Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing effective dialogue is tricky, no doubt about it. It can't be pointless and boring. It can't be too fast or too slow. But most of all, it can't be confusing.

An important consideration in creating dialogue clarity is paragraphing--which lines should be grouped together, and which ones shouldn't.

I think the best way to learn is to analyze an example, then look for guiding principles.

Below is a section of an unpublished middle grade short story of mine about a bunch of preteen musicians at a competition, trying to psych each other out. It's in third person limited omniscient POV, told by eleven-year-old Callie.

Because the audience is younger readers, more of the dialogue has either a tag (he said), or an action beat (Joe smiled), or a description than would be strictly necessary for adult readers. But note that there is variety in how speakers are identified. Constant "he said...she said" can be as grating as no attribution is confusing.

Note also in the fifth through seventh paragraphs, there is one actor, but noticeable shifts in emphasis, which calls for separate paragraphs. Callie goes from processing to decision to acting on a decision. Those paragraph breaks are an important clue to the reader to pay attention, something is changing with each new paragraph.

---

The flautist beside her kicked her legs out straight. Callie flinched when she noticed a wide run snaking from ankle to knee of the girl’s dark tights. [Callie's observation, her POV]

“Trumpet, huh?” the flautist said. She tossed her hair and wrinkled her nose at Callie. “You know a brass player has never won this contest.” [flautist response]

Callie set down her horn and said, “You have a run in your tights.”

The flautist narrowed her eyes. “Nice try, brassy. I’m gonna wipe the stage with you.”

A snarky comeback tumbled to the front of Callie’s brain. Then she remembered the boy who’d been stalking the hall, bragging. He came back from the audition red-eyed and smelling of puke. Two minutes under the bright lights and his toughness had vanished. A scared kid among other scared kids. Why couldn’t anyone be real about it? Or at least less jerky? [Callie's interior mental and emotional processing]

Could I? she wondered. Could I play a new tune, a different game? [Callie's crux moment thought]

Callie sat up straighter. “I have an extra pair you can borrow if you want.” [Callie acting on decision]

“What?”

“Tights. I have extras. You want them?”

The flautist looked at her leg and screamed. “What am I gonna—? I can’t go out there like—!” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Callie pulled a crinkly cellophane package from her bag and set it on the flautist’s lap. “Here, please take them, um…”

“Amber,” the flautist whispered, sniffling. “I’m Amber.”

“I’m Callie.” She jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go ahead, there’s time.”

Amber nodded, clutched the tights, then jogged down the hall.

The boy violinist a seat down from Amber smiled and gave Callie a thumbs-up. “Nice strategy,” he said. “One down, eighty six to go?” [new actor introduced]

Callie shook her head and rolled her eyes. [action beat only reaction]

“Let me guess…I have spaghetti sauce on my shirt? Mismatching socks? Come on, Trumpet Girl, bring it on.  I can take it.”

“You look fine. Good luck.” Callie blew another warm breath into her horn.

“Yeah, right. It is spaghetti sauce, isn’t it? Man, I knew it!” He jumped up and ran for the bathrooms, nearly banging into Amber. [violinist action and speech, segue to new actor]

“What’s his problem?” Amber asked as she took her seat.

“Nerves, I guess.”

“Hey, Callie? Um…thanks for the tights. They’re way nicer than the ones I was wearing.”

“No problem.”

Amber bit her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess.”

“How come you’re being nice to me? I was, well, not to you.”

Callie shrugged. “I just don’t see the point of us all snarling at each other.”

“But it’s all part of the game. Throw the other guy off balance and all that.”

Photo credit: ronnieb from morguefile.com
“I came here to play music, not mind games. Honestly, does putting other kids down make anyone a better musician?”

Amber picked a hangnail. “I think it just makes me tense, trying to look tough.”

Callie nodded. “Exactly. I mean, what good is that?”

“So how do you not get nervous?”

Callie twirled the mouthpiece in her pocket. “I remember how it feels when I’m playing. Like there’s liquid gold flowing from my breath, through my horn and filling everything with light and happiness.”

Amber stared at her, wide-eyed.

“That sounded totally nuts, didn’t it?” Callie said.

“No. It sounded nice. Light and happiness. I like that.”

The boy violinist stomped up the hall. He stopped in front of Callie’s chair and yelled, “I look fine! Totally fine!” [previous actor returns. His actions and speech]

“Of course you do. Didn’t I say that?” Callie replied.

“She did, I heard her,” said a cellist two chairs down. “So how about you stop hollering? I’m trying to meditate.”  She closed her eyes and laid her hands, palms up, in her lap. [tertiary character speech and action]

----

What are some key takeaways from this example?

1. Same actor and speaker in a paragraph.

2. New actor or speaker, new paragraph

3. Segues to new actors need to be clear.

4. Use not only tags, but also action beats, descriptions, distinctive diction (dialect, pet phrases), address to another speaker ("Hey, Joe"), or mention of a relationship ("Mom wouldn't like it") to distinguish speakers.

5. Reactions that are unspoken--action beats or the POV character's thoughts--should be separate paragraphs from what they are reacting to. See #1 above.

6. Moments of interiority or even action interspersed in dialogue should be paragraphed topically or thematically, with breaks for new topics or themes or actors (see THIS post for more examples)

For further reading, I recommend Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you find paragraphing dialogue difficult or easy? Why?

12:08 PM Laurel Garver
Writing effective dialogue is tricky, no doubt about it. It can't be pointless and boring. It can't be too fast or too slow. But most of all, it can't be confusing.

An important consideration in creating dialogue clarity is paragraphing--which lines should be grouped together, and which ones shouldn't.

I think the best way to learn is to analyze an example, then look for guiding principles.

Below is a section of an unpublished middle grade short story of mine about a bunch of preteen musicians at a competition, trying to psych each other out. It's in third person limited omniscient POV, told by eleven-year-old Callie.

Because the audience is younger readers, more of the dialogue has either a tag (he said), or an action beat (Joe smiled), or a description than would be strictly necessary for adult readers. But note that there is variety in how speakers are identified. Constant "he said...she said" can be as grating as no attribution is confusing.

Note also in the fifth through seventh paragraphs, there is one actor, but noticeable shifts in emphasis, which calls for separate paragraphs. Callie goes from processing to decision to acting on a decision. Those paragraph breaks are an important clue to the reader to pay attention, something is changing with each new paragraph.

---

The flautist beside her kicked her legs out straight. Callie flinched when she noticed a wide run snaking from ankle to knee of the girl’s dark tights. [Callie's observation, her POV]

“Trumpet, huh?” the flautist said. She tossed her hair and wrinkled her nose at Callie. “You know a brass player has never won this contest.” [flautist response]

Callie set down her horn and said, “You have a run in your tights.”

The flautist narrowed her eyes. “Nice try, brassy. I’m gonna wipe the stage with you.”

A snarky comeback tumbled to the front of Callie’s brain. Then she remembered the boy who’d been stalking the hall, bragging. He came back from the audition red-eyed and smelling of puke. Two minutes under the bright lights and his toughness had vanished. A scared kid among other scared kids. Why couldn’t anyone be real about it? Or at least less jerky? [Callie's interior mental and emotional processing]

Could I? she wondered. Could I play a new tune, a different game? [Callie's crux moment thought]

Callie sat up straighter. “I have an extra pair you can borrow if you want.” [Callie acting on decision]

“What?”

“Tights. I have extras. You want them?”

The flautist looked at her leg and screamed. “What am I gonna—? I can’t go out there like—!” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Callie pulled a crinkly cellophane package from her bag and set it on the flautist’s lap. “Here, please take them, um…”

“Amber,” the flautist whispered, sniffling. “I’m Amber.”

“I’m Callie.” She jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go ahead, there’s time.”

Amber nodded, clutched the tights, then jogged down the hall.

The boy violinist a seat down from Amber smiled and gave Callie a thumbs-up. “Nice strategy,” he said. “One down, eighty six to go?” [new actor introduced]

Callie shook her head and rolled her eyes. [action beat only reaction]

“Let me guess…I have spaghetti sauce on my shirt? Mismatching socks? Come on, Trumpet Girl, bring it on.  I can take it.”

“You look fine. Good luck.” Callie blew another warm breath into her horn.

“Yeah, right. It is spaghetti sauce, isn’t it? Man, I knew it!” He jumped up and ran for the bathrooms, nearly banging into Amber. [violinist action and speech, segue to new actor]

“What’s his problem?” Amber asked as she took her seat.

“Nerves, I guess.”

“Hey, Callie? Um…thanks for the tights. They’re way nicer than the ones I was wearing.”

“No problem.”

Amber bit her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess.”

“How come you’re being nice to me? I was, well, not to you.”

Callie shrugged. “I just don’t see the point of us all snarling at each other.”

“But it’s all part of the game. Throw the other guy off balance and all that.”

Photo credit: ronnieb from morguefile.com
“I came here to play music, not mind games. Honestly, does putting other kids down make anyone a better musician?”

Amber picked a hangnail. “I think it just makes me tense, trying to look tough.”

Callie nodded. “Exactly. I mean, what good is that?”

“So how do you not get nervous?”

Callie twirled the mouthpiece in her pocket. “I remember how it feels when I’m playing. Like there’s liquid gold flowing from my breath, through my horn and filling everything with light and happiness.”

Amber stared at her, wide-eyed.

“That sounded totally nuts, didn’t it?” Callie said.

“No. It sounded nice. Light and happiness. I like that.”

The boy violinist stomped up the hall. He stopped in front of Callie’s chair and yelled, “I look fine! Totally fine!” [previous actor returns. His actions and speech]

“Of course you do. Didn’t I say that?” Callie replied.

“She did, I heard her,” said a cellist two chairs down. “So how about you stop hollering? I’m trying to meditate.”  She closed her eyes and laid her hands, palms up, in her lap. [tertiary character speech and action]

----

What are some key takeaways from this example?

1. Same actor and speaker in a paragraph.

2. New actor or speaker, new paragraph

3. Segues to new actors need to be clear.

4. Use not only tags, but also action beats, descriptions, distinctive diction (dialect, pet phrases), address to another speaker ("Hey, Joe"), or mention of a relationship ("Mom wouldn't like it") to distinguish speakers.

5. Reactions that are unspoken--action beats or the POV character's thoughts--should be separate paragraphs from what they are reacting to. See #1 above.

6. Moments of interiority or even action interspersed in dialogue should be paragraphed topically or thematically, with breaks for new topics or themes or actors (see THIS post for more examples)

For further reading, I recommend Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you find paragraphing dialogue difficult or easy? Why?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A speedy, lean machine (photo by xenia from morguefile.com) 
Over winter break, back in December, I picked up a copy of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea by John Banville. It's a slim little volume about an Irish man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. I like prize-winning literary fiction for the most part. I love Ireland. And I'm always deeply moved by stories about grief. I'd heard good things about Banville. His writing is lovely and wryly funny.

And I just can't seem to get through this darned book.


Nearly every page is one solid block of text. At the end of a long day spent copy editing scholarly lit crit (where literature meets philosophy), I just can't seem to get through more than one dense paragraph a night. By about the twelfth line, my mind starts to wander--and not deeper into the story world.

I can't help thinking that I would have finished this book in a week, if only it had shorter paragraphs.

Maybe too infrequent paragraph breaks aren't your particular vice. Maybe you don't have a clear sense of what things to group together. Both issues stem from a common problem: understanding what a paragraph unit is supposed to be.

Paragraph defined


Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it like this:
paragraph - a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.

UNC's Writing Center adds this helpful distinction:
[T]he unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph.

So what a paragraph does for your writing is to put the prose into coherent chunks, make the prose bite-sized so to speak, or at least small enough portions for a reader to fit on her mental plate.

Paragraphing and pacing


This might seem an obvious point, but I suppose it bears saying nonetheless: shorter paragraphs make for a quicker reading experience, and provide a subtle clue that this section of the story is moving along at a fast pace. Action sequences generally have frequent paragraph breaks, while scenes in which a character is regrouping, formulating a plan, or contemplating a decision will generally employ longer paragraphs.

Scenes of suspense, I've found, most often combine short and long paragraphs. This not only keeps the reader a little off-kilter, it also inserts small crescendos of tension. For example, you might have a character being chased who will run, dodge an obstacle, wiggle through a tight spot, and then perhaps stumble or pause to hide or to catch her breath. That pause paragraph might stretch to momentarily release tension, so that you can continue building it, or it can stretch to draw out the inner turmoil the character is experience in order to amp up the tension.

What you don't want in a suspense scene is to insert a long, chatty character monologue about the scenery or her favorite holiday memory or worries about the state of her hairdo. Off-topic tangents, especially lengthy ones, tend to bring a scene to a screeching halt and frustrate the reader.

But what about those contemplative scenes? How do you not get carried away? Audience expectation is one thing to consider--middle grade readers will lose interest after seven or eight sentences, literary fiction readers can persevere longer.

Just keep in mind that the longer you draw out a paragraph, the more mental work you are asking of readers. They may gradually get lost and forget what the paragraph is all about if the topic sentence was six inches up the page. Adding paragraph breaks can be like adding spikes to a mountain face, giving climbers behind you more footholds, easing their ascent.

Paragraphing narration and description


Just because you have one "speaker" in a passage of narrative summary or description--either the narrator or POV character, it doesn't mean that an entire page of this material is necessarily the same kind of stuff.

Narrative summary typically covers hours, days, or even years of story time in a compressed manner. But within that summary, there will likely be shifts of focus or tone. Descriptions will likewise range across a number of different focal points, one after another.

With each shift in focus, subject, or emotional tone, you want a new paragraph

Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink and porky. Harry, on the other hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lighting-shaped scar.
 It was the scar that make Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was only a hint of Harry's very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Durselys' doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time....[continues with a brief summary of the attack that killed Harry's parents]. (Rowling, Chamber 9)

Notice how Rowling gradually shifts the attention from general description to a particular feature. That feature is discussed alone, making way for a segue into the backstory of that feature. Each of these separate paragraphs relate to what came before and after, but each has a different focus.

It may be partly because this book is geared to middle grade readers, but one can see "topic sentences" opening two of the three paragraphs ("Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family"; "It was the scar that made Harry so particularly unusual"). If in your writing you find a statement that is then followed by supporting details, that's a good indication that statement should begin a new paragraph.

Paragraphing interior monologue


Interior monologue will usually entail a character working through his or her thoughts and feelings about events or interactions or relationships, bit by bit. Most often a character will cycle through a range of responses, moving from a negative emotional state to a positive one (or vice versa), from confusion to clarity, or from indecision to decision.

Paragraphing for interiority can be tricky, because at times you are trying to show gradual changes in emotional states. It takes a little finesse to know when the emotion has shifted.

As a guiding principle, your interiority should follow a feeling through its exploration to a change. Pick up the new feeling, created in the change, in the next paragraph. Think of it as a kind of relay race, with each new emotion a baton moved forward.

When it's a mixture of emotion and thought, watch for topic shifts--those are a good indication that your character is perhaps processing a different aspect of the emotion, and each new angle or facet will call for a new paragraph.

Here is an example from Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life:

Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I'm not sure I know what it really means to say "I love you." These days with Dylan -- when we're together -- it's more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn't that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn't love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing it other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness.
I'm not trying to be a cynic. I seriously wonder about this. Because after my dad died, I thought a lot about what a pathetic job I did loving him, and I couldn't figure out why I was so bad at it or what made it so hard. Then I thought maybe I didn't really love him until he was gone. And that made me wonder whether love is impossible until it is too late. 
Except I know that love is possible, because I know my dad loved me and loved my mom. What I don't understand is how he learned to do that so well and what I'm going to do now that he's not here to show me. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I don't have whatever it takes. (Zarr, How to Save 91-92)
In a few paragraphs, Zarr takes us through mental and emotional processing of a pretty big topic: What does "I love you" mean, and how does one love? Interestingly, in each paragraph, the character begins at a somewhat more positive state and cycles back to a negative state: from realizing love should be selfless to realizing how impossibly selfish we can all be; from desiring the ability to love well to feeling hopeless that it's even possible; from grasping hope in the example of others to once again feeling defeated and irredeemably flawed.

Each paragraph takes a slightly different angle on the topic as well. It begins with romantic love, moves to familial love, and finally examines the teachable nature of love. In her longer paragraph of the three, she uses questions (asking the reader to engage) and transition phrases ("I mean," "I get to thinking") to keep the forward motion of the thought.

More next time...
Paragraphing dialogue is another animal that deserves its own post to be explained effectively, I plan to do that next week, Stay tuned!

Do you find it easy or difficult to separate material into cogent paragraphs? Why?
2:18 PM Laurel Garver
A speedy, lean machine (photo by xenia from morguefile.com) 
Over winter break, back in December, I picked up a copy of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea by John Banville. It's a slim little volume about an Irish man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. I like prize-winning literary fiction for the most part. I love Ireland. And I'm always deeply moved by stories about grief. I'd heard good things about Banville. His writing is lovely and wryly funny.

And I just can't seem to get through this darned book.


Nearly every page is one solid block of text. At the end of a long day spent copy editing scholarly lit crit (where literature meets philosophy), I just can't seem to get through more than one dense paragraph a night. By about the twelfth line, my mind starts to wander--and not deeper into the story world.

I can't help thinking that I would have finished this book in a week, if only it had shorter paragraphs.

Maybe too infrequent paragraph breaks aren't your particular vice. Maybe you don't have a clear sense of what things to group together. Both issues stem from a common problem: understanding what a paragraph unit is supposed to be.

Paragraph defined


Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it like this:
paragraph - a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.

UNC's Writing Center adds this helpful distinction:
[T]he unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph.

So what a paragraph does for your writing is to put the prose into coherent chunks, make the prose bite-sized so to speak, or at least small enough portions for a reader to fit on her mental plate.

Paragraphing and pacing


This might seem an obvious point, but I suppose it bears saying nonetheless: shorter paragraphs make for a quicker reading experience, and provide a subtle clue that this section of the story is moving along at a fast pace. Action sequences generally have frequent paragraph breaks, while scenes in which a character is regrouping, formulating a plan, or contemplating a decision will generally employ longer paragraphs.

Scenes of suspense, I've found, most often combine short and long paragraphs. This not only keeps the reader a little off-kilter, it also inserts small crescendos of tension. For example, you might have a character being chased who will run, dodge an obstacle, wiggle through a tight spot, and then perhaps stumble or pause to hide or to catch her breath. That pause paragraph might stretch to momentarily release tension, so that you can continue building it, or it can stretch to draw out the inner turmoil the character is experience in order to amp up the tension.

What you don't want in a suspense scene is to insert a long, chatty character monologue about the scenery or her favorite holiday memory or worries about the state of her hairdo. Off-topic tangents, especially lengthy ones, tend to bring a scene to a screeching halt and frustrate the reader.

But what about those contemplative scenes? How do you not get carried away? Audience expectation is one thing to consider--middle grade readers will lose interest after seven or eight sentences, literary fiction readers can persevere longer.

Just keep in mind that the longer you draw out a paragraph, the more mental work you are asking of readers. They may gradually get lost and forget what the paragraph is all about if the topic sentence was six inches up the page. Adding paragraph breaks can be like adding spikes to a mountain face, giving climbers behind you more footholds, easing their ascent.

Paragraphing narration and description


Just because you have one "speaker" in a passage of narrative summary or description--either the narrator or POV character, it doesn't mean that an entire page of this material is necessarily the same kind of stuff.

Narrative summary typically covers hours, days, or even years of story time in a compressed manner. But within that summary, there will likely be shifts of focus or tone. Descriptions will likewise range across a number of different focal points, one after another.

With each shift in focus, subject, or emotional tone, you want a new paragraph

Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink and porky. Harry, on the other hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lighting-shaped scar.
 It was the scar that make Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was only a hint of Harry's very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Durselys' doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time....[continues with a brief summary of the attack that killed Harry's parents]. (Rowling, Chamber 9)

Notice how Rowling gradually shifts the attention from general description to a particular feature. That feature is discussed alone, making way for a segue into the backstory of that feature. Each of these separate paragraphs relate to what came before and after, but each has a different focus.

It may be partly because this book is geared to middle grade readers, but one can see "topic sentences" opening two of the three paragraphs ("Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family"; "It was the scar that made Harry so particularly unusual"). If in your writing you find a statement that is then followed by supporting details, that's a good indication that statement should begin a new paragraph.

Paragraphing interior monologue


Interior monologue will usually entail a character working through his or her thoughts and feelings about events or interactions or relationships, bit by bit. Most often a character will cycle through a range of responses, moving from a negative emotional state to a positive one (or vice versa), from confusion to clarity, or from indecision to decision.

Paragraphing for interiority can be tricky, because at times you are trying to show gradual changes in emotional states. It takes a little finesse to know when the emotion has shifted.

As a guiding principle, your interiority should follow a feeling through its exploration to a change. Pick up the new feeling, created in the change, in the next paragraph. Think of it as a kind of relay race, with each new emotion a baton moved forward.

When it's a mixture of emotion and thought, watch for topic shifts--those are a good indication that your character is perhaps processing a different aspect of the emotion, and each new angle or facet will call for a new paragraph.

Here is an example from Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life:

Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I'm not sure I know what it really means to say "I love you." These days with Dylan -- when we're together -- it's more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn't that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn't love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing it other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness.
I'm not trying to be a cynic. I seriously wonder about this. Because after my dad died, I thought a lot about what a pathetic job I did loving him, and I couldn't figure out why I was so bad at it or what made it so hard. Then I thought maybe I didn't really love him until he was gone. And that made me wonder whether love is impossible until it is too late. 
Except I know that love is possible, because I know my dad loved me and loved my mom. What I don't understand is how he learned to do that so well and what I'm going to do now that he's not here to show me. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I don't have whatever it takes. (Zarr, How to Save 91-92)
In a few paragraphs, Zarr takes us through mental and emotional processing of a pretty big topic: What does "I love you" mean, and how does one love? Interestingly, in each paragraph, the character begins at a somewhat more positive state and cycles back to a negative state: from realizing love should be selfless to realizing how impossibly selfish we can all be; from desiring the ability to love well to feeling hopeless that it's even possible; from grasping hope in the example of others to once again feeling defeated and irredeemably flawed.

Each paragraph takes a slightly different angle on the topic as well. It begins with romantic love, moves to familial love, and finally examines the teachable nature of love. In her longer paragraph of the three, she uses questions (asking the reader to engage) and transition phrases ("I mean," "I get to thinking") to keep the forward motion of the thought.

More next time...
Paragraphing dialogue is another animal that deserves its own post to be explained effectively, I plan to do that next week, Stay tuned!

Do you find it easy or difficult to separate material into cogent paragraphs? Why?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Do you struggle to come up with ideas for your blog, writer friends? Well, never fear, I have a handy list to stimulate your thinking about awesome topics sure to draw a big audience, post after post.

Photo credit: jppi from morguefile.com

  • Make your romance swoonier with these pretty names for human excretions
  • How vowels are destroying your prose
  • Fantastik! Using product placement to make your fiction more lucrative
  • Inspiring stories from the great nose pickers of literary history
  • How to write a novel in just 30 years by agonizing over a sentence a day
  • No ifs, ands, or buts: Destroy those pesky conjunctions
  • Why redundancy matters
  • Develop stronger plots using chicken entrails divination
  • How to craft exquisite poems using only Wingdings font
  • Tips for combining the styles of James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy to create aggressively unreadable prose
  • Punch or punch? How to develop anxiety about homonyms
  • How to improve your pacing using detailed descriptions of every character's outfit
  • Eight is not enough: How to incorporate more typefaces in your fiction
  • Streamline your character names: ambisexual monikers to give every character in your story


  • Happy April Fool's Day! Do you have a favorite trick or hoax?


9:05 AM Laurel Garver
Do you struggle to come up with ideas for your blog, writer friends? Well, never fear, I have a handy list to stimulate your thinking about awesome topics sure to draw a big audience, post after post.

Photo credit: jppi from morguefile.com

  • Make your romance swoonier with these pretty names for human excretions
  • How vowels are destroying your prose
  • Fantastik! Using product placement to make your fiction more lucrative
  • Inspiring stories from the great nose pickers of literary history
  • How to write a novel in just 30 years by agonizing over a sentence a day
  • No ifs, ands, or buts: Destroy those pesky conjunctions
  • Why redundancy matters
  • Develop stronger plots using chicken entrails divination
  • How to craft exquisite poems using only Wingdings font
  • Tips for combining the styles of James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy to create aggressively unreadable prose
  • Punch or punch? How to develop anxiety about homonyms
  • How to improve your pacing using detailed descriptions of every character's outfit
  • Eight is not enough: How to incorporate more typefaces in your fiction
  • Streamline your character names: ambisexual monikers to give every character in your story


  • Happy April Fool's Day! Do you have a favorite trick or hoax?


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How well do you know the parts of a book and their names and functions? Below I've gathered a list of the most common elements in a printed book.

Photo credit: pschubert from morguefile.com

Front Matter


All the pages prior to the main body. Numbering is done in lowercase Roman numerals.

End papers/leaves
Blank pages, sometimes with images, at the beginning and end of a book. They usually exist to fill out a printer's signature (huge paper sheets from which book pages are cut) and give a polished look. Paperbacks are less likely than hardbacks to contain them.

Endorsements
Praise from other authors, important book reviewers, or experts on your topic often appear first. Keep in mind that readers will be likely to skip or skim, so put the most important first, and have plenty of white space on the page. Dense text on an endorsements page will be a turn off.

Half title page
In traditionally published books, it's common to have a page with the title and nothing else.

"Also by" page
A list of the author's other works typically appears on the back of the Half title.

Title page
The book title and the names of the author(s) and the publisher go on the front of this page

The back of the title page should include the copyright notice, the ISBN, the publisher’s address, the year the book was published, any disclaimers, information about the cover art and/or designer.

Cataloging in Publication information also goes here--the categories for library search engines-- for traditionally published books. Self-published books are not eligible for this service (see Library of Congress FAQs for more info). Don't try this at home, either. You can pay to have CIP data generated, but it's pricey and won't guarantee your book will make it into a library.

Dedication
Spot where the author gives special recognition to someone or something. The word "dedicated" or "dedication" need not appear. Simply "In memory of my mother" or "For Sam, who makes it all worthwhile" is often plenty.

Acknowledgements
Specific thanks to all the people who helped the author, and can sometimes cleverly incorporate the story's themes or images. Acknowledgements can also appear in the back matter, if preferred.

Table of contents
This list of the elements included in the book is more common in nonfiction than fiction. It should include pertinent front matter--such as a foreword or preface, the chapters, and all back matter.

Foreword (note spelling!)
A special introduction written by someone other than the author, that gives supportive information regarding the book. Forewords can be included in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books.

Preface
Written by the book’s author, this contains important information related to the book topic, such as explaining the author's expertise, or research methodology. Prefaces are largely used in nonfiction.

Body

Introduction
In nonfiction, the author gives the reader more details about the book, typically a rationale for "why I wrote this book" or an informal letter to readers, highlighting the benefits of reading the book.

Prologue
In fiction, a chapter occurring outside the main narrative time frame or location, typically before the main story action picks up. Sometimes the prologue will be a fictionalized outside source, such as an imaginary newspaper clipping, TV broadcast or online article. Using part of a scene from the climax as a prologue has been done (Twilight) but will likely come off as gimmicky. Keep in mind that some readers will skip prologues, so use with caution.

Chapters
The text of the book is typically broken into parts called chapters. These might be named with a simple number (Ten, 17), the word "chapter" and a numeral or spelled out number (Chapter 23, Chapter Six), a descriptive heading ("In which the heroine uncovers a ruse"), a date (especially for diary-style fiction), a location (Chicago, Dave's house), the point-of-view character's name, or a combination of these (Chapter 6, March 21, Chicago; 15 Vanessa).

Epigraphs
Quotations from other sources that summarize the theme of a chapter can be inserted at the beginning of a chapter, or the book as a whole (usually right before the body). Beware of taking more than about 400 words from any single source--that's the UK threshold for "fair dealing," a copyright concept more strict than US law. If you use Bible verses, use several different translations (say, NIV, ESV, NASB) to ensure you don't stray out of fair use or fair dealing territory, and be sure to attribute correctly (in an appendix, and in your copyright information).

Frank Herbert's Dune used epigraphs from a fictional source written by one of his characters who is a small child in the book. In doing this, he avoids copyright issues and also signals that this person will become significant.

Scenes/sections
Chapters are composed of subsections called "scenes" in fiction and "sections" in nonfiction.

How separations between scenes are demarcated can depend on medium. In paper books, extra space is typically added. In e-books, scene breaks are often marked with centered asterisks, dashes, or even line art. Indie authors should determine what their "house style" will be and use it consistently.

Nonfiction sections usually have descriptive headings.

Epilogue
A final chapter, typically dramatized scenes, that takes place sometime after the main narrative. This might be a day or decades later. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, J.K. Rowling provides a glimpse of how our favorite characters are faring 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts.

Back Matter


All elements that appearing after the body of the book. Be sure to include them when numbering pages and constructing your table of contents.

Afterword (note spelling!)
Unlike an epilogue, an afterword is not in a character's voice, but is instead follow up information for the audience from the author. This might include an explanation of how the author got the idea for the story or a testimonial from another source.

Appendix (Appendices if more than one)
Appendices include supplementary information, such as "further reading" with recommended books, or a list of resources such as organizations and websites related to the book's topic. Maps of your fantasy world and lists of characters and their relationships (for large casts) would also appear here. Appendices might also include additional content related to the book, such as discussion questions or recipes for foods featured in the story.

Glossary
Vocabulary words and their definitions. If you coin a lot of terms in your worldbuilding, readers will appreciate a glossary. Don't forget to include pronunciations.

Bibliography
Lists the references used in writing the book. It's rare to include this in fiction. More often, fiction writers mention important research sources in their acknowledgements.

Index
An alphabetical list of significant terms found within the text and the pages where they appear. Nonfiction books usually include this element.

Author biography ("About the author")
A sentence, paragraph or even a page with information about the author. Increasingly, authors include information about how to connect on social media. Some also include a personal plea for reviews.

Sneak Peak
A sample chapter of the next book in the series, or of your next release can build audience.


Did I miss anything? Which elements do you wish authors and publishers used more often? Less often?
3:43 PM Laurel Garver
How well do you know the parts of a book and their names and functions? Below I've gathered a list of the most common elements in a printed book.

Photo credit: pschubert from morguefile.com

Front Matter


All the pages prior to the main body. Numbering is done in lowercase Roman numerals.

End papers/leaves
Blank pages, sometimes with images, at the beginning and end of a book. They usually exist to fill out a printer's signature (huge paper sheets from which book pages are cut) and give a polished look. Paperbacks are less likely than hardbacks to contain them.

Endorsements
Praise from other authors, important book reviewers, or experts on your topic often appear first. Keep in mind that readers will be likely to skip or skim, so put the most important first, and have plenty of white space on the page. Dense text on an endorsements page will be a turn off.

Half title page
In traditionally published books, it's common to have a page with the title and nothing else.

"Also by" page
A list of the author's other works typically appears on the back of the Half title.

Title page
The book title and the names of the author(s) and the publisher go on the front of this page

The back of the title page should include the copyright notice, the ISBN, the publisher’s address, the year the book was published, any disclaimers, information about the cover art and/or designer.

Cataloging in Publication information also goes here--the categories for library search engines-- for traditionally published books. Self-published books are not eligible for this service (see Library of Congress FAQs for more info). Don't try this at home, either. You can pay to have CIP data generated, but it's pricey and won't guarantee your book will make it into a library.

Dedication
Spot where the author gives special recognition to someone or something. The word "dedicated" or "dedication" need not appear. Simply "In memory of my mother" or "For Sam, who makes it all worthwhile" is often plenty.

Acknowledgements
Specific thanks to all the people who helped the author, and can sometimes cleverly incorporate the story's themes or images. Acknowledgements can also appear in the back matter, if preferred.

Table of contents
This list of the elements included in the book is more common in nonfiction than fiction. It should include pertinent front matter--such as a foreword or preface, the chapters, and all back matter.

Foreword (note spelling!)
A special introduction written by someone other than the author, that gives supportive information regarding the book. Forewords can be included in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books.

Preface
Written by the book’s author, this contains important information related to the book topic, such as explaining the author's expertise, or research methodology. Prefaces are largely used in nonfiction.

Body

Introduction
In nonfiction, the author gives the reader more details about the book, typically a rationale for "why I wrote this book" or an informal letter to readers, highlighting the benefits of reading the book.

Prologue
In fiction, a chapter occurring outside the main narrative time frame or location, typically before the main story action picks up. Sometimes the prologue will be a fictionalized outside source, such as an imaginary newspaper clipping, TV broadcast or online article. Using part of a scene from the climax as a prologue has been done (Twilight) but will likely come off as gimmicky. Keep in mind that some readers will skip prologues, so use with caution.

Chapters
The text of the book is typically broken into parts called chapters. These might be named with a simple number (Ten, 17), the word "chapter" and a numeral or spelled out number (Chapter 23, Chapter Six), a descriptive heading ("In which the heroine uncovers a ruse"), a date (especially for diary-style fiction), a location (Chicago, Dave's house), the point-of-view character's name, or a combination of these (Chapter 6, March 21, Chicago; 15 Vanessa).

Epigraphs
Quotations from other sources that summarize the theme of a chapter can be inserted at the beginning of a chapter, or the book as a whole (usually right before the body). Beware of taking more than about 400 words from any single source--that's the UK threshold for "fair dealing," a copyright concept more strict than US law. If you use Bible verses, use several different translations (say, NIV, ESV, NASB) to ensure you don't stray out of fair use or fair dealing territory, and be sure to attribute correctly (in an appendix, and in your copyright information).

Frank Herbert's Dune used epigraphs from a fictional source written by one of his characters who is a small child in the book. In doing this, he avoids copyright issues and also signals that this person will become significant.

Scenes/sections
Chapters are composed of subsections called "scenes" in fiction and "sections" in nonfiction.

How separations between scenes are demarcated can depend on medium. In paper books, extra space is typically added. In e-books, scene breaks are often marked with centered asterisks, dashes, or even line art. Indie authors should determine what their "house style" will be and use it consistently.

Nonfiction sections usually have descriptive headings.

Epilogue
A final chapter, typically dramatized scenes, that takes place sometime after the main narrative. This might be a day or decades later. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, J.K. Rowling provides a glimpse of how our favorite characters are faring 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts.

Back Matter


All elements that appearing after the body of the book. Be sure to include them when numbering pages and constructing your table of contents.

Afterword (note spelling!)
Unlike an epilogue, an afterword is not in a character's voice, but is instead follow up information for the audience from the author. This might include an explanation of how the author got the idea for the story or a testimonial from another source.

Appendix (Appendices if more than one)
Appendices include supplementary information, such as "further reading" with recommended books, or a list of resources such as organizations and websites related to the book's topic. Maps of your fantasy world and lists of characters and their relationships (for large casts) would also appear here. Appendices might also include additional content related to the book, such as discussion questions or recipes for foods featured in the story.

Glossary
Vocabulary words and their definitions. If you coin a lot of terms in your worldbuilding, readers will appreciate a glossary. Don't forget to include pronunciations.

Bibliography
Lists the references used in writing the book. It's rare to include this in fiction. More often, fiction writers mention important research sources in their acknowledgements.

Index
An alphabetical list of significant terms found within the text and the pages where they appear. Nonfiction books usually include this element.

Author biography ("About the author")
A sentence, paragraph or even a page with information about the author. Increasingly, authors include information about how to connect on social media. Some also include a personal plea for reviews.

Sneak Peak
A sample chapter of the next book in the series, or of your next release can build audience.


Did I miss anything? Which elements do you wish authors and publishers used more often? Less often?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dublin photo by flokke from morguefile.com
Just for fun, I thought I'd post an entry from one of my high school journals describing my experiences marching in the St. Patrick's day parade in Dublin, Ireland, with my high school band thirty years ago today.  I haven't altered the words I wrote at 16, except to remove names. Read on to learn about the magic of magpies, dueling saxophones and how to preform emergency surgery on a parade route.

March 17, 1985

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Up at the crack of dawn, we dressed and made our appearance at breakfast. Corn flakes and juice, followed by bacon, mutton sausage and eggs became an all-too-familiar breakfast. After loading the buses with instruments, everyone donned uniforms and boarded. To Dublin, Ho!

Conn [tour guide] told us of an ancient superstition about magpies, those huge crow-like birds of Europe. If you see a single magpie and wave to it, you’ll have good luck all day. If you see two, you needn’t wave, that is automatically good luck. If you wave to three magpies, you’ll have a girl child, and waving to four will bring a boy. We got caught up in the amusing Irish superstitions, to say the least—we waved at every big, black bird we saw for the rest of the week.

Entering the city, we stopped waving at magpies and started waving at the magnificent people. Everyone waved back, even some of the dignified guarde (police). We really got a kick out of that. With a little coaxing and much waving, we urged a peddler to come over to the bus and sell us Irish flags. Now we had flags to wave, as well as hands.

After lining up, we were in for quite a wait. A group of curious, kilted bagpipers came over to talk to us. They were intrigued by American saxophones, and we were intrigued by their bagpipes. One of the bagpipers challenged John S., an alto saxophonist, to a duel. We called it a draw.

The time finally came to enter the parade route. I swear, Dublin’s entire population must have come out to see us. They were so thick, we had to go single file at times. About 5/6 of the onlookers seemed to be under 18. I almost wished we didn’t have to march the parade—I just wanted to reach out and cuddle some of those adorable children. The little rosy-cheeked girls with ponytails in green ribbon and rosy little naughty boys were just too cute! The crowd seemed to love us too, asking as we passed if we knew their cousins in Pittsburgh or Scranton or Philadelphia.

The cord that suspends my xylophone upper keys [like the black keys on a piano] broke as I played the cadence, while we were squeezed into single file formation. One of the parents, Mr. F., saw my grimace, and thinking I’d hurt myself, rushed to my side. We were now two groups away from the judging stand, and I began to feel panicked. I restrung the bars, trying to keep moving and not swing my xylophone into anyone. Then Mr. F. pulled the cord taut and together we tied it, hopefully well enough to make it through our routine for the judges.

At the moment of truth—the Lord Mayor’s judging stand—we did our “Thriller” routine with utmost flash and precision. The crowd went wild. They’d probably never seen a drum major in a sequined glove moonwalk while color guard and instrumentalists alike did a Jackson-esque dance routine.

====

The entry goes on to describe the sightseeing tour they dragged us on after we’d marched in a parade and were still very jet lagged. We did take first place for our division with that homage to MJ, which was quite a thrill for our band from rural central Pennsylvania.

If you have no old journals to dig through, you might enjoy trying your hand at one of the following prompts.

Writing prompts
Write your most extraordinary holiday or travel memory.
Write a fictional journal entry for a kid traveling abroad for the first time.
Write a story in which a parade goes horribly wrong.
Write a scene in which your character is caught in the crush of a huge crowd.

Have you ever dug out things you wrote in high school? What did you unearth? Are there any memories you wish you'd captured in a journal?
11:55 AM Laurel Garver
Dublin photo by flokke from morguefile.com
Just for fun, I thought I'd post an entry from one of my high school journals describing my experiences marching in the St. Patrick's day parade in Dublin, Ireland, with my high school band thirty years ago today.  I haven't altered the words I wrote at 16, except to remove names. Read on to learn about the magic of magpies, dueling saxophones and how to preform emergency surgery on a parade route.

March 17, 1985

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Up at the crack of dawn, we dressed and made our appearance at breakfast. Corn flakes and juice, followed by bacon, mutton sausage and eggs became an all-too-familiar breakfast. After loading the buses with instruments, everyone donned uniforms and boarded. To Dublin, Ho!

Conn [tour guide] told us of an ancient superstition about magpies, those huge crow-like birds of Europe. If you see a single magpie and wave to it, you’ll have good luck all day. If you see two, you needn’t wave, that is automatically good luck. If you wave to three magpies, you’ll have a girl child, and waving to four will bring a boy. We got caught up in the amusing Irish superstitions, to say the least—we waved at every big, black bird we saw for the rest of the week.

Entering the city, we stopped waving at magpies and started waving at the magnificent people. Everyone waved back, even some of the dignified guarde (police). We really got a kick out of that. With a little coaxing and much waving, we urged a peddler to come over to the bus and sell us Irish flags. Now we had flags to wave, as well as hands.

After lining up, we were in for quite a wait. A group of curious, kilted bagpipers came over to talk to us. They were intrigued by American saxophones, and we were intrigued by their bagpipes. One of the bagpipers challenged John S., an alto saxophonist, to a duel. We called it a draw.

The time finally came to enter the parade route. I swear, Dublin’s entire population must have come out to see us. They were so thick, we had to go single file at times. About 5/6 of the onlookers seemed to be under 18. I almost wished we didn’t have to march the parade—I just wanted to reach out and cuddle some of those adorable children. The little rosy-cheeked girls with ponytails in green ribbon and rosy little naughty boys were just too cute! The crowd seemed to love us too, asking as we passed if we knew their cousins in Pittsburgh or Scranton or Philadelphia.

The cord that suspends my xylophone upper keys [like the black keys on a piano] broke as I played the cadence, while we were squeezed into single file formation. One of the parents, Mr. F., saw my grimace, and thinking I’d hurt myself, rushed to my side. We were now two groups away from the judging stand, and I began to feel panicked. I restrung the bars, trying to keep moving and not swing my xylophone into anyone. Then Mr. F. pulled the cord taut and together we tied it, hopefully well enough to make it through our routine for the judges.

At the moment of truth—the Lord Mayor’s judging stand—we did our “Thriller” routine with utmost flash and precision. The crowd went wild. They’d probably never seen a drum major in a sequined glove moonwalk while color guard and instrumentalists alike did a Jackson-esque dance routine.

====

The entry goes on to describe the sightseeing tour they dragged us on after we’d marched in a parade and were still very jet lagged. We did take first place for our division with that homage to MJ, which was quite a thrill for our band from rural central Pennsylvania.

If you have no old journals to dig through, you might enjoy trying your hand at one of the following prompts.

