The 3 Most Important Elements of Fiction Writing

By Magdalena Ball
Even highly celebrated and well-paid authors miss them. While almost all writers are clear on the importance of plot, there are other writing skills such as a strong narrative voice, good deep characterization, and relevant, subtle scenery description that set a work of fiction apart, rendering it literary or great. In my work as a reader for a small publishing house, I have seen these omissions in nearly every manuscript that has come across my desk.

If these three elements are patchy or not well-controlled, a piece of fiction will be amateurish, shallow, and potentially unpublishable (unless your name is Grisham or King). No amount of exciting plot or poetic description of the surrounding environment will make up for it.

Following is a list of the three most important elements of fiction writing, along with a series of exercises and references to help writers improve in these critical areas.

The very best way to improve your writing in these, and other areas, is to read lots of writers who have excellent control in these areas. They are also referenced. There will always be something subtle that extends beyond writing classes and even articles such as this, and that is the writer’s ear. Extensive reading of good quality literature can help develop that subtle ear for what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, the following tips will help clarify where the main areas for writing great fiction lie. Hint . . . it isn’t in the plot.

Strong narrative voice

The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.

However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.

A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story. More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.

Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:

  1. Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
  2. Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
  3. Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
  4. Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.

References for more information on narrative voice:

http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/art/crisis/crisis4a.html

"Paradigm, Point of View, and Narrative Distance in Verbal and Visual Arts" by George P Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

http://english.tyler.cc.tx.us/engl2307nbyr/narrativepov.htm

A simple but useful guide to the different narrative voices, from Candace Schaefer: http://www.qcc.mass.edu/booth/102/ptview/index.htm

A slide show by Sheila Booth of at QCC Mass — including a complete overview of the narrative voice: http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellibst/PowerPoint/Lect11/sld019.htm

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Jane Burroway, Longman; 8th edition, 2010. ISBN 0205750346

Characterization

Characterization is related to narrative voice, as the narrator is generally a character too. While most writers understand the importance of characterization, and it is not as subtle a skill as the narrative voice, modern bestsellers and genre writing still tend to be plot rather than character-driven, especially in our world of fast paced, instantly gratifying television and film. Cliched, superficial characters are the mark of a poor writer. A great character can save an overly simplistic plot, but no amount of action will make up for unbelievable or shallow characters. A good character has the same kind of depth, complexity, and believability as an interesting person. The reader wants to know more about them; to spend time with them; to imagine their lives beyond the boundaries of your fiction. There are a number of books written about creating good characters (see References below). However, the basics of characterization are as follows:

Ensure that your reader cares about the characters. Solid characters are not enough—they have to inspire strong feeling.

Good characters are complex. A reader’s response to them should also be complex. This means they grapple with the same things real people grapple with—morality, the meaning of life, love, death, time management, etc. No one is purely good or purely evil. The most unloveable protagonist must still have something to make their story interesting to the reader, and believable. Cliched, cardboard characters will ruin the best plot. This means that characters should be well-drawn, and detailed. Their dialogue must align with their history, and every character, even minor ones, must have some sort of history that is discernable by the reader.

All characters must count, and must be related to the meaning and narrative of the story. Extraneous characters who appear and disappear without relevance to the plot will confuse the reader and weaken the fiction.

Characters should sit at the heart of any story. This means beginning, and continuing with characterization throughout the entire story. It is not enough to describe your characters at the start and then forget about it. People are full of contradiction, depth, and corridors to explore. Characters should be too.

Avoid contrived description. Characterization should be woven into the plot and handled with subtlety.

Some tricks to help characterization include:

  1. Pick a passage from great fiction (any of the examples above will do, or anything you might be reading, as long as it is literary), and identify the character. Describe, in writing, his/her back story. How is it relevant to the overall novel?
  2. Do the same thing for a piece of your own work. Take one of your characters and write out a page of “back story.” This is something that isn’t going to appear in your work, but it will form the basis for the things your characters do.
  3. Try writing a few paragraphs of “stream of consciousness” for one of your favorite characters. If you aren’t sure how to do this, try doing it for yourself. Just spend a few minutes listening to the interior voice in your head. Close your eyes and let your mind wander at will, and then quickly write it down as close as possible to how it was. Leave out punctuation and let the thoughts flow, stop and start in the same chaotic rhythm as they do in the mind. If you are still unsure, check out the masters; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner in The Sound and The Fury; all do wonderful things with this technique.
  4. Try a form of “mind-mapping” for your characters. Place one of their names in the middle of the paper, and draw a circle around it. Now around that circle, place aspects of that person in lines that emanate from the central point. This will give a good feeling for the complexity that makes up this person. Once you have done this, you will have a much better idea of who this character is, his/her motivations, and hidden internal dialogue.
  5. Developing your writer’s ear for what constitutes good and poor characterization is critical for every fiction writer, and the best way to do that is to read fiction by wonderful and challenging authors. All of the narrative masters cited above are also masters of characterization, and there is also Charles Dickens, whose characters tend towards the comic, but never unbelievable, Tim Winton, Toni Morrison, or James Joyce (who can ever forget Leopold and Molly Bloom from Ulysses?).

References for more information on characterization

The Key to Making Your Characters Believable by A.C Crispin

Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, Henry Holt, July 1990, ISBN: 0805011714

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. Pocket Books, May 2001, ISBN: 0671024256.

The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft., Douglas Bauer, Univ of Michigan Pr; Enlarged and Revised Edition 2006. ISBN: 0472031538.

Subtle Description of Setting

browne_self-editing_for_fiction_writersMany creative writing classes focus on the writing of scenic description. Good descriptive writing is an excellent skill; however, it can be overused to the detriment of a piece of fiction, especially when combined with poor characterization. An abundance of natural scenery or the telling of a setting, unrelated to the characters, will seem gratuitous and amateurish. Gorgeous scenery is not an error in itself. Descriptive writing can be powerful, creating the setting and backdrop for the work, and providing some very moving passages. However, purely purple prose tends to be glossed over by readers, as an attempt at writing prettily rather than writing meaningfully, and it can actually be quite dull.

Every single piece of description must have some relevance to either the character development or the plot. The classic maxim is to always show rather than tell. Paint the scene, delicately, and let the characters find your scenery for you; let the scenes unfold. Let your reader enter your fictional universe and visualize the setting themselves through scenes, events, dramatization, symbolization, or open ended description in which the reader can participate directly.

Some tricks to help improve scenery description include:

  1. Try to write a paragraph of setting description with no adjectives at all. This will not only create a very vivid, dramatic scene, but will also force you to show rather than tell, as multiple adjectives are at the heart of telling.
  2. Read the following short passage from Kafka’s The Trial(165–6):

    He went over to the window, perched on the sill, holding on to the latch with one hand, and looked down on the square below. The snow was still falling, the sky had not yet cleared. For a long time he sat like this, without knowing what really troubled him, only turning his head from time to time with an alarmed glance toward the anteroom, where he fancied, mistakenly, that he heard a noise. But as no one came in he recovered his composure, went over to the washbasin, washed his face in cold water, and returned to his place at the window with a clearer mind.

    How much of the setting does this seemingly simple paragraph reveal? How much have we learned about both the situation, the character, and the scene? Try and do something similar in a different setting, with a different character (use of your own if you have a story in progress).

  3. As with narrative voice and characterization, read authors who excel in writing good setting. This will, once again, help you develop your writer’s ear for this, and ensure that you can spot purple passages in your own work.
  4. Re-write, re-write, re-write. Julian Barnes has been cited as saying that he re-writes every page something like 47 times. This may seem excessive, but the heart of good writing is re-writing, and this is critical for your setting and description of the environment within your fiction. Cut out anything that seems the slightest bit superfluous. Your writing will be more professional, stronger, and more powerful.

References for more information on description of setting:

http://www.eclectics.com/articles/setting.html

Lori Handeland’s article on setting.

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Noah Lukeman, Simon & Schuster, January 2000. ISBN: 068485743X.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White, Alllyn & Bacon, January 2000 (reprinted), ISBN: 020530902X

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition), John Grossman, University of Chicago Press, Sept 1993, ISBN: 0226103897

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Benni Browne and Dave King.HarperCollins, Second edition 2004. ISBN: 0060545690.

Of course it takes more than a good narrator, good characters, and good, subtle scenery description to make a great piece of fiction, but these three areas will set a great piece of work apart from a mediocre one. The most common error is patchy narrative voice, and all writers should approach this area with some thought and caution, since it is much less well-taught in writing classes than techniques like plot development and characterization. Once again, the best way of becoming a master in these critical fiction areas is by being aware of their importance, and by reading good quality literary fiction, noting always the way the author deals with the narrator, the character development, and the subtle relationship between scenery and character, setting and plot.

Magdalena Ball is content manager for The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author of The Art of Assessment: How To Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in hundreds of on-line and print publications.

Mickey vs Maria: Clash of the Screamers

Guest Post by Maria Zannini

There are two things all writers must possess. Nerves of steel and thick skin.

Having been an artist most of my adult life, thick skin is a job requirement, but now, gentle reader, I have proof positive that I also have nerves of steel.

Twenty miles from where I live there’s a five mile long bridge that spans both land and water. Once you get on there’s no place for you to stop. If there’s an accident on the bridge, you can kiss your appointments goodbye because everything grinds to a halt.

Recently, I was on my leg home from a long road trip and traffic was a mess by the time I reached the bridge.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of movement. I glanced over to the passenger seat but nothing seemed amiss. Traffic was getting rough now. Lots of brake lights and angry horns. Big rigs are jockeying for position as we lose one more lane of asphalt. The bridge is so thick with cars, I decide to move to the far right lane so I won’t miss my exit two miles ahead.

Again something moved at the periphery of my vision. This time I saw what it was.

A little gray mouse was scampering between the seats and up the stick shift in the center of the console.

I think I swallowed my tongue at that point. I kept glancing down at the mouse and then back at traffic. Mouse. Traffic. Mouse. Traffic. There was absolutely no place for me to pull over.

Even if there was, what was I going to do? Order the mouse to vacate my car? He had claws and teeth, and I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like there was an agent contract in his little paws. I had to ride it out.

My hands clenched around the steering wheel until my DNA imprinted on the leather cover. Mickey eyeballed me with those black button eyes. The mouse then leapt from the stick shift to the dashboard, bumping and grinding to the music blaring from the speaker. That mouse had cojones the size of Gibraltar, but I was not to be outdone.

I still had two miles to go before I could get off and traffic was SLOWING down. I glared at Mickey. “Okay, mouse. You don’t come any closer and I don’t drive us off the bridge.” I was bluffing of course, but he didn’t know that.

When my exit came up I hit the accelerator like Mario Andretti. Police usually patrol that part of the feeder road, but I didn’t care. If they were going to arrest me, I’d insist they put that mouse in handcuffs too.

I jumped out of the car as soon as I reached the first parking lot. Doors flew open and I banged on the seats with the flat of my hand, yelling at the mouse to scram. A smart person would have put me on YouTube. I was a crazy woman yelling at an invisible mouse.

Two men from the nearby Home Depot walked toward me, but I wasn’t about to wait around and explain that I was trying to pawn off a rodent on their property.

I jumped back in my car and took off. I still had another twenty miles before I reached home, me all the while checking the floorboards and listening for any telltale mousey sounds.

Once home, I almost dismantled the car piece by piece, cursing at the mouse in three different languages—one of which I made up.

Mickey was gone. And I am alive to tell you this tale. Hallelujah!

So how are your nerves? Would you scream if a mouse scampered up your car’s radio—or would you just change the station?

***

Maria Zannini’s latest release is a science fiction romance called TRUE BELIEVERS.

Mix one cynical immortal and one true believer and throw them into the biggest alien-hunt the world has never known. Rachel Cruz is a Nephilim masquerading as an archeologist and she’s stuck with an alien who believes she can lead him to his ancestral gods. Black Ops wants to find these gods too. They want them dead.

Follow Maria here:

Contest time! Every time you leave a comment, tweet or mention “Maria Zannini” anywhere with a link to my blog, your name goes in the hat for a chance to win a Texas sized prize. Go to http://mariazannini.blogspot.com/ and see the sidebar for more information.

PS: And if you’re a real pal, you’ll go to RT Reviews and vote for my novel, MISTRESS OF THE STONE. Go on. You know you want to. And if you vote for me, I’ll love you forever.

How (and Why) To Take Criticism

By Monique van den Berg
“I am an artist. The critic is my nemesis.”

Have you ever heard this internal dialogue? Well, you’re not alone. We writers exist within a paradox. Our egos tell us we’re brilliant, yet one word from a critic can convince us (at least temporarily) that we’re worthless. Criticism strikes at us where we’re most vulnerable: the place inside ourselves where our creativity lives. And as a result, even criticism designed to be constructive can be hard to take.

Yet there is a reason to take criticism. If you want to improve your writing, there’s few other ways to go about it. I will concede that you can improve by reading other writers, and writing tremendous amounts on a regular basis, but that still doesn’t give you what a good critique gives you: an objective opinion. A look through fresh eyes. The trick is in separating the grain from the chaff: realizing which criticisms are worthwhile, and which should be disregarded.

It is tempting to listen to the negative opinions of others, and discredit their positive opinions as mere “politeness.” I used to do this all the time. In fact, one of the earliest pieces of criticism I got was in the form of a rejection letter for a poem called “Above The Timber Line.” The note on my manuscript read:

Above the Timber Line shows real genius. Why decorate genius with dimestore adjectives?

This stung. I ignored the part about the genius since obviously he was just being polite. How could he insult my precious adjectives? How could he attack words like “hollow” and “shiny” that I just liked the sound of? I threw the paper in a desk drawer and tried to ignore it. But it wasn’t that easy to forget the words. What if he was right?

It took me a while, but I started re-evaluating my own use of adjectives. I found that I had been making what I now think is the number one mistake of amateur poets: using adjectives that are weak, overused, or superfluous. Once I stripped away the dimestore adjectives, I did get a little closer to genius. My new attitude towards criticism had taken root.

It was years before I really became sanguine about the whole process. Eventually, I realized that the visceral, emotional reaction will always be there, but it can be mitigated—you can make criticism work for you. The following 10 guidelines will help.

  1. Not everyone will like your writing. Not everyone shares your taste, your school of thought or your perspective. Your talent is not erased or diminished just because this person or that person doesn’t like the way you write. They may like you, but they can’t critique you, because they don’t share your vision. Just move on to someone who does.
  2. Beware of ulterior motives. Most people will reflexively try to lead you away from your own style and into theirs. Be wary. Although some people are conceited enough to think that their way is the only way, for most people this is unconscious and subtle. It’s a side effect of trying to set aside bias and evaluate a work on its own merits. This is hard to do, and it’s common to slip up.

    If you are considering someone’s suggestions for your writing, remember that they are ultimately subjective. Always make sure that what they are suggesting is true to the text and to your own style.

  3. Nothing you write is all bad. You should never listen to a critique that doesn’t say at least one positive thing about your work. A review that is 100% negative is either unfair or offered by someone with their own agenda. There is at least positive element to any work of art, and if your critic doesn’t bother to seek it out, they aren’t worth your time.
  4. There’s always one asshole. In any creative writing workshop, you’ll find this person. You will learn to see the signs. He or she has a lot of talent, a respectable number of publication credits and an ego the size of Delaware. You may be tempted to respect them; after all, they do have talent and attitude. They are accustomed to inspiring awe in unpublished newcomers like yourself. Don’t fall for it.

    In my second poetry workshop, The Asshole was a supremely irritating graduate student who rarely had anything good to say. When he did dole out the occasional favorable remark, he acted like he was bestowing a royal favor. And he loved to say pretentious things like, “The penultimate line of your penultimate stanza requires a certain panache that is lacking in this piece’s current iteration.” Blech.

  5. Quid pro quo. Part of getting helpful criticism is dispensing it to others. Don’t be condescending (as I once was) of the people that you think have less talent, experience and skill than you do. We all start somewhere.

    Yes, offering criticism is a skill, and the only way to develop this skill is through practice. Always start off by listing the good points of a piece, then list the weaker points. Offer concrete solutions to the problems you see. The more specific you are, the better. Figure out what you find the most helpful in a critique and offer the same kind of input to your peers. In the long run, this skill will serve you well.

  6. Build up your defenses. Don’t seek out criticism until you are ready to hear it. At first, your writing will be extremely close to your heart. Nurture the writing that makes you feel like this, but don’t show it to anyone. If anyone suggests that you change it, you’ll probably feel like they are proposing plastic surgery on your newborn infant. This may well discourage you from giving birth to any more poems.

    First, find friends who will lob (figurative) softballs at you. Once you can take their mild suggestions in stride, you may be ready to move on. Do you suspect that your writing has weaknesses that they are hesitant to point out? Time to move on to colleagues, acquaintances and workshops.

  7. Value honesty. It is an increasingly rare commodity. People may be afraid to tell you the blunt truth for fear that you’ll become antagonistic towards them, dislike them or attack their work out of spite. Other people are simply too polite to tell you their negative opinions, no matter how much they sugar coat them.

    One day, you will find someone who seems to “get” what you are trying to say and who genuinely appreciates your work, but isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re off your game. You will often agree with them, whether their comments are positive or negative. Hang on to this person. A good critic is worth their weight in gold.

  8. Only submit early drafts. If you have a work that in your mind is “finished” or that you’re particularly attached to, it’s probably too late to have it critiqued. This applies especially to pieces you have put a lot of work into. If you’ve spent an hour fine tuning every word, you’re going to take criticism a lot harder. You will stubbornly resist changing a single syllable. On the other hand, if you’ve just casually tossed off a first draft, it’s quite easy to carve it up with impunity.

    I know your inclination is to impress the people in your workshop. Trust me, if you tinker with you’re your writing too much before submitting it, you’ll reach a critical mass point where suggestions for change become utterly futile.

    This also applies to older works. When I read some of my earliest poems, I fully recognize how I could improve them, but there’s no way I would even try. A lot of them made me the writer I am today. I can’t stand on the top floor of a building and dig the foundation out from under me, now can I?

  9. Be as objective as possible. Don’t ever expect criticism to be easy. It will sting at times, no question about it. The trick is being to set aside your wounded pride and try and be objective anyway. Evaluate each suggestion carefully. Your responses will range from, “Oh, wow! Why didn’t I think of that before!” to “How come nobody gets my message—is it really that well hidden?” or “That bastard doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    Before implementing or discarding any suggestion, give it careful consideration. If you’re equally willing to accept or refute someone’s suggestion, you stand the best chance of getting all you can from the input of others.

  10. The writing is yours. Never, never give other people’s opinions more weight than you do your own. No matter how much you respect someone, you should never give up ownership of your own words and ideas.

    First of all, even the best critic can be wrong. Music teachers told Mozart he couldn’t play. English teachers told Stephen King he couldn’t write. Don’t take everything so much to heart that you ignore your own inner voice.

    Also, don’t waste your time trying to convince critics that their opinions are wrong. Just thank them politely and don’t act on their words. If you feel that you have to get everyone “on your side” then you’re missing the point.

    Secondly, even if the critic is right, so what? There’s no rule that says you must take X or Y piece of advice, even if you know intellectually that it is good advice. Even if everyone you know and everyone you ask hates something you’ve written, it doesn’t mean you can’t love it. Just don’t expect to get it published.

There’s no magic formula that will make criticism an easy medicine to take. But believe it or not, it is good for you. And with the right outlook, you can begin to see criticism as a welcome, desirable, and necessary part of the creative process. Good luck.

Copyright © Creative Moose Ventures

www.creativemoose.com

Monique van den Berg runs a poetry workshop online. You can find it at http://www.onelist.com/subscribe/surreality

Guest Post by Jo Parfitt!

Five rules for Writing Life Story
by Jo Parfitt

I have written 26 books, worked as a features journalist, written columns, a blog, memoir, fiction and non-fiction and I cannot think of many writing genres where there is no need to write life story.

If you write a self-help book, for example, such as a book that inspires others to find their passion, start a bed and breakfast, move to France, beat smoking or whatever, then the facts and information you include will be enhanced by the addition of case studies about others who have done the same thing as well as stories from your own life.

manuscript pic

Columns are personal pieces and focus on the things that happen to you, the writer, as well as the lessons you may have learned or the insights you had along the way.

A blog, like a column, very often will focus on the things that happen, to you, the writer.

It goes without saying that a memoir is filled with incidents that happened to you. In fact many claim that a memoir is made up of a collection of your stories that are connected by a ‘red thread’ or common theme.

And fiction, of course, is filled with stories, inspired by real life, with plausible characters, emotions and incidents. Writing your own life stories can be the perfect warm up for writing compelling fiction.

So, have I convinced you that everyone needs to write life story?

The good news is, that like many forms of writing, there are a few rules to follow. And once you follow those rules you will find it much easier to feel confident about what you are writing. Here they are:


Five rules for writing life story

  1. Write about incidents, things that happen.
  2. Set the scene. Let the reader be able to picture the location your story takes place. Add specific details – don’t say ‘it was beautiful’ or ‘there were lots of trees’ – name the trees, describe what you saw.
  3. Put people in your stories, people with character and who move and talk. Let the reader ‘meet’ those people and feel he can picture them and hear them speak.
  4. The best writing comes from a place of pain. Be vulnerable. Be honest and share your emotions.
  5. Show, rather than tell. Avoid tell the whole incident in reported speech. Instead of: he told me he had borrowed his friend’s bicycle, for a few days write “Hey, Dad, come outside and take a look at my new Raleigh!” Will exclaimed, hopping madly from one foot to the other, so that his straight brown hair bounced up and down. “It’s bright red and Harry just lent it to me for the whole weekend.”

I believe that applying these rules will ensure your stories are interesting, not just to your own immediate family and friends, but to complete strangers. The best life story writing should be written like fiction, with plot, pace and believable characters. If you think you are the kind of person, like Cherry Denman, author of her recent memoir Diplomatic Incidents (UK Edition) (John Murray), who is “happening-prone,” then do your happenings justice by following the five rules for writing life story, above.

In May 2010 Jo Parfitt launched a home study program, comprised of video, audio and workbook, based on her popular Write Your Life Stories workshops. Find out more at www.joparfitt.com

Promoting Your Prose

By Mary Emma Allen

Promoting Your Books At Writers’ Conferences

When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d sold eight of my writers’ resource books and another on Alzheimer’s at a writers’ conference, she remarked that she didn’t know writers could do that. It all depends on the conference, but these are good places to network and to let others know about your books even if you’re not one of the speakers/teachers.

You’ll find that writers’ conferences vary. Some don’t have this opportunity available to attendees. Some allow only members of the organization coordinating the conference to sell books at the members’ book table. Others only sell the books of workshop teachers and keynote speaker.

Check Out the Possibilities

However, when you’re planning to attend a conference, check out the possibility of book sales and opportunities to sign books. Inquire whether they have sales and signings and who can participate.

Also, check to see whether the coordinating organization takes a percentage of the sale. Some offer this as a service to those attending and don’t take a fee. Others will ask for a 10% to 20% donation.

If you don’t have a book to sell or aren’t allowed to sell your book at a conference (some simply don’t have space for book sales), inquire whether there’s a table where you can leave literature and business cards. Most conferences like to have freebie material for the attendees to pick up.

I frequently get requests from conferences for literature about my books and, when I published a newsletter, guidelines and information about it.

Types of Books

It’s difficult to determine what type of book will sell at a conference. However, at writers’ conferences, I’ve found that my Writing in Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont is popular, along with my manuals for writers.

When I give talks about Alzheimer’s at conferences or nursing homes, When We Become the Parent to Our Parents is the book attendees pick up. However, I have sold these, as well as my anthology of children’s stories, at writers’ conferences.

If you’re one of the speakers or workshop teachers, just about all of your books will be of interest. However, if you’re speaking on a particular writing topic, anything you’ve written about it usually will be more popular.

Working at the Book Table

Volunteering to work at the book table enables you to meet the attendees, answer questions about your book(s), and autograph your books. Also it’s fun. I enjoy meeting the other authors as they check their books at the table.

This also gives me an opportunity to network with more of the attendees, to meet them, and to make newcomers feel welcome at the conference.

Inquire About Guidelines

Whenever you’re registering for a conference, check to see if they have a book table where you can display and sell your books. Then inquire about the guidelines.

*Who is hosting the book table?

Committee members or a local book store? At one conference I attended, a local book store checked in the books and took care of sales. A couple weeks later they mailed me the check for my books sold.

*How many books can you bring?

Limited space often restricts the number of titles an author can display.

*Do you bring change for sale of your books or does the organization make change?

Let them know whether you’ll take checks from individuals purchasing your books.

Even if you don’t sell many or any books (and it’s difficult to predict beforehand how many and what types of books will sell), you’ll have an opportunity to let more people know about you and your writing. Have order forms to leave on the literature table so that if someone cannot buy your book the day of the conference, they can order it later.

Explore the possibility of selling and promoting your books at conferences. It’s also an enjoyable way to network and meet more writers, editors, and publishers.

© 2002 Mary Emma Allen

Mary Emma Allen, an author of books for children and adults, also offers a workshop, “Marketing Your Books & Manuscripts.” She teaches writing classes online, at a local college, and in elementary and high schools. Visit her blog Mary Emma’s Potpourri of Writing.

Book Review: The ABCs of Writing for Children

Review by Betty Winslow

The ABCs of Writing for Children.
Compiled by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books
November 2002
258 pgs.
Writing-related

The title of this book implies a linear, nuts-and-bolts approach to the subject of writing for children, but in reality it’s almost a stream of consciousness on the subject, collected by Koehler-Pentacoff from the minds of 114 authors and illustrators and loosely arranged into 46 chapters with titles like “First Times,” “What Is the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?,” “Rejection,” and “Picture Books.” Each chapter is full of highly personal stories, tips, and anecdotes, which are fun to read (although the way some are repeated in several places had a slightly disconcerting “deja vu” effect on me: wait, haven’t I read this already?).

Although I found the book’s arrangement a bit hard to navigate and the introductory italicized titles for each small anecdote seemed to me unnecessary and often confusing, I knew I would enjoy reading what Koehler-Pentacoff had to offer, since I love children’s books and I find the people who write and illustrate them interesting. Reading what Jane Yolen, Doug Cushman, Patricia McKissack, Ruth Heller, David Adler, and R. L. Stine (among others) had to say about writing children’s books, inspiration, rejection, censorship, book signings, and a host of other topics was bound to be good! It was, too, and I also picked up some practical tips on writing, learned more about the stories behind the stories kids love, and discovered a bit about what makes these people tick.

I think that last bit is important. Children’s authors and illustrators may not be movers and shakers in the eyes of the world, but their work affects the children of the world and thus the future of mankind. Therefore, I for one like to keep abreast of what’s going on in children’s literature. And this book tells you some of that.

Unfortunately, I had to get beyond a few more problems to get to the good stuff, including misplaced or missing punctuation and words (and a few extra or misused ones) and a wonky index that led me to the wrong Cushman several times as well as to a few pages that didn’t contain what I thought they were going to.

On the plus side, I also found some helpful back-of-the-book features, including a glossary, a resource list, a writer-related bibliography, and the aforementioned (and somewhat less helpful) index.

All in all, if the world of children’s literature interests you, I think you’ll find the extra effort it takes to get through this book is worthwhile and you’ll come away with a lot to think about. You’re also liable to come away with a list of books you somehow missed along the way and want to read now. Go for it! We may be grown-ups, but no one is too old for well-written and wonderfully illustrated children’s books!

How to Write Your Novel and Still Have Time for Sex

By Rob Loughran

Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.

The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”

The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.

That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.

But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.

Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”

The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”

Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.

But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.

How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write

Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.

Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.

Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)

Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.

Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.

Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.

The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.

While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.

Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?

If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.

Mum’s the Word

Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.

Trust your judgment.

But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.

Okay, she’s always right.

Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Cover of Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews ReduxOne essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”

An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”

There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.

Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”

Pep Talk

I hate pep talks.

I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.

Just the opposite.

How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?

Ten years?

Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?

Then a month’s worth?

A year’s worth?

Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:

We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.

Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.

Five Do-able Tips for Remembering and Writing Great Lifestories

By Denis Ledoux
Is your family one of the many whose history is lost to future generations because no one has written it down?

Writing your stories—even just a few—is a great way to memorialize your family and to prevent the experience of your life and theirs being forgotten. The details you take for granted or consider obvious may be lost to the next generation unless you make the effort to record them in writing.

Writing down a memory and sharing it with others is a way to celebrate your life and your family. It is not as hard as some people think. Anyone who is willing to follow the few simple steps I will outline below can succeed at writing their autobiography or family history. More and more people—in fact, many who at first think they can’t—are successfully exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.

Follow these five tips for remembering and writing a pleasing and meaningful lifestory that will honor both your family and yourself and create a legacy for your children.

These five suggestions are among the most powerful– and easiest– to implement in your personal and family history writing.

And remember: practice makes perfect. If you want to preserve your personal and family history, you must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your great grandchildren will be so glad you did.

Good luck!

  1. Make a memory list. This is a list of everything you can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in your life. Anything you recall is important enough to include. Jot down 3-5 words for each item on your list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). Your list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate you to remember more than you can now think possible. It will provide you with the details to make your story full and memorable. Once you have a memory list, you just pick an item and begin to write!
  2. Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (your family and friends) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Write “She paced back and forth to the window, looking up and down the street for Jason,” rather than “she was impatient for Jason to get back.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
  3. Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the room was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
  4. Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “character’s” own voices, you make them jump right off the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in other’s mouths.
  5. Many adjectives are imprecise and simply do not convey the same meaning to one reader as they do to another. Use dialog, action, and setting to show what you mean.You’ll gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “she was protective” to dialogue: “she said ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that to my son again’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “she grabbed the plate and flung it against the wall.” Replace “we were poor” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”

The idea of remembering, reviewing and recording definitive versions of our family histories and our own lifestories, like many tasks we undertake in life, can be overwhelming. Reflect on parenting as an example.

Parenting is a creative project that would have daunted a lot of us if it had to be done all at once. Think of all those dirty diapers and sleepless nights, teacher conferences, recitals, ball games, dental appointments, and insurance payments— if they came all together, who could approach parenting at all let alone with eager delight? Thankfully, as parents, we only had to meet each day’s challenges as they come.

Approach lifewriting in the same way: write each memory or family story, each character or event one step at a time.

You’ll find the rewards are there waiting for you and your family—understanding and appreciation of who you are and where you’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed—rewards that take you far beyond the names and dates.

Web Site for Memoir Writers & Teachers

Denis Ledoux is the Founder and Editor of Thememoirenetwork.com, which offers information, inspiration, exercises to jazz up your lifewriting project plus support for lifewriters and teachers through workshops, teleclasses, books, materials.

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books

2000

264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.

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