Friday, October 4, 2013

What makes you creative?

What makes you creative?

It is a question we all too often fail to ask ourselves as we strive for technical writing perfection. We study book upon book of ‘how-to-write’ guides, but we fail to harness our own inspiration as the weapon that it really is.

Think back to the time before time. Before you were cognizant that you wanted to be a writer, before you were aware that you had raw talent, before you thought that you could hone your skill, and before you knew that people would listen to you. Think back to childhood when creativity and imagination—not grammar textbooks and autobiographies of famous authors—guided you. Back then, back when all writing represented was joy, what inspired you?

Dolls? GI Joes? Animated films? Fantasy books? Storytelling around the campfire? Shared moments with family? Children? Friends? Scenic views? Holidays? Christmas music? Solitude? Vacation?

It does not really matter what your answer is. One, all, or none of the above. Authors find creativity in different places from each other and, often, in different places at different times in their lives. Yet often we seek to listen to the same kind of music as other writers we know—Mumford and Sons being chief among my artistic allies (though not a personal favorite). Or we put in earplugs, believing what others have said: that music is distracting. We go to the coffee shop because other authors go there. Or, perhaps, we do not deign to set foot in public when writing for fear that, like our favorite writers, our focus will shrivel around other people.

See, the point is not that Mumford and Sons are the cure for authors everywhere or the ultimate distraction. The point is that we must find who we are as individual writers.

Well aware that we have considerable room to improve, we long to feel like ‘real’ authors. In our quest for victory and the New York Times Bestseller list, we grow better and better at the technical side, but, often, we lose our unique artistic edge. What a shame! Talking with my own fans, my friends, and my literature-loving father, I have found a common dialogue. Without fail, readers prefer the writing style of seasoned authors. Yet, with a wistful sigh, they miss the imagination and raw passion the writer possessed when starting out.

So how about a new day, my fellow writing-lovers? What if we prized technical skill and creativity. Truth is, anyone can be technical. Only a great few can be inspired.

Let’s go back to our roots. Let’s discover what made us creative in the past and not be ashamed to use those same tools now. Let’s focus on creativity at least as much as technical skill. And maybe, just maybe, we will make that New York Times Bestseller list without compromising our love of the craft.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Content Editing

Having just finished the content edit of my fourth novel—Mark of Orion—I am particularly inspired to blog about content editing. It is a challenging process. At times, it is terrifying. At times, absolutely thrilling. Its value is almost unquantifiable.

In the context of this post, content editing refers to the editing work done by an author and an editor. It focuses on storyline, character development, and phrasing. While spelling and grammar mistakes may be caught, they are not the focus. In fact, putting too much emphasis on them may well undermine more important efforts.

Here is some basic housekeeping on the concept: Content editing cannot be done until the novel is near completion, as its purpose is to review the novel as a whole. It should, however, be done before grammar editing—as a good many changes will likely arise. At its best, it is done in several sittings ranging over a period of two weeks to two months. Shorter than that and haste—not accuracy—will guide you. Longer, and details will start to slip away from the editor.

Now, onto more exciting subtopics…

You should know: not every author employs the content edit. It can be difficult to submit to oversight of a beloved work by professionals, nonprofessionals, and friends alike. Why should you submit? Because it is an eye-opening, career-building, talent-sharpening process. There is no substitute for reading through your book line by line and watching people laugh, cry, fall asleep in boredom, and pound the table in excitement. There is nothing like having a mentor critique certain sentences and praise others. I would not be the author I am today without content editing. Of this, I am sure. But there is another reason to content edit. Your perspective is limited by your life experience. Collaborating with people with different life experience will give you a better clarity for how to reach a variety of readers.

Again, there is not consensus on how the content edit should be done. Many authors print copies of their work, send it to friends or professionals, and take the red-inked feedback offered. This is a fine method, but it is not as excellent. It will not allow you to see the joy or sorrow or humor or boredom in the reader’s eyes at every turn of the story. Ink does not communicate what dialogue can.

So, if you are determined to do the best content edit possible, pick an editor. You can do this process with several different people if you have the patience, time, and spirit—I do not. Sit down with your new editor in a place where you can hash out problems, wrestle them to the ground, and find solutions. Then you—the author—read line by line. Ask questions. Take feedback. Craft better phrases. Make your novel excel.

Put on your battle armor first, though, friends. It can be a tough process. But the victory of completion is so worth it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Creating Conflict

      If you've ever looked slightly under the obvious layer of writing, you know that all writing is driven by conflict. Conflict is what keeps readers reading instead of skipping to a different book. Conflict is the friction between two best friends that has suddenly arisen--the fact that there is an apocalypse on the edge of happening. At the heart of all plots is some sort of conflict. 

     Sometimes when you're writing a book, you get to a point where you are bored with it--or maybe whoever is reading your book tells you that it has gotten boring. Though there are a thousand different problems that could be at the heart of this, a lot of the time it is because there isn't, or isn't enough conflict. So you're sitting at your laptop, or with a notebook in your hands, and you think: alright, you say that I need more conflict...but how? Think of conflict as a problem. There are four main kinds of conflict:

1. Man against Man
2. Man against society
3. Man against nature
4. Man against self

     You can clearly see that there is one main theme in these four things: against. That is conflict. It is a problem...something against something else. When you're looking at your novel and trying to add more conflict, this is what I want you to do: Create a problem! If something good happens to your character, immediately turn that around into something bad. When you have solved a problem, un-solve it! I can guarantee you that this will add more drama, and more intensity to your novel. Give a little bit of resolution, and then smack your character in the face with a bomb--make them wish that you had never solved it! 

     Keep digging deeper to get to your main conflict. If at first you think that the conflict is the fact that your main girl can't decide between her best friend and the new guy she just met, dig deeper until you find that the real conflict is that she's dealing with herself--she doesn't believe herself worthy of either, and is trying to get out of choosing. Find your main conflict by digging deeper into new conflicts. Then resolve the big conflict. This will not only give your story more layers, but will add a great amount of depth to it. Most likely, if you can find that central conflict, your book will begin to seem real rather than just fictional. And that's the goal of writing anyway, isn't it? You want your characters not just to be on a page, but to jump to life and feel real to your readers. Give them life by giving them problems! 

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Opening: Part 2

Last week, we delved into some tips for writing an opening sentence. Now, we turn our attention to what we can learn from modern authors and the masters of the writing craft. While you may not be able to talk to Charles Dickens, he can talk to you.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” ~Charles Dickens’ opening for A Tale Of Two Cities.
This is one of the most repeated first sentences ever. It is not even the whole sentence. In an epic run-on Dickens adds: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
What Dickens wants us to see and feel and learn and anticipate, we see and feel and learn and anticipate. So profound is his first sentence that even those who have not read the book can quote you those first few words. Even as we learn from Dickens’ craftsmanship we can take to heart what he did not: brevity is a virtue. Countless readers remember only the first portion of his sentence.
Not every book starts like A Tale of Two Cities. There are many ways to give the director’s call and capture the reader’s heart and soul.
The dramatic opening. This often utilizes nature to mimic the stormy or sweet or tense tone readers will uncover in the story.
“Thunder rippled across the frozen lake.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Issym.
The unassuming opening. It takes a soft approach, causing readers to lean into the very ordinary nature of the words.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” ~Charlotte Bronte’s opening for Jane Eyre. This mild opening for a very dramatic novel causes readers to wonder, “What was there a possibility of?” So the bond between author and reader is secured. Only the book can answer the reader’s question.
“They moved with joint precision.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Asandra. Again, there is something quite ordinary about movement, but it also raises questions like, “Why are they precise?” “What makes them move jointly?” “Where are they going?”
The evident opening. In this style, there are no hidden questions, there is no lost meaning, and there is no imagery meant to parallel the pace of the book. This opening, as its name suggests, is evident.
“The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.” ~Jane Austen’s opening for Sense and Sensibility.
“One strike of his sword after another, the youthful warrior barreled through his enemies.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Xsardis.
Readers know they will deal with the traditional Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility and that they will see a medieval adventure take place in my own Xsardis. With unmistakable clarity, there is also a draw. We cut through all the fancy words and jump (in Austen’s work) to a traditional estate and (in my own novel) to a medieval battlefield. As a director’s call this leaves no room for losing readers, who are immediately forced on stage. It might, however, jar them.
The location opening. It is possible to arouse readers’ curiosity based on opening location alone. It is a risky move. If readers find the place uninteresting they will close the book, but, if they long to know more or have a traveler’s heart, this opening can be highly persuasive. Most readers long to go somewhere. That is why they read.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien’s opening for The Hobbit.
“Ho Chi Minh City in the summer.” ~ Eoin Colfer’s opening for Artemis Fowl.
The image of a creature living in a hole is captivating. It begs questions like “What kind of hole?” “What’s a hobbit?” “What was it doing in a hole?” “Will it leave the hole?” And while most kid readers knew nothing about Ho Chi Minh City when they first read Artemis Fowl, they thirsted to learn about a city with such a foreign title.
The problem opening. This opening names a problem from the start. It may not be the problem, but it will point to the climax that will unfold.
“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” ~Louisa May Alcott’s opening for Little Women.
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” ~Anthony Horowitz’s opening for Alex Rider: Stormbreaker.
The problems are clear: financial woes for our young heroine in Little Women and the impending doom faced by Alex in Stormbreaker. Such challenges arouse sympathy (even on the part of Jo’s drama, which doubles to show us a good deal of her character) and keep the reader browsing on.
The first-person opening. Books told in first-person carry with them unique strengths and unique challenges. Their opening sentences often ignore all location, all weather, all danger, and all other characters except the narrator. The goal is to give readers a glimpse at who they will be following through the novel and to generate sympathy for that narrator.
“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” ~Rick Riordan’s opening for The Lightning Thief.
Such a comment makes us 1) feel sympathy for his unhappiness, 2) wonder what a ‘half-blood’ is, and 3) want to learn what events led him to wish he was not a ‘half-blood’. This makes for a powerful combo.
Opening styles abound. Most sentences are short; some are not. Most beg a question; others do not. In this article, you have read a run-on and a fragment, a quote and a narration, an imagery-filled opening and a blatantly-obvious opening. In this writer’s opinion, the truly talented authors focus on a moment in order to pull a reader toward the content of the book as a whole. Still, only one rule must be followed: make your reader want to uncover the adventure.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Opening: Part 1

Novel writers, you face an array of difficult tasks. Yet of all the words you write few are more vital or more challenging than those in the first sentence. It is a reader’s initial blush with who you are. Covers and summaries and introductions are all well and good, but the sentence that begins chapter one is like a director’s call to action. Fail to command attention and you lose the reader.
In a few words, you must pluck Average Joe from a bookstore in modern day America and place both his feet on the ground you imagined. In a world of smartphones chirping and media whiplash, how does an author steal away Joe’s mind from the troubles of his day and his plans for the night? With a lot of work.
As you get started here are some things to remember:
1) Try and try again. You will need to type out sentence after sentence after sentence until you find what feels right. This is most often not accomplished in one sitting. In fact, you may not finalize it until you have finished your novel.
2) Walk away. When you fail to start your book, do not immediately feel shame. If the first sentence is the hardest and most significant thing in your novel, then it is logical for it to remain unfinished until the book as a whole is complete. It shows wisdom and experience for you to walk away from the first sentence and come back to it later with enthusiasm.
3) Ask for help. Despite the self-reliant tendencies of most authors, there is great merit in asking for help. Find a good idea, then changed it to fit who you are as an author. You should also test your first sentence on a variety of readers. If it does not capture them, scrap it and start over.
4) Seize inspiration when it comes. Your inspiration for the first sentence may come years before you ever know the characters or write the book. Profound phrases fall into the minds of writes before bed or on the top of a roller coaster or while sitting in a movie theater. Write these outbursts of creativity in a specific place. Later you have a database to drawn from.

That list is all well-and-good, but the best writing instructors are writers themselves.  Next week, we will delve into what the masters and some modern authors can teach us.

Each writer's pieces are independent and may not reflect other writers's views.