Writing prompts
Write your most extraordinary holiday or travel memory.
Write a fictional journal entry for a kid traveling abroad for the first time.
Write a story in which a parade goes horribly wrong.
Write a scene in which your character is caught in the crush of a huge crowd.

Have you ever dug out things you wrote in high school? What did you unearth? Are there any memories you wish you'd captured in a journal?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jane opens Brenna’s fridge and sees neat rows of French mineral water, bins stuffed with fresh veggies, and hiding behind a row of organic condiments, a half-eaten shoo-fly pie.

Who is Brenna?
A) A Southern grandma who runs Jane’s quilting circle.
B) An upwardly-mobile, urban gym-addict who’s ashamed of her rural roots.
C) A disorganized, free-spirited artist who rarely remembers to eat.

image from blog.zealousgood.com

If you guessed B, then you know that what’s in a character’s fridge tells you a lot about her. Specifically, it can tell you about the following:

relationship to food
Does she love to cook and have lots of interesting ingredients on hand? Does she eat only out of necessity and give little thought to food?

level of tidiness and ability to plan
Is her fridge dirty or sparkling? Is it bare or full enough to feed an army at a moment’s notice? Are foods in logical places? Do oddball items find their way inside?

health-consciousness
Is she a raw-foods vegan? A junk-food junkie? All organic? Cares only if the food is quick and tasty?

level of sophistication
Does she eat only plain, all-American foods or does she try cuisines from all over the world?

socioeconomic status (or strivings)
Is her food pricey foreign imports, middle-America name brands or cheap generics?

willingness to indulge herself
Does she allow herself a tiny pint of Ben and Jerry’s or a freezer full of it? Does she have a freezer-burned 5-gallon vat of generic vanilla ice cream because it’s a “good value”?

spending priorities
Does she skimp on one food category to spend more on another? Is eating organic more important than, say, having cable TV? Does she stick to only WIC-covered items?

ethnic or socioeconomic background
Does she keep specialized ingredients on hand from a particular culture? What are her childhood comfort foods she hides?

place on the traditional to trendy spectrum
Does she have Tupperware containers of leftover tuna-noodle casserole or cartons of takeout from the hip Vietnamese place? Ranch dip or hummus? String beans or edamame?

What's in your character's fridge? What ways have you used food to help build your characterization?
8:04 AM Laurel Garver
Jane opens Brenna’s fridge and sees neat rows of French mineral water, bins stuffed with fresh veggies, and hiding behind a row of organic condiments, a half-eaten shoo-fly pie.

Who is Brenna?
A) A Southern grandma who runs Jane’s quilting circle.
B) An upwardly-mobile, urban gym-addict who’s ashamed of her rural roots.
C) A disorganized, free-spirited artist who rarely remembers to eat.

image from blog.zealousgood.com

If you guessed B, then you know that what’s in a character’s fridge tells you a lot about her. Specifically, it can tell you about the following:

relationship to food
Does she love to cook and have lots of interesting ingredients on hand? Does she eat only out of necessity and give little thought to food?

level of tidiness and ability to plan
Is her fridge dirty or sparkling? Is it bare or full enough to feed an army at a moment’s notice? Are foods in logical places? Do oddball items find their way inside?

health-consciousness
Is she a raw-foods vegan? A junk-food junkie? All organic? Cares only if the food is quick and tasty?

level of sophistication
Does she eat only plain, all-American foods or does she try cuisines from all over the world?

socioeconomic status (or strivings)
Is her food pricey foreign imports, middle-America name brands or cheap generics?

willingness to indulge herself
Does she allow herself a tiny pint of Ben and Jerry’s or a freezer full of it? Does she have a freezer-burned 5-gallon vat of generic vanilla ice cream because it’s a “good value”?

spending priorities
Does she skimp on one food category to spend more on another? Is eating organic more important than, say, having cable TV? Does she stick to only WIC-covered items?

ethnic or socioeconomic background
Does she keep specialized ingredients on hand from a particular culture? What are her childhood comfort foods she hides?

place on the traditional to trendy spectrum
Does she have Tupperware containers of leftover tuna-noodle casserole or cartons of takeout from the hip Vietnamese place? Ranch dip or hummus? String beans or edamame?

What's in your character's fridge? What ways have you used food to help build your characterization?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?

They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."

Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.

Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why? 

Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.

McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this). 

The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research,  not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.

Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.

Characterization and dialogue

  • Personality types
  • Body language
  • Communication styles
  • Gender differences
  • Belief formation
  • Identity formation
  • Intimacy and social bonding
  • Friendships and cliques
  • Marriage dynamics
  • Birth order and personality
  • Sibling dynamics
  • Parenting styles
  • Intergenerational influence and conflict
  • Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
  • Neuroses
  • Phobias
  • Neuro-sensory differences
  • Addiction
  • Trauma 
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental illnesses

Milieu, Setting and Plot
  • Climate 
  • Weather Phenomena
  • Environment
  • Architecture and interior design
  • Anthropology
  • Effects of poverty and wealth
  • Government models in history
  • Education models
  • Macroeconomics
  • Technology
  • Policies and procedures of institutions in  your story world
  • Laws and ordinances
  • Criminology
  • Forensics
  • Pathology
  • Scientific breakthroughs
  • Historic events

Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?
2:38 PM Laurel Garver
I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?

They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."

Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.

Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why? 

Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.

McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this). 

The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research,  not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.

Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.

Characterization and dialogue

  • Personality types
  • Body language
  • Communication styles
  • Gender differences
  • Belief formation
  • Identity formation
  • Intimacy and social bonding
  • Friendships and cliques
  • Marriage dynamics
  • Birth order and personality
  • Sibling dynamics
  • Parenting styles
  • Intergenerational influence and conflict
  • Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
  • Neuroses
  • Phobias
  • Neuro-sensory differences
  • Addiction
  • Trauma 
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental illnesses

Milieu, Setting and Plot
  • Climate 
  • Weather Phenomena
  • Environment
  • Architecture and interior design
  • Anthropology
  • Effects of poverty and wealth
  • Government models in history
  • Education models
  • Macroeconomics
  • Technology
  • Policies and procedures of institutions in  your story world
  • Laws and ordinances
  • Criminology
  • Forensics
  • Pathology
  • Scientific breakthroughs
  • Historic events

Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?