Tag Archives: Novel Girls

Novel Girls: Comfort Zone and Fantasy

3 Jul

My Novel Girl friends probably thought I forgot about this post. Nope! I just ran out of time to write it so it’s only now going up. We met waaaay back on June 5th. Yes, we’ve met since then. I’ll get to that later.

I shared the first half of a piece I wrote back in February that I’ve shared with one person but really not touched since. My main character is a man named Mitchell who sees a girl he used to know from school and plucks up the courage to go talk to her. He’s a shy guy and remembers her as a quiet girl, but it still makes him nervous to go see her. However, he seems to find his balls really quickly and asks her out on a date. This took Nicole and Katherine aback because it seemed like a really sudden change and it wasn’t well motivated. I’ll have to look at either giving him more balls early on or making him more nervous throughout.

Katherine brought us a piece that will begin a longer story to get our initial reactions. From the portion we read, it was hard to tell if the book was fantasy or not because it had several elements grounded in this world. We talked about ways she could introduce fantastical elements to the story up front. She could show some supernatural powers, describe the setting’s place in the fantastical world, etc. Depending on how outlandish a fantastical world is, there are tons of different ways to do this. The problem is conveying what you have in your head to your readers. It can be hard to get the image on paper the way you want it to look. Which makes me think; maybe it’s okay if you don’t. Part of the magic of reading is being able to create by yourself what the world will look like in detail. There’s a line between enough and not enough. What are some books you thought gave too much detail and what are some that gave too much? Do fantasy books lend themselves to more detail than contemporary books to convey the setting?

Nicole‘s piece was a little different from other things we’ve read from her. We talked a lot about how it can be refreshing to get out of your comfort zone and write something that’s a stretch. Sometimes really good things can come from it. We did an exercise at a writing group once where we all had to name our least favorite genre or the one we didn’t like to read, and then write our first prompt in that style. I think really good pieces like Nicole’s can grow out of exercises like that.

By the time you read this, we’ll have already had another Novel Girls meeting, so be ready for another one of these posts… eventually!

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!

Novel Girls: Poetry, slang, and likable characters

26 May

We had a Novel Girls meeting back on May 1st and it’s just being published today. That should tell you how much I’ve had to blog about! I love sharing with you all.

Katherine and I both shared a poetry piece this time. I’m not much of a poet so I was really curious how this would go. We raised a few questions about poetry critiques and how that would go. I like to write very structured poetry with rhyme schemes and certain numbers of syllables. I like to keep to conventional grammar and use periods and commas. Katherine wondered if I needed periods. Was capitalizing the next line enough to tell the reader that the phrase ended? I’m a stickler for punctuation so I want to keep them, but does it take away from the poetic flow of the poem? With commas, the reader will pause while reading, which is the same thing many will do with a line break. In a structure that’s more rigid, I can’t use line breaks where I would want my reader to pause, but does that mean I can’t use them? Are commas within a line awkward or a good guide for the flow of the poem? Nicole had said she’d like to bring some of her poetry in as well, but that her poetry is a very personal thing for her and she writes about her own emotions in a very raw sense. If something is that personal, can it still be critiqued? If something is very raw and personal, how much can you critique content? You can always suggest structure and spelling changes, but telling someone you don’t like their emotions, feelings, or reactions doesn’t feel right.

Nicole’s piece had a character that used slang words like ‘Gunna’ in his speech. As a reader, I’m very distracted by characters who speak in slang and I think it says something about their education level and intelligence. Katherine wasn’t bothered at all. I write characters who don’t use shortened words or slang and it sticks out to me when someone does. Does slang in prose bother you? What does it make you think about the character who uses it?

Sometimes the character we want the reader to like is overshadowed by another character who has a big personality. While it’s great that a character stick out because he or she is well written, you don’t want your protagonist to be overshadowed. We ran into a situation where I knew very little about the main character and more about a side character and in comparison, I didn’t really care about the protagonist. I needed something to latch on to, some level to relate to her on, in order to care about her change. In the premise of a short story, this can be really hard to do. My suggestion was to make the main character like something, be it a color or a sports team or a jacket, so that I can like her. If a character appears dispassionate about the world around them, I’m not inclined to like the character. Even if a character likes the Pittsburgh Penguins and idolizes Sydney Crosby (shudder), I can still like the character because he or she is passionate. Do you know other tricks to make a character likable?

There were a few other things we touched on that are worth sharing. Katherine had a wonderful quote which was “Titles are rudders of intentionality,” which she believed she had read somewhere. I just Googled it and couldn’t find anything, so if that is original, copyright to Katherine!

We talked about a technique that we’re calling ’emotional blocking.’ In theater, blocking is how a character gets from stage right to stage left. In literature, emotional blocking explains how a character gets from happy and smiling to angry and screaming. There are steps in between to get to the destination and it’s important that the writer gives the progression of these emotions to explain the change to the reader.

Out final quick topic was convenience. It’s convenient that I have a knife in my sock and want to stab the shop clerk’s neck. It’s convenient that I can find the receipt I need in my cluttered purse in a split second. If something is too convenient, there needs to be a reason. If too many things fall out of the sky into your characters’ waiting hands, you need to start explaining why. Go back a few pages, add something in that will make this less convenient. I went to the store with the intention of killing the clerk. I knew I would be returning the ugly socks my husband picked out so I had the receipt ready. Adding these things in can help make your story seem more real.

That’s all from the Novel Girls this time. Go check out Nicole and Katherine‘s blogs to see what they have to say.

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!

Novel Girls: Cutting, Adding, and Your Own Weakness

22 Apr

There is no way to describe how much I love meeting with my Novel Girls. It’s the perfect thing to do on a Thursday night to put me in my weekend brain a bit early. Then I float through Friday in a cloud, which is really wonderful.

This week it was me, Katherine, and Nicole and we met at Nicole’s new place again, which is great. I’m super jealous of her book shelf, by the way. It’s so well-organized and mine’s a total mess, haha. We all brought short stories, which was a nice change of pace for us, as we normally bring chapters of our novels.

My story is one I had rejected recently. Not my proudest moment, but I’ll live with it. I took the piece to another writers’ group and got a bit of feedback on it, but I was looking for more. The girls had some good advice on where I can make some cuts in the piece. They felt a part of it was entertaining, but didn’t develop my character. I thought that was really good feedback. The other part where they suggested I cut something is when my character’s finally revealing something about himself, but it gets muddled in the wording. This was hard for me to hear because the other group had said this part wasn’t long enough and needed more because the importance of the secondary character was watered down. One group wants more details on her, my girls wanted less and for me to focus on my main character. I’m still trying to decide what to do here. Reader, what do you do when you get two pieces of advice that seem great but contradict each other? I”m stuck in an author’s limbo!

Nicole seemed to have the opposite problem from me. In her story, we as readers wanted more! We wanted more detail as to what both were thinking, what started the conversation they were having, and what they were doing. The piece was very emotionally charged, very hard for both of the characters to endure, and very detailed. We felt the emotional changes the characters were experiencing merited a more in-dept look because of how their lives were changing in this ten minute window. Because it was such a rough time for both, I suggested giving the story a little more of a starting point and frame of reference so that the reader would understand how out of character some of the things were for these characters and how this was something that was hard for them to do. I think it will be a really strong piece when it’s finished.

When I read Kathrine’s piece, I knew that there were two spots which didn’t show her best writing. When I pointed them out, she agreed. She’s felt that these were two weak points herself when she’d sent it off to us. We talked through some ways to improve them and I think Katherine was glad to have some other people to talk to about those two parts. It was a reminder to us all that if something sounds weak when you write it, the reader will probably notice. It’s better to re-word or re-structure the part then to assume your reader will ‘get it’ or hope no one notices. This shows how helpful a close group of writers can be.

I hope all of your writers groups are going well. Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Fragments, Pacing, and Running a Critique Group

3 Mar

We had a special Tuesday edition of the Novel Girls this week because our dear Sonia is moving this weekend and she will need Thursday to get ready. (I’m in denial about this move happening, if anyone asks.) We gathered at my apartment and started right in with critique. We’ve implemented a new system where we email our pieces out a day ahead of time so we can focus on critique. I’m a big fan of this change.

Something that came up during my piece was a stylistic concern. I have a part where my narrator is reflecting on all the things that are about to change in his life. It goes something like this;

His memory of Sarah was faded but there were still moments that he remembered in detail. The time he broke her favorite china plate and she laughed and cried while she cleaned it up. There was the first time they’d gone ice skating together and she fell down more often than not.

I recognize that the second sentence is a fragment but the third is a full sentence. What my partners recommended was setting up a parallel phrasing situation where the second and third sentences are fragments. I always cringe at fragments but they felt it would be strong stylistically. I’ve not done this anywhere else in my novel, but this scene is a big turning part in the character arc of my protagonist. How do you feel, Reader? Is breaking grammatical convention for style and emphasis a pardonable sin? Does it work here?

Another thing we talked about was pacing. After we discussed Sonia’s piece, she asked us about the pacing of a story. We all agreed it was well paced, needing maybe one or two minor tweaks. This got me thinking more about pacing in general. There are books I’ve read recently that I thought were well paced (Divergent) and books I thought were terribly paced (Outlander) but I never though what contributed to that pacing problem. My quick Google search did not return any tips I found useful so I’m going to write my own.

  1. Use action to describe a scene instead of a description. There’s not a window on the wall; the sun coming through the window warmed the characters skin (‘warmed’ is stronger than ‘is’).
  2. Build a sense of excitement and anticipation. Your characters will feel this as they work toward achieving their goal. If their goal isn’t worth getting excited about, maybe they need a new one.
  3. Cut down on description as the plot progresses. We should know what the characters and common settings look like. If the reader is engrossed in the book, he will likely be able to go off less description as he becomes more and more absorbed. Focus more on action.
  4. Skip the boring parts. If a scene later in your story seems dull, cut it. Early/middle is okay for a lull scene, but the ending is not.
  5. What else would you add to this list?

Another quick stylistic thing we talked about was using ‘present’ adjectives and adverbs in a piece with a past tense narration. Let me give an example.

Mindy wrote about the dark places her mind went to and how this was the most difficult part of her life thus far.

Notice the word ‘this’ in this sentence. In my opinion, ‘this’ describes something that is very immediate and usually fits best with present tense. It seems to immediate to work with past tense. Am I the only one that feels this way? Reader, do you think words like ‘now’ and ‘this’ seem out-of-place in past tense prose?

The final thing we talked about was how our critique group works. As you may have guessed from the name, we’re all working on novels. Each time we meet we share the next ten pages or so of our work. Our problem is that when we review a section, our advice will often be to change something fundamental about the section or to add something to clarify a question we had as readers. For example, lets say my first chapter starts with a major conflict between a couple and my girlfriends said that the reason for the fight seemed weak and unjustified. As a writer I fix the problem, adding in a more believable dialogue section, changing the motivation for the fight, and creating some back story for my characters. The next time the Novel Girls meet, I bring chapter 2 but my readers don’t know what’s changed in chapter 1. They’ll have the same questions, or even new ones arising from what I’ve added. We don’t want to review the same chapter over and over to perfect it because something might happen in chapter 5 that would recommend a change in chapter 1 and we have to get to chapter 5 to even seen that plot development. Wow, is this getting confusing!

Our question is; What is a good way of communicating the changes made in a piece so that the downstream prose will still make sense and the reader has a very real sense of what minutia and characterization has changed? We haven’t found a good way to do this yet and would welcome to any suggestions, advice, or precedents you might have.

We’re sad that Sonia won’t be able to join us in person for a while, but we still plan to do e-mail critiques and the other two and I still plan to meet. No worries, Novel Girls posts will continue for the foreseeable future.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.