Monday, June 30, 2008

The Great Loom

I saw the movie Wanted this weekend. While there was plenty of action, there was one small detail that kept nagging at me, and still does on Monday morning:

The main characters are given the names of people to assassinate from a loom.

Yes, a loom - like the kind of loom that makes shirts.

This fact is not necessarily the end of all credibility. As long as there is a believeable explanation for it, it will work. It's kind of cool, actually.

However, Wanted offered no such explanation. No origin for this loom, no purpose, and most of all, how the followers of said loom figured out in the first place that the loom was giving them names, and also, how they knew that these names pertained to people that needed to be assassinated.

You're not going to tell me that it was just assumed, are you?

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to demonstrate how imperative it is that everything in your story has a purpose. There should never be assumptions.

Look at purpose as something that can penetrate the smallest details of your story. Imagine your main character's bedroom (if they're lucky enough to have one). Where is their bed? Where is their mirror? What posters are on the wall? If you place these items in your narrative, there should be a reason why each is placed where it is. This doesn't need to be outlined in the novel, but you - the writer - should know. Maybe their bed is placed next to the window because they like to see the moon at night. They're a fan of Led Zeppelin, so the posters on the wall are album covers. The mirror hangs on the door so that your main character can check their appearance before leaving for the day. All of this provides credibility, it feeds your character - their wants, needs, preferences.

Don't just have things in your story because they need to be there. Those things need to exist for a reason, and it's your job to provide that reason. Remember: never assume, or presume. Provide purpose.

Plot especially can give way to the greatest holes. In a narrative, one thing needs to give way to another. One event is caused by the one before - one purpose leads to another. If your main character has a purpose - a direction - in one scene, that purpose should lead them to the next scene, and then the next. That purpose/direction can change throughout, but it needs to lead to the next event. All of this provides credibility. The second a reader does not believe what you are telling them, that's when reluctance to turn the next page will set in.

Characters need to have reasons for doing what they do (a purpose), and each event in a story needs to have reasons for happening (a purpose). See how purpose feeds through the entire narrative?

If you are questioning a character or a scene, the necessity of either will be revealed when you question their purpose. If you can't find a reason for that character or scene to exist, then they probably don't belong in your narrative. Their existence can most likely be given to another scene or another character.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Million Minds

When I was starting on my novel a few years ago, my first inclination was to use multiple viewpoints. Two drafts existed this way, moving between a set of five characters. Eventually, I locked in to one character, but how does a writer know when a novel should have multiple or single viewpoint(s)?

Beginning writers are more likely to fall into multiple POV. In my opinion, multiple POV allows a budding writer to get to know their own characters when they start a first draft. You write how Bob sees the world, and how Alice sees Bob, and what Chris likes for breakfast in the morning, and you know that Jennifer hates her job and why.

It's the "why" that writers are striving for. If you start a first draft, staying strictly with Bob, then you might not feel as close to Jennifer as you do with your main character. Sure, Jennifer will have her purpose (hopefully) within the narrative, but there is something binding about writing in a character's POV, a relationship that's created when you delve into the mind of someone else. But once that relationship is established, some writers don't want to let go. If they've given Jennifer a mind of her own, can they lock her out in another draft? It seems slightly unfair to Jennifer, doesn't it? But if you feel that guilt, you've done a good job of connecting with your character. You care about them. And because you care, you'll be better able to express who they are without giving them a viewpoint. It will come through their action and dialogue.

Imagine a first draft as the foundation for your final draft. That foundation is a playground - nothing's built yet - and your characters are your children being taken out for a day of fun. You let your kids out of the mini-van and they play, interact, throw some rocks, make some sand castles...all the while you (the parent and writer) observe each one of them and take mental notes. You see that Bob makes his sand castles very tall because he wants to emulate his father the architect, and that Jennifer loves to throw rocks because she imagines herself a princess fighting off trolls, and Alice sits in the corner by herself because she thinks no one likes her, and Chris starts digging a hole in the sand-box because he's trying to reach China.

You know your characters now - their goals, their mindset. The next step is figuring out a) what the story is, and b) whether or not you're going to let all four of your children in on it.

Some writers might presume that knowing their characters is enough to warrant a POV. But the question that should be asked is do you need to know the intentions of Bob, Alice, Jennifer, and Chris all-at-once? Even if Bob seems to bring something unique to the story that Alice doesn't, does that mean he should get his own take on the story?

Probably not.

Viewpoint is a story-choice, it's not the story itself. Even if you have four viewpoints, it doesn't mean that the four children are going to be interesting. It's the story that needs to be interesting in itself. And the story needs focus. Once your story has a purpose, you can choose a character (or characters) that best serve that purpose. But remember - there should be a reason that Alice and Bob both get a POV. If Alice pops in for one scene to say her piece, you need to know that there's no other way to let the reader know who she is. Can she tell Bob? Can she show Bob who she is by her action? Do we need to know exactly what she's thinking in that one scene?

Multiple POV can be an easy route. A writer doesn't have to work as hard to show a character through action when they can open up that character's mind and tell all. Even in third person, the thoughts are there, told through a narrator.

I'm not downing the use of multiple POV, as long as it works, but in many cases it's not needed to serve the ultimate goal of the story. A lot of the time it detracts from the intrigue of the novel because the writer takes up pages letting each character have their say without moving the story forward at the same time. We see one event happen in the eyes of three different people. That repetition slows the narrative.

I would recommend the use of multiple viewpoints for a first draft, only for the purpose of getting to know your characters. That will give an idea of who is going to be the most compelling viewpoint, and more importantly, who is going to drive the story forward. If you decide to add another viewpoint, even for a chapter or two, you will at least have a sense of that character and their purpose, and knowing that purpose will keep their viewpoint focused and necessary. It will aid the story - not detract from it.

So, if one of Jennifer's imaginary trolls comes to life, kidnaps Alice, and escapes down the hole Chris has been digging, your story has begun - but who to tell it? I'm voting for the kidnapped Alice, the loner who finds her true self as she escapes from an evil troll kingdom. But maybe Chris' daring bid to save Alice could provide more adventure. That's ultimately a writer's choice, and a very important one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm probably going to write a post...maybe...I think...

It is a tendency among many writers to show uncertainty in their work. Look at the following examples:

1) Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, presumably waiting for him.

2) He watched her open her lunch pail, probably ready to eat her lunch.

3) The boy was barely able to hold in his laughter.

4) He kicked the ball high up in the air, which seemed to be his method of confusing the opposing team.

5) She fingered her hair-brush, possibly thinking about whether or not she should brush her hair.

In each of the above examples, I used words that make the narrator sound uncertain. You could argue that in a strict third-person POV, the narrator cannot be sure of everything, all of the time, but there are instances where it's better to pretend that they are in order to keep your sentences clean and to the point.

Let's look at example number one:

Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, presumably waiting for him.

In this sentence, the "presumably" is not only an adverb, but is also the word that makes this sentence unsure of itself. This is in Bob's POV, so it can be said that Bob might not know what Susan is doing there. Is she waiting for him? Did she mistake his car for her own?

In this instance, however, Susan's actions define her intent. The first assumption a reader will make when Bob finds Susan at his car is that she is waiting to speak with him, so it's not going to hurt the narrative if Bob doesn't show uncertainty over it. Look at the sentence with out the "presumably":

Bob approached his car and found Susan leaning against the passenger side door, waiting for him.

I would probably cut this sentence down even more by not indicating at all that Susan is waiting for him, but cutting the "presumably" helps it along tremendously. Do you see a difference? Do you still think Bob needs to presume anything?

Let's look at example number two:

Bob watched Susan open her lunch pail, probably ready to eat her lunch.

In the above sentence, "probably" is our focus. Again, Susan's actions imply her intent. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when Susan opens her lunch pail? Sure, she could have a thousand different purposes in mind when she opens her lunch pail, but - and I hate to use the word - presumably, she's going to eat her lunch.

So with that in mind, do we really need Bob to suppose that she's going to eat her lunch? Let's look at the sentence without the "probably":

Bob watched Susan open her lunch pail, ready to eat.

This sentence isn't the best of all sentences, but you're already on track to making it clean and concise by removing that seed of presumption and/or doubt.

Let's look at sentence number three:

The boy was barely able to hold in his laughter.

In my opinion, using the word "barely" keeps the boy in a state of inactivity. He's not entirely able to hold in his laughter, but he's not unable either. Above is a prime example of the difference between being direct and indirect.

Using the word "barely" gives the feeling that the writer him/herself is unsure. It creates a more active sentence if the boy is actually doing something, instead of "barely" doing something. Use every opportunity to command your own writing. For instance:

The boy couldn't hold his laughter.

Sounds better, right? You as the writer are labeling the boy's actions directly, instead of leaving him and his laughter in a vague state. It's a small thing, but makes all the difference.

Example number four:

Bob kicked the ball high up in the air, which seemed to be his method of confusing the opposing team.

Here we have "seemed to be". The narrator of this sentence - someone watching Bob play - leaves the possibility that Bob is doing something else by kicking the ball high in the air. But does there need to be that open possibility? Can't we presume that by kicking the ball high, Bob is using his skills to foil the other team? Look at the sentence without the uncertainty:

Bob kicked the ball high up in the air, his method of confusing the opposing team.

Here we have a very direct, clear sentence. Bob kicks the ball high, using his method. The reader gets a better idea of Bob this way as well, since the "seemed to be" allows for Bob to be vague. He could be doing this, but he could also being doing that. I don't know. You never want to say "I don't know" as a writer. Know what you're writing, and who is doing what.

As mentioned, in some cases the narrator of your story will be unable to know something for sure, but weigh the instances where your character can know without becoming an omniscient god; when it doesn't affect the narrative, or the reader's perception of the character and/or POV.

Let's look at the final example:

She fingered her hair-brush, possibly thinking about whether or not she should brush her hair.

That's a lot of words for someone simply touching a hair-brush, right? There's a lot of writerly doubt here with "possibly thinking", and "whether or not". Is she going to brush her hair, or isn't she? Does the reader really need to see your character in doubt over it?

Let's look at an edited version:

She fingered her hair-brush for a moment, and then brushed her hair.

I would go even further with this, and edit it to:

She brushed her hair.

You are removing all doubt on the writer's part, and the narrator's. Remember what the focus of the sentence is: the character brushing her hair. Do you need to up the word-count of your novel or story just to shed light on a character possibly, maybe thinking about doing something? If you want to express the character's constant indecision over things, it might work, but overall, you probably don't need it. Or, to practice what I preach: you don't need it.

There's no "probably" about it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dialogue Tags

He argued.

She cried.

He yelled.

She accepted.

He asked.

She inquired.

He suggested.

Okay, hopefully you get the point by now. I notice in a lot of books dialogue tags like the ones above. Look at this line of dialogue:

"How are you today?" Joe asked.

Most readers admit to skipping over any dialogue tags such as "Joe asked", and if that's the case, do we really need to go beyond "He said" and "She said"?

With the above line of dialogue, the question mark is the indicator that Joe is asking a question, so you're only repeating yourself by saying "Joe asked". Some dialogue tags use fancier words to appear as though they are not repeating any information, but they still are. For example:

"How are you today?" Joe inquired.

To inquire is to ask a question. So Joe is asking a question, and the writer is reiterating the fact that Joe is asking a question. See how this line of dialogue reads without:

"How are you today?" Joe said.

Using "said" is a less-intrusive word. And if you don't need to indicate who is speaking, you can nix it entirely. Two words gone from your word-count!

Look through your manuscript at all of your dialogue tags. Do you use tags that are more than just "said"? What are your tags providing in explanation? For instance:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!" Susan yelled.

Read it without:

"Get back here, you scoundrel!"

Not only does the sentence inform us that Susan is angry, the exclamation point at the end indicates that she's probably yelling, so do I really need to add in "she yelled"?

No. It can be cut.

For another example:

"Sure, I'll take the job," she accepted.

Here, the character is saying Yes to something, and there is the unnecessary repetition of the fact that she's accepting the job. It can go.

As mentioned, most readers skip over dialogue tags. They're focusing more on the name of who is speaking and then moving on to the next line, so if your reader is going to skip over information such as "yelled", "accepted", etc. Why write it? Use dialogue tags other than "said" only when really necessary to convey information that cannot be conveyed in the dialogue itself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


What exactly is a story? And what makes that story compelling?


Stories are interesting because they create questions in a reader's mind. You introduce an intriguing character, and the reader wonders about the rest of their existence.

What is going to happen to this character?

You create a dilemma for that character, which raises the question of "what will happen" to a higher level.

How are they going to solve this problem?

Your character goes on their quest (whatever it may be), and presumably trouble will follow them. They meet a love interest.

Are they going to end up together?

The villain shows his face.

How is this bad guy going to be exterminated?

The bad guy creates even more problems. The love interest is kidnapped in a scuffle!

How is the main character going to save their love interest?

The main character must finally face down the villain to save their love and the world.

Is this going to end happily?

The main character wins over the bad guy and it does end happily.

I feel sated. Is there going to be a sequel?

That's a very simplified version of a story, but should demonstrate how a narrative gives rise to a series of questions, and those questions are what keeps the reader reading. If those questions are not compelling, and do not directly address what's going on in the narrative, then you're going to lose a person's interest.

Go through your draft and pinpoint all of those story questions, such as "what's going to happen?", and "will the hero succeed?"

Are all of those questions answered?

For instance, if you read someone else's work and start wondering about why the main character is doing something (motive), or how the main character is able to do something (ability and sense), then you are straying from your key set of questions. Those questions should be answered in the narrative. If your reader ever wonders about something that is not explained, they will lose interest.

It is hard for a writer to read their own work and discover these questions, since they already know the story, but do pay attention to what others say about your work. If they are asking you questions about things that are not answered, you must find a way to answer them, or get rid of the scene where the questions arose.

If a critiquer is wondering about something that you never meant to address, that may be a clue that you are including something in the narrative that a) should not be there, or b) needs to be developed.

Answering questions is imperative to keeping a reader. If they do not feel answers coming at them in the beginning, middle, and end, or cannot see the answers heading their way, they are going to lose interest. Imagine what taking a test would be like without any problems to solve? The writer is leading their reader through that test, and the writer needs to explain all of the answers.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Let's Fight

What is it about fighting in dialogue that makes a writer drag out every last detail? For instance, a fight between John and Mary might go like this:

M: How could you?
J: It just happened.
M: But we've been married for thirteen years, John!
J: I know that, Mary. It just happened!
M: How? We have two children together, we've been happy!
J: I can't take it back, Mary. I'm so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?
M: Remember when you proposed, you said you would never, ever hurt me?
J: Yes.
M: I guess you just broke that promise.

Telling, telling, telling. All I see is information here, not subtle in the least! Fighting between characters is one of the easiest telling-traps to fall into. The most logical reason for that is real-life fights tend to go this way. We lay out our issues to one another, listing all the reasons why the other peson in the fight screwed up, and all the reasons that they shouldn't have done so.

Sure, it's real, it happens, and most of us could probably recite our greatest fights word for word...but it's boring, folks, and - to put it simply - it's easy.

Think of the movie The Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne actually uses a magazine to fend from a guy with a knife. Knife vs. Magazine. Now that's a fight I was interested in! Bourne didn't stomp around the kitchen railing at the guy like this:

Bourne: How dare you come at me with a knife! You have no business being here!
Knife-Guy: But I've been sent to kill you! With this knife!
Bourne: Why? Why are you doing this? Can't you just tell me who I am? I'm lost!
Knife-Guy: No, I can't do that. Now let me attack you.
Bourne: No! I won't let you!

A married couple might fight like this, but let's keep our characters in the freshwater-pond, instead of a dull, gooey swamp. Here's an exercise:

The next time your characters are fighting, try to write it without dialogue - see what they do. What actions would either character use to express their anger? What would be the ultimate act that one might perform to show the other that they're mad?

If you want a little dialogue, try writing the fight with no information. Instead of listing the reasons why your characters are in the fight, think of things they might say to skirt around the fact that they're not happy with one another - maybe a normal conversation amid actions that express something more rancorous is going on. For example, a husband and wife mid-fight might have breakfast together, talking about the husband's day at work, but meanwhile, the husband is slapping jelly on his toast as though he were hitting a person, and the wife is digging at grit in the pan with her spatula so hard that the handle breaks off.

Focus on any fight at all and see how you wrote it. Are the characters repeating already-known information back to one another? Are they doing things during the fight, or just standing around like dolls? Could they be doing something that might be a better way to show that they're having a fight?

Happy Fighting!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Word Counts

I discussed earlier the uses of going through each page of your draft and listing all of the adverbs, adjectives, nouns, and verbs, as well as a count of how many times each one appears. I've found it helpful to take your final list and highlight those words that appear more than two times. Work on those first, limiting yourself to one word each. Then move on to those two-timers and see if you can get them down to one.

I wanted to post some of the word counts I've found. There are some interesting ones...

On the first page of my draft I had:

Squirrel - 4
Driver - 3
Looked - 3
Held - 4

On Page Two:

Windows - 3
Discussion - 3

On Page Four:

Came - 4
Eyes - 3
Back - 3

On Page Five:

Again - 5
Back - 6
Before - 3
Away - 3
Down - 7
Never - 4
Out - 4
Up - 6

Imagine all of these words on ONE PAGE. They are not immediately apparent while reading, but if you think of all of the word possibilities that you missed by using "never" four times, or "up" six times, it's a real loss.

In Chapter Two, I encountered:

Bills - 4
Chair - 5
Door - 5
Desk - 4
Had - 7
Hand - 3
Mother - 5
Phone - 5
Went - 7

I noticed that in Chapter Three there were certainly less repeated words on the first page:

Bag - 3
Driver - 3
Would - 3

But all of these I managed to use only once or two times throughout the page. Pretend that you absolutely cannot mention something more than once - a whole realm of sentences will appear to you that incorporate what you wanted to say about an object or action, that you might not have thought of earlier without the word restriction. You start to think of a) why you mention the desk so many times, b) if you really need to.

Here are some additional counts in the pages of Chapter Three:

Dirt - 7
Disappeared - 3
Captor - 3
Body - 4
Light - 3
Fog - 4
Skin - 3

It's fascinating what we can do with words; how we tend to repeat the same ones over and over. When you look at each place where a word is repeated, new words and discoveries will without-a-doubt appear to you.

Happy Writing!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Fade-Out

Have you ever been talking to someone about your craft, your draft, your chapter, etc. and notice the slow fade-out as their eyes glaze over and they offer a sloppy stream of "uh-huh", "uh-huh"...

Don't take insult, folks. I've turned this on the flip-side. I don't think writers actually appreciate how hard, complex, and esoteric their craft really is. And when our partners in conversation turn into robots on us, I think it's due to the fact that they have never experienced what we have.

When I discuss writing a draft, or editing a paragraph, members of a writers' community will have an idea of what I'm dealing with - what it means to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and find a story there, or at least, try to find a story there.

Imagine what those 'others' are hearing when we talk about writing. They don't know the effort involved in writing 400 pages of a story and then turning around and doing it all over again, and again, and again...A part of them must think we've gone mad discussing a craft that has no discernible shape or end (until we choose to give it shape and a finale) and that comes literally out of nowhere. Sure, our minds come up with it, but where did our minds get the idea?

Are we tapping into some ancient flow of creativity? Some lifeblood that all writers find running in their veins? What is it that makes us sit down and write. It's not like our minds have an extra vessel, or our hearts pump at different rates. How would one distinguish a writer from an 'other'?

These questions (like many of the sort) are far beyond the realm of human comprehension, so I'll leave them be. But just take a minute today, or at some point in the near future, to ponder just what we're doing here. We're creating, we're a part of something that many do not understand or accomplish themselves. It's a special art that we have privelege to. Feel proud that you're here: reading, learning, sharing, and writing.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A New Way

I just started a new draft of my novel two weeks ago (which was the inspiration for starting this blog, by the way) and I'm working in a fashion that I've never tried before. Every writer works differently, but for those of you who already have a first draft under your belt, you might want to try this:

Take the first draft of your manuscript (or second, or third, or whatever you have) and read only the chapter that you are about to re-write. Once you've read that part, re-write the chapter as you want it, then use the guidelines I posted earlier (How to Survive a Chapter) and edit that chapter until you're satisfied with it. Then read the next chapter in your draft, re-write it, edit, and read the next, re-write, edit, etc. Work your way through the entire manuscript.

Make sure to print out everything you do - your first draft of each chapter, the list of adverbs/adjectives, nouns/verbs, and then each successive edit, and date ALL OF THEM. This will help you keep track of when you worked on what.

So far I have two chapters, about to start my third. I'm very used to writing a draft while keeping a blind eye to imperfections and then editing later, but I'm liking the focus that this new method has brought to my writing. It keeps a very active feel around each chapter, instead of getting overwhelmed with an entire draft.

On average, I'm writing a 5-7 page chapter and cutting it down to 3 pages.

The Information Age

With the advent of the internet, we are in an age where most information can be found in less than five minutes. But even with that, on most agency blogs we see posts over and over again explaining that most writers are NOT doing their research.

Simple research such as making sure that you're sending to a legitimate literary agent, or that you're sending to an agency that actually represents your genre, or following up on the guidelines for submission to each agency would take a maximum of a day out of your life. Between gaining representation and swimming in the slush, I'll take the time to research.

I've been slightly overwhelmed lately just categorizing the many, many blogs out there, from both literary agents and writers (unpublished and published), but I am thankful that all of these people are posting. I recommend that all of you start to keep an eye out for blogs that you find helpful, and making a list of favorites. Try to check them at least once a week, as well as flipping through the archives when you can.

There is a great amount of knowledge to be had out there, and whatever gets us in the right direction towards publication is all right by me!

P.S. I will continually update this blog with other blogs that I have found, so start with those if you're looking for some good sources.

Can We Be Without Motivation?

I want to thank quillhill for inspiring this post...

Can we write a book without any character motivation whatsoever? I think I've just written an oxymoron, because guess what?

Motivation is Character.

The real question is: can we be people without any motivation? Sure, some people have "no motivation" - they don't have jobs, they sit on their patoot all day, but they're actually quite motivated to do nothing at all. There's still motivation there to do something. Even when you do nothing with your life (so to speak), you're doing something by doing nothing.

Okay, enough with the verbal carousel.

Can you have a main character with no goals in mind; with no particular motivation as he/she/it walks through the narrative?

No. Because, as I said, if your character has no goals or motivation, then your character is not a character at all - they're a piece of cardboard. Go ahead and defend your piece of cardboard, but in all honesty, do people want to follow a character/s that aren't alive? That they can't connect with emotionally - even if it's to hate them?

I don't think so.

Two movies that come to mind that don't follow the obvious "loss=motivation" rule are Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. But what do both of these have? Strong main characters.

Alex in A Clockwork Orange just wants to pillage, and Travis in Taxi Driver is taking a course in existentialism. Neither has a clear goal in mind - they wander - but both have characters so strong that those traits become their motivation.

The government puts Alex through a Pavlov's dog treatment and he can no longer be violent. There's your conflict right there. The boy that stands for all that is destruction can't be destructive.

Travis struggles with himself, with the world, but in the end actually "saves" a young prostitute. The man who can't understand or justify his and the world's existence becomes a quintessential hero.

So in conclusion, if you're struggling to find that motivation or goal, take a look at your character. Get right up close so you can see all of their pores and the nitty-gritty good-stuff. See what they're made of. If they have strong characters, then they will be able to lead a story. An effective, intriguing character will find a story for themselves. Who needs a writer? It's your job to give them the mojo to do that.

Keep at it.

Any questions or comments? Email me at

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Test Your Vocab

Here's two vocabulary links. The first is composed of hellishly obscure words, so don't beat yourself up if you can't do most of it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Where's My Motivation?

If you're still working through your first novel (like me), I would recommend choosing a story that is purely driven by a character motivation or need i.e., pick a character with a clear goal.

A goal will help set the rest of the story in place. If your character stays on his/her path, pursuing their goal, then you as the writer will find it easier to move forward.

Remember that 'focus' I was talking about? If you focus on your main character's goals, you may find it easier to write every scene in service to that quest. Look at every scene as a way to bring your main character closer to achieving their goal.

Haven't got a goal in mind? Haven't got a main character in mind? Here's an exercise to try:

Write down the names of every one of your characters. Yes, all of them...

Go through each character and write down the one thing that could happen to them that would change their lives forever. I'm talking about major life change:
What would destroy them?

What would have them raging at the heavens?

Or, on a brighter note: what do they treasure the most in their world?

What do they have to lose?

Go through your list now and find the character with the most to lose. This should probably be your main character. If you've already got a main character in mind, see what you wrote down next to their name. Imagine that this 'event' actually happens. What would they do?

That's your story: what your main character will do once they lose the thing they treasure most.

For an example, my work-in-progress begins with the relationship of Inoperable Squirrel and his Uncle Thor. Thor means everything to I.S. When Thor disappears, I.S. sets out to find him. This is his major goal: find his uncle.

For an unfocused writer, putting a goal as #1 may bring inspiration to your narrative.

Here's another quick example:

Cindy is a princess set to be married to her true love Sebastian. Sebastian has promised to take her away from the kingdom of her evil uncle Maurice. But King Maurice hires a dragon to kidnap Sebastian. Cindy sets out to find her true love, knowing that death awaits her if she stays in her uncle's kingdom.

The evil king sends his evil minions after her, but she is saved at the last moment by a peasant named Jake. Jake agrees to take her across the ruins of the kingdom to find the lair of the dragon. All the way, they are dogged by Maurice's minions, and faced with the trials of passing through a cursed land.

When they finally reach the dragon's lair, Sebastian reveals that he made a bargain with the dragon to replace himself with Jake. Happiness! But Cindy realizes that she has fallen in love with Jake. Who will she choose? What will she do?

I'll save you the happy ending, folks (and it would have been good), but see all the trouble Cindy gets into by having the one goal of saving Sebastian? This gives rise to all sorts of drama! See how much fun you can have?

For some extra examples in the real world:

Books: In The Shining, all Jack Torrance wants to do is finish his novel (the goal), so he takes a job as caretaker for an aging hotel, hoping to find peace and inspiration. Too bad the hotel is just a tad haunted...

Movies: In the recent movie Juno, Juno finds out she's pregnant and decides to keep the baby. Her goal is to find appropriate adoptive parents for it.

TV: In Lost, survivors of Flight Oceanic 815 land on a myserious desert island. Now all they want to do is find a way to get off of it...

And for real-life drama, just take a look at Henry the 8th. All he wanted to do was marry Anne Boleyn and divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon. In order to achieve his goal, he created the Church of England.

Try for some motivation, folks. See what happens.

Driving to Work...2

A red balloon floated up over the parkway and disappeared in the trees. Closing in on my office, a second red balloon escaped through a car window.

I kid you not.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Brief Version

Here's an article that's a much shorter version of the rules I've been talking about:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Submission!

Okay, so I have submission here from my friend Shampoo Hornseby. He was kind enough to do an edit with me, so we’ll be posting live.

Me: Hi, Shampoo. Nice name, by the way.

Shampoo: What does my name have to do with anything?

Me: Well, it is interesting. I’d be more likely to pick up a book by a Shampoo Hornesby.

Shampoo: My mother gave me that name.

Me: So it’s not a pen-name.

Shampoo: Of course not!

Me: Okay. Well, let’s get to the edit. Shampoo says that he’s probably the world’s expert on trolls.

Shampoo: I am the world’s expert. That’s not a good way to start, dearie. You’re supposed to be sure of everything that you write – and I am an expert.

Me: Okay, then. Good point. So you’re the expert on trolls –

Shampoo: Yes, all kinds of trolls. I know the most about Bulgarian trolls, Green Mountain and Black Rock Lagoon trolls.

Me: Okay…

Shampoo: It’s all in the book. My autobiography.

Me: Right. So let’s go through your first page. Here it is:

My plane was at 9:30 in the morning and I was late. But I sped through the windy roads to get to the airport and arrived five seconds before the flight left.

Me: That’s not a very strong hook, Shampoo.

Shampoo: But I was late!

Me: Yeah, but is it important that you were late to flight?

Shampoo: It was important to me at the time!

Me: Yeah, but is it important to the rest of the story if you were late? I mean, does it effect what happens later?

Shampoo: I was making a pickle and pumpernickel sandwich, I’ll have you know, and I have to get the mustard perfectly spread before I even think about leaving my cave every morning.

Me: You live in a cave?

Shampoo: Yes, with my mother. She was helping me with the sandwich.

Me: Okay, so how about you lead your story with this:

My mother insisted that the mustard on my pickle and pumpernickel sandwich be evenly spread before I left our cave. I arrived at the airport five minutes before my flight.

Shampoo: That’s all fine, but you’ve left out the windy roads bit.

Me: You don’t need it.

Shampoo: But ‘windy’ was a well-chosen adjective!

Me: Yeah, but who cares if the roads were windy? Do you need it in there? I could see it being important if they were so windy that you drove off the side of the road by accident. That would be exciting.

Shampoo: Don’t be silly, girl.

Me: What else do we have?

The stewardess who let me on my plane was tall with long blonde hair that ran down to her hips and she had beautiful green eyes. I sat down in my seat and it was very small.

Me: So, let me guess, you end up flirting with the stewardess and you two run off together?

Shampoo: Don’t be lurid!

Me: Then why did you go into such detail about her?

Shampoo: Because!

Me: Do we see her again in the story?

Shampoo: She gave me a lovely bag of peanuts.

Me: How are the peanuts lovely?

Shampoo: They were lovely.

Me: Oh, never mind. If you mention the peanuts, I’m cutting the sentence.

Shampoo: Well, I never…

Me: Let’s keep going. You don’t need to go into detail about the stewardess. And saying the seat was small is pretty much a given. Who hasn’t complained about airplane seats being small?

Shampoo: Well, it was small!

Me: Yeah, but you can show your writer-ly gifts here. Use some description that shows how inventive you are. Give me another description of the seats. What else did you think about other than ‘small’?

Shampoo: Well, I remember thinking that a Rajmussian Tiger Troll would have a hard time sitting in them with its large behind. The sores on its rear wouldn’t help it either.

Me: Now that’s funny, and it further proves your expertise in the troll field. Okay, what’s next?

The plane landed at the airport and I got off. I hailed a taxi and went to the place of my interview.

Me: I’m going to stop you here. Do you need to write about the plane ride at all?

Shampoo: Well, I did fly on the plane.

Me: Yeah, but this interview sounds more interesting to me. Why not start with the interview?

Shampoo: Yes, but I did fly on the plane.

Me: Well, let’s cut it for now and start the book at this interview. What’s next?

I was going to interview a troll name Melf in his cave. Melf was angry looking. He had long green hair and a body full of warts. He stood sixty feet above me. His toenails were red and very long. He spoke only in grunts, but I still understood every word he said. He smelled awful, but I spoke to him anyway. Being the last of his breed, I needed to interview him about his breed for my book, or else he might be dead soon.

Me: Okay, a lot to work with here. You don’t need to say you were going to interview a troll named Melf, since we’re about to see you interview a troll named Melf. You can cut that sentence.

Shampoo: You’re harsh.

Me: Angry looking is pretty vague, Shampoo. What if Melf throws a rock at you when you enter his cave? That would show me that he’s an angry troll.

Shampoo: He didn’t throw a rock at me, he threw his feces.

Me: Okay..that’s disgusting, but it’s a better way to show what Melf is like, rather than saying ‘angry’. Let’s see what else we have…you’ve written a lot of description. You can cut the bit about Melf’s grunts. When you ask him a question, he’ll answer with a grunt; this will show the reader how he speaks.

Shampoo: Ah ha.

Me: And notice how you use the word ‘breed’ twice in the same sentence. That should be avoided, even within the same page if you can manage it.

Shampoo: How can I manage that, dearie? This sounds complicated.

Me: Well, how about this:

Melf the troll (Me: Can you be more specific about what kind of troll he is? Shampoo: He’s an Atlantic Garden Troll, what of it?)

Melf the Atlantic Garden Troll hurled his feces at me.
“I’m here for your interview, Melf.” I stepped aside just in time.
I looked up sixty feet to see his global face.
Translated, he said: What do you want?
“I am sorry about your mother,” I grunted back. She left him the last remaining troll of his kind.
“Urgh, urgh.” He beat his fists against the ceiling of his cave. A slab of rock fell on his red toenails – his scream vibrated through my body. I smelled rotting tripe from his exposed armpits.

Shampoo: I see what you did there.

Me: See how you can lose obvious statements such as, “He spoke only in grunts, but I still understood every word he said.”? That’s already inferred when you’re able to translate his grunts.

Shampoo: And my description?

Me: Add it in slowly. See how I combined his red toenails with the slab of rock falling down? There, you’re showing his angry temperament and the color of his toenails. Instead of saying ‘he smelled awful’, be specific with ‘rotting tripe’.

Shampoo: Hmm…

Me: Well, I think that’s enough for now. Say goodbye, Shampoo.

Shampoo: Goodbye, all. I’ll need to mourn my lost sentences now. I’m going to steal your scissors, Inoperative Squirrel.

For All the H.P. Fans...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Surviving a Chapter

I wanted to summarize some of the stuff I've been talking about in the last couple days. I'm calling this "How to Write a Chapter". I'm going to sort it by major steps.


-- Write a purpose at the head of each chapter, defining what is to be accomplished within those pages.

-- Write the chapter as you want it to be.

-- Print, and read through, highlighting anything that catches your eye -- makes you “think”.

-- Work page by page, making a list of adverbs and adjectives. Do a count of how many times the same adverb or adjective appears within a page (or over all of the pages). Have this page side-by-side with your chapter, so that you can see each clearly.

-- Start with the words that you used multiple times and work on eliminating them. Question why you used that same word so many times.

**Are there any synonyms that come to mind?

**Do you think you’re going for a particular theme by using that word so much?

-- Pretend that anything with multiples needs to have only one.

-- Look at the places where there are adjectives. Question every one.

**Do you need it?

**Is it better to say “she had flowing blonde hair”, or “she had blonde hair”?

**How important is it to describe her hair as ‘flowing’?

**How important is her hair?

**Do you need to mention the color of this person’s hair?

-- Look at the places where you used adverbs.

**Is it important that a man “slowly read the paper”, or can you say “he read the paper”?

-- If you felt the need to embellish a verb with an adverb, could this mean that you’re not using the correct verb?

**Is there a better verb out there that can encompass the original and its adverb?

-- In this way, you work backwards through a progression of questions that starts first with the specifics of each word, and then traces back to broader questions concerning purpose and necessity.

-- Locate every adjective and adverb on your list, and after you’ve questioned it and established its worth -- or lack of it -- move on to make a new list of all the nouns and verbs. Do the same count of them, and look at each one in the chapter, using the same questions:

**Do I need it?

**What will the sentence look like if I don’t use it?

-- If you happened to use the word ‘had’ five times in a page, take each one of them out and see how the sentence can be rearranged without. If you mentioned a character eating an apple three separate times, question whether or not you really need this action. Can it be replaced with something else?

-- If you notice you have a lot of verbs, such as: “He walked into the room and sat down and crossed his legs” look at what verb is the most important. Is there any way to get around the use of one, if not all, of those verbs? Find the one action that moves the scene along.

-- Cut detail. See how the pages look.

-- Question every word on your two lists. Pretend that they cannot be there. Pretend that someone kidnapped your dog and will hurt it if you don’t cut at least thirty words off of each page.

-- Do a re-write of the chapter, incorporating the changes you made. I recommend making your edits on the printed page with a pencil. Print out the edited version and date it.

-- Go through the new version, looking only at dialogue. As you look at each spoken line, see what happens if you cut it out.

**Are you losing information that needs to be said?

**Are your characters saying things to one another that are already known between them?

**Are you using dialogue to explain something to the reader?

-- Pretend that the reader already knows these people and their situation.

**How does the dialogue sound when you approach it from that angle?

**Do you need dialogue at all?

**Can the purpose of the chapter and scene be achieved only through action?

-- You’ll want some dialogue, of course, but imagine what your characters would say to one another if nothing needed to be explained. How would they interact?

-- Most of all, focus on your purpose here, and use the dialogue to that end. What needs to be said between the characters? If that kidnapped dog was going to die if you had more than two lines of dialogue in your chapter, what would those two lines be? Pretend that you need to have as little as possible. A life depends on it! See how immediate your narrative becomes. Don’t worry about taking things out – you can always put them back in!

-- Rewrite the chapter using the cuts and changes that you made. As you re-write, keep an eye out for your sentences too. Those words aren’t to be trusted just yet. Can you still lose some of them? If you even question a single word, cut it out and see what the sentence looks like without it.

-- Remember, question everything. Do you need it? What is it there for? Pretend you’re an immigration officer, deciding whether or not to let a traveler into the country.

-- Keep an eye out for the number of similes and metaphors that you’re using.

**Are you using too many?

**Are there instances where you could use a metaphor or simile to give the reader a better description?

-- Remember: Focus. If you know what you want to say within the chapter, it might be easier to figure out where a simile or metaphor could really benefit.

-- Keep an eye out for where you can add in a bit more detail by switching one boring noun for another. For instance, in my first chapter, two characters are surrounded by trees. I replaced those with “birch trees” instead. Now the reader can envision the color bark, the shape of the tree. You’re giving them a whole new picture rather than just saying a very generic “trees”. Look for any place where you can be more specific. Instead of saying “he ate some cereal”, how about “he ate Cheerios”? See what a difference it makes, and in most cases you won’t have to add any extra words in.

-- As you edit, keep retyping the chapter and printing it out.

-- With your current version, look at the setting.

**Are your characters surrounded by something? Or are they standing in some void?

**Are they making use of the room they’re standing in?

**Are they making too much use of where they are so that it’s impeding with the narrative?

-- Try to put in something unique about the setting when you can. Remember: specific details. You can express something about a room with only a few words.

