NaNoWriMo & the Power of Positive Peer Pressure

Guest Post by Eldon Hughes

P to the 4th power? P-Diddlying? Whatever.

It’s what doing NaNoWriMo successfully is all about, taking advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

Every year since 1999 a growing horde of strangers and friends get together in groups, online and face to face, all over the world. At the end of the month, many of them will claim the prize — the title of Author of a book more than 50,000 words long.

NaNo crestYears ago I was the first Municipal Liaison for the (Southern) Illinois – Elsewhere group. Yeah, “Elsewhere.” That was my second NaNo. I ML’d a couple more years and then passed it on to others who lived closer to the neighborhood. I’ve won every year I’ve attempted NaNo (7-8? times.) If you’re interested, you can read one of my NaNo Novels, Willie & Frank, here. Even better, you can get Dust to Dust, Book Two of the Poison and Wine Series, here.  It was written over a NaNo. Some would suggest that that’s cheating, since it was written by two people.  I would point out that the first draft, written during NaNo, topped 100K.

Sometimes NaNoing involved being cheered on by and cheering on others. Sometimes it was challenging myself against people online. Sometimes it was sitting, face to face, in a room full of people just as enchanted by the magic of words as I am. People who share our particular brand of crazy.   I can tell you that about half of Willie & Frank came from dares or challenges that year’s local NaNo group gave me.

Rounding the numbers, last year 690,000 people announced their own start in the novel attempt. 310,000 of them reported crossing the 50,000 word mark. Less than half is about normal. My guess is, some of those who didn’t make it started the month more in love with the idea of being a writer than they were with words. (We’ve all met folks that.) My bet? Most of the rest, who didn’t finish, didn’t take advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

You can find the nearest NaNo Groups to you, on the NaNo website. Not every group is right for every writer. If there are several, find the one that works for you. Some of them are more motivated by the word wars than the words themselves. Some are more interested in chatting and talking about the writing they are doing when they aren’t together than actually writing at the gatherings. Some are a smile, a wave and a “how many words have you got?” Then they are heads down over keyboards or paper and pen, back at the writing. — A quiet acknowledgement of the shared madness, if you will.

None of those are wrong, per se. But which one is right for you? Maybe you aren’t a face to face kind of person. I hope you will at least try it and find out first, but maybe your group is on Facebook? Or Twitter? Or the NaNo site?

If there’s not a group anywhere near you? Start your own.  NaNo prefers that their Municipal Liaisons be past NaNo Winners. They also prefer that they apply for this unpaid, volunteer position by July.  But they love to hear from motivated writers who want to volunteer.

For that matter, go rogue. Go wild.  If you’re writing in the middle of nowhere, like I am these days, slap up some “contact me” cards at any area coffee shop, library, craft shops or anywhere used books are sold. Basically, the kinds of places you like. You’re a writer, makes sense other writers like those places, too, yeah? Make a few like minded contacts and shazam, you’re in a group of writers.  Just remember, even if we all share the “writer crazy”– we still aren’t all the same.  What works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.  Remember, NaNoWriMo is about writing, not editing. So, no critics allowed. Just muses and writers.  Find the group that motivates your writing. The group you feel good about encouraging.

Then go write.

One bit of repeat here — NO EDITING. Save editing until next year. Literally, next year. November is for writing. Write with abandon. Write hard. Write.

And, when you cross the 50K mark? Come back here, to the comments, and crow about it! Shout it from a rooftop. Tell strangers. A lovely writer friend of mine put the period to the sentence where she crossed 50K and then stood on her chair, waved her arms like wings and sang like an angel. The whole room cheered and applauded. We were in a Barnes & Noble at the time. It was hysterical, it was beautiful, it was glorious. She deserved glorious.  So will you. Because you will have earned it, and no one can ever take it away from you. Go. Write. I’ll meet you back here in November.

Eldon Hughes
“Williebee” (NaNo & AW)
@Williebee
www.ifoundaknife.com

 

Four Scary Things Writers Must Learn to Embrace!

Guest post by Francesca Nicasio

When I first started out, there were some things that I tried to avoid as much as possible because they were uncomfortable scared the crap out of me. It didn’t take long though before I realized that my avoidance was getting me nowhere and if I really wanted to succeed in freelance writing, I had to not only face my fears, I had to embrace them.

