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About Susan J. Morris

A very logical child, Susan grew up reading stories about monsters by night and looking for them on the playground by day--scientifically rigorously--because she couldn't believe the world would be so boring as to be born without monsters. Dark, poetic, gritty sci-fi/fantasy and YA are her favorite inspirations, but she maintains that "It was there" is also a perfectly valid excuse to read a book.

Posts by Susan

Writing with Repercussions

WritersdontcryRomance1Writing isn’t just about action and dialogue and description. It’s not even just about all that and a few characters and a plot. Because what brings it to life—more than vivid descriptions, intricate world building, and scintillating dialogue, all put together—is having a world whose characters and other bits are reactive, responsive, and, most importantly, interactive. Having consequences for every choice, and equal and opposite reactions for every novelistic action.

Without repercussions, it feels a bit like throwing a rock into a pool—without it making a sound, a ripple, or a splash. Which is to say, it feels awesomely unsatisfying—and the opposite of immersive. It feels flat, and frustratingly unreal, no matter how gorgeous a picture of the pool and the rock description paints, and no matter how well-described the action of throwing the rock.

So, What Does It Mean?

Reactiveness and interactivity are the binding agents of your story. Without it, even if your dialogue, action, description, and plot are all beyond excellent, we’re going to be stuck in a serious state of wanting more. And by more, I mean that we’re want to know:

  1. What emotions people are displaying (or, for the point-of-view character, just plain having)?
  2. What thoughts people are broadcasting (or, what thoughts is the POV character is having)?
  3. How people are expressing themselves and communicating with one another nonverbally?

Continue reading "Writing with Repercussions" »

Guy Gavriel Kay on Writing River of Stars

WritersdontcryWhen you pick up a Guy Gavriel Kay book, you know you are in for an intense experience. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at creating compelling, complex, human characters in which the reader can’t help but become invested—even if their initial presentation is somewhat less than heroic. His fluency with themes can make you actually care about abstract concepts just as much as you do about the life or death of a character. And the combination of the above makes for books known for both their poignancy and resonance.

So, of course, I was beyond thrilled when Guy Gavriel Kay—winner of the 2008 World Fantasy Award, the International Goliardos Prize, two-time winner of the Aurora Award, and internationally bestselling author besides—agreed to do an interview on how he wrote his upcoming novel, River of Stars.

I hope you enjoy!

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Susan: One of the most striking things about River of Stars is that it feels so incredibly human and grounded—the relationships between the characters in particular, but also the battle scenes—which gives it great poignancy and gets us readers super invested. How does a writer achieve that level of realism?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I have a longstanding one-liner, but it is only partly a joke, that “I've always depended on the intelligence of strangers.” The riff on A Streetcar Named Desire is actually at the center of my writing. The kind of “investment” on the part of readers that you refer to depends, it seems to me, on an author respecting both readers and characters—and I think they amount to the same thing. This means, of course, giving room for characters to emerge and become significant for a reader. I think that's a key.

Susan: At the same time as feeling grounded, River of Stars has the resonance of a myth or legend. How do you invest your writing with that kind of feeling?

Guy Gavriel Kay: You are being generous right off the top here. Thank you. In River of Stars I was interested (as always) in how the past affects the present day. The present time of the story, but also, by extension for the reader, his or her own time and life, if I do it properly. Looking back on long-ago events can carry that kind of legendary quality, and I wanted to explore an awareness that even as things are happening now in the book, later generations might see them as legendary events of their past—and, as we all know, the past gets changed by how it is remembered. That's a theme of the book. 

Susan: There are many smaller tales in River of Stars that all wind together in ways that seem at first largely inconsequential (plot-wise), and then become incredibly, earth-shatteringly important. How do you make sure the reader can trace back the ripples of every stone?

Continue reading "Guy Gavriel Kay on Writing River of Stars" »

How Important Is It to Write About [Vampires]?

WritersdontcryDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me “at” susanjmorris “dot” com.

 

Dear Susan,

I read your post in response to the question concerning the importance of genre. When writing nonfiction, a memoir to be precise, how critical is the author's celebrity and platform to the success of the work? Without platform or celebrity, is the project worth the effort? 

Thanks,
Chuck

Hi Chuck,

I’m glad you saw my column! And thanks so much for sending in the question. Though, I’m going to take it and stretch it out a bit, since this column is focused on fantasy and science fiction, and fantasy memoires have yet to prove numerous enough to birth a genre (Darth Vader: Behind the Mask!). So I’m going to take your question to be: how important is a topic’s popularity to the success of the work, and without a popular topic, is the project worth the effort? (And to translate into fantasy terms: how important is [writing about vampires] to the success of the work, and without [writing about vampires], is the project worth the effort?)

To answer this revised question, I’m going to attack it from three angles: the impact of a topic on the marketability of a book, what makes a book something I want to read, and figuring out what makes a book “worth it” for you as an individual. Each piece should help to answer the question in a slightly different way, and by the end, between them, hopefully you’ll be able to come to your own conclusions.

Best,
Susan

Writing About [Vampires]

Oh man. I know it can get frustrating when it seems like the market is blowing up for books that you just don’t want to write. Sometimes, it can be tempting to think that if you just wrote about [vampires], or whatever’s popular at the moment, you could for sure sell your book, since people are clearly snapping them up like cakepops. And there may be something to that! When I was a kid, there was one unicorn book in the whole elementary school’s library. I really wanted another book on unicorns. I would have probably read any book on unicorns. But tragically, there were no other books on unicorns. So you totally could have monopolized my market, right there.

Continue reading "How Important Is It to Write About [Vampires]?" »

Sarah Russo on How to Promote Your Book (and Yourself)

WritersdontcryDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me “at” susanjmorris “dot” com.

 

Dear Susan,

My third book, In Search of Sal, a murder mystery inspired by a true story will be published in October. What are some things I could be doing now to help promote the book? Any ideas? 

-Lou

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Hi Lou,

Thanks for the question! And boy, is it a doozy. I mean, as writers, we spend forever concepting and writing and getting feedback and rewriting and editing and banging our heads against the table and writing some more . . . That once we realize our books are actually going to become things? Like, things out there, in the real world? It can be a total scramble to try to figure out and put together any sort of support system that might possibly get people reading it. In short: publicity is hard.

Too hard for me! But not too hard for a good publicist (worth their weight in truffles, I swear). Enter Sarah Russo. Sarah Russo is a literary publicist, working with authors, and everything from film makers to app designers besides. She is also the U. S. Director of Publicity for And Other Stories, and cut her teeth working for the likes of Alfred A. Knopf, Doubleday, and Scribner. And fortunately for us, she was happy to answer your question. I hope you enjoy her response!

Best,
Susan

Sarah Russo on How to Promote Your Book (and Yourself)

I love this question. It tells me an author is evolving and starting to think differently about their work. First things first, if you’re publishing your third book I would stop thinking about promoting them individually and start thinking about promoting you as the creative force behind your work. And this goes for artists of any genre whether it is literature, music, film, designers, you name it—start promoting you, and then you have a solid platform from which to engage fans about each project you create. But promoting you isn’t all me, me, me! You need to offer something to people, something interesting and engaging.

This hints at the next important part of this promotion puzzle: branding. There are so many great resources out there that talk about branding, but at the end of the day it’s just about one simple thing: adding to the discussion and having something smart to contribute in your area of expertise. Now don’t walk away, I’m not telling you that you need to spend four hours a day on Facebook and Twitter to engage with the community. Nobody has time for that, and if you do you’re not writing your next book. I recommend finding the platform that works best for you, whether that is Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or a niche social community, either genre specific or subject specific. Give it 5-10 minutes of your day, twice a day, and make it work for you too. And I mean by this, if you love NPR and find it adds something to your life and engagement with the world, follow Brian Lehrer on Facebook or The Picture Show blog. If you don’t get something out of it, you won’t use it. But don’t stop there, share what you love!

What’s the right format for you?

Continue reading "Sarah Russo on How to Promote Your Book (and Yourself)" »

How to Write a Damn Good Dance Scene

Writersdontcry

Do you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to  me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.

 

Dear Susan,

I attended the panel you were part of at PAX on how to write a damn good fight scene and your advice (and your panel mates?) was very helpful. I managed to write myself into a corner where I was forced to describe my (immortal) characters at a Ball without any knowledge of how Ballroom dancing works. I've looked into videos and the like but it hasn't really helped, any advice on how to write a damn good dance scene?

Many Thanks,

Alexander

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Hi Alexander,

I’m glad you found the panel at PAX useful (other panelists: Erik Scott de Bie and Erin M. Evans)! And thanks so much for the question.

So, it sounds like you’ve started your research into writing a dance scene by looking at videos, which is great! That will be really helpful for learning how the dances you’re using work and look, as well as understanding the community and history that surrounds them. It might also be useful to read some interviews or chat with some dancers about dancing, both so you can harness some of their passion for your book, and so you can figure out how your characters might think about it. And, of course, taking a dance class could also help, so that you can make a proper sensory experience of it.

That being said, when it comes down to it, executing a dance scene—like a fight scene, or any action scene, really—isn’t really about the dancing at all. It’s far more about the conversation the characters are having through the medium of the action. After all, the physical actions of your characters are really just another form of expression! Almost like a secondary conversation, underlying the primary verbal conversation—albeit one usually more emotional than intellectual in content. Which means that the most important thing to figure out about your dance scene isn’t how the dance works, but rather, what the characters’ intentions are—and how your characters can express them through their dance-oriented interaction.

To help you get started, I’ve outlined below the three basic steps in writing character-intense action scenes, from brainstorming, to sketching it out, to execution. I hope it helps!

Part 1: Identify Character Intentions

So, one of the first things you likely think about when sketching out a new scene of any variety, is who the characters are and what they want. Which is awesome! Because really, once you get that down, the rest is cake. Or, if not precisely cake, at least more cakelike. See, all things flow from the characters’ intentions. If Character A wants to eat a magic cupcake, and Character B wants the magic cupcake for herself? That’s great tension right there! And fodder for some awesome dramalicious conflict. All you need to figure out then is:

  1. What each character knows about the magic cupcake (and, of course, what there is to know about the magic cupcake).
  2. What each character knows about the other character’s intentions regarding said magic cupcake.
  3. What each character would do to get said magic cupcake.
  4. How each character would react to the other character’s actions regarding said magic cupcake.
  5. What each character wants to do with the magic cupcake should they win it in the end.

Or, basically, just make sure to nail down the flow of information, intention, and interaction between your characters on a high level.

Continue reading "How to Write a Damn Good Dance Scene" »

R. A. Salvatore on Using First and Third Person in the Same Book

Writersdontcry

Do you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email your question in to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.

 

Hi Susan,

Thanks so much for the blog, it helped during NaNoWriMo! I have a question with first person and third person point of view being in one novel and was wondering if you can give any insight on the technique?   

Thanks, Desiree

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Hi Desiree, 

Thank you for the question! And I’m glad you found Writers Don’t Cry useful, especially during that trial tribulation terrific thing called NaNoWriMo (seriously, NaNoWriMo is really awesome—if also really hard!).

SalvatoreFor as often as first person and third person are used together in the same novel, your question is actually kind of a tricky one! First person, while seductive in its seeming simplicity, is actually an incredibly difficult technique to master. Similarly, third person, while omnipresent, is far from easy—requiring the mastery of various “narrative distances” to truly work it to its best effect. And using both in the same novel? Adds a whole new level of tricky! Luckily, I did say if I couldn’t answer it, I’d find an author who could.

And who better to answer this question than the author who first sent shockwaves through the fantasy community with this very technique: R. A. Salvatore. A New York Times bestselling author, Salvatore has been using first and third person together in his novels to great acclaim for 23 years now, inspiring countless other authors to start weaving in first person with their third, and cementing it as yet another benchmark of the fantasy tradition. Fortunately for us, he was happy to answer your question. I hope you enjoy his response!

If you want to see examples of his master technique in action, check out his latest book The Last Threshold, which comes out tomorrow. I, myself, can't wait!

Best,
Susan

R. A. Salvatore on Using First and Third Person in the Same Book

When I sat down to start The Dark Elf Trilogy, I thought I'd do it in the first person point of view. One of my favorite series is Roger Zelazny's amazing Amber story--I don't know that I've ever seen first person done better, honestly--and I thought that, since this new trilogy would have a laser focus on a single character, that point of view might work well. I ran into trouble immediately. First, the book actually begins before my main character is even born, and second, first person simply doesn't work with one of my favorite interludes: the battle scene. (See also: R. A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene.)

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What’s Genre Good For, Anyway?

Writersdontcry

MixinggenresDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.

Dear Susan,

Here’s my question: how important is it to write in a genre?

Cheers,

Denise

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Hi Denise,

Thanks for the question! And what a simple seeming, and yet really complicated topic. You’d think genre would be one of the blander topics out there, when in reality, it’s actually quite the hotbed of animated and emotional debates. So, instead of just answering your question simply, I’m going to turn this into a bit of a broader discussion of what genre is, what it’s good for, and how I’d recommend interacting with it, when it comes to your own writing. I hope this answers your question!

What Is Genre, Exactly?

It can be tempting to think of genre writing as derivative—almost as a kind of fan fiction, all swirling around “the Greats” like Tolkien who first inspire us to turn our thoughts to elves and orcs. But at its heart, “genre” is just a fancy word for a category of fiction—and while, yes, the influence of the heavy hitters is definitely felt in genre fiction, the heavy hitters of life are felt equally strongly, well, pretty damn well everywhere. What can we say? We’re human! When we see something we just love—or even something that makes us shudder with revulsion—it affects us, in ways big and small.

What’s It Good For, Anyway?

So, what, exactly, does genre have to offer? Because, you know, this wouldn’t even be a question if it didn’t have something to offer. I think genre has a lot to offer, but one of the most obvious things is a “consistent reading experience”—in that, if you pick up a fantasy book, you can expect that it will, for the most part, have more similarities to other fantasy books than to, say, science fiction or autobiographical books. That it will have a certain feel, and satisfy certain needs (not so much that it will have magic wands instead of laser guns—the trappings mean far less than the filling).

Continue reading "What’s Genre Good For, Anyway?" »

How Writing a Short Story Differs From Writing a Novel

Writersdontcry

Do you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com. 

 

Dear Susan,   

Thanks for the great blog! My question is how to write a short story and how it differs (if it does) from writing a novel.

Thanks!   

Sarah, Derby

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Hi Sarah,

Thanks for the question and the compliment!

Short stories and novels—what a good subject. As you likely know, most authors have opinions on these things. Writers tend to have a general word count with which they are comfortable—with some tending toward the legendarily long and others toward the shortest of short. And, given their druthers, this is often the length all their stories would be, as it can be unbelievably difficult to write to a different word count. I mean, think about it! If you’re used to developing plotlines and character arcs over some 100k words, imagine going to just 1-10% of that! For this reason, some authors go so far as to define themselves as simply short story authors or novelists, and eschew other lengths altogether.

You can likely understand why. I mean, story ideas (and character arcs) tend to come in various sizes. And (in most cases, anyway) you just can’t stuff a big story into a tiny story’s package without taking a serious hit to the quality of the fiction (or stretch a tiny story out over the length of a fantasy epic, for that matter). So, if you’re a person who tends toward big story ideas, with long, fleshier character arcs, then you might find writing a short story a fearsome process—and if you tend toward smaller story ideas, stretching out your idea over a mountain of a novel might seem likewise daunting. (So many words! Why are there so many words?)

But that being said, aside from scope, the actual process of writing a short story is fairly similar to that of a novel, and most writers, given practice, can totally swing both. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve found the writing process differs for short stories, as well as a little bit on how to go about writing one for yourself. I hope it answers your question!

Short Stories: They’re Short

Of course, far and away, the biggest difference between short stories and novels is the length. But what does this mean for our intrepid writer? Generally speaking, it means you have less space to establish your characters, setting, and plot; less space to affect some meaningful change of character and context; and less space to do just about everything.

Continue reading "How Writing a Short Story Differs From Writing a Novel" »

Ask Writers Don’t Cry

WritersdontcryDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer? Or, have you recently read a socks-off-knocking, page-a-rocking fantasy epic, with this thing that does this other thing that’s so awesome you’d just die to be able to do it yourself? If so, or even if you just have a question about writing or the column in general, please email in your questAmazonheadions to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com. Then, if I have a good enough answer (or can get ahold of some author who does!), I’ll feature it in this column.

And if you’re looking for information on a topic in general, and you can’t find it in the archives (below), please send it in, and I’ll try to address it in a future column.

Thanks for reading & happy writing!

 

Writers Don’t Cry Columns by Topic

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Validation and the Writer

Writersdontcry

As every writer knows all too well, validation? Is hard to come by. At a job, it’s “good job” on getting there on time, on nailing that sales pitch, and on bringing in those tasty donuts (teambuilding, people!). At an exercise class, it’s “good job!” for being there, for smiling, and for lifting your knees. In fact, in almost everything else you do, the milestones are fast and frequent, the standards are measurable, and the opportunities for validation abound.

But tragically, for the (particularly unpublished) writer? A lot of those opportunities for validation simply aren’t there. There aren’t a ton of milestones, unless you’re forcing your raw, unedited chapters on the unsuspecting—and they are loving them—and that can feel somewhat forced. And if you have artificial milestones in the form of intermittent classroom deadlines, you don’t necessarily have the time to polish a piece until you’re happy with it, and teachers and editors are there to make your writing better, not to let you know what an unequivocal genius you are.

All this makes it terribly tempting to just cater to those who have the power to offer you validation. But then, that would mean you’ve lost sight of why you started writing in the first place—the thing that gives writing itself meaning, and makes it fulfilling. (Unless, of course, you actually started writing in pursuit of validation. At which point: go to! Have at it. And what are you doing reading this article?) So how do you pick up the pieces? How to you give yourself the necessary validation so that you don’t crave it constantly from others? There are no easy answers here, as everyone has entirely different needs that are answered in entirely different ways. But here are a few things that may help.

Remind Yourself of Why You Started

Do you know why you write? Not “to be published”—but what inspired you to write in the first place. Something like, “to see smiles on my grandkids’ faces,” “to give someone the same immersive escape books once gave me,” or “to slap a bunch of words on a piece of paper.” Then, once you have it, write it down and post it on your wall if you can. And whenever you write, focus on that goal.

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The Whys, Whats, and Wherefores of Story Arcs

WritersdontcryClimaxSay you have an awesome book—but it’s long. Too long. So you cut it in half: now you have two books. Easy enough, right? For fixing page count, sure! But when it comes to the enjoyment factor of the book itself, it can have a remarkably harsh effect. See, in a traditional story arc, the climax—or peak of the arc—is pretty close to the end of the book. In between the beginning and that climax, there’s a whole bunch of stuff, like the introduction to the characters and setting, the inciting incident, and a ton of obstacles the characters have to overcome—including usually one spectacular failure--in order to grow and achieve their goals.

