Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Watch the stages to help with your pages!

Watch the stages to help with your pages!

How can theater, acting, and the stage  help your writing? Acting and writing are so incredibly similar. Two different ways of storytelling. Obviously, I’m not the first person to connect or compare the two but I enjoyed looking at one to help reinforce the other. It’s another way to help wrap our brains around making stories and hopefully, increase our abilities, right?

In the podcast Writing Excuses, season 3 episode 14, Mary Robinette Kowal talks about puppetry and what the five principles of puppetry and how they apply to writing. 

Go here to listen to the actual podcast…

Here is my lengthy summary and sometimes my own words/thoughts added in…

Mary Robinette Kowal -  The 4 Principles of Puppetry   


1.       Focus – 

      Focus indicates thought.  What you show the audience is what they have to think about. You can only show them one thing at a time. So, what you are having your audience focus on (or what your puppet/character focuses on) needs to be the most important thing happening at that moment.

2.       Breath or rhythm – 

      indicates emotion. In puppetry, how you breathe indicates what is going on. A sigh can indicate love or frustration. Panting can indicate physical exhaustion or excitement. When you write, the rhythm you use can help create the pacing AND the tone of the story. For example, if you use short, choppy sentences, you are going to create a faster pacing and rhythm.

3.       Muscle –

      Muscle creates the illusion that a puppet (or character) is moving on their own. If the audience can see the puppeteer (aka author), then their suspension of disbelief is ruined. So you need your characters to have solid motivation. Actions and reactions need to happen because that is what the character would naturally do, not because it’s what the plot requires. Also, you need to consider what the physical consequences are to your setting. Make sure it makes sense to have things located in their proper places. Mary gives the example of having a tannery in the middle of a village. It wouldn’t happen because the uric acid being dumped into the streams would drive the neighbors in the village crazy. An author shouldn’t plan something like that (having a tanner in the middle of a village) just for convenience.

4.       Meaningful movement – 

      your body language and movement needs to have a purpose.    In puppetry, bobbing a head every time it speaks conveys no information. If a character picks up a water glass, there has to be a reason to go for the water glass at that moment – either emotional content, plot content, or some other meaning. Mary gives the following example:

“I don’t like what you’re saying to me.” She looked away from him. “I don’t understand it at all.”
                This is not meaningful movement. What is she looking at?
“I don’t like what you’re saying to me.” She fiddled with the knife on the table. “I don’t understand it.”

   Here, that fiddling with the knife on the table immediately starts to tell you what she’s thinking about. If she’s going from her thoughts to ‘I need to play with this knife. . . ‘ Much more meaningful movement.

5.      Practice -
             I’m not sure if they didn’t get to the fifth principle or what but the last thing mentioned was a writing prompt. So, I’m going to say that the fifth principle is to PRACTICE which obviously translates into writing.

All of her thoughts on puppetry led me to think about the stage and theater and how those things can relate to writing. For example…

Blocking is a term used both on the stage and on the page.
a.       In theater, the definition is the movement and/or positions the director determines for proper dramatic effect.
b.      In a book, it is placement of characters in the scene.
When you are blocking a scene on stage, there are a few important basic elements to try to remember…
1.       You should be able to see all of the characters on the stage during a scene. Not necessarily all at the same time, but all of the characters on the stage need to be important to the scene otherwise, what’s the point of even being there. So, they should be viewed by the audience at some point. Similarly, when writing a scene in a book, every character needs to have a purpose. For example, say J.K. Rowling was to write a scene in potions class. Obviously, any student in the scene would have a purpose because they are actually taking the class but if she then threw in say, Hagrid, he would need to have a reason to be there. He shouldn’t be there just because Jo (can I call you Jo?) likes the character of Hagrid. Also, it would be odd if the scene focuses on Harry alone and the other students are never even mentioned when he and they are all supposed to be in class. Not that this scene could never happen, but hopefully, you see my point.

2.       The blocking should help feature the correct actors at the appropriate moments.
There are so many ways to feature actors on stage. It can be done with lighting, or by everyone else on stage looking at the featured actor, or by movement, or even by just locating the actor center stage. BUT, if the director doesn’t choose the correct blocking, the whole mood and meaning of the scene can be ruined. Likewise when writing, the appropriate characters should be featured at the appropriate times. This one seems like a no-brainer, but I have read things in the past and wondered because the scene to me would come across much stronger if it was from a different point of view or if the author had focused on a different character.

3.       Blocking should create a stage picture.
At any point during the show, you should be able to take a picture of the actors on the stage and be able to tell what the actors are doing without explanation. (Just a side note – I love this because I happen to adore doing stage photography. It’s one of my hobbies besides writing.) Directors work to make sure actors are at different heights, different poses, and in different locations to help create interest, mood, and emotion. There are many ways to liken this in your writing. One obvious way is to vary your settings, another is to make sure your characters are unique to each other and not just in the way they look but also in their movement, habits, flaws, and strengths. Take into consideration what angle your audience is viewing the scene and how might they get the best advantage for the action. Creating “stage pictures” in your writing can polish your scenes.

Ok. I think I probably could go on and on and this is only ONE stage term. There’s also casting, directing, exposition, masking, the proscenium arch, run time, etc, etc.

Next time you go to a theater production, take time to recognize the story-telling aspects that you can use to improve your own writing. I’m sure you’ll come away from the stage with plenty to use on your page.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where To Get Reviews

I was surprised when I received an email saying that it was my turn for tip.  Since I wasn't ready for it, I replied to the email asking if there was anything specific my fellow writers would like to know.

Robin replied she would like to know about getting reviews and where to go get them.

Reviews are a hard thing for me to get behind.  I know that publishers like them.  I know they are supposed to help sell the book.  But, there is so much fake out there on the internet.  How authentic is that review anyway?  I have heard from lots of different authors, musicians, and artists, that the best way to sell your work is by word of mouth.  So why get a review?  People aren't going to purchase your book unless a friend recommends it anyway.  What's the point?

A couple things I learned:

1.  Reviews help to raise your profile.

2.  A good review will get you more work later.

3.  They also show that someone who supposedly knows something about writing and books likes your work.

Alright, so the point is that you have to get them.

Now where to get them.

Blogs (specifically book lover blogs)
Authors you like and know
University newspapers
Radio shows (don't discount the online ones)
Pod casts
Kirkus (paid)
Publisher's Weekly (paid)

This site has a list of helpful links to blogs and podcasts that do reviews.  Also doing your own google search could bring up blogs more specific to your genre of book.

But, as David Farland says here, the world's most important book reviewer is YOU!  Get behind your book and get the word out!!!

(P.S.  Robin has a YA suspense novel releasing this fall.  Remembrandt needs to be read by YOU!  Because it's awesome!)
(Also, a huge thank you to Jefferson Montoya for letting me pick his brain about reviews.  His music inspires me every day.  Give it a listen.)

(Those were not so subtle hints to check out these two people with wonderful talents.  You won't regret it!)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Where do you get YOUR ideas?

Something authors get asked often is, “Where do you get your ideas?” One time, I helped set up an author’s visit to my kids' school. Brandon Mull was coming to speak and he asked us to have the kids come up with questions for him to answer. Without time to have every question answered, we sifted through them to find some of the most interesting. The person I was “sifting” with was a friend of mine who along with her husband often assisted Brandon with his school visits. She told me to throw out the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” because Brandon got asked that all the time and it wasn’t worth taking time for. Sure enough, that question appeared in about one of every five questions. At the time, I wondered why he wouldn’t want to answer it – especially if so many kids asked.

I’ve since discovered that it really is just not a good quality question to ask because most of the time, authors don't know exactly how to answer. Most authors are prepared to answer it anyway because it doesn’t go away. Some say things such as – “everywhere” or “daydreaming”  or even some odd place like “Pooghkeepsie.” Probably my favorite answer was given by Neil Gaiman when he said, “What you do is, 11:58 at night, you go down to the cellar. You roll the goat bones. There’ll be a banging on the door. It will open and this thing will fly in. It will explode. You’ll have a something like a chocolate. You eat it and you have an idea… I don’t know. You make it up out of your head.” You can watch his entire answer to this question HERE…

You see, I’ve worried about my ideas. I have A LOT of ideas but I wonder – are they good enough? Will my ideas come across to everyone else as boring, overdone, or cliché? Do I have anything original in me or will I only ever be able to produce regurgitated material? Is it ALL about that ONE idea? Do I have to have that one brilliant idea in order to succeed?

