Posts Tagged With: writing exercises

Aspiring Writers, Take Notes!

You can write a novel that seems absolutely perfect to you: the dialogue is tight, the characters are richly layered and the plot crackles with energy.  But you’ll still get notes, I guarantee it.  And that’s a good thing.

Notes, by the way, are the comments you get from decision-makers (mostly literary agents and editors) about things that they want you to change in your writing.  They can be about anything.  Description (“Where’s Joe standing, exactly, when the frozen turkey falls on him?”).  Continuity (“I thought Joe suffered a concussion in the last scene.  How can he sing the Star Spangled Banner?”).  Characters (“I don’t like Joe as a short-order cook.  How about we call him Bob and make him a rodeo clown instead?”)

Some notes are pure genius, and following them will improve your story in ways you never imagined.  Then there are those rare notes that seem like they’re from outer space.  One of the most memorable notes I’ve ever heard was to an animation writer: “When the monkey takes off his underwear, please make sure he’s wearing another pair beneath them.”
Because the alternative, I suppose, is just too horrible to contemplate.  The truth is, every note is a creative challenge.  It’s an obstacle that you need to find a way to overcome.  And that, I think, is the best way to look at notes: not as criticism, but challenges.
It’s not that much different from the sorts of story challenges you face while you’re writing a novel.  How do I show this character’s true nature?  How do I plant this information without being too obvious?  How do I make this scene scarier?  Or funnier?  An editor once gave me this note: “Sorry, this just isn’t funny.”  Yowtch!

But after I was done pouting, I sat down and brainstormed a dozen or so new jokes for that part of the story, and guess what?  I came up with something better.  In the end, I was proud of the job I did, the editor was satisfied, and I’d long forgotten the tiny sting of that note by the time the piece got published.

Notes force us to grow — or at least to think fast on our feet.  They’re not exactly fun.  Not even if your best friend in the whole world tells you as gently as possible while handing you a giant plate full of chocolate cake.  But it does give you an opportunity to tackle a new challenge, think of a way to satisfy the note-giver while being true to your story, and come out a winner.

 And then, by golly, you deserve that cake!

Categories: how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Want to Get Published? Know Your Genre!

You can write a novel in any genre you want, as long as you know what it is.  To me, a “genre” is anything that comes with a certain set of expectations.  If you tell me your story is a hard-boiled mystery, then I’ll know what to expect.  If you tell me it’s a time-travel romance, I know what to expect.  But if you tell me your story is so original that it defies all genres, I just scratch my head, because I have no idea what to expect.

With an editor, it’s a little more cut and dried. Genres have very specific definitions. Mystery is one thing, Fantasy is another. Tell an editor that your book doesn’t fit into a genre and you’re doomed.

For example, meet George.  George doesn’t have a genre.

EDITOR:  What genre is this?

GEORGE:  It’s not really in one particular genre, it’s set in ancient Egypt, and it’s got vampires, and there’s a time-traveling robot who falls in love with a detective from Brooklyn, and–

EDITOR:  PASS, thanks.  Now scram.

Don’t be George!  Pick a genre that the publisher can sink their teeth into.  By that, I mean “Science Fiction” is a genre.  “Cyberpunk” is not.  I love William Gibson as much as the next guy, but there isn’t an actual Cyberpunk section at Barnes and Noble, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by calling it that.

A friend of mine once had a manuscript catch the eye of the editor-in-chief of a major publisher.  He took it to the marketing meeting, it was discussed, and the consensus was that his book was too much of this genre and too much of that, and not enough to fit squarely into one or the other.  So they passed.  He went from hero to zero in the course of one meeting.  Ouch.

Don’t let that crash and burn happen to you.  If you want to get published, pick your genre carefully! How? Stay tuned, and I’ll walk you through it, step by step!

Categories: how to write a book, how to write a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feel the Invisible Robot Love

These days, most of our precious writing usually ends up online, where it is relentlessly scrutinized by robots.  Not the sparky “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” kind of robots, but invisible little computer gremlins that furrow through the internet, looking for text to gnaw on.  That way, if you go to Google and search for — oh, I don’t know, maybe “You Can Write a Novel” — there’s a chance you might find my humble little corner of the internet.

What this means to writers today is that it’s crucial that we learn about arcane things like keywords, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and why graphics aren’t searchable.  I’m not suggesting you set out to write something completely driven by keywords, lest your timeless prose read a little too Macho Business Donkey Wrestler.

But whatever we write, we have to be cognizant of how people will find it on the internet, and then come up with ways to make finding it easier.  Is it fair?  No.  But it’s a reality of the 21st century.  Just like the blank look I get from the local office supply dude every time I need a new typewriter ribbon.  (Every.  Stinkin’.  Time.)  But hey, I look at it as a creative challenge. 

And after all, isn’t that what we face every time we write? 

Categories: how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transform Your Hero and Get Published

I was just listening to a fantastic interview with the late, great Blake Snyder, author of the Save the Cat! books.  One of the many insightful things he said was, “Tell me a story about a hero who transforms over the course of an adventure.”

That’s something that I struggle with in my own writing.  Time after time, I get comments about it.  (“These explosions are really cool.  But how does the character feel about them?”)  And it’s only after I go back through the manuscript and focus on the main character’s emotional arc that the story starts to really work.  Here’s how I do it — and how you can, too.

First, figure out exactly what your character is lacking from his or her life at the start of the story.  What belief does the character carry around that prevents her from being everything that she can be?  What is she afraid of?

Now, write a scene near the beginning of the story where the character has to make a choice — and does the wrong thing because of this flaw.  What are the consequences of that?  Show them happening!  Your challenge is to write the scene in such a way that the reader is fascinated by this character, and even rooting for her, even though she makes the wrong choice.

Then, fast-forward to the other end of the character arc.  Write a similar scene near the end of your story where the character does the right thing, because she’s grown past that flaw that used to hold her back.  After the character has acted, have someone else point out this character’s newfound inner strength.

Voila.  Your character has just transformed.  Not only is this writing exercise a cool way to show the “before and after” pictures of your character, I suspect it has also shown your character in an entirely new light.  You might be inspired to go back through your story and tweak things here and there to really showcase this character’s emotional journey.  Go for it. 

What have you got to lose?  Keep an old version of your manuscript as a backup, then just go to town with it.  Jot notes throughout your manuscript.  What you want to do is go back through your story and put in a couple of scenes in the middle where your character is trying to change, and gets closer every time — but doesn’t quite make it until the end. 

When someone reads this story straight through from beginning to end, she’ll see a character who starts out flawed and living a troubled life, who strives to make herself better and eventually — after much struggle — achieves it.  Becomes a better character.  Now, that’s someone you can root for!

Categories: how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Editors Are Just Not That Into You

Whenever I hear a writer complain that editors just aren’t “getting” her latest story, I suspect what they’re actually not getting out of it is emotion.  As human beings, we like to sit around the campfire, literally or metaphorically, and tell each other stories.  Stories enlighten us, inspire us, gift us with a new perspective.  And at the heart of all of these things is the experience of a change in our emotions.

In every great comedy, there’s a hint of tragedy.  In a good ghost story, there’s a hint of love.  The change from one emotion to another is what makes the story experience feel real.  Like contrasting colors, playing different emotions off of each other makes all of them more intense.

But evoking emotion is tricky.  What moves me might not move you, because we have different values.  If you’re a diehard Red Sox fan, and I couldn’t care less about baseball, then a story about a poor Boston kid’s struggles in Little League isn’t going to affect me the same way it affects you.

So don’t write a story that’s just about baseball and expect me to “get” it.

But there are certain universal, primal themes that a story like that could tap into, like family, friendship, dreams, growing up — if you hit those notes, and hit them hard, then even the toughest critic will find something to like in your story.  Why? 

Because then it’s not about baseball anymore.  It’s about life.  We’ve all experienced those things.  They’ve affected us.  And suddenly, maybe without really knowing why, your readers will “get” your story.  And that’s what really counts!

Categories: how to write a book, how to write a novel, writing a book, writing a novel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Today’s Writing Prompt: Kill Your Character!

You’re not killing her, not really.  Just bear with me for a minute.  This is one of my crazy creative writing exercises.

First, write a short scene where a major character gets killed.  Show it from the perspective of another viewpoint character.  How it happens is up to you, but it should be directly connected to the main conflict of the story.  No random bus accidents here.

If your characters are pursuing a killer, have the killer strike.  If they’re climbing an unconquerable mountain, have one of your characters fall to his death.  Make it really happen.  Write it out. 

Here’s the important part: have the point-of-view character react to the death.  What do they feel?  Shock?  Disbelief?  Anger?  Guilt?  Put it in there.

Got it?  Good.

Now, go back and change the scene so that the character just barely survives.  Or have your point-of-view character realize that she misread what she saw.  Whatever you do, let the audience believe for just a moment that maybe the character really did die.  Then pull them back from that ledge and let the character live on.  But keep the emotion in there.

Now, for the follow up.  How does this event change your characters later?  Do they feel differently about each other after this brush with death?  They should.  At the least, they should realize what they really mean to one another.  Ideally, they should realize something new about themselves.

Happy writing!

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