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Category Archives: Writing

Perfecting Your Pitch

writers blockWe spend hours, days, months, and sometimes years writing our stories. One idea turns into many and we write them down to create worlds and adventures that allow people to escape and believe anything is possible. After all this work, we’re then asked to shorten our story into a few paragraphs, then one paragraph, and finally, into a single sentence. The one sentence pitch.

Some people find this easy, while for others, this takes a lot of time and thought. I’m one of those for whom it took some time. Instead of telling you how to write yours, I’m going to leave you a map of the sites I utilized to figure out the puzzle.

The first site I found is a blog by Nathan Bransford. He’s a published author and former literary agent. He’s got a great website, full of helpful information: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/05/how-to-write-one-sentence-pitch.html 

The next is a website written by agent, Rachelle Gardner. Her post isn’t very long, but it does give a good overview: http://www.rachellegardner.com/2012/11/writing-a-one-sentence-summary/ 

Querytracker’s blog was another helpful resource: http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2009/02/writing-loglinethe-one-sentence-pitch.html

Here’s another from Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/thrillerfest-2011-pitch

Elana Johnson is an author who wrote a post about this very subject and included several links to help people craft their pitch: http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2010/04/one-sentence-pitching.html 

I’ve given five different sites that I used and found helpful. The web is full of information, some of it more useful and true than others. I tend to stick to names I know and recognize when I’m looking for help. I wanted to use links, instead of putting it into my own words, because I can’t give you the magic formula for writing the perfect pitch for your story – only you know your story well enough to narrow it down to a few words.

If you’re feeling up to the challenge, post your one sentence pitch in the comments for critique. Please be sure and identify the genre and myself or one of the other writers will tell you what we think. Good luck and keep writing!

Join us on Wednesday when guest writer, Vaughn Roycroft, will be discussing the technique of using multiple points of view!

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8 Comments

Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Craft, Critique, Pitch, Uncategorized, Writing

 

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Use Character Arc To Improve Your Story

Not all characters change for the better...Al Pacino in Scarface

Not all characters change for the better…
Al Pacino in Scarface

“A character arc is the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline, or series of episodes.”

~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_arc

“In real life we each regard ourselves as the main character.”

~ On Writing, Stephen King

As part of our workshop series, I wanted to take a look at the concept of Character Arc, and how it can enable us to write characters that:

                                    * Make the story better

                                    * Are plausible

The Character Arc, explored in Chris Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, is a framework. Are there flaws? Yes, I believe so. Characters don’t always need to change to grow. Some grow in their resolve. They remain steadfast in their beliefs.

When I first committed to writing, the only book on craft I’d read was Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s an excellent book, and I referenced it a few times for today’s post. So, I dove into writing my first book. I had great fun, and only a vague vision of where my story would go. But I got stuck. When a girl from mudding and four-wheeler country says she’s stuck, she means mired in muck up to her elbows.

The second book on craft I read was Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Here’s what using the framework did for me:

It enabled me to learn to ask the right questions of my characters, and move the story forward. I began to understand how to connect-the-dots. Using the Hero’s Journey, as Vogler suggests, as a guide to creating a realistic Character Arc, helped me create a cohesive beginning (Act 1), middle (Act 2), and end (Act 3). 

I still write the first, even second draft from an organic mindset. One of my great pleasures in writing is the feeling of awe and adventure as I listen to the whisper of my subconscious. I live a safe life with my remarkable husband and children; writing is my great road trip.

It’s awesome to hit the road and words in the spirit of spontaneity and telling the story as honestly as we can, but if we get lost, there’s nothing wrong with referencing a map.

 I encourage you to further research character arcs, the three- act story, archetypes,  as well as  steadfast characters. I’m using my notes taken from The Writer’s Journey. I’ve broken down the Arc into three acts. The words in parentheses reference the Hero’s Journey.

Act One:

1. Limited awareness of problem (Ordinary World)

2. Increased awareness (Call to Adventure)

3. Reluctance to change (Refusal)

4. Overcoming reluctance (Meeting with the Mentor) 

Act Two:

5. Overcoming reluctance (Crossing the Threshold)

6. Experimenting with first change (Tests, Allies, and Enemies)

7. Preparing for big change (Approach to Inmost Cave)

8. Attempting big change (Ordeal)

9. Consequences of the attempt (Reward)

Act Three:

10. Rededication to change (The Road Back)

11. Final attempt at big change (Resurrection)

12. Final mastery of problem (Return with Elixer)

Here are some examples of questions using this framework can help us ask:

* How does the character become aware of conflict/ problems?

* How will the character initially react to the conflict?

* Can the character turn to anyone for advice and honesty?

* What motivates the character to a.) change or b.) remain true to their belief system?

I would love to hear your thoughts on character arc, the Hero’s Journey, or the three-act story structure. How have they affected your writing and storyline, or have you found another system that works for your manuscript?

Thank you for participating.

 
 

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The Subjectivity of First Lines

Image by cellar_door_films

In April last year I blogged about setting tone and the first line. As part of our workshop month, I want to take a look at what makes a good first line.

I’m not an expert. I don’t give writing advice. I make suggestions. And something I always suggest to death when critiquing it, is the first line of a manuscript.

I want to share with you guys the best piece of advice I read about writing first lines. I can’t remember who gave it or where I read it, but it stuck with me enough that I share it whenever I can.

If your first line can be the first line of any story, think about rewriting it.

I think at the end of the day, first lines are as subjective as an entire novel. But there will always be opinions, and opinions will always be subjective. That’s why they’re called opinions.

I’m going to take a popular example and give you my opinion on it. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

First line: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

It’s a fantastic book, I devoured it, but that first line could just as well be me on a winter’s morning. Or you. There’s nothing special about it. And that’s what I want. Special. I didn’t stop me from reading and loving the novel. It just didn’t make me think ‘Now here’s something I’m looking forward to reading’. It’s the kind of thing I read and then forget as the rest of the story pulls me in.

I went to the room I put all my books in and began pulling out novels and reading their first lines. I had a surprisingly difficult time finding lines that agreed with the abovementioned advice, or jumped out at me as special. Here’s a few of what I loved, with reasons why I like/love them so much:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. – Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones.

This. This right here is what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t ever be able to put this first sentence with any other novel. Ever. It stands out. It makes me wonder. I want to know what seven-league boots are and what kind of misfortune it is to be born the first of three.

It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected the cure. – Delirium, Lauren Oliver.

Another great example for the same reason as above. This first line wouldn’t be able to start any other novel than this one.

Only when the tip of the knife started to shave against the white of his eye like a scalpel about to pierce a boil, did I realise that I was the one holding it. – Hunting Lila, Sarah Alderson.

I love the imagery here. It also does a fantastic job at making me wonder just what the heck is going on here.

There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius.  – Hounded, Kevin Hearne.

I don’t know why I like this line so much, but it works. It’s that subjective thing again.

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what would happen. – Feed, Mira Grant.

I’ve had this book on my tbr for months now. The first line made me laugh out loud. Guess what? I’m moving it up and will be reading it soon. First line, job well done.

In doing a bit of research for this post, I read that some of the best opening lines are usually short and snappy. For some, yeah I guess that works. If you look at my examples above, I like my lines with personality, and often that requires more than a short sentence. When I look at Feed’s first line, I already get a proper sense of who the main character is. From that alone I’m excited to meet her.

If you’re interested in reading a few more first lines, here’s a post with links to quite a few of them: Links to First Line Posts by Susan Berger

Keep in mind that the kind of books I read are probably different from the kind some of you read. I look at some of the lines other people quote and think ‘I don’t see it’. I know there are a few of you that will look at the lines I quoted and think the exact same thing. That’s okay.

I’ll say it again. First lines are as subjective as entire novels are.

If you’re not entirely happy with your first line, if you feel it needs something different, think about that piece of advice I mentioned at the start of this post. Rewrite if you think it’s necessary.

Need an extra opinion? Please drop your lines into the comment section and either myself of one of the other ladies will comment. Other commenters are welcome to chime in as well.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on February 13, 2013 in First Lines, Subjectivity, Writing

 

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Stepping into POV

20130208-163533.jpgThanks for continuing to follow us through our February workshops. A special thanks to those of you who have been brave enough to share your work with us. We sincerely appreciate the opportunity offer up some of the things we’ve learned over the years, but also the chance to learn from you. If you haven’t yet, be sure to enter to win a 25 page critique from Month9Books editor, our very own Courtney Koshel.

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”
— Roger Miller

Today I’d like to talk about point-of-view, something that has always been highly important to me and something that has evolved in my writing over the years. For those of you who have read my stories, you know I like to dig my heels deeply into my characters’ hearts, set up camp, and then invite you in for a hot cup of coffee. It’s the best seat in the house.

There are three common points-of-view used in fiction: 1st person, 3rd person limited, and 3rd person omniscient. Two things usually dictate which one you choose: your writing style or your story. For me, first person is a choice I’ll make 9 times out of 10 because that’s how I connect to my characters and that’s what shapes the tone of my story. It’s a stylistic thing.

For others, it may vary from story to story. For instance, fantasy is often written in 3rd person because of the vast amount of world building that needs to be done, while Young Adult is commonly 1st person to create the familiar emotional intensity of adolescence in the reader. I’ll let you Google the many articles out there about which one is right for you, but no matter your choice, there are some common tips that mean the difference between watching the story play out on a mental screen and stepping into the character’s shoes.

Eliminating Filter Words

Courtney already gave us a wonderful post on filter words and in it she says, “They distance the reader from the story. It’s one extra step the reader has to take in order to experience action with the character.” There’s no better way to say it so I’ll leave it at that and encourage you to check out her post again for a list of common filter words.

Sensory Details

Including the five senses is essential in each scene yet it often gets overlooked. I think we’re so used to experiencing the world through them, we take for granted that without them I wouldn’t be able to feel the warm blanket over my legs right now; I wouldn’t hear the space heater running beside the couch; I couldn’t see the screen in front of me to type this, or taste the remnants of the Granny Smith apple I ate a few minutes ago. I could have simply said I’m typing this on my iPad in my living room but don’t the use of my senses create a much clearer picture?

Character Thoughts and Feelings

In any given moment, a person has an emotional reaction or thought about what is happening around them, or what happened earlier in the day or week or month. They have feelings about what other people say or do, or what might happen in the future. It is a rare moment when we aren’t reacting to our surroundings. Bring your character to life by giving us a glimpse into his or her mind and heart with internal monologue, skillfully included using the POV of your choice. Make us feel it too.

There are many ways to put readers behind the eyes of your characters but these are just a few. They say you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, and a novel is a cross-country trek. Bring us along.

In the comments, I would love to see a few paragraphs of your work-in-progress where you might need a little help with implementing these techniques. The ladies and I here to support you and speaking from experience, nothing helps your grow in your craft more than trial and error with an encouraging group or writing friends. 🙂

Photo by Newtown grafitti

 

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To Great Beginnings!

I just liked this picture. Photo courtesy of:http://www.flickr.com/photos/cloppy/8444077598/

I just liked this picture. Photo courtesy of:http://www.flickr.com/photos/cloppy/8444077598/

Writing the beginning to a story is hard. There are so many things that have to be just right. Are you starting your story in the right place? Will it grab the reader’s attention? Is there too much detail and description or not enough? Is there conflict? But most of all, will your beginning make the reader want to keep reading to chapter two and beyond?

One of the problems a lot of writers run into is where they start their story. Every story and character has a background and the writer knows this world so well and they want to share it, so the reader can experience everything the writer intended. However, too much detail about the setting or character can slow down the story. The reader doesn’t need to know everything the character has done leading up to the starting point, weave it into the story. Too much setting has the same potential to slowing down the story. Give enough setting to make the story come to life and let the reader feel as though they’re with the character. If the first five or so pages consist mainly of describing the school and playground where the main character attended fifteen years prior, that’s a good clue that rewriting may be in the near future.

A lot of craft books talk about creating conflict and showing what’s at stake. That’s something that’s extremely hard to do in the first few pages, because a lot of times, the character doesn’t know enough about their situation to realize what’s at stake, unless you’re writing a crime novel that starts off in the middle of a burglary gone bad. With bullets flying and a police chase, we can all see what’s at stake. However, most other genres don’t have this luxury. The writer has to be creative and come up with ways to integrate it into the beginning without being so blatant. Though, of course, there are exceptions.

Research has shown that if a reader reads through the first paragraph, they’ll read the first page. After reading the first page, if you’ve kept their curiosity  they’ll continue through the first chapter. If the story holds their interest and they want to know what happens to the characters, they’ll read the second chapter and beyond. This is what every writer wants, someone to read their book from start to finish because they genuinely care about the characters and their situation. If large blocks of description interrupt the flow of the story, they’ll skim over it. Use dialogue to interrupt description. Move the story along. Go for emotional impact. Create a connection between your readers and your characters, give the reader a reason to care what happens, particularly in the beginning.

I think we’ve all read books that don’t follow the rules. I know that I tend to skim if there’s more than a few paragraphs of nothing but description without a break. It doesn’t matter what it’s describing; a dress, a new car or a high school. Unless you’ve got a killer description that somehow becomes a character in and of itself, it doesn’t move the story along. It lets the reader see what you see, but you can lose them if you don’t pick the story up again. Remember to show, not tell.

A few little things that you can watch for are:

  • Overuse of adverbs – examples are lazily, slowly, happily, etc. Show in your dialogue instead of telling the reader what and how the character responds. A few adverbs are fine, but if every dialogue tag has one, that may be something to watch for.
  • Pacing and flow – does the pace of your story make sense? Does it flow from one scene to another? Is the reader going to have and stop and go back to see what happened? For example, if your story starts with a daydream, will the reader know when real life comes back into play?
  • Give life to your settings. Make the reader feel a part of the world you’ve created. For example, “it was a small town, like any other.” Umm… I’ve been to lots of small towns and they were all different. Give the reader a little more to go on, weave it into the story with dialogue and action. Keep it moving.
  • Keep your dialogue clear. Show the personalities of your characters. Make sure the readers knows who’s talking. Make them interesting and let them fly.

In doing research for this post, one of the most common things I read was that the first five pages can make or break your manuscript. I guess I’m not surprised considering one of the books I use frequently is Noah Lukeman’s, “The First Five Pages.” He’s a literary agent and his book is quite helpful when zeroing in on problem areas. I’d highly recommend it.

As part of the workshops that we’re offering this month, I’m going to offer critiques of the first 500 words of your novel or work in progress. If you’re up for it, copy and paste the first 500 words (give a take a few, if you need to finish a sentence or paragraph, feel free) in the comments section and myself or one of the other lovely Hugs and Chocolate writers will critique your work. Please tell us your genre and feel free to ask any questions that you may have, we’re here to help you.

.

 
35 Comments

Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Craft, Critique, Writing

 

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Performance Pressure and the Diamond in the Manuscript

20130125-172029.jpgHave you ever finished writing a manuscript, and after months of blood, sweat, and tears, you realize that even after all that work, your story doesn’t look at all like you imagined it in your head? In fact, after a second glance, you’re sure a toddler temporarily overtook your brain and scribbled 400 pages of crayon doodles? Of course you have…you’re a writer. You’ve probably felt that way about everything you’ve ever written…like I have.

Up until this point in my writing “career,” that hasn’t mattered much. Mostly my readers have been friends and writing groups. I post fiction online too but even in that venue, readers are generally pretty forgiving. Not so with publishing industry professionals. There is very little room for mistakes and if you make them, they better be small. Tiny. Miniscule. Talk about pressure.

Getting in the (Publishing) Game

Over the next couple of weeks I’m preparing for my first writing contest ever. I’m talking the big deal with two rounds, multiple judges, announcement of the finalists at the next conference, and the final round judged by editors of major publishing houses. Yeah…that kind of scary.

It’s an exciting adventure to be sure, a thrill to imagine where it could lead. The final judge for my category is an editor at Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Never before has every word, every period, and every character of my manuscript been under such scrutiny. Sometimes the anxiety to get it all right leaves me panic stricken. I only get one chance to put my best work in front of this woman who could potentially be my gateway into the holy land.

Previously, I’ve never had a reason to get this far into the process of editing. I guess I always imagined entering the chaos of the publishing world as something that would happen way down the road. Like, way down. I’ve taken my time, learning more about this, fiddling with that, but after five years of writing, getting critiqued, editing, and dreaming, it’s time to dive in, sink or swim. So despite my fear, I’m going through the first 20 pages of my manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. I’ve re-understood my characters, re-worked motivations, re-invented the details, and rewritten this novel so many times that I have more loose ends than the hem of grandma’s skirt.

Upping the Ante

Before I started this final-for-now edit, I had a long brainstorming session with my writing partners and nailed down what was working and what wasn’t, for better or worse. The time for flip-flopping has come and gone. And now, with that focus in mind, I’m sifting out the dirt and looking for the gems. And you know what? They are there. Actually, never before have they shined brighter. And I don’t think anything less than the pressure to perform at my best would have gotten me here.

I’m the ultimate perfectionist at heart, especially when it comes to my writing. I think every artist is that way. But putting myself in this position has taught me that I know more than I ever realized about who I am as a writer, what I want to bring to this ever expanding sea of literature, what my writing voice sounds like, what I can accomplish when I put my mind to it, and what process works best for me. The deadline and the stakes have forced me to stopped questioning myself and realize the truths that were already there, clouded by the uncertainty an unlimited time frame allows.

Get Out There

Do it. I know you’re scared. I know you don’t think you’re ready. Guess what–just like getting married and having kids–you’re never going to be ready. You learn as you go. Underneath all those scribbles is your story, and as soon as you trust yourself enough to find it, you will. Make the decision. Raise the stakes. And watch yourself rise to the occasion.

What’s holding you back from taking the next step? Or, what deadlines are you working toward? What steps have you taken that have forced you to grow as a writer?

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

 

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Improvisation and the 1st draft

At the end of last year I read my very first autobiography. I don’t read these kinds of books, most specifically because I like my reading to be as fictiony as possible. It’s basically the same reason I shy away from contemp novels too. I’ll make exceptions if the back copy and buzz really catches my attention, but other than that I tend to stay away. Give me as improbable as possible and I’m sold.

Anyway. The book I read was Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, and in it she talks about The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*. I read this section and was struck by how applicable is to writing first drafts/plotting/outlining/writing new stories.

I want to share those rules with you, with my take on it and slightly altered fWordleor the writer.

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.

Type improvisation into a word document, right-click on it, select Synonyms. It’ll give you things like creativeness and inventiveness. And isn’t that exactly what writing is, being creative and inventing stories and worlds and people and situations. When you decide to write, you agree to do all these things, and it’s the greatest thing in the world. You say yes to your idea. You say yes to giving it your all. Because at the end of the day, that’s all that’s expected of you: to do your best to write a good story and give it the best chance possible.

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but to say YES, AND.

With improv you’re supposed to agree and then ADD something extra. With writing I like to think we agree to write, and then attempt to blow it out of the water. We write. AND we aim to do it well. We aim to do our stories justice. We say yes, and while we’re at it we’ll learn. To plot better. To write better. To be better. Every time. Don’t just limit yourself to writing a story. Write a story AND tell a story.

The next rule is to make STATEMENTS.

Write your 1st draft and be confident in it. Write and make bold statements, even if you do it in a quiet, unassuming way(yes, that is possible). BE CONFIDENT in what you’ve chosen to write about, and if you’re not, make yourself so. Make statements in your story, because if you and your characters believe it, your readers will too. There will be plenty of time to worry about your writing later. When you draft, revel in it. REVEL. It’s an experience you’ll never have again. One of the reasons I like drafting, and pantsing the most of the entire writing process, is that I approach it as if I’m reading my novel for the first time. I get to make statements. I get to be surprised and discover news things. I get to revel in the newness of it.

There are NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.

Ok, sure. Your first draft will be riddled with things that need to be fixed, but not a single thing of it is/was/will be a mistake. Like the heading says, it’s an opportunity. You get to make what you have better. Be brilliant. A crappy first draft might be crappy, but you can turn it into something shiny and wonderful. LOOK AT WHAT YOU CREATED. It’s yours and it’s beautiful. You might trunk it later, but how could that ever be a mistake?

Try a little improv the next time you start something new. I’m doing it right now, and it’s exhilarating.

*Tina says improv doesn’t reduce belly fat. I am sad.

 
13 Comments

Posted by on January 23, 2013 in Drafting, Motivation, Personal Experience, Writing

 

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