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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.


Story Synopsis

Some people like to work with structure in their fiction; others prefer to have a general idea and enjoy writing to find out just where this story goes.

Neither is ‘right’  but at some point – even if that point comes after your first draft is finished – you need to collect all your thoughts into a brief synopsis. you need it for three reasons:

  • To keep you on track with your editing. Once you clearly understand your story line you can see what bits are missing and where you have wandered off track into some irrelevant (but beautiful) tangent. You need this clarity to guide your editing.
  • As a basis for your back cover blurb.
  • This is the heart of your marketing pitch. It’s what agents and editors want to see. Again, it gives clarity to the project.

Whether you write your synopsis before you start to write your story or novel, or whether it comes afterwards you need a synopsis statement, probably one sentence covering each of the following:

  • Your main character – the type of person he/she is and the setting they are in
  • The over-riding goal of this character
  • The inciting event that starts the story and how the character decides to deal with it
  • The conflicts the character encounters and his/her means of dealing with it
  • The concluding event and the major discovery made by the character.

You don’t necessarily need to follow that sequence, but an agent or editor is going to want to know you are clear on these points. No amount of verbiage is going to cover up if you lack this clarity.

I myself have only recently become a convert to this type of synopsis. Previously I saw a synopsis written ahead of the story to be like putting on a very tight Victorian corset – not something that was comfortable or helpful. Now I find that it points me in one direction and keeps me true to the essence of my story.

Give the  synopsis a try – think of it as an elevator speech for your novel or story. Then, when someone asks “What is it about?” you’ll have an answer.




Prepare to Write: Stock the Pond

Inland fishermen who need fish for survival and for protein in their diet know that if they stock their pond with tiny young fish they will, later, have a good supply of larger fish for food.

This approach works for writers too. You have to stock the pond. You stock it with ideas, characters, plots, setting. You collect these while they are small and unrelated – they’re just the baby fish, they’re not mature and solid  yet.

They might not seem  like much and you are a busy person. Like me, you may feel that you don’t have time to be noting every little thing down. So those little fish get away and are forgotten. That’s too bad because they could have added richness to some later story.

Let’s say your teenager slams the door as he leaves the house angry.  How would you describe the sound of the slam? Did you feel the house shake? What were your feelings? Did the dog run and hide? How did the teen look – were his shoulders stiff, fists clenched? How did he feel?

Maybe there is a detail you could easily forget – perhaps he doesn’t put his jacket on , even though it is cold outside, maybe he kicks the garden rake on the way past and it falls down.

Part of the usefulness of this is training your observation, making a habit of stocking your pond. It’s part of the process of being a writer that you are astute enough to notice and internalize people’s actions and reactions.

It’s part of stocking the pond that you “What if” it a few times. What if he angrily takes your car and drives too fast and slams into a bus, or hits a pedestrian? What if he meets the neighborhood drug connection and is offered a free sample, just to calm his nerves?

It’s part of stocking the pond that you take a long hard look at your own reactions and feelings and that you observe the different ways other members of the household react.

Being a writer doesn’t just mean firing up your word processor or sitting down, pen in hand at the kitchen table. It means having a fully stocked pond imagination.

Your Story: Selection of Detail

Back in Victorian times (Ah yes, I remember it well!) books were scarce and fairly expensive. Readers expected to devour every one of the words slowly, extracting pleasure from every tiny detail of the heroine’s dress or the dark and stormy night. They took time to savor the details of the azure blue sky and the dewy green grass.

The twenty-first century sees us doing exactly the opposite. Printed material – anything from books to newspapers and flyers – is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Free, if you use a library.

We have so much we are expected to read that we value skills like skim reading or the ability to mentally scan a page and pick up enough of its contents.

If, in our pleasure reading, we come across long paragraphs dense with description we tend to let our eyes drop down to where the text looks more interesting, a few lines of dialog perhaps. As readers we are no longer looking to spend our precious time wallowing in description.

As writers we might take note of that and not spend our time describing the scene and the characters in detail that readers will ignore. Oh! I take that back! If you go the traditional route it won’t be ignored by the reader because you won’t get a publisher to publish it.

So how do you get the flavor of the scene or the character across to the reader?

Use selective detail.

If you are describing a cocktail party where everyone is wearing a chic, stylish black dress you don’t need to go into detail about that. The reader gets it. What matters is the detail about one person’s dress. How is Juanita’s dress different? Forget the stylishness, everyone else has a chic dress. Is hers a shade too large because it is borrowed from her best friend? Is there a reason for it being shorter than everyone else’s? Is she holding her drink awkwardly to conceal a small tear under the arm?

If you’re describing a scene pick out of one or two details that make the one aspect unique. In a well-kept suburban street is there one house where the front lawn is littered with toys – a small pink tricycle, a plastic baseball bat? In a street well supplied with gas and electricity for heating, does one house have a woodpile?

The detail doesn’t just sit there being a detail, it does double duty by enriching the character or the scene.

Wherever you go, look for the selective detail in the place and people you see. If you were to describe that man, that corner, that desk or that dog what would make it unique and a stand-out in the mind of a reader?

A Story about…

You’re sitting down to write a piece of fiction – a short story or maybe a novel. Can you bring yourself down to earth for a moment, back from the wonderful moment of imagination that inspired you, to write what this story is about?

All you need to jot down is a couple of sentences. It will only take a moment but it will give your mind a solid framework within which to continue creating.

The first sentence gives the briefest of outlines. The second one states what this will do for the reader. The reader, after all, is giving you his/her time. How are you repaying them?

You can save yourself a lot of time spent editing and re-editing by understanding right off where your story is going.

A friend gave me a wonderful idea for a story. There’s this Afghani warrior on the side of a mountain with the power to injure or kill NATO forces just by thinking into a neural transmitter linked to a powerful laser weapon.

I couldn’t wait to get home to my computer and I was typing as fast as I could to get this story down. Several weeks, many recommendations from writer friends and six heavy edits later I had a story that went somewhere and said something.

If only I had taken time right at the beginning sit down and briefly outline the plot. The vision itself was great but it needed to go somewhere and do something. That’s what plot and theme are about.

The theme is that second sentence – what will the reader get from this? It could be:

– pure entertainment

– teaching

– increasing understanding

– or – most likely – some blend of all three.

Think of the science fiction or fantasy novels – pure entertainment, but often with an element of information shared and the moral drawn.

As a writer you need to be clear about what you want your reader to get from your story. you can’t get by with a vague “Well, I’m hoping they enjoy it.”

Now that they’ve read your story, what do the readers have that they did not have before?

– A sense of the vicarious pleasure at being part of a world unfamiliar to them?

– Bubbles of laughter because it was so funny?

– An understanding of poverty in 19th century New York?

– A sense of outrage about bullying?

– Realization that achieving world peace is even more complex than they thought?

Ask yourself before you even pull up your word processing program “What am I giving my reader that they did not have before?”

Starting A Story

The start of a story is the hook. It’s the decision point for the reader – “Shall I bother to keep on reading? Or not?”

A good place to start is that inciting incident, if it’s a dramatic moment that changes everything.

Or you could start  right where the action is heating up, and fill in the back story later.

It’s good to start the reader off with a strong sense that something here matters. They pick up on a tension, even though it might appear that all is calm. That tension, that interest, that can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-page is the hook that won’t let your reader go.

When the protagonist steps off the plane the reader probably doesn’t need to know that she had to get up very early to catch her flight, forgot to pack her toothbrush, and sat beside a fat man who snored all the way.

Unless these happen to make a difference later in the story (she loses a tall dark and handsome man because of her bad breath?) All the reader wants to know is – what lies ahead? Is it worth my time to read it?

As a writer, you bring readers into the story as quickly and  fully as possible. You may long to describe the sunset over the valley but if you are writing for readers you may not be able to allow yourself that luxury. Or you can treat yourself to a long and luscious description, then remove it in your editing.

Try not to start a story with something ordinary. Or, if it is mostly ordinary, add one vivid, out-of-place detail to intrigue the reader. Why is the woman at the bus stop wearing that really strange hat? Or why is that well-dressed gentleman wearing odd socks.

Your story starts with a promise of good things to come – whatever the good things are in your genre. And you are going to fulfill that promise.

It might start with a question, and you and the reader together search for the answer – well that is how you make it appear. There always needs to be a question – the reader should be wondering ‘What happens next?’ because that’s what keeps the reader reading. Start the suspense early.

Try to avoid showing all the little plot points that led up to the important action. If they’re important fill in bits of back story as you go along, perhaps in dialog. Not big fat lumps of back story, just tidbits here and there.

Your purpose in those first few paragraphs is to hook the reader. That’s all.  You can inspire them or delight them later (if you’ve kept them reading). But the start is the hook.

Petronella Ginco Billoba

Bet you haven’t read a blog with that title before! It probably isn’t going to do too well in SEO. Too bad, so sad.

I chose it because it is the name of a character invented and built by a very dear friend of mine – a young teenager living in Portugal. I don’t want to give you her name, let’s just call her FR.

FR would like to be a writer and she recently started a story featuring a young girl called Petronella Ginco Billoba (and, yes, Ginco Billoba, spelled differently, is the name of a tree). Petronella set off valiantly into her story and then, somehow, she ran out of steam.

Have you ever have that happen to you? You invent this wonderful character and have great ideas for plot and conflict, even for an antagonist but…

It has happened to me lots of times, and I hate it. FR is finding out while she is still young how disappointing it can be. I’m wondering how other people get over the good-idea-run-out-of-steam doldrums.

Myself, I remind myself of the need for pre-planning, outlining and building a story arc. It works wonders, until next time – when I get so carried away  with my terrific new idea that I forget again.

One friend recommends never pausing the writing in a logical place – at the end of a chapter, or in a lull. She insists you should only stop in the middle – the middle of the action, the middle of a scene, the middle of a paragraph or even the middle of a sentence.

Her logic is that, once you get going again and finish the sentence or the paragraph, you’ll have built momentum to keep on going past end of that scene and on into the next one.

Others have suggested that you build such a strong character that she (or he) keeps on going, getting deeper and deeper into trouble at every step. Then her spunkiness will carry her from one pickle to another, one adventure to a bigger adventure.

And as you are hurtling towards the first exploit, make a quick note about what the next exploit will be – who or what will challenge her and how she will respond.

Someone like FR will probably have a young female protagonist, someone spunky, adventurous but a little naive. If the character has been well developed her innate qualities  – her positive and less positive characteristics – will lead her to take some risks, encounter dangers, building from small to larger to life-threatening.

Try some pre-planning, some in-depth character delineation and finding the strength to pause in the middle of the good stuff. Those seem to me like the best ideas for carrying the stuck writer forward.

Do you have any favourite strategies to add?

Give it an ending!

Several of the manuscripts I’ve seen recently have one problem. They don’t go anywhere.

They set off in great style, with strong characters, a vivid setting, good dialogue and then they peter out to nothing.

The latest was a vivid reminiscence of a woman from a hot climate facing her first winter in Toronto. She is setting off to a very important appointment early in the morning of her first snowy, below zero day.

She is not dressed for the weather. She falls on the icy side-walk several times on the way to the bus stop. One thing after another delays her. Tension mounts – will she or won’t she make it to her appointment, which is the culmination of years of study.

Then comes the climax – she misses her bus and is left shivering on the icy city street. Does she make it to this important appointment?

She doesn’t say. The reader is left hanging.

Don’t do that to your readers; they need the satisfaction of closure.

Sometimes you start a story with no clear idea of where it will end. Often that will become clearer as you write. If it doesn’t, well, it’s just another of those great starts to file under “Writing Experience”.

Being a writer is a bit like being a guide on a bus tour. You are leading and showing and giving people an in-depth experience. A tour guide doesn’t just suddenly walk off and say, “Find your own way home.”

It was a new experience for me to feel a Toronto winter through the senses of this lady who believed that a light jacket would be warm enough for a below-zero day. but I needed more – not just an experience but a complete story.

( I had to know so I phoned her and asked.

“Oh, yes” she said. “I missed the appointment but they were kind enough to understand and they re-scheduled it for me.”)

Finally. Closure.

Purple Prose

“It was a dark and stormy night and the rain came down in torrents”.  It’s a quote, famous now, of what is often called “overwriting”.

Purple prose is another name for it. It’s all about falling in love with your own words to such an extent that the actual story you’re writing gets lost. It’s heavy on adjectives and adverbs that describe the minutest detail of the scene.

To add to the ugly picture it often includes cliches. “She cried out aloud in her agony, sobbing and wailing with the incredible pain of her broken heart.” All right, we get it, she was a bit upset.

Maybe think twice before you write ‘broken heart’. I don’t think you can actually break a heart but in literature it’s been done thousands of times. It’s old. It has had its day. If your male lead jilts his bride on the morning of the wedding give her unique emotions. Poor girl, she deserves at least that.

When did you experience a deep, wrenching sorrow? Dig deep into your memory of that  and find your own words for the feelings. You don’t have to find a whole lot of them. You don’t need paragraph after paragraph of unremitting grief. You just need a few very carefully chosen words, straight from your heart to hers.

The trend today is to shorter stories. Flash fiction, they’re called. Whole plots, complete with dynamic characters and action – all in 500, 800, or 1000 words. What gets cut to the bone to make stories work in such a short format? Description. Rambling on. Delving extensively into emotions that could have been summed up in a couple of sentences.

Watch your writing for extravagant, flowery description – the part where you got all carried away with the beauty of the scenery or his tender touch making her bosom heave with passion. Can’t you see the reader’s eyes rolling?

Have you heard the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees”? With writing sometimes you can’t see the story for the words. If the words get in the way they are not serving your purpose as a story teller. Get rid of them.

Look for adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives enhance nouns and adverbs enhance verbs.  If you choose an accurate noun you shouldn’t need much in the way of adjectives. “A tall building” is  better described as a skyscraper.

Adverbs, which quite often end in ‘ly’ are even more suspect. Our language is rich in verbs. Use a thesaurus to find the exact verb and you won’t need an adverb.

Especially watch out for adverbs after  ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.

“Oh, my darling,” she said huskily… well either the girl has a cold or she needs to be doing something better than saying huskily. She might whisper, breathe or outright moan. Your choice.  But your verb needs to point out clearly that she isn’t just ordering potatoes.

The verb carries the action. A strong verb can usually carry the action all by itself, it doesn’t need a wimpy little adverb tagging along.

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