Writing Advice: Dynamic Description

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Description can be a difficult thing to get right, and yet it can be the backbone of any story. If you want your readers to become absorbed in what you’re writing, it’s important that you describe your characters and setting well. I’ve found that you can easily insert description of your setting while having a character travel or simply study his or her surroundings. But describing a character can be a bit more difficult. Should you have your main character look in the mirror one morning and ruminate on his appearance? Should you take an omniscient approach and describe your character from above? And how much description should you include? How do you know which characteristics to describe?

Author Ursula K Le Guin had this to say about description: “It’s not just facial features—a way of moving, a voice quality, can ’embody’ a character. Specific features or mannerisms (even absurdly specific ones!) can help fix a minor character in the reader’s mind when they turn up again…. To work on this skill, you might try describing people you see on the bus or in the coffee shop: just do a sentence about them in your head, trying to catch their looks in a few words.”

I think this is great advice from Le Guin. If you’re having trouble with your own characters, look at the characters around you and try to describe them. Describe your family members, your friends, and even strangers. Eventually you’ll start noticing characteristics that are particularly intriguing, and which lend color and flavor to the people you’re writing about. A well-placed detail can help even a minor character pop, as Le Guin says above. You can even harvest some of these characteristics to use for the people in your story. You might want to start jotting down verbal tics or mannerisms that you observe to keep for later.

So, don’t worry about describing every last physical attribute of your characters, or even what they wear each day. To really make your characters interesting and memorable, choose mannerisms and other features that will distinguish them from the pack. These are the characters that will endure in your readers’ minds and, ultimately, be more interesting for you to write about as well.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: A Fresh Start

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So, the holidays have now officially come to an end. Whether you’re returning to work after a generous break or preparing to get back to school soon, there’s no denying that it’s time to get down to business once again. That goes for writing as well. I’m the first to admit that I let my writing fall by the wayside during this holiday break. Although I could have used this time off to make progress on my writing, I chose instead to watch Netflix, play video games, and read books. Instead of feeling guilty about these holiday pursuits, I’m choosing to acknowledge them, admit that I’ve been slacking off on writing, and move forward into a fresh start as 2016 begins.

When you’ve been away from your writing project for a while, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Depending on your writing style, you may want to ease in slowly or dive right back in. If you’re easing in slowly, try rereading some of what you wrote before your break or hiatus. Allow yourself time to become familiar with your story again. Once you feel that you’re back in the swing of things and you’re back in the mindset for your project, get writing! If you want to dive right in, things are a bit easier. Just start writing!

Although being away from your writing can sometimes cause you to lose interest in the story you were working on, it can also provide you with much-needed distance from your work. When you return, you may have a new perspective that can help you continue writing in a newer and possibly better way.

As this new year begins, I hope you’ll look forward with optimism and begin a new writing year strongly. Best of luck to everyone with writing goals or resolutions this year and, as always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Scene Tent Poles

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When I’m writing a scene, I sometimes find that inspiration will strike me right in the middle of the process. I may be writing the beginning of a scene, but something that I write reminds me of a piece of dialogue or a piece of plot development that I could use later in the scene. Usually, I’m a very linear writer. But when these bits of inspiration strike me, I find that I have to abandon my linear format and jump around just a bit to ensure that those ideas aren’t lost to me forever. In situations such as this, I would suggest planting scene tent poles. These “tent poles” can be stray pieces of dialogue, abbreviated notes to yourself, or even some exposition that spells out what you want to achieve.

This happened to me while writing just this past week. I began to write a scene in which my characters were having dinner together, and all of them were angry with each other for one reason or another. As I began writing, I felt overwhelmed by what I wanted to achieve in the scene. I knew that, by the end of it, two characters would have made up and another two would still be awkward around each other. I knew that I wanted to separate the pairs of characters, so I tabbed down in my document and started writing what would happen when one pair was off in another room. Then I tabbed down even further and started writing what was still happening back at the kitchen table. Each of these “tent poles” were just a few lines long to introduce the concept I wanted to convey.

By tabbing down in my document, I was leaving space for the rest of the information to be filled in later. In other words, these little snippets that I’d written were my tent poles. One tent pole had the characters all together and the following tent poles had them separated. Thanks to these snippets, I would know the story beats I wanted to hit and be able to fill in information that got me to each of those beats. The tent poles would keep the scene as a whole intact and propped up. Once my ideas were down, I could flesh them out more easily.

This can sort of be summed up by saying that if you see the end when you’re in the middle, write it down! You don’t want to forget where you’re headed, and your mind usually moves more quickly than your fingers can type. If you’re one step ahead of yourself, jot down those steps so you’ll remember what you were thinking when you first got the idea.

These “tent poles” can also be a great tool to use if you’re about to stop writing for the day and want to come back to it later. This is what happened to me, in fact. Soon after writing this scene, my writing time was over for the day. I’m glad that I jotted down those tent pole points because now, when I return to my document, I’ll know what I intended for the scene.

I hope that the idea of using “tent poles” helps you with your writing process. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Endings

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We’ve already talked about story openings on this blog, along with everything that comes after, now let’s talk about endings. Endings can be contentious in the literary world. People have disavowed entire book series because of the way they end. A good ending can also save a book, though. Endings are also incredibly tricky to write. It’s hard to bring your story to a conclusion that is satisfying for both you and the reader. Of course, you may never be satisfied with the story. But you have to find an ending that is at least passable and doesn’t make you want to burrow your head in the ground.

At the beginning of a writing project, the ending can feel so far away as to be almost unreachable. But the ending begins when you set down the first word of your story, and it’s good to be thinking about it then as well. On her blog, Sarah Perlmutter has this to say about endings: “Having an ending in mind allows you to insert some of those deeper, richer layers into your writing, like foreshadowing. It also helps you develop your character arc, and plot. An ending is a finish line, a goal, and having it in mind–even if you have nothing else planned–will be like an anchor, pulling you deeper into your story as you write it.”

Although I usually don’t follow this advice, I think it’s good to keep in mind! If you have a picture of where you’ll end up, you can insert clues to that ending along the way. Of course, if you find it difficult to think up endings from the get-go (like me), you can always let the story take you where it may and then insert those little clues during the edit or rewrite. An ending does give you a sense of purpose, though, so it would be beneficial to plan ahead. I can concede that point, I just probably won’t follow through on it. But you should!

When this post goes live, National Novel Writing Month will be coming to an end. That means that many NaNo-ers will be bringing their novels to a close as well. But not necessarily! Remember that 50,000 words is basically a good-sized novella. If you want to create a real first draft, you could easily continue writing for another 20,000 words. So if November is ending, but your novel isn’t ready to say goodbye, don’t fret! Just keep writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Your Conflict

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Conflict, conflict, conflict! It’s what your story needs and your readers crave. Conflict is what makes stories whir and plots fizzle and pop. If your characters aren’t in conflict with one another in some way, then why are you writing about them? If your characters are happily in love, happily employed, or happily content with their lives, maybe you need to move on to new characters. Now, your characters don’t need to be complete emotional trainwrecks, but some misfortune must enter their lives at some point.

In a blog post about conflict, author Kara Lennox says, “A good conflict has external and internal aspects…the conflict manifests on a superficial level at first, then at a deeper level as the hero and heroine become more involved, reveal more parts of themselves, more bits of their history, their secrets.”

This is great advice because it basically describes the plot of any good book or movie you’ve ever read or seen, especially romance stories. In Pride & Prejudice, for example, the overarching external conflict is that of Mrs. Bennett’s quest to marry her daughters off in prosperous and promising fashion. Lizzie is caught up in this when she meets Mr. Darcy, who could be a good match for her. But the internal aspects of both characters creates a conflict that results in Lizze’s sister Jane nearly missing her own chance at being married off, Lizzie’s sister becoming embroiled with the unsavory character of Mr. Wickham, and an eventual declaration of love. All of that happened, essentially, because of the warring personalities of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy. Pretty good, eh?

