Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Two Cents on Writing Short Stories

Posted: June 18, 2015 by writingsprint in My two cents, Writing
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writing

Recently a good friend of mine wrote his first short story. He came away exhausted by the process and frustrated by some of the thoughtful, though still negative, feedback he received. I gave him a pep talk on just how hard writing a short story is. He appreciated it, so I thought I’d share.

Dude, make no mistake, writing a short story is HARD. Lately I’ve looked at them like sonnets. They have a rhythm to them, and a structure. Yes, anyone can make their own and do it any way they want, but if you take the lazy perspective and say “just write it” — as most people who don’t write will say — it will kick you in the ass.

The trick to writing a short story is to come up with a single problem that could be resolved in the space of a day. Or a weekend, tops, and only if you gloss over the events of the weekend. I know we’ve read longer short stories, but I think the good ones move fast. It’s easier to imagine big, complicated problems that spiral out of control. Fiction is NOT reality. In a short story, things tie together. You want to do this as much as possible to keep your story focused.

A simple short story looks like this:

  • Meet the main character and what they want
  • What they want has a catch — do they really want it?
  • Put the outcome in jeopardy
  • Force the main character to choose: take what they want and pay the price, let it go, or invent another option
  • Wrap up

My favorite short story that I’ve done is Slave Soldier — several of these take place over one or two mini-scenes:

Scene 1: Cartog meets Lord Sestra, who can take away his slave collar
Scene 2: Lord Sestra turns Cartog’s squad into psychos
Scene 3: Cartog realizes his commanding officer won’t help him
Scene 4: Lord Sestra tells Cartog that he and his squad will serve him or else
Scene 5: During their next mission, Cartog arranges for a friendly fire accident to kill Lord Sestra
Epilogue: Cartog meets Darth Jadus. This scene really wasn’t even necessary, though it puts a good bow on the story, especially for SWTOR players.

Start, finish; beginning, middle, end; boom, boom, boom. Small focus is TOUGH. One of these days I plan to write a short story about someone who wants a glass of water, for the exercise. He wants a glass of water… but a little boy wants water too… the plumbing is broken… and THEN WHAT?

For your first short story, you did a bang-up job. Congrats, man!

Image credit: “diary writing” by Fredrik Rubensson at Flickr
Shared under Creative Commons license

MJ Bush collected 99 great little pieces of advice on strong characters — including a PDF download of all of them! Some of my favorites:

“Let’s face it, characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for, or wish bad things on.” Icy Sedgwick

For someone as focused on action and plot as I am, I need to be reminded of this.

“Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness.” Kristen Lamb

Augh! Bad decisions and weakness. I write characters who are generally strong and get thrown into situations that even they can’t handle.

Oh, who am I kidding. I have trouble writing bad decisions and weakness in characters because I have a hard time tolerating them in life, period. I’m used to looking at them as things to be fought through and overcome. I need to let being “only human” into my writing.

For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually. Often a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.” CS Larkin

Good point! We react with our gut first, even if we don’t realize it.

“A character is what he does, yes — but even more, a character is what he means to do.” Orson Scott Card

And the drama of the story is dealing with what happens when he or she doesn’t get their way.

“The thing I do at the beginning is a “voice journal,” a free form doc that is the character speaking to me. I just work on it until I start to hear different from my own, or the other characters.” James Scott Bell

Ooh! I need to do this for Risha, king Ro, and some other characters.

Taking It to the Next Level

Posted: May 31, 2014 by writingsprint in Essay, My two cents
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write everything

We have a saying at my job: “What got us here, won’t get us there.” The idea is that we’re good at what we do now, but hard work will only get you so far. Eventually, you need to change the way you work in order to get better. To use a football analogy, what takes you down the field won’t work to punch the ball in from the five yard line.

Yesterday I was doing my morning yoga, and I got to a point where I was moving from half moon – a pose where you form a “T” with your body and stand on one leg facing sideways – to a standing split. It’s one thing to put your hands on the ground and lift up your back leg as far as you can. I was doing that in my first month of yoga. But what does it take to do the perfect standing split?

I thought about every aspect of the pose that I could imagine. If there was any tension, anywhere in my body, even between my eyes, I tried to relax it. I breathed, of course (you’re always focused on breathing in yoga). I straightened my leg, and realized out that I needed more strength in my upper quads. I wiggled my toes for a second, because why not, and realized that my foot had felt like dead weight before, and maybe it helped. I aligned my hips, and realized that I needed far more flexibility there, not just in my legs. I flattened my back, and realized that a flexible back would lead to more flexible glutes which would help my hips which would help me to lift my leg. I wondered, just wondered, if changes in my diet would help with my flexibility or muscle too, too. Finally, what about meditation? Would a clearer mind help me pick up the micro-adjustments I need to make?

That got me thinking, what can people do that take their writing to the next level?

Work hard. We all know this one. Start writing, and reading. Write the best that you can. Write the worst that you can. Write regularly, and at odd times, too. Finish your stories, then edit them to make them better. Read the things that got you interested in writing, so that you can learn from them. You’ll absorb it into your skin and it’ll color how you write.

Work smart. Writing’s about all of you, not just your passion or your inspiration. Use your head, too. Plan things out. Do research. Work on the elements, like character, plot, setting, tension, voice, motivation, and so on. A good craftsman knows how to use all his tools.

Get feedback. Use meetup.com to find a local writers group. Your library may have a club. This is great for three reasons. Your fellow writers will give you great ideas and inspiration that you never would have imagined. It feels good knowing that you’re not the only one out there who has this strange, wonderful love affair with words. And it turns writing from a lonely pursuit to a social pursuit. I can tell you that the connections I’ve made from writing have been my favorite part about it.

Play. One of the best ways to overcome writers’ block is with play. Write 100-word shorts. Write haiku. Take a scene and turn your good guy into the bad guy and vice versa. Write scenes that will never see the light of day. Turn your own personal negative into a positive.

Let it cook. Sometimes you’re working too hard on something. Let go of it and do something else, especially exercise. Sleeping on it works pretty well for me, too. Your subconscious is still working on it. The idea you’re looking for may well pop into your head once you get out of your own way.

Broaden your creativity. Olympic athletes cross-train to fill in gaps left by specialized training. Writing is a creative pursuit, and there are all kinds of creativity. Learn a musical instrument. Take an acting class. Join your church choir. Sketch. Learn calligraphy. Sculpt. This is the insight that I picked up when I was trying to do standing split in yoga. Anything you do that makes you feel more alive will help your writing. Did I mention that I’ve started creating iTunes playlists for my characters, to get farther inside their heads?

Share your knowledge. You haven’t truly mastered something until you can teach it to someone else. Helping other people improve their writing builds good karma, and it’ll give you perspectives on your own writing that you never had before. Comment on other people’s blogs and share helpful thoughts with them, as well as contributing in your writers group.

These have helped me make breakthroughs in writing, and this is just what I’ve learned so far. Give them a try and let me know how they work for you.

What have you done to take your writing — or anything — to the next level?

Photo credit: “to write love on her arms” by ashley rose at Flickr
Photo is unmodified
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20 Pieces Of Advice For Female Artists From Female Artists
Pearls of wisdom straight from flawless ladies of NYCC’s Artist’s Alley
By Krutika Mallikarjuna at Buzzfeed.com

This is a great series of photos with advice from comic book artists. It’s by women, for women, but there’s good advice in there for all creative types.

Writing Fear

Posted: September 17, 2013 by writingsprint in Essay, Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

fearA long time ago, I was having a hard time coming up with an ending to a story I was writing about a dragon. I got so fed up that I said to myself, “All right. Give me three endings, now.” I wrote the Top Gun ending, the Stephen King ending, and the comedy ending. After I wrote the Stephen King ending, my writers’ block broke and I came up with the ending I eventually used.

Fear is probably one of the hardest emotions to write. It’s not something we want to experience. Fear tells us to run away, to save ourselves, to GET OUT of the situation that’s threatening us. When you think about it, fear is probably one of the first emotions that primitive humans ever felt. When the fire was getting lower and they settled down to sleep, what strange things did they imagine crept towards them in the darkness? You can bet they weren’t cute and cuddly.

People feel fear when they see danger coming and there’s nothing they can do about it. You have a threat, and you have to have helplessness. Bees aren’t scary if you can keep your distance (low threat) and you’re armed with a fly swatter (not helpless). It’s pretty scary if you see the bee landing on your best friend’s shoulder (some threat) and they’re not aware (helpless). It’s really scary if you’re tied to a chair (helpless), smeared with jelly (really helpless) and you’re allergic to bee stings (super in danger).

To set up a scary scene, admit that sometimes bad things just happen to good people. If you’re like me, you see all the angles in your plot as you write it, and you try to skate your characters through them. To write a scary scene, you set the angles up to create the literary equivalent of a car accident. It’s not a natural act, but you can do it if you set your mind to it.

That’s how you incorporate fear into your plot. I’ve found three basic elements to incorporating it into characters: be a little mean; physical description; a little gore is good.

Writers like their characters, even the villains. It’s hard to be mean to them. To write fear you have to take the gloves off. Imagine what it’s like for a parent to stand back and let their child ride a bike down the street without training wheels. Now imagine that the child is riding on a tightrope over a canyon. That’s writing fear.

This is where the drawn knife and the blood stain on the kitchen floor come in. A little gore is good, but use it with an eyedropper, as a hint for something far, far worse. The scene stops being scary when the knife gets used or we see a pile of guts. Then it’s just excruciating. In my dragon story, one of the characters barely escaped getting eaten by the dragon. Instead of getting bitten in half, he lost his foot. Through the haze of shock, he saw his shoe go inside the creature’s mouth. I let him get halfway inside a building that would have protected him… if only he’d made it all the way inside.

Vivid physical details will bring your scene to life. When you’re scared, your adrenaline’s pumping, and you’re more aware of everything in your environment. You aren’t thinking deep, thoughtful thoughts. You tend to obsess, focusing on the scary tree outside your window or the funny-shaped cane that you’re sure just moved by itself. Keep it tactile; people are afraid of being injured. Keep it visual; people are using their eyes. Keep the sounds quiet, stretching the character’s senses to their limit. Smell is better for setting up the situation, and taste tends to go dead with dry-mouthed terror.

Fear is fundamental. Write it into your stories, and you’ll have readers who can’t look away, even if they wanted to. Muhuhahahaha…

Thought for the Day

Posted: September 14, 2013 by writingsprint in Uncategorized
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Creativity is like growing things: you can’t force a plant to grow faster. You have to take care of it, feed it, and put it in surroundings and conditions that will help it to grow.