Things New Writers Do Wrong

Everything that’s wrong with your story, courtesy of Michael Swanwick.

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Writer’s Salon #5 Recap

Someone recently asked me what typically happens on these nights, and going over the ones we’ve done so far made me realize I had never recapped the last one. Because of the holidays, we haven’t met in a while, but we did meet in October at Kim and Mike’s apartment. In honor of Halloween being the next day, we came in costume. Our hosts were a young Carl and Ellie from Up, Jon arrived as an impressively accurate Mr. Tumnus with an amazingly-bedecked Beth-the-Kraken in tow, and I rounded things out as Hermione from her Prisoner of Azkaban days.

We finally tackled the Action topic which had been requested in the spring. We read examples of action passages from favorite books and analyzed what made the author’s style for writing action particularly effective.

Our next meeting will be later this month, where we will try a live-writing exercise. By the way, I just made that term up on the spot, but it looks like it’s actually a thing. Check out an example.

I’d like to propose Dialogue as a future topic. Here’s a good article to get you started on Writing Great Dialogue.

Naming Your Characters

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

Naming your characters well is one of the most powerful things you can do to paint clear pictures of them in your reader’s mind. The right name can instantly convey many things: time period (Elizabeth vs. Liz), age (Tommy vs. Thomas), socioeconomic status (Blake vs. Bud), character’s relationship to another character (Mother, Aunt Jane, Pappy)…and the list goes on.

In many cases, the best choice is a name that is classic and easy to pronounce—one that is essentially transparent and will not distract from the story. There are times, however, when a distinct name is valuable.

A name that is uncommon can be an excellent tool for world building. Giving a character a name that is foreign can help transport the reader to an exotic locale or provide insight to the character’s ancestry. Interpol put together this comprehensive Guide to Names and Naming Practices that covers thirty regions around the world. It will help you identify the correct order for a person’s given name and family name in each culture and provides guidelines about married names and children’s names. Patronymics, honorifics, religious names, caste names, and place names are touched on as well for the cultures where they apply.

Assigning a name that is not familiar in any language (like Katniss, Bilbo, or Dumbledore) reinforces the concept that your character inhabits a world that only loosely overlaps with present day reality.

A colorful name can also be used to make a character seem dynamic or larger than life. Think Pippi Longstocking and Horatio Hornblower.

There are pitfalls to avoid as well. If you give your character a gender-ambiguous name and then don’t give other clues to gender up front, your reader may picture the opposite of what you intended until something eventually reveals the truth. (Your readers may also find themselves in an uncomfortable state of limbo, like I did when I scoured chapter after chapter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for hints as to whether the protagonist was a man or a woman. It took way too long to decide, at which point I was quite fed up!) Some gender associations vary based on time period or geography (Ashley, for example), so be cautious about that.

One final thought about names… They’re like sports jersey numbers: some of them are quite definitively retired. Unless you’re looking for the connotations that are certain to follow, avoid naming your characters Romeo, Scarlett, Madonna, Mr. Darcy, or the like.

Happy Writing—get out there and name some characters!

September Articles

The open tabs are piling up in my browser, so it’s time to share a few more articles.

I’ll start off with this business writing tip to write your emails backwards. I’ve been using the technique extensively at the office, and I think it makes a real difference in the conciseness of my correspondence.

While you’re on the Writer’s Write site, also check out these Three Simple Ways to Get Your Hero to Make a Stand. I think they will come in handy when we talk about Action next month. The third method reminds me of an article I shared a while back called What Disney (and Pixar) Taught Me About Writing Suspense. If you didn’t read it the first time around, be sure to check it out now. Then stick around for this article on Understanding Viewpoint Terminology. Personally, I write in third person objective most of the time, but I appreciated the examples of popular books written in the other styles. And, lastly, enjoy this comic about How to Get Ideas.

Here is some advice on how to Put Your Best Work Out There: Avoid These 25 Newbie Writer Mistakes. I think many of them are obvious, but there are a few gems.

And in 5 Steps to Getting It Done: The Writing Process, I like that the writer included “getting it read” as the final and crucial step because, as he says “People often forget this, but writing is supposed to be for a reason.”

Finally, I’ll leave you with Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

April Articles and May Events

I’ve collected enough articles that it’s time to share a few more, beginning with one that’s a little metaphysical in tone. The 5 Tips To Find Your Authentic Writing Voice start out sounding a bit vague and theoretical but end on a concrete note. They’re worth your time to read—especially, in my opinion, #4.

Next we have a brief, practical bit of advice that the folks at Camp NaNoWriMo put together when asked, “How can you be sure that your plot is actually compelling, and not just a pile of stuff that happens?”

That’s followed by one that’s more of a list than an article. Here are 25 Brain Lubricants For Generating Ideas. Two near the middle stuck out to me.

  • Get Fearless:  What if you could do, say or write anything? It’s just an exercise, so fear not. Step outside of your comfort zone. I think this is excellent advice. Sometimes I have an idea, but then I don’t run with it because I think other people will think it’s silly. I need to remind myself more often that it’s okay to write something that I don’t want to share with anyone else. Confidential writing isn’t limited to the arenas of diaries and classified military files; sometimes it’s okay to do creative writing for your eyes alone. And sometimes a creatively crazy idea becomes just the inspiration you need to get out of a rut. The major twist in the novel I’m writing was born out of an April Fool’s joke, of all things.
  • Get Unsatisfied: Look at a satisfactory solution all over again and challenge it. Dismiss it. Find another path that make take you even further. The good is the enemy of the best, right? If we think that we have found a good way to write a scene (or a character’s motivation, or a setting description, or…), we may never discover the best way to write it.

