Writing Advice: Story Openings

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Obviously, the opening of your story is important. Other than the back cover synopsis, this is the first experience readers are having with your story. This is where you introduce them to your world, to your characters, and to the story that they’re going to be reading (or not). Many readers take a peek at the first page of a book before deciding whether or not to buy it. I don’t necessarily support the pressure that’s always put on the first line of a story, but I do think the opening, as a whole, is important to consider.

Common wisdom says that you should include some type of “hook” in the beginning of your story. Often, this means something super exciting or super confusing. If it’s something exciting, that will spur readers on to continue reading because they’re caught up in the action. If it’s something confusing, that will cause readers to continue because they want to figure out what’s going on. However, beware of making your beginning too confusing. If you’re really throwing your readers in the deep end, give them some type of life raft to hang onto — make a connection with a character (perhaps one who is as new to the story as you are) or describe a really lovely and intriguing setting. Anything you can do to offset the confusion is helpful.

Personally, the opening needs to work for me just as much as it works for readers. I don’t sit down to write until I have some type of opening in my head. I’ll often come up with a line of dialogue, some exposition, or a scene I want to describe and then go from there. Once I’ve formulated that, I can move forward pretty easily. So think about what you like to write and also what you like to read. Do you enjoy when books jump right in and start their story in the middle of the action? Do you prefer a slowed-down description of a character or a setting? If you’re feeling stumped on how to start your own story, go back to stories that you really loved and examine how they begin.

In a recent article on Writer Unboxed, author Donald Maass discussed openings and what type of tone you should try to achieve. At the end of his article, Donald boiled it down to two very simple guidelines — “find something warm and human that your main character cares about” and include “something different, odd, curious, puzzling, weird, contradictory or hard to explain.” It’s important to make a human connection with your readers by describing the humanity of your main character. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s good to have something weird or confusing that makes readers want to keep reading to figure out. Just make sure that you explain it eventually!

Openings can be difficult to crack, and you might even want to postpone working on it until you know your story really well. There’s no shame in getting to the action and then returning to formulate your beginning later on. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Multitasking

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Writing while you have a day job can be difficult, especially when you read about other writers’ routines and realize that you’re definitely not a “wake up at 4 in the morning to write” kind of person. There are only so many hours in the day, and it can be hard to devote even a fraction of those hours to writing. When you’re at work, you have to work. When you get home, you might just want to collapse on the couch with Netflix. Sometimes, the only way to get some writing done, is to employ the technique you either love or love to hate: multitasking.

I’ve read the articles and I’m sure you have, too. Multitasking has been denounced in recent years because it divides your focus and means you don’t do as well on the tasks you’re juggling. While this might be true, I think you can still use multitasking to your advantage in certain situations. Here are some times when you might consider multitasking to write.

During TV Time: As long as you aren’t watching Netflix, you’re going to have to sit through commercial breaks. As soon as that first break starts, open up your document and write as much as you can before the show returns. Then repeat that process every time the show cuts to an advertisement. Before your show begins, take some time to orient yourself in your writing project so that you’re ready to go when those commercials start up.

During Break Time: At work, you might only have fifteen minutes of break time every day. Though it might not seem like much, you can get some writing done in that short window of time if you really try. If you’re willing, you can even sacrifice some of your lunchtime to write as well. Just make sure your writing doesn’t cut into actual work time!

While Cooking: Sure, there are some things that need to be monitored as they cook. But sometimes you stick something in the oven or just let it simmer on the stove for a while. Use that time to get some writing done! You’re just sitting around anyway, so why not get some words down while you can?

On Your Commute: This one is only for you train commuters, unfortunately (unless you have a self-driving car, in which case, please lend me your self-driving car). If you have a commute during which you don’t have to watch the road yourself, make use of that time! Charge your laptop or phone and then use it to get some writing done on your way to work or on your way home.

I hope these tips help you squeeze some writing time into your busy days. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: When You’re Stuck

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

I think we’ve all been there — that moment when you don’t know what to write next. You have the general outline of your story and you may even know what the next scene is, but you’re not sure what comes right now. Being “stuck” and experiencing writer’s block can be the absolute worst. Sometimes the best thing is to walk away from your writing project and think about it for a while. But if you don’t have time for that, or if you’d rather keep pushing forward, there are some basic questions you can ask yourself to get the writing gears moving again.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, author Cathy Yardley wrote about these specific questions. In her opinion, there are four questions that can “identify where [writers are] getting tripped up, and often how to fix it.” I always find posts like this to be helpful. Having a list to work off of can help you know where to start fixing the problem, especially if you’re feeling stuck. The great thing about Cathy’s central questions is that they all focus on character. I’ve written here before about how important characters are to a story. So I like the fact that getting un-stuck, in Cathy’s opinion, begins there.

Here are the four questions that Cathy offers in her post:

  1. What does your character want?
  2. What is the consequence if the character doesn’t achieve what he wants?
  3. What’s the worst thing that can happen to the character, in terms of the story goal?
  4. How is the character different at the end of the book, as a result of the struggles he’s been through, as opposed to the beginning of the book?

That first question is the most basic thing you can ask of any story — what is it that your character wants? What is his or her motivation? Reminding yourself of that can get you back on the right track. Once you figure that out, ask yourself question two. Knowing what will happen if your character fails to get what he or she wants can help you develop conflicts in your story. Who can stop your character from achieving desires? What situations might throw monkey wrenches into your character’s plans?

The last two questions deal with more long-term, big picture kinds of information. First, if you know your story goal, think about what the worst case scenario is for your character. Maybe you want to write that worst case scenario, and maybe you want to completely avoid it. Either way, you have a starting point for writing. Second, how do you want your character to ultimately end up? Envisioning that final endpoint can help you understand what you have to do next to get there.

I hope that these four questions are helpful to you, especially if you’re feeling stuck. But even if you aren’t give these a try and see if they help you better understand your story and where it’s headed next. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: The Synopsis

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

It happens to all of us. You’re having lunch with colleagues, or having dinner with family, and they ask you what you’re writing about. Even though you know that this question is bound to come up, because you’ve made yourself known as a writer, you still stumble through your answer. You’re not sure which details of your story you should include and which you should leave out. You’re not sure exactly how to explain what you spend so much of your time working on. Your family and friends will likely understand your flustered response, but wouldn’t you like to give a well-condensed, well-formed description of your latest writing project? That’s where the synopsis comes in.

A synopsis is a brief summary or outline of a book or short story. When you pick up a book at the bookstore, you will generally see a synopsis printed on the back cover. Synopses can also be used in sales pitches and book catalogs. You, personally, can use a synopsis to convey to someone else the essence of the story that you’re working on right now. You may have to eventually explain your story to someone like an editor or literary agent. That’s when the ability to create a synopsis will really pay off. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a synopsis in those friends-and-family situations either.

So how do you go about constructing a good synopsis? Recently, author Jael McHenry wrote a post about synopsis-writing tips over at Writer Unboxed. I would recommend reading the entire post, but I want to focus on two steps that she recommends. Firstly, Jael says not to limit yourself when writing your synopsis. Just sit down at your keyboard or with a notepad and write down everything you think she be included to encapsulate your story. This may turn out to be 10 pages, or it may be just half a page. You can boil it down or expand it later on. Either way, just keep writing until you think you have a synopsis that you like.

Another one of Jael’s recommendations is to write the synopsis before you write your story. Even if you aren’t doing an outline or any other kind of plotting beforehand, write out your synopsis before you get started. Aside from giving you a synopsis, this might help to streamline your focus as you begin the full story. You might even discover something you hadn’t otherwise been thinking about. Putting the story into the format of a synopsis might unlock a new key to the plot, or a new character you can include.

Synopses are, of course, most important when you’re pitching a story to someone who could potentially publish it. But if you’re not at that point in your writing career, you can use this advice to construct a synopsis that explains to your family and friends what you’re working on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Make the Time

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Hello, blog readers, and welcome back! I hope you all had a lovely holiday season. Now the new year has begun and I have no doubt that many of you have come up with writing-related resolutions for 2015. Personally, I have a new year’s resolution to write or edit something every day in 2015. Everyone who creates a writing-related resolution has good intentions of completing a project or of simply maintaining a writing routine. But keeping the resolution is where the trouble arises.

It’s likely that I have written about this before on the blog, but it’s an important principle to keep in mind as the new year begins and you set your writing goals. Writing requires time. Each day has only 24 hours. Some of those hours are spent sleeping, and some of them are likely spent at work and/or school. The leftover hours are what you have to work with. When you get home in the evening or wake up in the morning, you probably have something that you like to do. Maybe you read the news on your phone, scroll through your Twitter feed, and eat breakfast in the morning. In the evening, you might plop down on the sofa and watch a few hours of Netflix.

I hate to break it to you, but something in there has to go. If you want to work on your writing this year, you have to sacrifice something else from your schedule.

In a recent article on Writer Unboxed, Lisa Cron conveys this very sentiment. She says, “That’s why you have to be bold. You have to take a good hard look at your life and see what can go, even though it hurts. And maybe, just maybe, the unease we feel letting something go is a good thing. Maybe the lingering fear that we’ve made a mistake isn’t regret. Maybe it’s the point. Maybe it’s saying: You’ve given me up in order to get something done, so you damn well better give it your all. At the end of the day, isn’t that what having skin in the game is all about?”

I love this quote. “Having skin in the game” is a really good way of describing the investment that writing requires. And if you long for and pine for your old Netflix-watching days, then I guess you’ll understand what it’s like to suffer for your art. You have to be in it to win it. You have to want to write to get the writing done. If something else in your schedule trumps writing, then just don’t worry about it. People have plenty of other hobbies and plenty of other things that fill up their schedules, and that’s completely fine.

But if you really want this, you’re going to have to give something up and it’s going to take some work. To stick to those lofty resolutions that you created on January 1st, you’re going to have to stop watching Netflix so much and maybe put off seeing your friends a few nights a week. You’re going to have plant yourself in front of your computer, or on the couch, or at your desk, and get the actual words down on paper or into the word processing software. Just put one word after another and before you know it, it’ll be March and you’ll have been keeping your new year’s resolution for much longer than those folks who said they wanted to get to the gym.

Happy writing in 2015!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Pre-Writing

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Writing is a process, and one of the important steps that should be included in that process is pre-writing. It may sound strange that you would write before writing, but pre-writing can help you figure out a lot of important elements of your story. When you’re gearing up to work on a long-form project, like a novel, you will want to have as much information about your characters as possible. Pre-writing is what helps you unlock that information, which you can use to furnish your story with rich and realistic details.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, Young Adult author Robin LaFevers talked all about the subject of pre-writing. In the post, Robin writes about the importance of backstory. Robin says, “The backstory is what clues the reader in to why THIS event is so cataclysmic for THIS character. Why this hurdle has the potential to flatten her. Why this relationship is so critical to her well being. Why this situation she finds herself in will force her to grow or change in terrifying new ways.”

In order to include that rich backstory and make your readers understand why certain events matter to your characters, you need to know that backstory ahead of time. By pre-writing through the character’s point of view, or by simply writing a stream of consciousness piece about the character’s personality and past, you will discover that backstory. You can create a repository of information that can be referenced when you begin your actual writing.

You might be thinking that you could discover this backstory during your first draft, which tends to be discovery writing anyway. On this topic, Robin says, “I get that some people do this in early drafts, and I used to be one of them, but more and more I have begun to take the time to learn this [information] in pre-writing and thus save myself a number of unfruitful drafts.” I find this to be a really important point. Discovery writing does happen in first drafts, but it’s often the material that you throw out when constructing your final draft. You’ll be saving yourself time and editing energy if you don’t have to include that unnecessary information in your actual draft.

I hope this information helped you and gave you some insight into the practice of pre-writing. If you are interested in participating in National Novel Writing Month, then now is the time to start your pre-writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Optimism

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

There are many qualities that help you out if you’re thinking of becoming a writer, or if you simply feel called to write. I’ve talked about many of these qualities in the past, but today I would like to focus on optimism. When we’re talking about writing, optimism is a day-to-day choice that you must make to feel good about what you’re working on and the progress that you’ve made. It can be fairly easy to lose perspective when receiving rejection letters or failing to meet personal writing goals. But optimism is a great tool to remember when facing any writing-related challenges.

In a guest post on Writer Unboxed, author Nina Amir talked about the topic of optimism for writers. In her post, Nina said that osptimism “means a rejection from an agent presents an opportunity to improve your query letter or your book proposal. A negative review of your manuscript by a book doctor at a conference presents a chance to rethink your plot or your content—or even to hone your craft. A session with a proposal consultant who tells you your platform section needs strengthening offers the opportunity to rethink your pre-promotion activity level.”

I love what Nina says here — a big part of optimism is seeing the opportunity in every situation. When something doesn’t go as planned for you, you should be able to spin it to your advantage. Every bad review or bit of disappointing news can be turned around to mean further opportunities for improvement. You can learn from all of your mistakes and take in what critical people around you say. Use all of that information to your advantage and for your own, more optimistic ends!

Now, does this mean that you can never have a bad day? Can you never take a day to wallow in misery and feel bad about your situation? Absolutely not! We all need days like those. But, in the long run, it’s important to remain positive and optimistic about where you’re headed.

Happy writing, and stay optimistic!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: The Characters

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

As I’ve said before on this blog, I consider characters to be immensely important. When I’m reading or watching something, I want the characters to be written in a way that makes me care about them. I want to be invested in them as people even though they’re only fictional. The fact that you can care about a character means that they have been written well, and I think it’s something that all writers should strive for. Yes, plot and other elements of a story are important, but characters are what will make a reader become attached to the story that you write.

With that in mind, I want to talk about something that Brunonia Barry mentions in her post on Writer Unboxed, “10 Tips about Process.” Barry says that it is important to listen to your characters when you’re writing a story. She writes, “What does each character want? What’s keeping her from getting it? If I put the right characters in a situation and understand what motivates them, the plot seems to develop naturally. If I’m trying to control the outcome instead of listening, the story always falls flat.”

That last sentence is the most important one, I think. As weird as it may sound, your characters can definitely “talk” to you and sometimes it’s essential that you listen to what they have to say because they can steer you in the right direction. This might be one of those situations in which you have to abandon a carefully constructed outline. Although you had a vision for the end of your story, it’s very possible that your characters won’t want to go there.

I think we’ve all experienced this while writing. You’re in the middle of a scene, trying to make it work, and you suddenly feel as though you’re forcing it. Instead of feeling organic and real, the scene feels like you’ve stood your characters up as set pieces and are just making them go through the motions and say the lines you’re writing for them. The best writing feels organic and free as you’re writing it, and it should come out that way on the other end for readers.

So listen to your characters! You created them and now they know where they should be headed. When you feel like you’re forcing a scene, just take a step back and think about what your characters needs or wants to be doing in your scene. Then go with that and see if things flow a bit better. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Novel Approach

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Are you experiencing writer’s block right now? Even if you’re not, you know — in the back of your head — that eventually writer’s block will come calling again. It might come along because you’re not interested in the story you’re working on, or because your inspiration has left you, or because you simply don’t have the time to work on your project in long stretches of time.

That last one can be especially frustrating during the summer, when you feel like you should have time to be writing. But you may be working a summer job, or you may be on vacation with your family where it’s difficult to pull out your laptop and work on some writing. If you’re working on a novel, or another type of long-form writing project, the key is to chop it into smaller pieces that you can work on more easily.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, Tracy Hahn-Burkett talked about writing outside of your typical box. This could be any time that you’re not writing in your most comfortable environment. For those of us who are generally novel writers, this can be when we’re forced to work in very short bursts of time. This can make it difficult to work on something long-form and keep everything fresh in our minds. In her post, Tracy offers a solution — treat each scene that you write like a short story.

Tracey writes, “if I found myself freaking out over the amount of work I had to do, I should try taking it one scene at a time and telling myself that scene is a story. This approach made sense: I could define specific goals for that dinner-party scene in chapter six, and revise away with those goals in mind. When finished, I could reward myself by going for a walk, having a drink or eating a giant bar of chocolate. Repeat.”

I think this is a great way to deal with an abbreviated work time, and to keep yourself from being freaked out by how long a novel is when stretched out in front of you. I know that I often plot a story to the gills and then get overwhelmed by how much I still need to write and cover. If you treat each important scene in your story as short story of its own, it’ll help you feel more accomplished when you’ve gotten some writing done and it may also force you make some discoveries that you wouldn’t have otherwise made.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: On Discipline

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

I think we can all agree that it is nearly impossible to quantify talent. What exactly makes someone a talented writer? You might say that having a good command of the English language is important to being a “talented” writer. But there may be people out there who have stories to tell, and who are not very good at writing in English. That’s why we have editors, after all. You might consider grammar to be an important part of writing, but someone else might not. Is someone who has published 20 books more talented than someone who has published only 1 book? Who is more talented — Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien?

As you can see, talent is a subjective matter. What you consider to be talented writing may be very different from what I consider to be talented writing. In a recent post on the Writer Unboxed blog, Jane Friedman discussed 3 Insights That Lead to Successful Publishing Careers. One of the points that she mentions in her post is the one that I’ve been ruminating on here — talent doesn’t matter. That’s certainly a broad statement to make, but I think that Jane has some compelling arguments as to why she believes that.

First, Jane says, “I’d like you to show me your talent. Point to it. Let me see it. What does it look like? I’d like you to measure it and show me, quantifiably, how it’s more, less, or different than someone else’s talent.” There is no way to quantify, or measure, talent. We have no scale or system that is set in stone to measure someone’s talent.

Secondly, Jane proposes something we should all be focused on instead of talent: discipline. Jane says, “Instead, what if we decided to believe that practice develops talent—that what we think is talent is specifically a product of years of hard work? That would mean having the discipline to practice and put in the work would be most important.”

I completely agree with this. What leads to success is the discipline and will power to sit down each day and get your writing done. No matter how little you do, writing every day and keeping up that practice is what will get you success in the long run. There are other factors, to be sure, but it all starts with the discipline you have to sit your butt down and write. So, instead of worrying about whether you have some nebulous concept known as “talent,” sit down and get writing! Make your writing the best it can be, and include as much of you as you can. That’s what will make you stand out and help you be successful when you begin to publish your work.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan