You must NEVER do this as a writer

I think it was in ninth grade that I remember a teacher saying the following line in regards to Algebra:  “To this rule there is NEVER an exception.  You must always follow this rule.”  But lo and behold five minutes would pass and all of a sudden there was an exception.  While Algebra is a bit more rule oriented than writing I hear this said over and over when in reference to writing stories.

I read books on writing which most of the time are extremely helpful.  In these books you find such advice such as: Show don’t tell.  Stay away from such and such word, avoid cliches, etc., and yet I read books by New York Times Best Sellers where I see many of these ‘rules’ clearly broken.  My conclusion is that, yes the advice should be taken under consideration but with discretion.  

For example, if I was to submit a story like those of Dean Koontz I would probably get rejected.  Why?  A few reasons.  One of them is that as a new author I don’t have the freedom to do whatever I want with my writing.  More than half of his writing is description and not actual dialogue and that is something that most publishing houses won’t look at.  What I mean is, if they see more paragraphs and less dialogue or visa versa the manuscript gets tossed without even being read.  But that is a shame.  Why?  Well, while I can understand that more of one than the other CAN take away from the story, it is NOT always the case.  In Dean Koontz’s books it doesn’t take away from the stories (as I’ve mentioned before), it actually adds to it.

There are however things you should keep an eye out for, like using certain words too many times (we all do it, we all have a word we are fond of that we over-use without even realizing it).  Or having too many characters that don’t add to the story…though even this if done well can still be done.  Or too much non-action scenes where characters are just sitting around having coffee discussing the end of the world.  Or characters being too perfect…or too evil.  There should be a balance in everything.  Make us care about your villain, make us understand why he/she is a villain…show glimpses of good (not just by showing it through dreams or back flashes).  Writing fiction is essentially about one thing: CREATIVITY.  Although not a single one of us is fully original (we take from what we know, from what we’ve read, seen, heard, etc), still try to put a spin on things that isn’t a replica of another author’s work.

When you write a certain line, ask yourself: is this me mimicking someone else, can I make this more original?

I would also recommend to keep reading books, blogs, articles on writing, but I would also say again: read them with discretion.  The rules (other than the grammar) are not concrete.  What works for one author might be a total fail for you.  Pay attention to those who critique your work, but ultimately, you know the message you want your story to convey.    

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Learn to write stories worth reading

So…right up front I will tell you I have not written a New York Times Best Selling Book….yet.  I have however read MANY such books.  One day I hope to join the ranks of the great story tellers.  There are many friends on Facebook and in my day to day life that also share this passion for writing and have similar goals.  The question that is most pressing is as follows: how to we become THAT good.  How do we tell stories worth reading?

It is my strong opinion that one of the ways a writer can improve at the craft of writing is through a few simple steps…

1.) Read!  Read!!! For heaven’s sake…READ!!!

When I say this I don’t just mean read the books you are passionate about.  I also mean be very observant about what you are reading.  Take a notebook, write words that stand out, or write your observations about what the author does and DOESN’T do.

For example, one of my favorite authors is Dean Koontz.  In reading some of his books I have noticed something that was VERY explosive for me (might not be for you).  He hardly EVER uses the word and.  Me on the other hand….use it FAR TOO MUCH.  Also he has very little dialogue, yet his stories are very interesting and captivating.  In fact when there is dialogue I almost feel like saying to the characters: shut up, I want to see the rest of the story.

There are other observations that can only be found through reading stories and books by authors who have made it ‘big’, such as how they describe things without actually telling you what they are describing.  How they paint pictures that are so vivid with words that are perfectly placed…like the stroke of just the right color with a brush.

2.) Write.  Simply write.

Even if you have come to a stand still in your story…write SOMETHING.  Write in a journal.  Write a blog.  Write a letter.  In fact start a notebook designed just for descriptions.  Pick an object (in nature, in your home, at your place of work) and describe it in detail without ever saying what it is.  Describe it as you would to a blind person.  Describe a sound, describe a smell, describe a sensation. Remember you don’t actually have to show it to anyone.

3.) Write reviews for the books you read.

A good way to develop your writing is to write reviews (on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your blogg, etc).  Don’t just say the book was good, or it was bad.  Go deep into the why’s.  Use words that paint a picture.  (I am working on getting better in my reviews and you wouldn’t believe how much this helps me when I finally sit down to write my own stories).

4.) Re-read your stories OUT LOUD.

Act it out.  Have a pen or pencil handy.  When you read your work out loud, your brain seems to catch what actually sounds right and what sounds horrible.

5.) Pay attention to your dreams.

Many of my stories have been born from dreams.  I have a notebook by my bed for those moments when I wake up from a dream (or a nightmare) and I write them down.  You wouldn’t believe how many times my stories have come to a halt and I’ve gone back to ‘the notebook’ and found inspiration again.

6.) For each story you are working on have a journal assigned just for that story.

In this journal, jot down ideas as they come.  Write how you are feeling about your progress…or lack there of.  Write anything that has to do with the story.

7.)  Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t re-write too many times.

We all want the perfect story, but there comes a time when too much re-writing is just too much and it will make your story flat.  You may even become depressed about it…even bored.

Starting and ending with a BANG

books

You just decided to start a book.  You just finished a memorable one and now you’re looking for the next one worth reading.  Something that will touch your heart, mind and maybe even your soul.  It doesn’t matter if you prefer mysteries, thrillers, romance, historical fiction, sci fi, fantasy etc.  Your requirement is it has to grab your attention from the very beginning somehow…and ultimately the ending has to leave you breathless.  Now, that being said, remember all of that when you begin the journey of writing your own novel.

Remember all your favorite books.  The very first sentence captured you…and if not the first sentence at the very least the first paragraph took you captive in some way.  For example in my current work in progress (Nobody’s Angels) I start off with the following line:

No one saw. They couldn’t. But if they could have seen, they would have always, always said yes. But no–no one saw. 

Make your readers ask themselves questions that they must find answers for.  Who didn’t see?  What didn’t they see?  What would they have said yes to?  And finally, why didn’t they see?  This is not a rule that should be followed only at the beginning of the book.  Each chapter/section should start with something to keep hooking the readers, and also give a hint of a resolution.  Each chapter/section should end with some type of suspenseful cliff (a bang) that forces your reader to keep going even if they know they have to get up at five o’clock in the morning for work, something that pushes them to read even though they know they should get back to work (yes your book has the potential to get someone in trouble and no I am not condoning being late for work…very tempted to insert a smiley here).

Starting you book with a bang would include making your characters have exactly that CHARACTER.  Give them an obstacle then make that obstacle insurmountable, but give them skills that could potentially help them…then make the situation a hundred times worse.  Write each word with a purpose, because in fiction everything has to ultimately make sense (even when you’re creating a magical world), it all has to tie in somehow.

There are plenty of Indie authors out there who have the potential to make a great story, yet the one thing I have seen over and over is a bland beginning and things that don’t add up–or things that are thrown into the story for no reason at all.  Your readers are smart people so make them think:  why did she just describe in such detail that hot pink dress that the elderly woman was wearing?  How does that tie in?  Don’t bore your readers with details that have no purpose at all.  For example, when I was reading the extremely long book Gone With the Wind, I noticed it had a LOT of description, yet each description made you keep wanting to read because it tied in, it had a purpose.  The bombs exploding in Atlanta had a purpose.

Also, make sure you keep the action moving along but also let the reader know the goal and mission of the story in the first few chapters.  Don’t be scatterbrained (this is one of my struggles as well, there are so many ideas!!).

Often I have received one question from members of a writing community that I am part of (wattpad), and that is:  How do you get so many comments, votes, readers etc.?  My answer is this, give them something worth reading.  Engage your audience because they want to be part of your epic story.  Remember what you like as an avid reader…then incorporate that into your story.  Just like in a movie bring in the guns, begin your chapter with a chase towards a goal (not necessarily a literal chase), and end your chapter with a resounding BANG!  (Now get to writing!)