Four Steps to Becoming a God(dess) of Literary Elements

Guest Post by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

The Art of Floating cover image
The Art of Floating

When I was in grad school working on my MFA degree, fellow writers and I hashed out the symbolic power of Janie’s hair in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, argued about whether or not Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” was a statement against the growing materialism of American culture, and bowed to the importance of hunger in Richard Wright’s Black Boyhunger for food, books, individuality, equality, voice, and more. We lauded Alice Walker’s use of opposites in The Color Purple to characterize Celie—most especially Shug’s mighty sexuality and Sofia’s sassy attitude. “Wow,” we repeated again and again, “it all seems so darn seamless.”

And it is…now. But I assure you that when Hurston, Melville, Wright, and Walker reread their first drafts, nothing was seamless—especially those literary elements that pop, zing, and grab your attention. Those brilliants icons of American literature groaned, moaned, and dropped heads to desks, just like you, when faced with the task of weaving metaphors, allusion, epithet, and other devices into their novels and short stories.

So rest easy in the knowledge that you’re not alone in this challenge, and follow these four steps to create the kind of story about which readers will wow, sigh, and say, “It’s all so darn seamless.”

Step #1 — Story First

As you write the first drafts of a novel or short story, don’t think about literary elements. Don’t think, what does this tree symbolize? Is this statement ironic? Does this scene need to be foreshadowed? Should I include an allusion here? Does this flashback work? Instead, just tell your story. Tell it fully. Create a compelling setting and characters. Figure out the plot. Get the dialogue moving. Establish tension. Follow the story through to an ending (even if the ending changes over time).

Step #2 — Read & Review

When you’ve got a solid draft with concrete characters, a strong sense of place, and, yes, a plot, read through that draft. As you do, you’ll notice that without consciously trying (because you adhered to Step #1), you’ve embedded a number of literary elements in your story. Good storytellers quite naturally incorporate this kind of stuff into their work; we use figurative language to describe a scene, hyperbole to make a point, and symbols to convey meaning. We do it even when giving directions to a bus stop or teaching our children to make chutney.

Step #3 — Heighten

Once you’ve noted the literary elements that quite naturally made their way into your story, decide which you’d like to sculpt and heighten. Then do so. If you need a bit of inspiration, think about Hurston

reading the first draft of Their Eyes Were Watching God in which Janie probably had a modest ponytail. Then consider Hurston scratching her head and thinking, “Hm, Janie’s hair. Yes, Janie’s hair seems to be saying something. Something about power and sexuality.” Then imagine her rewriting so that she ends up with this glittering gem:The men noticed her [Janie’s] firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.”

Step #4Back Off

Remember, first and foremost, your readers want a good story, not a litany of literary devices. So don’t overdo it. Don’t load up every paragraph with similes, motifs, irony, and whatnot. Tell your story. Use the elements that arise naturally. Heighten those. Then back off. Let the story do the work.

Write!

You’re now well on your way to becoming a god(dess) of literary elements. And if, along the journey, you find yourself tempted to overwork a metaphor, pop the reader in the face with a forced foil, or foreshadow nearly every event, stop, return to Step #1, and start again. You’ll be glad you did.

________________________

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, and Hypertext. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. Follow her on Twitter at @kbairokeeffe and visit www.kristinbairokeeffe.com.

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.

Looking for a 2013 Writing Workshop?

I just got this press release, so I thought I’d pass it along to all of you.

ODYSSEY WRITING WORKSHOP ANNOUNCES ITS 18th SUMMER SESSION

About Odyssey
Since its founding in 1996, Odyssey has become one of the most respected workshops in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror writing community. Odyssey is for developing writers whose work is approaching publication quality and for published writers who want to improve their work. The six-week workshop combines advanced lectures, exercises, extensive writing, and in-depth feedback on student manuscripts. Top authors, editors, and agents have served as guest lecturers, including George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Jane Yolen, Terry Brooks, Robert J. Sawyer, Ben Bova, Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Hand, Jeff VanderMeer, Donald Maass, Sheila Williams, Shawna McCarthy, Carrie Vaughn, and Dan Simmons. Fifty-eight percent of Odyssey graduates go on to professional publication.

The program is held every summer on Saint Anselm College‘s beautiful campus in Manchester, NH. Saint Anselm is one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country, dedicated to excellence in education, and its campus provides a peaceful setting and state-of-the-art facilities for Odyssey students. College credit is available upon request.

Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey’s director and primary instructor, is a best-selling author and a former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, where she won the World Fantasy Award for her work. As an editor, Cavelos gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. She provides students with detailed, concrete, constructive critiques of their work. Cavelos said, “I’ve worked with many different writers, and I know that each writer thinks and works differently. We limit attendance at Odyssey to sixteen, so I can become deeply familiar with the work of each student and provide assessments of strengths and weaknesses. I work individually with each student, helping each to find the best writing process for him, suggesting specific tools to target weaknesses, and charting progress over the six weeks.” Her critiques average over 1,200 words, and her handwritten line edits on manuscripts are extensive.

Odyssey class time is split between workshopping sessions and lectures. An advanced, comprehensive curriculum covers the elements of fiction writing in depth. While feedback reveals the weaknesses in students’ manuscripts, lectures teach the tools and techniques necessary to strengthen them.

The workshop runs from June 10 to July 19, 2013. Class meets for four hours in the morning, five days a week. Students spend about eight hours more per day writing and critiquing each other’s work. Prospective students, aged eighteen and up, apply from all over the world. The early action application deadline is JANUARY 31, and the regular admission deadline is APRIL 8. Tuition is $1,920, and housing is $790 for a double room in a campus apartment and $1,580 for a single room.

This year, Odyssey graduate Sara King is sponsoring the Parasite Publications Character Awards to provide financial assistance to three character-based writers wishing to attend. The Parasite Publications Character Awards, three scholarships in the amounts of $1,920 (full tuition), $500, and $300, will be awarded to the three members of the incoming class who are deemed extraordinarily strong character writers, creating powerful, emotional characters that grab the reader and don’t let go.

Meet Our 2013 Writer-in-Residence
Odyssey’s 2013 writer-in-residence, Nancy Holder, is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of adult, young adult, middle grade, and early reader work, both fiction and nonfiction. She has sold approximately 80 novels and 200 short stories, comic books, and essays in various genres. She has taught creative writing classes at the University of California at San Diego, the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference, and other conferences and colleges, and has been on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing for seven years.

Other Guest Lecturers
Lecturers for the 2013 workshop include some of the best teachers in the field: award-winning authors Holly Black, Patricia Bray, Adam-Troy Castro, and Jack Ketchum; and the two-time Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, Sheila Williams.

Odyssey Graduates
Graduates of the Odyssey Writing Workshop have been published in the top fiction magazines and by the top book publishers in the field. Their stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Lightspeed, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Clarkesworld. Some of the recent novels published by Odyssey graduates are Kitty Steals the Show by Carrie Vaughn, published by Tor Books; Lies & Omens: A Shadows Inquiries Novel by Lyn Benedict, published by Ace Books; Spellcrossed by Barbara Ashford, published by DAW; Silver by Rhiannon Held, published by Tor Books; and Clean: A Mindspace Investigations Novel by Alex Hughes, published by Roc Books.

Comments from the Class of 2012
“I learned more in six weeks at Odyssey than I did in three years in an MFA program.” – Jessie Robie

“Jeanne is the most thorough and hard-working instructor I’ve ever met. Odyssey has changed me as a writer. I can’t imagine a finer education or experience.” – James Khan

“I was afraid Odyssey would change my writing and take away what made it mine and unique, but I was so wrong. At Odyssey, I developed a sense of control over those gut feelings I used to have—when I sensed something was off but just could not figure out what it was. . . . Odyssey is like a writer paradise. You might not want to change when you get here, but you will. Later, you won’t want to leave, but when you do, you leave with a purpose.” – Jessica May Lin

Other Odyssey Resources and Services
The Odyssey Web site, www.odysseyworkshop.org, offers many resources for writers, including online classes, a critique service, free podcasts, writing and publishing tips, and a monthly blog. Those interested in applying to the workshop should visit the Web site, phone (603) 673-6234, or e-mail jcavelos@sff.net.

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.

Breaking Yourself Up Into Your Characters

By Bob Yehling

I faced a serious time crunch, even for a life in which time always seems to fold on top of itself. I sent a list of potential “next books” to my agent—five or six ideas, and told him I was not beholden to any particular order. “Recommend whichever book or books you think will be our best next shot,” I said.

Within two days, his recommendation came back. He chose The Voice, an idea for a novel with which I’d been playing—entirely in my head, never on paper—for two years. What’s more, he marked his choice with exclamation points. In this tough-as-nails publishing climate, when a successful agent puts exclamation points next to something, you push everything else aside and write it. I shook my head. That figures: He wants the one title that has never been outlined, mapped out or even played with beyond a journal entry or two. Never mind character sketches, settings, narrative arcs, conflict/resolution treatments or the other preparatory work I normally do when preparing to write a novel or long short story.

I took a deep breath—then held it when I read the next sentence in his e-mail. “Because of the political theme, if you can get it done by October 1, we may be able to sell it in time for the 2004 (presidential political) season,” he wrote. “Hurry.”

It was May 20. I had less than four and a half months, with a one-month period looming in June and July in which my other commitments would render it impossible for me to write a word

To put it kindly, the challenge was daunting. I would need to employ all imaginable speed, creativity, focus and ability to use dialogue to propel the story forward. I would also need to develop characters in a hurry, and breathe life and realism into them so that they didn’t resemble the stick figures that lurch in and out of so many hurried novels like tin men in a snowstorm. My only “advantage,” if you can call it that, is that I’d spent time mentally grooming my protagonist, a 1960s-era rock music legend with keen political savvy and the ability to grasp and bring out the higher qualities of the human condition. He was a fun character, a creative character, one that appealed well to my lifelong fantasy of being a rock star and my tendency to dart in and out of political activism whenever the times and issues felt crucial to me. This was one of those times.

I worked out the protagonist by peppering his world with grains of my own life in order to develop a sense of the familiar. During this process, I tripped and fell into the secret of how to write this book: I would season all of the characters with slices of my own life. Everything would become fair game— travels, conversations, readings, music, dreams, intuitions, observations, likes, dislikes, realizations, journal musings, memories, relationships, adolescence, triumphs and failures. “Stand naked before your audience,” Robert Bly admonishes; I had to go all the way. The characters would “choose” what they wanted from this pool of my life, and “integrate” it into their own existences, their own experiences.

I got to work. The plot line of The Voice is straightforward: The rock music legend, Tom Timoreaux, is “drafted” to run for president by a pair of top-flight strategists—one Republican, one Democrat—who are disgusted with the disintegration of the political and governing processes. They defect and turn to Timoreaux, whose political acumen has helped numerous members of Congress and the Senate over a 30-year period. However, Timoreaux and his old band are planning a major 40-stop tour that is already sold out. In The Voice, the intensity of an 11th hour presidential campaign and a long-awaited reunion tour converge—and the protagonist’s voice and vision hold center stage.

However, one character would not make this book. The Voice is populated with subplots and side stories, to show Timoreaux’s colorful “behind-the-scenes” life. He hires his wild-child youngest daughter, Christine, to sing backup vocals in the band; as the summer progresses, she becomes a star. His wife, Megan, is the family’s core, a nod to the Native American tradition in which the wife is the true guiding force. His three other children also play roles in the book. The two strategists, Roger Wilkinson and Jason Robiski, are fully developed, as is the lead agent on the candidate’s Secret Service detail, Mike Jensen. To throw in some personal and political intrigue, I added an alluring Italian woman who may or may not be the candidate’s daughter from his formative years in San Francisco (he was a 1960s music legend, after all); and a foe who doesn’t want the status quo to change—and will stop at nothing to silence Tom Timoreaux.

I breathed pieces of my own life into each of the characters and many of the scenes. My muse brought forth a collection of 30 songs for Tom and Christine; “after all,” she sweetly whispered into my inner ear, “you can’t have an original band without original music.” These songs were the sweetest surprise of the whole process, one of the greatest occurrences of my writing career, and attested to the absolute trust I give the creative process when writing first drafts. You may receive these jewels, and you may not, but you’ll never have a chance if you question and edit and discard during the creative process. I gave Tom a number of my personal characteristics—love for San Francisco, love of 1960s rock music, a Leo’s need to be on “center stage,” teaching creativity to young people, living in the New Mexico mountains (my former home), and much more. To borrow from Alice Walker, I constructed around him the temple of my familiar—to a degree.

