Friday, September 23, 2016

Tighten your Writing

It's during the editing phase that you start to realize that you're a lot wordier than you thought.  At least that's been my experience.  And you, too, can do most of it without any help.

  • You can catch your overwriting  and redundancies ["Hey, Grandma," I said to Grandma as I walked in the house.]  
  • You can change those overly descriptive writing handles [she screamed angrily] into ones publishers will accept like said, shouted, asked, or whispered.  
  • You can dump all amplifiers after you realize they amplify nothing [really hated doesn't convey nearly as much as loathed or even just hated all by itself.] 
  • You can ferret out those pesky adjectives [beautiful woman] and turn them into vivid nouns [goddess].  
  • Above all, you can hunt down those clunky adverbial phrases [stared stupidly] and swap them for strong verbs [gaped].  

Basically, you can take your gut draft, the draft you wrote just for you, straight from your heart, and turn it into something another human being will actually want to read.  You can change it from written vomit into a compelling story.

It helps to distance yourself from your writing, so you see it with newer eyes.  I went over an old short story recently I thought was so wonderful and found about half of it was filler.  It also helps to print out your writing because then you see it from another angle.  You can go at it with a pen.  It really helps to read it out loud to yourself, as well, because then you slow down your reading pace and see so many things you didn't see before.  You can also use the software's built-in spell/grammar check.

But there comes a moment when you realize you can do no more.  You need external eyes, someone outside your head, to which you can send it or read it.  That's when writers' groups online or in person come into play.  I've written about those recently.  That's when you can call in an editor like I did recently.  That's also when you can look into buying software like Grammerly or Autocrit, which help you do a lot of the things I've mentioned.  Most of editing can be done alone.  But almost everyone eventually needs help.  You are not alone.  If you're done with your heart draft [the rough draft], it's time to write the rest with your head.  It's time to tighten that writing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Grammar-free Zones

Last semester, I taught an English class.  Granted, it was a very beginning writing class.  But I got to teach then expect grammar and writing skills--to a point.  I've now been asked to teach a class that is even more of a beginners' class.  And it doesn't look like I'll be teaching [or expecting] writing skills in the weekly paragraphs I'll be receiving.  This, for a grammar nazi, is called torture.  FaceBook causes many writers pain.  I am one of those writers.  I read the humorous grammar nazi's rule book Eats Shoots and Leaves for fun.

Now, I will be looking at and papers, unable to let my internal editor say a word.  Tell me, fellow writers out there, how much fun it is to live in a world full of [sometimes intentional] bad grammar?  How much fun is it to walk through those 20 Items or Less [FEWER, people, FEWER] lines and not say a word?  How many times do you have to look at signs and billboards and not say a thing about how much people must be smoking to spell that way, where kids are able to see and learn all the wrong things?  How many of us can watch Weird Al's "Word Crimes" and laugh knowingly while mentally looking for (and finding) errors even there?

People like me who enter situations like these have to remember to breathe.  We have to remind ourselves that the only reason we haven't been unfriended by 90% of those we know on social media is because we can control our red-pen impulses and just shake our heads in silence.  The only way to keep the job is to be gentle and view the heart of the piece, not the trappings.  The world will spell and punctuate [or not] as it will.  We will somehow survive the experience and move on. And be thankful to have a job.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Power of the Hero's Journey

This week, I watched the new live-action version of Disney's Jungle Book.  The original is cute, a classic.  Many people adore it.  But for me, it was never very exciting because it was my least favorite kind of story, milieu.  This means location.  The place is the main character.  Mowgli represents the audience as Baloo and Bagira act as tour guides to show off the quirky denizens of the jungle, who sing to display their personalities/philosphies.  Some of them are dangerous to the defenseless Mowgli.  But it is nonetheless not the story of a kid in a jungle so much as the story of the characters that people that jungle.

The new move has the same checklist of characters, for the most part.  However, the story as shown in the new movie employs the power of the hero's journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Mowgli starts in the normal world, in the wolf pack.  His call to adventure comes from Shere Khan, the tiger who threatens his family and home.  At first, he resists it, then he accepts it.  He then descends into the underworld of the unknown parts of the jungle and faces a number of dangers, including a father-figure's death.  The stakes are higher.  The choices are Mowgli's to make, not forced on him, and he grows as a character through them.  The movie takes one step further in becoming a bildungsroman, a coming of age story.  Because he fulfills the hero's journey, he emerges capable, master of both worlds.

A lot of writers like to write stories, but any story, whether it be a fantasy, a fairy tale retelling, science fiction, horror, or romance can benefit from the time-proven power of the hero's journey.  As I mentioned several weeks ago, many of Pixar's movies follow the same pattern.  People subconsciously expect it when they start reading an adventure yarn, especially.  When major parts of the hero's journey are lacking, people notice and feel unsatisfied.  I highly recommend that any writer researches and employs the hero's journey in their stories.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Treasure

I found a treasure whose scope I didn't remember.  Two decades ago, I wrote my life's history--in some detail, as it turns out.  I just remembered writing it, not what was there.  I have started rereading it, and I've learned so much that I didn't recall.  I see teachers' names, classes I was in, things I did that was younger, and all sorts of details that, twenty years later, had disappeared from my memory.

I highly recommend that you write down your life to date because you never know what you will forget in a few years.  My memory isn't particularly good, but this kind of memory slippage can happen to anyone.  Write your life now, up to now.  Write about your early childhood, youth, and adulthood in as much detail as you can.  If possible, have others around you do likewise, especially older generations.  When my grandma was about to pass, I sat and interviewed her.  I'm thankful for what I learned.  One day, these writings may be your treasures and maybe your descendants' treasures, too.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rule #1: Make Me Care

I've repeated this mantra of writing before, but it bears repeating.  Before your audience/reader will truly get into your piece, you need to answer the "So what?" question and get your reader invested in your character.  That was the big flaw I saw with one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the summer, "Batman vs. Superman."

I think we've all heard that same review over and over.  At least I have.  It was strange that such a mixed review was repeated EVERYWHERE from Rottentomatoes to all my movie-going friends: Batman was well done.  Superman was blah.  Wonderwoman was squeezed in.  Lex Luther was dreadful.  I heard this same review from everyone, so I expected to have the same reaction.  I love comic book movies that are well made.

People seemed to more or less like this one.  So why shouldn't I?  I knew I wouldn't love it.  My expectations weren't sky high like they are when the reviews are universally wonderful.  But I expected to like it on some level.  Turned out I didn't like it at all.  Why?  Because the writers broke rule number one.  They didn't make me care about anyone, okay, except Lois Lane.  But Amy Adams is good with making the audience care.  How does she do it?  By so obviously caring about someone herself.  Her love for the Superman character here ALMOST had the strength to make me care about him.  If only he weren't so busy being inscrutable and above-it-all, so dark and brooding like all the rest of the characters, I might have succeeded in graduating past almost and into caring.  I needed to feel his humanity, but so much of the movie was bent on making him feel alien and inhuman to the audience.  Because I didn't care about any of the main characters, nothing they did or said mattered.  I didn't care if someone was in danger or someone died, got injured, whatever.  A nuclear bomb full of cryptonite could have wiped out all of humanity in this movie, and I would have felt bad about just Lois.  

I understand not everyone consciously reacted the way I did because not everyone is looking for that one thing in the main characters: a humanity and caring for something or someone that will make the audience love them.  It helps if there is humor as well, which was totally lacking here.  But you'll notice with the review above people weren't swept up into the story.  They were keeping their distance and analyzing it rather than just enjoying it.  If you as a writer break rule number one, people don't get swept up.  Even if they don't consciously notice they're not caring, they certainly don't get attached.  Just in the short bit of preview I've seen of the upcoming Justice League movie, I already care more about Batman than I did throughout this entire movie.  Why?  Because they do with it what was lacking here: they make the audience laugh and give the sense of Batman's humanity and his caring about others.

Keep rule number one--show the main character's humanity through love and optimistically some humor--and readers will follow your character and his/her adventures through the ends of the earth.  I know I would.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Importance of Writers' Groups

For any writer, I highly recommend finding and using a writers' group.  No matter how refined your writing abilities, how many degrees you have, you're always best served seeking out a writer's group.  You can do all the editing you want, including letting the manuscript rest for a while, so you can see it with fresh eyes, reading it out loud once it's been printed out, and even using editing software such as Autocrit.  There is no replacement for fellow writers.  Even readers who don't write, as I have discovered first hand, don't necessarily read the way that editors do when they read your story.  This isn't a bad thing if you're self-publishing and aren't seeking to please anyone but yourself.  But if you're going to send your writing in for contests, publishers, or anyone in the industry, there is no reader like someone else who has been trained to think more like an editor.  I have had several readers read my manuscript, but until I had a reader who thought like an editor read it, I didn't know what a publisher may think of my work.  When I did have such a reader read it, a publisher's comments on my work suddenly made sense.  

In order to be motivated to seek out a writing group, you have to be ready to take and use criticism.  If you're not there yet, a writer's group is not for you.  However, if you're ready to move past the phase where you only want people to praise your work, it's time to seek out readers.  

There are multiple online forums for getting reader/writers such as Wattpad, Critique Circle, and Writer's Cafe, among many many others.  You can assemble a group of writers yourself.  You could also join a local group.  Here in my state, we have League of Utah Writers, but there are writers' groups everywhere.  You can also find an online editor like Eschler or Book Baby, though services like that cost money.  One way or another, find readers who are also writers outside your own head, and your work will transcend where it is now.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

What Drives your Story?

Story Drives: 

Some time ago, I wrote about how important it is to know what drives your character, what makes a character do what he/she does.  I apologize if I've mentioned this before, but it couldn't hurt to revisit it [I checked and couldn't find it.]  This post is on what drives your story.  I recently read someone's story in which the main character meanders from event to event without anything driving him.  When he gets done with one major life event like a job or military or even a family, he simply goes and does something else.  That's fine for a PERSON, or even a biography, but it won't work for a STORY.  A story is about something, one specific event, set of events, character, etc.  It has a clear beginning, middle, and end, or it isn't, by nature, a story.  If you find people asking the 'so what?' question repeatedly or wondering what your story is about, it's time to sit down and figure out what drives your story itself.

Orson Scott Card talks about four kinds of story drives: 1. milieu or location  2. question, as in whodunit, 3. plot, as in what's wrong with the world and how can it be fixed? and 4. character as in what's wrong with your character and what does he/she do about it?  If you know your genre, chances are you can figure out what drives your story.  A book that primarily takes you on a tour of any location is a milieu book.  This can include fantasy or science fiction in which the magical land is the most important aspect of the story.  Think the Lord of the Rings trilogy, if you think of it as a world in which prototypical characters of various races appear in a struggle, or "Gulliver's Travels," wherein an outsider comes into a foreign land and learns all about it.  A mystery is most often question-driven because the story isn't finished until the primary question, whodunit most often, is answered.  Adventure yarns, science fiction stories, fantasy novels, and fairy tales are mostly plot-driven.  Something is wrong.  The story is about how the something is fixed.  Think Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series, particularly the first.  4. Character-driven stories can include science fiction or fantasy but are more likely to include romance, literary fiction, and the like, stories that are not complete until the character is happy in his/her own skin.

The Contract

The story drive chosen is a kind of unspoken contract with your reader.  Once the reader understands the promise made by the text--that you won't finish the story until he or she has learned everything about the world or the question is answered or the world is put to rights or the character gets their satisfying happily ever after--he or she will find it highly dissatisfying if you don't complete your promised story.  I've read novels about a whodunit that don't answer the question but end in a happily ever after.  It's very unsatisfying.  A story about a lonely, sad character may end in the solution to a question, but if she's not happy, I, as the reader, am not happy.  I ran into this with the recent "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" movie.  We start with a world launched into zombie war and end with "and they live happily ever after."  At which time, the zombies return in force.  I imagine movie makers were setting up for a sequel, but the sequel isn't likely to come because the movie doesn't complete the contract it promised.  Audiences don't like that.


The Harry Potter series manages to balance out all four story drives.  We start with a lonely boy who is immediately handed a question--who am I?--which leads to other questions, all of which are resolved by turns as he enters a foreign magical world and attempts to resolve the problem in the world as well as his own loneliness.  All four drives come to satisfying endings.  This is part of the books' appeal.  Rowling makes several contracts with the reader, all of which get a satisfying resolution.

Now, You

If you're struggling with a story you're writing, unsure if it's hitting the mark, figure out which contract you are making with your reader.  Are you promising to show off an awesome world, answer a question or questions, fix a world, or make a character happy?  Do you fulfill your promise?  If not, how can you fix that?