**Is it dusty?

**Full of light?

**Is it an echo chamber?

**Does it eat sound?

**Does it smell like frying chicken or dead squirrel?

-- Don’t overdo it explaining every part of the setting, but remember that your characters are actually standing, sitting, or lying somewhere.

-- Once you’ve made your setting edits, print up again and read through the chapter. Pay attention to how it all sounds now.

** Do you feel there’s a voice to it?

** Is your main character coming through?

-- If you’re being a mad killer of words, it’s possible that you’re going to cut out some of the emotion, and the narrative will become too sparse. Now you have the opportunity to build up.

**Are there places where you think you can use a little extra?

-- Hopefully, by the end of your edits, you’ll have a better appreciation for words. It should be much easier to add in a sentence now, with an eye for keeping it integral to the narrative.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Word Choice

Here's an article detailing words that have the opposite definition than what most people think:

Peruse, anyone?

Driving to Work...

A Frito Lay truck is advertising positions for "Over-the-Road Drivers".

Too bad I like driving Under-the-Road...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Excel-lent Vocabulary

Interesting experiment I started today:

I made an excel list of vocabulary words that I didn't know. It's becoming an excellent way to memorize them. One word per row, then definitions from and (for variety), their synonyms from both websites, their function (verb, adjective, etc.) an example in a sentence, and then their origin. A lot of interesting facts to be learned here. I definitely recommend it.

Word successfully memorized today: Panglossian, which means naively optimistic. There was a character named Pangloss in a Voltaire novel, and the adjective is derived from that. Interesting stuff.

The typing of the word, definition, and fact helps cement it in your mind.

Learn lots of vocab! And don't curse like Sue Simmons...

Slash and Hack

I'm currently exploring the art of editing, or The Slash and Hack, as I've come to think of it. Fellow aspiring authors out there have probably heard before the damage you'll have to do to a manuscript before it's ready. Cut, cut, cut! Of course, we rarely listen to those sage scribes that have come before us, because it's usually impossible to fathom how to write a book until you've really spent some time, you know, writing a book. It's taken me four years to get to a point where I'm ready to question every word I have. Getting those same words (which are chopped up in the dead zone of a computer's bowels right now) out on the paper in the first place was hard enough, but to get rid of them? You'll know the thrill when you see it, people. The realization that you don't need most of them. Yep, I said it.

I'm working through Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages right now. If you don't have it - get it. It's illuminating. I'll try to post a progression of pages tomorrow, where you can see how I worked from six pages down to four just by following Noah's suggestions.

Here's a good way to start editing a draft:

-Read through with a highlighter and pinpoint any areas that you have to think about. By "think about" I mean anything that strikes you (good or bad), that your brain needs to process a bit harder to read, or a word/phrase that gets your salivary glands pumping, or your muscles twitching, something that sounds weird or awkward, or phrases/words that seem different from the others (again, whether good or bad). I'm still finding it difficult to learn how to recognize when I'm making a greater effort to read a sentence. But if my thought process is thrown when I'm reading, no matter in what way, I highlight.

- Work page by page (yes, daunting, but worth it!)

- Then, on a separate page list all the adverbs and adjectives that you can find.

**I'll admit with a blush right now that I had to re-teach myself the difference between all of these grammatical definitions. Thank you public school!

**Instead of listing the adverbs and adjectives, I went through with a highlighter instead. It
helped bring them to a better focus, in my opinion. Try using a different color highlighter to
differentiate from the first read-through.

- Next, list every noun and verb. This list will probably be much longer than the previous, so I found it easier to use a separate word document. I also kept a log of how many times each word pops up and variations on each. After completing the list, print it and date it, then review it with your page side by side. For example:

**I used 'door' twice on my first page, and 'driver' three times, I said 'held' four times, and 'looked' three.

**This was all on one page. Just trying to write each of these only once provides all sorts of new sentences that I would never have thought of. Give it a shot.

- Look at each word and determine whether or not you really need it. This is where you ask yourself the question: what am I trying to say here? For another example:

I had two uses of 'rarely' within two paragraphs, and I used some version of 'firm' four separate times within six pages.

- One read-through won't immediately bring these words to your attention, but once you notice them, you're better able to come up with more unique and concise ways to say things. Just by reviewing these words, you'll realize that many of them are pointless. You won't be able to go to sleep that night just thinking, Oh no, I have seventeen mentions of a dead squirrel in the first five pages! Trying to remove all the times you say 'dead squirrel' will inspire better sentences.

Inoperative Squirrel??

Okay, so naming a blog is quite an immense task. How does one arrive at a Title that describes...everything in your head? How about Clusterf***? Or Electric Gray Matter Full of Thoughts?

Failing to come up with something to accurately convey me - in all honesty, who can in just one Title? - I searched the text of my novel. It starts when my main character Paul steps on a dead squirrel. Aha! - but alas, people, that name was already taken! Yes, go check it out. Something dedicated to EVIL CHIA PETS, last used in 2003. Well...

How about another language? Babel Fish arise and do your good work! Here's how it went:

Dead Squirrel to Dutch = dode eekhoorn
Dead Squirrel to French = écureuil mort
Dead Squirrel to German = totes Eichhörnchen
Dead Squirrel to Italian = scoiattolo guasto
Dead Squirrel to Spanish = ardilla muerta

Spanish was hitting close to something, but still, no spark. How about Portugese?

esquilo inoperante

Put that back to English, people, and you have literally: inoperative squirrel.

Yes! She hits it!

Well, it's a start at least. See how far I've come already on my first night? More to come...lots of writing, television, film, books, and whatever else of interest. Keep your Squirrels dead and ready...

Oh, and for your viewing pleasure, a compatriot: