Few of us are born churning out perfect stories, rhyme or prose. For most, writing is a craft of passion and hard work, honed by wonderful hours spent reading the works of others, then of writing, revising, practicing, doodling, noodling, tweaking, combining, exploring, dreaming and thinking about our own stories.
In fiction, ideas, characters and stories arise from experience, observation AND in the expanded imagination of the mind and heart But until we put those ideas, stories and characters into words, until we “write down the bones” of our thoughts and ideas, they remain stuck in a nebulous cloud inside of us––raw, unrefined and difficult to organize or share.
So…how do we get started? How do we learn to write, to put our words to paper, word-processor or recorder so that they make sense, not only to us, but to our future audience? How do we build a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end?
- Suspend judgment, fear and ego. Don’t look for perfection in your first drafts. Just write.
- Organize your thoughts, phrases and descriptions into categories and subcategories (remember the dreaded ‘outline’ from Jr-High School English? It works. (So…belated apologies to my 7th-grade teacher, Mrs. Mann). This outline is the beginning, the ‘building of the bones’, or framework of your story. It should use very few words, and be more like a ‘tree in winter’.
- Beginning—Aliens land near the village
- Middle—Natives fight back. 3 significant battles, 2 heroes, 3 sidekicks, 2 enemies (one internal, one external)
- End—Solution discovered. Aliens are defeated and leave. Life starts over.
- Show, don’t Tell. Show your reader your characters by describing them, the environments they are in, their signature ‘catch phrases’, personalities and history. Write as if you’re describing your characters to a blind person, bringing in all the senses and using all of the ‘color’, light and sound surrounding you in everyday life. What are they wearing, how do they smell, are they warm, hot, cold or cool personalities, what do they eat, where do they live, work, or play? What makes them laugh or smile? What makes them angry or afraid?
- Telling: John couldn’t control his emotions and it was constantly causing him problems. He was filled with rage as he demanded his money back from the jerk. (Note the passive voice with the use of the ‘to be’ verb “was” . Try your word processor tools of ‘search and find’ and look for the number of passive verbs in your story. See if you can re-write each segment using active verbs)
- Showing: John exploded with anger, his face turning a boiling-lobster red. His large rough hands balled into fists and the deep smoker’s rasp-of-a-voice shook with rage. He screamed at the precise little man in the trendy blue suit,”You sorry son of a sand-worm! You owe me! And don’t forget, I know where you live! So hand it over!” (Note the use of active verbs “exploded, balled, screamed”, the short explosive sentences and dialogue to denote anger.)
Which is more powerful? Which draws you in and makes you want to know more about ‘John’ and his problem? (Or maybe run for the hills?)
Most fiction reads better and holds interest if description is integrated with dialogue. Long paragraphs of endless description, even if they contain fascinating detail, can lose the rhyme and rhythm of your story. One sentence of well-written dialogue can often ‘show’ the person, event or problem better than describing it in paragraphs of detail.
On the other side, a book filled with only “he said, then she said, of talking-heads”, is deadly dull and repetitive. A balance of active dialogue and description usually works best.
(And don’t forget, unless you are writing strictly ‘literary works’ where the prose and the artistic way the words are put together is the actual point, in most genre fiction, story is King. Of course, if you can combine both…beautiful words that sing and dance off the page AND a good story, you should hit the NYT best-seller list sooner rather than later. : )
Point of View vs View Point: What’s the difference and why does it matter? In a nutshell, paraphrasing a quote from D.L. Edwards, © 2008, provides the best short definitions I’ve read:
“When referring to Point of View, I’ll be talking about how the story is narrated . Viewpoint will refer to what is sensed or thought by characters within a story.”
Point of View is the selection of how the story is told: past or present tense, 1st person = I , me,—2nd person = you, your,—3rd person= he/she/they or—omniscient 3rd = narrator outside the story.