Below is a list of those fears. I’ve also included the things that I learned from facing them, and what you can do if you share the same fears or apprehensions.

monsterEdits or Criticism

Getting edits and constructive criticism is a good thing. Those red marks on your article may not look pretty, but they will make you a better writer. They can improve your style and develop your attention to detail. As writers, we are often too close to our creations to see flaws or errors. Having someone scrutinize your work will make it sharper and more compelling.

How to deal with constructive criticism: First of all, don’t take it personally. The person scrutinizing your work is just doing their job. Also remember that having your work edited or criticized doesn’t make you a bad writer. It only means that there’s some room for improvement and growth.

When you get the edited piece back, thank the person and revise your work. If you don’t agree with the way they edited your article, say so. Tell them (in a polite way, of course) why you wrote it the way you did and hear out their response. This opens up constructive discourse between the two of you, and you’ll likely pick up helpful insights in the process.

Rejection

The path to freelance writing success is littered with rejection letters. It’s just part of the territory. As writers we must learn to accept–nay–embrace rejection because each “no” that we get brings us closer to that coveted “yes.”

Rejection can teach you some valuable lessons in persistence and resilience. It also tests just how badly you want success. More importantly, rejection enables you to develop a thicker hide–an attribute that you must possess when putting yourself out there.

How to deal with rejection: There’s no shortcut or sugar-coated way to handle rejection. You just have to dust yourself off, learn from the mistakes that got you rejected (if any), and keep going.

You can also think of it this way: If you get rejected by a prospective client or publication, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something wrong with you. It just means that you and the other party aren’t a good fit for each other. They’re not the right client or they simply aren’t looking for someone like you at the moment. It’s nothing personal and it’s not anything against you, it’s just the way it is.

Haters

Okay, maybe “haters” is too strong of a word. Let’s call them “negative commenters”.

Unpleasant as it may be though, receiving negative comments should be taken as a compliment. Why? Because it means that what you wrote sparked enough emotion to compel people to leave a comment.

Don’t feel bad when you get negative comments, be upset when you don’t get any.

How to deal with negative comments: If you choose to dignify their comments with a response, always be calm and respectful. Recognize that each person is entitled to their own opinions. Additionally, do not respond from a place of defensiveness or emotion. Instead, state the facts and be cool. And be sure to thank the person for taking the time to comment.

PS: This doesn’t apply to trolls.

Outreach

This is for all the shy ones (myself included). Reaching out to other people may be out of your comfort zone, but it’s absolutely necessary. Reaching success is not something that you can do alone, so get out there and network away. Growing your contact list is essential especially when you’re looking to promote your work or collaborate with others.

Reaching out to others is also something that you must do again and again throughout your career because it’s the only way to find new audiences and/or clients.

How to reach out: Do your research on the person that you’re touching base with. To be effective, reach out with their needs in mind, not just yours. For instance, if you’re contacting them to start a joint venture, tell them why a JV would benefit them and their audience. Remember, they’ll be asking the question of what’s in it for them, so be sure to answer it when you first get in touch.

Your Turn

Have you ever avoided any of the things mentioned in this blog post? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

 Francesca Nicasio (formerly Francesca StaAna) is the founder of CredibleCopywriting.net and is currently developing Copywriter2.0, an online course that teaches aspiring freelance writers the ins and outs of the biz.

Download her free eBook, 25 Types of Writing Gigs that Pay Well (and How to Find Them) here.

 

Building a Better Biography

By Ami Hendrickson

Whether you are a beginning writer or an established byline, it behooves you to construct a biography as a means of introducing yourself to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your work.

Bios are more important than you might think. They give the reader a quick overview of your qualifications to write whatever it is you have to say. They offer a bit of your writing history. And they provide an opportunity to connect with your readers on a personal level.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a string of best-sellers to list on your bio. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you have few (if any) credits to your name. The biography is a fluid piece. As you start accumulating credits, you can easily add them and allow some of the less impressive things to fall by the wayside.

Bio Building Guidelines

Writing your bio doesn’t have to be a chore. Some simple suggestions:

Write in the third person. Use your full name in the first sentence. Afterward, refer to yourself either by your first name only, your last name only, or the pronoun “she” or “he.”

Say you are a writer in the very first sentence. If you specialize in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or screenwriting, say so. If you have a niche area that you are especially known for, say so. (“Jane Smith is a freelance writer specializing in worsted yarn and the humor of Albert Einstein.”)

