Only 3 Ways to Go When You Write…

Want to kick your writing up to a new level? Want to make it better? Maybe a lot  better?

Here’s a quick and easy way to do just that.

I’m talking mainly nonfiction writing here, although the points below can be adapted slightly and help with ficton writing too.

Here are a few, brief, key points that can put you head and shoulders above the other 85-95% out there laboring away on digital paper.

So, what do we do when we write? Point 1:

I have an idea in my head that I want to communicate. Maybe it’s a picture of a gorgeous sunset.  I can see it “in my head.” When I write I must use words, so I put down my words. Those words need to be accurate and well-written if they are going to communicate. That is, so that another person reading my words with get a picture of that sunset in her head that is pretty close to the one I’m seeing in my head. If she can, then I have written well, I’ve communicated.

How specific are my words? Point 2:

Everything we write, every word, phrase, sentence…is general or specific to one degree or another.  Here’s a simple example:

1.  Fruit

A. apples

B.  oranges

(1)  navel oranges

C.  grapes

D.  bananas

2.  Vegetables

Notice in the simple outline above that…

(1)  The word “fruit” is pretty general.

(2)  The words “apples… oranges…grapes…bananas” are more specific types of fruit.

(3)  But each of these types of fruit (apples…oranges…) are basically are equal when it comes to how specific they are.

(4)  On the other hand, when we get down to “1 veggie” we get less specific, more general.

These moves have names…

(1)  When we move from “1. Fruit” downward to “A. apples,” that’s subordinate  move, We’ve in a sense downshifted. We’ve gotten more specific.

(2)  But when we go from “A. apples” to “B. Oranges,” we’ve stayed on the same level. Apples are no more general and no more specific than oranges. That’s a coordinate move.

(3)  Now when we go from “D. bananas” to “2.  Veggies,” we’ve gotten less specific. In fact we’ve change the subject to a degree. I like to call that a superordinate move.

Still with me? Good! It’s going to get better.

Here’s the punch line, the key point:

Whenever you are writing, no matter where you are in your writing, you can only go 1 of 3 possible ways–in the known universe (leaving aside multiple dimensions, string theory, etc.)

From one point to the other, you can only get more specific, keep your next words at the same level of “specificness”, or get less specific (and change the subject more of less). That’s all there is, folks.

Now, how can this help me write better?

Good writing flows. It’s like one idea grows out of the one just before it and then leads to the next connected idea.  Good writing makes sense. It makes it easy for your reader to follow your thinking. It communicates,

In grammar, rhetoric, and composition, this is called cohesive. And it is a vital essential to excellent writing.

How can I do it?

At each point–at a bare minimum each major juncture–in your writing you ask key questions. At the same time keeping your reader in mind.

An illustration to make this clearer…

Say I’ve written the following 3 sentences (I’ll put them in outline form to diagram the content):

“1.  Intuition is important in writing–really you could say in day-to-day living too.

A.  In many ways it’s smarter than the logic we tend to value so much.

B.  It is holistic and often captures the big picture.”

Key Questions…

So as this point in my writing I ask questions like these:

(1) Have I written enough on this subject? (If I have, it’s time to quit or move to another major point or subject–a superordinate move.)

(2) Will my reader get it? Will she understand my point, believe me, see how important it is?

(3) Do I need to add a (subordinate) explanation, an illustration, some detail? and so on.

(4) Are there more points to be made? (Probable coordinate points.)

Now I’ll add more meat to my writing illustration above…

Let’s say I decide I haven’t written enough. So I look at it and ask what and where to add more words. And here’s what I come up with.

“1. Intuition is important in writing–really you could say in day-to-day living too.
A.  In many ways it’s smarter than the logic we tend to value so much. (1) Ever notice how detectives, the good ones, pay attention to hunches? We should too. B.  Intuition is holistic and often sees the big picture. (1) How often do we forget to step back and take a longer view? (2) A wiser range of considerations can be enlightening.”

Did you see an improvement in my little piece of writing above?

Granted, it’s not Shakespeare or even Hemingway. There’s more to do, but I like it more now.

By the way, I wrote this blog post with these principles in mind.

Try this key way of looking at writing. Be in outline mode when you write. Ask questions. Be aware of your level of specificness at each key point and which direction you need to go next–subordinate, coordinate, superordinate).  Keep your reader(s) in mind all during the process of putting words on paper. Better yet, practice this mode of thinking while writing.

I propose that it will enhance our writing, perhaps beyond what you anticipate.

[Note: This little essay appeared first, in a different form, at the Write To Done blog quite a while back.]

Your turn…

What ways and means and methods help you write better?

Don’t miss Joanna Penn’s inteview with best-selling author Zoe Sharp

Story-writers and novelists,

Check out this interview. It’s insightful and down-to-earth practical.

Fine it here: http://www.thecreativepenn.com…..zoe-sharp/

Best-selling Brittish mystery/thriller writer Zoe Sharp (the Charlie Fox series) started writing novels at age 15 but admits writing is still hard.

She confirmed for me that a good way of promoting your novel (perhaps the best way) is to self-publish an anthology of your short stories, especially if they involve the main character or characters of your novel(s) [what I wrote at the left includes a bit of my own interpretation, by the way].

She talks about traditional vs self-publishing, about writing a series, and about making the transition as a Brittish novelist to a US readership.

Lots of good info briefly stated-–in exchange for an investment of about 20 minutes of your time.

P.S. Let me know if you found it intriguing and/or helpful.

Are your writing skills sharp enough?

Are you aware of your weak areas? Those areas you could stand to improve?

I’ve been seeing this issue popup on blogs lately.

We all have areas of skill that we are good at. We also have some that need sharpening.
There are books on exercises you can do to improve your writing tech, exercises a plenty, but where do you find the time?

I think finding some time and doing the practice is vital. Maybe a better question, though, is: how can we make the most efficient use of the time we can salvage from our busy schedules to improve our writing skills?

Basically 4 ways: Questions, Reading and Study, Focussed Practice, and Talking to Children

1.  Many times finding a good answer depends on asking the right questions.

Stay alert when you are writing. Notice whenever you struggle.

Is my dialogue sparkling with wit, charm, surprises, suspense?

Will my introduction grab my reader’s attention?

Are my thoughts and words clear? Do they flow coherently, one thought leading to the next and then the next?

Am I describing my character’s emotions with fresh and telling body language?

In other words identify those specific areas where you could stand some improvement? 

Take notes so that you can recall and target these skills needing improvement later.

2.  You’ve got those books on your shelf or in your Kindle for a reason: read & study

Go back into the  writing books you have read–maybe too some you haven’t yet–read, study. And again, take notes on especially helpful ideas.

Get some info on how to improve.

3.  Do some targetted practice.

At this point, if the books you have reviewed and read do not suggest exercises, why not devise some of your own.

Ask yourself: what kind of exercise can I do to improve this skill?

Then do that exercise andany others you come up with.

And finally…

4.  Can you explain how to do it to a child?

Scott Young, a learning expert, advocates the Feynman technique.

Basically it’s this: explain it to a child.  Granted, you may not have one handy. If so,  pretend that you are explaining it to a child…

“Sally, here’s how to write great conversations…”

“Sally, here’s how I made sure I got my reader’s attention.

If you can explain it well enough that a child of say 9 or 10 gets it, you’ve got it.

(For more on efficient learning go here),

For me, I think the effort described above is vital to writing success. 

What could improve your productivity and writing success better than dealing with those skills you need to improve?

Strengthen the weak areas in your writing skill and watch how your writing flow is enhanced.

What areas of writing skill do you know you could improve?

 

What is the toughest job the fiction writer has? Emotion.

Getting an emotion reaction from her readers.

A good story has several key elements–all of them are challenging:

  • Character. You need to create characters your reader will relate to and care about.
  • Plot. Your protagonist has to want or need something. And if you are good, you provide a steady diet of hurdles, surprises and interesting situations along the way.
  • Setting. The story must take place in a specific time and place, the more vivid and interesing the better.
  • And emotion.

MY focus here is on emotion.

How do you get your reader to feel your story, be emotionally affected by what’s happening on the page?

By showing how your character is feeling. How she reacts to what’s happening in the story.

If you are constructing your story well, you’ll have: a good plot–a goal for your character to achieve and conflict, things in the way of attaining that goal–and a character the reader can relate to and care about, in a setting that seems real to your reader. But for your story to be moving, your job is also to portray what your characters (major and minor) are feeling.

If you do that, your reader will sympathize and feel those emotions himself

Emotions move us. Readers want to experience emotion while reading. Make them feel, and they will love your story.

But portraying those emotions is not easy.

It’s way too tempting to take the easy, lazy route and just tell,  just name the emotion.  ”He got really mad.” Instead of: “His face was a raging fire out of control, and he clenched his fists so fiercely his knuckles looked like they would break.”

One of the finest resources in print that you should have readily available is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It is a well indexed listing of human emotions with  accompanying words and phrases to describe them. To me it’s indispensable. In the introduction, the authors describe the keys ways to portray emotion. Here is a brief summary:

1. Outward physical signs. You describe what  you would see in another person that would tell you what they are feeling. “Her face looked as if it has lost the last drop of blood.”

2.  Mental responses.  You describe what a character is thinking about what is going on.

3.  Mainly-internal Physical Sensations (Visceral responses). These are basically involuntary, raw and uncontrolled reponses–like: heavy breathing, a rapid hear rate, dizziness, and so on.

A balance is always advisable.

The authors also point out that you can err in two ways. Having too much emotion in a scene or having too little. And overusing visceral reponses can make your writing melodramatic.

I highly recommend this book. I have reviewed it here before, but my re-reading the intro today prompted me to share it again.

Another book.

…is The Definitive Book of Body Language  by Allan and Barbara Pease. This book is primarily aimed at business people or anyone who wants to learn to read other peoples’ body language more accurately. I wish the writers would have provided an index in the back of the book of all the types of messages that can be sent, which would have made it more useful. But the table of contents does arrange and categorize the content by means of the  different areas of the body that send the signals. 

So, to make this book useful to you, it’s a good idea to at least scan it to familiarize yourself as to what’s where.

Do you have any practical advice on portraying character emotion in words? If so, please share.

P.S. I want to mention once again K. M. Weiland’s excellent and helpful book , just published, Structuring Your Novel. It’s the clearest and most useful description of story structure I have found. You want a good plot/structure? This book can help a lot. And her section on scene structure and options is super-helpful too!

 

K. M. Weiland’s just-out book on Novel Structure is not to be missed

Katie's new bookDo you struggle with structure when writing a novel? Do you find the subject confusing at times. If so, here’s a book that can help.

I have read the first two chapters and have spot read here and there throughout the rest.  Enough that I can confidently highly recommend this book to all novelists, beginning or otherwise.

K.M. writes with a reader-friendly clarity and a lovely prose that is a joy to read, and there are significant insights on every page.

I have read awesome books on structure.

For example, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, with its 22 steps and abundant detail–like reading an epic–and Larry Brook’s  Story Structure–Demystified and his Story Engineering. These books are on my shelf or in my Kindle.  Both are brilliant and complex. But Weiland’s book adds a lot of important points and perspectives.

Plus, Ms. Weiland has a gift for making the complex readily-understood.

Her book has come along at the time that I am preparing for a thorough rewrite of my novel, so just in time. My reading of her introduction and first two chapters have excited me about how much her book will contribute to my writing success.

Throughout this book she uses two novels and two movies as examples to further clarify the content of each chapter.

Those are: Pride and Prejudice, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and the films: It’s a Wonderfuol Life and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This is important because these well-known and fleshed-out examples help to further make plain and practical the content of each chapter.

The first half of the book (a bit over half) addresses structure, and covers each key point thoroughly, including the all-important First Plot Point, each major section, and also Pinch Points (in which the antagonist, person or force, gets center-state-emphasis in a well built novel).

The second half of the book deals with scene structure (scene and sequel) and at the end even some on sentence structure.  Both contain helpful  wisdom from a practicing novelist. I especially am glad Weiland deals with sequel because I consider it a tricky element of scene work. Contemporary novels and stories, as I have read them, do not devote a lot of space to sequels, wherein the protagonist ponders his next move.

So to all you novelists, published or not, and first timers: I highly recommend this book.

P.S. You can download the introduction and first two chapters from Amazon to your Kindle here: http://www.amazon.com/Structuring-Your-Novel-Outstanding-ebook/dp/B00EJX08QA/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1378071848&sr=1-1&keywords=structuring+your+novel

You can also read a summary of her main novel structure points here at the Write to Done blog: http://writetodone.com/2013/08/29/outline-secret-creating-story-structure/

 

What 4 Activities can make you a Top-Notch Writer?

What are the essentials for your progress as a writer?

Briefly, they are: Writing, Reading, Studying, and Thinking.

Are you writing enough?

We all know writing helps us improve our writing skills. So this will be brief.

Write a lot, and not just in your chosen niche. Any writing helps move you in the direction of being as good as you want to be.

  • Keep a writing journal that records your insights and writing experiences and anything else you find meaningful.
  • Write an ad for your up-and-coming book.
  • Write recipies.
  • Write anything, including your chosen niche.
  • Using words, recalling the right words, better words, stuggling with syntax–it all moves you forward to some degree.

Are you reading enough?

In the evening, especially after a hard day at it, I like a good TV show. Currently it’s CSI:NY. I think well written dramas can add to our story-telling bag of tricks.

But I don’t want to indulge that too much. It’s like desert after a good nutritious meal. First the meal, then the reward.

There is that all important reading within your niche’s range. Study your competition, find out what’s being read, and how those author’s go about putting together their pieces. Beginnings. Endings. Style. Word-choice–all very important.

There’s reasearch you need to do.

Holly Lisle advises us to read everything. That’s the eclectic approach where you read whatever and add grist for your creative mill, grocery items for your pantry. Fuel for your subconscious mind’s engine.  Anyway, random is fun.

And you studying too?

A craftsman studies his trade, and artist his tools, and even plumbers need to learn skills and essential knowledge. All benefit from exposure to the work of accomplished practicioners. Are you not just reading fiction-writing how to books or copy-writing how-to courses, but studying, and doing the exercises–even if you have to make them up–that can accelerate your growth as a writer? Are you reading that short story or novel and getting caught up in it, and then forgetting to give it some close scrutiny to learn exactly how the author did it?

And finally, are you thinking though it all?

Nutrition involves eating, digesting, AND assimilating your food.

Until you have done all the above AND made it yours by discovering your own insights and confirmations of all the good points you have come across, until it flows out your fingers hitting the keyboard’s keys, until it’s so much a part of you that you find that writing knowledge and wisdom popping up in your finished pieces–is it really yours?

Which of these activities have you found most helpful to your growth as a writer?

What do you do with all the Information?

Writing is all about information, getting it, understanding it, communicating it to others.

How do you get your information? And how to you record it so that you can find it later?

My own scenario often goes like this: I come across a juicy piece of info I want to keep, remember  and find later. My favorite mode is eclectic, gathering it from wherever. But when saving it, I  often take the easy route: I put it in a Word file and save in in a folder on my hard-drive.  I have a large hard-drive, so If I don’t name the file and/or folder in a findable way, it can be like figuring my way through a maze later to re-locate it.

That can really knock me out of my writing zone—especially if I can’t find that info after looking for it for a while.

Back to you.

You’re coming across information all the time, some of it you want or even need. What do you do with it? Can you find it next week, two months from now, a year?

Even though I often yield to the temptation to just chuck it into a file and save it, I do like to organize it. So what are the options? And what’s good about each?

Here are my thoughts–along with the pros and cons for each:

1.  Save it in a file

Pro: This makes the info available and easy to clipboard and manipulate here and there when writing, or otherwise. It’s usually nicely readable too.

Con: But, as I mentioned above, can I find it quickly and easily later? Sometimes, too, it’s all-too-easy to delete it when that’s the last thing I want to do.

2.  3 x 5” cards (or a notepad)

Pro: No batteries. Easy to carry, quick and easy to use. Later, cards can be shuffled easily into different arrangements to choose the best order for writing. And they can be physically filed. In fact, they are electronically undelete-able.

Con: If you like things in your computer so that you can work with them there, you have to type the cards into files. Also, you can misplace or lose them. And, if you’re in a hurry and/or your handwriting is poor (like mine), they can be hard to read after the fact.

3.  Use a “notes” program, like Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote or similar.

Pro: These programs have indexing and notetab features that make your info pieces much more findable.

Con: It can be either hard to take them with you or at times, when you can, you do not have them with you.

4.  Your smart phone.

Pro: Easy to carry, and you usually have it with you. Your notes are downloadable.

Con: Unless you’re a texting whiz (I’m certainly not), recording your inspirations can be slow going.

5.  TheBrain–now this is different…

.Pro: It not only can help you organize your thoughts in an organic-outlining fashion, it’s one of the easiest to learn and use brainstorming programs I’ve found.  You can record your ideas, then copy them and next output them via your clipboard into Word, for example, where they wind up in a neat outline format, then further develop them–if you want.

Another key feature is that ability to attach files from your computer and links from the Web–to any thought (a “thought” is an individual  idea written onto TheBrain screen). This creates a little icon at the left end of the thought. Then merely clicking on the thought’s icon opens the file or webpage in its own window.

A couple cons: (1) the notes feature is a bit awkward to use (but works), and you can open any note in its own window. (2) And, to keep attaching files after the 30-day pro-version trial period, you have to buy the pro-version (there are several options for this), which is rather expensive.

But here’s some key  info:

If you use DropBox to store you most-used files, you can go online to your DropBox account and drag and drop files/folders (their URLs) onto a thought on TheBrain screen. They are then clickable just like a weblink. (You can continue attaching weblinks even on the free version, which you get to keep).

I love my “TheBrain.” I get to keep the free version, which is quite powerful, forever.  I downloaded one to my laptop too.  I use it for brainstorming scenes, recording webinar notes on the fly, and noting down my ideas and developing them.  ALSO, it’s become an updated index to my hard drive, at least for the files I use most often.

I’ll leave the many other features (including in the free version) for you to discover if you download it. What the heck–it’s free! And it’s handy software to have. (You can get it free at www.thebrain.com.)

So those are some of my ideas on organizing information.

Do you have any ideas to can add?

 

 

My Scene Template–latest version

Do you struggle with getting your scenes right?

Scenes are the basic building blocks of any story or novel. Get them right, and your story and novel will not only very likely sell but  will probably also build you a following of dedicated readers.

Below is the Scene Template I put together and use for planning or revising my scenes.

SCENE TEMPLATE

SCENE QUESTIONS and SOME REMINDERS…

(Remember: Not as short as possible but as dramatic as possible—but no wasted words.)

Read your Focus Cards (brief outlines and notes for the scene)

  • Who is the main point of view character?
    • What does he/she want/need?
    • What stands in his/her way?
      • How do you reveal the obstacle(s)?
    • What is he/she feeling???
    • Where is he in his character arc?
  • What’s the conflict in the scene? Or conflicts? (Conflict is anything, not just arguments, etc., that keeps a character from getting what he wants/needs.)**
  • What is this scenes place in the story structure (within or at plot point or…)?
  • What type of scene is it—drama, sequel, action, beginning, ending…?
  • What is the day, time, place, season, situation?
  • What setting elements/descriptions need to be included?
  • What is the key piece of info scene provides for the reader?
  • What are the stakes?
    • How will you make them clear?
    • Who and/or what will the reader root for?
  • What is the mission/purpose/scene question?  That is, how does this scene further the story?
  • Besides the main character (POV), who are the other characters in the scene? Why does he/she need to be in the scene?
    • What does each want?
    • What stands in the way?
    • Where is each, as applicable, in his character arc?
    • What are your “show not tell” and body language ideas?
  • Are there any plants/foreshadowing? If so, what are they (note any follow-ups ideas to these to do later).
  • Any surprises/twists?
  • Where is the point of maximum INTENSITY in the scene? The scenes “fulcrum,” the critical action and information-revealed?**
  • What are the Suspense element(s)?
  • What theme(s) does this scene express?
  • What is the level of anticipation during the scene, as paid off by the moment when the morsel of story exposition is exposed?
  • Or, if it’s a deliberate surprise, how have you tricked or set up the reader to make that moment as jarring as possible?

REMINDERS:

  • Remember: stimulus and response!
  • 95% or more => WRITE IT MOMENT BY MOMENT—DON’T SUMMARIZE.
  • Avoid redundancy or unnecessary descriptions of setting, place, character appearance, or other issues of ambiance?
  • At each key point, WHY SHOULD THE READER CARE???**
  • Have you left in boring parts? (Delete them!)**

Create a SCENE OUTLINE

WHAT CHANGES WITH THIS SCENE???

BEGINNING (at the latest moment, w/o skipping key info or dramatic potential):

  • Beginning attention grabber?
  • Does your scene open with something clever, poignant, surprising, or intrinsically interesting?

MIDDLE (What gets worse?):

END

  • What is the outcome—win, lose or draw?**
  • Logical twist or Disaster or Cliff-hanger at the end?
  • What gets resolved?
  • What doesn’t get resolved?
  • And what is the transition to next scene?

[NOTE: Wherever two asterisks ** occur above, they indicate ideas added from Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel course, which I highly recommend. Check out her stuff here: http://hollylisle.com/. ]