The fourth item is from Writers Write. They’re based in South Africa, and I always find it inspiring to think that writers half way around the world are using many of the same techniques we are here; good writing has very universally-applicable principles. This article teaches you how to Keep Calm and Kill Clichés. There’s not a whole lot to it, but I still recommend reading it because it comes to a strong conclusion: When we use jargon or clichés, we create fuzziness around the image or emotion we’re trying to get across. Be as specific as you can be and authentic as you can be. Every word must have your blood in it – anger, irony, admiration, etc. Don’t make it look like everyone else’s. I usually try to avoid clichés because I think they’re annoying and make writing sound amateur, but I hadn’t ever thought about that deeper reason to avoid them. As a bonus, here’s a link to a site where you can build your own keep calm and…whatever poster.

Another blogger at Writers Write shares What Watching Disney and Pixar Teaches About Writing Suspense. What single component do 10 of the most well-known Disney/Pixar movies have in common? You’ll have to read the article to find out! And read the article you should, because it’s something you clearly can apply to your writing too, if only you have it in mind.

That pretty much does it for April’s articles, but I promised info on May’s events as well. First, we have the GLVWG monthly Writers Cafe coming up next Thursday, the 8th. It’s at 7pm at the Palmer branch of the Easton library, and Nicole is organizing dinner beforehand at Wegmans (just down the road on 248) at 5:30 – thank you, Nicole! And later in the month, I’ll be hosting the next Writers’ Salon on Thursday the 29th. This time we’ll be focusing on setting (and anything else you’d like to discuss).

Lastly, for a bit of humor, check out this game that explains How to be a writer.

Writers Cafe Recap

Holly and I went to the GLVWG Writers Cafe tonight, and it was one of the best I’ve been to. I’m gradually getting to know the people there and enjoying hearing each month the stories they’re writing. One of the regular attendees just published his first book, and we got to see copies of it tonight. It’s fun to watch the process happen.

Here’s a piece of advice to share, which came up during the read-and-critique part of the evening: Never have one character say to another something which they both already know. It’s a good reminder not to use dialogue as a device to “info drop” to your reader. Like all rules, I think it has its exceptions, but its a helpful place to start.

February Articles

I have a habit of opening scads of tabs in multiple browser windows. (Just ask Jennifer. It drives her crazy.) They pile up and pile up as I come across more and more things that I want to save or share but am too harried (or lazy) to take care of at the time I first encounter them. (The web’s interconnectedness, its greatest asset, can be its greatest curse as well.) Anyway, it has reached a tipping point, and it’s time to purge. So here are some fun writing-related things I’ve discovered in the past month…

First off, we have The Periodic Table Of Storytelling. This gem contains 176 storytelling tropes (themes) from the TV Tropes wiki. While a few of them (eg. ‘Screwed By The Network’) are television-specific, most are applicable to any type of fiction writing. You can even mix and match them into story molecules, samples of which are included for favorites like Star Wars, Dilbert, and Wall-E.

Next is this Character Questionnaire. There are plenty of them out there, but this 50-question one features some especially probing set of questions, such as: #24: What social groups and activities does your character attend? What role do they like to play? What role do they actually play, usually? Sets of questions like this—where each question digs a little deeper—are a great way to reveal information about your character’s motivations.

I once attended a class where the instructor told us that we should first “ask” our character a basic A-level question. Then let “their answer” to that prompt us to ask a slightly deeper B-level question. And then finally ask a follow-up C-level question, and that is where you will truly get to what makes your character tick. I was skeptical at first. After all, it’s not like my character is real—I’m simply asking one portion of my brain to interview another portion of it—but it really does help you to think differently and create ideas.

The best example I can give from my own experience was that I once started interviewing a character by asking what kind of car he drove, which led me to the fact that he only ever bought American-made ones, which led me to the revelation that he was very angry at his country because his son died in Iraq, yet he was very patriotic as well. This inner struggle became the main identity for that character. I had none of that back story in my mind; I was just looking for a generic interview question to start with before I dug into something “more significant,” yet that turned out to be some of the most significant insight I ever got about that character.

Here are 8 Tips on Writing Short Stories, from Kurt Vonnegut. My personal favorite is #5: Start as close to the end as possible. I think this is something that the YA genre has been getting right as of late, and I think that may be contributing to its widespread popularity. All of the major YA stories I’ve read in the past few years  contain the “inciting incident” in the first or second chapter.

In each story, we the meet protagonist a day or two before the coming of age ceremony for her society (Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched) or the moment he is waking up in a strange new place with no memory of the past (Incarceron, The Maze Runner). A major strength of the first Harry Potter book is that we meet Harry just as he’s about to get his letter from Hogwart’s. (A major weakness is that he doesn’t get it until chapter 4.)

I’ll end on a bit of a diabolical note and share with you Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers and 10 Ways to Cover Up a Murder.