ViewPoint: Once you’ve established how you will tell your story, it is important to select who will tell your story, then to consistently stick with that narrative person and not skip around to different characters (unless it’s absolutely imperative to the vitality of the story–but please, keep it to a minimum, or you risk losing your reader because they never know who is speaking or who’s mind the words come from.)
Tips for gaining a perspective on your masterpiece:
- Read, Record and Play back. Frequently record your words and play them back to yourself with your eyes closed. Jot down quick notes on what doesn’t flow or ‘sound’ right in how the words are put together. Or follow what some of the best writer’s workshops and critique groups do, read your words aloud to someone else. What we think we’ve written clearly with no room for misinterpretation often falls short of what we’re trying to say, especially with first drafts. Have someone else read your material aloud to you to gain a TRUE perspective on it (they don’t know the story and don’t put the same emphasis on words and characters).
- Flow and Voice. Writers often find a ‘flow and voice’ in their writing, where the words and characters seem to take on a life of their own and create the story themselves. In fact, they OFTEN take an entirely different path than the one intended. The more focus and time you spend with words and the ‘story’, the faster and easier they move. This is GREAT! Keep writing. You can ALWAYS adjust, delete or re-write.
- Blockages. Then there are the ‘other times’, when words and flow get stuck, and nothing short of an earthquake will move them. When this happens, try for the absurd. Create several new scenarios or sidetracks and bring in the most absurd happenings you can think of:
- a hot-air balloon full of escaped circus dogs breaks free of its moorings and floats down into the middle of a formal lawn wedding just before an alien invasion.
- your perfect hero parks his car on the 7th floor of a twenty floor parking garage, then can’t remember where he left it and races through each level with his key fob in hand while assassins dog his trail trying to figure out what he’s doing.
- mix things up–try several ‘draft’ paragraphs worded differently, combine them, pick and choose one word over another (use your thesaurus), until you can completely describe the idea you see perfectly in your heart or mind…in multiple ways. Change the scene from sunrise to midnight and feel the flavor of dialogue and action change. Put that perfect paragraph aside, come back to it and cut it in half, reducing it to just the essentials (subject, verb, adjectives/adverbs), with the fewest words possible. Then flesh it out again, until it says the very most it can in the fewest best words and image-building prose.
- Distill. Distill. Distill. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, cut down, add to or make revisions. Take out everything but the most essential elements. Ask yourself these questions (make notes of your answers, of the internal dialogue they inspire, of the characters as they build in your heart and in your story:
- Who, What, Where, When–once you have an idea of where you’re going and why, THEN you can ‘flesh out the bones’ of your work.
- How many main characters? Who are they, where did they come from, why are they in trouble, causing trouble, solving trouble–what drives them? How do they have fun? What are their hobbies? Charities?
- How many supporting characters? Why are these supporting characters necessary to your main characters? What do they add to the story in terms of drama, humor, misdirection, conversation?
- What are the characters’ human, animal, cartoon or alien–habits? What do they cialis generique look like, smell like, sound like? How do people react to them? How do they interact? Why?
- What are the challenges to be ‘overcome’ (technical, physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, geographical) and how do I get past them?
To sum up:
- What is my main subject?
- What am I trying to say?
- Who are my characters?
Can I write a one-paragraph description of each character and bring them to life…a paragraph that paints a visual picture of them to the reader, so that they relate to them, or know someone like them and expect them to behave in a certain way? Can I integrate those traits into dialogue or description and keep it interesting or surprising, plumbing the depths of the story to draw the reader in?
Very little time:
As writers, we have a very small window of opportunity to impress readers /editors/publishers with our first words and story. If the writing is full of typographical errors, poor grammar or sentence structure, misspelled words or poor framework, we rarely get a second chance
In any genre, any format, today’s reader has too many options, too many opportunities to leave and not come back.
Therefore, our first submission should ALWAYS be the very best it can be–well-edited and critiqued, free of misspellings or poor grammar and offer a unique perspective on our subject with a well-told story–if only so that it won’t be our last.
Best wishes with your writing!