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Writers’ Group: Scenes

6 Sep

It’s finally time for the long-awaited follow-up to last week’s post about my writers’ group meeting. OK, maybe I was the only one anticipating it. A girl can dream.

The last person to present at our meeting talked about scenes. I loved that this came after the discussion of chapters because it helped me understand the difference between the two. There can be multiple scenes in one chapter or a scene can span several chapters. The two do not have to be linked in any way.

A scene requires three things that advance the plot: a goal, a conflict, and a resolution. Sometimes the resolution is a disaster but it should still advance the plot. A scene is followed by a sequel. These are always done together and shouldn’t be split. This involves a reaction (usually emotional), a dilemma, and a decision.

So, here’s an example that happened to me before writing this. My husband is on his way to work (goal) and realizes he doesn’t have his name tag (conflict). He calls me and we realize it’s still on his dirty work shirt from yesterday (resolution). He’s frustrated (reaction) but knows that his boss will be more upset if he’s late (dilemma) so decides to forgo the name tag and be on time for work (decision). Simple but real. You can see how it would work out in a novel. One writer recommended highlighting all of these points in different colors if a scene feels like it’s missing something. Also, she recommended putting the dilemma and reaction right next to each other. They can be odd when spaced out.

The decision should bring bout the next goal. In my example, I’m dropping off his name tag before heading to a friend’s house (goal) at which point I have to decide if I’ll have a drink from the bar before leaving (conflict). TBD how this will resolve!

Much less frequently used are incidents and happenings. Incidents are when a character attempts a goal and accomplishes it with no resistance. This doesn’t make for very good reading but can advance a complicated plot. If my husband had found a spare name tag in his car, his problem would have been solved. A happening is when people are brought together or something for a later time is set up. A scene last week of him having another name tag made wouldn’t have had an immediate effect on his life then than but would have built well to today’s scene.

Quick reactions can help keep pacing fast. There are several different kinds of reactions. All or one of these can be included but they need to be done in this order if more than one is included.

  1. Visceral
  2. Physical/involuntary
  3. Voluntary

If you think about it, any other order wouldn’t make sense. I’d never considered this before but now I keep thinking about it every time I do anything!

Thank you to everyone who stuck with this through the prolonged name tag example! I think I’ll have that drink after all.

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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Writers’ Group: Chapters and Editing

28 Aug

We tried a new format in my writing group and I have to say, it went really well! Instead of a single person talking on a topic of their choice for an hour, we had a few people talk about a topic they wanted for about ten minutes. With the discussion that came after, three people filled up our hour! I’m going split this up over two posts because I have so much to say about each one.

First, Rachel talked about chapters. A chapter is a narrative unit of a larger story. It helps to facilitate the transitions in the story. Historically, chapters divided up non-fiction works so they could be referenced for particular subjects without having to read the whole book. Later, they were used to show a change in time or place.

Now, chapters move stories along in many ways. They help with pacing, point of view changes, time jumps, location changes, dividing events, and moving to different storylines. Chapters are only one way of dividing a story. Writers can also use volumes, parts, and sections.

Rachel presented some tips about chapters as well. Some that stood out to me were:

  • Chapters don’t have the be the same length
  • Ending chapters with cliffhangers keeps a reader’s attention but don’t do it too often.
  • Numbering chapters is not mandatory

Our next mini topic was editing types. There are three major types: developmental (also called structural), copy, and proof. Developmental focuses on the story arc and contents and should be pursued before the other two. Copy edit deals more with accuracy and readability of the material, also looking for consistency of things such as tense and characters. Finally, a proof edit is a grammatical read-through to make small changes for linguistic accuracy.

Clearly, doing a proof edit before a developmental edit isn’t going to help anyone. Doing edits in this order is important or else you’ve erased the impact of earlier edits which will have to be repeated. There are several places online one can find editors such as Fiverr and Upwork. Be sure you understand fees and the type of edit you’re going to get from a freelance editor before working with them.

We had one more topic to discuss but I’ll save it for next week to keep this post a reasonable length. Besides, I’ve got something special saved for Thursday!

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!

Writers’ Group: Culture

23 Apr

Somehow I convinced my writers’ group to let me lead them this month. I didn’t drug them, I swear!

I had a flashback to my semester of sociology in college and remembered the seven elements of culture. Well, I couldn’t find a list of seven and my Google searching gave me ten. When you’re writing a historical setting or a fictional setting, it can be really helpful to think more about the background of your setting in terms of these elements. There’s a lot more to creating a world, race, or religion than you’d think!

  1. Economic System– We’ll start with the boring ones. Well, probably the borning ones. If you’re writing about a currency revolution, this might be really exciting. Normally, this is more of a background element to a culture. It sets up how goods and services are exchanged. Currency and bartering would be most common.
    • Example: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter uses galleons, sickles, and knuts. Not our filthy Muggle money.
  2. A Form of Government– Again, this could be exciting or boring depending on your story. The government in A Song of Ice and Fire is central to the plot while The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t mention who’s president. If you’re writing about royalty or politics, this is a big one to think about. Otherwise, it’s likely a background element that you should give a few second’s thought to.
    • Understanding the legal system and how corrupt it was in the 1920s is helping me with my novel set in that time period.
  3. Symbols– Now we’re getting to it. A symbol is a visual that stands for something. It should evoke a reaction from the members. It’s a form of nonverbal communication or a material object. The meaning one group attaches to the symbol may be different from another group which makes a symbol unique to each culture.
    • US President Richard Nixon made a hand symbol while visiting Brazil that means ‘OK’ here but meant something very rude to Brazilians!
  4. Language– This one may seem obvious. For people to share a culture, they need to share a language to communicate. However, language can also divide cultures. Think of different regions of a country. How I speak in Michigan is going to be different from someone in Texas. Meanings of words vary by country (chips) and region (Coke).
    • My first conversation after landing in London was with the woman at the coffee counter. She asked me if it was “For here or take away?” I stared at her for twenty seconds before responding, “To go.” My jet lag brain didn’t process what had happened until the next day.
  5. Rituals– These often mark a transition in life and many are religiously based. In the US, the Super Sweet Sixteen is a non-religious ritual. Rituals often have established procedures or ceremonies, like a wedding or funeral.
    • Again to Harry Potter, having the trace lifted is a ritual that signifies someone has grown up.
  6. Artifacts– An artifact is an element of material culture that holds meaning for that culture. In modern times, our artifacts change quickly because of technology. My simple Nokia phone from middle school seems like an ancient artifact next to my iPhone 7. These can include the household tools and clothes of a people and are very important to visualizing and describing the setting.
    • A book set in ancient Rome wouldn’t have watches but the togas and shoes the people wear are going to be essential in setting the scene.
  7. Social Organization– This mainly covers family patterns and social classes. Does my imagined race of blue centaurs live in herds or do they hunt alone? Would the poor and the rich be able to eat at the same restaurant? How people interact and who they interact with defines the social organization.
    • In The Space Between Us, Serabai lives with her mother in law because of the traditional family patterns in Mumbai.
  8. Customs and Traditions– This is a big one. I’ll break it into two major groups, values and norms. Values are judgments of good and bad that a society has. They define something as desirable or undesirable and shape the way people act. Norms are these ways of acting. They are accepted standards and expectations for behavior. They can be formal norms which are strictly adhered to and called mores. The most important norms are made into laws and enforced with a punishment for breaking them. Informal norms are called folkways or customs and do not carry a strong stigma if they are violated.
    • Because American culture values individual achievement, it’s a norm that we don’t use all of our vacation days (unfortunately).
  9. Religion– While not every person practices a religion, most societies (especially in past times) have one. Before modern science, people answered the questions of the universe with a supreme being, be it God, Zeus, or Krishna. While a culture might not have a god, chances are they do.
    • Many wars are fought over religion. There are too many A Song of Ice and Fire examples to count.
  10. Art and Literature– The best for last! Art and literature might be a subcategory of artifacts, but they’re not always material. Stories can be passed on orally and many times these stories reinforce customs and traditions. They’re also an example of entertainment in the culture.
    • The Tale of the Three Brothers in Harry Potter warns young witches and wizards about the dangers of power and living in the past. And it tells the origin story of the Deathly Hallows

I hope I haven’t bored you too much! My group assured me this was helpful but they’re too nice. 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!

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!

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!