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Writers Group: The Hook

25 Sep

My fellow group of writers met last week for our monthly meeting. I was so glad to go because I’ve been forced to miss meetings for one reason or another the past two months and I’m glad we are back at it! Our topic this month was the hook, the first sentence (or paragraph) of the story that draws the reader into the book.

We looked at two writing coaches and their advice on the hook. K.M Weiland suggests that there are five elements.

  1. It asks an inherent question. This may be explicit or, more likely, implicit. It should make the writer wonder. The reader should be left wondering ‘Why?’
  2. Introduce a character. One is ideal, but sometimes more. Sometimes a name is given, other times it’s more general.
  3. Provide a sense of setting. This helps place the story in the reader’s mind and makes the first scene more interesting.
  4. Establish a voice. This may take more than one sentence to develop, but it can be done in a single sentence. This is more important in first person narration but is necessary for other POVs as well.
  5. Make a sweeping declaration. Some will say never to do this, but if done well, it can be great.

Some say you need to pack this into one sentence, others that you have a paragraph or page or chapter to do it. It depends on your audience and genre as well.

The other coach we looked to for advice was Suzannah Windsor Freeman. There were a few ‘don’ts’ she provided.

  • No dialogue. The reader doesn’t know who’s talking or what is being talked about.
  • Avoid excessive description.
  • Avoid irrelevant information.
  • Don’t introduce too many characters. Each one will not be memorable.

Freeman has six ways to hook a reader and some of them are similar to Weiland’s.

  1. Make the reader wonder.
  2. Begin at a pivotal moment.
  3. Create an interesting picture.
  4. Introduce and intriguing character.
  5. Start in an unusual situation.
  6. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.

Some other advice included asking questions as the story goes along, but not answering all questions before asking more. This builds tension and plot. All questions should be answered by the end of the story.

We spent the remainder of our time looking at famous first lines and seeing how they covered these elements. We also looked at the books we were currently reading to see if they fit the mold. I really liked this exercise and it has me feeling good about my opening line.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Library Writers Group

4 Jul

The amazing Maria led our writers’ group this past month and concentrated on Tense and Point of View in writing. Let’s start with POV.

There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages to certain POVs. In some cases, the genre dictates what is normally used. I write YA and I know first person is most common and I know that my 3rd person book might have to be completely rewritten at some point (I hope it never comes to that) because it’s YA. We talked about times books are written in two points of view and how that works. Sometimes, the writer will combine first and third person POV. Some chapters are written in first from a certain character’s perspective and others from 3rd, following one or more characters. Most commonly, this is done with two 3rd person POVs.

There are some major disadvantages of 1st person. You are limited to what the character sees so you can’t write about anything outside his or her vision. This can result in a lot of ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ which makes a book drag.

Second person is not as common. Maria found an example in How the Mistakes Were Made. The character Laura is represented in sections of the book written in 2nd person but this isn’t the whole book. Second person creates some distance from the reader so a whole book in this format might be tedious. I’m always reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that I read in elementary school. Those were so fun.

Third person unlimited can head-jump too much if the writer isn’t careful. This can be confusing to follow. The suggestion is that you write like the piece is a play. Too many soliloquies can be annoying! This style is common in romantic intimate scenes. It can be tricky because it can confuse who knows what information and what each character can act on.

Third person limited is more common. It can feel distant and narrative distance from the action becomes possible. To limit this, a writer can use words that match a character’s personality. Maybe a character scowls but he thinks it’s just a frown. Maybe someone with anxiety is panicking not fidgeting. The tone of the writing can match the character as well to limit narrative distance.

There are four people involved in any third person narration: The protagonist, the viewpoint character (if different), the narrator, and the author. Think of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the protagonist, Nick is the main character, there is a narrator, and Fitzgerald is the author. How the narrator describes something and how Fitzgerald might describe it could be different from how the narrator describes it, thus creating the different people.

The most important thing to do is stick with the POV you’ve chosen. Even if it’s an unreliable narrator, the key is to be consistent. Maria recommended the website http://www.novel-writing-help.com for more information on POV.

The second part of our discussion was tense. Past and present tense can give writing a very different feel. Present tense can be restrictive. It’s good for action books and jokes but it can be hard to reflect on past events leading to the present action. Switching from past to present tense is more than changing ‘was’ to ‘is’ and so forth. There’s adding more thoughts and description that’s being noticed at the moment.

We did an exercise where we chose a piece of our writing (or a sample from the book) and changed the POV and tense. It’s fun to try if you want!

We’ll be meeting again next month. Until then, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Writing Concisely

24 Jan

My writers’ group (four strong at the moment!) met last week and one of our members discussed writing concisely. At first, I was wondering where she would go with this topic but we talked about wanting to write concisely to get to our points faster and be as succinct as possible while still being comprehensive. With these ideas below, I took a piece at 500 words and cut down another 80!

The first is to obviously try to cut words. There are many lists available of words different writers recommend cutting. These can include look, feel, so, just, even, really, finally, only, and many others. Words like see, feel, think, and know usually can’t be cut themselves, but are an indication that there’s a way to cut words around these words. There are phrases known as redundant pairs that can always be cut such as sit down (sit) and stood up (stood).

Rephrasing is another way to cut words. Passive voice is usually wordier than its active alternative. Phrases can be shortened altogether, taking ‘the chair with brown legs’ to ‘the brown legged chair’ (5->4). Clauses starting with that, who, and which, can be turned to phrases. ‘My teacher, who I respect very much, likes hiking’ becomes ‘my well-respected teacher likes hiking’ (9->7). Sentences that start with There/It are/is can usually be shortened as well. ‘There are three bookshelves in my living room’ becomes ‘I have three bookshelves in my living room’ (8->7). The final thing we covered was a new term for all of us. Nominalization refers to turning a verb into a noun and makes sentences a lot longer. ‘The reconciling of monthly statements is Mary’s job’ becomes ‘Mary’s job is to reconcile monthly statements’ (8->7).

Many times, sentences become redundant. We were given the example ‘Some ideas can be incorporated into another sentence. This will make the writing simpler.’ I got this 14-word idea into 5: Combining ideas makes writing simpler. Combining can be done at both a sentence and paragraph level. I find myself repeating things within a paragraph from time to time.

There’s more cutting to be done. Taking out weak words and adding strong ones can make something shorter by avoiding repetitive description, adjectives, or adverbs. Prepositional phrases can often be cut. We read an article that recommended outlining after finishing the first draft. It can show pacing to show the author where to cut and any subplots that weren’t finished and can be taken out. Another suggestion was to look at each scene and break down the elements of a scene within it. This can also show pacing and show which elements might be over-done and could use some cutting.

We covered some ways to practice concise writing. My favorite is tweeting. When you’re limited to 140 characters, you have to make each one count. A fun exercise we did was taking the first part of a Wikipedia article and cutting the word count in half. This was really fun to do and I highly recommend it.

We’ll be back next month with more. I’m excited I won’t have to miss this group while my class is in session. Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Writing Retreat: Conferences and Other Advice

20 Oct

I’m fortunate enough to be part of a writers group comprised of some wonderful and open women (and a man) who get together a few times a year to share our writing and enjoy some amazing food. Our gracious host is a chef and fills our bellies as well fill pages with our writing. We met this past weekend and though my head was miles from writing, I was able to do a few things I was proud of.

We first talked about writing conferences. One of our members has attended a few and got some good stuff out of her time in them. Others had been to one or two and though they had good things to say about parts of them, other parts didn’t deliver. I have a feeling that the first conference I go to will be awesome no matter what but that I’ll start to feel some have more value than others if I go to several. Some that were mentioned were Algonkian, Romance Writers of America, and two local conferences to Detroit, Midwestern Gothic and the Rochester Writers Conference.

We talked about style as well. One member volunteered that an editor she’d worked with said you should know three things about a book: 1) the character’s journey described in one word 2) the theme and 3) the perspective. The ending should be included in this as well. While perspective seems hard, thinking about the theme of a book is never in my mind when I start out and having to describe the journey’s in one word is tricky. Having these things in mind when talking about the book is very helpful, though. Another nugget she’d gotten from her agent is that when you have two narrators (as I do in one of my novels), the perspective should be split almost 50/50 between the two. I’ll have to take a look at my book because I suspect one character has more ‘face time’ than the other.

I brought this up in the group as we talked through our NaNo plans. My group is amazing in helping me come up with ideas for the book and I’m so excited to get started with editing the book starting November 10th!

We did two prompts as well. The first was a visual prompt where our host grabbed a few things from her kitchen and asked us to find inspiration there. The second one was for each of us to come up with a few ‘What if…’ statements which inspired us to write some short pieces.

It was a great evening. They’re planning to get together for a NaNo party that unfortunately lies before my final exam. I hope to make it but I’m not holding my breath. We’ll see how this whole thing goes.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Writing Speed

26 Sep

One of my book club friends sent me this link to a great Infographic about how long it took writers to write certain novels. To say I’m jealous of John Boyne for penning his novel is an understatement. There are some obvious patterns in this graphic where longer novels take loner to write. That seems pretty simple. Though, there are notable exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey seems long for the time it took to write and Catcher In the Rye a bit short for its 10 years time.

I’m guessing that these numbers show the time needed for a raw first draft, the time it takes to get the story from the writers head to the page. This doesn’t include editing, finding an agent, signing with a publisher, etc. Boyle didn’t sit down to write and end up with a novel 2.5 days later. Likewise, Martin probably took more than 5 years to get the first of his books written and it seems like it will take him longer to finish the series.

Does writing speed matter? I think it’s the book that really matters, so why do we put any importance on speed? We’re after a good story after all. Though, I’m not a series writer. When you’re writing a series and people are waiting for your next installment, if a TV writer is waiting to make an adaptation, does your speed matter then? Most would say yes.

How do you feel about writing speed? I think I write slow, but I do a lot of other things that distract me from writing. Are you a fast writer?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Discussion: Do you change your world to fit fan demands?

22 Sep

My husband sent me this article from Vox. It talks about the homosexual undertones in the newest Harry Potter installment and the subtextual content of the previous seven books. It’s an interesting argument to be sure, but it got me thinking.

Rowling originally wrote the series for young children (I believe I was in 4th grade when I read the first one). Now, some of you might argue with me here, but my experience was that I wasn’t introduced to homosexuality outright until I was in the 7th or 8th grade. This isn’t to say that my experience is normal or that this is right, it’s just my experience. I grew up with no gay relatives or close family friends that necessitated it being explained to me that not every house was like mine, the assumption I believe many of us make growing up. Now, I’m going to extrapolate here that I’m not the only one who grew up this way though obviously, not everyone did. Breaching the topic of homosexuality can be more delicate in some homes than others and, like ‘the talk,’ I think many parents want to talk to their children about these topics before they come up in social situations. The age at which parents do this, I believe, depends on the culture the child is raised in and the social context of that childhood.

Feel free to argue, this is a set of assumptions based on my (American Midwestern) upbringing. It allows me to make this next assumption.

Because homosexuality can be introduced to children at different ages through adolescence depending on upbringing, I don’t believe it’s common in books aimed at middle-grade reading levels. I’ve seen a surge in YA books with homosexual protagonists or main themes, but I haven’t seen many middle-grade books. I think this is for the reasons I outlined above.

Going back to Harry.

If the first book is aimed at a middle-grade audience, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Rowling to have excluded homosexual characters from her book. Sexuality in general was not stressed in the novel. Besides parents, there are no references to romantic relationships among the core group of characters and because we looked through Harry’s eyes, any on the periphery didn’t play a main role. Looking at the first book alone, I don’t think many would argue that Rowling stuck to the expected content of a book aimed at that age group.

But there are seven books, not one. And as the characters grew up, so did the reading level and intended audience. 19 years later, we’re reading a book where the 11-year-old who lived under the stairs is the father of an angry 13-year-old. Harry grew up. Should the world have ‘grown up’ too?

The article criticizes Rowling for writing a highly white heteronormative series. With a few exceptions (Dean, the Patil twins, Cho), this is a fairly accurate assumption. Dumbledore was never explicitly gay in the books and fans only know of this because of interviews Rowling later gave.

Here’s my question: Should Rowling have added more explicit descriptions of some characters homosexuality in later books?

PRO: Her audience matured and would have been able to deal with the changing characters as their own worldview was changing as they aged. By the time Cursed Child came out this year, many of us who remember reading the books as they were released are old enough to have children of our own (though some have turtles and that’s totally fine). A lack of homosexual characters is not reflective of reality and we’re to believe that wizards are born the same way as Muggles and would, therefore, have similar instances of homosexuality in their culture. Rowling’s world is not representative of modern Britain.

CON: Rowling started the book series to appeal to a young audience. Adding explicit references to homosexual characters could deter parents from having children enjoy the series at a young age. After the world was established as heteronormative, adding homosexual references would have been forced and might have led to inconsistencies in Rowling’s characterization of many main characters.

I’m unsure what to think about the instance of Harry Potter. As for myself, it’s making me look at my writing and wonder if I’ve included the diversity fans would expect from my stories in terms of sexual preference. Do I have the diversity of characters in terms of race, educational background, religion, etc. that my story deserves or would be expected to have? Should I look at my characters in terms of what (possible) fans might expect from my world or are they my characters to form as I originally saw them? Has being a white heterosexual Catholic tinged my character selection to a point where it’s arguably skewed? What steps should I/would I be asked to take to correct this? Would I be getting too far away from ‘write what you know?’

I think this topic can be applied to all kinds of diversity in a huge number of books. I’m curious how you all feel about this and I love using Harry as a common launching point for discussion. Please be kind and realize we all come from strongly different backgrounds.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

How Many Beta Readers?

30 Aug

As I mentioned in my post about fantasy, I’m writing a short piece now for a contest. I’ve edited it based on feedback I got on that post (thank you to everyone who helped out!) and when I was happy with it, my husband read it. He had some good feedback about consistency and a change or two to make and I’ve edited again to a point where we’re both happy with it. My question is, where does this process end?

With such a short piece (500 words) I don’t want to edit the piece to death. With a longer work, I’ll ask multiple people to read it and let me know what they think. Different points will strike home with different people so having multiple beta readers is helpful. But with such a short piece, it’s hard to miss any plot element. I’m thinking of asking one more friend to read it before I submit the piece.

Are two beta readers enough for a 500-word story? What about 5,000 words? Or 50,000? Is there a point where you reach critical mass and more eyes don’t help anymore? Please tell me what you think, reader. I’m trying to find my perfect balance.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Setting

30 Jun

We had an 11th-hour change in who would lead our writer’s group this month and it was decided we would spend the time talking about setting. I thought it was a great discussion and I wanted to share some notes with you.

The setting can encompass a lot of elements of the story. The local and physical setting is only part of it. You also must consider the time of year, time of day, and the time passing during the story. It can set a mood or establish a sociopolitical environment. It can include climate, geography (including man-made geography), historical era, population, and ancestral influences. In thinking of the last book I read, the sub-culture of Italian-American immigrants made a big impact on The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and the historical events going on during the story had an impact on the characters in a big way.

A writer can use the setting to speak about the story. It can reinforce the mood or the characters. A cluttered office says something about a character. A dimly lit office can set a mood. Using two character’s opinions on a space can say something about their character. While one character might notice the romantic sunset, another might find the lack of lighting frustrating.

Having a vast or narrow setting can shift the focus of the book. For example, in Harry Potter, though we are involved in the Wizarding world, much of the action takes place at Hogwarts so it makes sense for the final battle to take place at Hogwarts rather than Azkaban or again at the Ministry.

To research a time period, our group recommends reading historical journal articles and trade publications from that period. A definite setting has become more important as writing is more widely distributed to different geographical areas and among several different classes who could all be different from the writer. With historical settings, the writer has a bit more freedom because there are fewer people alive to contradict the minute points of the book, but it’s still better safe than sorry.

I know this isn’t much, but it was a good discussion from us. I’ll be presenting on Lit Mag publication and Kristine Kruppa (YA Author) will be talking about finding her publisher.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Software Overview

24 May

I know my writers’ group has gone over writing software before, but I can’t remember if it made it to the blog yet. Regardless, we went over it again so I’ll write another quick synopsis here. Enjoy!

We focused on three major types of writing software; outlining, basic writing software, and commercial software. For outlining, we took a look at The Guide, an open-source software. Similar packages include Keepnote, Treepad, and Cherry Tree. The software exists with simple parent-child relationships composed of different ‘pages.’ You can reorder them fairly easily and the data saves and backs up with minimal issues. There is no spellcheck and formatting is a bit limited. You can, however, changes icons in the outline to notes things completed, in process, etc.

Plume Creator is an example of a basic novel-writing software package. Another would be Rough Draft. With Plume Creator, another open-sourced software, you have all of the features of The Guide except the icon changes. In addition, you can add notes and synopses. You can compile selected parts of the data and  backup is still very simple. There is a spell-checking option with Plume Creator and it’s undergoing a lot of changes at the moment to make it more like Scrivner (see below). You also have the option to format your writing in a manuscript format when you’re ready for that step.

Scrivener is probably the best-known writing software. It’s only $40 and if you win NaNoWriMo, you can buy it for 50% off. yWriter is a free version of Scrivener though I can’t speak to its features. Scrivener has the same features as Plume Creator with a more extensive export options list and brings back the ability to change icons to mark scenes as you see fit. I know many people who have used this to some success and the major complaint I’ve hears is that if you want to get the .txt file for one scene, it’s hard to find because the scenes names you use do not translate to the base documents. That’s a pretty minor complaint, though!

Personally, I use Word. I find it’s enough for me and I have a better idea of seeing how far into the story each plot point happens by looking at the right-hand scroll bar. It works for me, but some people swear by these other softwares. It’s all personal preference.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Plotting (Part II)

29 Mar

I posted yesterday about the first half of my writers group meeting from last week where we had a great discussion on the Three Act Structure of a story. Today I’ll continue with that discussion and go over some plotting strategies that different writers use. As I’ve talked about before, there are two extremes when it comes to preparing for a novel; plotting (or outlining) and pantsing (or organic). Organic plotters explore the story with their characters, not thinking ahead of the moment they are writing. They tend to have long first drafts with tangents. Most people lie in the middle of the plotter/pantser spectrum. Here are some other techniques that lie between the two extremes.

  • Headlight method: The writer writes one chapter at a time beginning with an outline of the chapter, and then writing it. They only follow as far as their metaphorical headlights can see.
  • Polisher: Write one chapter, polish it until it’s perfect, then move to the second. This involves little planning ahead of the current chapter. (Honestly, I think this one seems like a waste of time. Does anyone do this? How much editing are you doing?)
  • Outliner: This is the method I use, which involves writing out an outline of the entire plot and writing to it.
  • Start here, finish there: This technique can be used in a few ways. The writer can figure out the beginning and end and fill in the middle with the plot. He or she might know where they want to end to be and fill in to get there.
  • Tent Pole Method: The writer plans out several events or ‘poles’ that the story needs to stand on by writing a summary of the events. He then writes to string these ‘poles’ together.
  • Series of Sequences: In addition to the events, the writer plans out the events leading to each major event. This is a more detailed method than the Tent Pole Method.
  • Mindmapping: This involves a stream of consciousness from a character which gives the writer background notes and helps him figure out how the characters will interact with each other.
  • Dialoguing: The writer has the characters talk to each other to flush out what is going on between them and how they feel about certain things. Most of this writing will not end up in the book.
  • Character Arcs: The writer writes a story about each potential character, talking about how the character would act in the given situation. After writing a few, the author picks which character will be the protagonist of the book.

Another example is one my favorite author, J.K. Rowling used to outline the Harry Potter books. She put time periods or chapters in rows and had columns for the major plots, subplots, and arcs that would happen in the book. Then she filled in each square or left it blank, writing the chapters to include all the plot points needed. Here’s a cool picture of what that looks like from Rowling herself.

J.K. Rowling's out line of 'Order of the Phoenix' via OpenCulture

J.K. Rowling’s outline of ‘Order of the Phoenix’ via OpenCulture

A lot of authors change steps or use a combination of these. A method is only good if it works for the writer.

We spent the majority of the meeting talking about one final method, the Snowflake Method as described by Randy Ingermanson on his website, Advanced Fiction Writing. Ingermanson claims his method can triple the speed of a first draft and improve its quality. Here are his ten steps.

  1. Write a one sentence summary of fifteen words or less of what will happen in the novel. Think of it as a Twitter pitch, use no names, and keep it focused on the big picture.
  2. Turn that sentence into a paragraph where the first sentence is equivalent to Act One, sentences 2-4 are the major plot points, and the fifth sentence is the ending to the book.
  3. For each major character, write a short bio that tells their name, a sentence about their place in the storyline, their motivation, goals, and epiphany moment.
  4. Turn the paragraph into a longer summary where each of the five sentences becomes a paragraph.
  5. Turn the major character bios from Step 3 into a page long talking about what the character is doing in the story. Add 1/2 page summaries for all other important characters.
  6. Expand the synopsis from step 4, which should be about a page, to five pages so each paragraph is expanded to a page.
  7. Do a deep character chart for each character. You can find examples of these online and they tend to be a few pages each of some great details to build each character.
  8. Make a list of all the scenes in the novel. This can be up to 100 scenes and he recommends using Excel to keep them straight and get them in the right order.
  9. Expand the scenes from Step 8 into a narrative description of the novel, writing multiple paragraphs about each and including all details and descriptions as well as key lines of dialogue that come to you. This may end up being longer than the book itself. Ingermanson himself admits that he doesn’t do this anymore but suggests it for people writing with the Snowflake Method for the first time.
  10. Write the darned novel!

I’d be interested in finding out if anyone’s had success with this method. It makes sense to me up until Step 9. I think I would skip that.

We’ll be talking about world building next month so look forward to that one, I am! Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!