Jim Butcher says it definitely is NOT all about that one idea. He argued that even if your idea has been done a lot, you can still put your own spin on it and get a new and vibrant story out of it. There were others who argued with him that “The Idea” was what was most important; that even if you are a horrible writer, when you have a brilliant idea, your book can be successful. And so, someone challenged Jim by giving him two “horrible” ideas with which he was supposed to create something new and vibrant. The ideas given to him were Pokemon and the The Lost Roman Legion. Jim went on to create and sell a 6 book successful series based off of those “horrible” ideas. He has also rocked the New York Times Bestsellers List and has published around 30 books not including short stories and comics. I think he has proved his point. (You can watch him narrate this story HERE...

But, what if you get stuck? You’ve worked and worked and all of a sudden, nothing comes? Or what if you have too many ideas? You just don’t know where to begin or where to continue?

There are tons of ways to organize yourself before you start a book. There’s drawing an arc with plots points and character profiles and the Save the Cat method and all kinds of outlining and other ideas but I’m not really talking about organizing here. (Though being organized can be very helpful to many authors. Some detest it and only write in the dead of night with hair standing on end while bags under their eyes grow larger and larger frantically scribbling before their muse leaves them for another year, but again, this is a separate topic.) 

What I want to talk a little about is gathering that inspiration and how to use it over and over.

Here are some great tools, activities, and tidbits to help you organize your ideas and find inspiration in the things around you…

1. – Inspiration board/ Smash journals/Pinterest/ etc…

These are obvious (I think?) but if you are stuck or need some organization, here are some great examples of crafts or online opportunities to increase that inspiration and find direction…

  •  Inspiration Boards – Sometimes being able to touch and see textures, patterns, and colors is all that is needed to jumpstart you toward the next section in your book.

I borrowed these images from

And these from

  • Smash journals - These are the same idea as an inspiration board only in journal format. You can also collect your daily mementos, such as concert tickets, restaurant napkins, or a smear of your current favorite eye shadow while finding inspiration for future projects.

This one I found floating around without a credit… sorry to whomever created it…

  • AND of course, there is PINTEREST - I am linking my book board (which up until just now has been private) to see how pinterest can help inspire your current project…

Many authors have pinterest boards.  Check out…

2. – Brainstorming activities…

These are just a few activities (there really are so so many) I have collected from authors on how to break out of a slump or how to discover more about your book…

Shannon has suggested that a great way to get to know your characters is to give them a personality rating.  There are several different systems that you can give them.

Here is one to try…


  • Writing Prompts by Writing Excuses

Writing Excuses is a podcast on all things writing done by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler. Not only do they have ingenious advice on writing, they also give writing prompts for each episode. Sometimes the prompts are a little out there they may just be what you need right then.

  • Keep an “Idea” folder by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon has talked about keeping an idea folder where he puts all of his ideas. He has talked about how he will look at that folder and then try to combine two of the ideas together. This is how he attributes most of the concepts for his books.

  • One final idea for helping jumpstart your creativity is to do Brainstorming activities.  Here are some examples…

a.       First line story starters.  Open up a book nearby and write down the first sentence or you can even pick out a sentence in the middle of the book then continue to write your own version of what comes next.

b.       Word association. Write down one word. Then write the next word that comes into your mind, and the next, and the next. For example…

Cinderella, shoe, foot, ankle, joint, attached, detached, fix, mechanic, robot, cyborg, half-man, handicapped, etc. (This was my attempt at a start for word association generating the idea of Cinder by Marissa Meyer.)

c.       Acting. Take a piece of a scene (your own or someone else’s) and act it out. You can ask others to help you with this and it can be fun. Afterward, write down how you felt and what happened as you experienced it.

OK, OK, tons of ideas and possibilities out there. Finding that one BIG IDEA isn’t as important but we all need to feel inspired and find creativity with our writing. I feel like I have only scratched the surface with all of this but hopefully, there is a start here; a direction to follow if the need should arise. Lastly, and most importantly…

As Henry Miller said...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Editing and Polishing - in Layers!

There is soooo much that goes into writing a book. I seriously had no clue when I started writing. And that’s probably a good thing, because it would have been pretty freaking intimidating if I’d realized what I was getting myself into. Luckily, I was totally ignorant and plunged in headfirst. :) And you should too! Then, when you’ve got a crummy first draft to work with, come back here and check out these ideas for editing.

The funny thing about books with writing that feels effortless is that they’re the ones that take the most effort. And I find that, for me, it works best to spend that effort in layers. That way, I can focus on one thing at a time and really make it shine before moving on to anything else. This may not work for everyone, but I thought I’d share how I edit. My layers, if you will. So without further ado, here you go!

Draft 1: Get it all out there. Anything goes in this stage. Toss in anything you think you might want to use later. If you discover later that it’s not working or it’s not right for this work, it’s easy to toss out. I think it was Shannon Hale who said that the first draft is all about getting the sand in the sandbox - later drafts are when you build the castle. This draft is always fun because it’s so freeing to just be able to write write write! That’s what I love about this layer system - I don’t have to worry that I’m doing it wrong because I know I’ll come back later to fix it. It takes so much pressure off! 

Draft 2: Plot, plot, plot. By now, I’ve usually got a good idea of what’s working in my story and what’s not and I can see the shape I want it to take. Before we work on any of the details, we want to be sure to take care of the big picture. There’s no point making the sentences all pretty if you decide (after months of making those sentences nice and pretty) that you actually don’t even want that scene in there anymore! Hammer this out until you’re sure it’s where you want it (and then be prepared to let that go later, if necessary!) 

For me, draft 2 is usually a total rewrite. I’ve found that usually the first ending I think of is the totally wrong one (because it usually feels stale and predictable to me) and the beginning is often in the wrong place. That’s what draft 1 is for - discovering all the pieces I have at my disposal. Draft 2 is about throwing out what doesn’t work and grabbing anything I didn’t realize I would need. 

Draft 3: Character time, baby! Because you’ve figured out the plot already, you know what you want of your characters doing - now you’ve gotta figure out why. Hopefully, you’ve already figured out most of that. But this is what this layer is really focusing in on - making sure it’s coming through for your reader and really making those characters sing! If the characters are flat, your book will be flat. Characters are the heart and soul of story. Now is the time to really look at each and every character’s motivation - is every move made by every character motivated by something? Is that motivation clear on the page? How are the characters relating to one another? If you can really get us caring how people’s relationships are, we feel it that much more when something sours the relationship - a brother pitted against brother, lovers torn apart, parents watching children struggle - all the classics! (This one’s especially important! The moments when characters are interacting are the moments when we have double the amount of emotion that can be felt - a dose for each person! Make it count!) How does each character see the world and is that evident in the way they’re written (particularly for POV characters). 

It’s worth noting that when I say ‘draft 3’ by this point, I’m usually done rewriting from scratch. It’s more of a go through chapter by chapter process for me, changing things up, while realizing those changes may still be pretty significant as far as the words go. But the story, remember, is mostly the same (except of course, when it isn’t. :) Following?). 

Draft 4: This draft is a lot of little things. I usually take it a chapter at a time, and look through it for one of these things, then the next. None of them take a super long time so this works for me. Let’s take a look.

You’ve got a good story, you’ve got awesome characters, let’s take a look at your setting. It’s like being back in my theater days - I’ve learned my lines, figured out my character, memorized the blocking, and now it’s time to add the sets! Typically we’d have an idea of where the set pieces were going to be and my teacher would have tape down on the ground to mark it off. Similarly, you should have a good idea of your setting from the get-go - it often plays a part in shaping plot - but in this round (which actually isn’t so much a draft as just an edit) I ‘bring in the set.’ I’ve got color added all of a sudden and shape and texture and height. This is the time to really focus on those setting details and making the world come to life. 

In addition to setting, now’s the time to take a good hard look at pacing. Are you getting in to scenes late and leaving early? Do your character arcs fall against each other in a way that keeps the tension up? Are there emotional beats? Is there any part that’s dragging? Take a good look at your middle especially - is it sagging?

Voice. This one’s a biggie. It’s how you string the words together. It’s what makes your writing unique. It’s the difference between “John looked at Sally with a smile” and “John didn’t just look at Sally. He leaned into her like she was the campfire at the beach on a cold summer’s evening, his eyes reflecting its light.” One of those sentences is way more interesting and evokes way more emotion, which is exactly what you want. Emotion in stories=awesomeness. It’s about this time that I start going through every scene (which may be smaller than a chapter) and jotting down one-to-three emotion words. I’d ask myself, ‘what emotion am I trying to convey here?’ And then as I would go through the scene, I’d make sure that my words matched the emotion I was aiming for. If I’m going for tense and angry, I probably shouldn’t be using an analogy that has the word ‘cake’ in it - the two don’t match. If I’m aiming for jaunty and euphoric, a cake analogy might fit in nicely! 

And lastly, here’s where I start to pull out themes. They’re in there, promise you. You don’t even have to be trying to put them in (in fact, if you’re trying, it’s probably feeling stale and contrived). Usually I can see a few themes at the end of draft 1, when my story has a shape. Here, I’m just tweaking words and situations to shine a little morel light on those themes. 


Okay so about now, you should be pretty dang set on what you want happening, how you want it happening, and why. All of those should be coming across clearly. Your world and characters are so well written they feel real, and we’ll all shed a tear or two when our hero falls at the end of act 2. But we’re not done yet. If you stop here, you may have a good novel, but you probably won’t have a great one. Let’s make it great! Again, I usually take this chapter by chapter. I went through with a highlighter (or actually, some colored crayons) and highlighted each of the things I talk about next, then I went through a fixed them all. Here’s where we look at the nitty-gritty:

Description: After highlighting each and every description in a given chapter, I would look back and each one and ask myself “is this description doing more than one thing?” By which I mean, description should do more than just describe what’s in front of someone. It should contribute to the mood, or reveal something about the character or the way she sees the world, or move the plot forward. If it’s only describing, it’s bogging down your writing.

Dialogue: Yep, highlight every single dialogue in that chapter you’re looking at. Then read through just those highlighted words. Read them out loud. There’s something about hearing those words through your ears that really makes it clear what sounds like real dialogue and what doesn’t. Every character should have their own voice, their own unique way of speaking, their own favorite topics to bring up. We all do in real life- so should your characters.

Body Movements: Go highlight everything that happens in anyone’s body: he sighed, her spine tingled, his lips curled up, his throat went dry. Every single one of them. Oftentimes, you’ll find you’ve got favorites. My characters tend to use their lips, eyes, and shoulders all the time. Switch it up a little. Too much smiling in one chapter? How else can you convey that happiness? 

Verbs: Ugh. I’ll be honest. This one was a chore. My least favorite part of my process, for sure. I thought often about abandoning it, but every time I thought that, I’d come across something else that should be changed and I could see it was making my writing stronger, better. So. Highlight every. single. verb. It’s not fun. There’s a million of them in there. But I bet with this exercise you could trim several thousand of them out. Take a look at every verb. Is that the strongest, most correct verb you could use there? We’re in the business of making words count, and the verbs carry the weight of the sentence - if they’re not strong, your sentence will be flabby. You may find it changes the shape of your sentence, for the better. 

Take this for instance: “He had been trying for years to lose the weight he’d put on when she’d left him.” Let’s highlight those verbs.

He had been trying for years to lose the weight he'd put on when she’d left him.

Now consider this: "Despite his best efforts, he’d never gotten rid of the flabby roll of fat that appeared over his belt when Kayla up and left.”

The verbs in there? He’d, gotten, appeared, up, left. We went from eight, so-so verbs, to five mostly-more-interesting verbs. See how that improved the sentence by leaps and bounds? See how it has voice to it now? See how that’d be more exciting to read?! Verbs matter. Every one of them. It’s a huge pain to go through them, but in my opinion, totally worth it. And with practice, you’ll get better at using the right verbs to begin with, and then it will be more a matter of just checking to make sure it’s all as strong as it can be, instead of the arduous exercise it was for me. 

Read It! Outloud!

The last (ha! there’s never a last with writing - have you figured that out yet?) thing I like to do is read it out loud to myself. Preferably over the course of just a few days. Make notes to yourself of anything that needs to be fixed, on any level. Then get to it! Polish until you brain starts to die a polishing death! And then, maybe, just maybe, you’re ready for more. You know, like querying and publication and things. :) I can’t really speak as an authority on those yet. I’m still working on it myself. Until then, what other things do you look for while you are editing? :)  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cake, Participle Phrases & Pie

(photo source)
Don't worry-I'll try to make this as painless as possible. If I were to tell you I'm talking about participle phrases you might try make a quick exit, so lets talk about cake instead. Imagine the perfect chocolate cake- dripping with decadence, oozing with that take-me stare, daring you to give in to your guilty pleasure. 

(photo source) 
Participle phrases are like the flour used to make your perfect chocolate cake. It's the enriching filler. But add too much… and you'll destroy it.

Think of it that way when you're writing/revising your work-in-progress. Using participle phrases incorrectly will flag you as a novice writer. 

So, what IS a participle phrase?

A participle phrase is a phrase formed with a verb (usually ending in -ed or -in) but acting as an adjective- it gives the sentence more substance or other clarifying information. 

For example: 

Attacked by misquotes, Amy wished Jaden understood her definition of camping. 
"Attacked by mosquitoes" is the participle phrase.

Stuck behind all the tall kids, Lizzy couldn't see. 
"Stuck behind the tall kids" is the participle phrase.

Jordan, running a fever for three days, wouldn't come to school.
"Running a fever for three days" is the participle phrase. 

Here's the basics for diagraming a sentence with a participle phrase:

(photo source)

An example of a participle phrase diagramed:

Easy as pie? 

Before you go into a sugar coma- let's get cozy with GERUND phrases. These little suckers sometimes masquerade as participle phrases because they share -ing endings. The way you can pick them out is by decoding their place in the sentence. 

A gerund phrase will be the SUBJECT of the sentence. 

Now that you can spot them, what's the deal?

If you decide to use a participle phrase, here are the things to avoid:

  • Dangling participle phrases
  • Participle phrases that make you slip into passive voice
  • Comma Placement
  • Throwing off the timing in the sentence (making it seem like two things are happening simultaneously when they are not) 

Kira McFadden wrote a great post that explains some of these here.

I hope that you will be able to see these from a mile away in your writing. If you choose to use them, do it with intention and do it correctly.

(photo source) 
Now that the hard stuff's over, let's go have some dessert. 
(Can you spot the participle phrase in my last sentence??)

(photo source)

See ya next time!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Writer's Workshop: How Lying Makes You a Better Writer

Stephen Colbert probably didn't know it at the time he coined the word in 2005, but TRUTHINESS is what fiction authors live, breathe, and bleed onto every page we write. Without our verisimilitude, the worlds and characters we create wouldn't be believable.

Verisimilitude, you say?

Now I bet you are all thinking that the above word is a little too long and not at all useful, especially in everyday talk. I recently attended a writing conference that had a class entitled Verisimilitude. I tried to avoid attending the class, but accidentally walked into the wrong room and felt awkward leaving, so I just stuck around. Boy was I glad I gave it a chance. Deren Hansen was the genius teacher leading the class.

So what is verisimilitude and how can it help you become a better writer? First off, let's do a little defining here:

So truthiness and verisimilitude are one and the same. They are the poker face. And in writing, they make us all liars. Writing fiction is just a step removed from lying. Now that you know that truth, how can being a LIAR-LIAR-PANTS-ON-FIRE make you a better writer?

First of all, you have to realize that in every novel you write, you are essentially acting as an illusionist. I recently read Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. In this fabulous book, Carter the Great is able to convince the audience of his magic through his skills as an illusionist. Many of his great tricks required months of planning and building contraptions that mimicked a reality for the audience. Everything in his act had a purpose from the way he dressed or flicked his wrist to his beautiful assistants--everything perfectly orchestrated to draw the audience's attention. The audience would watch his shows and really believe in his magic. The funny thing is that most of the magic really happened in their heads. In essence, Carter was the greatest verisimilutudist of his time (or maybe I should say that Gold is?).

Stories, like the best lies, are based on truth. As a writer, we need to come up with a Truth Center to make our lie effective. Just like an illusionist, we have to plan our world and our characters. Do wands create magic? Does John love ice cream? Do the two moons of Elga rise at dinner each night? Answering these questions will make our Truth Center. As our story unfolds, we must stick to the rules we have created in our Truth Center.

Does that mean that we have to tell every detail? No, we just select the interesting and cut out the boring stuff. Let the readers fill in the rest. Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary) has said, "The monster you imagine when I say something goes bump in the dark is far scarier than anything I could describe." Less is always more.

What we can do to increase verisimilitude:

  1. Postpone reader gratification
  2. Defy their expectations
  3. Show counter-intuitive effects
  4. Establish characters capable of heroism and cowardice, making it harder to predict what they will do
  5. Establish a pattern and then break it. This causes as much tension for the reader as it does for the characters
  6. Readers, like fish, need to be coaxed to the climax with cycles of tension and release. Reader worry powers the story engine.
We all love roller coasters (most of us, anyway) because we know they are carefully engineered to bring us back to the gate. A story, like a roller coaster, follows the same path, but readers want to feel as though anything in the context of the narrative is possible. We don't want to be told exactly where we are going, we want to experience the ride. To do that, we have to follow the Rules of 2:
  1. Every non-trivial element should be brought to the reader's attention at least twice
  2. Every character should have the potential and opportunity to make at least two choices.
Make what you are writing appear easy. It is hard to have verisimilitude if the writing is poor. Good writing, like the experienced ballerina who split leaps high in the air, should appear effortless and invisible. Hansen says the best way we can do this is by using competent wordsmithing.

Some other wordsmithing tips:
  1. Stick with simple forms of speech tags - he said, she asked. They shouldn't distract attention from the dialogue.
  2. Adverbs should only be used in speech tags to modify the act of speaking ('said loudly', NOT 'said spitefully')
Make sure your numbers add up too. Someone is going to check your facts. Anytime there are critical details, make sure you are accurate. I recently went to a book launch where author Brodi Ashton was talking about her book, Everneath. Apparently she had the distance between Park City and another city wrong in her book. She hates it when people bring it up. Obviously it hasn't ruined the success of her book, but those readers that notice it are taken out of the story for a minute or two because that verisimilitude wall broke down. Author is the root of the word "authority". As an author, you are saying you are the authority on what you have written. Make it so (as Jean Luc Picard would say).


Readers need to believe you know what you are doing. You don't need to be an expert, but you need to do you homework. You don't have to write just what you know. You DO have to know what you write. What do you do if you don't know the details? Don't cover up the scandal. Acknowledge it and move on so that the reader doesn't think you made a mistake.

At the end of the day, remember that truthiness can be hardwork. Perception is everything. Now get out there and start lying, author! If someone catches you in a lie, just tell them you are working.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

SHOWING vs. TELLING… Let's get specific

Every writer knows saying, "Show, don't tell." It's drilled into us so often that it becomes a mantra, spinning around in our heads. But even though we know the saying, it doesn't mean we understand how to apply it to our writing. Sarah Anderson had a great way to visualize it. 

TELLING is the equivalent of viewing the code from The Matrix.

Lots of information, but it keeps the reader at a distance. It doesn't make them feel like they are INSIDE, riding the waves of emotion, seeing the differences between what's real and what's not.

SHOWING is equivalent of making the reader feel like they are the one inside, 
dodging the bullets with Keanu. 

The same information is presented, but in a way that it's tangible and emotional to the reader. 

The reason showing is so much more compelling than telling is showing is all about emotion. When you show us a scene it allows the reader to be very present in what's happening, which will evoke emotion. In my opinion, EMOTION is what writing and reading are all about. All you have to do to write a good book is to make your reader feel something. Give them something to care about, someone to champion, hope to believe in and something to fight for, and you can't go wrong. 

Another aspect that goes along with showing versus telling is pacing. You need to make sure that you're showing the right scenes. You have to know when to give information at a more pulled back angle and when to slow it down and focus on it. If you're showing us things that aren't contributing to effective pacing, you're going to lose your audience. 

An easy way to SHOW instead of tell is to… BE SPECIFIC. Being specific with your details will automatically draw your readers in and make your writing more compelling. 

Here's an example: 

She got on the plane to fly from Virginia to Los Angeles. Kathy was scared during the take off. She was  also worried about what Jim would say when she showed up at his door after their fight. 

Ok you know something interesting is going on, but it's masked by the way it's written. Let's try again.
     "This is the flight to L.A., right?" Kathy asked the man in front of her. 
     He slung his backpack onto his shoulder and nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
    "Just checking," she said and dug through her bag to find the ticket for her seat assignment. "I never fly."
 Then man nodded in a polite but uninterested way and shuffled further ahead. Kathy boarded the plane, her shirt still sticking to her from the stress of the security line. She found her seat, got situated and picked at a hangnail while the stewardess went over the safely information.
     The engine roared to life and and Kathy scrunched her eyes shut and pushed her head into the safety of the headrest. Her stomach lurched along with the plane's ascent, a single thought overriding all others: What would Jim think when she showed up at his door? In the eight months they'd been wading through the long-distance relationship, she never thought he would cheat.

See the difference? The second example is much more compelling because you feel like you're going through it with Kathy and her stress is tangible.

Here are a couple of red flags to help you spot TELLING in your work:
  • Naming an emotion- When you tell the reader that your character is angry, the emotion is immediately limited to whatever your reader thinks of when they are angry. Maybe what you're trying to convey is a little bit of anger, a little bit of frustration, and a dash of shame. Well, you're never going to get all that out of saying "He was angry." You need to express it through words, through the character's body language, through their expressions, through what they're not saying.
"He clenched his jaw and ran a shaky hand through his hair. The way she'd looked at him made the secret burn inside him, threatening to break his resolve. He pounded a fist into the wall, ignoring the sharp bite across his knuckles."

Instead of just saying he's angry, now you can FEEL it along with him.
  • Passive Voice- The subject of the sentence is being acted upon instead of doing the action.
"The umbrella was opened by Mark."

Better option: "Mark opened the umbrella.

Look for was + verb (or verbs with -ing endings) in your manuscript as a quick way to identify possible passive voice. Try to use more interesting verbs. 

"The park was empty."
Better option: "The park stood empty."

Try not to begin a sentence with "there are," or "there was."

"There are lots of restaurants on the street."

Better option: "Restaurants lined the street."

Use past tense instead of past progressive. 
"She was listening."
Better option: "She listened."

Imbed the description of something in an adjective before the noun.

"The soccer field was brand new."
Better option: "The brand new soccer field."
  • Weak Verbs Avoid weak verbs. You can do a search and find in your manuscript to see if you have too many in your manuscript. Here's a few examples:
          was, sat, saw, ran, looked, put, set, thought, met, kept, got 

Make sure if you use these verbs, that you're doing it with intention.
  • Adverbs - Adverbs cheapen your writing and can be omitted in most instances for a stronger phrase. Adverbs modify, telling where, why or under what conditions something happens. They often end in -ly so you can do a search and find in your manuscript as a starting ground to identify them.
By replacing adverbs with a stronger verb, your writing will be much more compelling. 

"He left quickly."
Better option: "He stormed out."

"He wrote furiously on the page."
Better option: "He scrawled on the page."

Writing this way will take some getting used to. It's tough at first, but with some practice it will save you a lot of editing in the end. As someone who has done A LOT of rewriting and editing … trust me that it's better to learn these rules up front. 

I hope these tricks and tips give you a good foundation so that when they say show instead of tell, you not only understand why, but you know how to do it.

Good luck and happy writing!! 

(Today's post was contributed by Brooke Hargett)