Because of these internal and external aspects, conflict is intertwined with both character and plot. The conflict between characters can lead to a conflict that occurs within the plot. So it’s a good idea to remember your character development as you create your plot.

In this same post, Kara reminds readers to avoid adding in too much conflict. Just as too little conflict can leave readers bored, too much can leave them feeling overwhelmed and unwilling to put up with your story anymore. If you create just one conflict that runs deep in your characters, you can find different plotlines within that one conflict to explore.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Beware Backstory

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All good characters have a rich, storied background. But we usually don’t read those backgrounds. Backstory is a great thing to develop, but it should not appear in the final product. Of course, this can be difficult to do. It’s tempting to pad your manuscript with information about the character’s past because it adds more words and helps you better understand your characters. But that backstory stuff should be worked out before you even start writing. Developing all of that beforehand means you’ll be better equipped to write about your characters and you won’t be as tempted to include backstory in your novel.

In her post about the 10 Writing Mistakes That Will Kill Your First Chapter, author Marcy Kennedy put “backstory” at number seven. She says, “Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.”

So, how can backstory be merely “hinted at”? It can be something as simple as a character talking to their friend and mentioning something that happened in the past. This can be done pretty smoothly, especially if the friend has known your character for a long time and can easily reference the past. Another way to achieve this is to have a present-day story element connect to something in the past. That way, the character’s past is being brought up, but in a way that advances your story forward and continues the action.

A good rule to remember and follow is that backstory is for the planning stage and action is for the writing stage. In NaNo-speak, that would mean that October is for backstory and November is for writing action. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Pace Yourself

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In writing, pacing means the speed at which your story moves. It means that your story is neither too quick nor too slow. If your story has good pacing, then events occur in your plot at the right time and allow for emotional resolution among your characters. The pacing of a story sets the stage for how a reader will experience the story. Often, when I come away from a good book, part of that quality comes from the fact that it was well-paced.

For me, pacing is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a story. In the past, my National Novel Writing Month attempts have moved slowly because I know I have a long way to go, and then extremely quickly because I’m suddenly running out of time. In between, not much happens plot-wise. Even when you’re just writing in general, without some crazy deadline hanging over your head, it can be difficult to find the balance of character development, plot points, and exposition.

According to author Caro Clarke, this problem with pacing stems from a lack of conflict and challenge. In her post about pacing, Clarke says, “Challenge implies battling something, overcoming opposition, and this is the heart of novel writing. Fiction is about challenges that the protagonist either triumphs over or is defeated by (Emma or Madame Bovary, for example). A novel must have conflict, not just in its overarching idea, but in every single scene.”

She makes a good point here — conflict must show up everywhere, not just in your overarching plot. It’s all well and good to determine that your story will be a classic “man versus nature” tale, but you have to include that conflict (or at least some type of conflict) in every scene that you write. Otherwise, the scenes will fall flat and be uninteresting to write as well as read.

Pacing may be the culprit behind writer’s block as well as reader’s disinterest. If you’re not writing something that bubbles over with conflict and is intriguing enough to hold your attention, then you’re bound to get bored with it and be unwilling to continue working on it.

In general, pacing is an important writing concept to keep in mind and practice. Pacing creates the right tone for your story, keeps readers engaged, and helps you maintain interest in the story that you’re working on. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Rough Draft

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As you are reading this post, National Novel Writing Month has already begun. I’ll be participating this year, which means that this post was written in advance and I am likely, at this very moment, typing as though my life depends on it. Today I want to talk about the rough draft.

Whenever you begin a new writing project, the rough draft is what lies ahead. This is likely the draft that will be messy, full of mistakes, and mildly incomprehensible to anyone besides yourself. It’s the draft where you’ll work the kinks out of your plot and figure out who your characters really are. You will probably never want to show this rough draft to anyone. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you that you have to. I only want to tell you that you need to let the rough draft happen, and you need to let it be rough.

Some of us are perfectionists. If you’re reading this post and you just nodded, you know who you are. You want everything that comes from your fingertips or from your pen to be perfect right from the get-go. You’d rather avoid the rough draft than plow through it. However, the fact is that the rough draft is unavoidable. The only way to get past it is to travel through it. If you want to get to that other side, on which lies your shiny, better draft, you have to write horribly first.

To get through that rough draft, you have to leave someone behind: the inner editor. This is especially important for National Novel Writing Month, which forces you to write practically non-stop for 30 full days. If we NaNo participants were to stop at any moment to acknowledge and humor our inner editors, progress would be lost and so would that end goal of a 50,000-word rough draft. You can’t worry about the end product, you can only worry about the next word.

Although not everyone is in that crazy rat race of NaNo, I think this is valuable advice for all writers. Stop thinking about the book deal, stop thinking about the shiny finished draft, just concentrate on the rough words you’re putting down right now.

If this wasn’t enough to make you respect your rough draft, I suggest that you read an essay by Anne Lamott entitled Shitty First Drafts. I read it when I was in high school and have been thinking about it ever since. Lamott offers some wise words to live by, so I highly recommend the essay. As always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

 

Writing Advice: Outlining

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Hey, blog readers! Today is the final Monday in October, which means that November is right around the corner. If you’ve been around the blog for a while, you’ll know that every November I participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This is a mad-dash writing marathon, the goal of which is to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. I know, it sounds crazy. That’s because it kind of is. But it’s also wonderful and can be enormous fun. Most importantly, it forces you to write.

For those of us who participate in NaNoWriMo each year, October is the month of outlines. I’ve written about outlines in the past, and I acknowledge that they may not be for everyone. Some of us would rather fly by the seat of our pants than have a sketched out plan in front of us. That’s totally fine! But those of you who enjoy the process of outlining, or just feel that you need a blueprint with which to work, here are some tips. All of these tips come from the wonderful Chuck Wendig, who blogs about writing over at “Terrible Minds.” I encourage you to check out his site, you will not be disappointed. In particular, check out his outline tips for NaNoWriMo writers.

To begin with, Chuck lists the benefits of outlines, which may or may not convince some non-outliners of their utility. He says, “One of the values of outlining is that it gives you a map forward — a fraying rope to reach for and cling to in the long darkness of the writing process. Another value is that it lets you muddle through the mistakes of your story early on — it’s a lot easier to fix a 2-3 page outline than it is to fix a 300 page novel, I promise.”

I love this! Diving into a first draft with no plan is probably an exhilarating thing to do, but if you realize halfway through that you’re headed in the wrong direction, you can’t easily turn back and redo what you’ve already done. Especially not during November, when your one goal is to strive forward. Outlining beforehand let’s you work out the kinks of your plot and understand where it needs to change before one word is even set down on the page.

The rest of Chuck’s post is a priceless guide to every type of outline you might possibly choose to create. Seriously, you should check out this post. If you want to outline just to have some direction in your story, but don’t have a clue as to where to begin, Chuck’s post is a great place to start. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Beat Sheet, which Chuck describes as “literally outlining every plot point.” What can I say? I like to be prepared! No matter what type of writer you are, there’s bound to be an outline here for you.

So, if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you luck during this last week of available planning time and I hope that you have a strong start to November. If you’re not one of us mad writers, I hope this post about outlining contains something that can help you with your current project. As always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Let the Plot Be

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Each writer has their own technique. Some of us are planners and some of us like to fly by the seat of our pants. If you’re a planner, then you probably spend a fair amount of time outlining or describing what your plot is going to be. That can be a very helpful and worthwhile process, but it’s important to remember that those outlines aren’t set in stone.

In a post that detailed random storytelling thoughts and tips, Chuck Wendig reminded us to sometimes let the plot go. He says, “If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story.”

You know how strongly I feel about the importance of characters. So, it’s no surprise that I agree with this advice. If you stick rigidly to a plot that you set out at the very beginning of your story, you run the risk of missing opportunities to discover things about your characters or let your story move in a new direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you should necessarily write a rambling character study in which nothing happens. Unless, of course, that’s what you want to write. And this doesn’t mean that plotting or planning is useless. Do your plotting, but know that your characters may lead you to a new plot you hadn’t planned on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan