Recently in Craft Category

Underwriting

absorbed-2409314_1280.pngI have a tendency to be an underwriter. I'll write brief summaries, or transitions, of things I shouldn't. My critique group will say they want to know the details of what happened. It's usually a "doh" moment for me. Of course I should write that out as a scene.

Also, I often don't go deeply enough into my characters or into my characters' emotions. What are they thinking, feeling, experiencing? What are their dreams and hopes and worries? What are their flaws and bad habits? How is he/she reacting to what the other characters do and say? Am I only showing the outward stuff? The obvious stuff? C.S. Lakin says, "Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper." And "By skipping the obvious feelings, you can catch your reader off guard."

I've made the mistake of trying to use flashbacks in the opening of a novel to show more emotion, but these simple words from a roundtable critique in October--stay in the scene--will definitely be a help to me. Once the editor said it, I knew she was right. In the beginning of a book especially I need to remember to stay in the scene. Now to go back and fix that novel opening and others.

Underwriting can be generic writing. The events aren't happening any specific place with its own quirks, with a unique cast of characters, with problems that will be solved only the way these characters can solve them. The reader also might not have any clues to the time period of the story.

Some underwriters might leave out taglines and beats making it difficult to know who is talking in a conversation. This also means the characters can appear to be standing in front of a white board. The reader doesn't know what the characters are doing while they talk or what's around them.

If a writer fails to give characters the tools or skills they need to solve the problem that's another form of underwriting. When the character pops out with the tool or skill, the reader isn't prepared and the scene doesn't ring true.

The same for decision making. Readers want and need to see the process the character goes through when making a decision. Rachel Starr Thomson says, "We feel in response to things we're thinking. So do our characters. If you can show what they are thinking, nine times out of ten you can make an emotional connection with your readers."

I read where Elizabeth Silvers said, "sketch out the skeletal" and that made sense to me too. Put some muscle and skin and hair on the skeleton of a story if you're an underwriter.

Any other underwriters out there? If so, what are your tricks and tips? I'd love to see them in the comments.


Overwriting - Take Two

chaos-227971_1280.jpgHave you ever read a piece that explains every detail down to the smallest minutia? Where you find yourself skimming or skipping ahead to the action? I've seen movies that spend too long on backstory or unimportant details, too. Both make me want to say, "get on with the story!" What you're reading/seeing is overwriting.

It can be like this picture which is so cluttered, you're not sure where to focus. Readers like white space on the page.

So how do you avoid overwriting? Watch out for the following:

Excessive adjectives and adverbs. Use stronger nouns and stronger verbs and many of these descriptive words become unnecessary.

Filler words usually don't add to the story and can become especially annoying. Sometimes this happens when a writer is trying to make dialogue "just like the real thing." No one wants to read a recording of a conversation with the falters, sidetracks, filler words, and repetition for enjoyment.

Explaining too much. Technical, historical, and political descriptions can bog down writing. In an effort to be accurate, we can over explain.

In dialogue, if it looks like a lecture versus a conversation, it's probably overwritten.

In an action scene, repeated details often slow down the action. If the description directly impacts the character, go for it. Otherwise, don't. Say we have a person in a boat in a storm. Repeatedly describing the clouds above them or the specifications of the boat doesn't take the reader far. However, we do want to know the wave flings them against the rail. The pain when a rib cracks. The gasping for air the moment the water recedes. The taste of salt. The roar of the wind.

Mary Kole says this about overwriting, "Basically, it's a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader." This can be telling the reader the same thing over and over and over, which makes me want to say, "I got it the first time." Or it can be lots of big words that are simply too fancy. It can also include convoluted sentence structure that gets the reader lost. This kind of writing is often called "purple prose."

In this post, "Avoid Overwriting - Subtle is More Sophisticated," Jodie Renner mentions "extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions" as overwriting. That makes me think of Anne of Green Gables and her teacher chewing her out for all her exclamation points. :-)

When I'm editing/critiquing a manuscript and see overwriting, I find myself writing "too much" or "tighten." A writer may be modeling their prose on older styles of writing, but we need to remember the modern audience usually wants something that moves more quickly.

Examples

The Literary Lab has some fun examples of overwriting on this blog post.


Recreating

idea-152213_1280.png
We see the word recreating and usually think "kicking back" or doing something for the enjoyment of it, as in recreation, and that's true.

But, what if we pronounce the word re-creating?

Re-creating could be a "big picture" look at a novel. Sometimes, we honestly know a manuscript we've written isn't working. Sometimes, it's our critique group, agent, or an editor who points out big problems. Either way, re-creating can include slashing scenes/chapters, or creating brand new ones. We might need to re-create our character, who is either too flawed or not flawed enough, or not likable enough. We might have to re-create plot, or fix the tension or chronology in the story. It might take starting the story in a different place or at a different time. We may be restoring the story to fit the bright shiny vision we first had. Re-creating might change the whole story into a different shape. It may feel like going backwards. But if the end result is a better story, it's worth it. I love this quote: "Don't hold onto a mistake just because it took a long time to make." -Lucy Ruth Cummins

Once the overall story is working well, then we can move on to scene by scene revisions. With this step, we might be strengthening our characters, going deeper into their emotions and motives. Perhaps we're adding in sensory details that ground the reader or removing unnecessary description. Is a conversation compelling or is there trite dialogue that needs to be cut? Is everything in a scene necessary? If not, take it out.

Next is revising individual paragraphs and line by line editing. We refresh tired words, overused phrases, and check the pacing of our sentences. It might include tightening. Our goal is to make the words stronger, clearer, and more compelling. Here's a great quote I found on twitter: "I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it." -Janet Flanner

We may not do our revising in such separate steps, but however it's done, it's necessary. I like what Linda W. Jackson says, "First drafts are paper plates. After many revisions, they become fine china." Now that's quite the re-creation!

Recently I was recreating, as on vacation, where I got to add another state to my list of those visited. Which reminds me that sometimes it's time to visit a new project--not just return to those we've written before, or those in progress. In that case we are re-creating the story from our mind onto the page or screen. (At least if you're like me, they're always different in my imagination than what ends up in actual words.)

Sometimes, we're re-creating ourselves as we try something new. I remember hearing Kirby Larson talk about taking a poetry class while working on a novel. That something new helped her write her Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky.

And back to the usual definition of recreating. We do all need time away from our writing so that we can come back refreshed and ready to go.


How Do I Scare My Readers?

scaredsilh.pngBruce Hale aka the Writer Guy was asked these questions:

"I would like to hear from you, what tips can you give me for horror stories, whether novel or short story? How do I bring that horror feel to life? How can I keep my readers from sleeping for a few nights? How do I achieve the fear factor?"

And is allowing me to share his answers here:

Having just finished a horror series for kids (The Monstertown Mysteries), this topic is fresh in my mind. Creating a sense of horror is all about the expectation of something awful happening. As Alfred Hitchcock said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."

From early on in your story, you should plant the seed in the reader's mind that all is not well in this world, and then with each turn of the page, you bring that horror closer and closer. How? Here are four techniques:

1. Hide the monster
Take a tip from scary movies, and have the *effects* of the creature/ghost/whatever turn up much earlier than the creature itself does. You'll notice we don't see the shark in JAWS until well into the film. There's a reason for that. Spielberg knows that the longer we delay the actual monster sighting, the more punch it will pack.

2. Mislead the reader
Be sure to employ a few red herrings, spots where you make us think that the creature is about to appear but it turns out to be the cat, a neighbor, or whatever. This can also be used if your hero is trying to figure out what's behind the spooky happenings. Have them initially suspect the wrong people.

3. Hook 'em over and over
Horror is all about hooks. Your concept should hook your reader from the get-go. But that's not the only hook to employ. Rather than having chapter endings resolve an issue, have them hook as well. End each chapter on a cliffhanger note of suspense, the equivalent of "and then..." in a picture book. Try this technique and you'll have your readers flipping pages like mad.

4. Play on your fears
Have the source of horror in your story be something that particularly frightens your hero. If they're clown-phobic, have them face sadistic clowns. If they're kitten-phobic, have them encounter Evil Fluffy. Bonus points if you can draw from your own fears when building your hero. Because the more you feel it when you're writing, the more your readers will feel it when they read.


MantisCover4.jpghat-club-fedora.jpgBruce Hale is the author-illustrator of over 45 seriously funny books for young readers, including the Clark the Shark tales (one of which ended up in a Happy Meal -- not the way you think) and the award-winning Chet Gecko Mysteries. Find out about his newest series, the Monstertown Mysteries, online at: www.brucehale.com.


A Fresh Look at Our Writing

refreshment-438399_1280.jpegI was once again reminded how important a fresh look is on a manuscript. This week a writer friend asked me to look at a picture book manuscript that her agent had said was "too mean spirited." It was a retelling of an old story--good guys against a bad guy--with a very modern twist. I thought it was hilarious. I'd seen several versions and really couldn't see much to tone down. Then yesterday she showed it to a mutual critique partner who had not seen the story before. She pointed out areas that would soften the story. This third writer had fresh eyes and was so right in her suggestions.

I love this imagery from Arthur Polotnik: "You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke." When we are writing our own view is hindered by smoke. We're excited about what we're creating--in love with our characters, our words. Setting aside the manuscript and coming back to it later when the fire has cooled, let's some of that smoke of infatuation clear.

When we've looked at a manuscript over and over and over, we get blind. It's too easy to skim because we "know" what it says. Suzanne Paschall says it this way, "Tired eyes become blind to errors that jump out to fresh eyes..." Somehow we need a splash of water in the face to wake us up.

Right now I'm going through my own manuscript using comments from my critique group. Mine is a novel in verse and once I gave the complete manuscript to my partners, I've didn't look at it until I got their feedback. (I also tried not to think about the story at all.) Their questions and comments are helping me see it afresh. It helps me see what I know but didn't put on the page. It helps me see where I wasn't clear or left out details that will add to the story. It challenges me. And I know it is making my story better.

Soon, I'll reread the whole story again to get it ready to send out on submission. This time I'll probably first change the font so it looks different to me. This trick can help fool our eyes into seeing the words afresh.

Do you have other tools you use to look at your writing with fresh eyes? If so, please share in the comments.


Underwriting

Overwriting - Take Two

Recreating

How Do I Scare My Readers?

A Fresh Look at Our Writing

Run Away Words

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Rhyming Picture Books

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Overwriting

Reducing Word Count

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Say What?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

Do you struggle with grammar?

Illustrator Resources

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

My Favorite Online Resources

Do as I Say

Attribution or Action?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development