Thursday, May 30, 2013

First 250 Words Smash! #19

Very Cool Author: Anna
Super Lame Editor: Victoria
Working Title: Through a Glass Darkly

There had always been strange things about their town. No one really had an outstanding face. Everyone had the same couch in their living room. Lines tended to blur the further you left town. If you walked far enough, everything faded to gray. Unless you went to the airport, then you could fly to either Miami or New York City, but there were never flights going anywhere else.
But most of the people who lived in Ridgeville didn’t notice, or care all that much. This was how it had always been. In fact, it never occurred to any of them that any of these things was outside of the norm.
Sometimes there were the voices. Not everyone heard them, and even if a person had heard them, they often tried to pretend it was nothing.
Amy certainly didn’t think it was anything special, and that’s what she told Nikki as they got fries at the burger place.
“...I mean, you haven’t heard them, right?”       
“No,” Nikki shook her head, dark hair pulling loose from her ponytail, as it always did. “But I wonder sometimes...I do we know there isn’t know, out there?” she gestured widely with her hands.
Amy rolled her eyes. “No way, Niks. All we have is the here and now.”
Nikki nodded slowly, running a fry through the ketchup.
“Hey!” Amy reached across the table and snapped in front of her friend’s face. Nikki jumped and looked up quickly.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.

Strong Points--
Right off you set a nice, creepy atmosphere. This town is very intriguing and super weird, and not even in a cliche sort of way. I really like the little things you picked to tell us about Ridgeville, like the strange flights that the airport offers, or the fact that everyone has the same couch or the voices that only certain people hear. Right away you've raised some crucial questions, and you set a pretty good atmosphere.

You've also eased us into the description of your main characters. You avoided the pitfalls of looking in the mirror or a sudden dump of hair color and eye color, and instead you've chosen to spoon-feed us little tidbits here and there. Great job, because it can be all too tempting to unload that all at once. Also, through the conversation, we already have a very good idea of who Nikki and Amy are, and just how different the two girls can be.

Some Tips--
You have a lot of telling in here, as opposed to just showing us that some people here the voices, and some don't. As I stated, I really love what you have going on with the town. But you may want to ask yourself if these would impact your readers greater if you showed that Amy and Nikki and everyone else has the same couch in the same living room, or if you showed that maybe Amy hears these voices and Nikki doesn't.

Also, Nikki and Amy's dialogue comes off as somewhat stilted, or unnatural. When I read it, it just doesn't sound like a real conversation between two friends. It almost comes off as staged, with a tad bit of reader feeder, or things they're saying just because you need the readers to know this information. You use ellipses a lot, and while I don't think they should be omitted altogether, I believe you may want to cut back so that they don't lose their effectiveness. Same with little phrases such as 'I mean'. I don't find anything wrong with them here and there. I'm guilty of it as well, but I'm also aware that they will be taken out in the editing process.

This brings me to dialogue tags. You have actions in here that can't be used as dialogue tags. Nikki can't exactly shake her head "No" or widely gesture that whole question. Those are actions separate from the dialogue, and would be best as a separate sentence. I would even advise you to take out "mumbled" because I believe you can convey this much better. I think you can paint a better picture for us, perhaps with her eyes dropping or her fidgeting. I don't know your character like you do, I don't know what she may do when she's nervous and submissive, but I'm positive you can show us better than using that tag.

Also, I don't really have much of a basis for picturing this burger place. Is it gross and dirty? Is it retro-styled? Is it a family-oriented place or do they serve beers? I don't know. You don't have to dump a ton of details, but I would like you to spoon feed us additional information so that we have a better idea.

Would I keep reading?
Not yet, no. But I am intrigued, and I really love the idea of this town, so please, don't be afraid to resubmit! I would love to see what becomes of this piece!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Exercise: A World in Words

A World in Words

Pick 1-2 characters and drop them in a completely unfamiliar place (perhaps in the world of another story). They don’t know the land, the people, or the rules of the world. Write at least 500 words of the character(s) interacting in this world for the first time.

When a reader opens a new book, they don’t know the world like the author does, even if the story takes place in modern times. The reader trusts the author to gradually and naturally show the setting – the time and place – of the story.

The setting isn’t simply a portrait of a place, but a survey of senses, costume, food, climate, languages, technology, architecture, society, government, and everything that brings a world to life.

The key is to show the world only as the characters discover it, as the reader should be able to discover the setting as the characters do. Refrain from telling or explaining. Utilize the senses to reveal unfamiliar materials. If the characters have never known silk before, don’t reference its name. Describe it, how it feels and smells and what the sensation reminds the characters of. The same applies to computers, or food, or even magic.

