From The Dishwasher Froths Success

By C.S. Paquin

Success as a freelance writer has come from the dishwasher— no, not via a lucrative commercial-copy gig bubbling with the attributes of a kitchen appliance, but from the old dishwasher installed in our new apartment.

The state of my kitchen defines my professional success and pre-dishwasher, chaos reigned! Last night’s dishes piled high don’t auger well for a productive morning, but once those counter tops sparkle, well, I’m free to tackle whatever chore is next. The only problem is, I hate dishpan hands, and in avoidance, it’s easy for me to waste an entire day—in fact, the task only takes on a sense of urgency when it’s time for dinner. This disorganization sounds the death knell for my writing career—haphazard working hours, staying up too late to make deadline after hours of procrastination, and working fitfully amidst the laundry, vacuuming, and errands—all impatiently demanding attention once I’m done in the kitchen.

But now, the delight of dealing with dirty dishes without delay, has sparked a catalyst. Each morning, after my daughter goes to school and the baby to the sitter, I tidy the apartment and throw in a load of laundry while the dishwasher sings its sloshy song. By 9 a.m., cappuccino time, I’m opening the mail, and with the rest of the place clutter-free, it’s prudent to keep my desk as pristine and file my papers and pay the bills. I’ve discovered, too, that if I balance the checkbook every few days, then it takes just a few minutes, and I even remember what I bought.

By 9.30 a.m., in disbelief at how early it still is, I switch on my computer and check for looming deadlines. I have regular editing jobs, a small column for a regional magazine, as well as sending out queries to new markets. The difference is, I’m really writing the queries and mailing them. Pre-dishwasher, I’d sit and dream about it, because with a brimming sink, I couldn’t possibly start the query process. So, with my attention not distracted by the chores, I set up and conduct interviews, write and edit what needs to be done, and send in work not only hours, but days before deadline. Ticking off the tasks on my list is addictive and the more I check off, the more inspired I am to find and complete new projects.

Within a few weeks, my flailing career takes new shape—more gigs appear, and checks trickle in. “Aha,” I think to myself, as I add regular banking to the task list: Self-discipline does pay!

This revelation chases away the nagging suspicion that haunted me—that I’m more in love with the idea of writing, than actually writing. These days, as I see my reflection in the shiny plates, I say to myself quite proudly: “I am a freelance writer!”

C.S. Paquin is a nationally published writer in a variety of genres—from news writing to humor. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Journalism, and dreams of being a best-selling author. Her first writing love, however, is creative nonfiction and personal essays.

Character-driven or Action-driven?

By Martha Alderson
Most writers have a preference for one style of writing over another. Some writers are more adept at developing complex, interesting, and quirky characters. Others excel at page-turning action. The lucky writers are good at creating both the character emotional development plotline and the dramatic action plotline. Become aware of your strength and learn to address your weakness, and you, too, can become one of the lucky ones.
Cover of Marthat Alderson The Plot Whisperer's Workbook

Action-Driven

Broadly speaking, writers who prefer writing action-driven stories focus on logical thinking, rational analysis, and accuracy. Action-driven writers tend to rely more on the left side of their brain. These writers approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts. Action-driven writers like structure. They usually pre-plot or create an outline before writing. Action-driven writers have little trouble expressing themselves in words.

Character-Driven

On the other hand, writers who write character-driven stories tend to focus on aesthetics and feelings, creativity and imagination. These writers access the right side of their brains and enjoy playing with the beauty of language. They are more intuitive, and like to work things out on the page. Character-driven writers are holistic and subjective. They can synthesize new information, but are somewhat (or more) disorganized and random. They see the story as the whole. Right brain writers may know what they mean, but often have trouble finding the right words.

The Test

Take the test below to see whether you are stronger at developing character emotional development plotlines or dramatic action plotlines.

Fill in the character emotional development plot profile below for your protagonist (the character who is most changed by the dramatic action), any other major viewpoint characters and, if there is one, the character who represents the major antagonist for the protagonist:

  1. Protagonist’s overall story goal:
  2. What stands in his/her way of achieving this goal:
  3. What does he/she stand to lose, if not successful:
  4. Flaw or greatest fault:
  5. Greatest strength:
  6. Hates:
  7. Loves:
  8. Fear:
  9. Secret:
  10. Dream

Results

  • Writers who filled out 1-3 with ease prefer writing dramatic action.
  • Writers who filled in 4- 10 with ease prefer character emotional development.
  • Writers who filled in everything with ease find both the dramatic action and the character emotional development plotlines come easy.

Analysis

Without a firm understanding of points 1-3, you have no front story. The dramatic action plotline is what gets the reader turning the pages. Without it there is no excitement on the page.

Without a firm understanding of points 4-10, you are more likely to line up the action pieces of your story, arrange them in a logical order and then draw conclusions. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, this presentation lacks the human element. Such an omission increases your chances of losing your audience’s interest; readers read 70% for character.

Plot Tips

For Dramatic Action Plot Writers

To Strengthen the Character Emotional Development Plotline

  1. Try using your own flaw, fear, and/or secret—we all have them. What you filled out for #4-10 of the character emotional development profile is a mere skimming of the surface, like the first draft of any story. Even so, tack it up next to your computer. Over time, as you continue writing and come to know your characters better, the information will deepen. The longer you work, the deeper you will dig, the more significant your story will become.
  2. Look for opportunities to incorporate more patterning, metaphors, and analogies into your writing.
  3. Look for opportunities to role-play and use visual aids.
  4. Stop writing periodically and move your body during your writing time.
  5. Reread the information above that covers the less dominant side of your writing.
  6. Writers with strength in creating dramatic action usually think in sequence and are list makers. Since you have no trouble processing symbols, you actually enjoy making an advanced plan on a linear form such as a plot planner.
  7. After plotting out the dramatic action, use a different color pen and plot out a character emotional development plotline. To create logical conclusions, look for clues as to how the dramatic action causes changes in the character emotional development.

For Character Emotional Development Plot Writers

To Strength the Dramatic Action Plotline

  1. Use goals of your own and insert them into the context of the story— to finish, what? To organize, what? To accomplish, what?
  2. Writers who write about character emotional development have a more random writing style and rebel at anything as structured as a scene tracker or plot planner. Yet, because you like things concrete and benefit from seeing, feeling, or touching the real object, you keep coming back to the idea of developing a plot planner. You know intuitively that a plan will keep you on track and help you survive to the end of a completed project
  3. Because the right side of the brain is color sensitive, use one color to plot out the character emotional development scenes and use a different color to show the dramatic action, and yet another to show the thematic significance.
  4. Schedule a walk during your writing time and set the timer. Imagine yourself plotting out your scenes in sequence. The act of seeing yourself plotting will help you actually do it.
  5. Start with the climax of your story, and work backwards. Using your intuition, pay attention to coherence and meaning. Link dramatic action to the changes in your characters emotional development.
  6. Since you like to back up everything visually, hang a plot planner and/or scene tracker on a wall near your computer. These will help you remember the sequence of your story as you rewrite and rewrite until your story shows the meaning you want it to convey.

cover of Martha Alderson's Writing DeepThese are just some of the differences that exist between character-driven writers and action-driven writers, but you can see the pattern. Writers who lean more toward creating the character emotional development plotline now know you can be flexible and adapt the plot planner to make such a structured approach work for you. Likewise, those of you who are predominantly left-brain know that it would be wise to use both sides of the brain and employ some right brain strategies.

We tend to process and use information from our dominant side. However, the writing process is enhanced when both sides of the brain participate in a balanced manner.

Martha Alderson, M.A. is the author of Blockbuster Plots: Pure & Simple. She is a teacher, a plot consultant, a speaker, and an award-winning writer of historical fiction. She has taught plot and scene development and historical novel writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz Extension, Learning Annex, writers’ conferences, and workshops in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and in Washington State. Martha is available workshops and plot consultations. You can find plot tips and tools at Martha Alderson’s Website blockbusterplots.com. Her books on writing and plotting fiction are available at Amazon and other booksellers.

Better Interview Questions

By Ben Baker

Writing the story is only part of the process. You have to get information first.

If you interview enough people, sooner or later you will come across someone who replies to everything in monosyllables, grunts, and short sentences that give you the very barest minimum of facts. No matter how good your initial questions are, in order to get into the subject and really bring out details, you will have to have great follow up questions to draw information out of the subject.

A few notes about the following list: Not all questions are suitable for all interviews. Some questions refer to jobs, some refer to activities like hobbies. Some questions can be used for either. In most cases the word “field” is used to represent profession, activity, hobby, etc. Some questions don’t have anything to do with an activity; they just seek personal information. This is not an unabridged list. A good interviewer will find launching points for questions which could not possibly be anticipated.

Without further ado, here is a list of common interview questions (Q) with some follow-up (F) questions that will help you get more if your subject doesn’t give you a lot of information.

Q – Who are your inspirations or heroes?

F – Why do they inspire you?

F – What makes them heroic in your eyes?

F – What effect do they have on you?

F – When did you first learn about them?

F – Who told you about them?

F – What have learned about them since first learning of them?

F – How have you applied what you learned from them?

F – How can other people see your heroes/inspirations in you?

F – What do you do to be more like your heroes/inspirations?

Q – Married?

If “yes,” then:

F – How did you and spouse meet?

F – How long married?

F – What first attracted you to your spouse?

F – Does your spouse help in your field? If yes, then how?

F – Do you help your spouse in spouse’ field? If yes, then how?

F – Children? Grandkids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do you want to see your children do the same thing? Why or why not?

If “no,” then:

F – Ever been married?

F – Ever been engaged?

F – Ever wanted to be married?

F – Kids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do/Would you want to see your children do the same thing? Why/Why not?

(Note – if the person is biologically incapable of having kids, ask about adoption.)

Q – Are you involved in your community where you live?

F – What do you do?

F – Anything you’d like to do in your community which you have not yet done? Why?

Q – Where would you most like to visit?

F – Have you been there? If yes, what was the best part of it? If no, then will you ever go?

F – If you go back, what would you do that you haven’t done?

F – What makes it a good place to visit?

F – If you recommended this place to someone who’s never been there, what should they do first?

F – What surprised you about this place?

Q – Have any hobbies?

F – How did you get started in the hobby?

F – Why do you keep doing it?

F – What have learned through your hobby?

F – Why would other people enjoy doing it?

F – What’s a good way to get started in the hobby?

(NOTE: If possible, ask to see the person’s hobby. This could be the picture you need for the article, the person and hobby)

Q – Where did you grow up?

F – Did you move around a lot? If yes, how did this affect you? If no, how did the stability of living in one place all your life affect you?

F – What did you enjoy most about where you grew up?

Q – Are there any political or social issues you feel passionately about? (If you can’t get a story’s worth of information out of this line of questioning, you have GOT to be interviewing a corpse!)

F – Why are these things important to you?

F – What do you for these causes?

F – How can someone else get involved in these issues?

F – How much of your time do these causes take up?

F – Have you ever considered taking on these causes as a full-time occupation?

F – What would you most like to do that could further these causes?

Q – Do you have a nickname?

F – How’d you get it?

F – Do you like it?

F – Ever given someone else a nickname?

F – Did they like it?

Q – What is your favorite (book, movie or play, quote, poem, website, type of food or individual dish, music genre, song, band or individual musician, perfume, clothing style or designer, etc.)?

F – Why?

F – What drew you to this?

F – Where can other people find this?

Q – Why do you do what you do? (e.g., Why do you write? Work on cars? Race horses? Fish? Run marathons? Annoy politicians?)

F – How did you get started?

F – Who helped you get started?

F – How did they help you?

F – If you couldn’t do this, what would you do?

F – Why?

F – Would you be as happy?

F – Would you recommend (what the person does) to someone else?

F – Why?

F – What do they need to do to be successful at (whatever the person does)?

With these next follow-ups, you made need to insert some detailed specifics.

F – What would you change about (whatever the person does)?

Here, if the person says nothing, you may need to dip deeper into the subject. Ask about particulars. Referring back to the main question which spawned these follow-ups, you’d as a writer if he enjoys editing, research, writer’s block, finding a market for the work, the pay for the work. With cars, you might ask if the person enjoys having to dispose of used oil, getting greasy, scraping knuckles in hard-to-get-at places. With horses you might ask about the work which goes into horses, shoveling manure, brushing hide, filing hooves, buying feed, vet bills. If the person fishes, ask about the cost of maintaining a boat, lures, other fishermen, cleaning and cooking fish, driving to places to fish. On marathons you could ask about entry fees, cost of running shoes, the kind of surfaces the person runs over, running in different kinds of weather, trying to break through a pack, the Wall. Annoying politicians is my personal hobby and the only thing I’d change about it is having more time to annoy them.

F – Why would you change it?

F – How would changing that affect what you do?

F – Does that change make sense and really need to be done?

F – Why or why not?

Q – Is there anyone in (whatever the person does) you admire? (NOTE: This series could have been addressed in the first set, but there’s no guarantee it was so addressed. A hero may not be the same as someone who is admired.)

F – Why?

F – What do you admire most about that person?

F – Do you know this person?

F – Has this person had any influence on you?

F – Has this person ever given you advice?

F – What was the advice?

F – Was it good advice?

F – If so did you take the advice? Why or why not?

F – How did you apply the advice?

F – Is it good advice for anyone interested in (whatever that person does)?

Q – How have things changed?

F – Have any of the changes surprised you?

F – Were there any changes you expected?

F – How have you incorporated the changes?

F – Were the changes good or bad?

F – Why?

F – If you could, would you change it back? Why or why not?

F – What does the future hold?

Q – What sets you apart from the competition?

F – Have you learned anything from the competition?

F – What do you think the competition has learned from you?

Q – What training do you have?

F – Have you ever taught classes/seminars in your field? If so, where?

F – How often do you go to seminars/classes?

F – Have you ever wanted to be a professional teacher in this field? Why or why not?

F – Where is the best place to go to learn about your field?

F – Did your training prepare you for everything you’ve had to deal with? If not, what didn’t it cover? How did you handle it?

F – Do you need formal training for the work?

F – If you could tell people entering this field about something school did not teach them, what would it be?

Q – What honors have you received?

F – How did you feel about receiving the award(s)?

F – Have you ever recommended someone else for honors?

F – Have you ever delivered honors to someone else?

F – Are honors important? Why?

F – If you didn’t have the chance to receive honors, would you continue to do what you do?

Q – Are you involved in any of the field’s groups and associations?

F – What are they?

F – Any you would like to join but haven’t? If so what are they? Why haven’t you joined?

F – What group(s) would you recommend to a beginner? Why?

F – Have the group(s) helped you? How?

F – Have you made significant contributions to the group(s)? What?

F – How has your contribution affected things?

F – If you could make a lasting contribution, what would it be

Ben Baker has been a writer for longer than he wants to think about. He’s interviewed people ranging from garbage truck drivers to world-famous celebrities and he still can’t remember every question he needs to ask. You can find Ben Baker’s books on Amazon, and he blogs at Pork Brains And Milk Gravy.

Breaking Out Of Writer’s Block

By Apryl Duncan

You stare at the blank page. The white of the page embeds itself in your brain, resulting in your mind going blank.

Breaking out of the block doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling challenge, though. Explore the causes and the cure and you’ll be writing again in no time.

Common Causes

  • Unrealistic GoalsIf you’ve decided that you’re going to write from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day – no matter what – then you’re probably pushing yourself too hard.Your writing will become dull and drab. The natural flow you once knew will temporarily escape to Writer’s Block Island with the rest of your writing talents.
  • Stress!We all know how stress can affect your mood. But stress can also affect your writing.For instance, say all you wanted to do was come home from work and write until bedtime. Your boss makes you stay late. Your supper was a half-cooked hamburger and cold fries from a local fast food restaurant. Your dog wants to go out. And all you want to do is crawl in bed and forget the entire day.

    As much as we try to carry a stiff upper lip, we’re still human. External factors can affect our mood and ultimately affect our writing. Our focus shifts to all the bad things that happened in our day and writing becomes the last thing we want to do.

  • Neglecting Our WritingSometimes Writer’s Block comes from not writing! Writing every day is essential to keeping those creative juices flowing.You don’t have to make an impossible deal with yourself to write 100 pages of your manuscript in one sitting. Taking as little as 10 minutes a day helps keep you writing and words will flow from your mind much easier.
  • PerfectionismThe perfect paragraph, word after word, is a carefully constructed piece of art. But hanging yourself up on creating that perfect paragraph will win you an all-expense paid trip to Writer’s Block Island.If you run into this problem, give yourself and your writing a cooling off period. After a couple of days, re-visit your work and see where or even if it needs improvement. Your mind will be fresh and clear, giving you a whole new perspective on your own writing.
  • Research-RelatedA lot of writers don’t realize how research can even be a hang-up. Maybe you can’t finish your crime novel because you don’t know how police would handle a certain situation in reality.Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and we try to write our way around it. All we really need to do is a little more research.

The Cure!

After you’ve beaten your fists on the keyboard and taken two aspirin for that migraine, try these cures for writer’s block:

    • RevisitRe-read some of your previous works. Maybe it was a journal entry. Perhaps you wrote a poem once. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel. You can still gain insight and even inspiration from something else you’ve written.
    • Change of SceneryHow many times have you heard a song that reminds you of something? Perhaps you heard that song a dozen times a day when you were in college. So that particular song brings back memories. The same goes for scenery in your every day life.If you’re sitting in the same room, day after day, the scenery’s going to get old. That scenery starts to remind you that you’re not writing. That you’re stuck in what seems like a hopeless case of Writer’s Block.

      The solution is simple. Seek out a change of pace. Go for a walk. Take a drive.

    • Rewrite Another’s WorkCheck out a newspaper or magazine article. Now rewrite that story from a new angle. Maybe a young girl was kidnapped. Police are still looking for the suspect and the little girl.Your version of the story might portray the young girl as the daughter of a lawyer. Perhaps one of his clients wasn’t happy with the way his own daughter’s murder trial was handled. So he kidnapped the defending lawyer’s pride and joy.
    • Use Real PicturesFlip through a magazine. Cut out pictures, headlines, even certain blocks of text. Now write a short story based on your clippings.For example, you might cut out a picture of a man riding a bicycle on page 14 of your favorite magazine. On page 22 you cut out a quote that says, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

      Your story could turn into one man’s crusade. Perhaps this man’s riding his bicycle across country because he’s outraged by automobile pollution levels. His point is to raise people’s awareness about the effects of pollution.

      Meanwhile, police keep hindering his efforts because the man’s riding his bicycle on the freeway, a violation of the law. So you have a man on his bicycle and the police quote, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

    • DoodleYes! You were scolded in elementary school for doodling on your paper. Now you have full permission.Free your mind while scribbling. No need to think about your character’s next move. No plot structures to consider. Just a sense of connecting your pen to paper.
    • Object FocusTake a look around you. Does something catch your eye? Even something as simple as a stapler. Describe an object in full detail. Start with its size, shape, color.
    • Building BlocksRomance. Mystery. Thrillers. All genres have their own keywords. Build keywords from your own genre.If you’re a romance writer, you could come up with words like love, marriage, betrayal, lust, happiness. Jot down as many words as you can think of.
    • Life EventsThe birth of a child. Holidays. Graduation. Weddings. We all have our favorite life events. Pick one of your own and write down all your thoughts and feelings about that day. Turn it into a story.
    • NetworkMany authors beat Writer’s Block or avoid it altogether by networking with their fellow writers. Bulletin boards, chats and writer’s Web sites all offer you the chance to meet other authors and work your way through the many facets of fiction writing.Think of talking with other writers as your own personal support group.

Writer’s Block may attack you at some point in your writing career but always remember:

WB isn’t fatal.

Overcoming WB is not impossible.

WB’s only temporary.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of www.FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.

Anatomy of a Newspaper Feature

By Ben Baker

As a newspaper editor for longer than I really want to think about, I’ve written, read, edited, and cursed more newspaper feature articles than anyone except another newspaper editor.

The cursing part comes in because most newspaper feature articles I read are one-person interviews which are almost monologues of the person being interviewed. Nothing exciting, some potentially interesting anecdotes, but it’s not the kind of writing that reaches out and grabs a reader by the eyeballs and drags him into a story.

The fault for this is twofold: most newspaper reporters are under serious deadline pressure to get something written and get it on a page. This leaves little time for getting seriously creative in the storytelling process and storytelling is what a solid feature should do. The second problem is newspaper reporters are taught to keep a professional distance from the story, which prevents them from getting inside the story and looking out.

I recently had the chance to write a feature story, which is rare for me. As the story involved the father of one of my friends, I got into deeper than I normally would have. The story turned out to be a killer piece. I have included it below with some story-construction notes embedded in parentheses to show the process of how I generated this award-winning story.

By Ben Baker Editor (Byline. Duh.)

His arm reaches as high as it can as the tall man waves vigorously at the Cessna plane taking off at the Turner County airport. (This lede is intentionally ambiguous because I had awesome art to go with the story—a hunched over man covered in gauze between two very tall men next to a small single-engine plane. The 80 pt kicker headline read “A Dying Wish.” I knew I had the reader hooked with these two visual elements, but I wanted to make some suspense. It was important to show this big man waving at the plane for reasons that will become more obvious later in the story.)

You can’t see the big man’s eyes tearing up because he’s got sunglasses on as he watches the plane soar off. It’s not a wave good-bye. Well, then again it sort of is a way good-bye. (Key #1—why the wave was important. Here we have a big man. Men, as the adage goes, are not supposed to cry. Yet, here a very large man, as evidenced by the artwork, is crying. There’s also another suspense set-up in the double-entrendre wave goodbye. Again, this will make sense later into the story. )

(These two ‘graphs are also a key place where most newspaper features fall down. I have not given the reader any information in the story that is useful so far as a plot line goes. But I have taken a line from fiction writers and I have built major character into this man in four short sentences. Character development is the number one area where newspaper feature stories fall down. A good feature writer doesn’t just interview. A good feature writer observes and reports on what is seen. Show the reader some details. )

The tall man in sunglasses is watching a lifelong dream happen as the plane disappears from sight. The airplane trip, piloted by Jay Leatherwood, is a ride sponsored by the Ashburn Pilot’s Association. Seated next to Mr. Leatherwood is a special passenger. A passenger who is stooped over, and has a head covered with gauze, a passenger who is getting a dream 80+ years in the making come true. (This paragraph sets the hook, to borrow a fishing term. I have grabbed the reader with a few key words: “Lifelong dream” speaks to everyone who has an unmet personal goal of any kind. We all have dreams. “Special passenger” lets the reader know this is not an ordinary event. The next sentence partially explains this, but builds more suspense. The “80+ years” is just more suspense and tightens the grip on the reader. These minor details are one of the instances where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Also, note my use of these descriptive details scattered throughout the story. Observe absolutely, but take your observations and shotgun them through the story. Keep feeding your reader bits and bites of information. Don’t lump all your observations into one sentence or one paragraph. It’s like butter and sour cream on a baked potato. Mix the condiments through the entire tater and it will taste good from the first bite to the last. )

The special passenger is James. J. Zabriskie. The gauze protects the skin-cancer ravaged skin on his skull from being damaged. (Now you know the man’s name. Critical information, but I delayed announcing it intentionally. I linked it to the cancer. Being in South Georgia, skin cancer here is extremely common. Everyone I know has had family members touched by cancer and every extended family down here has lost someone to cancer. Cancer, as with any dread disease, generates sympathy in a reader, especially when the disease is caused by external forces the victim had no control over. )

The internal cancer, well, it’s terminal. (Death. It’s the great equalizer. I wrote this sentence exactly like I would speak it to someone. In fact, before I wrote it, I spoke it aloud. The word “well” separated by commas generates a dramatic pause which lets the reader know something of major importance is coming up. Two simple words “it’s terminal” deliver an emotional blow like nothing else. )

James is Craig Zabriskie’s (call him Craig Z) dad. Craig Z is the tall man in sunglasses who watched the plane take off on the ride of a lifetime for his dad. (A simple wrap-up sentence to tie everything above together. Now the light goes off in the reader’s head. The suspense in ended, but a new suspense has been created. The old man went flying, which was his wish. So what was it like? This is where the interview with the feature subject is very important. I use Craig Z to ID the son because that is how Craig Z is known in our community. As he explains, no one can pronounce his last name. )

“I would have given my life to fly,” the elder Mr. Z says standing outside the plane. (Just me being a bit difficult and teasing the reader by dragging out the suspense. It’s very important that this kind of tease be short. Take it too long and you frustrate the average reader who will move on to a less annoying story, unless the reader likes mysteries in which case more teasing is a good thing. I also differentiate the two men by calling the father Mr. Z. )

After 83 years, Mr. Z got his wish to soar above the earth, shaking off the fetters of gravity that have kept him bound to the surface. (An almost hyperbolic statement. Pure and simple, it’s a case of me as a writer injecting imagery into a story. Instead of saying, “He got to fly.” I jazzed it up with extensive descriptive language. This too is another failing of many newspaper features. Instead of telling the reader Mr. Z flew, I give, as I count, nine separate images: Age, soar, earth, shaking off, fetters, gravity, kept, bound and surface. Again, a case of the whole is greater than sum of the parts. Egad, this is so hackneyed, but so true—show, don’t tell. )

As Mr. Leatherwood and Craig Z helped the elder Mr. Z into the front seat of the plane, Craig Z joked “This is the Turner County Make a Wish Foundation for old farts.” (Straight quote. No way I could improve on it. Sometimes you get a gem of an interview, sometimes you don’t. I got lucky with this one. )

The Zabriskies are carnival people. Craig Z runs a bigtop tent manufacturing and repair facility on Stanford Road. He moved up here from Florida and resumed operations in the old Industrial Park before moving to the Standford Road facility. He got into the business because of his Dad. (More background info. I could have dressed this up some, but the story is really about Mr. Z, so I left this pretty plain. But, it’s important information as the next ‘graph illustrates. )

“I could write you a serious story just about his life,” Craig Z said. “He grew up with his mother. His father left them. He went into the carnivals to try and impress his dad. He was a WWII prison camp guard.” (Luck of the draw, pure and simple. A great interview and a man with an interesting past. )

After that, Mr. Z went to a trade school and learned about the big diesel engines that power so many carnival rides. (More background, but as most people have been to a carnival, they probably never gave a thought to what goes on behind the scenes. Still, running away with the circus is often a childhood dream and still something adults joke about. Here’s one man who did it. This creates another emotional link between the reader and Mr. Z. More luck of the draw sort of. I say sort of, because everyone has a story—sometimes you just have to look harder to find it. I didn’t have to look long to find this one. )

Even through all this, he never let go of the dream of flight. (A setup line. Pure and simple. Short. Sweet. Alludes to hard times and still holding on to a dream—this is clearer in the next paragraph. Another emotional link forged in the chain connect the reader and Mr. Z. As a writer, you should look for ways to connect the feature subject to the reader. )

“When he was a little kid, he used to build model airplanes. That was his passion, to learn to fly,” Craig Z said of his dad. “He was born with one bad eye and never could go for his pilot’s license.” (More background, but presented in a killer quote. I got lucky again. )

The plane meanwhile, has warmed up and is taxiing out to the runway. (I draw the reader back to the story at hand. I wrote this story in present tense first, changed it to past tense and went back to present tense because in my mind present tense for the flight is more real and immediate to the reader. It brings the reader into the story with me. The sentence also announces the flight, mentioned in the lede, is about to begin.)

“I’ve got to get over here,” Craig Z said by way of excusing himself to the other side of his pickup. “I’m all busted up over this.” (More luck of the draw quotes, but also ones that show Craig Z has made his own emotional investment in the story. Parents will clearly identify with this as will people who’ve had to care for ailing parents. )

After a few minutes to recover his composure, he comes back around to the front of the truck. The plane is at the far end of the runway. Mr. Leatherwood is preparing for takeoff. (Straight observation. Keeps the reader involved in the here and now in the story. I could have expanded this to discuss the plane zipping down to the far end of the runway while Craig leaned on his truck, but I chose to leave this part unspoken and merely hint at it. This is a case of forbidden fruit is always sweeter. By leaving it to the reader’s imagination, they can create in their own mind what happened and thereby move even deeper into this feature. )

“It’s been his lifelong dream. Jay is fulfilling it for him,” Craig Z said. “He’s terminal with cancer. He came home here with me to spend his last days. I thank God for all the people here in Turner County. Y’all have been so great to all of us.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality. It’s what we do. It’s also luck of the draw on quotes. )

The plane is now rolling up the runway. Tina Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s granddaughter is filming the ride from the ground. Nicholas Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s grandson is riding in the plane’s back seat. The plane leaves the runway and Mr. Leatherwood pulls back on the yoke. The plane rises. Craig Z waves as hard as he can. (This wraps the plane ride, but not the story. )

THE NEXT MORNING (subhead break—announces a second part of the story. )

The next morning at the Zabriskie house, walking in the house from the shop out back, Craig Z said his dad had a wonderful time Thursday afternoon. (More setup. We know Craig Z has a giant tent shop. This is just stage dressing and fill-in material to build on later.)

“He was grinning from ear to ear,” he said. (So it’s trite. Believe me, the average newspaper reader doesn’t have a problem with trite quotes in a story like this. )

Inside, Mr. Z is laying back in a recliner at the Zabriskie home. His nurses are leaving the house, having prepared him for another day. (I remind the readers Mr. Z is terminal with cancer. At this point in the story, that detail is a bit fuzzy for some readers. The recliner is also one of those condiment issues. I could have said he was sitting, or just said Mr. Z was in the home. By mentioning recliner, I have made Mr. Z even more real as a person to the reader because the reader can identify with laying back in a recliner. Give the reader something to hang onto and identify with in your feature article. )

“It was good. He took me for a nice ride. We got a good view of what Ashburn, Ga., looks like from the air,” he said. (Not much of a quote, but it needs to be a quote. Mr. Z has to put it in his own words. He continues shortly. )

The first destination in the air was the Z family house and the shop. From there, they flew around the County. Mr. Z said he saw big drainage ponds—somewhere. (I chose to paraphrase this because Mr. Z’s quotes were not very good. Besides which, the county I live in is dotted with irrigation ponds. So, the reader could imagine Mr. Z flew over their house. This makes another connection. )

The afternoon ride was rescheduled from Thursday morning. Late Thursday morning the winds picked up. Mr. Leatherwood was concerned it would be too rough in the air for Mr. Z so the flight was rescheduled with hopes for calmer winds. (Creates tension. This is important in any good story. But, we already know what happened, so why is this important? “Mr. Leatherwood was concerned” is the central element of this paragraph. It puts a link between the pilot and Mr. Z and the reader. Also, this graph will become important with the next graph. )

“He was afraid of shaking me. He could have shaken me like a salt shaker and I would have gone,” Mr. Z said. (WHAM! Now you see why the turbulence graph was so important where it was place. Again, luck of the draw on quotes. )

He said the flight was more and better than he expected. (segue .)

“I got to get up and see everything. It looked real good,” he said. As for what was best, “Everything. I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. (His own words. Very important because this is an emotional statement, not a factual observation like what he saw from the air. )

There were no surprises either. (In interviews with someone achieving a goal or doing something new I find one of the most revealing questions I can ask is “Did anything surprise you?” Sometimes it’s a bust, sometimes not. This appears to be a bust, but isn’t as you’ll see. )

“I was well pleased with everything. It was a good takeoff and landing, not that I’m an authority,” he said. (This shows why no surprises is not a bust. Also, an emotional statement so it needs to be in his words ).

“I told him just don’t go kamikaze on us with a smile on your face,” Craig Z said. “We want you around a while longer.” (Luck of the quote draw. )

Mr. Z said he wouldn’t do that. He also wasn’t worried about the landing; he knew the plane was going to land. The important part was getting airborne. (Reinforces the dream realized. Also links kamikaze crash landing to walk away from it landing. )

Mr. Z retired from a lifetime of working the carnival routes. He plans to be cremated and wants his remains poured on Interstate 90 North and South. He wants that because he spent so much of his life on that road with the carnivals. (Segue. Background information with ZING! We know what Mr. Z did and cremation is a rarity down here. To have his ashes poured out of a plane, what an image. Again, I got lucky with this interview. )

“I said, will it be OK if we dust you out the airplane? He said ‘Hell yeah, that will be even better,'” Craig Z said. (Even more luck. Craig Z is just a great interview. Use of the word “fart” and “hell” did give me pause since my paper serves a VERY conservative Bible belt readership. But I made the decision to use the words for two reasons: It was a direct quote. It made a major emotional impact. )

But now, he’s somewhat changed his mind. He said he’d be happy to have his remains spread over Turner County, but do it from the air. (Errrr, WHAT?! is what the reader is now thinking. A sudden unexpected shift of direction which was the luck of the draw. )

“What the hell. It’s better than being shot from a cannon. That’s a one shot thing,” he said. “They sprinkle me everywhere. They’ll know Jim Zabriskie was there.” (Now some readers are horrified, which is good because I know this story has connected on a gut level. As much as I hate to admit it, again luck of the draw on quotes. )

Craig Z jokes that this year’s cotton crop should be a bumper one, growing off his Dad’s ashes. (More Z family humor. May be disturbing to some, but it is who they are. As a writer I have an obligation to present them as real as I can. )

Mr. Z will celebrate his birthday in April. If he’s able to, he’ll fly again on his birthday. (A promise to repeat the dream. Readers are now cheering Mr. Z on. )

Again, if he’s able, Mr. Leatherwood has promised to let Mr. Z take over the controls for a little while. As far as Mr. Z is concerned, that’s a promise Mr. Leatherwood will have to keep. (And the crowd goes wild! They storm the field! They tear down the goal post! They throw Mr. Z from one end zone to another! Sorry. Got a little carried away myself .)

“I’m going to make it,” he said. (More cheering! )

A SURPISING ATTITUDE (Another subhead break to announce a change in the story. This was also included at the request of the Z family. This being a feature about Mr Z, I felt it was important to put it in because it adds even more substance to the flesh of the man I have built to this point.)

The one thing about South Georgia which has surprised him is the reception he and the family have received.

“I didn’t realize we had so many good friends here,” Mr. Z said. “They didn’t do that when we went to Okechobee. We had to pay for everything. (Here) everyone cares.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality baybee! We like it when someone compliments us on it, which, combined with the next two comments, is the cement that binds the reader to the Z family in a very personal way. )

“Here, everybody took us in just like family,” Craig Z said.

“We thank you for the love and support in this community,” Mr. Z said.

Post-story note since I don’t wanna leave readers of Absolute Write hanging—Mr. Z died 11 days before his birthday. Pilot Jay Leatherwood said Mr. Z is going to get his plane ride anyway ride. Mr. Z did on Sunday, May 13. Mr. and Mrs. Z’s ashes were combined into one bag. The combined ashes were dumped over Craig Z tent plant and the surrounding fields. Working on this story now.

Ben Baker is a South Georgia newspaper editor, author and evangelist. He’s a member of the Southern Humorists and can be emailed at redneckgenius AT gmail.com>.

Interview with Kathie Fong Yoneda

Reading Between The Lines: An Interview with Kathie Fong Yoneda
By Christina Hamlett

What is Hollywood looking for? Ms. Kathie Fong Yoneda has seen it all in 25+ years of story analysis and development at Paramount, MGM, Columbia, Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Filmways, Inc. and Universal Pictures. An accomplished speaker, author, and international teacher, she shares her views on today’s entertainment industry . . . and what makes a winning script.

Being a script development consultant has to rank as one of life’s “dream jobs!” How did you get from the halls of C.K. McClatchy High to the bright lights of Paramount Studios?

Well, back in high school I worked on the school paper so I was basically in Journalism and Art.  Although I majored in English in college, my original plan was to go to California Fashion Institute.  It didn’t take too long to flounder around and discover that fashion design wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but I still knew I wanted to do something very creative.  I know my parents, especially my mother, really preferred that I pursue something more stable and conservative like being a teacher or a pharmacist or a secretary.  I actually granted their wish by becoming a secretary but as a secretary in the motion picture industry.  As a matter of fact, I was the first Asian female hired on a full-time basis at Universal back in 1969; that was when less than one tenth of one percent of the people who were in the industry were minorities.

Was it even more of an ol’ boys club than it is now?

Oh yes. Very, very traditionally ol’ boys. One of the people who really helped me out, though, was my boss, Dick Shepherd, who was the head of production at MGM. He was a production executive at Warner Brothers when we met and I became his assistant. In between that, he became a producer and when he was away on location, the scripts would really start to pile up. I was just so hungry for knowledge about things and I was also very organized, both of which led to my reading all of these scripts. When he came back, he’d start looking over the mail and I’d say, “Oh, you don’t have to read that one. It’s really not very good.”

Never underestimate the power of a good assistant!

Anyway, I’d proceed to tell him what it was about and why I didn’t like it, and he said, “Well, can you do me a favor?  Can you write up a couple paragraphs about the story?” To his surprise—and mine, too, I was very good at it. After all, book reports were one of my favorite things in school, and reading scripts is essentially the same thing.

It’s not just about commenting on the story, though, is it?

It’s a lot of different factors, actually. It’s the characters and the structure, it’s the production value, the dialogue—it’s the whole picture, literally. I tell people that structure is merely a beginning, a middle, and an end and trying to make the whole thing interesting. If you go back to our common ancestors—cave people sitting around a campfire telling stories—what those stories have in common with what’s being written today is that they all had to have an intriguing set-up. They had to have complications and challenges and you had to have a satisfying ending that entertained everyone and wrapped up all the loose ends.

So how did you transition from secretary to studio reader?

Well, by the time my boss went to MGM and became head of production, I was really hooked on doing script coverage and he made me a deal.  Basically he said that if I set up the office and trained a new secretary—my replacement—he’d do whatever he could to get me into the Story Analysts Guild.

And what’s that?

It’s a very closed union shop and all the studios have to hire union story analysts.  The main distinction is that story analysts read material only for the studios.  Then there’s a group of freelance readers who read and do coverages for agencies and independent production companies.  The freelancers don’t belong to the union and make considerably less money.

But back to your career path—

Well, I made it into the Guild on my first try and started to move around, building on what I had already learned.  One of those moves, in fact, led me to become a development executive for Disney for 8 years during the time when Eisner and Katzenberg first moved over there and wanted to get a lot of new movies going.

What are you doing now?

I’ve worked for 9 years now for Paramount in their longform division and evaluate books and scripts for TV, cable movies and occasionally mini-series.  A lot of the movies you see on Showtime, for instance, are things that Paramount may have done.  I’ve also been doing a number of speaking engagements and workshops around the world and even have a book coming out in the summer of 2002 (Michael Wiese, Publisher).

There’s a lot to be said about how technology is shrinking the globe.  Is it inversely expanding the opportunities for new writers?

Absolutely! What I find really encouraging is that because there is so much technology, there are so many different ways to pursue storytelling. Unlike some of my associates, I don’t view technology as a foe or feel as if it will spell the end of motion pictures because kids are glued to the Internet.  What I see is that there are a lot more websites available for people to express themselves and to get critiques of their work. A lot of the studios now, for instance, have people who are assigned to surf the Net and to take a look at some of the projects that are out there. Aspiring filmmakers can get very industrious with their digital camcorders and are producing “mini-trailers” that are getting the attention of these studio execs.  Thanks to the Internet, no longer is Hollywood like that big black monolith that no one could figure out in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Based on your experience as a reader and a movie-goer, are films today getting better or worse?

Well, I do think that movies which have a lot of special effects or action or sci-fi/fantasy are a lot more eye-catching.  And, of course, the largest movie-going audiences today are the young adult males. That’s probably not going to change. In fact, it’s been that way for at least the 30 years I’ve been in the industry!  Remember how every other movie in the 80’s and early 90’s was some kind of an action film?  Well, it seems as if the public—and even all those male adults—finally got a little tired of it and then came the trend of doing scary movies.  Horror movies in a way, but still sort of campy.  Finally, the trend in the late 90’s and into 2001 are movies along the order of Something About Mary and American Pie.  What you notice, though, about scary movies and the latest crop of teen movies is that there aren’t a lot of special effects; in both cases, they’re mostly about the anticipation of something big happening.  That’s the irony of these films which, coincidentally is what one of my favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, used to do; it was the anticipation that you knew what was happening or what the danger or risk was, and yet you still couldn’t keep your eyes off the screen!  But back to the question, I think that audiences have gotten a lot smarter and they’re expecting more than just special effects. They watch things because they’re different.

What about the copycat syndrome, that insatiable quest for writers to imitate what is currently “hot”?
I think what happens is that people see a film that’s different and that they really like and their reaction is, “Wow! I can write something just like that!” What doesn’t sink in their heads, though, is that by the time they write this thing and give it to someone—even if gets snatched up right away—it’s going to take at least another 18 months before it gets made and comes out.  By the time that happens, you’re going to be the third or fourth or eighth person to that theme and it’s already old news!  By the way, the top grossing movies of all time—the top 10—are almost always family movies.  And the one thing that sets them Cover of Kathie Fong Yoneda's The Script Selling Gameapart is the fact that they all have in common a look at the human condition as told through characters that audiences instantly related to and could believe in. It’s something that writers tend to forget because they’re concentrating on the high-tech aspects of telling the best possible story instead of looking at how to simply touch the audience in some way and make them say, “Oh my God, I’ve been there, too!”  Whether it’s getting them to realize that they have the same fears or the same phobia or the same dream, a movie needs to say something to you and you need to respond to it in such a way—through the heart or through the soul—that you just don’t want to leave your theater seat even when the usher says, “Okay, bud, move along.  The next group is coming through.”

As a studio reader, what are some of the major turn-offs when a new script falls into your lap?

What overall is really bad is when people try to cram too much into a story—or too little.  It’s about not having a clear-cut view of what your story is and changing back and forth as far as what the goal is going to be.  The second thing is not fully developing the characters.  Some people know how a story should start and how it should end but they just don’t know how to have the characters carry the story all the way through.  Character and dialogue are actually the two most important things for me, probably even more important than the story.  Most of the stories that readers at studios read are actually variations of things we’ve all heard before—but with a twist.  What makes those twists unique always has something to do with the characters and how they look at life and, accordingly, react to it.

So what kinds of things really make you sit up and take notice?

I’d have to say that it’s what I just mentioned, only put them in reverse!  I also have to add that I like it when I can tell that there’s a real sense of passion behind the writing. Sometimes when I feel that level of passion coming through in the words—a story that’s personal and really means everything to the person who wrote it—this is something that comes from such an honest place, I can’t help but be attracted to it and be interested in how it’s going to turn out!

Kathie Fong Yoneda is the author of The Script Selling Game: A Hollywood Insider’s Look at Getting Your Script Sold and Produced. You can find her Website kathiefongyoneda.com.

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is the author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, health, and how-tos for aspiring authors. You can find her at authorhamlett.com</em>

Active and Passive Voices

By Genevieve Fosa

I was surprised to find out how many otherwise well-educated people are confused over the meaning and use of active and passive voices.

In a nutshell, with active voice, the subject does whatever it is, and with passive voice, whatever it is is done to the subject by an amorphous other.

Editors will tell you that active voice is preferable to passive, but for those who are confused, this dictum is meaningless. Even the grammar check on Windows word processing programs will point out those places where passive voice is used, as though it were grammatically incorrect. Passive voice is not bad grammar, it simply isn’t as strong as active.

“The election was lost,” is perfectly good English, but it is passive voice. We don’t know who lost the election, merely that it was lost. “George Bush Jr. lost the election” is active voice. Here we know exactly who lost the election. It’s an excellent statement. But it is wishful thinking on my part, and this article is not supposed to be political.

Not long ago, some broad thinking people came all the way up from Kansas to tell us poor people here in Kennebunk, Maine, about right thinking. You could tell they had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to put their posters together. They marched up and down in front of several of our churches. (Please note the active voice in this last sentence, even though I used the word ‘they.’ I did specify who ‘they’ were in the sentence before.) In fact, I had the distinct feeling these people had hired a professional to help them with their posters, as they were all so neat, and clear, and easy to read. And yes, the statements on them were in active voice. Here is what several of them said: “God hates Gays.” “Gays are hated” would have been a truer statement, but it would have used the old no-no of passive voice, and would not have gotten people’s attention the way “God hates Gays” did. By their creative use of active voice, these charming people managed to get the attention not only of people going to and from church, but of several news stations and newspapers from all over the state.

On a more serious note, active voice is more attention-getting, and this is why editors tend to like it better. Even so, there are times and places when passive voice is the more appropriate one to use. These would be situations when you are setting a mood in a descriptive passage. “The sky was lit with jagged streaks of lightning, and the earth soaked with rain” is an okay statement, describing a storm. It is useful when you want to draw your reader’s attention somewhere else. In this case, the strong, active verbs would be reserved for your protagonist.

However, “Lightening crackled and roared across the sky, and rain poured down, soaking into, and flooding all the land around,” is definitely active, calling attention to the storm. This statement is far more dramatic than the one above, and for this reason, is more likely to hold your reader’s attention.

Genivive Fosa blogs at TheBestWord.net

Is Your Writing a Business or a Hobby?

By Kelly James-Enger

Chances are you began writing because you loved to capture your words on the page. Then, as you continued to write, you may have decided to pursue publication. What could be better than seeing your work in print? Why, discovering that you could get paid—sometimes well—for your writing.

Whether you write for love, or for money, or for both isn’t simply a rhetorical question. The answer may have a significant impact on whether you can deduct your writing-related expenses under U.S. law. Read on to learn what you need to know to determine whether your writing is a business or a hobby— and why that distinction is a critical one.

Let’s start with the basics. As a U.S. citizen, the money you make from your writing counts as ‘reportable income.’ Legally, you’re required to report the amount as income on your taxes, regardless of whether your writing is considered a business or a hobby.

But if you’re operating your writing as a business, instead of a hobby, you can deduct legitimate business deductions from that income. That reduces the amount you pay taxes on at the end of the year. On the other hand, if you’re pursuing writing as a hobby, you still have to report the income you make but you can’t take advantage of any business deductions (because you have a hobby, not a business.) Get it?

Let’s say your first year of freelancing, you sell several articles for $800 and win a writing contest which awards you $500. Your writing-related expenses including postage, office supplies, telephone charges, books, and other materials total $200. If you’re operating as a business, you’re allowed to deduct $200 from $1,300 and pay taxes only on the $1,100. If, however, you’re operating as a hobby, you’ll pay taxes on the entire $1,300.

So what’s the difference between a business and a hobby? After all, even if you’re writing to make money, you probably enjoy your craft, right? The key for the Internal Revenue Service comes down to something called ‘profit motive.’ Profit motive essentially means that you’re writing with the intention of making money from your writing—not simply pursuing a pleasurable activity.

How can you convince the IRS you’re writing with a profit motive—to make money, in other words—if you ever are audited? The IRS considers a number of factors, but some of the things you can do to prove this include:

  • Submitting your work only to markets that pay. You’re writing for money, not for exposure.
  • Dedicating significant time and effort to your freelancing career—not approaching it in a sporadic or haphazard fashion.
  • Setting annual financial goals for your writing business, and aiming to maintain or exceed them over time. (Making a profit doesn’t absolutely prove that your writing is a business, not a hobby, but it certainly helps.)
  • Keeping records of your submissions, assignments, income, and expenses like you would with any other business.

The Bonus of a Writing Business

Once you pass the ‘writing as a business’ test, you’re entitled to deduct all ordinary, necessary, and reasonable expenses related to trying to make a profit in your business. According to IRS regulations, those expenses are the ones that are common, accepted, helpful, and appropriate for your writing business. For most freelancers, those expenses would include:

  • Computer and software purchased and used for your business;
  • Paper, letterhead, pens, printing cartridges, and other offices supplies; Postage and mailing expenses (and these can add up fast!);
  • Telephone expenses including long-distance charges (while you can’t deduct your primary phone line, a second one used solely for business is deductible); Travel and entertainment related to your business, such as lunch with an editor or trip to attend a writing conference (note that you can only deduct half of your meals); and
  • Writing-related classes and events.

You may also be entitled to a home office deduction if you use a section of your house or apartment solely and exclusively as your place of business, and to deduct the cost of traveling from your home office to other locations for business reasons— such as mailing manuscripts, conducting face-to-face interviews, meeting with clients at their offices, and attending a networking event. With automotive expenses, you can choose between the actual expense method or the more commonly used standard mileage deduction to write off allowable operating costs.

The bottom line is that if you’re writing with the intention to make money, keeping good business records and maintaining expense receipts can support your ‘profit motive’ position and reduce your tax liability. As a smart, savvy writer, you want to make as much money as possible—but pay as little tax on it as you legally can.

Freelance journalist and speaker Kelly James-Enger is the author of books including Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money (Random House, April, 2005) and Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003). She can be reached through BodyWise Consulting.

Writing a Great Short Story

By Lee Masterson

Short stories can be an excellent way to break into the competitive field of fiction publishing. Novel publishers are more willing to look at work written by an author whose work has already appeared in print. Magazines and periodicals love the short form, so selling the work can often be simpler than pushing an entire novel manuscript. Readers are more willing to pay money for work from an author they are already familiar with. Most importantly, though, short stories provide a fertile ground for bigger ideas to spring from.

The difficulty lies in mastering this challenging form of writing.

Some shorter stories manage to leave a lingering impression on readers long after the final word was written. Others leave readers with the feeling that they have missed the point entirely.

So how do you strike a balance between writing an effective, memorable short story and creating a short, aimless length of prose?

To make your short stories more effective, try to keep in mind these following points:

Theme

Establish a clear theme before you begin writing. What is the story about? That doesn’t mean what is the plot line, the sequence of events or the character’s actions, it means what is the underlying message or statement behind the words. Get this right and your story will have more resonance in the minds of your readers.

Snapshot

An effective short story covers a very short time span. Picture it as a snapshot of a particular moment in the life of the story. Of course, the character has a history and will often have consequences to face after the story’s conclusion, too. But for the sake of this short story, only the explanation of the event is relevant. This explanation should be the illustration of the underlying theme to your story.

Bang!

Begin your story with a conflict scene. Throw your protagonist in the deep end. Open with the action. Hook your reader into the story by beginning in the middle of something big. Forget the scenery, or the bad guy who got your hero into this mess in the first place, or the reason your protagonist is dangling by his feet from a sheer cliff. There will be time to sprinkle those details throughout the story later. For now, concentrate on forcing your readers to wonder how he got into that situation. A reader who wonders this is a reader who will continue reading to find out!

Characters

Don’t overload your story with too many characters. Each new character you introduce will bring a new dimension to the story, but it can also add unnecessary length. Too many diverse dimensions (or directions) will dilute the theme. Have only enough characters to effectively illustrate the theme.

Description

Space is extremely limited with short stories. Many publications adhere to strict word-counts and will not accept longer pieces. You need to make every word count. Edit your draft carefully and remove any obsolete words or phrases. Find a more compact way to say want you mean. Dig through a thesaurus to find words that more accurately convey what you want to say. Finding one perfect, strong noun can be more compelling than a whole descriptive paragraph.

Focus

The best stories are the ones that focus upon a narrow subject line. History, external details, surroundings, other characters — all extraneous details should fade into oblivion while you focus on your story’s central theme. It can be tempting to digress, and often more tempting to expand the fledgling idea into a full novel-length work. The tighter you squeeze the focus of the story, the more the reader will be pulled into the event you have drawn.

Twist

Surprise your readers. Add a little twist at the end of your story that leaves them wondering about your protagonist long after the story ends. Avoid the overtly predictable ending and make publishers remember your style.

Denouement

Don’t leave your readers hanging in the dark at the end of your story. Be sure that your conclusion is satisfying, but not too predictable. Readers need to be left with a feeling of resonance, a feeling that they long to know what happened to the characters after you wrote that last word.

If you can successfully incorporate these tips into a compact, focused story, you just might find that you have created a memorable short story that lingers in the minds of readers and editors alike, long after they’ve finished reading!

© Copyright Lee Masterson. All Rights Reserved.

Lee Masterson is a freelance writer from South Australia. She is also the editor of Fiction Factor an online magazine for writers, offering tips and advice on getting published, articles to improve your writing skills, heaps of writer’s resources and much more.

Top Ten Writing Mistakes Made By New Children’s Writers

By Suzanne Lieurance

Okay. So I’m not David Letterman. But I doubt if he’d know much about the top 10 mistakes made by new children’s writers anyway. I, on the other hand, read from 10 to 20 manuscripts for children every week (I’m not bragging — I’m just an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature). While many of the stories I read are destined for publication, I find that 10 common mistakes crop up again and again in the other manuscripts I edit each week.

I’ll start with number 10 (just like Letterman) and work my way up to the number one writing mistake made by new children’s writers (and, just so you know — I’ve been guilty of making some of these mistakes myself, so don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’re guilty of some of these, too):

  1. No Clear POV Character — Children tend to relate to the POV character in a story. This is the person they will root for. Make it clear right from the start whose story is being told. Even if you have two main characters (twins, for example), you need to pick just one of these kids to be your POV character. And, it should go without saying, when writing for children, make sure your POV character IS a kid — even if Grandma has a big part in your story.

  2. Multiple Points of View — Unlike stories for adults, stories for children are generally told from only one POV. It isn’t difficult to maintain a single point of view once you get the hang of it. Just remember — if you are “showing” everything from your main character’s point of view, then he or she has to be present for everything that happens. I see stories all the time where the POV character suddenly leaves the room. Yikes! If your POV character wasn’t there to see or hear what went on, then we can’t see or hear it either.

  3. Telling instead of Showing — Read a good story and chances are there is a lot of action and dialogue (showing) with minimal stretches of straight narrative (telling). Too much narrative and the story sounds like a summary. Readers don’t want a summary. They want scenes with action and dialogue that make them feel they are actually experiencing what is going on. So “show” as much as possible of your story through action and dialogue.

  4. Overuse of Adjectives, Adverbs, and Other Unnecessary Words — Do you really need to say someone “whispered quietly” Or “shouted loudly” ? Or, my favorite — she “nodded her head”? What else could she nod? Or, she “shrugged her shoulders” — she certainly wouldn’t shrug her foot!

  5. Dialogue That is Not Punctuated Properly — Get a grammar book to learn how to punctuate dialogue properly. But, most importantly, remember to change paragraphs each time the speaker changes. I read manuscripts all the time where three or four characters are speaking, yet the paragraph never changes. Just imagine how confusing that is to the reader!

  6. Long Timeframes — I know Harry Potter takes place over several years. But, the story also takes place through several books. Most children’s writers start out writing stories for children’s magazines or they want to write picture books for very young children. Either way, the timeframe in these stories should be rather short — a couple of hours or a day or two. If your story takes place over a couple of weeks or (gulp!) a couple of years, then you need to shorten the timeframe.

  7. No Narrative “Hook” for the Reader — I know what you’re asking — “What is a narrative hook?” Well, that’s simple. It’s just an opening sentence or two that “hooks” the reader and makes him or her want to continue reading to find out what happens.

  8. Dialogue That Doesn’t Sound Real — Listen to any child or teenager and you’ll find out that much of what kids and teens say (at least to each other) tends to sound like a series of grunts. So don’t have the child or teen in your story use words like “shall,” or never use contractions. If you do, the dialogue will sound too formal and your work will not have a child’s or teen’s voice.

  9. Adults Who Step In to Save the Day for the Child — I know what you’re thinking. Parents and other well-meaning adults DO step in all the time to save the day for kids. So why can’t they do it in stories for children? The answer to that is ± because children don’t want to read stories like that. Stories for children have strong children (or children who eventually become strong throughout the course of the story) as characters. This empowers the children who read these stories. They figure, if the POV character can solve his own problems then maybe they can too.

Now. Drum roll here.

The number one mistake new writers make in their stories for children is

  1. No Real Conflict — There’s no story problem. Your POV character needs to face some big problem right at the start of the story. Then, he or she needs to struggle and struggle with this problem as he/she tries to solve it. That is, things need to keep getting worse and worse until finally the POV character is able to solve the problem (or at least resolve it) and change or grow somehow in the process. Without a story problem you have what editors like to call “an incident,” and editors don’t publish incidents. They publish stories.

So that’s my list of top 10 mistakes new children’s writers make. Use this article as a checklist when you’re writing for children. Avoid these mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to publication.

See you in print!

Suzanne Lieurance is a freelance writer and she teaches children’s writing for the Institute of Children’s Literature. For information about children’s writing, visit Lieurance’s writing website.
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