Cut Through Writing Myths

At the start of a school year, teachers experience a rush of excitement.  We also experience an avalanche of work that wasn’t there just a few days ago.  Schedules, standards, paperwork, student names, grading, lesson plans, paperwork, classroom setup, and paperwork drown out anything else going on in our lives.  It is a joy and I am thrilled to be in education.  I am also grateful for my short break from writing because it has given me a chance to look back on some really terrible common myths I found in most “how to” writing books.

Myths about Perspective and Point of View

Myth: Limit your point of view characters to three but never have only one.  Too many characters confuse the reader and having only one will lack depth.

My Truth:  Use however many perspectives it will take to tell your story.  Kevin Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones have a dozen POV characters.  Jeff Lindsay wrote five Dexter novels from within his main character’s mind.  Side Note: You should always keep a single perspective within a scene or you WILL confuse a reader.

Myths about Grammar

Myth: You should always write using correct grammar.

My Truth:  Learn correct grammar and punctuation.  This way, when you need to write dialogue, dialect, or artful prose, you know what rules you are breaking.  Failing to learn doesn’t make your writing quirky or unique.  It makes you seem illiterate.

Myths about Exposition

Myth: Avoid exposition in the form of information dumps.

My Truth: Exposition is important.  Information dumps, like the opening paragraphs in a Star Wars movie, rarely work well.  If you find yourself explaining too much, you probably missed an opportunity to hint at your topic earlier in the story.  Go back and plant seeds in the first few chapters if you want a garden in the final scene.

Myths about Sequence

Myth: Always write in a logical progression of thought and avoid flashbacks.

My Truth: Tell this to the writers of the Highlander or Once Upon a Time TV series.  I know that television is a different medium, but good writing is good writing.  Whatever structure best fits your story is the one that you should use.

BOOKS WORTH READING

In the end, there are only a few good books on how to write well.  Stephen King’s On Writing is the most useful. Another worthy mention is: Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence, by Roz Morris. This is a great book for structure and manuscript resuscitation.

When is it a novel and when is it a short story?

Aside from the length of the work, there are many factors that separate a short story from a novel.

RIGHT FROM THE START

The first line of a short story should bring readers right into the action.    The opening of a novel has more to accomplish.  Even though the plot doesn’t have to be introduced in the first chapter, there are world-building tasks that normalize the setting, introduce characters, and establish tone.

CHARACTERS

There are fewer characters in a short story than in a novel.  In general, short stories are limited to one point of view with under ten people running around.  Since these characters populate a tight space, each one has a specific job to do and run the risk of becoming caricatures of their roles.  Novels can dedicate whole scenes about character development without pushing the plot along.

PLOT COMPLEXITY

Since length is the prime difference maker between short stories and novels, it is no surprise that the plot structure is affected.   Plot, much like characters and setting, have to be laser focused in a short story.  No detours.  No extensive red herrings.  At best, there is room for one or two good twists that are directly related to the advancing plot.  This is a blessing as much as it is a hindrance because it is as easy to stray too far from the plot in a novel as it is to be overly simplistic in a short story.

Using these touchstones, you can better gauge whether your idea is best told as a short story or as a novel.

Building a Better Fictional World in 3 Minutes or Less

Step one is complete and you have a full view of the world in which your characters live and die.  Maps and genealogical charts hang over your desk.  Social hierarchies are established.  Palaces and alien races are named and given histories of their own.  Now comes the hard part.

How do you present this world to your reader in a way that isn’t boring?

CHARACTER TYPES

An easy technique is to have the reader learn about the world alongside the characters.  The process of discovery works for coming of age characters, strangers to the world, and discoverers.  The type of characters you choose for your story shapes how the world is viewed, however.  A twelve-year-old mutant teen is going to have a different perspective than a retired cop.  

STORY STRUCTURE

Understanding point of view helps with structure.  First person narration allows for asides and gives an intimate emotional connection to events.  These reactions tell the reader how the character feels and (more subtly) what the character feels her feelings should be in a situation.  Meta-emotions are the stuff of great internal conflict and tell the reader about that world’s societal norms.  On the other end, the sprawling multi-character epic is a point of view choice that gives the reader smaller chunks of the world.  This helps spread the burden over multiple characters’ shoulders.  

CHARACTER DIALOGUE

Slipping exposition into dialogue is a great technique if done well.  In order to pull this off, a character needs a reason to talk about a topic.  This has to be more than a simple explanation.  I am a teacher, but I won’t randomly talk to the teacher next door about her grading system.  It is a topic we both know too well too be interested in unless we’re challenged.  Perhaps the new principal has a system that he prefers and insists that all of the teacher use.  That is a great reason to compare the new system with the old one and build the world of that school climate.

HIGH-CONTEXT AND LOW-CONTEXT CONVERSATIONS

There is a difference between high-context and low-context conversations.  High-context conversations happen between characters with a rich common history.  There is usually little that hasn’t already been said between these characters and an information dump would be awkward.  Examples of these relationships are older married couples and long-time co-workers.  Conversely, low-context conversations are between characters with little or no history and are in a “getting to know you” stage of their relationship, whether friendly or antagonistic. Either of these relationships can be manipulated to give information about the greater world, but both should be recognized.

AVOID PAGES OF EXPOSITION

If at all possible, try to use these methods to build the world around your characters.  To read more about this topic, try my earlier post on World Building.

Stronger Story Openings in Under Thirty Seconds

Your opening is an introduction to who you are as a writer. The first 100 words are precious real estate that set the tone for the rest of the story. Reader engagement is critical and here is the quickest pathway to achieve that goal.

RIGHT FROM THE START

Story beginnings have to accomplish several goals. When in doubt, remember that information is far more important to the audience than action. Readers need to know a character’s sex, age, occupation, handicaps, and reason for being this story’s protagonist. Setting is needed for the sake of orienting a reader to the surroundings and time period. There also should be a suggestion of what the overall problem is in the story. All of these things don’t need to be explained fully, but there should be a sense of understanding.

SENSORY IMAGERY

Readers want to feel swept away into a story and this is one of the simplest ways to do it. I am a visual person and force myself to use auditory, tactile, and olfactory details. Use as many of the senses as are fitting to the scene.

BE DIRECT

Strong nouns and verbs are better than a dozen adjectives and adverbs. This is a standing piece of advice, but it is even more important when working within the first 100 words. A “construction worker” brings more of an image to mind than a “man” does. When that worker steps into a kitchen, a far clearer picture is made than when a man walks into a room.

Readers don’t always judge a book by its cover, but most will judge a story by its first 100 words.

When to dump your draft and when to fix it.

Revision is a key step in writing and one that I have come to enjoy.  It wasn’t always that way.  I viewed any time I spend revising as time I wasn’t creating.  That is obviously not the case and it took me some time to get over that, but there is one part of revision that will always sting.  When you find a section that isn’t your best work, how do you know when to dump it and when to fix it?

DON’T DOUBLE DOWN

Once you realize that what you have in front of you isn’t any good, stop and assess whether it is worth continuing.  Many writers try to save a dying draft because of the time and energy they put into a piece.  Just because you are emotionally invested in your written words doesn’t mean they are readable. Know when to cut and run.

SOFTEN THE BLOW

Instead of highlighting 30,000 words and hitting the “delete” key, create a “dump” folder.  It is entirely possible for you to go back into this folder later and retrieve key pieces of information or plot, but the odds are that you won’t.  In my heap, I label and sort paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters.  Some sections are totally useless and idle nonsense.  Other sections are about characters and settings that I find fascinating but would bore anyone else.  The book should be the story, not the history.

In the end, revision is critical when creating a story.  Not everyone has the strength to let go of weeks or months of work, but it is necessary at times. When you’re famous and long dead, your children can publish your Silmarillion.  Until then, please keep it to yourself.

How Important is Theme?

Is theme important or are we just looking to be entertained?

There are two philosophies about reading and writing when it comes to theme.  Some feel that the point of reading is to be entertained.  Others believe the purpose of writing is to move the reader and, if there is no theme to a story, then it is a waste of time.  

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

There is something to be said for the writer whose only wish is to entertain.   A good time can be found anywhere.  Movies, television, and Internet memes are all over our devices.  People will buy any type of crime, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and romance series you can come up with, so why not cash in?  It isn’t noise, it’s a living.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME

Theme is the controlling idea behind a story.  It is more than simply the main idea or the lesson to be learned, theme is the part of a story that makes you feel or moves you emotionally.  The consideration of theme is what separates fiction from literature.  

A QUESTION OF AUDIENCE

The main point I would like to raise in this discussion is about who the reader is for a particular work.  Deciding that is the first step any writer needs to make before putting a single word on paper (or processor). Since the weight of theme is based on preference, an educated reader should know the type of book they pick up before they read it and a savvy writer should figure out if their reader is interested in Mario Puzo or Michael Bay.  

Use Adobe InDesign CS6 to Format Your Book Interior

The Price of Self-Publishing

There are many skills an author simply doesn’t have.  I am not a graphic artist, so I pay for book cover design.  I cannot objectively review my own work, so I pay for an editor and abuse my friendships.

When it came to designing my paperback book interior for Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan, however, I found that Adobe InDesign for CS6 was easy to figure out.  There was a time in which I thought that my word processing software had the capabilities to format a book interior.  I was wrong in the way all amateurs and novices are with their first book.

The typical price for a professional to do your book interior ranges from $379-$700, depending on where you look.  The advantages are that you don’t have to do much aside from answer a few questions about the overall theme of the book.  They’ll churn it out and have it back for you in a couple of days.  There are many advantages to this and, if you have the money, I suggest that you pay.

However…

Adobe InDesign for CS6 costs between $350-$400.  It is easy to learn and is cost-effective if you plan on publishing several titles before you expect to make any money.  This is doubly true for me, since 98% of my book sales are digital, not print.  The only reason I want a paperback book is as a business card for future work.

Book Sample

Here is a two-chapter sample of the book as it is now:  Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan – Sample Formatted.  It includes the front matter, two chapters, an about the authors page, and a call to action.  There are some notable oddities to it when you look at it as a .pdf, though.  For example, blank pages are inserted for spacing so that the writing starts on the appropriately-numbered page.

Get Help

Here are some great sites that tell you how to use Adobe InDesign to create your book interior.  These are the resources that I use after a week of hunting and pecking for the best advice. InDesign Tutorial: Designing the inside pages of a book , Book Layout in InDesign How to Layout a Book in InDesignBook Interior File Formatting.