Be Heard, Be Seen, but Be Effective

It seems in this day of instant celebrity status being seen and heard is really all that we are after. It reminds me of those people that stand in the street behind the beat reporter waving their hands and smiling into the camera so they can tell their friends they were on T.V, even if the reporter was talking about an armed robbery.

We all want our 15 minutes. We want people to see and celebrate us, hear what we are saying, praise what we are doing.

I won’t lie, when I first started writing my novel I had hopes of sitting behind a table at the local Borders Bookstore with freshly printed copies of my book stacked on both sides and a long line of fans waiting to get their signed copies. They would smile and compliment me on my awesomeness and at the end of the signing I’d be gleefully spent.

Yep we all want our 15 minutes; we want our time to show off, shine and say to the world, “Look at me.” Lately I’ve been watching the train wrecks in the media. Superstars who are superstars because…well…they just are. When pressed for substance we’re disappointed but somehow drawn to them like the train wreck they are. It’s kinda like the kid who raises his hand in class, waving it like a maniac and when called he just smiles and giggles and can’t for the life remember what he was going to say (or so he says). But all eyes are on him anyway; he’s gotten what he was after.

After I finished my novel I took a long hard look at it and had to evaluate it for substance to make sure I was true to what was inside of me. I had to make sure that it didn’t just contain a couple of thrilling scenes, hot, steamy sex, knowing that at the end the reader would be peeved because they’d wasted their time and money in search of a good story and found nothing.  I had to stop focusing on me and work the story. And yes, for the record there are lots of books out there that are just for thrills. Cool. Fine. My thing is, if that’s all there is, the reader needs to know upfront. I want to be authentic and open to myself and my reader. Most of all I want to say what I came to say. And when that is over, the reader can close the book.

I am convinced that those of us who have a calling or an innate need to give something of ourselves on a large scale should be prepared when it is our time. Our gift or calling should be honed, practiced and evaluated. When we share it, it should have been perfected with purpose and intent. Whether what we do is serious or funny, simple or complex our work shouldn’t leave people befuddled or bored or frustrated. It should incite, anger, sadden; it should make things plain, make folks happy and provoke thought. But whatever the case, they shouldn’t be irked that you said you would and didn’t.

Fifteen minutes. For some of us that’s all we ask for. But if you are effective I guarantee your reader will ask you to stay around just a little while longer. That is my hope. That is my prayer.

And They Lived Happily Ever After: Tips for Writing your Story’s Conclusion

And they lived happily ever after.  Wouldn’t writing your story’s ending be so much simpler if all good fiction had to end this way? Predictable, but easy. Boring, but easy. But the truth is there are no hard and fast ways to bring it to an end, only that you give the reader what they came for: a sound, well-written story. There are some general rules to follow. I’m sure I have not addressed them all but indulge me as I point out a few.

Wrap up all loose ends. This is probably the most obvious, but necessary to mention.  Remember to resolve all of the plots you’ve put out there. It’s Anton Chekhov’s familiar “gun in the room” metaphor. The Russian playwright suggested if you show a loaded gun in the first act, you’d certainly better use it in a later act.  If your characters’ issues aren’t important enough to resolve maybe they shouldn’t be in the story at all. This is not to say that every issue should have a tidy, neat, everything-worked-out-great type resolution, but least tell us what the character did about it, even if it is nothing at all.

Don’t rush the ending. In the beginning we are excited about this shiny new story. The middle is the meat, the stuff that we love to write. It’s where most of the drama, emotional scenes and action take place. Sometimes after trudging through the middle section of our novel; working through character development, subplots, parallel plots and the like, we approach the end of the story and we are emotionally and physically spent. Now we may just want the story to end. But look at it from your readers’ point of view; they have vested time and emotional energy in these “people” you call characters. Don’t get to the end of the cliff and dive off. Pace your ending, allow your reader to be fully engaged and emerged until the last page is read.

Allow the story to end naturally. Now maybe you want to shock your audience, give them an unexpected thrill. For instance, the question has been: Will she marry this tall, dark and handsome stranger? Suddenly you reveal at the end of your story that the tall, dark, handsome stranger that your protagonist has been in love with is really a woman. Shocker? Yep. Contrived? Absolutely. Now, if at certain points in the story your handsome dude kept alluding to the fact that he had some surgeries he couldn’t talk about or the protagonist notices that people are always commenting that he looks like someone they know, well, that would be different.  In other words, endings should follow the natural progression of a story. Plots thicken; they build, towards an expected or an unexpected end.

Once you’ve told the story stop writing.  This is the other end of the spectrum. You’ve resolved the story’s problems. There it is. But you keep writing and writing, rehashing the issues. Or you explain to the reader what they should have learned. Unless your novel is going to be used as an enhancement for Sunday school lessons, avoid the blatant moral teachings. Trust that your reader will be able to decide good or bad or right or wrong on their own. If your story is well-written, messages will speak for themselves.

You were not designed to fail: Writing Fiction

The unique thing about writing is that you may spend weeks, months or even years laboring over your work, before it sees daylight. There are times during the process when you will feel thrilled, excited or just plain proud as the story unfolds, emerges and grows into what you intended. Our books and stories are like our babies. It’s quite normal to think that your own baby is the cutest and the brightest (Look she mimics the sound a cow makes!), but it’s when we’re in the company of the mothers with the babies that are books on shelves photo: books books-on-shelves.jpgspeaking complete sentences and sitting on the potty while thumbing through the latest Highlights magazine by age 2 do we fret and wonder if ours is good enough.

The same applies to our writing; when it’s time to hand it over to the world we began to wonder if it’s any good. The truth is that it will never be good enough. We will always think of ways we could’ve plotted differently; we could’ve added more dialogue or been more descriptive, etc. But it is our effort that must be complete. In other words we gave it all we had at that time.

As writers we have inside this gift or unction to communicate via the written word. This gift is already in you. You possess it. It is the main tool that you will need to create beautiful poetry, engaging fictional stories or intriguing non-fiction. Of course there is more but no matter, remember you possess the most important thing: the ability to write. God, our divine creator did that for you, gave it to you, not so that you can pout about what it is lacking but to perfect it and use it for the intended purpose. There it is: we were designed to succeed. We were not designed to fail. Take what you have and make it work.

Why is it that so many of us seem to fail in spite of this?

Talents and Gifts must be honed. The stories are inside but in order to get them on paper there are so many things to do beforehand. And here are a few that may be necessary:

Go where your writing drives you. Let’s face it, you won’t write in every genre. Focus on what is meaningful to you. Perfect one area at a time.

Take some classes. O.K. maybe you do have a degree in Chemical Engineering. But if your writing skills are rusty you may have to head back to school for a few courses.

Read. This is one for all of us. Read incessantly. Some say read in the genre you want to write. I’m with the group that says read it all. Well-written books are not limited by genre.

Write daily. It doesn’t have to be the 2000-word challenge which Stephen King puts to himself daily (that’s cool if you can). But just write: journal, blog; write newsletters, short stories or work on that novel.

Try Again

Your first few pieces may fall flat. Keep at it. Keep in mind, no one ever got better by giving in to frustration. It is from these pieces that you will learn what doesn’t work.

Don’t Quit

There is the risk that you will stop just short of success. It may seem cumbersome and tedious in the beginning but the flow will come. You will get better, especially if you believe in the 10,000-hour rule which states that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

Remember you can do it. You were not designed to fail.

Books to help you hone your craft     

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Elements of Style by William Strunk

On Writing: A memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Writers’ Digest Magazine (not a book, but oh so helpful)

Writer’s Market (published annually)

Novel writing–What to do when your story stalls out

Novel writing–What to do when your story stalls out

Compass (1)There’s nothing like halfway through your story getting that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach because you see an inevitable roadblock ahead. And then…you hit it. You run out of words, ideas and the story is just stuck.

Help I can’t think of anything else to say!

For most of us this is the point where we stop; we pull away from the computer, get up and do something else…anything else. Sigh.

The question becomes: what made the story dry up? Why the stale mate? Is it the story or is it…us? In fact, it could be a combination of many things. This is the point where we must stop and look back. Start with the story first because, honestly it is the most benign and arguably the easiest to fix.

Where was I going with this? 

Let’s face it, every story should be headed somewhere. There are reasons you started writing the novel in the first place; there was a point you were trying to make, so to speak. Retrieve it from your memory, go back, read what you have written and ask yourself if in fact you ventured down an alternate path. (umm what if I turned here?) It could be that halfway through the story you discovered an exciting new direction, and that may be O.K. But if you began with one thing in mind and the story took off in a different direction, this will become a problem.  Your readers will become lost. There may be some heavy editing involved at this point so that the story will flow without obstruction.

There are too many subplots.

There’s nothing more convoluted and frustrating than a novel that has ten characters and ten subplots. Trust me, if you’re getting twisted, your reader will too. Sometimes you just have to clean it up. And it may be that all ten subplots are essential to the theme. Take a second look; they probably are not. It is exhausting to try to keep up with too many people and story lines. Additionally it becomes cumbersome to write and keep the momentum going.

There is too much information.

Details are good, but too many can halt your story like a traffic cop. Again if they are a burden for you to write, imagine what it will be like for your reader. Sometimes it isn’t what you give, but the way it which you give it. Give less, but in high concentration– kind of like Espresso.

What if it’s me?

Yes, chances are the story is fine; it’s tight and well-written so far. Good. Maybe it is you. Perhaps you’ve lost the momentum or something is going on in your life which has dried up your creative juices. Then yes, walk away…literally. Take a walk and clear your head. Take a few days away from writing and regroup, rethink. Give. Do something for someone else. Sometimes less attention on yourself and more focus on others will provide clearer focus. Meditate, not to empty your thoughts but to be present in the moment. Embrace where you are at this very moment.

Now what?

Make a decision to except this moment and move on or change some things in your life. There’s nothing like imbalance to stall your writing. First remember writing fiction demands a lot of you. Also remember your story needs you and it needs you to be whole. Start again when you are ready. The world is waiting to hear what it is you have to say.

They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters

They’re Alive! How to Give Life to Your Characters

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The thing that I love about literary fiction, in its truest sense is that there is such a heavy focus on character development. The characters drive the story; they instruct it on how it should be told, if you will. Commercial fiction, or as many call it– plot-driven fiction, is just that. There is more focus on what is happening than who it is happening to.

Yet, in fact all stories should have well developed, multi-dimensional characters. When I am talking about my work to someone sometimes I am hesitant to use the word, characters to label them, because in a sense, they are people–if I’ve written the story correctly. Characterization takes the basics of what the eye can see and builds on it. In many cases the appearance is secondary and we begin to build immediately on the person. We describe what they do for a living, the choice of words they use or the amount of makeup they wear. Kathryn Stockett does this so well with The Help until you settle comfortably in the fact that it is a white woman giving voice to these Black characters. She gives authenticity without being condescending, truth, without being over the top. Here are a few points to keep in mind when developing characters:

Avoid cookie-cutter characters and stereotypes. Remember, people aren’t made using cookie-cutters; your characters should not be either. Maybe your main guy is tall, dark and… not so handsome. Or maybe she is a not-so-hot looking blonde but she thinks she’s very hot. Contradict your characters.

Add dimensions to what you already “know” about them. Start with character sketches. As you see them began to add dimensions (like putting clothes on paper dolls); layer upon layer, adding complexity and multi-dimensions. Remember characters, like people are more than just a compilation of eye, hair and skin color.

Characterization takes time. Pace your development. You don’t know a person in one fell swoop, so your characters should be developed over time likewise. As the story progresses we should, at an even pace learn more about them until we’re fully engaged and we’re saying things like: Please let Sally get away, she doesn’t deserve to die! Author Victoria Christopher Murray  says, “Characters are like friends; the more time you spend with them, the better you get to know them; the better you can transfer all of their words, gestures and emotions to the page.”  This is so true.

Practice, practice, practice.  The next time you hit the streets pick a person, any person will do. Begin to characterize them (careful here, stalker rules do apply). Then ask yourself, where were they born and how did they get (fill in the blank for wherever you live)? Give them a voice. Using your creative juices this way is a great exercise. Continue until you feel as though you know them intimately.

As you add things your characters will begin to speak to you; some things will feel authentic and you will go with those. Others will feel forced and unrealistic and you will dismiss those. No matter what kind of fiction you write, draw your reader into the story by developing characters that keep them reading.