Monday, September 27, 2010

STYLE BLUNDERS IN FICTION

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker  

No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and
bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing.

The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of story plot and character ideas, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.

Here are some of those nasty little weeds to find and yank out of your literary garden, to be replaced with unique, striking blooms that will be the envy of the neighborhood:

1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary,” or “Nala could kind of feel a sense of foreboding.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

2. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use –ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

3. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like “She was depressed,” “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”

4. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took, turned. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, bolted, raged, or grabbed.

5. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

6. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

7. Dialogue tags – Stick with the basic he said and she said (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark conjectured" or "Lisa questioned,” etc. These kinds of words stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered, he stuttered, she muttered, he yelled. You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

8. Describe the stimulus, then the response: When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction: Instead of “She screamed when the door slammed on her finger,” write: “The door slammed on her finger and she screamed.” (or “causing her to scream,” or whatever.)

9. Avoid the passive voice: For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible, for more impact. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

10. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

11. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.

12. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says in Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, “if a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story.” As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.... simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”

13. Avoid being overly wordy. Don’t clutter up your sentences with a lot of extra little words. For example, instead of writing in the vicinity of, just write near. Instead of as a consequence of, just write because. Instead of a large percentage of, just use many. Instead of in the direction of, use toward. Instead of “The sword that he was holding was knocked to the ground,” just say “His sword was knocked to the ground.” Extra words drain life from your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, September 2010

Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

CLEAR, CONCISE, POWERFUL NONFICTION WRITING

OR: USING "PLAIN LANGUAGE" TO COMMUNICATE MORE EFFECTIVELY

"Are you excavating a subterranean channel?" asked the scholar. "No sir," replied the farmer. "I am only digging a ditch." - Anon

Today’s post is mainly aimed at nonfiction writers, for a change. Have you ever read a legal document that was incomprehensible to you? Sometimes even magazine articles seem to be far more stiff and convoluted than they need to be.

Readers today are deluged with documents to read and information to assimilate. They don't want to have to wade through a thick pile of verbiage, long, complicated sentences, and unnecessarily fancy words to get the info they're looking for. They want you to state your points clearly and succinctly (with maybe even a touch of humor), so they can get on to the next chapter, document or article.

Language is all about communication; and as such, written language should be easily understood by most of the population, or at least by everyone in your target readership. If you’re sending your average reader to the dictionary more than once or twice in your article, or if they have to stop and re-read a sentence because it’s way too long and complex, you’re not communicating in a clear, direct way, and you’re likely to turn off your readers. Or, worse, you’ll just come across as pedantic and pompous.

According to Wikipedia, “Plain language, sometimes called simple language or clear language, is lucid, succinct writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly and completely as possible. Plain language avoids complications created by verbose, convoluted writing common in technical, legal, and other fields.”

Dr. Robert Eagleson defines plain language as “...clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of...language.”

Here are some tips for communicating clearly and effectively in your writing:

1. Avoid unnecessarily long sentences and excess wordiness.

Excess or elaborate words make your writing weaker. When tempted to use a wordy phrase, choose a concise alternative instead. As Robert W. Harris says, “Concise sentences have a force that wordy sentences don’t have. Extraneous words merely take up space and dilute the impact of the idea being expressed.”

Harris gives the following examples in his book, When Good People Write Bad Sentences:
Wordy: “Consuming excessive calories at breakfast, lunch and dinner can lead to an increase in blood pressure.”

Concise: “Overeating at meals can increase blood pressure.”

Wordy: “Owing to the fact that my car is not the most reliable of machines, I often show up for appointments after their scheduled commencement times.”

Concise: “Because my car is unreliable, I’m often late for appointments.”

Government writing in particular, is often too wordy. Here are some examples from www.plainlanguage.gov of excess words in government writing and plain alternatives:

Original: "At the present time, the FAA in accordance with new regulations will on a monthly basis conduct random security checks in the event that there is a terrorist alert."

Revised: "The FAA under new regulations will conduct monthly random security checks if there is a terrorist alert."

Some examples of wordy phrases to avoid, and straightforward, clear alternatives:

Wordy phrases ---- Plain Alternatives
as a consequence of -----because
in the vicinity of ---------near
on a regular basis ------- regularly
as a means of ----------- to
as prescribed by --------- in, under
at a later date ----------- later
at the present time ----- now, currently
despite the fact that ----- despite
for the purpose of ------- to, for
in accordance with ------ under
in the event that ---------- if
in the not-too-distant future - soon
has the appearance of --- looks like
on a monthly basis ------- monthly
owing to the fact that ---- because
pertaining to -------------- of, about
should it appear that ----- if
with regard to ------------ about
drew to a close ----------- ended
on an annual basis ------- annually

Notice that the extra words in the first column above don’t help the meaning or add anything of significance. The wordy phrases are no more serious, compelling, or informative than their concise alternatives. In fact, extra words drain the life out of your work. The fewer words used to express an idea, the more punch it has.

2. Use active voice instead of passive voice.

Passive: The tests were graded by the teacher. The ball was kicked by Paul. The motion was passed by Senate.

Active: The teacher graded the tests. Paul kicked the ball. Senate passed the motion.

Because the active voice emphasizes the doer of an action, it is usually briefer, clearer, and more emphatic than the passive voice. Whenever possible, use active voice in your writings.

3. Avoid redundancies and unnecessary qualifiers.

It’s a mistake to think that in order to make an idea clear, you need to state it in several different ways. Using different words that mean the same thing can actually make your document harder to understand. To avoid repetition, if you are thinking of describing something with two words that have the same meaning, use the word that sounds more powerful.

Original: Because you are an experienced senior, you should help aid the new incoming freshmen.

Revised: Because you are a senior, you should help the incoming freshmen.

Also, unnecessary qualifiers add no additional meaning to a sentence, so avoid redundant phrases such as:

absolutely necessary, advance warning, basic fundamentals, close scrutiny, final outcome, future plans, honest truth, joint collaboration, overused cliché, past history, regular routine, unexpected surprise, etc.

In all of these cases, it’s best to just use the second of the two words in each phrase, as none of these words needed qualifying.

4. Don’t use multiple negatives

Using more than one negative muddles the meaning of a document. Accentuate the positive when you can. Here’s an example from www.plainlanguage.gov:

Original: No changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations unless the administrator reviews them and concludes that they are not lacking any important information.

Revised: Changes will be made to the Department of Transportation’s regulations only if the administrator reviews them and concludes they are lacking important information.

5. Don’t use a pretentious word or phrase when an ordinary one will do.
“I always endeavor to utilize multisyllabic words. It is the manner in which sophisticated people write.” – from When Good People Write Bad Sentences
Pretentious language, rather than impressing or intimidating readers, just makes the writer look like a pompous show-off. High-sounding words can suggest that one’s ideas aren’t interesting on their own so they need to be “enhanced.”

Here are some overly fancy words and their down-to-earth alternatives:
altercation – fight; appellation – name; domicile – home; capacious – roomy; facilitate – aid; impecunious – poor; jocular – witty; masticate – chew; perambulate – stroll; modification – change; pusillanimous – timid; recapitulation – summary; sobriquet – nickname; vicissitude – hardship; vociferate – shout. (The list goes on, but you get the picture.)

6. Finally, wherever possible, write in a visually appealing style.Use headings, subheadings, bulleted lists, numbered lists, sidebars, graphics, tables, and parallel phrasing to make it easier for your readers to find the information quickly.

Remember, the purpose of writing is to communicate your ideas as clearly and as easily as possible – not to impress your readers with your erudition!

Copyright Jodie Renner, http://www.jodierennerediting.com/

Sources: When Good People Write Bad Sentences, by Robert W. Harris; www.plainlanguage.gov; and Wikipedia.

tips for writing, how to write effective nonfiction, streamline your writing, clear, concise writing, plain language, effective writing

Thursday, September 16, 2010

GENRES IN FICTION

FICTION CATEGORIES OR GENRES

What is genre fiction? Examples of genres in fiction are westerns, romance, thrillers, fantasy, science fiction, action-adventure, horror, and mysteries. If you’re writing a novel and want to get it published by a traditional publisher, it’s important to know which category it will most easily fall into. It’s more likely to be accepted by agents and publishers that way, as then they can package it to highlight the genre, and the bookstores will know which section to display it in. So if you’re writing a historical western romance with mysterious elements, you’ll probably have trouble getting it published. It’s important to make sure one genre predominates over the others, so publishers and booksellers will know how to market and shelve it.

According to Wikipedia, “All fiction is essentially generic, but genre fiction is overtly and intentionally so, signaling its generic identity in the clearest possible terms. A horror novel, for example, makes it clear through its cover design, its blurb, the comments printed on the cover from other novelists, and so on, that it is a horror novel; and it will be shelved in the appropriate place in bookstores.”

Genre fiction is often used interchangeably with the term “popular fiction,” and generally distinguished from “literary fiction.”

Most fiction writing, especially of novel length, does not conform exactly to the conventions of a genre. In fact, there’s actually no consensus as to the exact definitions or conventions of any of the genres of fiction. As Wikipedia states, “Writers, publishers, marketers, booksellers, libraries, academics, critics, and even readers all may have different ways of classifying fiction, and any of these classifications might be termed a genre. […] …the term genre remains amorphous, and the assigning of works to genres is to some extent arbitrary and subjective.”

Genre and the marketing of fiction

In the publishing industry, the term “category fiction” is often used as a synonym for genre fiction, with the categories serving as the familiar shelf headings within the fiction section of a bookstore, such as romance, western, sci-fi, or mystery.

“The uncategorized section [in bookstores] is known in the industry as ‘general fiction,’ but in fact many of the titles in this usually large section are often themselves genre novels that have been placed in the general section because booksellers believe they will appeal, due to their high quality or other special characteristics, to a wider audience than merely the readers of that genre.” (Wikipedia)

Genre fiction and literary fiction

According to Wikipedia, “the term ‘genre fiction’ is sometimes used as a pejorative antonym of literary fiction, which is presumed to have greater artistic merit and higher cultural value. In this view, by comparison with literary fiction, genre fiction is thought to be formulaic, commercial, sensational, melodramatic, and sentimental. By extension, the readers of genre fiction—the mass audience—are supposed to have less educated taste in literature than readers of literary fiction. Genre fiction is then, essentially, thought to be the literature that appeals to the mass market.

“But from another point of view, literary fiction itself is simply another category or genre. That is, it can be thought of as having conventions of its own, such as use of an elevated, poetic, or idiosyncratic prose style; or defying readers’ plot expectations; or making use of particular theoretical or philosophical ideas as well as having a niche audience, ‘generic’ packaging and ‘superstar’ authors. The publishing industry itself treats literary fiction as one category among others.

“In addition, it can be argued that all novels, no matter how ‘literary,’ also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.”

LIST OF GENRES

As noted, there are many different ways of labeling and defining fiction genres. Following are some of the main genres as they are used in contemporary publishing. Note that these genres also exist within other age categories besides adults, such as young adult (YA) fiction, middle-school fiction and children’s fiction.

Romance – Romance is currently the largest and best-selling fiction genre in North America. It has produced a wide array of subgenres, the majority of which feature the mutual attraction and love of a man and a woman as the main plot, and have a happy ending. This genre, much like fantasy fiction, is broad enough in definition that it is easily and commonly seen combined with other genres, such as comedy, fantasy fiction, realistic fiction, or action-adventure. Publishers of romance novels have their own series or categories, such as contemporary romance, historical romance, inspirational romance, romantic suspense, western romance, erotic romance, paranormal romance, etc.

Action-adventure – Action-adventure fiction, traditionally (but not exclusively) aimed at male readers, features physical action and violence, often around a quest or military-style mission set in exotic or forbidding locales such as jungles, deserts, or mountains.

Crime – Crime fiction stories, centered on criminal enterprise, are told from the point of view of the perpetrators. They range in tone from lighthearted "caper" stories to darker plots involving organized crime or incarcerated convicts.

Mystery/Detective – Detective fiction has become synonymous with Mystery. These stories relate the solving of a crime, usually one or more murders, by a protagonist who may or may not be a professional investigator. This large, popular genre has many subgenres, reflecting differences in tone, character, and it always contains criminal and detective settings.

Mystery fiction involves stories in which characters try to discover a vital piece of information which is kept hidden until the climax. The standard novel stocked in the mystery section of bookstores is a whodunit. A few other types of mystery novels are Cozy Mysteries (where a group of people who are very unlikely to be mixed up in a crime become involved – these are usually not gory) or Hard-Boiled Mysteries (where the detective/private eye is very tough and unsentimental).

Suspense/Thrillers - use suspense, tension and excitement as the main elements. The primary subgenres of thrillers are: mystery, crime and psychological thrillers, as well as romantic suspense. “Thrillers are mostly characterized by an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder by showing society as dark, corrupt and dangerous, though they often feature a happy ending in which the villains are killed or arrested. …A thriller is villain-driven plot, whereby he presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.” (Wikipedia)

Horror –Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to develop, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideologies.

Fantasy – Fantasy fiction features stories set in fanciful, invented worlds, an alternate and more fanciful version of our own world, or in a legendary, mythic past. Fantasy fiction stories generally involve magic, mystical elements, or supernatural creatures. The genre's relatively loose definition means it includes a large number of works in styles ranging from pseudo-mythological epics to more deliberately modern works, and includes works which also fall under other genres, such as horror fiction, comedy, action-adventure or romance. Some works generally classified as fantasy fiction also include elements of science fiction, and with many works revolving around psychics, ghosts, etc. being easily classified as either, some bookstores and critics tend to categorize the two genres together as “speculative fiction.”

Science fiction – Science fiction is defined more by setting details than by other story elements. Science fiction by definition includes extrapolated or theoretical future science and technology as a major component, and is often set on other planets, in outer space, or on a future version of Earth. Within these setting details, however, the conventions of almost any other genre may be used, including comedy, action-adventure and mystery. A sub-genre of science fiction is alternate history where, for some specific reason, the history of the novel deviates from the history of our world. Both alternate history and science fiction are often referred to alongside fantasy fiction, magical realism and some horror fiction under the umbrella term “speculative fiction.”

Paranormal/Supernatural – Books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series have made this genre (sub-genre?) very popular in recent years. Paranormal romance has definitely become a huge seller, with its hunky vampires and werewolves. This sub-genre could fit under fantasy or romance.

According to Wikipedia, “Paranormal romance is a literary subgenre of the romance novel. A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of traditional fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Paranormal romance may range from traditional category romances with a paranormal setting to stories where the main emphasis is on a science fiction or fantasy-based plot with a romantic subplot. Common hallmarks are romantic relationships between humans and vampires, shapeshifters, or fantastical beings (the Fae, Elves, etc.). …paranormal romances can also include characters with psychic abilities, like telekinesis or telepathy.

“Paranormal romance has its roots in Gothic fiction. Its most recent revival has been spurred by turn-of-the-century technology, e.g. the internet and electronic publishing. Paranormal romances are one of the fastest growing trends in the romance genre.” (Wikipedia)

Erotica – "A development in contemporary erotica has been that, contrary to some previous views that it was mainly a male interest, many women readers are aroused by it, whether it be traditional or tailor-made women's erotica. Romantic novels are sometimes marketed as erotica—-or vice versa—-as "mainstream" romance in recent decades has begun to exhibit blatant descriptions of sex. Erotic Romance is a relatively new genre of romance with an erotic theme and very explicit love scenes, but with a romance at the heart of the story. Erotic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction and utilizes erotica in a fantasy setting. These stories can essentially cover any of the other subgenres of fantasy, such as high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, or even historical fantasy." (Wikipedia)

"Online bookstores purvey a range of erotic writing. Whereas once access to online erotic fiction was largely restricted to membership or pay sites, in recent years a marked increase in the number of community based, not-for-profit or free access websites has led to an explosion in the level of popularity of this genre." (Wikipedia)

Western – Western fiction is defined primarily by being set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century, and secondarily by featuring heroes who are rugged, individualistic horsemen (cowboys). Other genres, such as romance, have subgenres that make use of the Western setting. You can, for example, have a romantic western or a western (American) romance.

Literary fiction – Literary fiction is a term in common usage since around 1970 to distinguish so-called “serious” fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from other types of genre fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the “page-turner”) focuses more on narrative and plot.

by Jodie Renner, http://www.jodierennerediting.com/

TYPICAL LENGTHS OF FICTIONAL WORKS

Fiction Classifications by Length

You start writing what you think is going to be a short story. Then it starts growing. Soon it’s in that fuzzy area between a short story and a novel. You don’t really want to spend the time and effort to turn it into a novel. What is it called now, and is there a market for these in-between fiction works? Thanks to e-publishing, the answer is yes! Although e-publishers typically don’t want to tackle the longest novel forms, they’re often open to anything from flash fiction or a “short short” through a “novelette” to a novel size of manuscript.

The following list of typical lengths of fictional works is adapted from “How Long Should Your Story Be?” an article by Lee Masterson about approximate guidelines for story lengths, which appears in much greater detail on the website Fiction Factor, The Online Magazine for Fiction Writers, at www.fictionfactor.com.

Micro-Fiction – up to 100 words
- “This very abbreviated story is often difficult to write, and even harder to write well, but the markets for micro fiction are becoming increasingly popular in recent times.”

Flash Fiction or Short Short – 100–1,000 words
- The length of story often found in glossy magazines. “Very popular, quick and easy to write, and easier to sell!”

Short Story – 1,000–7,500 words.
- The “regular” short story, usually found in periodicals or anthology collections.

Novelette – 7,500–20,000 words
- Can be a difficult length to sell to a print publisher. It’s too long for most publishers to insert comfortably into a magazine, yet too short for a novel. Better for e-publishing.

Novella – 20,000–50,000 words
- A popular length for the e-publishing market.

Novel – 50,000 –110,000 words
- However, most print publishers seem to prefer a minimum word count for a novel of around 70,000 – 80,000 words, except for YA (young adult) fiction, which is typically (but not always) shorter. And due to recent budget constraints, publishers are increasingly hesitant to take on fiction over 110,000 words.

Epic or Super Novel – Over 110,000 words
- This category is mostly for established authors who already have a contract with a traditional publisher.

Here’s another general guideline I happened on online for fiction classifications by length. Notice the slight variation from the list above in the typical word length of the different categories.

Super Novel: 120,000+ words
Novel: 80,00-120,000 words
Young Adult Novel: 30,00-70,000 words
Novella: 15,000-30,000 words
Short Story: up to 15,000 words
Flash Fiction: up to 1,000 words
Micro Fiction: up to 300 words

(www.WritersLiterary.com)

As Lee Masterson cautions us, “Remember, these word- and page-counts are only estimated guides. Use your own common sense, and, where possible, check the guidelines of the publication you intend to submit your work to. Most publishers accepting shorter works will post their maximum preferred lengths, and novels are generally considered on the strength of the story itself, not on how many words you have squeezed into each chapter.”

by Jodie Renner, http://www.jodierennerediting.com/

Sunday, September 12, 2010

SEVEN STEPS TO WRITING - AND FINISHING - YOUR NOVEL

I was fortunate to attend an excellent seminar by the bestselling author, William Bernhardt, at Thrillerfest in New York City in July 2010.
William has given me permission to pass on this list to my blog readers.

Seven Steps to Writing – and Finishing – Your Novel, by William Bernhardt

1. Develop commitment. Getting started is the hardest part. Establish a writing schedule and stick to it. Find the time!

2. Build up your premise. In one sentence, what is your book about? Explain what it’s about in a way that makes people want to read it.

3. Write what you like! Write in the genre(s) you like and read yourself.

4. Allow yourself to write a lousy first draft. Just write it! Let yourself just finish the book. Then you can worry about editing, revising, etc. Don’t spend a lot of time revising and perfecting as you go along – you may end up deleting that whole chapter later!
“Writing is rewriting.” Michener: “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a good rewriter." Amateurs fall in love with every word they write.

5. Eliminate bad habits: tobacco, alcohol, drugs. Start an exercise routine to increase your stamina – it will also make you smarter. Try meditation.

6. Understand that writing is hard, and don’t get discouraged about it. Samuel Johnson: “What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.”

7. Be brave. The secret of getting published: “Don’t give up.” You cannot lose if you won’t fail. Keep learning, revising, attending workshops.
Finally, William says: Books change people’s lives. They affect people in a profound way. Stick with it!

William Bernhardt leads a weekend writing workshop and teaches five-day writing seminars and master classes in various cities across the country. For more information, visit his website at www.williambernhardt.com.

Monday, September 6, 2010

BLOG TOPICS FOR AUGUST 2010:

Here are the fiction-writing techniques and other topics I covered in this blog during August:
 SHOW, DON'T TELL!
 DIALOGUE - NUTS & BOLTS
 GREAT QUOTES ON WRITING
 TIPS FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE DIALOGUE
 MICROSOFT WORD SHORTCUTS
 TWELVE TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR FICTION MANUSCRIPT OUT OF THE REJECTS PILE
 WRITERS’ CONFERENCES and BOOK FESTIVALS
 TIPS FOR ASPIRING WRITERS OF FICTION
 HOOK YOUR READERS IN WITH A COMPELLING FIRST PAGE
 WRITING A SYNOPSIS OF YOUR NOVEL
 QUERY LETTERS

Sunday, September 5, 2010

CREATING COMPELLING CHARACTERS

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

“The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” – John Gardner

“Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of
great and enduring fiction.” Lajos Egri


You can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)

You should spend as much or more time on developing your characters as on creating an interesting plot. As Ingermanson and Economy so aptly put it, “If you want to write truly memorable fiction, your best bet is to start with a wonderful character, one who leaps off the page and into your reader’s mind. A great character feels completely real, with a past, a present, and a future….

Fiction writers spend enormous amounts of time developing and getting to know their characters, imagining complicated life histories and digging deep to find plausible motivations. This is not wasted time! If you don’t know your characters, then your readers won’t either.”
(Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies)

Unpublished authors very often have written a good story, but neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. Elizabeth Lyon tells us: “I have seen a nearly universal phenomenon in the manuscripts I work on: Almost every novel that is finished in the eyes of the writer still needs work on characterization. …the following components of characterization are frequently missing or underdeveloped: Backstory wound, universal need, personal yearning, strength and weakness….
It’s common for plotting to eclipse character development. Most published authors have gone back in revision to ‘layer it in’.”
(Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover)

Your protagonist needs to be likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He/she needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he/she needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. –And don’t make your villains 100% evil, either!

No annoying protagonists, please!

Your main character can and should have a few faults, but overall, she needs to be sympathetic and likeable – not whiney, ditzy, cold, or annoying. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character. If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist and what happens to him/her within the first few pages, she will put down the book and go on to another one. As James Scott Bell says, in fiction, “readers will respond only if they are connected, bonded in a way to the lead character.”

In his Revision Checklist section, James Scott Bell has these questions to ask yourself about your protagonist:

“Is my Lead worth following for a whole novel? Why?

How can I make my Lead ‘jump off the page’ more?

Will readers bond with my Lead because he…
… cares for someone other than himself?
… is funny, irreverent, or a rebel with a cause?
… is competent at something?
… is an underdog facing long odds without giving up?
… has a dream or desire readers can relate to?
… has undeserved misfortune, but doesn’t whine about it?
… is in jeopardy or danger?”

- James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing

Make sure your main character fits at least several of the above situations.

A perfect character is insufferable.

Don’t make your main character too good to be true. Nobody likes a "goody-goody two-shoes." As Mittelmark and Newman so aptly put it, “Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they’re better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be true.
“Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life. Making them nicer than the average reader will earn the reader’s loathing, or make her laugh in disbelief.
“An unprincipled gold digger who gives twenty dollars to a beggar is enchanting. A crusading human rights lawyer who volunteers at an animal shelter and also pauses on his way to court to give twenty dollars to a beggar makes us gag.”

(Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel)

Develop those cardboard characters!

To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears, insecurities, and desires, as well as their strengths and triumphs in life.

As Randy Ingermanson says, “Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:

• The character’s name
• A one-sentence summary of the character's storyline
• The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
• The character’s story goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
• The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
• The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
• A one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline

From: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/index.php:

It’s also important to get to know your character’s fears or insecurities, secrets, attitudes, quirks, talents, likes and dislikes.

Elizabeth Lyon gives some specific advice for deepening your characters:

“Diagnosis #1 [Problem]: Underdeveloped characterization that produces inadequate depth, dimensionality, believability, or interest; in other words, flat, boring characters.
Treatment#1: …Check and revise for these key areas of character development: a clear story yearning, a traumatic past and a near past; a prominent and heroic strength and primary weakness; a host of unique personality traits, habits, likes, dislikes, talents, hobbies, attitudes, and quirks; strong emotions and motives; fears and secrets, and one or several contradictions that can be explained.”

“Diagnosis #3: Insufficient relationship, chemistry, contrast, or conflict between characters.
Treatment #3: Increase the relatedness of your characters, and you raise the level of emotions and potential of conflict. Think Peyton Place, where everybody is involved in everybody else’s business….Make your characters essential in each other’s worlds.”

 (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)

In addition, a sure-fire way to deepen your characters is to have them react more to events. Show how they’re feeling, through their words, actions, and body language. An emotionally flat character is boring.

Your protagonist needs charisma:

“GRIT, WIT, AND IT.” – That’s James Scott Bell’s answer to the question “What makes a great Lead character?” Here are a few of his points about each of these essential attributes:

GRIT – “Let me lead off with the one unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction: No wimps!
A wimp is someone who just takes it. Who reacts (barely) rather than acts. While a character may start out as a wimp, very early on he must develop real grit. He must do something. He must have forward motion. Grit is guts in action.”

If your character starts out as a wimp, don’t go on for too long about it, or you’ll turn your readers off and they’ll put down the book in disgust. No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve their life. As Bell says, “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in your story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.”

WIT – Wit can rescue a character from a moment that can become just maudlin self-pity, or be overly sentimental, almost sappy, and will enliven even a negative character. As Bell says,
“Find an instance when your character can gently make fun of himself. Work that into a scene early in the book. This makes for a great first impression on the reader.” Or
“Look closely at your dialogue and tweak some lines to lightly deflate moments that might be too sentimental.”

IT – “It” means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It’.” (Bell)
Bell gives several suggestions for making sure your lead character has “it”, including:
“Work into your novel an early scene where another character is drawn to your Lead character. This can be because of sex appeal, power, or fascination. It can be subtle or overt. But this will set It in the minds of the readers.”

And don’t forget to give your main character plenty of attitude!

No wimps, please!

“Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active—risk-takers—highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person—a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.”
(Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them))

As Jessica Page Morrell says in her excellent book, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, in the chapter “Never Write About Wimps: Creating Potent and Memorable Characters”:

“Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion.

The biggest buzz kill a writer hears is when a reader pronounces that his protagonist is bland, boring, or predictable.”
“… to carry a story, a protagonist must be compelling and memorable.”

Morrell goes on to ask the question, Is your protagonist a Hero or Zero?

“Manuscripts that feature a wimp are easy to spot and, happily, easy to fix. Usually the writer simply doesn’t realize that his character is a dishrag type because he modeled the character after a real person or he doesn’t realize that fictional characters differ from us mere mortals.”
So don’t model your hero after someone you know. He needs to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Morrell puts it, “fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.”

In conclusion, make sure your protagonists aren’t boring, perfect, annoying, or wimpy. Give them charisma, flaws, likeable traits, and above-average moral and physical strength and inner resources.

© Copyright Jodie Renner, September, 2010 


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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