Fiction Writing: Getting Rid of the Clutter

Fiction Writing: Getting Rid of the Clutter

I was talking with a co-worker the other day and she confided that she is at a cross-point in her life. Her work, although she doesn’t mind it, is not fulfilling. For some time now she occasionally gets that ache in the pit of her stomach indicating that it is time for a change. But of course there is life and all that it comprises—a daughter, a demanding job, a mortgage, friends and their bevy of problems and the moving parts that come with all of it. She said to me she wants to get away—really get away from it all in order to get some perspective and find out what direction to take with her life. She plans to rent her house out to her daughter, pay someone to maintain her place and then sneak away to a remote beach to rest, relax and silence the noise for about a year or so. Sounds awesome and kudos to her and others who possess such a privilege. But most of us must resort to a more practical means of regrouping. It’s not always a matter of physically getting away from it all, but getting the unnecessary elements away from us—the junk mail, the spam, the stuff that doesn’t add value to our lives but simply takes up space.  A matter of getting rid of burdens we have no business carrying. There’s nothing more unsettling than being boggled down with someone else’s load.   illustration_0710_clutter Getting rid of the clutter, can be a challenge. It’s hard to say goodbye to those things, people or elements that have been in our space for as far back as we can remember. It takes discipline, a motivation to change and a lot of prayer. Cutting away at coarse, complex, long forming vines of clutter that have snaked their way into our lives can be painful, after all they have become—somewhere in our journey—a part of us, however toxic they may be. Fiction writing comes with the same issues. Someone asks us what our story is about and we began to describe in painful detail, the entire plot and all of its intertwined subplots while our listener nods hoping we will eventually get to the point, or, even a point. And suddenly we realize we aren’t even sure. Move with Focus A good story can’t be rushed. It doesn’t magically appear in perfect form. Although readers really want to get to the point, they want to enjoy the journey. I just finished reading The Girl on the Train, a thriller by Paula Hawkins. The author takes time to describe the protagonist to emerge us into her world, her way of thinking, her personal struggles—which of course eventually connects us to her external dilemma. Her life was simple–a simple disaster. But the story moved forward with slow, deliberate steps. The subplots were intertwined but did not upstage the main plot. The focus was clearly on the protagonist, Rachel. The subplots were properly introduced, but you always knew who the story was really about. That is often the problem with focus—remembering who and what the story is really about. Subplots may be juicy and exciting but if they overwhelm the plot instead of enhancing it, it is too much. If the minor characters are more detailed or interesting than your main character they have to be eliminated or toned down. Believe in the Story Often times along the way we begin to believe that our story isn’t enough. We began to add stuff to make it juicer and more interesting, desperate to hold our readers’ attention. But the truth is a good story stands alone—if indeed it is a good story. Sometimes it’s a matter of having faith in our writing—our ability to write the story and write it well. If you don’t believe in the story, or your ability to tell the story, your reader will know. Write with the confidence that this story must be told this way. Let’s face it, you can take a moment in time, an event a person and derive many different stories, from the same instance or about the same person. But when you write, you will do it your way, from your perspective. It is, after all, what makes it uniquely you. It is why you are the author and no one else. If you began to doubt the ability to do so it could be from a couple of reasons: 1) You lack confidence in your writing skills at this point; 2) The story doesn’t possess enough meaning for you. If one of these reasons are applicable then your problem is foundational and must be dealt with before continuing on. Remove everything that isn’t the story Once you are moving with confidence get rid of everything that does not impact the outcome. If you began to describe the town or city in which your protagonist lives, make sure it is relevant to the story, i.e., the mundane of the city counters the excitement that stirs within her or him, or parallels the mundane feeling within. Or, the busyness of the city helps her to hide out, disappear inside of her pain, she has become irrelevant to the world around her. On the other hand, your reader probably doesn’t need a detailed description of her looks unless they are important to how she feels about herself or how others perceive her. The reader will grow tired of a detailed description of the look of each character if it does not add value. Write Often I’ve found out the more often you write the easier it is to get to the point. For some reason prolonging the story prompts you to add more moving parts. It gives you time to think of bright ideas and interesting twists and turns that confuses and complicates. Write on through. Write often, leaving the clutter behind.

How to pace your story

No one has ever accused me of being too patient or of moving too slow on a decision. By my very nature I like short, sweet explanations and components that actually move.

My mother was the opposite. She lingered at the grocery store, took time to speak to everyone at church. She ate slowly, methodically and never allowed anyone to put her into a hurried state. As a teen I would ask permission to attend a basketball game or show and she always had to think about it. Think about it? Really? To say that we bumped heads is to put it mildly. Perhaps my biggest frustration was that she did not make my hurriedness her problem. Her pace was proper for her lifestyle and suited every decision she made. It would take me years to appreciate this virtue. And indeed it is a virtue that can be priceless when writing fiction.

When I first began to write fiction I felt compelled to get it all out there at once. I was concerned that my reader would get bored with the story if I took too long to get there. I was fearful that if they didn’t have enough story within the first few chapters they would yawn, close my book, promise to get back to it later, but would never do so.

 

Now, there was some validity to my concern. But my problem (which I now realize) was that I did not know the difference between dragging a story and creating suspense. Suspense by the very meaning of the word is to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty and our curious nature compels us to seek answers. And when it comes to fiction, the only way to get those answers is to continue reading. My problem was how to get them to continue on with the book and not give away all to goods only to be bored later. Here is what I found:

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Make the reader care about your character

 

Let’s face it—if the reader doesn’t care about the characters it won’t matter what they do. They could get hit by a bus and the reader couldn’t be less interested. But we care about things, people for one of the following reasons:

 

  • Wethink that we know them; it’s why you peek through the blinds when the cops show up at your neighbor’s house
  • We have some connection with them; friends and associates with whom we share the same interest
  • They are interesting; they may be over the top beautiful, smart or gifted. They may be completely narcissist or evil or high strung or funny.
  • They have something we wish we had

So I had to take time to develop my characters to make them compelling, interesting, keeping in mind the reasons above. I had to make the reader feel that there would be payoff if they just continued to read.

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Create foreboding

Movies create foreboding all the time—that feeling that something is about to happen. They do so with music—when all know the something-bad-is-going-to-happen chords. They do so with lighting and close-ups. In writing we do it a number of ways. And here are a few:

  • Build a semblance of peace or tranquility and because it is a story we realize it is a set-up for something to disrupt this perfect peace.
  • Write short sentences to create a sense of urgency.
  • Use questions. She knew she’d closed the door and locked it—or had she?

Honestly we love foreboding even if we don’t admit it—but that is only if the payoff is worth it. Build them up, up up and then let ‘em have it.

Keep the story moving

There is nothing more grating than reading a long, lofty description that seems to go…well…nowhere. Descriptions are great when they are essential and become a true element of the story. Keeping the story moving becomes easier when we keep the point of the story in mind; when we constantly remember that there is a place that we are headed. If we get stuck in a place or scene then our reader is stuck too.

Save the best for last

Even as the story is moving remember that the reader wants a payoff. We all love a surprise element as we near the end. As readers, by the time we get to the last portion of the book we think we have it figured out. It is nice to get that twist, that final OMG. If it is crafted correctly, in other words, fits into the story line it works well as an excellent last ping.

To make sure your story is paced properly I believe that beta readers are invaluable. And what are the words you want to hear? I simply could not put it down.

 

How to Write a Book Review

How to Write a Book Review

As authors, we would like the general public to believe that book reviews hold little or no importance to us. We would have you think that such write-ups are minor side effects or consequences of our career as we get on with the real business at hand—writing. And of course that should be our real focus. But we can no more deny the real effects that book reviews have on us and our readers than we can the effect of an Academy Award nomination on the career of an actor.

People take heed to what is said. Once it is said or read we can’t undo the effects. The thing is, distinguishing a good, solid review as opposed to a bashing, venting or an out and out rant of the story or book.

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The purpose of a book review

When giving a good review whether you are a professional or just an avid reader, keep in mind the purpose of a book review: It is to inform potential readers of your opinion and to give merit as to whether a book is worth the read. As a reader of your review, I would hope that it is not biased, but objective based on your varied reading experience and knowledge of prose. For example, perhaps you are prochoice, but the protagonist in the book you have just read has a mission of destroying abortion clinics all over the country. Your review should be unbiased and not based on your beliefs for or against the subject.

Was the story well written?

Well written stories have specific and vivid detail. The wording is crisp, accurate and precise. You are drawn in to the suspension of disbelief. In other words based on description of characters, setting and dialogue you are able to step away, temporarily from your own experiences and believe in the plausibility of that story, for that time without judgment.

Also, does the story have a natural flow? Does it progress with great timing, not flitting here and there like a nervous bird as if the writer was not quite sure where he was going? If he doesn’t know, at this point, who does?

Was the story compelling?

Honestly, I have read books with rich, specific and colorful detail and that was the best part of the book. I was completely pulled in with anticipation thinking, this is going to be good, only to realize that the risk for the protagonist was minimal or not really a risk at all. There was no driving force.

A protagonist can be a complete jerk. You absolutely can’t stand him. But–his reputation is at stake. His life is at stake, or that of his family. You must know what happens to him. It is what compels you to keep reading. It is what causes you to pick it up during your lunch hour, read into the late hours of the night. You can’t wait for dinner to be over so that you can delve right back into it. A compelling story is tightly written. The main characters have taken a path, the path of least resistance but even that one is risky and could end badly. He could lose it all. He could fail and that would be to his demise. Ask yourself as you are reading: Were the reasons for not pursuing the other paths clearly given or at least implied?  Otherwise, you will read and find yourself saying, Well, if he would have just…he could have avoided this entire mess. But keep in mind that his chosen path is based on the character’s personality background, history. If he is naturally driven, then for him, turning back is not an option. But if his other options were viable, possible, less risky, then, that is a problem.

Secondly, did the story move too slowly with a lot of unnecessary details and you find yourself skipping over them just to get to the good parts? Or perhaps there are too many subplots and characters and not enough story to convince you that all are necessary or there are simply too many for you to care about.

 

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A rant is not a book review

What you want to avoid in a book review is a rant about how much you hated the book, or how the characters are stupid or dumb, without giving the potential reader of your review specific reasons for despising it so. Such descriptions are unproductive and they do not give the reader or the writer anything they can work with.

Ultimately, if you are writing a book review for the public to read, you want it to truly be useful and fair. Otherwise it is not a review in the true sense.

Turning an Idea into a Book

Turning an Idea into a Book

old_booksThere are probably many book ideas going through your head, even now. They come from everywhere– personal experiences, stories others have told us and those that just seem to be conjured up through pure imagination. But it is a lengthy road from idea to book. Most ideas never make it to book form; and for many, rightfully so. Others can and should be developed. Let’s take a moment to examine the process of turning an idea into a book.

Record your book idea

When you get an idea write it down. Contrary to how it feels when your adrenaline is pumping, you will forget if you don’t record it. Please understand you will end up with more ideas than actual stories but that’s O.K. But if you cannot remember them, it won’t matter. Start a journal or a log of sorts and as the ideas progress with characters, setting and conflict add this information to your entries.

Flush out your story

Write out the conflict behind the story. All stories whether fiction or non-fiction must have sustaining and driving conflict. Conflict is simply the dilemma which your protagonist finds herself in; it is the driving force behind the story.

Provide Sustaining conflict

This is not something that is quickly wrapped up or resolved. There are obstacles, ebbs and flows which your protagonist must work through.  Ensure that there is a journey to end or solve this conflict. If, as you are flushing this idea out, you don’t see it, and you can’t reasonably create one, there won’t be a story. It will fizzle before it even starts.

Provide Driving Conflict

The conflict must drive your protagonist; there must be something at risk. Why is he so determine to find a cure for this disease? Will his wife die if none is found? Is his reputation at stake?  Or, why is she so determined to get married now? Is her biological clock winding down?  Is it her mother’s dying wish to see her married? The driving conflict can be physical, mental or even spiritual. But the stakes have to be elevated enough that the protagonist is willing to risk all to solve this problem. If it is not important enough to your protagonist to risk all or nearly all, it won’t be important enough to your reader to continue reading.

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Find resolution for the conflict

 If the idea you have for a story as an experience which you are currently going through (mainly for non-fiction) it may yet make for a great book, but  it must have some type of resolution. For example, you just found out your husband has been having an affair for the past five years (I really hope not!). You are obviously right in the throes of it. At this point, you don’t know what the end is going to be. Well, pick a resolution point based on where you are.  Perhaps, so far you’ve learned you are too trusting. You always have been. Take us to this point. How did you get there? Tell that story. Perhaps it is still too fresh, but you feel it has been interesting so far—even book-worthy. Writing can be cathartic. Keep a journal. Write. One day it just might make an interesting story.

The resolution is the final part of the story. And there must be something learned, gained or changed at the end. Either the conflict will bring you full circle or things will change completely. As your idea progresses, you will be able to see the end at the beginning even if you haven’t quite figured out how to get there.

Find out if your book idea is marketable:

I saved this for last because these days there are markets for almost genre. But if your book is a romance/thriller/book of poetry you may have a little trouble finding a market for it. Usually you have the market already subconsciously tagged in your head. But often you don’t. As you work your way through your idea, keep the market in mind. Don’t let it completely drive your story or it can block your creative flow, but simply keep it in mind.

You may have a million ideas. Sometimes you will know right away that an idea won’t work based on the above information. Sometimes you won’t know how far you can go until you begin to write because the idea is so alive and thrilling. But you will know. Some ideas may have to be merged with others to become stronger and more sustainable; some need to be completely done away with. But keep writing them down, keep the creative thoughts flowing and soon you may find yourself with a beautiful and engaging story.

The Mundane Parts of Fiction: How to Move Your Story Along

dog-12Let’s face it; every part of our story doesn’t pop with excitement and drama. There is the humdrum of the everyday life that is about as interesting as a plate of food grown cold. Sometimes we don’t know how to navigate through these sections without boring our readers.

In my last blog I talked about life’s mundane moments–the daily, tedious rituals or habits that on the surface appear to be meaningless at best and completely mind-numbing at worst. But daily habits establish character and sometimes tell us more about people than dialogue. It is those unspoken words and movements of how, when and where we do what we do that reveals more about us than words can ever reveal. In writing fiction, instead of simply moving characters along or having them perform mundane tasks, turn these into opportunities to advance your story.

Do it with purpose

Using the mundane routines can help with character development and you can drop information by bits this way instead of large chunks of seemingly endless exposition. For example, your protagonist, Sean tends to drink too much when he gets upset:

Sean walks inside and smells dinner being prepared. He mixes himself a cranberry juice and vodka–light on the juice. He settles down in the recliner, thinking of his fight with his boss. He shouldn’t have gone on about that account the way he did. He sips as he wonders why he always allows Richard to get to him that way. Looking down at his empty glass he gets up and prepares another drink, this time leaving out the juice and the ice altogether.

Dropping information throughout the story at various opportunities while your characters are performing everyday tasks will help develop your characters. Think of the way you truly find out information about people. Yes, sometimes people tell you about themselves but more often than not you find out much more through careful observation of what they do. It is the same in fiction writing.

If you don’t want to write it, they probably will not want to read it

Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty said, “Skip the boring parts.” Sometimes we feel we must include every step of a task to give the story a sense of realness or to ensure that our story doesn’t appear to jump from scene to scene with no transition. Wait. He was just in the car driving home. He’s eating dinner already?  Seamless movement requires transitional words. If we know that Sean is on his way home from work, we don’t have to record him pulling up into the driveway, going up the steps, unlocking the door, closing it and locking it.  Summarize certain areas and trust that your reader will know he had to unlock the door to get inside, unless of course there is a reason that the door is unlocked in the first place or you are trying to build suspense for what he finds once he steps inside. Recording every little step is cumbersome and frankly, your reader won’t even care.

Once is enough

Every day after work Sean leaves and heads home. Chances are he takes the same route, passes the same stores, neighborhood and so on. Therefore it isn’t necessary to rehash the same scene unless of course your point is to show how mundane his routine really is and his frustration for the routine. And even then switch it up a little.  It’s similar to that guy who tells the joke and after the punch line everyone is laughing and instead of him relishing in his successful execution he explains the joke. We get it. Keep it moving.

Trust me, they get it. Keep it moving.