  • If you’re having trouble, step into a place you’ve never been in, or a room you rarely frequent, or simply go outside. What do you see first? What smells fight to be recognized? What does the air feel like on your skin? What about any sounds? Even in perfect silence, there’s always something to hear, whether it’s the buzz of a light bulb, the sound of your own breathing, or even the strange ringing in the ears that perfect silence often creates.
  • Dialogue is a great tool of active interaction to communicate information, however –
  • Avoid reader feeder: don’t have one character iterate information to the other for the sake of the reader. “You know how we just came from our super boring fifth period history of Europe class?” “Oh, the class where our teacher uses paperclips like army knives?” That’s reader feeder. Both characters already know this information and have no need to repeat it to each other.
  • Think of clincher details, the heartstrings of a world that give dimension to your setting. Old newspapers, rotted wood, cat hair on furniture, wallpaper that your grandmother would be proud of, hairpins all over the stained carpet.
  • Choose only the best details. Don’t drown the reader in description – ground the reader. Don’t control the reader’s imagination, but inspire it. Hold back on revealing all the world’s secrets at once, introduce a spoonful at a time. While writing, jot down everything that comes to mind if you have to, then revise and leave behind only the strongest lines. Use a little to convey a lot.
  • If you’re having trouble picking lines or deciding what details are necessary, ask yourself “How important is this detail to the world I’m trying to create? How can I make this detail sharper? Clearer? More original and poignant?”
  • Don’t rely on physical description alone. How does the setting make the character feel? How do they physically interact with what’s around them? What does it do to their body chemistry? Revealing these details also brings out your character, how they see this world in comparison to their own, and illuminating how they react in such situations and what they do with what’s given to them.
  • Make sure you do your research. For any setting to be portrayed accurately and realistically (even in the case of fantasy), realistic worlds depend greatly on effective research.
  • Make a checklist of the points you want to communicate in your exercise. Set a realistic amount of goals for your word count, or check off the points you hit and think about why the other points weren’t hit.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

First 250 Word Smash! #18

Stupendous Author: Shannen
Horrendous Editor: Victoria
Working Title: N/A

We've put the rest under a cut! Trigger warning for gore and suicide.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Battling Clichés

What’s wrong with prophecies in a fantasy novel? Specially with the Chosen One. I have it by accident, but it’s kind of different. I think if it’s justified and well done it can work, what do you think? Any advice on writing it and being original? P.S.: I CAN’T delete it, it is really important. Thank you so much!

Taken from on the archetype “The Chosen One”:

“The ultimate victim (or beneficiary) of Because Destiny Says So. The oldest and most common Super Hero Origin. The easiest way to turn an Ordinary High School Student into the only thing preventing The End of the World as We Know It. Take it for granted that they are the Only One.”

The examples listed above are all tropes in The Chosen One archetype that have been done so many times that their classic definition is a widely recognized cliché. That’s what you want to avoid when it comes to using The Chosen One as a plot device.

When people say not to use the “prophecy” in a fantasy novel, it’s usually because it’s been done to death, and also because it’s used as an unquestionable catalyst to put the story in motion. Oftentimes, instead of components coming together synergistically to create the story, The Prophecy can be used as a cop-out, a “greater power” that cannot be questioned, which propels the story just because.

So, if the answer to the big question of, “Why this character?” is simply, “Because,” that can frustrate readers.

However, this doesn’t mean you need to avoid The Prophecy and The Chosen One at all costs. Classic tropes can be used, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even the dystopia subgenre, only a fairly recently recognized subgenre (although it’s existed for much longer), already has its common set of tropes and clichés.

The trick is to take the trope and do something other than the cliché. If you’ve read widely enough, you know how authors tend to utilize the aforementioned, and you can discern what worked for the story and what didn’t. Take what you know and apply it to your story, do something that you haven’t read yet with The Chosen One, something that hasn’t been done.

Make it fresh, original, twist it, do something different and unexpected.

Sometimes this’ll take a lot of thought and planning. Sometimes you’ll have to pull components from other stories, other genres even (crossing genres is always an awesome way to break out of the typical clichés). Combine different elements and then ask yourself if the story is weighing too much on the cliché.

A trick I use is to write up a summary that would go on the back cover (or the query), and then I can more objectively see what this story might look like to someone else so I can ask myself:

  • Does this read like too many other back covers?
  • What makes this story unique?
  • What stands out?
  • If it’s lacking pizzazz, how can I change things up?
  • If there are clichés, what can I do to drop-kick some originality into them?

The most important thing in the end is that you write the story that you want to write, because that’s what will keep you writing. Don’t write what people want you to write about, and don’t let people tell you what you shouldn’t write, because plenty of writing advice tells you just that. You’re in charge of your own story, so if your story hinges on The Prophecy and The Chosen One, then work the heck out of it.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Describing Colors
just found this really neat list of mostly obscure colour words, it was helpful for me in finally coming up with the right shade of brown i was trying to describe. thought it might be helpful to others!
This is a pretty cool list, and it would be especially helpful for anyone who’s writing an artist or a fashion/interior designer — characters who definitely know their colors and might use some of the more known from the list (like terracotta, mauve, ochre, etc.).

However, it’s also important to keep in mind that colors referred to by their name can be tantamount to medical terminology. Without unpacking, readers might not know what an electrocardiogram is or what it does, and the same goes for words like croceate, griseous, or mazarine.

Even the more known colors like terracotta (which Crayola taught me when I got the big boxes), only have as much significance as the writer gives it.
“Her skin was terracotta.”
“Her skin was the color of the clay earth in New Mexico when the sun set and the ground caught fire.”
Sometimes simply terracotta is perfectly necessary, sometimes it’s all that’s needed, but sometimes describing the color instead of giving it away is a chance to breathe life into a simple word.

Thanks for the link!

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Creating Unstable Characters

Do you have any tips on writing insane characters? I haven’t been able to balance insanity with a real personality. Back story was he killed his son in a fit of rage, his wife stays with him out of love and the knowledge that she can control him to an extent to stop him from hurting others. Is it possible to have a fully insane character with bouts of sanity?

I instantly thought of the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, which is brilliantly done in regards to watching the main character’s downward spiral—but I don’t want to spoil it.

Remember your character is a reflection of real people, and so your character should be as developed as any of your other characters. He should be many-sided, with desires, flaws, strengths, contrasting and complimenting elements with other characters, and the ability to change (whether for good or bad). The character he is in the beginning should not be the character he is by the end.

So, here are some questions to fortify his foundation:
  • What is the source of your character’s insanity? What drove him to this point? Was it a mental disorder? Something that happened to him in his childhood? If you’ve decided on a mental disorder, there should be a clear progression of how he fell apart, but also keep in mind that, predominately, a mental disability isn’t enough to drive someone to murder. “Nurture” is just as important as “Nature”, so don’t rely on a disability alone, as it perpetuates an unrealistic and harmful notion that those with disabilities are inherently and unpredictably dangerous.
  • Does he have the capacity to think logically? Is his thought process coherent and understandable? Is it sympathetic or twisted? How does his mind tick and why does it tick that way? Characters don’t have to be sympathetic, although it adds a human element that readers can associate and identify with (which consequently causes readers to question whether or not they’re rooting for this character). Consistency, however, is important. Readers need to understand how a character started at point A and ended up at point F – unless the character himself doesn’t even know (as an unreliable character/narrator, which is always good fun), and perhaps experiences such things as blackouts in memory.
  • What does your character want?  Does he want to stop hurting others? Does he want his wife to help him? What is he willing to do to achieve his goals? What’s stopping him? What’s standing in his way and how does he tackle it? Does he take medication to keep himself stable? Does he want to take this medication? Showing his struggles and his failures and how he gets back up, if he does, adds to his character dimension.
Do not let his insanity define him – rather, he should be the one to define his insanity through his actions. This goes for any character with an atypical lifestyle. People are not defined by what they are — they define what they are as people. The moments where he’s stable should reveal who he is.

Additionally, make sure it’s clear and believable why his wife still stays with him. What’s their history? Why does she love him? What does she see in him that compels her to stay? Is she staying with him because she loves him or is she staying with him because she’s afraid of him? How does she stop him from hurting others? How does it affect her?

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

250 Words Smash! #17

Most Wonderful Author: Nicole Dilorio
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: Otherland

I was 12 when Malley took me home from the hospital. I had been in a coma for three months and woke up with amnesia. She told the hospital she was my aunt. According to her, I had fallen from the top of a jungle gym and hit my head. I had no memories to dispute this, so I assumed it to be true.

Malley told me we had been homeless, and that I hadn’t gone to school for the past few years. I was told we now lived above a shop that she owned. She said I could go to public school if I wanted, but that it was up to me.

I had no idea what I wanted. I was a twelve year old with amnesia, going home with a stranger. Yet, I had felt a strange stirring in me, the desire to learn everything that could be learned. On the bus ride home from the hospital I said yes, yes I wanted to go to school. That changed when Malley and I got home to her shop.

It was a small corner bookshop, next to a quiet looking diner on Allan Place. The sign above the door read “Otherland” in curly gold script, and then beneath that, in smaller gold letters “Books for all ages and interests”. Malley fumbled around in her tattered brown tote bag for the key and unlocked the door.

Inside were rows upon rows of shelves, with books squeezed into every available space.

Strong Points –
There’s an interesting premise starting up here and lots of questions that are asked. Some word choices are interesting, like how the main character never really confirms that Malley is her aunt, and it’s interesting how the main character is pretty much just a passive figure so far. I wonder how that will change throughout the story.

Some Tips –
As much as I like the questions that are asked, this is a good example of openings that should be cut out entirely. Here are the reasons:

  • This is all telling, not showing, not until we get to the bookshop. In essence, it’s exposition, or basically a summary of events that have already happened (and these seem like pretty important events). It’s filler instead of story, which certainly has its place, but definitely not in the opening.
  • I know you told me it’s a prologue (which you shouldn’t have!) but it also, unfortunately, reads like a prologue. Or, in other words, it reads like it’s only going to be a setup for the actual story, instead of starting where the story truly begins. It’s sort of like describing a character all at once before they even enter the scene.
  • I don’t know anything about the main character. Well, I know something of what happened to her, according to Malley, but I don’t know a thing about who the main character actually is. As I mentioned, she’s a completely passive force in this opening. Things happen to her, and she does little other than tell us about these things.

Make sure you’ve done all your reading on what to think about with including a prologue (here’s a link, here’s another link, and my favorite link on prologues by an actual literary agent). I want you to weigh heavily on whether or not this prologue helps or hinders your story. If the prologue's only goal is to introduce this bookstore, this is something that can be introduced as the story unfolds. Instead of telling us the bookstore is magical (or whatever the case may be), show us that through the story as the plot develops. We don't need a prologue to tell us the bookstore is important if the story shows us how important the bookstore is. A prologue like that doesn't carry its weight, and might even be redundant, or take away from the story instead of add to. Be very objective about this.

So, essentially, whether or not you decide to keep the prologue, my advice is to cut this opening entirely and get right to the story. Start as close to the inciting incident as you can (anything before that is simply setup or exposition, but having some in the beginning is perfectly okay). Or, these first few paragraphs should be unpacked, as in, instead of the main character telling us about how she woke up with amnesia, show her waking up with amnesia. Do be aware, however, that the "waking up with amnesia" trope does straddle the cliche, so make sure you put a fresh take on it to keep from falling into clicheville.

Would I Keep Reading?
No, but I’d like to see you resubmit! I think I’d be able to help you better then!

Good luck! ♥

Additional Tips on Writing Characters of Color

The lovely mod of WriteWorld composed a post with A Few Tips and Resources for Writing POC Characters, which has some fantastic points and links that everyone should check out. It’s the perfect start for all writers who don’t know where to begin.

Since I’ve been engaged in this process for quite a while and inundated myself in research, here’s a few things I cross off my list as I research:

  • Know the history of the particular country or region in question. If you write fantasy, white monocultures are highly unlikely, which is why it’s important to understand why having a basic grasp of non-Eurocentric college level history is so important. If college courses are unlikely for you, don’t despair and read On Doing Research. This will give you a strong foundation for everything else you’re going to research.
  • Speaking of the myth of monoculture, understand that Influence Bleeds Over. Culture is not defined by borders, and in regards to the history of man, borders are only a fairly recent development and not always recognized.
  • Read How to Interview People and talk to real people about their real experiences.
  • Make sure you don’t discount the importance of names.
  • Describing Skin Colors is more than just describing what kind of desserts you like to eat.
  • Don’t wonder “Is this how an Asian person speaks English?” because you’re probably wrong. Instead, understand how someone adapts to English when it’s not their mother tongue and look at Language for those writing ESL characters.
  • Google Maps is an easy way to get a vague concept of how other places in the world might look, but I’ve found that searching Tumblr tags of various cities will get you a more in-depth, personal visual story where people who are familiar with the area post their own pictures.
  • It’s important to break out of what you’re culturally used to. Such things as daily showers and a hot water heater that’s constantly working is fairly odd, even in other first world countries. This helps with gaining perspective.
  • Be careful what you read. Sources may be biased, exaggerated, or ill-informed. If you read “Memoirs of a Geisha” to get an idea of what a Geisha’s life was like, you might not know about the controversy around it.
  • Researching clincher details like regional diets and clothing also helped me get a better grasp of resources, skills, trades, indigenous plants and animals, religious practices, and so forth. Some Tumblr blogs are specifically dedicated to such things.
  • Despite whatever predispositions or beliefs you might have before you begin your research, the best thing you can do is wipe all of that away. Keep open-minded. Be fair to yourself and what you’re researching. It’s scary, as unknown territory tends to be, but let yourself be excited: you’re about to learn a whole bunch of awesome things that you’re going to want to tell all your readers about.

Research is part of writing. Cheat your research and you cheat your story. Don’t throw in a character of color because people “expect” it these days. Don’t create a character who’s skin is darker, but their culture is American, and give them an ethnic name and then say that’s good enough. It’s not. Writers have a responsibility to write their characters as accurately as possible, and as the almighty C said:
Try to write without pity or condescension or idealism in your heart. This is a sure way to mess up writing any character, but most especially a character based on a real group of people who are culturally different from you.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Monday, May 13, 2013

250 Words Smash! #16

Most Wonderful Author: Frenzy
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: N/A


The word is only a single passenger on the train rocketing around inside Annabelle’s mind, merely one of a never-ending list, each as clear and sharp as a summer morning without any of the warmth. A shiver runs up her spine now, one born of emotion and not temperature, and hands shift over her body. Brown eyes, still filled with sleep, are locked onto the reflection in the toothpaste-spattered mirror. They watch in revulsion as skin and fat and muscle spring back into place as the grip on her thighs releases, reforming into a thick wobbling mass near the join of legs to body.

Now it’s time for her belly to suffer the spotlight. Both hands rest flat on the flab above her waist and Annabelle pushes it in as hard as she can, sucking her stomach in at the same time. Digging her fingers in slightly finds the elusive hipbones hidden beneath the surface of flesh but no matter how hard she pushes or pulls they are never visible in the mirror. She can’t even get rid of the small bulge over her lower abdomen that protrudes slightly even when she’s pulling in with everything she’s got.

Disgusting is the wrong word to use. It’s not strong enough, though for others it might be felt to convey the proper level of feeling. But there’s only one word for her, only one that can ever convey the hateful disgust that fills her.

“Fat,” she whispers to herself.

Strong Points –
The voice is very strong, with a subtle degree of intensity that I really like. Already I feel like Annabelle is a real person, and I can feel the things she feels about her body. This is a great example of showing instead of telling, because the strength in the narrative is how she shows us her fingers sinking into her flesh and searching out her hipbones. Those actions resound the strongest and really leave a sharp first impression.

Some Tips –
Structurally, you’ve really got it going. The only tips I can offer are to hone what you’ve got. The two metaphors in the beginning, for example, clash and confuse. The first one could have been simply because I misread it, but one of the first things I look for in the opening is a place to put my feet, a place to find grounding, and I automatically read that she was actually on a passenger train. This could be my own error.

The second metaphor is not strong enough. You’re at the level where you’ve got some awesome language developing, but you need to work on unpacking ideas. How is a summer morning “clear” and “sharp”? I like the addition of “without the warmth”, I love it, I think it’s totally original, but make your summer morning crisper, less vague, so that it’s at the same level as “without the warmth”.

Also, in the same vein, try to avoid using the word “they”. The sentences in your particular style are longer, wordier, less streamlined and more of a tangle (which isn’t a bad thing, and I think it really goes with the tangle of Annabelle's emotions, but could benefit from a couple more commas for natural pauses), so the subject that “they” refers to (such as her eyes or hipbones) gets muddled. If that happens, breaking up the sentences always helps. So, work on specificity, even with such phrases as “pulling in”, and unpack little things, such as “revulsion”.

The last bit on style is to be aware of the arrangement of the words. For example, “Digging her fingers in slightly finds the elusive hipbones”. I’m not sure to read it as “digging her fingers in” and “slightly finds the elusive hipbones”, or if I should read it as “digging her fingers in slightly” and “finds the elusive hipbones”. The latter is probably the correct version, but when I have to pause and reread, the structure isn't the strongest it could be.

On a more personal bit, I’m not too fond of the two words of talking to herself (both “disgusting” and “fat”) purely for the reason that I think the strength of your narrative alone completely overshadows those two words and really speaks stronger for itself. This is my personal opinion, but her actions are dominant enough to hold the opening alone, and I feel like the two words of dialogue distract from that. I think they're too "telling" for how good your "showing" is.

The same goes with “Now it’s time for her belly to suffer the spotlight.” This is a transition that isn’t needed. It doesn’t carry its weight and it straddles redundancy when her actions only echo this transition. It doesn’t add enough.

Would I Keep Reading?

Yes. The writing’s strong and I know it can get stronger, and if ever you send in a revision, I’d definitely be excited to see improvement!

Good luck! ♥

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Writing Exercise: A Story in Dialogue

A Story in Dialogue

With two characters, tell a story using only lines of dialogue. No tags, no description – only words that go between the quotes.

Dialogue is a key tool to reveal character, plot, setting (time and place), tension, conflict – all the elements that help to elevate your story from the pages. The world you create becomes rounder with dialogue that serves more than just two characters talking to each other.

In this exercise, bring dialogue to life by giving characters their own differentiating and natural speaking patterns, idiosyncrasies, or colloquialisms. Express mood and reactions through word choice. Be succinct, let the dialogue reveal the story. Cut down on words or empty phrases that don’t carry their weight or contribute enough. Practice emphatic dialogue without depending upon the exclamation point to carry shock or surprise.

  • Avoid reader feeder: don’t have one character iterate information to the other for the sake of the reader. “You know how we just came from our super boring fifth period history of Europe class?” “Oh, the class where our teacher uses paperclips like army knives?” That’s reader feeder. Both characters already know this information and have no need to repeat it to each other.
  • Use character names infrequently: Think about how often you actually use the name of the person you’re addressing.
  • Consider the relationship of the two characters: this will impact the way they speak to each other, formally or informally, or even how in tune one character might be with each other’s thoughts, emotions, or history.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

First 250 Words Smash! #15

Heroic Author: Andres Vasquez
Poised and Hungry Editor: Victoria
Working Title: N/A

Cooper Ryan felt his office tightening itself around him, his chest collapsing, his ribs burrowing into his organs. Staring at the crisp paper in his hand, Cooper could not avoid its scent of almond perfume trying to find its way into his lungs. He reached for his reading glasses, in the case he had not deciphered the letters, each with unparalleled flourish and fanfare, correctly. Even without his glasses, Coops could not mistake the second name on the paper in his hands; the message was transparent. "The honor of your presence is requested to celebrate the marriage of Gianmarco Cancellindo, 8th Principe di Colloserrone, and Lucy Samson." Cooper Ryan was literally sinking into the floor. The cracking din of the stressed wooden panels finally managed to drag Cooper back to reality. He looked down to find his wide feet halfway to the ceiling of the first floor. Glancing at his wristwatch, Cooper slid the invitation into his back pocket. Control of his bodily functions returning to him, Cooper closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply and slowly. He heard the familiar winces of the floor panels, feeling his feet rise above floor. When he opened his eyes, Cooper found himself levitating two feet above the ground. Gradually exhaling, Cooper touched back down, slowly initially. The moment before touchdown, he lost control, while gravity took advantage. He caught himself on his desk. Breathing hard through his nostrils, Cooper collected his bundle of midterms and burst down the hall to his class.

Strong Points--
I really like this introduction! We get right into the problem, and then we get a glimpse of Cooper actually going through the floor. How the heck does that happen? We have no idea, but we're left with so many questions. You've avoided any sort of info dump and gotten us into the action and the character first, and I have to say that I adore that.

You also sprinkled some lovely descriptors in here. Things such as the almond perfume, the embellished writing on the invitation, I appreciate such touches, and they add to the picture and keep the reader emerged in the story. Cooper's reaction also really speaks a lot for his character, and so we've already gotten to find out a crucial part of who he is.

Some Tips--
I have to say, having all of this as one big paragraph is very daunting and very hard to read. I would highly suggest breaking this into smaller, shorter paragraphs. Not only will this make it easier on your reader's eyes, but it helps emphasize and flush out the separate ideas you have here.  Not knowing where one idea ends and the next one begins can get rather confusing for the reader, which bogs down the pace as they attempt to work it out.

Also, I believe you could benefit from rewording some of your sentences and replacing the modifiers. For example, "He reached for his reading glasses, in the case he had not deciphered the letters, each with unparalleled flourish and fanfare, correctly." This is pretty confusing. It might be better to split the two different thoughts into two different sentences, because with 'correctly' dangling at the end, I have to stop and remember why I'm even reading that word.

I would also love to see more of those sprinkled descriptors in there. Not many--no need to slow down the pace with what isn't absolutely important, but I got a lovely image of the invitation and not much else. Immerse me in the whole scene, not just that single picture.

Last but not least, and perhaps a very minor detail that most probably don't even know, but you used Italian on the invite. That's all find and dandy, but double check what the Italian form of 8th is, because I'm entirely certain that ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd, ect) are different in Italian, and therefore Giancarlo's title would not use 8th.

Would I keep reading?
Yes! I really liked this, and you did a wonderful job of spoon-feeding me just enough information that I really want to know more. I really hope to see more of this work in the future!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Question of Outlining

So, you’ve got a great story stuck in your head. Your fingers are itching to write it and the plot twists are keeping you up at night. Of course, there’s also the characters who’ve brought their suitcases and pets and have taken up residence in your brain. You’re so ready to start this story that your bones ache.

And then you sit down with your torture device of preference (a laptop or a pen or whatever).

Nothing happens.

Or, maybe you grit your teeth and push out a few lines, but, oh hell, they’re awful and completely not what you were going for at all and—repeat this process until mind is lost or fingers are raw.

Don’t despair. This is a common issue that writers have, and one of the causes for your trouble is that you’re not prepared enough. Many writers like to open up a document and just write to the end, discovering the story as they go, and then make all the necessary revisions after. They might have some idea what they’re getting into, but the process is still mostly a discovery.

Some of us need to know a bit more about where we’re going first. Outlines can help.

Here are some pros for outlines:

  • Discovering and strengthening the plot arc in the outline can aid in proper foreshadowing.
  • Predicting plot holes in advance means we can make changes before we’ve even started writing.
  • If you do something to the latter half of the outline that requires changes in the first half, those changes are a whole lot easier to make than rewriting.
  • Similarly, with any mystery elements, we can carefully plant clues in advance and see how each clue affects the story. If something doesn’t work, it’s much easier to backtrack than rewrite.
  • Outlines can help with planning pacing and the right amount of tension, conflict, and necessary exposition.
  • In the case of multiple POVs, outlines can help balance the spotlight, or screen time, for each character to make sure they’re all carrying their weight.
  • Especially with planning a series, subplots are often like herding kittens (or like herding all your drunken friends, y’know) and can get away very easily. Outlines can help with maintaining boss mom oversight on all the baby plots.
  • Outlines allow us to see the whole story from an aerial viewpoint, and then we can see how everything runs together. We can look for repetitious patterns, lagging aftermath scenes, problematic scene bridges, and so forth.
  • Some of us have surprisingly terrible memory, and having an outline makes looking for a particular scene or tidbit easier to find instead of trying to guess which chapter and skim until we lose all our hair.
  • For those who so choose, having an outline makes it easier for scenes to be written out of order and then connected later.

Here are some cons:

  • An outline can remove or hamper the thrill of discovery a writer has with writing the story.
  • Micromanaging details can bring the focus away from enjoying the writing, stressing instead that a story must go according to plan. Plans don’t always work the way we plan.
  • Characters can develop beyond our expectations, altering the course of the plot and effectively voiding most or all of the outline. Characters enjoy ruining things like that.
  • Good, effective outlines take a lot of time. And even then, outlines are subject to change during the process of writing, which means a lot more work needs to be done with the outline.
  • Writing an outline is not writing. Outlines are a lot like building a skeleton and making sure all the molars are in place in the jaw before we start applying muscle and sinew and flesh.
  • Sometimes outlines just don’t effectively predict the story like actually writing the story does.

Some of us are really good planners, some of us enjoy spontaneity a bit more, some of us are a bit of both. But if you’re not a good planner, you can become a better planner through learning and practice.

I used to “pants” all my stories and went wherever the story took me. I learned pacing through sensing when scenes were lagging and needed an injection of adrenaline—but, oftentimes, this led to directions I didn’t want to take and characters developing in ways that answered “the big question” of the story too soon. Subplots were also left hanging all over the place, and when I’d come back to revise, I often stopped and tapped my head like, “What the heck was I going to do with this?”

But I’ve also experience with outlines that were incredibly too strict, where I jotted down bits of conversation that couldn’t always be organically included, and when I forced the characters to constrain to the outline, I impaired their development.

Here are some of my personal methods with outlining:

  • I write my outlines knowing I’m going to alter them somewhere, somehow. This helps me distance myself from any awesome scenes I have planned, so if I have to cut them, I can without mercy (or at least move them or set them aside, just in case the scene can be recycled).
  • I leave endings vague, or open, until after I’m well into writing. I might create a list of things that need to happen by the end as I write, especially as characters develop and do what they need to do. By a certain point, I can more aptly finish the outline and draw all the arcs together (especially if I have a particularly large cast with many character arcs).
  • When I make changes as I write, I cross out unused material and add changes with a different color. This way I can keep track of what was put in and what was scrapped.
  • Sometimes, vagueness is fine. Rather frequently throughout the outline I have details like, “I have no idea what will happen here” when I bring two characters together, because I honestly don’t.
  • I’ll make notes along the outline of such things like “remember the character thinks this” or “remember this is happening too” or “remember the character broke their cell phone” (which happens a lot, let me tell you, my characters sit down way too hard).
  • Some scenes might have a ton of intricate details in the outline, and I might carry on about it for an enormous paragraph that takes up half the page. Other scenes might be single lines. It all depends on how many pieces of the plot I’m throwing at the characters, and some scenes might only deal with one piece, and that’s okay.
  • I keep just enough details in the outline that I have to flip back to it only a few times while writing a scene, and not constantly. If I have to flip back too many times, I’m stopping the flow of writing, and too much of that can break concentration, and then I’m on tumblr, writing a post about outlines.
  • After I finish an outline, I let it sit. I let the sediment settle like I would after I finish the last word of the last chapter of a manuscript. The process of airing things out lets me see my thoughts and ideas clearly and objectively so I can make any tweaks I need to.
  • Sometimes outlines drive me crazy. This is okay. Being a writer means I’m not all there anyway.

I didn’t always outline. I started out pantsing my way through manuscripts because outlines destroyed my need to tell the story. As I started telling more stories, I started using little bulleted lists, and those little lists grew into huge outlines, and then I found something in the middle that worked for me.

The key is finding what works for you. And how you find that depends on how you test your chemistry with different outlining strategies. Sometimes different stories require different types of outlines, because some stories might need meticulous planning and some might need exploring. It all depends on the writer.

Here are some links:

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

What to Do with Bad Writing Advice

The main job of a writer is to write. We write what we want to write about, we tell the stories we need to tell the best possible way we can, and we discover our own personal style through writing and reading.

Write selfishly. Never forget this.

Write the story that festers in your brain. Write because you need to, because you can’t NOT write. Write the way you want to write and not the way people say you should write. Oftentimes, listening to people indirectly telling you “what makes you excited to write is wrong” is harmful, even if it’s said with the best intentions.

Additionally, lots of people will tell you how you should be writing, but one of the best pieces my writing professor told me was, “Don’t listen to that bullshit.” Oftentimes, advice can really help us if we decide to take it. Good advice gives us thoughtful, considerate perspective outside our own and provides avenues we might take to better our story. But bad advice is harmful. Bad advice erases you from your story for all the wrong reasons, and bad advice can come in a multitude of categories.

  • Format is all about whether or not you’re setting each shift of POV into a new paragraph, if your commas and quotations are used correctly for dialogue, so on and so forth. This is about the overall look. Write your story in whatever font type and color you so desire, but when you’re preparing to submit to critique partners or literary magazines or agents, make sure you know what the required format is. A critique partner who’s been down this road can help you with this, and if you’re ever unsure, Google manuscript, short story, or poetry formatting and look for the most up-to-date source.
  • Structure, flow and characters are what the brunt of critique should be. General story stuff. What felt right, what didn’t feel right. Where the pacing lagged, where it could be improved. Characters and their consistency and impact on the story. Keep in mind that if a critique partner felt iffy about something, don’t dismiss them. There might be something legitimately throwing them off about a scene or character and they’re not sure what it is. However, if they tell you exactly how you should fix it word-for-word, be wary. Changes are not for anyone to decide except you. They might be spot-on about what they felt, but absolutely off about how to fix it.
  • Grammar and punctuation should only ever be commented upon if the critique partner in question is a trusted source. Some things can be tricky, such as the uses of the apostrophe, and different people may give you conflicting advice/corrections. But keep in mind that grammar and punctuation are not laws, they are guidelines. Plenty of books on the shelves utilize fragments and run-on sentences and split infinitives, whatever your drug of choice may be, which leads into the next point.
  • Style and voice are personal. This is about a writer’s own taste. It’s how they like to throw paint on the canvas and how they want it to look after they’re finished. The important thing to keep in mind with style and voice is that it varies from one person to the next and it’s not for anyone to decide on or change except the writer in question.

The most harmful critique I see is an attack on personal style and character voice. As writers, we grow and develop our taste over time, and this is a good thing because we learn what we like and we know why we like it. When we read, we read critically, even if we had intended to read purely for pleasure, and this is a constant, endless study to build on our writing. We learn the rules of grammar so that we can test how to break them most effectively.

Always learn the rules before you break them.

Good advice on style and voice comes from a critique partner who is open. They may or may not know the rules of grammar very well (and knowing grammatical terminology as well as a dentist knows the name of each molar does not give more credibility over a well-read critique partner who simply goes by their gut). They tell you when something in the narrative isn’t working as well as it could.

Example: I used to love sentence fragments, and by ‘love’, I mean I flooded my narrative with sentence fragments—but I did so lovingly. My writing professor at the time told me STOP, because, not only did I neglect to realize I had so many, but the flow of my narrative had become jarring and fractured. She didn’t tell me to take them all out. She told me to use them less frequently and more wisely. I did. My style is a million times better.

Good advice also comes from a critique partner who addresses problems with the story, not problems with you, the writer. I’ve heard many a horror story of workshop groups where one participant’s critiques were overly harsh and attacking, but under the guise of “feedback in the real world is harsher than this and I’m doing you a favor.” That’s like people who honk at student drivers to “teach them a lesson”, which it doesn’t, it only makes them more nervous and scared. When someone says, “I’m just gonna tell it like it is,” it means, “I don’t feel like and/or know how to put forth the effort to explain this in any way that won’t be offensive.”

Bad advice will tell you how you should change your style or character voice instead of simply how it’s not working as well as it could. Sometimes critique partners mistake personal opinion as fact. It happens. But when said partners try to make your personal style of writing more alike to what they want to read—or more alike to their own style—that’s not good. Bad advice might even use their authority or status as a weapon to enforce their credibility, and that’s even worse. “I know how you want to write better than you do” is essentially how that translates.

Example 1: I once received advice to never, ever use the word “very”. Well, I can see why. Descriptions such as “she was very beautiful” are empty, but what in my case? My two other critique partners disagreed, noting that the story’s POV is first person, and that any use of the word “very” was his personal, natural voice. To take it out would be to harm his voice.
Example 2: This was when I had finished the first manuscript I wanted to publish, but the word count was grossly high. Someone with a huge amount of authority told me to pair the narrative down. I didn’t have much fat to shave off outside the character voice, and unwittingly, I shaved it down to the bone, stripping my character from the narrative. It was a disaster that I can see only in hindsight.

Bad advice will also tell you what NOT to write about, or criticize what you decide to write about, for no legitimate reason outside of “I don’t like it” (and sometimes this is disguised, again, as fact instead of opinion). Yes, we want to avoid writing clichés if we intend to have our stories read and accepted by the public, as an example. But clichés can be improved with fresh takes, written from new angles, redone to be new again, and this is much better than “Don’t write about this ever.”

Generally, we get some really good advice that effectively expresses opinions as purely subjective opinions, but differentiating good advice from bad isn’t always easy. What do we do?

  • Always, always get second, third, fourth, etc. opinions. If I had relied only on “never, ever use the word ‘very’” in example 1, then I would have dulled the edge of my character’s voice like I had in example 2. Thankfully, I had two critique partners that I trusted to tell me otherwise.
  • You have the power to reject feedback. Take in what your critique partner has to offer first. Nod. Get clarity if you need it. Then, thank them. Leave it at that. Don’t argue or tell them they’re wrong. If you disagree with what they have to say, simply don’t apply their opinions to your work, but make sure you absolutely understand where they’re coming from first. Be objective.
  • Trust your gut. If you apply the advice offered and feel like this has changed your story in a way you don’t like, if it makes you uncomfortable, then undo what bothers you. Keep your story yours, just make sure you understand where your reader is coming from and why you can’t apply the changes offered.

In the end, the most important thing is to write selfishly, revise wisely.

(cross-posted from KSW on Tumblr)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

First 250 Words Smash! #14

Most Wonderful Author: Kelly Hearn
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: N/A

-feet scraping on the clay bricks, sliding over the moss in between the cracks-

There are sounds behind him, inhuman, horrific, unreal, can't be real, shouldn't be real, moans and groans, shrieks of terror and murder and death.

They're advancing, their claws digging into the ground, ripping it apart, their heavy breaths laced with the smell of blood and human meat.  They're catching up to you, slowly, your doom inevitable, but you just keep running, leaping over the tree roots, dodging boulders, doing whatever you can to put off the horrific end to your miserable life.  You turn to look over your shoulder, just for a second, to look at them -

-pure evil, fur black as night, eyes glowing red, teeth as long as you are wide, and hunger in their eyes, hunger for your flesh, your blood, your life-

- and when you snap your neck back around there's nothing but air beneath your feet and you're falling and you hit the river with a smack that knocks the breath out of your lungs and you're being smothered in the icy water and you're sinking and it all fades to-

The phone's screen blinked in red and black: 

Game over.
Would you like to play again?

Strong Points –
I like second person. I didn’t always, not until I read a book that convinced me second person could be used effectively, so I’m always eager to see more writers experiment with it and see what else can be done. It’s totally underrated.

Also, you’ve got some good moments of descriptive detail, like hitting the water and the breath leaving the lungs. You’ve also got some strong adverbs that really command the action of the scene and reinforce the pacing and the atmosphere.

Some Tips –
This is an odd one for me, but I gave it some time to stew in my brain before I realized why this intro didn’t really work for me: it doesn’t tell me anything about the story. Instantly I think it’s supposed to be a “choose your own adventure” web type series, but something like that would give readers context before they start the story. I think the formatting is also what confuses me, why there are specific paragraphs separated by dashes and why there aren’t, why the separated paragraphs aren’t capitalized, so forth. I definitely don’t mind atypical formatting, but I have to understand why the formatting is this way and what it adds to the story. The opening doesn’t tell me enough about the why.

But, back to what I was trying to less-than-coherently say. The first scene of a story should give the reader an idea of what they’re getting into. This tells me very little. I don’t know any characters, I’m not even sure if I’m the main character, I don’t know the setting or the place and time, I’m not quite sure if this is intended to be serialized fiction or a web series – and I think this is an inherent problem when beginning with something that I tend to call a “gimmick”, which is a plot device that doesn’t further the plot and exists purely to create drama.

Some gimmicks are cool. Some gimmicks work. But in this case, I think it’s hindering your story.

My advice is to begin with the story, whatever it might be, wherever it truly begins. Start as close to the inciting incident (or the beginning of the rising action) as you can. Immerse your readers in your story as quickly as you can, don’t dangle it above their heads. Give them something to hold onto.

Would I Keep Reading?

Not yet, but I’m actually curious now to see what this story is actually intended to be, and I saw some glimpses of good writing, so if you do resubmit to us (and I’m sorry this took so long!) I’ll probably open that sucker right away.

♥ ♥ ♥