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Ideas and encouragement for writers.

9 Ways to Connect with your Readers

I spend some of my time at Toastmasters, where I learn to speak to groups of people. One of the lessons important to a public speaker is that you must connect with your audience. You can string together the best words in the world but if you’re not connecting to the audience they probably are not hearing your message.

It’s the same with writing. You can string together the best  words in the world, but if you don’t connect to your reader they won’t read on. Those black squiggles on the page or on the screen will remain just that – black squiggles. Your meaning, you message is lost.

So how do you connect with readers?

  1. You write for the reader, not for yourself.  You don’t show off your vocabulary, your knowledge or abilities. You don’t write to impress, you write to give the reader a good reading experience.
  2. You pull them in quickly, not wasting their attention on all the little details that set up the story. Showing the set up is the mark of an amateur – it’s like showing the pan you baked the cake in.
  3. If it’s fiction, get to know your characters so well that you can almost see the pores on their face. If you can’t see the character and care about them no-one else will.
  4. Use dialogue wherever you can, especially to pass along information to the reader.
  5. Imagine the reader you are writing for. Think of ten words to describe your ideal reader. Words like: young, educated, living in North America, fairly affluent, unmarried, female. Then write for that person. Do not imagine that anybody and everybody will be interested – focus on somebody.
  6. Spend time on your opening paragraphs. Spend an inordinate amount of time on them. This is the make or break point that pulls people in or tells them it’s not worth their time.
  7. Work on finding a title that intrigues – that hints at a question, that implies an unresolved but important issue, that tells without telling.
  8. Make sure that one event or conflict leads tightly to the next, making it seem inevitable and allowing the reader no lapse in focus where they could drift away.
  9. When you edit your work remove all the little words that have no purpose, especially ‘that’, ‘there’ along with extra ‘was’ and ‘were’. Leave behind strong words to carry the message, especially the strong verbs.

And the freebie, Number 10 point is – practice writing. Write more, write more often. That’s how we learn.

Conflict and Caring

Have you ever watched one of those movies where the hero gets shot six times and run over by a truck – then he gets up and races after the villain as if nothing had happened? You saw the conflict, but there was no sense of pain to go with it. The conflict was divorced from feeling and emotion.

Personally I feel short-changed by this. If something bad happens in a story I want to feel the emotions that this engenders. It will most likely be the emotion of the person on the receiving end of the bad thing, but it could be the emotion of an observer or even of the person who perpetrated the offence.

The emotion might be expected – “He hit me. I’m angry, so I’ll hit him back.” “He hit me. I’m afraid so I’ll run away.” Or it could be unexpected – say pity because the aggressor is totally unable to control his movements.

As a writer you can choose the response and follow it any way you want. What you should not do is ignore the emotion. “He hit me and then I went shopping and bought new shoes.”

OK, that’s a pretty obvious example. But in effect that’s what we often do. We show the response -‘ hit him back’, ‘run away’ and we short-change the reader on the actual feeling of anger or fear that produces the reaction. When you are angry, how does it feel to you? Think back to the last time you were angry and define the physical feeling within you.

If you want the reader to care about your protagonist and his journey you have to generate that caring by having him drawn in emotionally. A conflict happens then show the feeling that follows. That feeling will probably lead to the next conflict. Show how, show why.

Not by saying “He felt angry.” How do you, your spouse, your co-workers, neighbors and friends show anger? Watch and find out. One person might go red in the face, another might grind their teeth or curl their hand into a fist.

Become a collector of emotional clues – that way you’ll get it right when you need to show emotion in a story. Unless you are writing ‘hunt-’em-down, shoot-em-up’ stories be more generous in showing the emotion. It doesn’t cost you extra. It’s the ingredient that brings your characters to life.

A Storyteller

Imagine the great room in a suburban house. It is full of light and feels large out of all proportion to the size of the house. It encompasses all the activities of the family – cooking, eating, reading, watching TV, playing and writing.

Catching your eye is the ten-foot bear in the corner by the window. I imagine it’s made of fibreglass, brightly painted. Because you seldom see ten-foot bears in living rooms it is hard to take your eyes off it. It’s a magnificent, benevolently smiling, permanent Christmas tree.

It stands beside Brenda’s desk (yes, I’ve changed the name so she won’t know who she is) smiling down at her writing. She’s a storyteller who inhabits and shares a world of dragons. Until I met her I did not realize that my world was impoverished by a lack of dragons.

Her world encompasses dragons of all shapes, sizes and with characters as widely diverse as human characters. Her dragons might belong to this world, a past world, a future world or some completely unknown world.

They relate to their world well or awkwardly or kindly or angrily, as we do. But they’re dragons, and it’s a story; it’s not like we’re being taught a lesson.

Isn’t that what storytellers always do – take us to another world and show us how other characters or creatures are doing their best to succeed and flourish there?

Maybe it’s easier to wander off into many other worlds when you have a bear looking down at you. Or you prefer to write of your own world, you write personal stories, memoir perhaps.

But your world is another world to someone else. Can you be the storyteller who turns events into stories so they are not simply about you missing a bus, missing a deadline or missing an absent lover. Can you give them the appeal of a story that is both specific and universal?

That’s what moves you from being a writer to being a storyteller.

Memoir: The Theme of a Life

My friend Mayka announced to a group of us that when she died she wanted the following words on her tombstone: “She cared”.

Of course we joked with her – she isn’t young but still she will probably live for many years yet. And anyway, who has a tombstone these days?

But Mayka had managed to do what few of us can do – she had summed up the theme of her life. Yes, Mayka cares. She has always tried to care about other people and she likely always will.

This carries with it pluses and minuses. Seldom do other people care as much as she does so she is often disappointed in the small amount of care that comes back to her. Sometimes she expects people to care and, having busy lives, they don’t live up to her expectations.

Sometimes she is rewarded far beyond anything she might expect and she feels that the world is unfolding as it should.

The point is: Mayka has seen the pattern in her life. Can you see the pattern in your life? It’s not easy. We are complex creatures with many facets to our life: family, friends, education, goals, job, hobby, volunteering, spiritual life, health. Who can see a pattern in all of that?

If you are setting out to write your memoir your pattern is important. I suggest that potential memoir writers get large size file cards and write one memory on each card, writing fairly quickly to get the idea down. This avoids the ‘staring at a blank page in a new binder’ paralysis.  Once they have a collection of 20-30 file cards they look them over and start trying to find some order amongst them. It might be chronological, that’s fine.

Better yet is a reading and re-reading to find the patterns in your life. As you read back and forth does it occur to you that many of your stories start with you doing something on an impulse? Maybe you married that unsuitable boy in your teen years, spoke hurtfully to your grandmother, left home to live in another country. Or perhaps your pattern is making safe decisions, or standing up for the underdog.

Maybe you see more than one pattern – that’s fine too. You can sit down and order those file cards according to your life themes. You can see how you have grown and developed the themes of your life. Maybe you have learned to overcome some pattern that was not working well for you. Maybe you have learned to use a character trait to enrich your life and the lives of those around you.

Rewrite your file card stories to reflect your theme and show the color and texture of your life. For you it shows your growth and a peek at the meaning of your life. It gives the reader a thread to follow and a deeper understanding of you. Maybe someone can learn from it.

At the very least you’ll know what you want carved on your tombstone.

MICE

Have you heard of MICE? I mean the writing kind, not the rodents that invade kitchens.

MICE is an acronym for the four important elements of story – Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. Let’s take a look at them and how they fit together.

Milieu might also be called ‘setting’. It is everything about the place where your story is happening. It might be indoors or outdoors, wilderness, city or in an airplane. It includes surroundings such as furniture, type of buildings or traffic patterns and the population whether it’s dog walkers, aliens, farm animals, historical characters in costume or office workers. It includes weather and even belief systems if hey are going to be part of the story.

Idea is the question, idea or issue underlying the story. In a mystery the question is ‘Who killed whatshisname?’ In any story it is the underlying thought or message the writer wants to share, and this includes sheer fun and entertainment. Right at the start of planning the writer will choose the characters, milieu and events that most effectively convey his ideas

Character The characters are the people who are going to carry the story for you. They will have goals, problems and interactions with others in the story. In the process, in spite of mistakes, interference and disasters they will have grown and changed. You’ll have a small number of main characters including the protagonist, his opposition and those who help him.

Event – Everything that happens, what leads up to it and what follows. There might be an inciting event that sets the story in motion. Events that follow are scenes showing the protagonist trying to reach or regain the world as he would like it to be. Usually, but not always, the characters create the events by their actions and reactions.

Some stories are action-oriented and full of events, others delve more deeply into character. You might find yourself drawn to writing stories that explore ideas or stories set in a fantasy world. But while one aspect will probably be featured more strongly the other aspects still need to be considered and given careful treatment.

It’s all part of the writer’s juggling act – keeping all the balls in the air at the same time.

Casting your Character

We think of characters as  being people, but maybe we should widen our view and include more of the elements of our story.

Certainly it could include a variety of pseudo-people – vampires, werewolves and the ever-popular zombies. It could also include animals; not only the faithful canine companion but antagonist animals such as a marauding tiger or a shark.

Sometimes even the setting takes on the characteristics of an antagonist as the hero struggles against a snowstorm in the mountains or a vicious storm at sea. Read some of the classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to understand the personification of setting and of creature.

But mostly we think of characters as being people. We delve into our protagonist first, then develop the antagonist and lastly assorted supporters, annoyances and standers-by. Occasionally, to our horror, one of the supporters starts to take on unexpected dimensions and threatens to steal the story from the protagonist.

Oops. Time for some serious re-thinking. At the very least the protagonist needs to be beefed up. He or she needs to be given the muscle to take back the story. If he isn’t growing, developing, leading the way then you’ve missed something.

If he isn’t interesting to you, his creator, as much as that supporter interests you, then you need to go back and give him the characteristics he needs to take back his story. It started out to be his story. It has to stay that way.

Your main character has to own the story, be playing for big stakes and overcoming deep-seated fears or flaws. Usually he has a good sense of humor (even if it is a bit off-beat). Main characters are by no means perfect but they need courage to face whatever disasters you’re going to hit them with.

Above all, they have to create  reactions in others – others being the other characters in the story and the reader as well. No matter how annoying or shocking they might be some other characters are prepared to help them. And that all-important reader has to be pulling for them too.

It might be that you see your character as a sort of everyman or everywoman. Someone just like you, someone who could be a neighbor or commute on the same train. But that ordinaryness must conceal deep feelings and a passionate need for something. He must have, hidden somewhere far down underneath his plain exterior, deep drives and dimensions that put him in charge of the story.

It is these, and his courage in working with them and through them, that create a strong protagonist. Once you have them in place for him no-one else can take over.

You have cast him in the lead role. You have given him all he needs to drive the story.

The Hole in the Soul

I love the expression “the hole in the soul”.

To some writers it might have become a bit of a cliché. It means the dreadful lack or need that your protagonist is always trying to remedy. Often it comes about because of his previous life experience – the search for his father he never knew, his need for love because of his emotionally distant mother.

We identify with him because we all need love. We may not be that desperate for it ourselves, but we feel the pain. We understand. We connect and empathize.

The hole in the soul informs the whole novel or story. It is the perspective that the protagonist is stuck with. All he does is predicated on that need.  He can deny it, try to ignore it or escape it, but it is still there, pushing him and prodding him onwards.

The hole in the soul is what forces him to take dramatic action, make enormous mistakes, drive your plot. It relates closely to the theme of your story.

The hole in the soul is consistent throughout. Yes, you can take a break from it in some scenes but it is always there, underlying, even if it is dormant for a moment.

The hole in the soul drives onward not just the story of the protagonist, but it is in some way mirrored in other characters in this story and in their sub-plots. Somehow they too are searching for love, albeit in a different way. They may not be searching for a life partner – they might adopt a puppy or struggle with teenagers they try to love but who drive them crazy.

Sometimes the antagonist might suffer from the same or similar hole in the soul and be seeking the same goal as the protagonist. Instant conflict – they can’t both have it.  they can meet in conflict time after time as both come up with new strategies to solve that deep yearning.

While your protagonist will act overtly to meet this deep need he will also reveal its effects in subtle ways. Perhaps his body language or his choice of words takes over and are not quite appropriate to the scene or situation. This could lead to additional conflict and to people misjudging him.

As you develop the story be aware that the cause of this deep need must be clearly and vividly delineated so the reader accepts it as the primary motivating factor. You don’t have to tell them this upfront. Reveal it gradually so the reader gets a sense of discovery, rather than having it spoon-fed to her.

The development of the protagonist throughout the story arc shows his growing ability to accept and live with – even use – this hole in his soul. It’s a classic theme. Done well, it can make your story a winner!

People who Nurture the Writer

No matter what you produce – it could be art, baking, computer programs – there has to be input before there can be output.

You need input in terms of physical nourishment, ideas, craft, but especially you need nurturing from people. Who nurtures you?

Who nurtures you generally, helping you to feel good about yourself? Who makes you feel warm and wanted, a person of value? Who do you hurry towards and hate to leave? These people are nurturing you.

When it comes to your writing who nurtures you? Who has been your mentor or your guide? Who has told you honestly but kindly when you were off track? Who suggested new reading that gave you ‘Aha’ moments? Who listens to your work without interruption and offers suggestions without imposing their own particular bias?

These are your nurturers. They feed that need for improvement within you. They help to build your skills and confidence as a writer.

Hang out with them. Thank them, big time. Return the favour to them and pass the nurturing along to others. We all stand on someone else’s shoulders; have your shoulders be ready for someone else.

At the same time pick out those who do not nurture you, in fact they drag you down. Try to avoid them.

These are the people who criticize without knowledge (“Couldn’t you have given it a happy ending?”) They say your work is lovely or wonderful without offering any precision – they mean well, but they are wasting your time. These are people who ask what you have published and if you don’t have a list like Danielle Steele they look disappointed.

You probably have your own list of downers. Let’s not dwell on it. Let’s just say life is too short and move on.

Move on to more nurturing friends. It sounds easy enough, but where do you find them?

You find them in a carefully chosen writer’s group. You find them in conferences and workshops. You find them on-line – there are so many writer’s blogs and forums. Find one that fits you. Sometimes you just happen into them by serendipity.

But don’t ignore that need to nurture yourself. Just as you need proteins and veggies to keep your body strong, you need ideas and friends to keep your writing strong, vivid, the best it can be.

(To my nurturers – Val M, Nesta, Li, Liz, Cheryl, Elena, Suzanne, Jean, my kids, and lots more – thank you, thank you, thank you.)

Writing the Negative People

Not everyone in your story plays nice.

Let’s look at some of the people a story might need to give it strong conflict on more than one level.

There’s the obvious bad guy. He or she is someone who is psychotic or so driven by greed or hate or the need for a fix that you can rely on him to do bad things, probably at the worst possible moment for your main character.

Next you have a usually decent person who is driven by wanting or needing exactly the same thing your protagonist wants. Their normally reasonable selves become outright nasty as they fight for their goal. They don’t hate your main character, they just want to beat him to the goal. They want  something – the protagonist is in danger of becoming collateral damage

Similar is the person who, for reasons explained (or not) in the back story dislike or compete with the main character. It could be a family feud or perhaps a belief that the main character has wronged them. Their focus is on harming your main character. The conflict centres around whether or not they succeed in inflicting that harm.

Then there’s the shape-shifter character who is so intent on playing their own game that the protagonist, who may have thought they were an ally, is let down, again at the worst possible moment. The shape-shifter adds intrigue by sometimes helping, sometimes damaging your protagonist. The conflict deepens because of the element of trust and trust betrayed and the uncertainty that this generates.

You can also have an assortment of low-level players who mislead or delay your protagonist’s course of action by lying or concealing information or by getting themselves into a mess and needing to be rescued. They can honestly believe some story that will take the protagonist on a wild goose chase. Whether deliberately or in innocence or to further their own little sub-plot they add to the drama.

A writer’s best friend in fiction is the stakes-raiser. The detective now needs to solve this murder by the weekend or he will be fired. The boss just dropped a deadline on him. Suddenly there’s an ‘or else’ that wasn’t there before. Bosses are great stakes raisers.  Anyone who ratches up the pressure is not playing nice, but they ARE increasing the conflict for you, the writer.

The last person who gets in the way of the protagonist is the misguided helper:

“You need the car today? Oh, oops, I knew you needed new tires before the winter and your car’s up on the hoist.”

You can’t go chasing after the escaped murderer. I put your bullet-proof vest in the wash.”

OK. I’m stretching a point there, but you know what I mean. Next time you are looking for a way to increase or densify the conflict think of these people.

Do you have any other favourite categories of people who stand between your protagonist and happy ever after?

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