Writer-ly Advice

There really is soooo much to the craft of writing (hence the plethora of books on How to Write!).  I have written a few articles with my own advice.  I'm dusting off some of my favorites and will post a new one every month or so.  

WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD CHARACTERS
by Jayne Ormerod
posted September 11, 2017

“Stop jumping on the bed before you fall off and crack your head open!”

     How many times did you hear that when you were young? Or perhaps yelled it to rambunctious children yourself? Okay, now raise your hand if you’re guilty of leaping fearlessly across the chasm between twin beds anyway, and managed to do so safely. I see I’m in good company. Yes, I’ve knocked a few pictures askew, broken a lamp or two, maybe even left a few dents in the plaster wall, but I have never, ever, in all my years of bed jumping, cracked my head open. Leave it to my mom to always warn me about the worst possible outcome of any situation.

“Don’t run with scissors or you poke your eye out.”

“Don’t get near the lawnmower without shoes on or you’ll cut your toe off.”

“Don’t lick the beaters while they mixer is on because it will yank
 your tongue clear out of your mouth.”

     So let me take this opportunity to say, “Thanks, Mom,” because always warning me about the worst thing that could happen has not only kept all my 2,000 body parts in tact, but her dire predictions have made me a better writer.
     “What?” you ask.
     Yes, when I sit down to write a new scene I put on my mom hat and figure out what bad thing can happen to my characters and thus create conflict which raises the tension which, in the words of esteemed literary agent Donald Maas, is what “keeps the reader turning pages.”
     Let me show you of what I speak. We’ll start with a scene, say a charity event held in the ballroom of a swanky downtown hotel. Our hero, we’ll call him Jake, looks yummy dressed in a tuxedo that emphasizes his broad shoulders and bulging biceps. Our heroine Daria looks stunning in an off-white, off-the-shoulder, cocktail-length number paired with sexy sling-back stilettos. How about we give her a little something sparkly top go around her neck, too? Okay, so the plan for the evening is a cocktail hour followed by an haute cuisine dinner, then a night of dancing under the spinning disco ball to music offered by a soulful singer and her back-up band. We follow our characters as they eat, drink and be merry. All nice and good and probably very enjoyable by real-world standards. But to a reader? In a word, BO-ring!
     So now we’re going to play a little game of “What if…” thinking of something bad that can happen to our characters, and then let’s go one step further and figure out “what would be worse…” I guarantee you that we’ll spin a scene that will keep the reader engaged in our little drama.
     Here’s some ideas I’ve come up with.
    What if…Jake forgets to bring the tickets so they have to drive all the way back to his apartment on the other side of town so are very late to the ball, putting them both in a bad mood. I can imagine that dialogue—or lack thereof—in the car. But what would be worse is if they were to be in a car accident because Daria made a snide comment causing Jake to take his eyes off the road for a split second. (Fear not, they will both survive, and their relationship will grow stronger as they heal. This is a Happily Ever After story, after all.)
    What if…at the dinner table, somebody jostles Daria’s elbow and she spills red wine on
    her couture dress. Or if we’re going to worst-case wardrobe malfunctions here, what would be worse is if Daria returns from the restroom with the back of her dress tucked in her underwear. (And I speak from personal experience telling you this is the WORST thing that can happen to a woman at a formal event. You’d think my mother would have warned me about that! No worries, though, my “date” for the evening married me anyway.)
    What if…Jake’s ex-fiancé is in attendance, looking ravishing, as usual. What would be worse is if Madame Ex is hanging on the arm of Jake’s new boss and whispering all sorts of secrets while looking his way. (And of course he has some dark secrets. All yummy heroes do. But that’s another topic for another day.)

    What if…in hopes of taking advantage of the romantic venue Jake slips an engagement ring into Daria’s champagne and she accidentally drinks it. Worse yet, what if Jake’s ex-fiancé accidentally drinks it. I think there might be a little “conflict” after that, don’t you?

    What if…when Daria passes through the lobby on the way to the restroom she interrupts a robbery. Oh, what if she’s taken hostage! At gunpoint!
    What if…while they are enjoying their dessert, the charming elderly lady next to Jake falls face first into her cherry chocolate chip cheesecake? But what if it’s not a simple heart attack, but murder? And Jake is the prime suspect? (Forgive me, I’m a mystery writer at heart, and I’ve found nothing increases the tension better than the introduction of a dead body.)
     
         Feel free to rely on the all time “what’s the worst that can happen” scenarios that our mothers taught us. Like, what if…after the ball, they get a room at the swanky hotel and while they’re getting “frisky” Daria does fall off the bed and cracks her head open?
        Making “bad things” happen to your good characters is such a simple concept, but so important to creating a compelling read. So can they go out for a nice date? Of course, but something has to happen, something out of the ordinary, something that will increase tension, maybe show the character’s “true colors” or force them to face their demons or push them outside of their comfort zone in some way. You need something that creates conflict and tension. Something that will have your readers saying “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” That’s what makes a story not only worth reading, but also worth the twenty-four dollars and ninety-nine cents they plunked down for it.
    Okay, your turn to play. Let your imagination run wild and think of something bad that can happen to Jake and Daria on their date. Then figure out what would be even worse than that. And maybe even push yourself to go one step further along on the worst-case scenario continuum. Is it possible to push too far? Yes. For example the abduction by aliens (unless you are writing sci fi) is too far for a mainstream romance. But in general, the worser the better. And please share your ideas in the comment section. We all want to read them!

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    BEACH SEASON IS AROUND THE CORNER
    TIME TO GET (YOUR NOVEL) IN SHAPE!
    by Jayne Ormerod
    posted March 18, 2017

    TONE AND FIRM YOUR SAGGING MIDDLE, SOME WRITING ADVICE
      
            Absolutely Fabulous Abs! The Abdominizer! Abs of Steel!  Quick fix gimmicks to tone and firm America’s sagging middles abound.  They look good on TV, but the only surefire way to squeeze into that gold lamé bikini is by laying off the Krispy Kremes and hauling your body out of the La-Z-Boy for some exercise.  Trimming your waistline involves hard work and self-discipline.
              Sagging middles are not limited to human flesh: your novel may also suffer the same affliction.  Here the results can be more than an unsightly bulge.  You can actually cause your reader to lose interest and toss your novel into the nearest library donation box.  Again, the solution involves hard work and self-discipline.  Anyone who has ever waged the battle of the bulge can apply the same dieting techniques to their literary masterpiece. 
              Cut the Fat:  Everyone knows a person who cannot tell a “short” story.  When sharing an experience, said person includes too much irrelevant information, down to the color and texture of the new underwear he received from his Aunt Martha six Christmases ago.  Often, when this raconteur sees his audience nodding off he says, “Well, to make a long story short…”  Too late!  Too much story-fat has buried the original point of the story so that the listener not only doesn’t know, but neither does he care, about the ending.
              Nothing slows a novel down faster than too much story fat.  In the writing sense, fat includes: backstory (everything that happened before your tale begins); travelogue (nobody wants to see those vacation videos); and repetition (great for a songwriter, not for a novelist.) Show some willpower and cut anything and everything that does not directly impact the outcome of the story.
              Aerobic Exercise: Anyone who has ever “Sweated to the Oldies” knows that Richard Simmons slowly increases the level of intensity of the workout until your heart is hammering in your ears and sweat is cascading down your limbs.  Just when you feel you can’t do another can-can kick, the activity slows down until you are once again breathing normally. 
              Your novel should follow the same path. It’s not uncommon for the beginning novelist to rush to build intense conflict in the first ten pages in order to HOOK the reader.  The conflict is not resolved for another 150 pages.  That leaves the reader with 140 pages of the equivalent of finger-wiggles for the remainder of the workout: it may be physical activity, but it’s not going to raise your heart rate and burn many calories. Follow Richard Simmons’ example by slowly increasing the intensity of the story until its climatic peak, then offer a gradual cool down.

             Boost your Metabolism: A Google search will show you hundreds, if not thousands, of sites that will give you advice on boosting your metabolism.  By revving up your inner engines, they will continue to burn calories even when you are not involved in high-intensity workouts. 
              Your novel needs a revving metabolism so that readers continue to be engrossed in your story even when it is not a high-action, car-chase scene.  By increasing conflict, you can effectively increase the energy level in your story, and keep your reader engaged. To do this, ask yourself if the conflict you have created is strong enough to sustain interested for hundreds of pages.  Don’t base an entire novel on Sigourney not speaking to Lazarus because he did not call her one night.  If she were to ask, she would discover that he had been helping his elderly neighbor whom he had discovered face-down in her petunias.  This conflict could be cleared up quickly with a simple conversation, and will never sustain a reader’s interest for 75,000 words.  The story’s conflict must be seemingly insurmountable.  It must be emotional.  It must be intense.  By boosting your metabolic conflict, you are giving your reader a reason to continue reading. 

             Carbo-Load: How are you supposed to get in top-tip shape if you run out of energy during your workout so that you stretch out on the sofa for a rest? Ask any marathon runner and they’ll tell you the secret to keeping energy levels high enough to complete the 26.2-race is to maximize the storage of glycogen (aka energy) in the muscles and liver for later use.  Gotta eat the right carbs at the right time in order to store that energy.
              In the case of the novel, you need to Character-Load. Create such compelling characters that your reader connects with them, and is rooting for them to succeed right down to the last page. In order to do this, begin with detailed character worksheet, examples of which are included in just about every book ever written about writing.  Spend time getting to know your characters by interviewing them or sitting down and chatting with them (preferably when you are alone—you don’t want your family members seeing you talking to yourself or they may call the men in white coats to come and get you…). True characterization goes way beyond physical attributes.  You need to know what makes characters do what they do, why they react to certain situations.  Find out what they would do if they won the lottery; what their most embarrassing moment was; what their most painful memory is; what they dream about; what frightens them; what pushes them; what drives them to drink. I  know one writer who complies ten pages of details for each main character.  The information may not be relevant to the plot (in which case, never include just for the sake of showing how well you know your character), but it is vital to the development of your story.  Strong characters make compelling novels.  ‘Nuf said about that.
              Build Muscle: Any veteran dieter knows that muscle weighs more than fat.  And looks better in a bikini.
              In the novel sense, the muscle of the story is the plot.  A plot is a sequence of events that unfold over the course of a story.  It is how your characters get from Point A to Point B, and all of the obstacles they overcome on the journey.  Foreshadowing, or hinting at something that will happen later in the book, is a great plotting tool.  If Mable Mulligan never steps outside of her house without yellow galoshes on her feet—even on the sunniest of days—then the reader is compelled to keep reading in order to find out why she does that.  Main plots can then be intertwined with subplots, or little stories that seem to have nothing to do with the main story.  Ah, but they do, and the successful author will weave all of these side stories into one skimpy bikini—I mean satisfying ending.
              Education: If your goal for BEACH SEASON is to get into better shape, the first thing you should do is educate yourself. Join Weight Watchers or buy a book on the topic…gawd knows there are enough of them out there.  You have to understand the food in/energy out equation in order to get those six-pack abs.
              A visit to your local brick-and-mortar bookstore or on-line retailer will reveal a HUGE selection of helpful books on writing.  But also take advantage of advice gleaned through seminars, classes, websites and support groups (yes, writing is an addiction!) You can also learn a great deal by reading a successful novel by one of your favorite authors.  Don’t just read it, but study it by sitting down with a notebook, pen and highlighter and noting how the plot unfolds, how the characters develop, how the conflict builds, and how each and every judiciously chosen detail advances the story.  Most importantly, try to determine why you sigh as you read the last page, wishing the story could go on forever.
              The Abdominizer may work for your abdomen, but only hard work and self-discipline can tone and firm your novel’s sagging middle.
              Write on, my friends!




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