Tag Archives: books

4 Fun Tips for Inspiring Children to Read & Write Stories

Words are the foundation of any great story. Whether eloquent, blunt, allusive or rudimentary, words are the playthings of those new to the alphabet and MFA students alike.

photo by David Browning

I have two children, ages 5 and 7; both alphabet aficionados and no strangers to playthings. Like any book nerd, I do my best to feed their literary minds-in-training, beginning with picture books, and moving onto chapter books. I’ve had success; they can’t go—won’t go—to bed without bedtime stories, no matter the hour or my exhaustion. But I want them to love books, and—dare I dream?—writing, as much as I do. I figure my best hope is to reveal the magic of words.

  1. The Word Hunt: I picked up a book about palindromes
    and quite unexpectedly, ignited unbridled excitement for this surprising word configuration. Most children are intrigued by puzzles, and even early and pre-readers can get in on the action. Have your child scan the patterns of letters comprising a sentence; if they find a word or series of words that reads the same forward and backward, it’s a palindrome! Once my kids got the hang of it, they would spontaneously shout from the back seat of the car if they overheard me using a palindrome while talking to my husband up front. (*note: kids listen to everything you say. The only words which fall on deaf ears are your instructions and/or rules.)
  2. Compound words: My kindergartner is always on the lookout <<see? for two words glued at the middle to create a new word. Again, strong reading isn’t necessary to begin, but do point out compound words when you come across them in a book, or on signs and buildings during car rides. The one who finds the most compound words wins! (Note, my older son prefers instead to find words with prefixes and suffixes. My kindergartner doesn’t get this concept yet. To each his own.)
  3. Synonyms: This is another game we play in car or the grocery store, or anytime I need to keep the boys occupied. Choose a word they really like, and have them think of as many synonyms for it as they can. (Mistakes will happen—they will rhyme, for instance, or come up with a homonym without knowing it, but that’s fun too!) My children have a giggly blast thinking up synonyms for vomit, I regret to admit. Whatever it takes.
  4. The Human Condition: As a small child, I used to think stories were merely series of events. I didn’t think much about character  motivation, but understanding why a character responds one way or another when faced with conflict is essential. For young kids, character motivation can be taught simply by getting on the floor with them and asking questions during imaginative play.
    My boys have a Fisher Price jungle toy with an orienteering type action figure we’ll call Hemingway and a bucket of miniature animal figurines. They wanted to play a game where the Hemingway character searches for lost gold treasure in the jungle, and another action figure was to assume the role of “bad guy.” Awesome, we have the beginning of a plot.
    I asked the boys, “How will Hemingway find the treasure?”
    Boys: “The animals in the jungle are his friends! And they know where the treasure is!”
    I love their positive outlook, but here is the moment when an OK story gains momentum—with character motivation.
    Me: “How did the animals become his friend?”
    Boys: (thinking I’m crazy but trying to come up with a reason) “…he helped them find the baby tiger when she was lost and brought her back to her mommy?”
    To gain a clearer vision of the animals’ friendship and desire to help Hemingway find gold, we acted it out. We hid the baby tiger, the Hemingway action figure was posed through many heroic and dangerous stunts to save her, all the while the rest of the animals in the jungle fretted and cried out for the lost baby. Such gloom and doom among the animal kingdom, when wait! Hemingway returns with baby, safe and sound! The tiger mommy and daddy are forever grateful and vow to help whenever they’re needed. At the tiger’s homecoming celebration, my sons got the idea that the animals tell Hemingway about the bad guy hunting them. This was fantastic, because it added another stake to the race to find the gold, and further invests the animals in helping Hemingwat achieve his goal and overcoming the bad guy/hunter.

Create a balance of fostering independence while demonstrating interest in their activities by asking questions and brainstorming ideas. Throw your own palindromes, synonyms and compound words into the ring. Most importantly, have fun and laugh. Words are for play!

What games or techniques have you used to inspire a love of words in your children?

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The Dark Knight, Michael Uslan, and Achieving Your Goals

“They started so young,” thwarted competitors lament, when a young phenom bursts on the scene and quickly claims the highest rewards. We’ve all been awe-inspired by at least one, maybe a fresh-faced 17-year-old swimmer from Colorado earning a gold medal at the Olympiad, or a university student building a the world’s most popular social networking platform, perhaps.

Unsurprisingly, there is a nervous, hopeful energy among parents on the sidelines. Where I live in Southern California, there is, quite literally, no limit of opportunity. Should my child whisper a curiosity about culinary arts, ballet, soccer, rock climbing or outrigger canoeing, there are several programs in each discipline vying for my registeration form and tuition payment. Will animation become my child’s lifelong passion? Acting? Software design? Will he become a great gymnast, baseball player, taekwondo expert? Do we have the best coach for the job?

My boys are ages five and seven. They have run the gamut of activities–dabblers in much, experts in little. My husband and I are, paradoxically, on a frantic search to help them find their bliss–because we love them, and because we would deny them little outside our resources. As it happens, this week my older boy was invited to join seasoned. pre-teen fencing competitors under the tutelage of a visiting Italian champion. I’m actively hiding how much pride this brings me, while the ongoing spectacle of the 2012 Summer Games only spurs my secret satisfaction.

Who knows if he will continue his path in the sport of fencing? In the meantime, I am pondering the mysterious; I wonder whether high achievers are simply inevitable, merely realizing what they are “born” to become by inherent character, predisposition and good genes, regardless of the odds or obstacles. Or do we really have a hand in our child’s future?

Sometimes inspiration comes where we least expect it. When Michael Uslan (Originator and Executive Producer of the Batman franchise of motion pictures) was a boy during the 1950s and ‘60s, he was so obsessed with comic books that he collected thousands and didn’t hesitate to send corrections to editors when he spotted a mistake in a story line.

Michael Uslan, the Batman franchise

“My origin story – what formed my character – is entrenched in comic books,” he shares in The Boy Who Loved Batman: A Memoir (www.theboywholovedbatman.com). “When I was 8 years old, I wanted to see if I could get my name in print, next to Bruce Wayne and the rest of Gotham’s characters.”

It wasn’t luck, fortune or an accident that Uslan grew up to produce the most successful comic book-based movie franchise of all time, he says. Now, his goal, like many parents, is to inspire kids and young adults to pursue their own dreams with focus and dedication, “because you can make them come true.”

Here’s how:
• Know your passion: Uslan wasn’t the only kid on his block who loved comics – but most of the others probably never dared to dream that they could have a hand in influencing their favorite character, he says. It’s important to ask yourself, “What do I really, really care about?” The answer to this question will be the seed from which dreams sprout. 
• Don’t be a passive bystander – participate: His passion for comics blossomed through several steps, including a general interest in reading and writing and active participation with the world’s first ComicCon in New York City in 1964, when he befriended comic writing legend Otto Binder. These days, there are plenty of opportunities for kids to be proactive, he says, citing blogs, websites and social networking. “A teen raised with today’s technology can create a video, for example, that rivals those created by professionals,” he says.
• Identify objectives that will take you to your goal: In high school, Uslan became essential to the yearbook staff, developing media skills that would benefit him later. In 1972, as a junior at Indiana University, he created and taught the first college level course on comic books. After graduating law school, he had the legal knowledge and Hollywood credentials necessary to purchase the film rights to Batman and start repairing the super hero’s image. He wanted to get away from the campy sitcom version of the crusader and reintroduce the Dark Knight to his roots for a movie-going audience.

“You don’t have to bend to the expectations of everyone else,” Michael Uslan says. “If you love something enough and are willing to create favorable circumstances, others will bend to you.”

• Learn from problems instead of allowing them to distract: Most people never realize their dreams because life gets in the way. Problems and new priorities arise and detract you from your course. The trick is to figure out how to respond to these in ways that help you reach your goal. For instance, learning how to negotiate, how to efficiently manage your time or how to become very self-disciplined are skills you can apply in pursuing your dream.

In his 36 years in the film and television industry, Michael Uslan (www.theuslancompany.com) has been involved with such projects as “National Treasure,” “Constantine,” and countless animated projects. His projects have won Oscars, Golden Globes and Emmy Awards. He is the author of his autobiography, The Boy Who Loved Batman: A Memoir.

What was YOUR childhood dream?

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A writer’s manifesto for 2012. Read this and get to work

Sometimes I like to pretend I’m writing “to” novelist Chuck Wendig. It helps me cut the crap when self-censorship creeps in. I love Wendig’s writing voice, and I just feel freer to speak my mind on the page when I’m in his literary presence.

What you’re about to read was actually blogged by Chuck Wendig last April. Who cares? If your manuscript or writing goals are in need of a New Year’s resolution-esque shaking of the collar, a smartening up, or a come-to-Jesus, you need to dig in and read these excerpts.

25 Things Writers Should Know by Chuck Wendig:

1.You Are Legion

The Internet is 55% porn, and 45% writers. You are not alone, and that’s a thing both good and bad. It’s bad because you can never be the glittery little glass pony you want to be. It’s bad because the competition out there is as thick as an ungroomed 1970s pubic tangle. It’s good because, if you choose to embrace it, you can find a community. A community of people who will share their neuroses and their drink recipes. And their, ahem, “fictional” methods for disposing of bodies.

2.You Better Put The “Fun” In “Fundamentals”

A lot of writers try to skip over the basics and leap fully-formed out of their own head-wombs. Bzzt. Wrongo. Learn your basics. Mix up lose/loose? They’re/their/there? Don’t know where to plop that comma, or how to use those quotation marks? That’s like trying to be a world-class chef but you don’t know how to cook a goddamn egg. Writing is a mechanical act first and foremost. It is the process of putting words after other words in a way that doesn’t sound or look like inane gibberish.

3.Skill Over Talent

Some writers do what they do and are who they are because they were born with some magical storytelling gland that they can flex like their pubococcygeus, ejaculating brilliant storytelling and powerful linguistic voodoo with but a twitch of their taint. This is a small minority of all writers, which means you’re probably not that. The good news is, even talent dies without skill. You can practice what you do. You practice it by writing, by reading, by living a life worth writing about. You must always be learning, gaining, improving.

Read the post in its entirety here

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

Sell More Books: Good Writing vs. Creating Urgency

Writing “well” should be good enough. Good enough to score an agent and a publishing contract. Good enough to entice a potential reader to move past page one, and keep reading, breaking only for food and the uncontrollable urge to refer your book to everyone with an inbox.

Author and mighty story expert and deconstructrix Lisa Cron (read her bio below–be prepared to be impressed) says the goal of learning to write well is a myth. A myth! Phew. (Does that mean I can produce a dungheap and watch it skyrocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list? Assuming I publish it under an anonymous pen name, that is.)

Ms. Cron points out how the myth of “good writing” is perpetuated: “Everyone says it – writing books, professors, writing groups, editors, agents, even readers. It sounds so logical, who’d argue?”

Makes sense to me. However, as Cron states, “The first goal of any story is to anesthetize the part of the reader’s brain that knows it is a story. When we get lost in a good story, it feels like reality–literally. Recent research has shown that when we read about an action, the same areas of the brain light up as when we actually experience that action. We really are there. As a result, the last thing a reader is able to do (or wants to do for that matter) is analyze how, exactly, the story is creating such a perfect rendition of reality. And so when asked what it is that grabs us about a great story, we say it was the luscious language, the intriguingly complex characters, the witty dialogue, the fresh voice. In other words, we say it’s well written when what we really mean is that it felt like life.”

Doesn’t that sound like good writing?

“Writing well is the handmaiden of story,” Cron says. “The real goal of every writer is to learn to create that sense of urgency that makes the reader want to know what happens next. This is not triggered by dazzling wordsmithing, but by mastering story itself, and understanding what people are wired to crave from every story they hear.”

To put it more plainly, “We turn to story to shed light on the thorny internal problems we face. Stories teach us how to make sense of ourselves, others and the world at large by allowing us to vicariously experience myriad “what ifs.” After all, life is tricky and rife with risk, so what better way to prepare to navigate the one place we’re all headed — the future — than story?”

Lisa Cron’s top three tips for creating a sense of urgency:

1. Make sure you know how your story ends; ask yourself, how
does my protagonist’s world view have to shift in order for her to achieve her goal?
What does she have to realize that, most likely, she’s spent her whole
life avoiding? Then don’t hold back — sew this internal conflict into the
story, beginning on the first page, if possible, in the first sentence.

2. Always remember, what draws people into a story is that sense that all is not as it seems. The reader is all too familiar with “business as
usual” (read: ho hum), a story is about what happens when something out of the ordinary bursts through that predictable pattern and forces your protagonist to deal with it or else – even if it begins with something as seemingly mundane as the mail arriving a half hour late.

3. Let us know that something specific is at stake, and don’t be shy about telling us what it is, and how it’s affecting your protagonist. Make us feel it by letting us know what it forces your protagonist to confront. How does it differ from her expectations? What action does it trigger?

After all, stories are about how the unexpected forces us to confront our beliefs about ourselves, the world and others – and find out what we’re really made of.

What’s the last book that swept you away? What did it teach you about life, or better yet, yourself?

Lisa Cron spent a decade in publishing, first at W.W. Norton in New York, then at John Muir Publications in Santa Fe, NM, before turning to TV. She’s worked on shows for Fox, Bravo and Miramax, and has been supervising producer on shows for Court TV and Showtime. She’s been a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency in NYC, and for Village Roadshow, Icon, The Don Buchwald Agency and others in LA. She’s featured in Final Draft’s book, Ask The Pros: Screenwriting. Her personal essays have appeared on Freshyarn.com and the Huffington Post, and she has performed them at the 78th Street Playhouse in NYC, and in LA at Sit ‘n Spin, Spark!, Word-A-Rama, Word Nerd and Melt in Your Mout (a monthly personal essay series she co-produced). For years she’s worked one-on-one with writers, producers and agents developing book and movie projects. Lisa has also been a literary agent and for the past five years, an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where she currently teaches. Her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, will be published by Ten Speed Press, Summer 2012.

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Manuscript Rejected After Only 20 Pages? What gives?

Ever wonder how an agent can reject a manuscript, having read only the first 20 pages? How can they know a book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on?

Before a writer curses all agent-hood while typing the url, Smashwords.com, self-proclaimed Novel Diagnostician (and doesn’t she deserve such a lofty title?) Kristen Lamb says, “There are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.” (Not that you shouldn’t self-publish; please do, so we can read your book. But! BUT! Before you do, get that MS polished to perfection by a professional–someone with demonstrated
industry knowledge of storycraft.)

Lamb points out, “Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.” Here are excerpts from her post:

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story.

Readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and
needs. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember the setting, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation.
Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So,
when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need
time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been
skipped. When a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us
straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total
strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care.

Like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking,
it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an awesome book AND movie?
Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention).

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example: Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending
character back story.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained.There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by
Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain
to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are
reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

Hopefully, though, today Kristen Lamb gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings?

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

Can’t get enough Kristen Lamb? (Me neither!) Check this out: Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

 

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8 Steps for a Focused Writing Plan, Fact and Fiction

Let’s say you’ve been ruminating over acreative writing project based on true facts, compiled research, or a memoir.
At first glance, you have a choice of two markets—fiction or non-fiction—but if we delve deeper, we see an emerging trend in publishing of successful combinations of truth mingling with fiction, offering readers information presented in an engaging, emotionally driven story arc. Publishing: it’s kind
of like life, isn’t it?

Author Terri Giuliano Long offers insight about how to make the right choice to execute an effective, focused writing plan. Below are excerpts from her post, 8 Steps for Focusing Stories.

At first skim, this info might look like Writing 101, but there is plenty of (mostly self-published–sorry) material out there lacking focus, a clear theme, direction and a point. I only post what rings true for me–which is to say I too once overlooked the importance of theme–and I’m here now to advocate against it.

1. Decide what form your story will take. This may seem basic, and to some extent it is, but there’s currently a great deal of crossover between fiction and nonfiction. Writers use the same techniques to craft narrative nonfiction as they use when writing fictional stories.

In the past, questions about form often came down to whether the writer preferred or felt more comfortable with expository writing or fiction. It’s no longer necessary to make that distinction. Frank
McCourt’s wonderful memoir Angela’s Ashes, for example, reads like a novel, with carefully rendered scenes, dialogue, description and so forth pulling readers into the moment. This flexibility gives us greater freedom, and also presents a confusing array of options.

2. Consider your purpose. What do you hope to achieve by writing this story? If your goal is to educate readers, you might consider a news or magazine article, in which you state your ideas in a straightforward manner, and then use concrete evidence–facts, examples, expert testimony–to support them. If your goal is to create a work of art or enlighten your audience by inviting them to experience a situation, choose narrative.

You’ve defined your purpose, you know what you hope to accomplish, now –

3. Brainstorm. Although most how-to articles offer specific suggestions –map, create bubbles, free-write –experience tells me that there is no one correct way to brainstorm. For some writers, mapping works, while others, like me, figure out what they want to say only after writing it down. Do whatever you makes you feel comfortable.

Let you imagination run amok. Try to get as much down on paper as possible. Allow yourself to digress. If you’re writing about parent-child relationships and suddenly find yourself writing about
baseball–let yourself go. That may be the perfect lens for your story.

4. Draft and assess. Write a draft of your article, essay or story. Now read what you’ve written. As you read, ask questions. What appeals to you? Why? What stands out? What surprises you? Why? What catches your attention? Where did you spend the most time?

Look for patterns. Which words, descriptions or snatches of dialogue have you repeated? The answers to these questions will tell you what interests you most in the piece.

If you have trouble answering these questions or finding a pattern –

5. Create a rough outline. If you’re like me, you have outlines and lists and details on everything. But, there is a growing and rowdy population pantsing it, writing organically. –RL. That’s
fine, says Ms. Long, but, “lie if you must. Tell yourself this isn’t really an outline.”

Go through, paragraph-by-paragraph or scene-by-scene–chapter-by-chapter, if you’re working on a book –and jot down the main point in each. No need to write in sentences, but each point must be
simple, precise, and clear. When you’re finished, read your descriptions.

After we’ve read and reread a piece, words tend to blur. Ideas that seemed perfectly clear in our head morph into confusing, amorphous blobs. This exercise does two things: first, it breaks the work into component parts. There’s a reason marketers write in bullets–they’re easier to see, read and absorb. It also creates distance. If you don’t have the time to put the work away, let it rest and look at it later, dissecting it puts you in a different frame of mind and enables you to see the piece more objectively.

6. Identify Meaning. A story may have a clear beginning, middle and end, yet lack focus. While the plot moves clearly from A to B to C, the meaning or focus is unclear. This is called an anecdote. Focused stories add up to something; they have a focused meaning, a theme.

We can tell a story in many different ways. Suppose you witness a fire: you can ramble, give a directionless accounting, listing any detail that comes to mind. Or you can focus on a single aspect of
the fire–the courage of the firefighters, for instance, or the way the community rallied around the victims. By shaping a story around one particular focal point, selecting and relating only those details that further the point, you convey meaning.

Consider the example of the parent-child story and the baseball details that emerged in your draft. Maybe to make your point about changing parent-child relationships, you tell a story about
baseball. The plot relates the events of a story; the focus divulges your meaning, also known as “theme.”

7. Select and weed. Now that you’ve identified your focus, reread your draft or list. Which of the details or your list relate directly to your main idea? Which digress? Be precise. Muddy thinking produces muddy writing. Retain only those details that have a strong, concrete connection to your focal point. Cut all loosely connected ideas. I know, you can’t bear to throw your lovely words
away. Don’t. Use them in a different piece.

8. Revise. Be sure each scene–every detail–relates directly to, or in some way clarifies or develops your theme. Emphasize the most important scenes or points – in other words, emphasize those sections that crystallize your meaning. In a story, develop key scenes or important details or
descriptions. In essays, emphasize, or spend the most time developing, key points. Emphasis provides direction, tells the reader when to pay close attention. These signals clarify focus and pull your meaning to the forefront.

What strategies do you use to focus your ideas?

Terri Giuliano Long’s debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, hit the Amazon and Barnes & Noble bestseller liststhis summer. (You can also visit IndieBound and order for pick up or delivery through your local bookstore.) She teaches writing at Boston College and blogs about writing and the writing life here. Connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter @tglong.

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Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

Kristen Lamb just hit me over the head. I’ve been contemplating an issue with my fiction writing lately, namely the balance between “poetic” description (of scenes, characters’ appearance, sex, etc.) and maintaining straight-forward clarity to allow my reader to build her own visual as the story unfolds.

Often I think I’m illuminating my reader, when merely I’ve employed “qualifiers”—See below why qualifying is akin to spoon-feeding the reader.

Sure, we’ve all been transported by lush, decorative (adjective-heavy) explorations of setting and of senses awakened (and wouldn’t we love to leave such a lasting impression on our beloved reader?)

And not so coincidentally, there have been fast-moving stories, tightly wrought and to the point, and when we put the book down, we walked away with a firm idea of character and place, without the author ever having spelled it out. How can we, as fiction writers, achieve balance?

As Lamb points out, “Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable.” Those superfluous words slow the reader down—the adverbs and qualifiers, and nasty instances of showing instead of telling—amount to treating the reader “like a moron,” Lamb says in her post, Deadly Sin #7.

Lamb throws us a bone, bless her; “I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common
problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful.”

Let’s look at highlights from Kristen Lamb’s post:

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. Adverbs are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the
character is angry, frustrated, upset.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene.

Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

What are your thoughts? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts