Posts Tagged writing tips

#AuthorToolbox 04: the art of landscaping in fiction writing

Via: Daily Prompt – Soil

The cold was bitter, different from New England’s. Outside the city the wind spilled across the sweeping, open land dotted with abandoned farm machinery and old houses buckling in on themselves. You wouldn’t think such houses were habitable, but once in a while there would be a tacked-up sheet in the doorway, or plastic nailed over the windows, and the trace of smoke from a chimney.”

~ Brown, Karen. “The Clairvoyants.” Henry Holt and Co., 2017

51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_I finished reading this book over the weekend. And like most well-written (or poorly written, for that matter) novels throughout my reading experience, it left me with a heightened sense of awareness of that “something-something” to consciously add to in my own work. After all, authors learn by reading the works of other authors. I thought, for this month’s blog hop, I would review some of this novel’s more beautifully written passages to summarize how fiction can be enhanced by adding descriptive imageries that are carefully composed and artfully woven to match the subject of the story [I’ll try my best to titillate without giving away any irrevocable spoilers]:

Relevance. Without a doubt, the prose was the strongest suit in The Clairvoyants. Brown approached its various outdoor and indoor sceneries to set the mood for this novel with poetic gusto, addressing both the mental state of the story’s protagonist, Martha, and the themes that adhered to the overall plot, i.e. an observant and slightly self-absorbed young woman with the ability to “see dead people” and a sense of victimhood towards her entire life, who stumbles upon a potential murder mystery when she is abandoned in a new environment. In fact, the landscape mirrors the one prevailing ethos of every character in the novel, who make a motley group of disturbingly selfish individuals, gravitating towards one another in search of companionship one moment and then forsaking each other the next.

Now, beyond my mother’s profile at the wheel of the car, Route 79 wound alongside green swaths of hills still damp from the recent rain. This was an isolated valley with a poor yearly sunlight allotment and haphazard cell phone reception—another version of a sanatorium, a place my mother could tuck me away, the way you pressed a photograph into the back of a drawer—and be free of me. But I might be free of her, too, and I might find someone else to love me.”

Precision. A bit of mastery in the medium of your writing can go a long way – and, of course, shorten the sentences. Words hold connotations that pose parity even among synonyms. Instead of depending on generic nouns and verbs to describe each action, character, object, or surrounding, knowing specific words to allocate to them will not only contribute to their appropriate portrayal but also provide the reader with a richer sensory experience. Obviously, this means having a strong vocabulary is important but does it also mean you need to swallow the dictionary? If you can, kudos to you; otherwise, do a little extra research on each subject matter you introduce in the story, as Brown has in this novel when labeling architectural attributes.

The house stood on a street of similarly grand old places, each shaded by a tree, their roots disrupting the cement sidewalks in front. Mine was a brick Italianate house with a wide cornice and elaborately carved brackets and window caps. The apartment was up a staircase that once might have been glamorous when the house was still a single-family residence. The place had been advertised as a “studio.” I would be living in one room with a twelve-foot ceiling, a decorative fireplace, and an efficiency-sized stove, sink, and refrigerator—so small they seemed like playhouse furnishings.”

Economy. We all know about the taboo on overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are to be preserved for blurbs, and yet, funnily, that is where authors tend to scrimp thanks to a misguided sense of modesty – but that is a topic for another day. Furthering the argument for precision, knowing specific nouns and verbs is particularly useful when editing redundant descriptors that only serve to weaken and obscure the image you are trying to depict.  Consequently, you may also reveal more information about the plot and characters when relinquishing modifiers.

I had thought he wanted me. But when I touched him he took my hands away, like a correcting parent. I was resigned to kissing him, and even that he interrupted with a story about his motorcycle, a Triumph he was eager to ride again in the spring.”

POV. At every turn, it is crucial to ask oneself if the character whose POV is being used to narrate a scene, would actually experience the situation in that manner. For example, cold is a recurring premise in the novel, of which Martha is constantly aware. Other than simply using it to describe the winter that persists throughout the plot or the relationship fostered among the characters (and the wide range of dead people, in retrospect), Brown also associates it with how Martha undergoes the changes in her life or encounters new phenomena, e.g. when she tries martini for the first time.

I admitted I’d never had one, and she insisted I sample hers. She held her glass toward me by its stem, and I took a cautious sip. I said it was like drinking partially melted snow, and she laughed and poured me one, too.”

Pace. While the vivid narration is what I enjoyed most about the novel, the accompanied tangential style also led to its biggest holdback. I could fully understand why, given that the novel was written in first-person and people tend to digress when relating their experiences, Martha would oscillate between her past and present, actions and expositions. In fact, it even added to the mystery. But at one point, this became monotonous when the tempo should have picked up. The mystery began to chase its own tail and Martha’s continued attention to the mundane details of her surrounding seemed unnatural, relatability yielding before consistency, such as while escaping the scene of a supposed murder.

We drove through farmland spread for miles in either direction. Del fiddled with the radio, her hand shaking, and found a station playing Dixieland jazz, and we passed through a landscape distorted by the windshield ice—the wide open space, the few remaining outbuildings of an old farm, their gray, splintery wood darkened by the sleet, jutting like carcasses. “There are bones of families out there,” I said. Spread under layers of soil, compacted in their separateness. The Dixieland band played its tinny hopefulness. We drove this way for a long time until we could see nothing of the land we passed through save an occasional kitchen light in a house set off the road. Then we reached an intersection, a small town, like Milton, with a gas station and a diner, and Del pulled into the diner’s parking lot. After David Pinney died we’d gone on, pretending he hadn’t. I could say we were murderers now. This didn’t happen to other people twice.”

To wit, this novel made me sit up and take notes. My own stories tend to consist more of dialogues and actions than discussions on the setting but I could certainly appreciate the patience with which Brown weighed in the haunting atmosphere in her narrative. It reminded me of something I learned a few months back while attending an online course on writing fiction. There was a lot of emphasis on note taking and journal keeping throughout the syllabus. Until I took the course, I always wondered how writers sit in public places such as cafes and parks while composing tales without becoming distracted by their environments. Turns out they don’t become distracted at all because they are too busy recounting what they witness on their pages and screens.

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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WRITING CHRONICLE #24: the happily ever after

Via: Daily Prompt – Quill & Caper

 

There is a growing trend of romance novels with alternative endings to HEA (Happily Ever After). There’s HFN (Happy For Now) and also conclusions that are not so happy at all – like hero/heroine/both die(s). This post is not about them. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to romance novel endings. I’m perfectly fine putting my romantic MCs through the mills during the conflict phase, but the resolution must be that they live and enjoy a full life together. Anything less than that is an overpromise – nay, a prank on the unwitting reader.

 

Which brings me to my next point. For centuries, happily ever after has received a bad rep (among non-romance-readers, at least) and to no fault of its own. I don’t understand why people feel that romance novels set “unreasonable expectations”; if anything, I believe they set a standard we should all aspire to. Why should a person settle for anything less than happiness in love? What else would be the point? And for those people who think “happily ever after” is equivalent to a permanent cheering charm, let me assure you, it’s not. It means that our couple now knows that to stay together they will have to work at it and face the ups-and-downs of relationship; but long as they are teamed up, they will remain content and it will be okay. In fact, that the couple goes through so many obstacles during the novel to reach that place where they decide they were meant to be together is a testament to their commitment. So happily ever after really just translates to

“Committed ever after. Happily.”

Having said that, for a romance author, attaining closure is not that easy. I mean, as a reader, you must’ve realized how each time you reach the end of a good book you feel that sense of bereavement when finally putting the book down, right? Well, you have spent only a handful of hours getting to know those characters; imagine what the author must’ve felt closing the book on those wonderful characters after giving birth to them and then nurturing them for months, maybe years. So a romance author (or any kind, for that matter) needs all the help he/she can get to give their writing that flourish.

So what does a good romance ending make?  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #23: prologues, anyone?

Via: Daily Prompt – Passenger & Sail

Image: Wikimedia, CC0

Prologues. Some authors swear by them; some readers roll their eyes at them and skip ahead. Me? I believe that, like most literary devices, prologues have their time and place, i.e. some stories need them while other stories are better off without them. If used with moderation-but-pizzazz, The Prologue is a vehicle that may really put your story into gear and make the reader buckle in. However, writers without a firm handle on the steering wheel may drive their story to an early death [especially when querying], so beware.

Ok, enough with the vehicular metaphors. Here are two lists of when and how prologues may work – or not:

Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #22: ATTN Authors

Via: Daily Prompts – Wheel

submission

I actually don’t have any pompous writing tips or savories for this week. Rather, I have been contemplating a conundrum regarding genres and I’m just going to throw it out there to see if any of you fellow novelists will pick it up and get it rolling:

How important are trending subgenres in selecting the premise for the stories you write?

Allow me to explain a bit more on why this question has been niggling me. I have noticed more and more publishers these days send out CTA for romance novel submissions in very specific subgenres such as:

“Big high concept contemporary romance”

“Sexy alpha-alien science fiction romance”

“HEA or HFN erotic romances without major focus on character development, extreme conflict or drawn-out plots”

Not to sound like a genre snob or anything but I don’t actually know what the first submission call is asking for, haven’t ever read anything from the second one, and regarding the third, well, really? But whatever these subgenres are, they seem to be selling like hotcakes. Somewhere along the lines of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, my commune with the genre of romance picked up a crossed connection.

Of course, because I write romances, I searched out CTAs for romance novel submissions but I get the feeling that authors from other genres must face similar dilemmas: to succumb to the trend or write what holds meaning for me as a storyteller?

Any advice, authors?

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#AuthorToolbox 03: head-hopping and migraines

 

In my twentieth installation of WRITING CHRONICLES, I went into great details about the various types of narrators and POVs that may be used in storytelling. A perusal will tell you that jumping POVs in the middle of scenes is one of my pet peeves. Of course, a scene may be told from the perspective of different characters but there are proper etiquettes to these things. When you are having a conversation with someone, how much would you enjoy being interrupted by the other person while talking? Or worse, if a third party straggler just decided to insert themselves into your discussion midway? The narrator and the reader develop a bond over the course of a story that requires similar decorum. Each character must wait their turn to have their say.  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #20: Of narrators and POVs

Via: Daily Prompt – Imaginary

hands-woman-apple-desk

I thought I would go back to the basics this week with a brief on the various types of narrators and POVs fiction writers employ. I have gotten my reading mojo back thanks to The Ex-Wife’s Survival Guide by Debby Holt (you can read my review here) and have been indulging heavily in my TBRs since. Needless to say, I have written very little in the meantime but it’s okay for once since I just published a book, yay. But the point is, I was reading a novel over the weekend and it made me reflect on how even established and traditionally-published authors sometimes get their POVs all mixed up. I pondered maybe it’s because once we become “mainstream”, we stop revising the guidebooks on creative writing, maybe we become complacent.

For me, keeping my POV on the straight and narrow is fundamental. Your story is the product of your imagination but that does not mean it does not deserve your full attention in selecting the right devices and techniques to make the storytelling impactful. And jumping POV-to-POV, and selecting different narrative styles in one book is a rookie mistake that should have been corrected during the editing process. So I hit the academic texts and Googled and brushed up on the subject because part of choosing the right narrative style and POV for your story is knowing all the options out there. I thought I’d share my notes with fellow writers here just in case there were others also needing to pace themselves.

Narrator – According to my ‘A’ Level textbook Literature, Criticism, and Style by Steven Croft and Helen Cross (Oxford), the narrative is “a piece of writing that tells a story”. So by means, the narrator is the person, animal, or object that is telling the story. This storyteller is inserted into the text most often as an imaginary entity separate from the author whether or not he/she is a character living within the story. In essence, it is the voice that describes what is happening.

Point of View (POV) – The POV is the perspective from which the narrator tells the story. Whether the narration is conducted from a singular POV or multiple, I have always felt that the POV breaks down and identifies the various components of the storyteller’s voice, i.e. the personality, style, tone of the narrator. It demonstrates to us the level of involvement with which the narrator relates the tale, how far into the story the narrator is willing to insert themselves.

While the narration and the POV are closely related and often overlap, the distinction is that the former is the device with which the plot is moved forward, the characters are revealed, the setting is built, etc., while the latter allows the reader to experience the story from the angle(s) that makes these various illustrated components relevant and relatable.

The most common forms of narrators are the first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. However, academicians have further broken down the types of narrators to include the [detached] observer or third person objective, commentator, and unreliable narrator. The following is a description of each of these major types of narrators with an example of popular works where they were successfully employed:  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #19: nitty-gritty to watch out for when publishing

When writing fiction with the intention of reaping glory or sale, it is very important not to become overly simplistic about one’s passion for the act of writing. So you have a great story to tell, so it’s all you can think about, so the high will not be tamped until you have flushed the words onto some surface for later reading. But if you want others to feel even nearly as passionately about your work as you do, it is important to keep your eye on some of these following rules:

  1. Write a story that your audience wants to read not just the one you want to tell. A little compromise can take you a long way. You have built up your writing voice by reading up on a particular genre and know what you enjoy. Well, since the books you are reading sell, there are others with similar needs as yours. Invest in a little research to see what this audience is actually looking for when they pick up the same books as you do instead of relying on guesswork, imagining that your customers are just more of you. Hard data is a trouble worth the results they will get you.
  2. Be honest about what you are writing. I know, it seems to contradict the previous rule, because if you are writing to market to an audience, then how are you also writing the truth? Simple, if you don’t believe in it, don’t dish it. Writing exists on a truth-enhancement continuum. Find your place on this spectrum and go with it. One way to do this is by drafting your ideas, outlines, cluster passages/chapters before going into the research part. You have gotten the passionate bits recorded so now you may calm down and employ some cool calculation. Remember, if fiction writing was not a professional career, it wouldn’t have a whole gamut of systematic rules to getting published.
  3. Hit the nail with a strong opening. When readers are shopping for new books, whether at a brick-and-mortar or at a dot-com, a lot of them will flip the first few pages to see if they can connect with the content. This means they will go through the first chapter, poem, or what have you. Most online book retails also provide a “Look Inside” or similar preview tools to entice shoppers. Your opening scene can be a powerful marketing tool and you should make the most of it. I posted a blog on creating great First Impressions previously that you may wish to check out 🙂
  4. Add viable conflict. Interestingly, this is a point that requires mentioning because a lot of novel (as in, new) writers forget while in the throes of writing that even though the conflict must tempt the readers to turn pages, it must also match your character and plot personality. It’s all good when James Bond is flying through Bangkok in an airborne tuk-tuk but will this the way the good reverend would travel to deliver his Sunday sermons?
  5. Length does matter so it’s best not to prolong the conflict unnecessarily. Despite the fact that I hate when a good book comes to an end, I can appreciate that all good things must be enjoyed in moderation. Adding conflict after conflict, dishy scenes after dishy scenes might be enjoyable to you but will probably diminish the value of your book. When outlining your story, make sure you always keep the scenes and chapters you add remain true to why you are telling that particular story. Nip anything irrelevant when you edit. This is especially true with today’s readers who have endless TBRs to get to.
  6. Don’t info dump on your readers. Again, just because you put in all that effort into your research, doesn’t mean you keep looking for ways to pass on all that you learned while writing. The entire chronicles of Queen Mary’s rivalry with Queen Elizabeth I is probably irrelevant in a historical romance novel about a lowly girl marrying a duke just because the setting is 16th century England.
  7. Finally, write a good blurb. No one knows the story better than you – yet, most authors have a difficult time arranging a summary that emotively allures readers to their novels while not giving away the end. Authors, by nature, tend to bounce back and forth between a state of self-importance and diffidence. Even before reading the first chapter, your audience will judge you by the synopsis on the back of your book jacket. It doesn’t matter how epic your story is, before the word-of-mouth goes viral, you will have to rely on those first few readers. And unless you are able to convince them with a blaring announcement selling them why your story is worth spending a day of their life on, your book will probably languish on their shelves for eternity. When writing the blurb, put yourself in a book reviewer’s shoes and make sure you remember to add that very valuable conflict that makes the story important. It took me only about a hundred try to get my blurb for Bad Daughter to satisfy me, and let me tell you, it looks a lot different from the original blurb I had posted on Amazon. It currently reads like this:

BAD DAUGHTERWhat would you do if you were taught that the price of safety is silence?
At the age of six years, Obaira Osman was sexually abused by her uncle, the memory of which she manages to keep buried for a decade. At sixteen, she is a dedicated daughter, loving sister, and an ideal student. When she wins a national essay writing competition and finds herself wooed by the most handsome and intelligent boy in school, life seems like it couldn’t get any better – even if cultural constraints demand she keeps her love affair a secret. However, after a planned rendezvous, which should have been a simple rite of passage, goes awry, Obaira’s memory of a terrifying past comes crashing around her and she realizes she has been far from being the perfect daughter. Her response is to shackle herself to the rules and regulations of her home environment in order to reclaim the safety she once knew to be true.

What if you one day realized that the cost of silence is freedom?
Over the next two decades, she finds herself atoning for the burden of shame that is her legacy. She attempts to earn back her parents’ faith even while trying to find peace by lending a voice to women who have been crushed by similar forms of abuse – much to her conservative parents’ chagrin. But she is kinder to the women she helps than to herself, as she remains unwilling to accept a second chance when fate takes her across the world to the doorstep of the man who just may be the one to emancipate her tortured soul.

I’m sure there are about a thousand other rules to keep on the lookout when writing fictions to sell, but these seem to be some common mistakes authors make. I know, I am guilty of at least half of them 😐

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#AuthorToolboxBlogHop 02: First Impressions

Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.

Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.

Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?

Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter:  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLE #17: Nine Ways to Punish Your Protagonist

Via: Daily Prompt – Exposed

 

640px-TheKnightAtTheCrossroads

Image: Wikimedia

My life is perfect. Said no one ever. If they did, they’re lying. Human beings aren’t happy until they are bogged down by burdens and bellyaching about it something awful. Be it loud as a hungry cat or as passive-aggressive as my mother. [Hey! I love my mother but she gives me plenty of reasons to complain.]

See? We are never entirely happy and without troubles and flaws. This includes a writer with all expenses covered and the only task to accomplish is finish composing novels to publish and sell. So if the author’s life isn’t perfect, and the readers’ lives aren’t perfect, why should the hero and heroine have it easy?

No one wants to read about people who have it made. Stories are driven by characters and their challenges. Having too much sympathy for your heroes and heroines is equivalent to tying the proverbial noose around the shelf life of your book. You were too kind to your protagonist while writing? Well, get ready to have your readers write off your protagonist.

The solution? Make it hurt and make it count. In other words, make your characters believable and garner enough sympathy – even for that evil douchebag – to make them memorable. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find causes for their miseries – after all, we humans manage to complain about even the best of gift horses.

Easiest is making life difficult for the protagonist. Heroes and heroines tend to hold very deep-seated values, even the anti-heroes/heroines. Ego and integrity raise the stakes for them. Here are some great ways to drive that stake deep enough to leave your character with a gaping wound (by the way, gender-neutral usage of the terminology ‘hero’ henceforth):  Read the rest of this entry »

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WRITING CHRONICLES #16: Finding Focus

Via: Daily Prompt – Root & Blanket

I have decided that procrastination might be the primary vice of my writing career. I used to think I was too preoccupied with my corporate responsibilities but. now that I have switched to writing full-time, I realize the problem is that I can find ways to become preoccupied with just about anything. The burning question is how can a person who loves writing as much as I do be so out of sorts with the writing itself.

Well, I know how. Fear is at the root of my problem. I keep stalling because becoming a novelist is something I always wanted to excel in. Even with my multiple fallback plans, I have stored all my eggs in this basket. Honestly? I don’t want to have to resort to those fallback plans. The pressure is real. Hence, even though I can, in theory, believe in my writing capabilities, living by that faith is a whole other ballgame. Even when what I write seems to satisfy me, I keep wondering what if it’s not good enough.

Resulting in all the bottlenecking of my creative endeavors.

There are some ground rules I try to follow to jar me out of my whack. Mostly, it is to keep me from lulling myself into the fear sinkhole. They work too. Often enough to share the list of precautions with my fellow writers:

Read the rest of this entry »

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