Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How to get your novel started Part 4

This is going to be a very long post.

Writing your book

By now you should have your book planned. You should have a working outline and at least some idea of a title. We’ll be discussing:

How to create memorable characters
Setting and description
Transitions

Transitions

Transitions are the key to making your writing flow. They’re what makes your book “readable.” Transitions are words and short phrases which are normally found at the first of a sentence. They are to ensure that the reading experience is smooth and effortless. (Don’t use them too often though, or your editor will kill you. Seriously, they have a dungeon for people who use these words too much.)

Here are some examples:

Furthermore

On the other hand

So

For example

Otherwise

Because

Afterwards

Then

And

But

Basically

Later

While

In the meantime

Nevertheless

Equally

Apart from

Indeed

In fact

In conclusion

While writing, try to use transitions often to help readers follow your train of thought. Notice I used the words “and” and “but”? Forget what you learned in school about never using these words at the start of a sentence. One shows that a further supporting statement is about to be made and another shows that an opposing statement is about to be made. And if anyone doesn’t like it, tell them to see me. Ha. Ha. This goes back to writing like you speak. (As long as every sentence doesn't begin with "and or "but.")

Writing with Flair

Of course, like I’ve already said, the best thing you can do to add flair is to write like you speak. A straight-forward conversational style will ensure that your work reads well. If you’re a good conversationalist, then you’ll probably be a good writer.

Writing this way is also the quickest way to get your book finished. I mean, how many times are you speaking to someone and pause for weeks in between? Never right? If you know what to say, you have less trouble finding how to say it.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you write:

Try to avoid clich├ęs. These are tired phrases like “he ran like the wind” or “she wiped the floor with him.” They are often seen as lazy writing, simply because they have been used so much. They’re a little bit like the tomatoes you left in the fridge for too long, they’ve lost their freshness. (And could possibly be growing mold.)

Vary the length of your sentences. This is to avoid monotony. You also need to suit the pace and tone of what you’re writing. If you’re writing an action sequence, for example, your sentences should be shorter and more precise. Just like the uppercut your character is about to throw.

In particular avoid long, long, long, long, sentences with lots of commas. Use full stops.

Besides length, vary your sentence construction. Normal sentence structure is subject-verb-object. To maintain pace and readability, it’s best to maintain this most of the time. But sometimes it’s alright to change things around a little.

Avoid repeating a word within a sentence or two. Unless you’re doing this deliberately for effect, it is unpleasant to read. You also don’t want to go overboard trying to avoid using the same word again. For instance, don’t call a cow a bovine quadruped to avoid using the word “cow” again.

Avoid using a long word when you could use a short one instead. Use the longer one if it’s the only one appropriate. This has nothing to do with the intellect of your readers, so don't be offended. Writing simply flows better if it isn't bogged down with lots of loooooong words. I hate to read something where the author obviously threw in a bunch of big words just to make themselves or their point seem more important.

Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Adjectives are describing words like hot or cold. Adverbs normally end in “ly” and tell how something is done. (Poorly or splendidly.) For example, instead of saying a vast amount of water, say an ocean. Or instead of she yelled at the top of her lungs, she screamed.

Avoid using old-fashioned words. Even for comic effect. Words like quoth and perchance should only be found in Shakespeare.

Keep punctuation simple. All you should need for the most part are full stops, a few commas, and question marks. When writing for a general audience, most people could give a rip if you know how to properly place a colon or a semi-colon. Some people even find them distracting.

Use figures of speech to bring your writing to life. The best known figures of speech are metaphors and similes. If you can do this with an original flare, it will help the reader to see the character or situation in a whole new light.

With a simile, the comparison should be explicit. No, I don't mean raunchy. A comparison is obviously made.

I like to give unusual similes. Like someone growing on you like a fungus.

Metaphors are used more artfully. They are often referred to as imagery. These figures of speech should evoke vivid images in the reader’s mind.

Here is an example from Red, book one in my Werewolf Hunter Series.

The beautiful summer day had begun to turn as ugly as my mood. Through the doors to the balcony, dark clouds could be seen gathering. Technically, it was still spring, but when the temperature reached nearly eighty degrees every day, I called it summer. That’s the only thing about Florida I wasn’t fond of; I did not deal well with the heat. But, you can’t have everything, and living in the middle of nowhere, with almost no neighbors, I was probably surrounded by some of God’s best art work. As I walked out onto the balcony, surrounded by deep red roses, I marveled at the fact that there were people who did not believe in the existence of a higher power. I watched the storm clouds rumble and swirl, looking like a bruise mingling with the blue of the sky. I had the urge to get a blank canvas and some paint. Yes, God existed, and he was an artist. In my opinion, anyone who doubted that need only watch one sunset. Every day the countryside around me was painted with the same masterful hand in a slightly different portrait.

The first few rain drops began to fall around me, making the roses look like bobbing little red heads as the rain bounced from their petals. I closed my eyes, tilted back my head and let the rain wash away the bad memories.

No, this book isn’t about religion. Lilith just happens to mention her belief in God during this segment. The question is, could you see the rain bouncing off those roses? Could you picture the storm spreading across the sky?

Another quick note: Don’t work too hard to come up with figures of speech. It isn’t worth it. Besides being a waste of time, if the comparison you make isn’t completely obvious, the result could be unintentionally comical.

Similes and metaphors should be used sparingly. But if you come up with a few good ones along the way, they can help to make your words more easily understood and make your book more fun to read.

Tips specifically for fiction writers

Characterization

Characterization goes hand in hand with conflict. These are probably THE most important parts of the story. After all, you can’t have conflict without characters. The reason people enjoy fiction is because at some level we are able to identify with one or more of the characters. You start to put yourself in their shoes and keep reading to see how they work things out.

And if you had characters without a conflict, you’d have a really boring book. Think back to one of those cheesy old scenes in a black and white movie where two characters run toward each other across a field of wildflowers. Boring right? Who are these idiots and why aren’t they having an allergy attack from all the pollen? If everything worked out right and bad things never happened to good people, it would make an extraordinarily dull read.

Everybody wants and occasionally has strokes of good luck. But we also have setbacks. That’s just part of life. And though readers do read to escape reality, you shouldn’t leave it completely behind. Everything doesn’t always go right and this should be true for your characters.

If everything is always perfect in the lives of your characters, readers won’t be able to identify with them and won’t be the slightest bit interested in what happens to them.

Most truly great fictional characters have been flawed in some way. All of them have problems (conflict) and work to overcome them. For fiction to be successful, it is essential to have characters who have flaws as well as strengths and who experience conflicts and failure as well as success.

Character and conflict interweave to form the plot.

Example: Werewolf Hunter Series – Red

Lilith Mercury is a werewolf Hunter who is not exactly human. Marco Barak is an alpha werewolf looking to change people’s perceptions of his kind, and snag a new alpha female in the process. After a passionate encounter in his club one night, Lilith can no longer deny her attraction to the wolfman. Her job is to kill him, but it breaks her heart to think of causing him harm. Once The Wizard Council agrees to hear Marco’s proposal for the enactment of the werewolf code, things might change, not only for werewolves, but for Lilith. Soon they will both discover that anything worth having is worth fighting for.

PLOT SPRINGS FROM CHARACTER

So, how are you supposed to create these memorable characters from which your plot develops? First, you need to get to know them and I suggest doing so before you start writing. You need to know what makes them tick, their strengths and weaknesses, background, hobbies, etc.

Picture someone in your mind, a character perhaps. Not a celebrity or someone you know, but someone you’ve made up. If you don’t have anyone in mind, then make someone up right now. I’ve found that it’s easier to write in response to a question, so I've got an exercise to help you develop your character.

The exercise will follow this section in the next post.

If you do this exercise, by the time you get to the end, you should feel like you’re getting to know this character. Some of the questions may not apply to your character and that’s fine. This is just to help you get an idea of who they are. You don’t have to know the answer to every question and some of them will even be answered as you write the story.

Now think of a problem this person would want to avoid more than anything. It could be based on their worst fear or their dislikes. Think how the person involved would attempt to resolve the situation. What would they do and what would be the consequences of their actions?

The better you know the characters, the easier the outline and the story will be to write. If you are familiar with your character’s personalities and backgrounds, any one of these can be used to create conflict.

Creating well-rounded life-like characters is important. You might want to complete the questionnaire for all of the characters in your book.

Keep in mind that for your book to be successful, the main character or characters must also be someone readers will find likeable, at least on some level.

Here are some more ideas for creating likeable and memorable characters.

1. Show their softer side – have them do something kind.

2. Make them the underdog – people always root for the underdog, so make the odds stacked against them.

3. Put them in big trouble – the more trouble your character is in, the more the audience will be drawn in.

4. Make them good at what they do – even if they are an assassin, let them take pride in it. (maybe even be the best in the business)

5. Give them a dark past – this could tie into their regrets. We’ve all done things that we regret, having this in a character also makes them easier to identify with.

6. Give them a sense of humor – this not only makes the story easier to read, but makes the characters more believable. They don’t have to be a comedian, they just need to not always take themselves so seriously.

7. Give them flaws – real people cannot identify with perfect people. Give them a drinking problem or a fear of heights … something to overcome.

8. Give them someone to love – it could be a lover or their child, or even their dog. But everyone, no matter how bad they may be, needs someone to love. Yes, this applies even if you’re not writing a love story.

9. Let them have something in common with the reader – this could be a nosy neighbor or a boss who’s a jerk. Just as long as it’s something that a lot of people can identify with.

10. Make them rebels – this goes along with being the underdog, just do it with attitude.

Of course, you don’t need to use all of these for every character, but you should use some to make the characters easy to identify with and realistic.

Show, don’t tell

I didn’t invent this phrase. It’s used in lots of writing classes. And it’s probably the best piece of advice I can give you.

Don’t just tell them what’s going on in a scene. Describe it. Show it to them. Try to think of your novel as a movie. Rather than just telling your audience what happens, show it to them in a few vividly portrayed scenes.

Show scenes through the eyes of a viewpoint character.

Don’t include asides which can only come from the author.

Have as much dialogue and action as possible.

Keep reportage and reminiscence (flash backs) to a minimum.

Write most of your story in the character’s presence.

Avoid having characters tell one another about events – if it’s important show it happening instead.

Why the words you choose are so important

People don’t just want to see your world. They want to hear it, feel it. They want to take in the sights, taste the food, hear the music. They want to be able to feel the changes in temperature and observe the animals.

If you can’t describe the place like you’ve been there, the reader will know the difference. They can only get as deep into the story as you do.

Setting and description

Try to include these in the dialogue. Blend them into the narrative. Avoid a three page description of a dirt road. (Seriously, I read that once.) Rather than stop a story in its tracks to provide a full description of the setting, give a few well chosen details and let the reader fill in the rest for themselves.

The character outline can be found in the next post:) I may have to do that one tomorrow.

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