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Reading Challenge: Trying Out a New Author or Genre

I’m a huge Stephen King fan and an avid reader of his novels.  This past month when I was on vacation, I went to Barnes & Noble and found a new author in the horror genre: Ronald Malfi.  I had never read any of his books before, so I took a gamble and bought one of his books.

I’ve found a new favorite author!

The next time you’re at the bookstore, on Amazon, or considering buying a book from an author you know, consider trying out a new author in the same genre.  You can also experiment and try a new genre outside your comfort zone.  If you love fantasy, try romance; if you love sci-fi, try historical fiction, etc.  

Or, if you are a hardcore fiction reader, try a non-fiction book on a topic that interests you.

It’s easy to get locked into reading patterns – I know I do – but every once in a while, give yourself the challenge of trying out a new genre or author.  You may not like it and run back to what’s familiar, but at least you know you tried.

Or you’ll be like me and find a new author to enjoy.

Happy Reading, and I’ll see you next time!

What authors or genres have you tried and found you enjoyed?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Writing Challenge: A Sensory Exercise

The next time you’re out someplace waiting in line, getting food, ordering a coffee, or at the mall, take a few moments to fully take in your surroundings.

•          What do you see?

•          What do you hear?

•          What do you feel?

•          What do you smell?

•          What do you taste?

Take out a notepad, or open the Notes App on your phone if that would make you feel less self-conscious. Write down everything you take in with your senses.  Sights, sounds, colors, mannerisms, people quirks, etc.  Almost as if you are looking at a moving painting.

Later, take your notes a write out the scene with as much detail as possible, using all the sensory elements as a guide.  Paint the reader a vivid picture as if they are present at the location with you.

Do a few drafts, adding more detail and sensory elements with each pass.

Once you feel you’ve created a sensory-loaded piece, give it to a trusted friend or loved one to read.  Did they experience all the sensory elements?  

This is a great exercise to work on bringing the reader into a scene in more vivid and dynamic ways.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Banning Books in America: My Two Cents

There’s something somewhat antiquated about the concept of banning books. Societies of the past have participated in book bans and even book burnings in the town square. Before the recent news stories about banning books, America had an odd obsession with rap music, destroying CDs with steamrollers to the cheers of those who feared its edgy lyrics.

People fear what they don’t understand and don’t care to learn about. And ignorance spawns an odd mob mentality that can lead to collective fear, anger, and violence. In our most recent incarnation of book banning, LGBTQIA+ books in school libraries have been the target of many parents and politicians. This has led to threats on librarians to closed local libraries due to pulled funding.

Let’s dig into the idea of banning books in 2022 and whether all this madness and furor is worth it.

Is it Really About “Protecting the Children,” And What Exactly Are We “Protecting the Children” From?

We hear this from both sides of the political spectrum. It’s all about protecting the innocent child. Conservative and progressive politicians and parents use this fictional child entity as a political weapon.   This fake child will be forever scarred, their life ruined if they see – or don’t see – something before the age of eighteen.

What I find interesting about this in the context of banning books is that we never hear from real children who are upset, offended, or bothered by the content of these “evil” books that have “invaded” their school libraries to “corrupt” their naïve and unknowing consciences.  

While I do believe that there is content that children shouldn’t be able to access, we also have to accept that in 2022 where everyone has some device linked to the internet, most young people have viewed content – on accident or not – that is probably more graphic than anything they will see in a library book.

Let’s move on to another aspect of this book banning that many have not considered.

The Taboo Effect

When I was in high school, a college acting troupe came to our church and did a sketch about the evils of television. One of the bits was a re-enactment of a scene from Married…with Children. I had never seen the show, but the troupe’s portrayal of the Bundy family didn’t seem that offensive or make them look that bad.

That night at home, I found a rerun of the show on TV and have been a lifelong fan of the series ever since.

I don’t think that was the intended outcome this acting troupe was hoping for.

Kids – and I used to be one – always seek ways to rebel against their parents and society. They can be overt acts of rebellion or more covert acts. When someone in authority tells a young person not to do something and becomes hyperbolic in their reasoning as to why it’s bad, a kid is more likely to want to find out about it for themselves.

When I hear about a book being banned, I immediately want to know why, and it also makes me want to read it to see just how “bad,” “evil,” and “morally corrupt” it is. And if I’m doing that in my 40s, curious kids and teens will do the same thing.

When a society demonizes something – rock music, rap music, video games – it tends to make that thing more popular and more intriguing due to its taboo nature.  

Another aspect of this is that these parents and politicians who bring up these books and want them exorcized from libraries are creating free publicity and generating interest for them as well. There were thousands of books in the school libraries at my elementary, middle, and high school, and most I never looked at or read. Were there books about topics that some may have found objectionable? More than likely. But if attention isn’t drawn to them, no one knows about them, and they remain on the shelf.

By broadcasting your disdain and disgust for a book on a national stage, you just made that book more popular.

Book Banning in the Amazon Era

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, if you wanted to ban a book from your local library – like The Catcher in the Rye – you would probably have successfully kept it out of the hands of the “vulnerable” youth in your town.

However, in 2022, a book ban at a school is pretty meaningless when anyone can order any book they wish via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any number of used booksellers online. Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas) did a big presentation in Congress about a children’s book called The Anti-Racist Baby. If he were rallying against this book in 1950, we probably would never have seen the book again in most sections of the country.

But his is 2022, and his presentation about the book led to a surge in sales on Amazon, making it the #1 children’s book that week.

Oops.

Senator Cruz’s action leads me to another point…

Never Trust a Politician

Whether on the right or left, Democrat or Republican, conservative or progressive, politicians only want your money and your vote. When you see any political entity either rallying for or against books being banned, ask yourself: What’s in it for them? 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is banning LGBTQIA+ books and even some textbooks from schools across his state.  Read more here:

https://www.theledger.com/story/news/state/2022/04/26/florida-school-book-bans-these-library-titles-being-reviewed-school-boards/9542938002/

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom sent an Instagram post of himself reading a stack of banned books at a table. Oddly, one of the books Newsom had in his pile – To Kill a Mockingbird – was banned from a school district in his own state.

In our era of aggressive political divisiveness and hyperbolic rhetoric, these two governors, Ted Cruz, and others of their ilk show that making book banning a political issue is silly, pointless, and another attempt to fundraise off of scared parents who are either afraid of books being banned or want more books banned ASAP.

The American Library Association publishes a list of The Most Challenged Books annually. I highly recommend checking out the list and reading a few of them to see why politicians and others are so appalled and oppose these works.  

Here’s the link:

https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

So, the next time you see any politician talking about banning books for any reason, ask yourself their motivation. More than likely, it has nothing to do with saving the children or protecting society from bad words on a page. It’s probably all about them.

The Offended Offensive

It’s fashionable in 2022 to be offended or upset by something, and books that have content contrary to one’s personal beliefs are a great way to get riled up and cause problems for school boards and libraries.  

My take is that you have the right to control what your child reads, but not what my child reads and has access to in the library. That’s not your call. By creating a blanket of being offended on behalf of everyone, you do more harm than good, causing a national uproar when you are the only one with the problem.

In 2022, with a 24/7 news cycle and social media, one person can act like they are one of the angry millions when that is probably not the case.  

When you see a story about a parent or politician upset over a book in their child’s library, take a step back and find out why they are upset and demanding the ban. What perspective are they coming from? Is there an agenda behind their demands? Are they upset about the content or how it’s presented? Would you even know about this book if this person wasn’t on CNN?  

By taking the time to find out the why you’ll see that there may be religious or political reasons why this person is offended or upset. They have the right to be upset and offended, but that shouldn’t give them the power to ban a book.  

Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie was attacked and stabbed during a talk this past week. He made headlines and created controversy in 1989 when he published The Satanic Verses, and a fatwa was placed on his head by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. According to The New York Times, the Ayatollah ordered “Muslims to kill Mr. Rushdie and [put] a price on his head of several million dollars. Mr. Rushdie, who lived in London at the time, immediately went into hiding with 24-hour protection from the British police, moving every three days from place to place until a fortified safehouse was prepared for him. He lived there for most of the next 10 years.”

Three decades later, there are still people angry about Rushdie’s work. And now, Rushdie is in critical condition from injuries caused by an angry man with a knife.

Is this where we’re headed? Actual violence against authors who write content someone objects to or finds offensive? We have to do better than this.  

Being offended is one thing, but violence, attempted murder, or taking someone’s life because you object to their writing cannot be tolerated in our society in 2022.

More on the Rushdie story here:

More about the fatwa here:

Learn more about The Satanic Verses here:

Keeping Literature Alive

If you read a lot like I do or follow authors or book channels, you’ve probably come across this slogan on mugs or shirts:

I am 100% for doing this. If someone is trying to ban a book, go out and buy it. Don’t let the mob on social media or a news story tell you what your opinion should be; read the book and make up your own mind.  

Don’t fall prey to groupthink.  

So, the next time you hear about a book being banned, do your research, learn about it, buy it, and fight against the powers that wish to silence authors.

Happy Reading, and I’ll see you next time!

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!

Writing Tip of the Week: Story Pacing

Have you ever watched or movie or read a book where at some point, you think: Is this EVER going to end???  Or a movie or novel just flies by and you think: Wait, that’s it? I want more!

Pacing in a story matters; it keeps you engaged as a writer and can help keep your reader engaged as well. How you pace your story is related to the type of story you want to tell and how you want to tell it. 

So, let’s talk about it!

Taking Your Time

If you are world-building, writing historical fiction, or creating a nuanced view of your story’s setting, you will want to take your time to set things in motion. Your task is to draw the reader in, give them insight into the world the characters and the story inhabits, and deliver detailed descriptions that help them fully understand where the story and setting take place.

World-building gives you lots of ways to describe and present expository information, but it should be delivered in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. Much like historical fiction, you want to ground us in the world without getting too bogged down in minute details that don’t have any real bearing on the story being told.  

Some novels that take their time and do it well are the Game of Thrones series, The Lord of the Rings series, and many of Stephen King’s works like It and The Stand. These works provide detailed descriptions of their worlds and still keep the reader focused and curious about where the story is headed.  

Getting Right to It

Jumping right into the action is another pacing method. You start in the middle of an action sequence or some other adrenaline-pumping event that still gives us information about the setting and characters. Still, we get this information in bursts and not long paragraphs.

If you’re writing a thriller, an action-adventure, or an exciting sci-fi epic, grabbing the reader with a flashy opening sequence will help hook them fast and keep them turning the page. Just make sure that you still take the time to deliver substantive information that relates to the rest of the story.  

A high-octane story with a ticking clock and high stakes would definitely benefit from a fast-paced style. You can always give the audience time to catch their breath, which leads us to the next section.

Charging Ahead, Then Pulling Back

This is the most commonly used in mainstream films and novels, and it’s a healthy combination of the two. You hook the reader with a fast-paced open, then pull back and give us some detailed exposition and plot information, character backstory, and description, then ramp things up again.  

There’s an ebb and flow to the storytelling, allowing the reader moments to take a quick breather before things speed up again.  

What’s Best for Your Story?

If you are working in a particular genre, I recommend reading books in that genre to see what the pacing is like. Do they hold your interest? Were there any points while reading that your mind wandered, or were you locked in and focused on the story the whole time?

If a novel has lengthy descriptions that interest you, how does the author structure those paragraphs to keep you engaged?  

If the novel has a faster pace, how does the writer deliver needed information with fewer words while still connecting with the reader?

During the drafting phase, experiment with pacing. Choose a scene or sequence from your story and write it using different pacing styles. Does one fit what you want to do better than the other?  

Editing and Pacing

While editing for continuity, spelling, and grammar are essential, reading for pacing is also important. If there are sections of you story where you lose interest, you have the power to fix those areas to avoid the same situation with a reader.

I recommend a Pacing Edit. After you’ve gone through and fixed basic issues, removed sections, added new material, and are happy with what you have, take the time to read through the manuscript and mark – don’t do any rewriting at this point – any areas where you lose interest or aren’t engaged with the story.

Once you have those areas marked, go back through and figure out why. Are the sentences too long? Is the paragraph lacking information needed to move the story forward? Do you need that section? If you cut it, would it impact the story?  

Once you have resolved these issues, read through again and see if the pacing has improved and keeps you focused.  

Final Thoughts

You know your story best and what pacing will help convey your story, characters, settings, and dialogue most effectively. Doing some reading research and experimenting with pacing can help maximize reader interest and engagement in your own writing.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Don’t Let Creative Apathy Win

Over the past three years, we’ve dealt with one local or global crisis after the next.   The news and social media have inundated us with information 24/7, each new story presented as the worst thing in the history of anything ever.  With each passing minute, hour, day, and month, it becomes harder to stay focused and keep going with any level of energy or positive outlook.

At my workplace, stores, and even at my dentist, I’ve noticed a sense of apathy; just going through the motions, a resigned outlook and attitude toward everyday life and activities.  It’s pretty depressing.

The basic definition of apathy is a “lack of interest or concern: INDIFFERENCE,” and I understand why people feel this way.  There are so many things that we can’t control that we can’t fix that we can’t just change overnight.  It can be frustrating, and it can lead to a sense of hopelessness and – as mentioned above – apathy.

Creative people have a mission, and our mission is to entertain, enlighten, engage, and help people escape from their ordinary lives.  While others may fall prey to the temptations of apathy, we must strive to overcome this desire to disengage.  

We have to be the ones who fight back.

It can be a tough battle.  I, too, have succumbed to these apathetic demons.  And, why not?  It’s much easier to binge an entire YouTube channel’s content than develop a story for a new novel.

But I realized that creative people need to create.  In our private moments, when we feel the darkness closing in, we still desire to dig ourselves out of our apathetic doldrums and create something…anything…just to feel creatively alive and free.

When was the last time you wrote something creative?  Why has it been so long?  Can you think of the moment when you decided not to write or do something else creative? 

It’s easy to let the world get you down, and it’s easy for us to get trapped in the cycle of despair that news and social media love to perpetuate.  But I want to let you know that you can and should get back at it, get your mind actively creating again, and escape the apathy.

Take baby steps.

There’s a great book by Anne Lamont, Bird by Bird, and the title comes from a time when her brother had a report due the next day about various birds.  He was panicked, “immobilized by the task ahead.  Then [her] father sat down beside him, put his arm around [her] brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.’”

Sometimes, to rise out of our apathetic state and be creative again, we have to do what Lamont’s father suggested: “take it bird by bird.” One idea, one sentence, one paragraph at a time.  It may seem like a challenge after so long away, but once things start to click, you’ll be able to stay at it for longer than you thought.

Being creative is good for the mind, the soul, and you as a person.  Those TV shows, YouTube videos, and tragic news events will always be there waiting for you.  But for an hour or two each day, give yourself permission to live in your creative space and your own world.  

Apathy may be moving in, but working each day to evict it from your mind and your life will go a long way to getting you back on the creative track.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Sources:

Apathy – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apathy

Lamont, Anne.  Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  Anchor Books.  1995.

Writing Tip of the Week: The Active, Reactive, Proactive Protagonist

The Protagonist.  The Hero or heroine.  The main character.  Whatever you wish to call them, they are the driving force in any story.  Their choices and decisions regarding what’s happening in the narrative determine the story’s direction. 

While there are some exceptions, the majority of Protagonists are Active, Reactive, and Proactive throughout the story.  For this post, I’ll be using a film familiar to most people (Home Alone) and discussing how its protagonist (Kevin McCallister) embodies each of these qualities.

Let’s get started!

The Protagonist is ACTIVE

Active: engaged in action; characterized by energetic work, participation, etc.

Your main character should engage with the story and help move things forward.  Events, incidents, and major story points revolve around them, so they must be actively in pursuit of a goal for them to be an active participant.  As an audience, we should connect with the protagonist either sympathetically or empathetically.  Their actions keep us engaged and curious about what they will do next.

In Home Alone, Kevin believes that his “wish” for his family to disappear came true, so he actively celebrates his newfound freedom.  Kevin does things he couldn’t normally do around the house (i.e., jump on the bed, eat junk food, watch violent movies, etc.).  Once the high of being alone wears off, he then actively proceeds to do laundry, go shopping, and do other adult tasks.

Kevin doesn’t just realize he’s alone, crawl in a corner and cry until his family returns. 

Kevin is active throughout the film, and his actions help him discover what Harry and Marv are planning so he can prepare for their attempt to rob his house.  His actions also feed into his character arc, from being glad his family is gone to missing them and wanting them back.

The Protagonist is REACTIVE

Reactive: to respond to a stimulus in a particular manner.

Things happen in your story to your main character and those around them.  A compelling protagonist reacts and responds to new situations and works to resolve them or avoid them.  Your protagonist’s goal is to regain a sense of normalcy, no matter what it takes.  If they have to go through a series of obstacles and difficult situations to get there, then that’s what they must do.  Even if they do things reluctantly, they still have a goal to achieve and an endgame.

So, when new information or new situations arise, your main character should react.  Their response and actions will help move the story forward and keep the action moving.

In Home Alone, Kevin reacts to myriad events that he finds himself in the middle of.  From coming face-to-face with Old Man Marley to being accused of shoplifting to realizing that he’s seen Harry before (when he was at his home disguised as a cop), his reactions to these events help move the story forward and drive Kevin’s actions.

His initial reaction to Marley is driven by his older brother Buzz’s urban legend about him, but Kevin soon finds out that Marley is not who Buzz said he was.  Again, Kevin’s reaction to Marley in his second encounter at the church helps set up events in the film’s climax.

When Kevin is accused of shoplifting a toothbrush, he panics and runs.  Again, the protagonist reacts to an event, and his actions lead to a chase through an ice-skating rink where he can evade capture.

And the main reaction that drives the primary conflict in the film is when Kevin recognizes Harry in the van after Kevin’s almost run over.  It’s at this moment that Kevin’s reactions – and his actions – change toward protecting himself and his home from the potential threat of Harry and Marv.

If Kevin doesn’t have the encounter with the Wet Bandits, then the trap-laden house doesn’t happen, and we have a very different third act in the film.  But since Kevin interacts with them, reacts to them, and then acts once he overhears their break-in plan, he can prepare for what’s to come.

The Protagonist is PROACTIVE

Proactive: serving to prepare for, intervene in, or control an expected occurrence or situation, especially a negative or challenging one.

While your protagonist never knows what’s coming next, once they are aware that something may happen, they can proactively be ready for any possible event that’s coming next.

Similar to Kevin in Home Alone, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in The Equalizer is very proactive when it comes to being ready for what may come next.  This is evident in the meticulous way he plans and times out his violent encounters and also his prep for the finale at the hardware store.

In Home Alone, once Kevin knows Harry and Marv are coming back to the house at nine that night, he proactively prepares for their invasion of the McCallister house.  He plans ahead, ensuring all entry points are covered by traps and hazards, knowing where to go to call for help and what the endgame is.  

Now, Kevin’s proactive planning helps him actively defend his home and react to changes in the plan as they occur.  

Final Thoughts

Readers and viewers want to be taken on a journey.  By having an active, reactive, and proactive protagonist, you give yourself – as the writer – and the audience someone to root for and identify with.  

Think about your favorite protagonist.  What did they do that was active, reactive, and proactive that helped drive the story and their personal arc forward?  How can you apply this information to your main character and their story?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Definition Sources:

Active – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/active

Reactive https://www.dictionary.com/browse/react

Proactive – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/proactive

Writing Tip of the Week: Are You a Plotter, a Pantser, or a Hybrid Writer?

All writers have their own unique ways of crafting a story.  The creative process allows writers to develop skills over time, and with each project, writers hone these skills into a method that works most effectively for them.  Experimenting with different writing methods is a great way to see what works best for you, especially when starting out.

Let’s look at three writing methods you can work with to find what works best for you!

The Plotter

You are a person who needs to know what’s happening in your story at all times.  Every story beat, every plot twist, and character moment must be nailed down and set in stone before you start.  You have your story organized on color-coded index cards, in a formal outline, or handwritten on legal pads.  You won’t start writing until you are 100% certain that all your ducks are in a row and you are confident in your story’s path.

Pros

Being organized is an important part of the creative process, especially when developing a story.  Having a roadmap from scene to scene and from start to finish can keep you on track and ensure that you will get to THE END sooner than later.  

Cons

There are times when being meticulous and following the map are encouraged, but they can also stifle and harm creativity if used too rigidly.  What you’ve written out is great and will get you to the endpoint, but if you don’t allow for a few detours along the way, you may miss opportunities for your characters and story to grow in ways you didn’t think of weeks ago during the outlining process.

The Panster

Always the renegade, the Panster likes to play fast and loose with their stories.  They have an idea or concept and have no problem diving into the fray, allowing plot and characters to bubble up whenever moments arise. You look at a blank piece of paper or a new Word document as your personal playground where you can build or tear down whatever you want, whenever you want.  Creativity is fun, and you are here to have fun!

Pros

There’s a feeling of creative autonomy that comes with this style of writing.  Your gut is in control of where your story and its characters go.  You don’t have the “limitations” of an outline or rigid story structure, and you can make immediate decisions.

Cons

Like many writers, you probably have had a great idea, jumped into it, then lost your way a few chapters in.  Where is this going?  Who are these characters, and why do they matter?  You can quickly lose your way, get frustrated, and walk away from the unfinished story.  

The Hybrid

Utilizing both methods, you can be the responsible adult (Plotter) and engage your free-spirited child (Panster).  You’ve created an outline that leaves room for creative flourishes and detours along the way.  Maybe something you have in your outline isn’t working, but a new sequence will work better.  In a Hybrid setting, you can switch things out and around without losing the overall story structure (since you have the outline), but also have the ability to be spontaneous when needed.

Pros

It’s the best of both worlds.  You can stay on track and know where you’re going but also live a little within the confines of the story.  

Cons

If you are rooted in your Plotter or Panster ways, it may be hard to implement a mixture of the two.  If you are a Plotter, give yourself a few scenes to play around with.  Likewise, if you’re a Panster, maybe create a rough outline of the major story beats that get you to the end of the story.  

Through trial and error, you can work to create a storytelling method that gets you where you need to go faster and more efficiently.

Final Thoughts

Figuring out who you are as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses, can help you fine-tune and evolve into a methodology that makes you a stronger writer and storyteller.  Creativity should be freeing, but sometimes you need a little guidance to keep that creativity – and the story being told – on the right track.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: What Actually Counts as “Writing”?

Did you write today?  What did you write today?  How many pages or words did you write today?  Sometimes, the thought of sitting down at the computer or laptop at home after 40 hours in front of a computer at work can be a difficult task.  You want to get outside, see people, do anything other than sit and stare at a screen – well, one where staring requires active thought and creativity.  

While the act of physical writing is an essential part of the writer’s life (especially if they plan to show their work to others), I often do a lot of the creative legwork in places other than in front of the computer.  I find that these activities open up my creativity channels and help me to brainstorm and connect ideas in a more productive manner.

Let’s talk about them!

Thinking

I often get hung up on the seeming finality and concrete nature of typing or writing an idea down; they seem to have more weight once they make it to the page.  This can prevent your ability to explore, add to, or remove concepts or ideas that don’t work in a fast-paced manner.

I like to actively think out my ideas for scenes, chapters, plot points, etc., and workshop them in my head for a while before I commit anything to paper.  I have found that this method allows me to swap out characters, change settings, create dialogue, and alter story points faster and more efficiently.

If something isn’t working, I can explore other options.  What about this?  What about that?  What if she went here instead of there?  What if he didn’t answer the phone?  Once I’ve worked things out, I’m more prepared to write the idea down.  Depending on how I fleshed out the idea, I will either write it in bullet point or paragraph form.

I do this on the couch, watching YouTube videos, cleaning, or doing other mundane activities.  Sometimes giving your creative brain free reign is a great way to solve a complex story problem.

Sleeping

Sometimes clichés deliver solid advice, and “Sleep on it” is definitely one that can result in many creative epiphanies.  Often, we are distracted throughout the day with dozens of other projects, chores, and activities that we don’t have the time to focus on our story.  

Once I’m in bed, ready to drift off, I will start to think of the story problem or issue that I’m having.  The crazy thing is that the subconscious often can find a way to resolve the issue while you sleep, resulting in you waking up with the answer to your story problem.  Does it always work?  No.  But when you do have that moment when you wake up, and the story dots all connect, it’s a great feeling.

Exercising

Walking.  Running.  Swimming.  Any form of physical exertion can help you get out of your head and allow your brain to do what it does best: solve problems.  I’ve been on a walk on a break at work and develop story ideas or story solutions.  I’ve been on the treadmill at the gym and worked out big story sequences.  

It’s amazing how even ten minutes of walking can clear your head and let the creativity flow.

Motivating Yourself

Yes, crafting a narrative and creating compelling characters and dialogue takes time and effort.  But it is work that should be fun and get you excited about the story you want to tell.  If you dread working on your story, all the thinking, sleeping, and exercise aren’t going to get you very far (although you might have solved other problems, be well-rested and in good shape).  

You are the only person who can get yourself excited and motivated to work on your novel, screenplay, or play.  If you can’t find the motivation, ask yourself why.  Ask yourself what’s missing from the project that would get me excited and motivated to get it done.  

The key is to find an aspect of the story you love and want to explore and express to audiences and use that energy and motivation to create your fictional world and its characters.

Final Thoughts

Creative people are always creating.  No matter where creatives are, stories, scenes, characters, and dialogue flow in and out of their brains rapidly.  A legal pad and pen or a computer and word processing program don’t make you a writer; they are just tools to help finish the job.

By taking steps through thinking, sleeping, exercising, and motivating yourself to open up the creative reaches of your mind, when you do commit your ideas to paper, they will be more impactful to you and the reader.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Delivering Exposition to the Reader

Dimensional characters in fiction exist beyond the confines of their current story.    These characters came from somewhere and will be headed somewhere else once the events of their current story end.    They enter the story in one state of mind, and through the trials and tribulations thrown at them throughout the story, they change and evolve into something new before moving forward.

But how does an author deliver this past information, crucial need-to-know information, and other relevant details without dragging down the story?

Let’s talk about it!

The Dreaded Information Dump

Have you ever seen a movie, TV show, or play where characters speak information to other characters that clearly isn’t for anyone in the scene but for the audience’s benefit?    This can often be referred to as an information dump. 

And often, it can be exhausting and tedious in its execution.

Viewers and readers are very perceptive and can pick up on context cues that inform them of what’s going on in a scene based on the setting, tone, and essential dialogue.    Often, there’s no need to write a lengthy monologue for a character in an office or conference room that begins with “As all of you already know…” or, “As I said before lunch…” since these are indicators that the characters in the scene already know the information.

Some ways to get around this problem that I prefer are…

The Outsider

By bringing in a character that is not in the know about who your character is, their past, or their current situation, you can give the reader this info and make it seem organic and natural.  

Which sounds better?

Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

A man sees her and walks toward her.    She smiles. “Hello, Steve,” she said. “Wow, I can’t believe you’re my younger brother whom I haven’t seen in six years since you moved to Ohio with your wife, Susan.”

OR

Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

“Is everything okay?” a tall woman next to Tammy asked.

“Yes,” Tammy said. “Thank you.    My younger brother is on this flight. Haven’t seen him in six years.”

“Six years?” the tall woman said, amazed.

“Yeah.    He moved to Ohio after he got married.    We never got the chance to reconnect until today.”

“Tammy!” she heard her brother’s voice say across the crowd of passengers.

Tammy looked toward him and smiled. “Steven!” She ran through the crowd and hugged him. “Where’s Susan?”

“She’s getting the kids situated,” Steve said. “Told me to come out and find you.”

By having an outsider ask questions, Tammy can deliver needed information to the reader without it feeling forced or clunky.    The tall woman doesn’t know anything about Tammy or her family, so she is subbing in for us as the reader.

And in the previous example, where a meeting can sound like an info dump, make sure those in the conference room aren’t experts like the speaker.    They are there to receive information, not there for it to be rehashed.    That way, they can ask questions, and you can break up the speechifying that can often occur in scenes like this.

Sprinkling the Exposition

When developing a character and their story, think about what relevant information the reader needs to know that helps them connect with your character.    Did they suffer a traumatic event in their past that has caused them to react a certain way toward events in the current story?    That is important information the reader needs to know at some point.  

Providing the reader with insight and knowledge about the characters and their pasts through conversations with others and a few paragraphs here and there help connect past events with the current ones.    Your characters don’t live in a vacuum, and like real people, what they did before informs how they do things now.  

While these are important things to know, provided the exposition and backstory on an as-needed basis will help keep the story moving and not get you and the reader bogged down in past details.

What About Flashbacks?

Suppose there is an event in the character’s past that is so formidable, so impactful that you need more than a sentence to really showcase how it has affected them.    In that case, a flashback might be an effective way to present this information.    You could have the flashback at the start of a chapter before jumping back to the present day.    You can have the character think back and reflect on this past moment, then go into the flashback before bringing them out.    There are many ways authors utilize flashbacks and many ways to format them.

The key to using flashbacks is to present important information that helps the reader understand the character and their current circumstances. Don’t throw in a flashback of their wedding where nothing related to the current story happens.    The last thing you want is for a reader to say to themselves: Well, that was pointless.

Make each flashback matter, and remember that…

Relevance Counts

Does your main character have a great aunt Millie who knits cardigans for her dogs? That’s great.    Does it have any relevance to your main character’s current story?    No?    Then I would leave it for another time.    Keeping the backstory and exposition relevant to what’s happening is important to keep the writer, the story, and the reader on track.    While Millie is a colorful character, unless the main character makes a pit stop at her home or an anecdote about her is the key to saving the world, she’s best kept in your notes.

I recently finished Billy Summers by Stephen King (highly recommend), and this is a story that presents all aspects of the main character’s life before, during, and after his assignment.    Everything King delivers to us about Summers’ backstory is relevant to his current situation and the events that transpire throughout the novel.    King presents exposition in various ways that make Billy Summers a three-dimensional character that the reader cares about and roots for from start to finish.  

Remember, if it doesn’t add to the story or give us further insight into the characters and their choices, cut it out.

Final Thoughts

Your reader has chosen to go on an adventure with you and your characters.    They want to know who these characters are, what makes them tick, and why they are where they are at this particular point in time.    Making sure that you deliver backstory and exposition relevant and important to the overarching story can keep your reader invested and not confused about why certain details that didn’t have a point were included.

The next time you watch a film, a TV show, or read a book, see how the writer weaves in the exposition.    Is everything they mention relevant to the current story being told?  

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!  

Writing Tip of the Week: Becoming a Self-Aware Writer

Most writing takes place in a state of solitude.  It’s us – the writer – versus the blank page in an epic battle to create a compelling narrative that will leave future readers or viewers spellbound and wanting more.  It’s great to have the mindset that what we are creating is exceptional, but we also have to give ourselves the opportunity for reflection and self-awareness when it comes to our own work.

Self-Awareness, Not Self-Criticism

Being self-aware as a writer means having the ability to write something, step back, and find the issues that need fixing.  It doesn’t mean beating yourself up or telling yourself negative things about your writing skills or you as a writer.

It doesn’t matter what level of writer you are; the ability to look at your work and make the changes necessary to craft a stronger narrative is a skill that can assist your quest to become a better writer.

This is not a skill that can be achieved overnight but can be learned over time.  The more you write, the more you’ll sense when pacing is off, dialogue isn’t working, or there’s a lack of conflict or stakes in the chapter or scene.  It’s easy to see these issues in other people’s works, but utilizing this skill with your own work is a must in your writer’s toolbox.

Self-Awareness and Your Subconscious

Have you ever written something, walked away, and a few hours later began to deconstruct what you wrote and found problems with the story or a character’s actions?  That is self-awareness, and it’s your subconscious telling you that there are potential changes to be made.

Don’t get upset or frustrated.  This is where the growth and writing magic can happen.

Your mind is still writing long after your fingers have quit tapping the keyboard.  Your subconscious knows your story, knows your characters, and knows where the problems are.  Don’t get discouraged when these red flags pop up.  Your brain gives you clues as to what to fix to make your work stronger.

As long as you take a proactive approach to the changes and don’t stop writing, these moments of creative clarity can profoundly impact your writing and subsequent drafts of your project.

Self-Awareness from the Start

As you craft your outline, you may start to internally ask yourself questions about various aspects of your story.  That’s good.  Write these questions down.  Will they be answered later in the story?  Are the questions related to structure or character?  Keep a list of these questions as you work on your outline and see if they are questions worth exploring once the outline is completed.  

It’s often better to have most of the answers related to your story resolved before you start writing to avoid any hang-ups during the drafting process.  While drafting, you may come across other issues, but answering questions that pop up while working on your outline will get many structural problems fixed before you begin.

Self-Awareness Makes for Better Writing

Your writing reflects you and reflects who you are as a writer.  If you think that your first draft is perfection with no need to edit or even have a trusted person read it before you publish, you lack self-awareness as a writer.

Every good writer takes the time to hone their craft and make revisions when necessary, and they almost always are necessary to some extent.  Yes, you may have written a short story that is 100% perfect on your first draft, but novels and screenplays will often have issues that need to be fixed before they are taken to the next stage.

Start by walking away from your draft for a week or two, then come back with fresh eyes.  Maybe your subconscious has been gnawing at you for the past two weeks about issues in the story, and you’ve written them down to address them later.  

Now start at page one and read – don’t skim – every sentence, paragraph, and chapter with fresh eyes and a new perspective.  You will see some glaring problems, maybe a few typos, and other things that definitely need tweaking.  

And that’s great!  You are making a better product and making yourself a better writer.

Final Thoughts

Being a self-aware writer means that you care about the work you are producing, and you respect your completed work’s potential reader or viewer.  By taking this step and putting in the effort to make your writing better, you further your goals of being a more productive and confident writer.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!