A Collection of Writing Tips

Kids want conflict

One time, my kids were watching the Diego cartoon. They loved this show when they were younger. Now that they’re 5 and 7, they’re starting to make comments that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

In this particular episode, there was a scene where Diego was swinging from one vine to another. Even though my kids still enjoyed the songs and the animals, they wanted Diego to miss the vine and take a fall. I don’t think they were being mean. They just though it would be funny, and they were bored that Diego (and Dora, for that matter) win all the time.

Those were their exact words. Why do Diego and Dora win all the time?

There was a lesson here for their writer mama: Kids need conflict to keep them interested. They are learning that, in real life, things don’t always go the way they want. And so they expect the same of fictional characters. Beyond preschool, kids begin to lose their belief in a character if everything’s perfect all the time.

Add conflict to your story. Let Diego fall once in a while.

Gene Weingarten on the Writer of The Hardy Boys

Ever read the Hardy Boys books when you were young? I did. I didn’t care if they were “boy books”. They were right up there with Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. And it turns out, all three series had something in common.

I didn’t know then that these books were not written by the individuals whose names appear on the covers. I thought Franklin W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene, and Laura Lee Hope were real people. Well, they’re not. All three originated from one man, Edward Stratemeyer. He came up with the ideas for the books and ghostwriters wrote them for his book packaging company, Stratemeyer Syndicate. Looking back at the books now, I can see the formula that is rife in all the series. As a kid, I didn’t care. I knew what I was getting with each new book, and I loved it.

Anyway, all this to say that the writer of the Hardy Boys books, in fact, hated the work he had to do. Leslie McFarlane was a good writer doing a bad job. Gene Weingarten, of the Washington Post, saw that and wrote about McFarlane back in 1998. And here’s a snippet from that article that tugged at me:

If you are a bad writer, then writing poorly must be no big deal.

But if you are a good writer, writing poorly must be hell. You must die a little with every word.

– Gene Weingarten

The journey to becoming a good writer is hard enough. When we get there, may we never be put in a situation where we have to “die a little with every word.”

Inner conflict, head-hopping and more

Today’s quick tips were gleaned from blog posts I’ve read over the past week or so, dealing with 3 different areas of writing and publishing:

* How to Devise your Character’s Inner Conflict

Author and teacher Darcy Pattison talks about one of the ways to craft your character’s inner arc. This growth necessarily involves conflict and choices. The short of it is to make each choice extremely difficult for your character. Read the article here.

* How to Avoid Head-Hopping

Jodie Renner, guest-blogging at The Blood-Red Pencil, expounds on how to maintain a deep point-of-view. Her post is based in part on this quote from Jack M. Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes:

“You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice: Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character – and stay there.”

* How to Avoid Instant Death for your Query

Susan Dennard hosted a Query Critique Week on her blog and posted her observations from reading 25 submitted queries. If you’re querying or soon-to-be-querying, her post is worth a read. She covers what’s good, what’s bad and what’s really ugly, query-style.

Avoiding a cliche villain

How do you avoid creating a cliché villain?

In my WIP, I have my villain laughing a screechy kind of laugh, “like a rusty bandsaw”. I wonder whether it’s cliché to make villains look/sound/smell nasty. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have him seem nice on the outside but sinister inside? If I met anyone with a screechy evil laugh, I probably will be a bit suspicious of that person. My MC would too.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort ends up looking like the most evil kind of villain ever invented (red snake-eyes, etc.). But he doesn’t start off that way. We go through a good bit of the entire series not knowing exactly how he looks. So we are free, initially anyway, to imagine him as the worst of nightmares.

In the Lord of the Rings, Sauron is dark and creepy (and has creepy minions).

I’m trying to think of a fantasy villain who looks good/handsome, and smells like the cleanest guy in the world. I can’t come up with anyone right off the bat.

Are most villains creepy because it won’t work otherwise? Is the scary look necessary to establish the antagonist’s character, especially in fantasy novels? Does the bad guy in your own work come off as a baddie at first glance? Or have you played around with your reader’s first impressions, only to upend those impressions later in the book?

Double-duty characters

When I had first started working with my crit group, one of the very first comments they gave me was about my tendency to create characters in pairs.

My characters weren’t twins, but at that time, they appeared in matched sets. Brothers with similar names. Brother and sister walking down the street together. These were minor characters, although one of my major characters had a brother that tagged along.

The first time I noticed this, I found it really odd. A peculiar writing quirk that I have fixed since then.

One piece of advice that my crit partner gave me was to create double-duty characters. She likened written characters to characters in a stage play. In a play, we never see a character appear to give a one-liner, then go back to the wings, never to be seen in the story again. That was essentially what I was doing with these paired characters of mine. They were just there to populate the story, to say a line that might very well have been said by other, more important characters.

Characters should have more than one purpose in any scene. If they are there to convey information, ask yourself if that same information could be given by another character with a meatier role. This is one way to keep our stories streamlined and, at the same time, make the existing characters more substantial. As I said, double duty.

The MG voice

This thread on the Absolute Write forum has a very good discussion on voice and vocabulary for writers of middle-grade books.

A few suggestions of books to read came up. These are all Newbery winners:

  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
  • A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park

I’ll then be keeping these questions in mind as I write my MG novel:

1. Do I use simple language that gets to the point of the story? Simpler is better.

2. Does my writing “remind the reader that I’m an adult and not one of them”? Am I writing in an adult voice or as one of the reader’s peers?

3. Is my narrative voice consistent throughout the story?

These are some of the reasons that ‘voice’ needs to be hone by a writer, and why, during revision, it is helpful to read the work aloud. There are, of course, writers to whom good narrative voices come naturally. For most, however, I suspect that it has to come with practice and time. Being aware of what constitutes ‘voice’ and what the audience relates to helps refine writing so that it is genuine and believable.

Hat tip: cwgranny on AW

Revision resources

Update on my WIP, a middle-grade fantasy adventure set in the North Pole: Since my last post, I’ve finished significant revisions, mostly to clean up plot-related issues. I have 2 beta readers for this round, and one of them has already gotten back to me with his comments (beta readers are made of awesome!).

It’s actually very encouraging to see that my beta’s comments more or less jive with what I’ve already been planning for the second round of revisions. This lets me know that I’m on the right track!

For the first round, I focused on plot, sealing up holes, trying to make sure that there’s a good progression of events/conflicts. When I was getting ready to do this, I read James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, and browsed a ton of websites to learn as much as I can about plotting.

This time, my focus is on my characters. I knew when I did my first revisions that I needed to give my characters more depth. I tried to do what I can during the first revision, but for this round, this is solely what I will focus on. And it’s funny how coincidences work. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately on just this aspect of writing fiction. Among the most helpful are Martina Boone’s Character Worksheets (available for download here) and her posts about how she uses them (Parts 1, 2, and 3). Talk about useful! My hat goes off to Martina for sharing this tool with us! I will definitely be using these.

Before I start revising though, I want to make a beat sheet like Roz Morris describes here and here. It will be a diagnostic tool to let me see how the character arcs are shaping up and how the pace is going. And I’m also reading Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint. So with all these, I hope that I can do justice to my WIP and let the characters come to life.

After this are line edits and whatever else needs to be polished before I query. It’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying every minute of it!

Your community

At a writing conference, I overheard one of the attendees say that it was like a right-brain convention. Nobody really minded other people’s strangeness or loudness or averageness. We were all there to learn, to recharge, and to let ourselves feed off the common store of inspiration and encouragement. We were all in it together, published and unpublished, newbie and old guard. We were, and are, a community of children’s writers and illustrators.

It’s been often said: Writing (and illustrating) is a solitary activity. We are most effective when we can live in our story worlds for long periods of time. We need that time to get to know our characters, plot their stories, and map the worlds they live in. At the same time, we also need to get out of those worlds (for our own sanity, if nothing else). Smell the roses. Feel the sunshine. Look people in the eye. Celebrate book releases (even if they’re not our own). Commiserate over rejections. We need the fellowship of other writers in order to thrive.

If you’re not in a community of fellow writers and/or illustrators, get into one. Join SCBWI. Find or start a critique group. If there’s one good thing you can do for your writing this week, this is it. Be with your peeps. Your writing will be all the more richer for it.

Incorporating all senses

Today’s quick tip deals with sounds.

One of the ways we can deepen our writing is to incorporate all the senses. Don’t just ask what your characters see. Also consider the aromas, textures and sounds that surround them in their fictional world.

Including sounds in a novel can be challenging, especially if we’ve not had the real-life experience ourselves. Enter YouTube, that blessing to writers doing research for their work. You can always find videos which will help you nail down specific sounds for your work-in-progress. Use them to enrich your writing, and immerse yourself in videos that feature places/events similar to those in your fictional world.

Inspiration: Come to the edge

“Come to the edge.”

“We can’t. We’re afraid.”

“Come to the edge.”

“We can’t. We will fall!”

“Come to the edge.”

… And they came.

And he pushed them.

And they flew.

Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880-1918
French Poet, Philosopher

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