Amanda Kenney's Notebook This is where my creations and I hang out.
Browsing all posts in: Tips and tricks

March 4 (Tuesday)

March 4

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.

Valentine’s Day Fun

February 14

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!

Bubble Syndrome

January 14

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.

Blank Paper

January 9

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.

Writing good sentences

August 30

There are five things you need to write good sentences.  They are:

Imagination- clearly picture what your characters are doing so you can describe it in a way that’s easy to understand

Large Vocabulary- vary your words to avoid repetition and pick the best word to describe an action

Grammar- of course proper grammar and spelling make the words flow together and makes it easy to read; poorly constructed sentences mean the reader has to go back and read it over a few times to get it, thus interrupting them from being immersed in the book

Punctuation- putting a comma in the right place can make all the difference in the world; colons and semi-colons are the boss when it comes to placing the right emphasis and drama on the right words and sentences.  Punctuation is the voice and tone of the words, so choose carefully.

Balance- like vocabulary, vary your sentence structure, and keep a balance between dialogue, description, action, etc.

Imagination and vocabulary go hand-in-hand.  You have to be able to imagine how your character is doing something, then be able to pick the right word to describe it.  There’s a difference between poke, push, and prod, isn’t there?  Each word suggests a different attitude, and thus can tell the reader how the character is feeling or acting.  You pull the right word out of your imagination and the reader will be able to imagine it too.  Also, instead of using ‘said’ all the time, you can use ‘mutter’ or ‘mumble’ or ‘reproached’ or ‘praised’ or any word that fits with how the character’s saying something.

Grammar and punctuation are also buddies.  I mean, obviously they have a lot to do with each other.  Grammar determines punctuation and punctuation determines grammar.  If you don’t know how to use them, they’ll fight a lot, and sentences will end up badly damaged in the fray.  But if you use them right, they will be your most powerful weapon.

Balance is the four of them coming together to make a beautiful sentence.  Varying sentence structure is simply changing who leads the dance between grammar and punctuation.  For instance, there’s two ways of making this statement: 1. She picked flowers and plucked their petals as she walked to school. 2. As she walked to school, she picked flowers and plucked their petals.  If in one paragraph you have all type 1 sentences or all type 2 sentences, the writing is going to come off as stale and slow.  There are other styles of course, and an infinite amount of combinations, so try to use as many different ones as you can.  Meanwhile, imagination and vocabulary are playing together to combine dialogue and description, etc. in an interesting way.  Imagine when your character is talking and walking, and use your vocabulary to make the transition smooth.

One last note: sentences compose paragraphs, and paragraphs also need balance.  Deciding when to end one paragraph and start another, as with punctuation, will determine the voice and tone of the paragraph.  Ending a paragraph with a particular sentence can really bring home the drama.  How you group sentences into a paragraph is up to you; each writer has their own style.  If you’re any kind of a reader, you’ve already been (unconsciously or consciously) studying the technique.

So there you are: the five secrets to writing a good sentence.

Location, location, location…

August 26

Let’s face it: writer’s block is hard and takes (what feels like) an eternity to work through.  However, a surprisingly easy and effective way of working past mild bouts of lack of inspiration is to simply change where you write.  If you usually work in a quiet environment, work in a loud one, and vice versa.  It’s amazing how something as simple as that can really help your writing.

I used to work at my desk in the schoolroom, and when I moved back into my room one afternoon, it suddenly made me want to write.  Now my room has become boring and I’m working out in the schoolroom again.  Sometimes I’ll write while on the couch, and sometimes in the kitchen.  I think it just removes me from the distractions I usually run to when writing gets hard.  “Oh, drawing a blank?  Well, those legos need to be sorted.  And look, there’s that book you’ve been neglecting.  Gee, this desk could stand to be dusted.”  So on.  My brain can find anything to use as an excuse, and in a familiar environment, it usually happens in half a second.  I don’t even know it’s happening, and then all of a sudden I’m doing something else.  Move me somewhere else, and not only do I find a fresh place to draw inspiration from, but there’s also nothing to hide behind.  Having a pattern and a system is good, but only as long as they work.  Don’t be afraid to mix things up once and awhile!

Passive Sentences

June 28

Somehow passive sentences are like the plague: to be avoided at all costs.  That’s what everyone tells you anyway.  However, for myself, I don’t quite see it that way.  They are not to be preferred, that’s for sure, but avoided at all costs?  No, not at the cost of having an awkward-sounding sentence.  Using them too often is not a good idea, but there are times when they are not only acceptable but recommended.

Now, usually a sentence goes ‘subject-verb-direct object’: ‘Molly ate the hamburger’.  However, if there’s no specific subject, meaning no one in particular is doing the verb, so to speak, and the direct object is the focus of the sentence, then a passive sentence may be the best option.  ‘The Lost Jewel of Aronia was put back in its proper place, and peace was restored to the kingdom.’  The focus of the sentence is the lost jewel; it’s what’s important here.  Who put it back in its proper place?  A guard, the castle wizard, or the royal dog; it doesn’t matter, and maybe you don’t even know.  Remember, we’re approaching this from a novel-writing perspective.  This sentence sounds like it’s part of a summary paragraph in the epilogue, so elaborate details don’t matter.  The important thing here is that after a long, hard quest to find the jewel and save the kingdom, the jewel is back and everyone’s safe.

So when it comes to passive sentences, the rule I have is this: go with what sounds natural.  Does the sentence flow well and put the emphasis on the correct recipient?  Passive sentences are shunned because they can sound weird or weak, but if that’s not the case, don’t be afraid to use them.

Committing time to writing

May 10

For the longest time I found it hard to commit time in my day to writing, and in some ways I still do.  However, I finally learned that I’m really creative at night.  After dinner something just happens to my brain and I go crazy!  It’s like, ‘okay, time to go to bed’ and suddenly my brain says, ‘NO!  Don’t sleep like a sane person!!!  Stay up late and write!!!’  So I do.  I take my laptop into bed and read two or three chapters each night (I don’t plan that, I just stay up until ten, so how many I read depends on how much time I have, length of chapters, etc.).  In the afternoon I have loads of time, but for some reason I just can’t concentrate.  I get really tired and easily bored.  I used to try to use all that time to write, but now just a half hour before bed gets more work done than two hours in the afternoon.  So study yourself and figure out when you’re most productive and leave that time free for writing.  And also know your personality: I do well with routine and schedules, but maybe you’re better just wingin’ it!

Getting to ‘The End’

May 6

I don’t know about you, but perhaps my biggest problem is finishing a novel once I’ve started it.  Countless stories have died in my imagination before they ever got to paper or computer, and many that I start writing never get beyond a few sentences.  In fact, if you think about it, so far I’ve only finished two out of the hundreds I’ve started.  That’s not very good odds.  Before I finished Dragon’s Heart, my biggest challenge was persevering and completing what I had begun.  Writing all of Dragon’s Heart from beginning to end taught me a lot about writing and how to finish.  Still, I undertook a lot of projects after that, and none of them stuck.

And then came the novel that I’m working on now.  Only a month had gone by when I knew that this book was different.  I was thinking about it all the time; I heard the characters in songs, got inspirations for plot twists everywhere I went, and I was enchanted by the imaginary world they lived in.  Never once did I think I wouldn’t finish it.  Something inside me just knew I was going to.  Certainly, writer’s block and phases of disinterest inevitably came, but there was never a question in my mind about getting through.  It was just a matter of time.  At times there were rivals to my attention: other stories I also developed simultaneously, and I confess sometimes I found them more interesting.  But as the months (and eventually years) passed, they fell away and this novel alone stood as my goal.  I wondered what exactly it was about this book that was different and had kept it alive after all this time.

Finally it came to me.  What made this story so thrilling to me was a character.  Just this one character (and his relationship to the main character) kept me coming back.  As dictated by the plot, he had to be a complex and three-dimensional character with many, many layers.  To clearly understand his motives, em0tions, and actions, I had to invent a past for him, and know his hidden thoughts, even if none of them ever came up in the book.  For a writer, that’s absolutely fascinating.  There was (and is) always something new to learn about him.  I came to know him so well I can see his face clearly in my mind, and he doesn’t just look like someone I know or someone from a movie.  He’s his own unique person.  This is true of any story I write; as much as I may like the theme or plot, what I love best about writing is watching the characters come to life.  That’s what keeps me going.  It doesn’t take long for me to become convinced they’re real.  They become my best friends.

What all these vague and off-topic paragraphs are leading up to is simply this: find what enchants you about writing in general and your novel in particular and focus on that.  Whether it’s the characters, the plot, your theme, or something else entirely, find it, hold it tight, and develop it until you finish.  Then let it go, stand back, and admire your work.

Characteristics of a Character

April 16

When moving through various stages of character development, always be sure there’s contiguity.  I’ve never devised a character yet that ends up the way I originally planned them.  Sometimes they don’t even stay the same in the transition from my mind to the page; often I’ll imagine them in my mind one way, and they’ll come out entirely different.  Plot and characters depend upon each other; plots grow and change to accommodate characters and the characters will evolve and change to help the plot.  Thus, if your character is required to talk to a lot of people and do it well, it wouldn’t make much sense for her to be shy.  If in the first draft you describe her as shy and then in later drafts have her be very socially comfortable, it’s going to seem silly to the reader, and make any previous descriptions contradictory.  Remember, actions speak louder than words.  Change and develop the character as the story grows.  This may mean old drafts of a chapter have to be trashed or completely redone, or that the plot or even the ending redirected, but don’t try to fight it; if you let them, your character will naturally become exactly who they need to be, and the best version they can.