harry the space to explore his own emotions. The pace of the dialogue allows much more room for beats of character action (all taken by Harry, a detail that is also telling…). But more than that, each beat has a purpose, shows the emotion rather than telling it (more often than not).

As a writer, understanding what your characters are going through and how they would respond to one another in a scene can mean the difference between capturing the readers’ hearts and getting lost in the details. The right beats in the right places give meaning to the words spoken and emotions felt by your characters, allowing the reader to peek through the windows in their souls.

C is for Conflict

Every good story has conflict. The trick is how you utilize it. Conflict can help your character grow, can give her something to overcome, can peak the reader’s interest in the plot. If your character always gets everything she wants without having to fight for it, that can make for a really short, or a really boring story.

Conflict adds intrigue, creating tension in the narrative. It comes in many shapes and forms, both internal and external.
(wo)man vs. (wo)man – Harry vs. Voldemort; Ulysses vs. Medusa; Hector vs. Achilles… in each of these instances the villain is (eventually) corporeal, someone that must be defeated to ensure the hero’s survival. The odds are stacked against the hero and he will have to use all his wits to gain the skills necessary to overcome his foe.

(wo)man vs. nature – Katniss vs. the Hunger Games arena… technically this is woman vs. a machine taking the form of nature, but you get the point. Fire and rain, lack of water and food, tracker-jackers, mockingjays, and muttations, all these “natural” forces test Katniss’s skills and ability to survive, and teach her about herself (and the reader about her).

(wo)man vs. self – Ista vs. herself (Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold… love her, btw)… In this lovely novel Ista has to learn to move past the trauma she has experienced and allow herself to be open to using her gifts for the good of other characters in the story. The external conflicts here are secondary to the internal conflict, and her character grows and changes in beautiful ways by “The End.”

Knowing your character’s back story can help you discern when conflict will come up (ex: Hermione’s muggle-born status fuels her desire to excel; Sirius and Snape’s past animosity causes clashes when they are forced to work on the same side; Snape’s love for Lily Potter motivates him to agree to protect her son, but his hatred for James Potter makes him antagonize Harry at every opportunity). The best conflict has a reason, even if it never has a resolution. Snape never forgave Harry for being James’ son and it’s hard to tell if Harry ever forgave Snape for killing Dumbledore… but the poignancy of the emotions that the conflict between those two characters creates is one of the most memorable aspects of that series.

So what conflicts arise in the lives of your characters (major OR minor)?