I gave Megan Timoreaux my love for the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire (she comes from that region), my fondness for Native American and ancient Sumerian cultures, the level of awareness consistent with a long-time meditator, an ability to shut off the noise of the world, and a talent for painting and photography (both dormant in me at present). She loves medicine wheels and the poetry of Catullus. She is a deeply loving, supportive parent. She’s a strikingly beautiful, tender woman in her 50s who takes rugged hikes and protects her family with a lioness’ ferocity. (There’s that Leo again.)

Christine Timoreaux is a partial reflection of my own daughter—stubborn,beautiful, independent, and engrossed in college. She’s also a gifted singer and art student who (unlike my daughter) loves to party. Her strained relationship with her father opened up a maelstrom of personal pain from deep in my core when I covered it. Roger Wilkinson is a political wonk, a high intellectual, a connoisseur of fine art, a bow-tied nerd—which I was until my early teen years. Jason Robiski is a fast-moving, jet-setting lover of strategy, intrigue, all things Italian and beautiful women, who sometimes gets into pickles with the latter and a figment of my very real past. Mike Jensen is a Secret Service agent with a wild streak, a rugged outdoorsman, highly protective of family and his detail, observant to the extreme, and a lover of eagles. I can relate. Damiana Scigliano, the Italian mystery woman, loves ’60s music, lives in Venice, still idealizes her romantic partners, and will not be stopped if a matter concerns principles and the salvation of her own dignity. All traits that, for better or worse, I carry.

The characters “seasoned” themselves as the writing progressed. They took on lives of their own, voices of their own. I used these personal characteristics to animate them, to develop an energetic and emotional charge between the characters and their storyteller—me. In this way, the characters’ voices rolled through loud and clear, and I could become an instrument for the story they had to tell, with all its twists, turns and surprises.

The pace was never a problem: Two of the most intense experiences I’ve ever witnessed were a rock music tour and a political campaign. In The Voice, they come together. Everything runs at warp speed, where things happen quickly and people think on their feet. So do my characters. While they began with a smattering of my qualities (and idiosyncrasies), they finished as far different personalities. That is the beauty of the entire “breaking yourself up” process. If you spread the seeds among the garden of characters, and let them sprout into distinct beings through deep characterization and effective dialogue—vital for good fiction—then your readers will never know that you utilized this technique.

By breaking myself up, I was able to grab a character and know whose hand I was holding as he or she told the story through me. From that beachhead of a trait or two, entire beings developed and blossomed in ways I never imagined when I sat down to tackle this ridiculous deadline. As the book grew, three more benefits of this technique revealed itself: I found I stayed “in character” much easier, the dialogue fully conveyed the characters’ respective voices, and I immersed in the creative, timeless pure writing flow for four or five consecutive hours a day. As Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway emphasized, that’s all a writer needs—and they produced the works to prove it.

I finished the 170,000-word first draft of “The Voice” on September 16, two weeks ahead of schedule. When I began to rewrite and revise, and trim about 40,000 words from the draft, yet another gift from this character-building process showed itself: I had only half the work of previous books. All the story needed was a comprehensive revision and a fine-tuning. I’d written as fast as I could for three months, and the entire narrative arc and personality bloom of the characters came out right the first time. It felt like an outpouring of manna from the heavens.

Following my experience, I decided to test the effectiveness of this technique for others by taking the plunge. I introduced it to a class of mostly professional writers in a September workshop I conducted, and also advised a couple of clients whose books I was editing to animate their characters by injecting more of “what you know.” The response was strong and positive; their characters sprang to life. I then asked myself, “Is this just my ego billowing to new heights by thinking my life is so interesting that it can define every character in every book I ever write?”

There were two answers to that question, besides “No”: I wrote what I knew; and my characters did not define themselves by my personal experiences or traits. They are much different than me. This just helped me to get to know them and bring them to life in the face of a near-impossible deadline. I looked back at several books of one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, and saw where she often did the same thing. She had to. So do we: We have to make our characters real. We make them real by writing what we know. Furthermore, I learned much about myself from spending the summer with these characters—and I came out of the experience feeling more complete, relieved, exhausted, and wondering if I even wanted to write another novel again.

It’s two months later. Another set of characters are knocking on the door, looking for an animating characteristic or two that will throw open their worlds. They want to form a fictional reunion of my freshman high school English class and relive an experience in that class that changed and defined my life. I think I’ll help them out.

Bob Yehling is a writer, editor, teacher and author of two books, Make Me An Eagle and The Voice. He teaches writing workshops throughout the country, including the Writes of Life series, which includes a segment on breaking yourself up into characters. You can find Bob Yehling at his Website wordjourneys.com.

In Search of Great American Writers

Happy Tuesday, AWers! This press release just arrived in my inbox, and I thought some of you might be interested:

Saturday Evening Post logo

THE SATURDAY EVENING POST LAUNCHES

FICTION CONTEST IN SEARCH OF

NEXT GREAT AMERICAN WRITERS

Indianapolis (February 6, 2012) — On the eve of the 110th birthday of John Steinbeck, a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post and the acclaimed author of classic novels including The Grapes of Wrath—the Post announces its first ever “Great American Fiction Contest.” The competition offers aspiring novelists the opportunity to join the ranks of other renowned Post contributors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Louis L’Amour, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe.

“Good writers help us understand who we are. And The Saturday Evening Post believes that supporting and encouraging writing is all the more vital in a universe where media is evolving so rapidly,” said Editorial Director Steven Slon.

Sponsored by the nonprofit the Saturday Evening Post Society, the contest is designed to promote fiction and creative writing, while seeking America’s next great, unpublished voices. The winning story will be published in the January/February 2013 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and on the magazine’s website. The winner will also be awarded $500, while five runners-up will receive $100 each and have their stories published on the Post’s website.

Entries must be character- or plot-driven stories in any genre of fiction that falls within the Post’s broad range of interests. Entrants must be previously unpublished authors (excluding personal websites and blogs) and stories must be 1,500-5,000 words in length. All submissions should be made electronically in Microsoft Word format with the author’s name, address, telephone number and email address on the first page. The Saturday Evening Post editorial staff in consultation with the magazine’s fiction advisory board will judge the stories. There is a $10 entry fee and all entries must be postmarked by July 1, 2012.

For more information, or to submit a story, please visit saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-contest.

Remember: Write hard. Write true. And write on!

A few August 31 Fiction Deadlines

Hadley Rille Books: A Quiet Shelter There is an upcoming anthology of speculative fiction about service or companion animals. The deadline is August 31, and the pay is $10 for a story or $5 for a poem, all USD. The minimum word count for fiction is 1000 words; the maximum is 4000. That makes the payrate for fiction between 1 cent per word and .0025 cents per word (or 1/4 of a penny per word). Submission guidelines!
Editor Gerri Leen has some “Quirks” and suggests that writers check out her blog.

I Like a Little Science in My Fiction” is also slated to close on August 31. First place gets 5 cents per word, second place gets 3 cents per word, and third place gets 1 cent per word. Stories must be based on a recent scientific innovation or discovery (which must be cited!) and be set off of earth. Check out the guidelines.

RymFire eBooks wants 2,500-7,500 word stories (these sound like firm limits from what I’ve read) for their State of Horror: California anthology. As you can imagine, they want horror stories set in California. The editors were interviewed at duotrope if you want more insight into what they publish. They’re only paying $3 per story, but there’s an interesting twist. Every time they sell 150 eBooks, the authors get an additional $3. They’re publishing a print version as well, and they count print sales as three eBook sales for the purposes of reaching the $3 goal. Submission Guidelines. Their website is under construction.

Oncoming Contest Deadlines, Fee-Free Edition

Redstone Science Fiction’s “Identity Crisis” contest is accepting submissions until August 15. There’s no entry fee, and winners get 5 cents per word (4,000 word maximum). The contest’s prompt is an essay titled “Identity Crisis: Who Are We, If We Can Choose Who We Are?” which, along with the publication’s submission guidelines, can be found on the contest page at http://redstonesciencefiction.com/identity-crisis-contest/.

Filament Magazine’s erotic fiction contest closes to submissions on July 31. Filament Magazine is an adult publication, so consider this before following any of the links in this paragraph at work. The theme is “Music,” first prize is £100, there’s no entry fee, and they accept electronic entries. The editors have a few requests of entrants, so make sure read the guidelines (PDF file: http://www.filamentmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/fictionguidelines.pdf) and the contest page (http://www.filamentmagazine.com/2011/05/fiction-contest-for-issue-9-theme-music/) closely.

PoeticPower has an essay and poetry contest winding to a close on August 16. The contest is open to students between grades 3-12. There’s no entry fee, and winners get a $50 savings bond. Both contests’ guidelines are highlighted on the PoeticPower index page. Full disclosure: I thought that their website looked skeevy, but Winning Writers says “We are satisfied that this contest is not a scam.” PoeticPower has something close to a 45% acceptance rate, which is strange for normal contests, but since PoeticPower’s goal has more to do with building self-esteem in children than creating literary masterworks, I think that the contest has quite a bit of value.

If you just need more time, SPS Studios‘ 19th Bi-Annual Poetry Card Contest closes December 31st. No entry fee; first prize is $300. The editors say they’ll accept rhyming poetry, but that they think non-rhyming sounds better. Their submission guidelines and entry form can be found at http://www.sps.com/poetry/index.html.

Independent Anthologies that Want YOUR Writing!

I’ve noticed a lot of indie anthologies popping up lately, and since three of them ended up in the Water Cooler‘s Paying Markets forum, I thought I’d share a few leads here that never found their way into our forum’s warm, loving arms.

But first, one of the three that posted on the forums still has plenty of time before its deadline. For the dark fantasy and horror writers out there, consider putting something together for Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, edited by Eric J. Guignard. Writing guidelines, what he wants and doesn’t, contact information, and updates can be found at http://ericjguignard.blogspot.com/
1 cent per word payment.

The anthology titled Cat’s New Eye Bella is looking for, wait for it, Spec Fic stories about cats. Their guidelines mention that they want humor twice, so consider sticking some lol on any cats you might lob in their direction. More information here: http://darkwineandstars.blogspot.com/search/label/Anthologies%20Paid%20Info
1 cent per word payment.

My personal favorite (because I’m studying Chinese, I suspect) is a yet-untitled Wuxia anthology, which is a labor of love-type project meant to generate familiarity with Chinese Wuxia, a word that roughly means “hero” or “knight.” As a genre, Wuxia refers to stories that are a bit like crossing the much-romanticized U.S. Old West with Chinese sword fighting and martial arts. The editor, John Dishon, has a much better explanation of the genre here: http://wuxia.genreverse.com/what-is-wuxia/.

From his submission guidelines:

If your story is a borderline case, or you’re not quite sure if it’s wuxia, then send it in anyway. The worst that can happen is it gets rejected.

The guidelines exist over at http://wuxia.genreverse.com/submissions/ and payment is set to range between 1 cent per word and 5 cents per word. If you’ve never even heard of Wuxia, this is a fantastic opportunity (and dare I say motivation?) to learn about a new genre.

Absolutely write hard, write true, and write on!

-BK

What Point of View?

By Callum Shakespeare

What point of view? It is the question we all ask ourselves when writing a short story, novel, and in some cases, a poem. And there is no easy answer. The point of view (POV) must suit your style as an author, the requirements of your chosen genre, and your plot.

Perhaps the easiest way to discuss POV is through a scale of intimacy compared to one of overall understanding. Typically, high intimacy levels pair with low overall understanding, and vice versa. Point of view is a choice between strong, emotionally established characters (intimate) and a blockbuster plot (understanding).

Most intimate is first person POV. The reader gets the closest possible link to the thoughts and feelings of the character but at a loss of wider knowledge. The reader cannot know anything that the lead does not.

In contrast, omniscient is least intimate POV but lends the widest overall understanding. And third person POV is very much a compromise between the other two.

Now let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each.

First Person POV

In this POV, the author and the reader are in the characters’ shoes. It is from the character’s viewpoint (he/she is telling us what happened) using words such as “I,” “me,” and “my.”

I walked down the road, my bag swinging with each step. I saw a stray dog. “Where is your home?” I asked.

The author cannot include anything not witnessed by the character. For example, the lead cannot know that the dog’s owners abandoned it that very morning unless she/he saw them doing it. This limits the readers’ understanding of the world in which your characters live and the events that happen there (plot).

Being only able to observe things through the eyes of the lead character can cloud “reality” so to speak. This can be both blessing and curse. It might hide your lead’s guilt and enhance a mystery but could also prevent the reader from having a clear understanding of the plot.

Remember, first person is the character’s story and is therefore heavily opinionated. Everything is seen and understood in reference to the character’s views, abilities, and disabilities (to a hallucinating man, sudden terrifying visions would seem to be reality — the reader would have to dissect the real from the false — of course, this could be a good thing! But watch out!).

A way around this “clouding” is to use first person point of view for multiple characters rather than a single lead. This is called first person unlimited. Using this, events can be seen from more than one perspective and the reader attains a more “real” view of your fictional world. Thus, one character’s views and prejudices are evened out by another’s opposing opinions.

First person unlimited is most widely used as a conveyor of relationships. The reader can see approaches and responses and understand why each character reacts the way they do. What one thought of as smart and amusing, another may see as silly and immature. The reader can understand how friendships form and trust builds.

However you structure your story, make sure each character is extremely individual. This takes much skill on the author/s part and if it is not done properly, the reader will find it hard to distinguish between your characters. Accentuate your leads’ views and make them as different as you can while still keeping to your story (it would not be a good idea to have two very similar friends as joint leads). Some authors put the lead’s name at the start of each chapter and (to avoid confusion) then write with that character’s voice for the entire chapter.

First person POV creates a potentially memorable and intimate story. But for it to work well you must:

  • Create strong, interesting leads
  • Remember you cannot include firsthand something that none of your leads witnessed
  • Make each lead unique

Omniscient POV

Omniscient point of view is the least intimate but lends itself to an excellent overall understanding. In fact, from an intimacy standpoint, it is the opposite of first person. It‘�s a description from the outside. It is like watching the proceedings through a TV camera — the reader can hear the voices and see the actions but not read the thoughts. There is no lead character but rather it is what a cloud would observe hovering above the scene.

The car raced down the freeway at a breakneck pace the cops not far behind. “My God!” exclaimed Josh.

In third person, I might write, “Geoff was thinking the same thing” but I cannot do that in omniscient POV. Instead, I might have to write:

A frown was on both their faces.

Omniscient POV gains perspective at a loss of intimacy. Author Renni Brown suggests the selection of omniscient point of view in Lonesome Dove was the greatest weakness in an otherwise successful novel. This demonstrates that even a strong plot needs a certain level of character intimacy.

Third Person POV

Third person is the compromise between intimacy and perspective. In many ways it is the “safe POV.” Most novels are written in third person simply because it offers the greatest versatility and appeals (as compromises do) to a wider variety of people. Third person is often used in the action and thriller genres. And as such, its popularity is not surprising.

The limited variety of third person is simple. The reader walks in a single character’s shoes but may know things that the character does not. Having a single lead like this allows your audience to get to know the character better.

The greatest trouble authors have in using third person unlimited POV is keeping the multiple leads constant throughout singular scenes. This is the “one scene, one POV” discipline that a lot of critics expound. However it is not essential: action author Matthew Reilly swaps leads with rapidity and his novels sell like hotcakes. Just remember constant changing of POV lowers the level of intimacy. Of course for an action book, this not so important.

If you do have to change POV within a scene, it is advisable to leave a gap before continuing. That way, it will be clear to your readers that the point of view has changed.

Whatever your choices, the more leads and changing between leads, the less intimate your story will be. Is the gain of perspective worth the loss of intimacy?

Conclusion

Even after all this, it still comes back to the same things: your story, your genre, and you as the author. Remember, points of view are interchangeable. You can start with first person, go to third, and then change back to first.

So as to the question, “What point of view?” the only constant answer is, “Whatever suits your story.” In the end, whatever others or I say, it is up to you. What do you want?

Think about it.

POV Checklist

Hopefully this checklist will help you decide upon point of view. Answer the yes/no questions and follow the instructions to find out which POV is most suitable for your story. Remember, this is a guide only!

  1. Do you want to tell the story from a character’s point of view?

Yes No

If answer is “No,” use omniscient POV

Otherwise continue to question 2.

  1. Do you want your audience to be in the shoes of that character?

Yes No

If answer is “No,” use third person POV

If answer is “Yes,” use first person POV

Continue to question 3.

  1. Do you want multiple leads?

Yes No

If answer is “No,” use limited POV

If answer is “Yes,” use unlimited POV

Copyright Callum Shakespeare 2005
Callum Shakespeare writes poems and short stories about a diverse range of topics.