Right off the bat, it’s important to give your character, well, character. Give them little quirks and habits to make them more realistic. You know, like pushing their hair behind their ear when they’re nervous, or pushing their glasses up the bridge of their nose, rubbing their hands together, tapping their fingers on the table, etc. Try not to just arbitrarily assign habits to a character; try to have them make sense with the character’s personality and back-story. For instance, rubbing their hands together suggests a nervous or anxious-to-please personality, and if your character is more confident, that particular quirk might not fit well. Or, if they used to be a musical performer, maybe they tap their feet and hum while they work. You get the idea.
According to Saul Bellow, ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ Do you agree? Disagree? And is it just me, or do the best writing ideas come after you’ve gone to bed and are trying to sleep?
You may notice that this week’s quotation is: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I like using adverbs like a machine gun: I just spray-fire them all over the page. But they’re really more like sniper rifles: one quick, powerful shot should suffice. I would suggest one or two a page at most. Instead of saying, ‘he walked confidently’, say ‘he strode’ or ‘he strolled’ or ‘he sauntered’. This gives an even clearer picture of the character’s attitude and personality, and the mood of the action. So save those adverbs for when you really need them.
I know it’s been quite a long time since I posted anything; things here at college are crazy. But just recently I started going to a Creative Writer’s Group here on campus, and now that I’ve experienced one, I can say that I highly recommend it. If you can find one, join it. If you can’t find one, make one. It’s incredibly helpful to have other writers’ insights into your work. They can find ways for you get over blocks in your writing, give advice, and help you to see your writing with a fresh perspective. And even if you don’t bring anything in to read, you’ll be inspired and excited by what others bring in. Altogether, it’s great to be supported by a community of people that are as passionate about writing as you are.
Narration is a delicate balance of telling the story and letting the story tell itself. Whenever possible, let the story speak for itself. If what your character is thinking, feeling, or saying is not clear enough, you’re doing it wrong. If it is, then you are just being redundant. Let the characters say what they mean and mean what they say without you having to interrupt and explain it to the reader. This is hard work, and where the real skill of the writer is revealed. (Or the perseverance, which is often the same thing.) You’ll say so much more if you shut up.
It goes without saying that the beginning of your book is the most important part as far as catching the attention of the reader is concerned. Different writers have different styles and methods, and some genres are just better suited for a particular opening than others are. For instance, a fantasy fairy-tale might do well with the classic ‘once upon a time…’, but that probably wouldn’t fit as well for a sci-fi novel. However you decide to open your story, the beginning should be original, compelling, and establish a firm foundation for the rest of the story to build on. Believe me, I’m learning the hard way that you’ve got to set up the world from the get-go or the whole structure of the story is going to suffer.
However, on that note, it’s important not to fall into the dangerous extreme: telling-not-showing, also known as info-dumping. Basically, instead of cleverly inserting information through dialogue and short, simple descriptions, the writer comes right out and bluntly dumps all the information into the reader’s lap in large chunks. This is just clumsy and awkward, and suddenly inserts the author’s voice into the story, turning it from something that is happening into a story that is being told; from real to made-up. A writer should weave characters, plot, theme, setting, narrative, dialogue, description, and action together seamlessly and skillfully.
And that’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of most, if not all, publishing companies. I currently have an internship with a publishing company evaluating submissions and determining whether or not they’re ready to be accepted. If there’s one thing publishing companies will not forgive or overlook, it’s telling-not-showing. The publishing company I work for rejects outright any manuscript that has too much telling. So to appeal to readers and publishing companies alike, set your book on the right track by showing and not telling.
I think I’ve posted once or twice about how much trouble I’ve been having with my attempts at editing recently. I’ll work on a chapter for most of the day and not get halfway through, and what I do get done is not to my satisfaction. Well, yesterday I devoted the morning to some serious schoolwork and getting other important, mostly school-related stuff done. I had lunch and then beat the heck (or the dust) out of the stairs and dining room rug with the vacuum. Then I went to my room and spent several hours reorganizing my closet. When that was finally done, my back was quite sore, I was tired, and felt very satisfied. I was also rather dirty, so I took a nice, hot shower. I watched an episode of my favorite TV show and then had a relaxing dinner with my family.
Notice none of this is writing. All day, the only book-related thing I did was sort through my maps while cleaning the closet. (I also found some drawings that will probably find their way into the story, but that’s a post for another time.) So after dinner, I went upstairs to my desk, sat myself down, and started to work on a chapter that needed considerable revision. I had three hours max before bedtime. And I got it done in that time, quite satisfactorily, I might add. I didn’t get distracted; I didn’t get frustrated; I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I was focused, at ease, and inspired.
I basically did the same thing today. And you know something? It worked.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve decided to post a writing prompt.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, Robert Martin writes a marriage proposal to Harriet Smith, Emma’s best minion. We never get to read the letter itself, but meddling main character Emma critiques it and informs us that it is very well-written: romantic but practical, direct but respectful, and short but powerful- though of course she disapproves.
So, if you’re not too busy eating chocolate, now it’s your turn. Have one of your characters write a proposal to another character. Have a dozen different couple combinations! Have the antagonist propose to the protagonist! You can have the letter be romantic, funny, sarcastic, innocent, hateful, or totally indifferent. Most importantly, post the results back to me!
Also, my characters’ love song is Hoobstank’s ‘The Reason'; what’s your characters’ song? If they don’t have one, find one!
Every writer has their own strengths and weaknesses, but when it comes to beginning writers, there’s one thing they usually have in common. They more often than not suffer from what I call bubble syndrome (which plagued the first draft of Dragon’s Heart- still does in some places). Basically, this is when the writer suspends his character in a tiny little blank bubble with no sound and has them float through the story, only coming into contact with the outside world when the plot needs them to. Bubble syndrome is caused by the writer being so anxious to move forward with the story that they forget to color in the background. A common side-effect of this condition is info-dumping, where the writer tries to make up for the lack of description and reality by taking a paragraph of minute detailing and wedging it into the story at odd places that break up the suspense, action, and natural flow of the story.
It takes a lot of work to achieve, but if the writing is to feel natural and effortless to the reader, it must have a constant buzz in the background. There must be movement and bustle and a whole world revolving without the main character. It has to feel like the main character is one small person moving in a vast world. We’re following them around, but the rest of the world isn’t. Creating this buzz gives the whole story energy and reality. Instead of distracting, having your character be one of a whole population actually focuses in on them.
I learned a new trick recently, and I thought I should share it with you. I was revising a particular part of my climax and getting really frustrated. I knew it really needed a big change, but however I worked at it, I couldn’t seem to fix it. I tried taking out sentences and writing new dialogue, but it was still stuck inside this death-grip of old writing. Finally, I just opened a blank document and rewrote it all from scratch. It worked like a charm! I was able to work in this whole new angle and steer the dialogue in the right direction to end up in the right plot device.
So the lesson of the day: never underestimate the power of blank paper.