You're a Writer!

Ideas and encouragement for writers.



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.

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?”

How to Start a Story.

Rule #1. Start with a bang!

Get right into it right away. No leading up. No preparing the ground. No getting the reader’s mind into the right space. No gentle introduction.

Start the story. Something happens. Action, maybe even excitement.

Yes, at some point you may need to show the events leading up to the Big Bang Start, but show it later, preferably in little bits and perhaps in dialog. Don’t bore the reader with paragraphs of  “It was like this. First…and then…so, you see, later…

They just want to get to the story.

When I was working on my historical novel my agent and my editor both disliked my beginning. A beginning that I personally thought was both interesting and highly relevant. It was a short, three-part prologue showing the diverse backgrounds of these three woman. It showed it vividly and succinctly, I thought. It was necessary to show how and why they came to be in this situation, I thought.

The professionals did not agree and my lovely prologue, full of word pictures, movement, color and dialogue had to go. It nearly broke my  heart….until I realized that I could cleverly keep almost all of it as long as I moved it, in bits, to later parts of the story.

So it is now sprinkled through the first three chapters and the first page of my novel has the three young women stepping off the boat into a strange land. Reluctantly, I have to agree that it reads better – it gets the reader into the story right away.

It’s OK to start off your writing by giving that introduction. Maybe you need it (I did) to get yourself into the story and into the feelings and emotions of the characters. But you have to move it out of the way before any writing professional sees it.  When the structure is finished you can remove the supports.

Rule #2? Not important. Just get the action happening. That’s what matters most.


I fought for

A Good Story

To me, a good story is one in which I care what happens.

If a writer can’t make a reader care they have not done their job. It doesn’t matter what genre  it is, or what it is the reader should care about. The protagonist could be saving the world or saving a lost puppy. Success must matter to the reader.

It doesn’t matter if it’s mastodons, crinolined ladies, car chases, housewives or aliens from outer space, the reader must care about them. It helps a bit that many readers keep to one or two favorite genres.  The writer doesn’t have to worry about a chick-lit reader caring about a robotic werewolf because that reader isn’t going to be reading that story.

Within your genre, what makes the reader care about a character? Is it strength? Beauty? Intelligence? Probably not.

It’s having them face up to difficulties, often of their own making, and struggle in a way we can identify with to a satisfying conclusion. The writer needs to grab the reader right at the start and give him a reason to care. The protagonist shows basic humanity, he makes mistakes but he heads in his true direction.

The protagonist is a three-dimensional character – he has a mental, physical and emotional life. We might not agree with everything he stands for but because he has been shown in all three dimensions we are likely to go along and enjoy the ride with him.

The worst thing your reader can do to you is stop reading. The best thing is for him to keep reading even though some other thing should have been his priority. You are a success as a writer if the reader is so into  the book that he goes past his stop on the subway, or forgets to cook dinner. (“It’s pizza tonight. OK? Save me a piece – I’ll be right there when I’ve finished this chapter.”)

Let your protagonist capture and captivate your readers. It will keep them coming back for more and they’ll tell their friends “I always like this writer. I know it’s going to be a good story.”



Making a Great Story – One Step Forward

When I was little my mother used to say despairingly that I “always had my head in a book”. Looking back, there’s worse things I could have got into. However, the habit remains.

I try to impose discipline on myself by not reading fiction until the evening. This discipline works unless I’ve had a hard day, unless the rain is so bad it almost seems like evening, or unless I have a new book by a favorite author.

What is it about fiction that compels us to read it and write it? Part of it is the lure of visiting a different world.  It can be historical, geographical, futuristic or total fantasy, but it lifts us out of our everyday life.

If we write, we can create that world. How wild is that? But more than the geographic or social world we can create the people within it.

When I think about half a dozen of my favorite writers, they all write mystery novels – that’s my genre. Three of them have a setting in away back history, three are contemporary with a strong sense of place – Alaska, Texas and up-state New York. They are all set in a milieu that is strange to me – that’s part of the attraction.

But more important, they all have strong characters – characters who demand attention. I care about them – sometimes I think they are more real to me than many of my acquaintances. They have an inner life as well as an outer life.

As I read I feel that they are responding to events in the only way they could. I’m not distracted, thinking ‘Well, that was stupid’.

I think that, as writers, we should spend time trying to understand how the writer has made these, our favorite characters, so powerful within our imagination.

To me, one of the secrets is they way the character’s inner life drives their outer life; the way inner life and outer life are integrated. Do they have a belief system that carries them through event after event to the end of the story?

It’s fine that they have the purpose of saving the universe, but why do they want to? What drives them that doesn’t drive everyone else?

To me saving the universe is a bit of a cop out. Too easy. A whole lot of action and not much advance in understanding. It’s all the outer life; the inner life has been sacrificed.

Not everyone will agree with this, and that’s fine – literature is what our mind and imagination make of it. But we need to understand what makes a book or a story great FOR US.

Then, when we go to write a story or a novel we can follow the example others have set. We will have had the  ‘Aha’ moment that tells us how we want our own characters to be, how they will drive the plot. We’re not copying, we’ve just moved to a deeper understanding.

We’ve taken one more step in understanding what makes a great story.

The Writer’s Eye

My son has an ear for music.  Once he’s heard it, he can play it. Have you met people like that?  Some can sing perfectly on key. Others know immediately when a note is off, and what note it should have been.

Like some have an ear for music, some people have an eye for a story.  It might have happened to them, or be something they observed or an event someone told them about. Their life is rich with of stories.

Think of a family reunion. Uncle Joe and Aunt Martha have been married for 50 years. Uncle Joe is full of stories. Aunt Martha, well, you can’t get her to tell a story. It’s as if nothing ever happened to her. Lots of Uncle Joe’s stories happened when Aunt Martha was right there, part of it. But he has a story about it and she doesn’t.

Do you notice how much pleasure Uncle Joe gets from his stories? Sure, he exaggerates a bit (maybe a lot) but he enjoys telling them. The family comes around to listen and he loves the audience. They may have heard the tale before but it’s fun to listen to. It feels good to share Uncle Joe’s pleasure in the telling.

Uncle Joe has enriched himself – and his family – with the stories he has collected. The time he fell of his horse and broke his leg – hilarious! Maybe it wasn’t so much fun at the time. However, by the time he has explained why he was distracted, why the horse was spooked and what the doctor said afterwards he has picked out the elements of character, conflict and resolution. He has a story worthy of a bard.

What is an eye for a story? Sometimes it is just noticing a moment that is out of the ordinary. Someone who is always on time misses a plane. I’ve heard that one expanded into a story full of powerful learning. How many people miss planes and just get annoyed with themselves?

Sometimes it is noticing a person, or people, who are out of the ordinary, or out-of-place at the moment. Maybe you can ask their story, or maybe you can just make it up as an exercise in story telling. Suppose you saw a group of biker chicks respectfully in church. Or you saw this man utterly outraged because his egg wasn’t cooked properly in a restaurant. What could the story be?

How often have you been in a setting that was unusual to you. You noticed every detail so you could remember it later. What story can you imagine there? Are any ‘what if’s’ coming to mind?

Suppose someone asked you to tell a story about where you ate lunch yesterday. Could you make a story of it? Or pick any meal in the last month or so – which one has a story attached?

Developing an eye for a story is like developing any other muscle. You have to work at it. Find a possible story moment. Define the moment of impetus. Notice what fuel fed the fire. What was said and how was it said? Develop the conflict, add word pictures of the details. Notice (or add if need be) a satisfying conclusion. And you will have a story to add to your life collection.

Write in one direction

Have you ever read a piece – fact, fiction or opinion – where the writer sets off heading north, switches to the west for a bit, then suddenly south, and back north before deciding that east is the way to go?

If it was possible to smack the writer upside the head I would. Instead I just switch to another piece whose the writer knows where they’re going. Life’s too short. If they can’t make their mind up they shouldn’t expect me to do it for them.

Writing is like building a house. You have a plan. You don’t suddenly decide to throw in an extra staircase, or a door from the outside straight into the bathroom or a lovely archway carved out of a bearing wall. It doesn’t work that way.

As a writer the results of bad planning are not quite as obvious. You don’t end up with a heap of debris instead of a house, you just end up with a story or article that is unsold. Again.

How do I find a publisher? the complaint goes. Submitting worthwhile material is a good start. So many people can write quite well but paragraph one doesn’t link to paragraph two and so on. The writer went off on a tangent.

If he or she ever gets back to the main thread of the piece you can bet they’ll spot a red herring soon and chase after that.

“But it’s all valuable material!” they cry. Maybe so, but it’s like putting an elephant, an anaconda and an albatross in the same cage at the zoo. They’re all valuable creatures but the end result will not be a happy one.

If ideas come at you in handfuls or dozens take the time to sort through them. Take time to list them, to decide what fits with what. Which are main, strong ideas, and which are supporting ideas (and what do they best support).

Be selective. Choose the best ideas and the best sequence to make a strong, important overall point. The reader will not take away and remember several points, however valid they are and however important it was, you thought, to include them. If the reader takes away and remembers one point you will have succeeded.

Throwing in extra points weakens the one strong point unless they are part of the supporting structure. If you set off to advocate eating organic foods, mention a few good reasons why. Throw in some good illustrations, vivid word pictures, metaphors, similes to brighten the readers path.

Resist mentioning the delicious tomatoes you grow in your own garden The cucumbers are juicy too. And you make pickles from them that taste so good. But really, your mother made the best pickles ever, God rest her soul.


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