How do you make your writing come alive in the minds of your readers? Here, in a four-minute TED-Ed talk, Nalo Hopkinson shares her thoughts:
How do you make your writing come alive in the minds of your readers? Here, in a four-minute TED-Ed talk, Nalo Hopkinson shares her thoughts:
The study is published in the British Journal of Psychology under the sexy title, "Effects of Disfluency in Writing."
The study's authors suggest that slowing done your writing makes it less likely that you'll go with the first word that occurs to you. Instead, you have time to consider alternatives and use the best one.
Some writers have found the same effect when they do their first draft in handwriting. I've found it to be true when I've used long airplane trips for writing something by hand.
Especially if you find it difficult to reconsider your word choice when doing a second draft, slowing down when you write the first one could be useful.
In any event, it's a useful reminder that faster is not always better.
In researching my book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, I found that one thing many great writers have in common is that they come up with ideas while walking. Charles Dickens was famous for this, apparently averaging 20 miles a day!
University lecturer Olle Balter started taking his class for walks in a wooded park instead of teaching in a classroom.
He reports, "Students feel freer to talk when they are outdoors than when they are in a classroom."
He also says 21 of 23 students preferred this method, saying they felt better after an outdoor session than one inside.
Obviously this is more suited to some subjects than to others (Balter teaches media technology), but it is consistent with a Stanford University study linking creativity with physical activity.
The next time you feel yourself stuck--or even when you're not--take a walk!
"If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story." - Ernest Hemingway
I think this is useful at two points.
First, it underscores the importance of getting to know our characters, including many things we will not end up including in the script or manuscript.
Second, when revising the first draft cut the bits where you've pictured the entire iceberg for the reader. Leave the one-eighth that allows the reader to know or at least sense the other seven-eighths.
The charming short (2 minute) video below uses kids to demonstrate the difference between going with your first idea and giving yourself enough time to come up with something more creative:
What should you look for (and avoid) in getting feedback on your writing or other project?
Max Brooks, author of World War Z, said this in an short collection of tips on Publisher's Weekly:
"I’m very careful who I let proofread my unfinished work. Too often people will want to rewrite the entire story or take it in a direction I never intended. Vetting proofreaders over time allows me to find eyes and brains that want to help me get where I originally intended to go."
He calls it proofreading, which I associate with looking only for typos and spelling errors, but what he describes is more typical of people giving feedback on whether or not what you've written works. The danger he points to is that they, with all good intentions, start pointing you toward the way they would have written the story or scene, rather than givng you feedback that helps you write it better the way you intended to.
My advice is to ask them to stick to identifying the problem--maybe the scene feels like it goes on too long, or something isn't clear, or the dialogue doesn't come alive--and leave the solution to you.
When you think back to your favorite novel or film, what moments in the story stick in your mind? Often there is one scene that reveals something new or even something very familiar about life and stays with us.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, novelist Courtney Maum (I Am Having So Much Fun With You) talked about the mix of heartache and humor that often occur together. She gave a wonderful example from her life:
“For instance, last summer I was eight months pregnant and we had to put our cat down. I mean, we really loved this cat. While we were burying him in the backyard, two men were painting our nursery. And the painters were singing along to ‘Love Shack’ on this awful radio with terrible sound while we were outside crying.”
I think if you can find this kind of moment when your character experiences something that illuminates the tragi-comedy that is his or her life (and ours) it enriches the story.
What moments like this did your characters experience?
Did they notice them at the time?
Were they changed by it?
Even if you don’t use those moments in your manuscript, being aware of them will help you get to know your characters more intimately.
As an exercise try looking at a photo and brainstorm what else might be happening or about to happen that would make it a dramatic moment (example below).
(Get tips on writing from Anton Chekhov and the other greatest writers of all time, collected in Your Creative Writing Masterclass, now available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
It's probably not fair that people judge whether or not to buy a novel based on the cover, the back cover, and the first sentence, but that's how it works much of the time. Now that more people are buying books online, the back cover doesn't matter as much, but the cover image and the first sentence or two (as reached by the "look inside" feature) still carry most of the weight.
That's why the first sentence is so important. I belong to Bookbub.com, which offers ebooks free or at a reduced price, and I find a lot of times I don't opt to take even the free books if the first few lines don't grab my attention. I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at a few openings. Let me hasten to say that these books may be excellent, I'm just sharing my personal response to their first lines.
The stocky man pumped his flannel-covered arms around the steering wheel as the white box truck he called Bessie rounded the corner.
The first problem I have is with the word "pumped." The motion I associate with pumping (as in working the handle of a pump) is up and down, which is not easy to link with a steering wheel. If I stop and think about it I can imagine the turning motion as pumping, but ideally a first sentence doesn't make you stop to figure out an image. Next we have his flannel-covered arms. I assume he's wearing a flannel shirt, but again the image makes me stop for a split-second to figure that out (rather than imagining it's only his arms that are flannel-covered). Then we have the information that he calls his box truck Bessie, which doesn't pull me into the story nor is it essential information at this point.
If the job of the first sentence is to effortlessly carry you on to the second sentence, that example isn't great. Let's look at another one.
Years ago, Once Upon a Time was Right Now.
OK, that's an interesting enough variation of the classic fairy tale opening to keep me reading. It goes on:
And eventually, Right Now will become Once Upon a Time. In fact, it just did. Time is funny like that. In most stories time is very important. Not in this one. The story may have horses and not cars, but really it could happen now like it did then. Then Being Once Upon a Time, years and years ago.
I'm starting to lose interest but let's see give it a few more lines.
The story is one of passion, and last time I checked, passion was still around. It exists in love, hate, obsession. For instance, I have a passion for pickled herring. I can't live without it...
Nothing is happening and I have no idea who the "I" is who checked whether or not passion is still around and loves pickled herring. Next!
My daddy once called me a cockroach, because when I was a kid I dug in the trash for food scraps and drank from the dog's water to survive. He said he meant it as a compliment.
We have a winner! Why is this one better? Because it raises a question. It makes us curious why the character dug in the trash and drank from the dog's water to survive, and what kind of father would consider calling a child a cockroach a compliment.
Contrast that to the first example, which doesn't make me wonder anything about the man driving the truck, and the second, which doesn't make us wonder about much of anything until it gets to pickled herring. By then, following a consideration of the nature of time and passion, pickled herring feels a bit of a let-down.
I don't know if you feel the same way about these particular examples, but looking at these has sent me back for a closer look at the first lines of the projects I'm working on; maybe it'll prompt you to look at yours as well.
(Want friendly guidance on writing your novel? You'll find it in Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
I read a fascinating post by novelist Lydia Sharp in which she described having what she calls Seasonal Writing Disorder. It's well worth reading the entire post, but in a nutshell she said she used to beat herself up because not only does she not write every day, she goes weeks without writing.
Then she realized that if she stepped back and looked at her ouput in the context of a year, she was just as productive as other writers, if not more so. Like me, she suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is characterized by depression and low energy during the darker months. I use a bright light in the mornings during the winter, which helps a bit.
Sharp is most productive in Spring--that's when she has written six of her seven novels. Spring and early Summer are also my favorite times and probably my most productive times.
Your cycles may be different. The point is that when you discover what they are you can work in synch with them rather than fighting them or feeling bad about not working in some supposedly ideal manner.
This doesn't mean that you can move forward only a few months of the year. The times during which you don't feel as inspired can be great for editing, marketing, and learning new skills.
Of course the same is true of getting in tune with your daily cycle, doing the most important tasks during the time you have the most energy. Especially if morning is your prime time, it's a shame to spend it on catching up with email, for instance.
It's in line with a sayig I like: "Make reality your friend."
(There are time management tips you can use all the year around in my book, Focus: use the power of targeted thinking to get more done. It's published by Pearson and avialable from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
Boring Conference is back..although I wasn't aware that it had been here before. It's listed as "a celebration of the outwardly ordinary, mundane and prosy but which, on peeking beneath the surface, reveal hitherto undreamed of depths."
It takes place in London on Saturday, May 31. In the three previous Boring Conferences topics have included sneezing, toast, and yellow lines (on the road).
No word yet on this year's apparently boring topics. I would suggest accounting, lint, and nasal hair (if you are a fan of any, don't take offence, obviously I trust that all three of these have hidden thrills).
The first tickets wil be released on Feb. 28, see BoringConference.com for more information.
What actually caught my attention wasn't just the Conference but the fact that I think a lot of writing either reveals the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary, or the ordinary aspects of the extraordinary. I guess reality shows specialize in the latter, although as they run out of topics, increasingly they are revealing the ordinary aspects of ordinary subjects (Cupcake Wars anyone?).
Writers probably don't need to attend the Conference (although it might be enjoyable) because looking beneath the surface is a big part of the process. Checking whether you've revealed enough of that in what you've written might also be a good strategy for your second draft.
Children's author and writing teacher Kathi Appelt was asked by The Writer magazine what she thinks is the biggest mistake newer writers make when writing children's books:
"The major mistake is 'saving the hero'. In real life, our job as adults is to provide assistance and counsel to children. But in fiction, young heroes (be they children or child substitutes, such as kittens, puppies, and so on) must tackle the obstacles and solve the story problem on their own."
I'd take that even one step farther: kids love reading about children who are able to solve problems that adults can't. In my animated series, "Norman Normal," Norman was the only normal kid in a family of superheroes, yet most of the time he was the one that ended up solving the problem. Kids yearn for the power to be independent and to tell adults what to do for a change.
However, that doesn't mean making your young protagonist perfect. Appelt warns, "We writers also have to let that main character struggle. If the obstacles to a goal aren't large enough, then readers won't care about the main character. What young readers want are imperfect heroes who get into a fix and then have to struggle to get themselves out--or not."
Good advice--in fact, it's advice I'm going to have to take myself in writing the second draft of the YA novel I'm working on. I realize that I've made things a little too easy for my protagonist, I'm going to have to be meaner!
In the previous post I quoted prolific novelist Peter Abrahams on setting your daily writing goal. In his interview a while back in The Writer magazine, he also talked about what makes for a good story:
"My mother, Enid, taught me most of what I know about writing when I was about 10. Among her rules:
Torment your protagonist.
Push everyhing as far as you can without contriving.
Get everything you can out of a story. Don't leave the gold mine only partly dug, but stop before you do anything that leaves the reader feeling your behind-the-scenes presence or thinking that terrible thought: That couldn't happen.
Always advance the story."
I'd say he was lucky to have learned those at his mother's knee, and it underscores how simple storytelling is. Of course, "simple" and "easy" are not the same thing, more's the pity!
Many writers set a goal of working on their project for a certain amount of time per day. The danger is that it can be easy to rationalize that spending that time researching your topic on the internet counts, even though you end up spending "a few minutes" checking your email, reading the news, or updating your Facebook account.
In that case, you might say, why not set a word goal: a certain number of pages to be written per day or per week?
Well, that's better but maybe not quite good enough. In an interview in The Writer magazine, prolific novelist Peter Abrahams came up with a better solution:
"My goal is to put in about a thousand words a day and to advance the story."
He explains: "Those are two separate goals because you could write 1000 words a day without really getting anywhere."
In other words, if you write a thousand words describing the protagonist's house but nothing has moved forward in the story, it would be a good idea either to keep writing more or (preferably) figuring out what you can combine with that description that will advance the story.
Usually this change affects one or more of your main characters. Sometimes their situation is just different, but normally it is either better or worse relative to what they want it to be.
I think it's good not to get obsessed with this in your first draft, otherwise you may find yourself rewriting too much rather than forging ahead. However, it's an excellent method for assessing your first draft and figuring out what you would like to change in your second.
Abrahams and I are both talking about mainstream novels, not experimental ones; in the latter, anything goes. In the former, readers want the story to keep moving.
(For more tips on writing your project from the idea all the way through to the finished version, see my book, Your Writing Coach. It's published by Nicholas Brealey and is avaiable from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
Thinking outside the box suggests going a long way away from the norm, and often that does lead to breakthrough ideas. However, Christian Stadil, CEO of innovative company Thornico, says there’s also a lot to be gained from thinking inside (or at the edges of) the box.
He suggests looking at the edge of what you already do well. That involves playing to your strengths and looking for an improvement of perhaps 10 or 20 percent rather than some radical breakthrough.
An interesting approach might be to start by thinking, what would a 20% better (name of your product or service) look like, sound like, feel like, be like?
Then take each of the attributes you come up with and brainstorm how you might create it.
You can also apply this to the components of a project. For instance, if you are writing a thriller novel or screenplay, you could brainstorm how to make the opening more of a grabber, how to heighten the tension in key scenes, how to make the protagonist more relatable, and so on, improving each part one by one as part of your rewriting process.
(For friendly guidance in writing your book, see Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
Will little mistakes in your book turn people off? Is proofreading really that important?
I hesitated to write this post because I know there are typos in my blog posts. I do proofread them but I post just about every day, sometimes under time pressure, and things slip through. For that reason, when I read blogs I cut them some slack regarding typos and little errors.
This came to mind earlier today when I was reading the “look inside” preview of a book about research into psychic phenomena. It said that many famous people followed this research, including "Rod Sterling".
The late Rod Serling happens to be one of my heroes. I grew up loving the Twilight Zone series and later read a number of his plays. When I was a teen-ager I wrote him a letter and he was kind enough to reply. I guess that’s why seeing his name misspelled bothered me. More importantly, though, it provoked this question:
“If the author got that wrong, what else did she get wrong?”
That’s the question you don’t want your readers to ask. It undermines their confidence in you and it may even make them put the book aside (or not buy it if they spot the error while browsing).
Here are some tips for proofreading a manuscript:
* Get at least one other person to proofread it
* Use a ruler or piece of paper and move it down one line at a time. That stops your eyes from moving ahead too far. Even better: in a piece of paper or light cardboard cut a horizontal slot the length of your lines, so anything above and below the line you are looking at is covered.
* Read backward. That makes you isolate each word and you’ll notice misspellings much more easily.
PS: I bought the book anyway…but I’ll be on the lookout for any other mistakes.
-----For friendly help with writing your book, get a copy of Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and avaialable from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.