Does being well-read help you write?

Despite the flood of self-published books, there are still agents searching the field of writers attempting to discover the next best-selling author. I read a long list of short blurbs written by these agents describing what they required of those submitting to them. Although most didn’t specify a shelf life for “comps,” some would only consider writers with submissions comparable to more recent well-known books.

However, one insisted that writers not bother him if their comps were published before 2000. The agent wanted an author who was producing a sure thing, which emulated what currently sold. This short range of years for comps increased his likelihood of receiving works with synopses that sounded much like many others. I was certainly not going to interrupt his little bubble by submitting my own attempts to create unique novels.

Some authors want their work described as similar to a currently famous writer, while others fret about writing a novel that imitates another work too much. This second group wants to be well-read but not so influenced by their reading habits that they regurgitate something too similar. Their concern is that a reader with access to the real thing would not want to read an imitation. The best way to avoid producing work which simply mimics other author’s is to have a wide-range of reading, a range that goes well past twenty years and encompasses the work of five centuries or more. However, I have noted an increasing disregard for notable authors of the past centuries.

Before my first writing conference I read the biographies of all the speakers. One question asked of each one was “Which classic novel is on your want to read list?” There were a number of different answers, and with one exception I had read them all. Before that time, if asked, “Does writing well depend on being well-read?” I would answer with a confident “It definitely helps.” But, I’m not sure of that anymore. Over the years the question growing in the back of my mind is “Does being well-read actually hamper a writer’s ability to publish popular books, today?”

At that same conference, I sat across the table from an editor who described seeking a new kind of book, “dark” adventure and fantasy works. The keynote speaker stood up and inquired if any of us had the experience of reading the work of an author and wanting to write like that. Softly I blurted out, “That would be The Idiot,  the first book I read by Dostoevsky. The editor snapped “Nobody writes like that anymore.” Perhaps not, there is not a lot of concern about the soul of man in much current writing. However, The Idiot introduced a naïve Prince Myshkin into a corrupt society that was pretty dark. One man was dangerously obsessed with the love of a woman, and that woman was growing merciless to the man who had abused her. Perhaps a modern version of these struggles might have been exactly what the editor was looking for. But then, Dostoevsky wrote classics, not current best sellers.

Knowledge of classic authors from past centuries is not necessary to be well-read today. It doesn’t matter if their works have survived the test of time. Authors can copy ideas from them without too much concern about people recognizing the content, because nobody writes like them, or evidently reads them, anymore.

Posted in Education trends, Literary devices, Story structure, Trends in books | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Talking yourself into writing

I was rather amused by a study about learning foreign languages which concluded that extroverts learned to speak a foreign language more rapidly while introverts mastered writing in it quicker. The finding didn’t require rocket science, just a definition of those two traits.

However, some extroverts still long to write great novels. Because of this personality trait, they approach the task differently. A person who expresses their ideas vocally has the ability to use facial expressions and tone of voice. These are not available for words on a page. Instead the person must depend on action verbs, descriptive text, and connotation-loaded words to convey information. Extroverts have to consider how they verbally use stories to get their point across. Then, compare  the verbalized version with the written version to detect the basic differences.  

I recall listening to TED talks that seemed intriguing. Then, I read the transcript and realized that the ideas were simple, a bit too simple. But the story-telling that encased the idea created an interesting bubble around the basic point. In the case of the TED talks, some people with great ideas have been coached to talk in an engaging and enthusiastic manner for their presentation. It is not something that they do naturally or can keep doing for a long period of time. The extrovert may find they need some similar support to get through the difficulty of writing novels.

I don’t know if any formal study has been completed on this hypothesis, but I suspect that people who write with little planning and no outlines are a bit more outgoing than those who organize their ideas on paper before they begin. A person who “thinks out loud” in the manner of an extrovert may also prefer a writing process that is quick and allows writing down whatever comes to mind without much contemplation (otherwise known as being a pantser). This does work for some writers.  However, they soon discover that they have written three or four times the length of their book before they have a cohesive story that works for them.

One of the difficulties that many extroverts have when attempting to complete their novel is the isolation caused by writing. There are hours alone, without verbal feedback which may lead to a sensation of being “blocked.” Extroverts’ progress in generating ideas depends on talking about the topic. New technology that provides accurate transcriptions of the spoken language can come in handy. Extroverts can produce the initial text by speaking, which is their favored form of expression and spend the time to revise it later, after receiving feedback.

Repeating the same ideas using different words may work when speaking because we can use various facial expressions and tones of voice. But, when the only voice a person has is restricted to words on paper repeating the same idea in different words just won’t cut it. Sometimes, I’ve found those that write well have a difficulty explaining all the ideas that go through their head during that process. However, some of the most informative speakers about writing are not the best writers. There are times that you just can’t have it all.

Posted in Creativity, Style and voice, Writer's resource | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Chemistry lessons

Chemistry–a subject in school that requires labs where students mix substances to observe what happens. However, the students spend much more time scribbling down equations on paper to calculate the result of reactions they never observe. Chemicals are often predictable. So, when I took chemistry, if the solutions we made in the lab did not yield weights within the correct range, I knew how to figure out an answer closer to what should have occurred. 

Chemistry between characters in a romance is an entirely different beast. Writers might observe people in love and attempt to capture the essence of interpersonal chemistry. But, we realize this valued trait is unpredictable. Describing the vixen-like female, and the strength of the hunky male does not necessarily result in chemistry. That is the result of the interaction between two different people, just as a lab experiment is about the interaction between two different elements.

So, there seems to be no way to scribble down a formula for chemistry between two characters. Or is there? For example, if two fictional characters are fated to love each other and there is never a conflict between them, there is also no chemistry. Stories and love affairs have some common elements. Both become interesting because we sense trouble. The suspense resulting from guessing what will happen next keeps us intrigued. 

The unexpected and entertaining way in which couples deal with conflicts leads to the desired quality of chemistry between the pair. This may spring from taking a chance at romance that may be rejected. One of the fated pair may struggle to reveal feelings or fear that becoming fully involved requires giving up too much. However, those of us observing the sometimes awkward dance between potential lovers do not regard this as a tragedy. We anticipate a victory over the obstacles in the road to romance that will lead to something much greater. When either person is willing to change, or to be frankly open with the other, we see sparks fly. This reaction between the two is chemistry. We root for the couple to find some creative way to get together.

Often chemistry-filled romances are between people of distinctly different backgrounds, classes, or ethnicities. The liaison is not convenient. It may cause rejection by family and friends who perceive it as inappropriate or even as a threat. This creates a barrier between the two characters. But, they keep trying to climb over these walls. The range of responses should vary from hilarious to occasionally heart-wrenching. The conflicts should keep us interested, wondering what will happen and not wear us out.

A warning–do not try too hard to introduce artificial problems to increase the chemistry between a pair of lovers. We may laugh at the couple as they test each other’s affection. However, too much of this testing is the exhibition of a full-blown borderline personality disorder. Reading about that kind of manipulation is unnerving, and we want to be free of it. In the chemistry lab an occasional overheating of a sulfur compound would result in a yellow spot on the ceiling. The teacher was not happy, even if the students were amused. However, if this happened more than once the teacher caught on that it was not accidental, and would slap a detention on the offender. When there is chemistry between a couple, we will find the tension intriguing rather than stressful.

Posted in Literature, Manipulation, Writer's resource | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mixing past and present can get tense

Authors sometimes play with the parts of a novel, like wooden blocks that can be rearranged. What will happen if the middle of the story is inserted at the beginning, or time moves forward and then backwards? What if exterior stimuli and interior thoughts occur meshed together as they do in real life? When reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf I adjusted to the stream of conscious style and noted the movement between the flood of thoughts in present tense, and the character’s actions shown in past tense.

But, one element seemed to remain consistent—the tense used to tell the story—the standard past tense narrative. Through years of reading, I did encounter some variations. One was the Babar series by Jean de Brunhoff. His use of present tense was not a difference that I noted as a child, but one that I stumbled over as an adult while reading The Story of Babar to my own children.

The present tense story-telling that appeared in children’s books has expanded into fiction for older adults. During this time, I noted that editors have tried to reduce, if not eliminate, some more complex past tenses such as past continuous (I was writing), past perfect (I had written), and past perfect continuous (I had been writing). One reason for this trend—it is easier for readers. Editors are set on reducing words and push the writing down to a sixth grade level. However, stories lose some of their texture when the past progressive and continuous verbs are excluded. These often set the stage for the character before another event happens.

 “He was watching the riots in the street below the hotel when the door slammed behind him.”

This complex sentence uses both progressive past and a dependent clause. But, there is nothing wrong with it. The compound tense provides a sense of the setting within time.

Another reason some people insist on deleting the “was watching” form of the verb is because it sounds like a passive verb. It is not. This is: “The riots in the streets were being watched.” Do not trust anyone that advises authors to avoid any form of ‘’to be” used with another verb under the assumption that it is always a passive tense.

However back to my first point, using present tense for the narrative still seemed peculiar. I heard warnings from writing gurus. Novels written in the present tense would not sound like a story but an instructions manual. Present tense in fiction would distance the reader from the characters. After I began reading All the Light We Cannot See, with a narrative written entirely in present tense, I realized this did not take away the immediacy from the story in this historical novel by Anthony Doerr. I was no longer listening to someone recount the past but in the current moment.

Writing in the present tense requires a different expertise. While continuing to work on a book written in the past tense, I decided to play with the present tense. I rewrote three chapters to see how they would feel. This change in tense improved the flow of events as it forced me to write in a linear manner, including each action as it occurred. This prevented me from jumping back and forth to explain events as I constructed scenes.

In the end, I went back and rewrote these chapters in the past tense, so they would fit in with the style of the rest of the novel. However, I left the improved flow of events. Since my experiment writing in present tense I have become less tolerant of the rambling style which hops back and forth between past explanations and currently occurring events. Present tense works for writing novels but requires a greater skill to use this technique well.

Posted in Literature, Trends in books, Writer's resource, Writing trends | 1 Comment

Breathing life into your words

Where does the spark of a story originate? Walking down the street trimmed with frosted pine swags, hearing the distant hum of a children’s choir and a mother berating her teenage son for wanting to spend Christmas day at the house of his girlfriend, her voice drips with disdain. A scene both festive and a bit heart-wrenching. I often find myself drawn to this kind of imagery, beauty in a place contrasted with hurtful humans. No matter how idyllic the setting is, if people are there, some will demand other’s obedience or display a kind of selfishness that soon ruins the idyll.

What makes a story unforgettable? It has to reveal a struggle hidden deep in you. Your personal connection with a particular kind of conflict that allows you to pour in the energy, and emotion needed to draw the interest of other people. That doesn’t mean the story has to be about you. But, it does have to be about what you hold dear. This idea is the germ of the story.

However, producing the story requires so much more, including the discipline needed to take that idea and express it in characters as they develop. It requires the ability to play with events in the plot as challenges arise, until the pacing flows. It requires ingenuity in resolving the conflict. This kind of creative work, known as elaboration, is the most difficult and time consuming part of writing.

If you follow instructions and tick boxes when constructing a story, you will write a story that resembles ones that have been written before without the investment of your heart or stretching your ability to the breaking point by creating a vision that you have not yet seen. You can learn from instruction on writing, but at some point, you have to diverge from that to make a story compelling because it is your own.

Try this exercise. Keep a notebook with you the entire day. Whenever something intrigues you, an image, an event, or conversation, record them. If toting the notebook is a bit too much you can record these on a phone as I do. (Just make sure you are not connected to the internet so that you can shut down the drain of social media). If there is too much distraction in your world to write your thoughts, go to a dark room, with only enough light to write. It helps to observe not only what is going on in your vision, but also what is going on in your mind. At the end of the day review your writing and see which parts seem to draw you in while reading. Those are the themes and techniques that you can use to make your fiction come alive.

Posted in Literature, Teaching writing skills, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Playing the writing game

The debate continues between those who have a flash of inspiration that propels them to write and keep writing and those who think about their ideas and outline before they start. For those who prefer the less planned routine, the extra pages trimmed from a manuscript after starting down a path that turns into a dead end can be stored away for the future.

For those who prefer the more planned routine, there are also options. A number of books descript how to create stories by answering ten or so questions. An author can use the wealth of mythology and follow the hero’s journey and even find screenwriting books that demonstrate how to outline your by beginning scenes according to number of minutes. All of these help an author design a story divided into manageable chunks that progress towards an end. However, I am not going to discuss these, because the authors who have written books on these methods have done a more thorough job of this than I could. Instead I will tell you what works for me.

When a new piece of inspiration arises in my mind, I will consider it very deeply, often for days. The goal is to delineate the major conflicts which occur in my newly conceived main character’s life. To make this thought process easier, I divide my story into acts, similar to a play but not always the same number of acts. (There are usually three to five.) Sometimes an act cycles through an entire plot from initial conflict to rise in action to the resolution and denouement. At other times nothing is concluded until the last act. However, these acts often occur in different distinct settings. (Something I learned from moving frequently in my own life.)

The next step—write out the basic description of my acts and summarize the major events occurring within that act. Then, I start listing scenes. I try to include at least five in each act, but scenes start reproducing like rabbits and often I end up with as many as twelve. I try to list all of the scenes for each act and then start writing the actual text. However, sometimes I get carried away with an idea and just commence writing, especially when the characters are talking in my head and I feel the urge to capture their conversation.

Anybody reading this may have already guessed that my novels are character driven. Therefore, I’m not sure exactly what characters will be doing in the next act, but I know what they will accomplish by the end of the current act. To keep track of my acts and scenes, I give them titles, which are converted into different levels of headings using my old standby word processor, MS Word. I like seeing the headings in the side panel as I work. At any point, I can use the table of contents function to make an index. However, if I need to move a huge chunk of the act to a different place, my old stand-by is a bit clunky. Often I resort to creating a separate document for each act.

Essentially, all authors must figure out what kind of preplanning will work for them. It often must fit the kind of novel they are writing. I am not making any guarantees that my method will work for you (and neither can anyone else.)

Posted in Story structure, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Idea generator

Honestly, if the vast majority of authors were confined to writing only about the kind of person that they are and only their experiences, most books would be a bit boring. Writers do not live the exciting lives that they describe in books. If they did, these constant adventures would drain them of the very energy needed to sit and record their feats for hours on end. If everyone could only relay their own experience, I would not have traveled the court of Kublai Khan, nor learned how the Nez Pierce mastered the “big dogs” that could be ridden, nor wandered through a recently abandoned Machu Picchu with a Quechua boy. I enjoyed these far flung people’s adventures, because people, who had not done these things, wrote about them.

As a young teenager I read the story of a fiction character who traveled with Marco Polo to China. Did the author actually do that? No. He wasn’t even from Italy. Most likely he read Marco Polo’s Travels which were recorded when this real adventurer was thrown in prison on his return to Venice. Basing ideas for new books on ideas gathered from old ones is a natural part of creativity. Authors, like other people, have an idea of what makes an excellent book based on what they have read.  Most creative works—music, visual arts, and even movies—are inspired by other artists who have produced earlier works. That is not a bad thing, or something to be discouraged. However, being inspired by other stories does not mean that I should duplicate them. My book should show a definite difference and include facets of my own personality and creativity. Authors must give part of themselves when they write in order to connect with other humans.

So, how do I insert my ideas and my style into a book inspired by another person’s writing? My sporadic journaling is not terribly interesting. It contains events that occur to me and also my thoughts, because my thoughts are more eventful then the occurrences in my real life. However, when an occasional real-life event does become interesting, I have the details for a story. Often vague ideas float into my mind, unattached to all the little details necessary to write interesting fiction. I struggle to place this idea in a world perceivable by real senses. So, I often pull up previous journaling to gather such sensory details. Then, I can block out the world and try to imagine the scenes in which characters act out that vague idea.

Creating a story from the idea requires throwing problems at the characters and inventing logical ways to solve them. The challenge of writing is often about seeking out the problems. This is made more difficult because I usually don’t have one central villain trying to destroy my main character. The vague ideas give me a sense of who the characters are, my journal fills in the details, but the challenges and problems that I create for them are the gist of the story. Writing comes from my reading, my own experiences and my imagination. If my life was exciting, dramatic and stress-filled in the manner experienced by many characters in novels, I would not enjoy it very much.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vanilla, Chocolate, or Bananas Foster

Deciding which flavor of ice cream to order from the twenty types behind the protective glass is a matter of taste. But if you are trying to create a new flavor, it’s best to have others sample it before you offer it to the public. This culinary critique group often expects to have multiple shades of the same flavor to determine which they prefer. That is one aspect that is more difficult than placing your precious words in front of a writing critique group.

When involved in a literary critique group, they only expect one variation, but rarely is everybody pleased with it. Members tend to go one of a few directions.

1. They are very precise about grammar and usage rules. Therefore, they will point out all errors and even preferences that are not errors. They may point out a preposition at the end of a sentence, or “that” following a type of person rather than “who.” Both of these constructions are acceptable, even if they are not preferable. Like tastes in ice cream, people learn grammar rules at a particular age and tend to stick with them, even as their language continues to change.

2. They have read the current books about writing and want to direct me to change all writing to follow those formats. Some of these comments may be useful because I really don’t want an “info dump” following my exciting first scene. However, adverbs are still a legitimate part of speech. If they are all expunged, this impoverishes my writing. Also, I don’t want my memoir forced into a horror/suspense format.

3. They read for content and find that some events or character’s actions are not ringing true. They may be true for the life I live (I’ve had Bananas Foster ice cream at my local shop.). But, theirs has not been the same, and I wonder if they realize the differences. Or perhaps, the book is beginning to drag, and I should add a bit of tension. It is useful to know if a scene needs more detail or requires trimming.

Because opinions are a matter of taste (I am one of the few who does not like vanilla ice cream.), it seems best to have people read each other’s work and provide comments before the critique group meets. That way people will receive comments from these different viewpoints. Otherwise the most dominant person in the group will set the tone. It does help to set up a structure so that all people have a chance to speak once the group meets.

Any criticism should also provide a rationale for what is wrong, or way of dealing with the problem. Then, the author can ask questions of individuals at the end of all the comments. For example, if a person tells me to get rid of passive tense, I can ask for rewording advice. If the reworded sentence sounds worse, I should know not to take the advice and they should learn that passive tense is sometimes necessary. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In praise of the passive hero

Don’t create a main character who just is passive, watching the other characters without taking charge or getting things done. Also, don’t read books by two of the most famous American authors Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both broke that rule in their best-selling novels. (And, don’t expect me not to be sarcastic when it comes to dealing with rules for writing.)

Melville also wrote one of the most recognizable first lines of a novel, “Call me Ishmael.” Because of this, some people are foolish enough to offer it as an example of an icon hook, the kind of phrase that draws the reader into the story so that they feel compelled to keep reading. There is nothing inherently fabulous about introducing a character by name at the beginning of the book. He could’ve said, “My name is John Smith” with the same impact.

In this same manner, Ishmael does not fit the action hero. Rather he is a very observant person. He reports on the behavior of his strange, South Sea islander roommate, Queequeg. Then Ishmael, describes life on a whaling ship until we finally get to meet the obsessed Captain Ahab. Ishmael excels at watching what occurs around him, and the story he observes is intriguing. Modern writers assume that a particularly devious and vicious villain will present a worthy challenge for the hero to combat, a fight with no holds barred. But, who exactly is the villain in Moby Dick? Is it the monstrous white whale trying to save his own life ? Or, the obsessed captain Ahab who wants to destroy the whale that sent so many ships to their doom? That complex conflict between morally vague characters is what has kept readers persevering through massive descriptive text to reach the end of Moby Dick.

Nick Carraway, the point of view character in The Great Gatsby, is another example of the protagonist who is cautious and reluctant to act. He watches the world of the wealthy and bored weaving their intrigues around him, and even gets involved in bringing Daisy and Jay Gatsby back together. In both of these famous novels, the books bear the title, not of the main character, but of the most compelling one. The protagonist is the one narrating, even though the story revolves around another more dominating personality. The main character’s internal thoughts help develop that other character into a memorable one in the mind of the reader. In a tragedy, someone has to survive to relay the story. The passive observer may be the right person to do just that.

Posted in Characters, Literary devices, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Not exactly human

While embarking on a new type of writing, creating alternate world fantasy, I rebelled against copying what I already knew. Instead I insisted on creating my own species and giving them my own names. However creative I attempted to be, they still resembled fantastic human-like creatures in classical myths. The cavelings dwelt in caves, raised fungus, farmed blind water creatures, and mined precious substances from the ground. When they wandered outside they stuck to the level ground and feared climbing trees or foot hills. That sounds a bit like dwarves, but the other species treat them more like trolls, and physically they don’t look like either. 

How was I to make these cavelings original? I had to create a main character that struggled to overcome his fear of heights and his ground loving attitude to gain a reputation among the treelings (who live in interconnected tree houses) when they must battle some renegade skylings (who have come down from the mountains where they live).

If I modified common species, readers would carry over their prior knowledge of species, such as dwarves and elves. That makes it easier to get directly into the plot. But, the characters may either echo others that are very common or conflict with the readers ideas of what these species should be. When I create my own, I call the shots.

If you look at early Star Trek episodes the alien races were based on different human ethnicities: Klingons were vaguely Mongolian, Romulans were supposed to be a meld of Asians. The Vulcans were part European and part elf. To design an ethnic group and not mimic one that currently exists, you have to choose features that simply don’t exist in humans. However even this may not work. People may connect them with an ethnicity. In the movie Avatar, the indigenous race was noted by many people to be blue native Americans with tails.

People remember by connecting new things to ones they currently know. So, whatever behaviors and values that you assign to your invented ethnicity will be connected with real groups that show similar ones. The depth of individual character development is the key to making invented species memorable ones – just like it is when writing about humans.

Posted in Characters, Writer's resource | Tagged | Leave a comment