Brag. Tell people what you’ve done. This is no time to be shy. If your writing has ever won any sort of recognition or contest, use the term “award-winning.” If you have written a best-seller, say so. If you have published ten, 20 or 100 articles, mention it. If your mother thinks you’re brilliant—keep it to yourself.

It’s okay to be eclectic. If your credits are all over the map—if you’ve done a little of everything, that’s fine. Something like “Smith has written greeting cards, warning labels, and street signs. She has also provided copy for breakfast cereal boxes,” would be appropriate to highlight your range.

No experience is necessary. If you don’t have many (any?) writing credits to include in your bio, don’t panic. Identify areas in which you specialize, or that you know more about than the average person. Write those down and don’t worry about perceived shortcomings in the byline department. (“Smith has climbed Mt. Everest twice, walked on the moon, and appeared as a Playboy Playmate. She is a double black belt in Tae Kwon Do and enjoys knitting potholders in her spare time.”)

Location, location, location. If you wish, include a short sentence about where you live. Don’t be so specific that the loonies out there can find you and stalk you. But a reference to your family members, your pets, and your hometown can help make you more accessible to your reader.

If writing about yourself in the third person, or “bragging” about your abilities is difficult, write some sample bios for famous people, or for people you know well. Once you get a feel for the exercise, then apply it to yourself.

If you don’t have a bio, I urge you to spend some time creating one. Make it as lengthy and as packed with information as you wish. Then leave it for a few days, come back to it and edit it.

When you’re done, ask yourself if you would read something written by the person the text describes. Work at your bio until the answer to that question is “Yes!”

Bringing Your Bio on Board

Once you have drafted your bio, you will discover that opportunities to use it are plentiful. For instance:

Websites, weblogs, book jackets, and brochures are useful places to include such information.

A short space at the end of magazine articles is often devoted to the author’s biographical information.

If you ever teach or speak publicly, a short bio allows someone to easily introduce you to your audience.

You can also include your bio in a short paragraph in letters introducing yourself or your work to a potential publisher, editor, agent, or manager.

When you use your bio, tailor it for the situation. Use the whole thing on a resume of writing credentials. Shorten it to a single paragraph for inclusion in introductory letters. For speaking introductions, you may wish to shorten it still further. And for “about the author” blurbs, condense it to one or two sentences.

The point, however, is that you cannot utilize something you do not have. So spend some time thinking of how best to introduce you and your writing to the world. Then have fun looking for creative ways to make your bio work for you.

Ami Hendrickson is an award-winning writer, screenwriter, educator, editor, and consultant. She has written for some of the leading horsemen in the world including Clinton Anderson, of Downunder Horsemanship, and hunter trainer and judge Geoff Teall. Find out about her latest projects Website, or visit her blog at Museinks.

Both Sides of the Fence: What I Learned about Writing by Being an Editor

By Dawn Allcot

I just submitted a story to a trade magazine. This is nothing unusual for a freelance writer. It’s even less unusual since I regularly contribute to this publication.

Seconds later, in my mailbox, a manuscript appears. Not mine, thankfully. (Getting your manuscripts returned, even via e-mail—especially via e-mail—is bad.) This is an unsolicited story from a talented writer who hopes to be published in my magazine.

Call it “editor karma.” Here’s how it works: I submit my story, hopefully making my editor’s morning as she crosses one more story off her editorial map. I get a nice, 1,500-word story that fills a hole I thought I was going to go to sleep worrying about.

Such is the life of a magazine editor by day, freelance writer at night.

Sometimes, I get jealous of my freelancers. I spend eight hours a day cleaning up their run-on sentences, grammatical faux pas, and sloppy fact-checking while their names go in the magazine and I get nothing but a bi-weekly paycheck for my toils.

Sure, I’m “the editor-in-chief.” That just means when something goes wrong, I get to field the nasty phone calls.

Erika-Marie Geiss, editor-in-chief of theWAHMmagazine, straddles the editor-writer fence, too. “Wearing both hats—that of one who reviews submissions and queries and that of one who sends them—gives me a new appreciation for an editor’s job,” she says. “I know from the post-acceptance point-of-view that presenting well-organized copy is crucial!”

Geiss, who is far less cynical than I am about editing, highlights the importance of following writers’ guidelines, just one of many lessons of freelancing hammered home by her experience as an editor.

“As a freelancer, I’ve always known it is good etiquette to do so,” she says. “In developing theWAHMmagazine, I discovered first-hand that editors have some very specific reasons for why they want to receive submissions in a certain way. Paying attention to guidelines is very important. When someone writes something that is ‘spot on,’ but they didn’t follow the basic rules, the editor is faced with a tough decision. Do I accept the submission anyway, or do I not consider it because this person can’t follow directions?”

Editors can be picky, but we have good reasons for it. We are not simply intoxicated with the power of doling out rejections and assignments; we want the best content for our publication. We determine pay rates not by whimsy, but with a desperate desire to stay within our budgets. When we request a specific slant for an article or set a word length, we have our motivations.

And when we send a friendly e-mail asking, “How’s the story coming?” we are hoping that you plan to submit it any second—probably because we have an anxious art department asking us the same question!

I learned all this as an editor, before I started making anything close to a living as a freelance writer. Here are some other trade secrets:

Longer is better than shorter—unless the editor says it’s not.

Concerned that I was consistently submitting stories 100 to 300 words over the assigned word length for one publication, I asked one of my editors if this was a problem. “We’re more concerned about the writers who turn in 800 words for a 1,200 word piece, and you can tell they didn’t put the necessary work into the article,” he said.

Speaking from experience, it’s easier to tighten a story of 1,200 words down to a 1,000-word article, drop a photo, or even stretch the story to an additional page than it is to fill a page when a story falls short of the projected length.

Freelance writers and editors agree that “on target” is best—within about 10 percent of the expected length—and that writers should do everything they can to hit that target. But when you can’t (especially with magazines, which are a bit more flexible with space than newspapers), longer is better than shorter.

Give editors what they want—not (necessarily) the story you want to write.

Editors get paid to come up with ideas. We know our audience, and we know what’s been covered in the recent past, as well as the angles our competitors have covered. If an editor gives you an assignment, use the sources recommended and cover the points the editor has asked you to cover.

You may have a different angle in mind or a similar idea that you think is better, but—at least for now—the editor wants to print the story he assigned you to write. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in your execution of the article, but make sure you’re giving the editor what he asked for. The article might be scheduled to appear in a special themed issue, or it could have been a story requested by several readers, or even a topic tailored toward advertising interests.

If you find a compelling reason not to follow the editor’s suggestions for an article, tell the editor as soon as possible. Your idea may very well be better, but the editor doesn’t want to find out the day before deadline that you are not submitting the piece he expected. You can pitch your idea as a follow up, but an assignment is an assignment for a reason.

Do the legwork.

If you’ve agreed to provide photos for a piece, do so (in the format the editor requested).

If an editor wants a list of sources, provide it.

“Legwork” also includes fact-checking your article. If anything seems unusual but you have confirmed it is correct, point it out to the editor. You’ll save the editor some time, and she will look kindly on you when it comes to doling out assignments for the next issue.

You are not the only contributor.

This realization manifests in many ways: patience after submitting an article, politeness when following up, and providing as many identifying details as you can when approaching an editor you’ve only worked with a few times.

“Patience is a virtue,” Geiss advises. “Don’t fret if you don’t get an immediate response. It takes time to read submissions and make decisions.”

If you’re a freelancer following up on a submission after a reasonable amount of time, give the editor as much information as you can to make it easy for her to remember your submission. An e-mail asking: “Did you get my submission? Signed, Joe” can frustrate an editor on deadline.

Include the name of the article, date submitted, and your first and last name. Editors assign dozens of stories a month; don’t be offended if we don’t immediately remember which article we assigned to you.

Always include your contact information on submissions, too. I don’t care how well I know you. The office gets crazy around deadline time, and the less information I have to look up or double-check, the easier my job is. Editors love (and hire) writers who make our jobs easier.

Learn, learn, learn

I often find myself correcting the same mistakes—in style or formatting—from the same writers, time after time.

When your article hits the newsstands, take a few moments to bask in the glory of seeing your byline and story in print. Call your friends. Do the happy dance.

Then read the published version and compare it to your submitted piece. Analyze any changes the editor made, and think about why he may have made those changes. Each publication has its own style and voice, and the better you can adopt that voice in your articles, the more assignments you’ll earn from that magazine. Editors are at the mercy of the accounting department, too.

The editor is your first point-of-contact when it comes to payment issues. But very rarely does the editor actually cut your check. In fact, they probably have as little control as you do over when the accounting department decides to settle invoices.

If a magazine is late with your payment, inquire politely. The editor may direct you to the accounting department, or she may decide to take care of the situation herself. Either way, angry, accusing e-mails won’t accomplish anything. The editor might be as frustrated as you are with the situation!

Yes, writers deserve to be paid fairly and promptly. Yes, you have every right to try and collect payment. But editors switch jobs, and the editor you alienated because your check was late may just wind up at a publication that pays their bills on time. Too bad she’ll forget the good work you did in the past and just remember you as “the writer with a bad temper.”

I don’t want to pass the buck here (so to speak), but if you’re going to yell at anyone, yell at the accounting department. Although, before you do that, it may be wise to remember that old phrase about bees, honey, and vinegar.

Say thank you.

Editors are people, too. Really. We are. When you find an editor who prints your work, treats you well, and pays promptly (aren’t those the traits that make up the perfect editor?), take time to say thank you! Editors are busy—everyone’s busy these days—but no one is ever too busy to read a note of appreciation.

Not to toot our own horns, but editors who moonlight as writers often make the best clients for freelancers. We understand how writers pour their hearts into every submission; we know how they toil over word choices; we realize that prompt payments can mean the difference between living on Ramen or buying a roast.

“When it comes to responding to queries, I try to respond in ways I’d like to be treated by editors—despite being busy,” Geiss says. “I don’t think that being a busy editor gives someone license to be disrespectful or ‘holier-than-thou.'”

While editors who write tend to treat our freelancers well, it also means we set high standards. We expect to be treated by our writers the same way we treat our own editors. Editors and writers, really, are not that different, after all.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and the editor-in-chief of RECON, the Magazine of Woods Paintball. Her blog, It Had to Be Said, covers her life as a writer and her rants as a New Yorker. Dawn lives on Long Island with her husband and four cats. You can find her at Alcott Media.

Delaware Dangerous!

Delaware Dangerous logo art

I’ve been corresponding with Lela Gwenn, an event organizer for a writer’s retreat that allows a writer to experience encounters with fist, blade, or gun, in a controlled and safe environment under the experienced supervision of self-defense and weapons instruction professionals.

I’ve long been a big believer in writers getting our hands dirty, if we’re going to try to write anything that actually resembles real life. If you’re going to be anywhere near Delaware in September of this year, this is your chance to safely experience a great deal of mayhem in a short amount of time.

When I asked for a description of the workshop I could share with all of you, she sent me the following copy:

Delaware Dangerous is a unique concept in Writer’s Retreats. We offer the opportunity to get hands on with all types of weapons and combat– Hand guns, Long guns, Knives and Hand to Hand.

Our team of professional instructors will provide detailed instruction. We have five black-belts on the team, two of whom are former military. Participants will get twelve hours of firearms training, six hours of knife training, and six hours of hand to hand. This isn’t just theoretical or role-playing or demonstration. After receiving appropriate safety training, you will have a gun in your hand.

The weapon work is always serious, but there is plenty of fun to be had. Brewery tours, kayaking, behind the scenes at a tattoo shop, tax free shopping at a huge outlet mall. The Delaware Beaches are beautiful and have something for everyone. Nature, nightlife, gourmet dining and down-home charm.

Delaware Dangerous. Put a little violence in your vacation and a little realism in your writing.

For more information go to www.DelawareDangerous.com or email me directly Lela@DelawareDangerous.com

I know I’ve written in the past about how very integral I think real experience can be to writing authentically. I strongly believe there’s nothing in the world like hands-on experience to help a writer achieve that kind of authenticity.

From the details section of the Delaware Dangerous Website:

Dates:
Sept 9-16 2011

Cost:
$889/ person
discount available for 2 people booking together

Includes:
Professional Instruction
12 hours gun training
6 hours knife training
6 hours hand-to-hand combat

Ammo, use of various firearms, training blades and live blades.

2 Dinners
5 Lunches
Breakfast Daily

Value of the Range Time, Instructor fees, Ammo and Meals- $1350.00

If you are interested in being paired up with a roommate Contact Us and we will try to help.

Group STRICTLY LIMITED to 20 participants for safety reasons.

Here’s the thing: I know it sounds awfully expensive, but for a workshop to do this for under a grand per student? That’s actually a screaming deal. And Lela says that she’ll offer AWers a $50 discount.

So take a look, figure out how you can swing it, take some vacation days, go to Delaware and get sweaty and loud!

The 3 Most Important Elements of Fiction Writing

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

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

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

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

Strong narrative voice

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

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

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

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

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

References for more information on narrative voice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characterization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some tricks to help characterization include:

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

References for more information on characterization

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

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

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

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

Subtle Description of Setting

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

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

Some tricks to help improve scenery description include:

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

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

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

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

References for more information on description of setting:

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

Lori Handeland’s article on setting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview at Writer Unboxed

If you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings at Absolute Write and the Absolute Write forums, Jan O’Hara over at Writer Unboxed has just posted a two-part interview with me about AW, the community, the mods, and writing. Jan does a heckuva fun interview, and I’m not just saying that because she interviewed me—she’s got some terrific interviews on her own blog, Tartitude. And as a Web destination for writers, Writer Unboxed offers a lot of terrific information, insight, and conversation.

Part I
Part II

You can also find Jan O’Hara on Twitter @Jan_OHara.

AWer New Releases!

Congratulations to AbsoluteWrite members Stacia Kane and K.A. Stewart on today’s release of their respective books! I’ve been waiting for the release of both of these books with great anticipation, for what seems like months.

Stacia Kane‘s new book Unholy Magic is book 2 of the Downside Ghosts series. You can read an excerpt on StaciaKane.com. The enthusiastic All Things Urban Fantasy review says:

Like any drug, the first taste gets your attention but its the second taste that gets you hooked. I thought the first Downside Ghosts book, Unholy Ghosts, was an impressive debut, but UNHOLY MAGIC is even better. I am well and truly addicted to this dark, seductive urban fantasy series.

Stacia Kane is singlehandedly writing her very own hot new take on Urban Fantasy, so I’m excited for this next installment in the Downside Ghosts tales.

If you favor an Everyman hero, Fantasy Literature describes K.A. Stewart‘s new book, A Devil in the Details (Jesse Dawson book #1):

Every lost soul needs a champion. Jesse James Dawson was an ordinary guy (well, an ordinary guy with a black belt in karate), until the day he learned his brother had made a bargain with a demon. Jesse discovered there was only one way to save his brother: put up his own soul as collateral, and fight the demon to the death.

There’s a review of A Devil In the Details up at The Best Reviews that tells us:

K.A. Stewart is a welcome addition to the urban fantasy writers with a strong opening entry. Told in the first person by the laconic hero in a sardonic witty voice, readers get to know Jesse up front and in person. Flawed and courageous, Jesse risks eternity to help those who cut demonic deals although by doing so he shortens his lifespan because one day he will lose a fight. A Devil in the Details is a dynamic debut.

You can find an essay from K.A. Stewart about writing Jesse James Dawson on the Penguin Books Website. She writes:

The character of Jesse Dawson sprang to life out of my desire to see an “everyman” in extraordinary situations. He’s your average Joe. He has a house payment, a wife, a beautiful daughter that he spoils. His job is menial at best, and he’ll never be what anyone calls wealthy. Ultimately, his life probably isn’t a lot different than yours.

Until, of course, you throw in the demons. Oh, did I forget to mention those?

If you’d like to know more about how other writers are making their books work—and sell—K.A. Stewart has a recent guest post about building characters on The Other Side of the Story.

So these books are some of what I’ll be reading this month. How about all of you? And if you’re an AWer with a book coming out, drop me a note!

Paranormal Roundtable on Suvudu!

Mark of the DemonNeed a remedy for the late-winter blahs? Suvudu announced they’ve got your cure. They’ll be hosting a live round-table discussion of Paranormal and Urban Fantasy. See the website for details:

On February 17 (at 4pm EST), we’re bringing in some of the hottest voices in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy for a round-table discussion and we’re going to be bringing it live! Use the quick form above to sign-up for a one-time email reminder for the event, then sit back and prepare for the heat!

Here’s a list of participants; Suvudu’s roundtable will host some of the hottest writers in these enormously popular genres:

Kelley Armstrong – KelleyArmstrong.com |@kelleyarmstrong on Twitter

Diana Rowland – DianaRowland.com |@dianarowland on Twitter

Jenna Black – JennaBlack.com | @JennaBlack on Twitter

Lucy A. Snyder – LucySnyder.com | @LucyASnyder on Twitter

Carolyn Crane – AuthorCarolynCrane.com |@CarolynCrane on Twitter