So, if you cut the book off half-way that means your stunted plot gets through the introduction, the inciting incident, and maybe a problem. But the tension is only starting to ramp up at the very end of the book, there isn’t a climax, and you’ve not generally hit that critical failure point yet. Meaning, unless you’re really careful, your book is going to feel slug-slow and crazy unbalanced—even if it’s perfect as one huge book.

This isn’t to say that you can’t start at different points in the traditional arc, that you can’t have several arcs going at the same time, or that you can’t have a completely nontraditional arc. You totally can! In fact, those things often make for some of the most popular books and movies. But, that being said, it’s important to know why each of those pieces of the arc pie are there—what purpose they serve, and how they work with the other pieces—before deconstructing the whole pie concept and making crazy substitutions.

So, to those ends, here are some of the basics on the average story structure—what each piece does, and what you need to provide if you’re planning on cutting it out or changing it. You can also use this list as a basis for an outline, making sure you have each piece of this basic puzzle in place before filling out all the juicy details.

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41 Flavors of Body Language for Writers

WritersdontcryThe Many Emotions of EmoticowsBody language can transform a fight scene from mere hack-and-slash into a riveting clash of bodies and souls. It can make an otherwise yawn-inducing argument so intense you forget to breathe. And it can take the wooden performance of a cardboard character and bring it to vibrant, messy, glorious life.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of dialogue, and there’s a ton you can do with it alone. You can express every emotion in the world, and a host of interesting subtexts with your choice of words, tone of voice, placement of dialogue tags, and so forth. But that’s just one language. Think of how much more you could do with two!*

 Because body language, when you think about it, is just that: a language. Providing layers of meaning and nuance, as well as fodder for some of the juiciest gossip and social drama. Which is awesome! Or at least, it is when you put it in the context of writing. By using body language to accent action, dialogue, and character interactions, you can:

  1. Emphasize the Emotion by expressing the same thing with a character’s words and body language. (He’s really mad.)
  2. Complicate the Emotion by expressing one thing with words, and a slightly different thing with body language. (He’s mad, but with a side of guilt.)
  3. Contradict the Emotion by expressing one thing with words, and a contradictory thing with body language. (He’s saying he’s mad, but he’s actually super proud of me.)

And oh, the possibilities if you just weave in the body language for “lying” with any of the above (. . . Drama!). I get excited just thinking about it. Of course, unless you’ve thought about it a whole lot, using body language effectively can actually get a little complicated. So, to help get you started, I’ve come up with my top three tips for using body language, as well as a list of a bunch (41!) of different emotions—each with a few body language-erific ways to express it.

Continue reading "41 Flavors of Body Language for Writers" »

10 Ways to Get Your Chapter On

WritersdontcryTheendFirst paragraphs should always be gripping. Not just of the first page of the first chapter of the first book in a series—the first paragraph of every chapter. They should tempt you to read on, even though it’s past your bedtime. Even though you have to get up early for that meeting/class/cat-wrangling boot camp you signed on for. Even though you just know that if you get to the end of that chapter, you’re going to have to read the next one, too.

But even if that chapter start was the most memorablist, most awesomist chapter start in known creation—and you totally finished the whole book that first night on the strength of that one chapter start—that doesn’t mean every chapter should start that way. Because really? That would be boring, for both the reader and the writer. Especially when there are so many incredibly intriguing, utterly unique, and perfectly practical chapter starts out there just waiting to be plunked onto chapters of their very own.

So, just next time you’re feeling ruttish and looking to start with something a little different, here’s a list of ten of the most common chapter starts out there, along with some of the pros and cons of each. Go ahead and play! It’s just one paragraph, and you never know what you might discover to be the perfect fit.

Action
Narrative Distance:
Medium or Tight

Pros: It’s common wisdom that pulse-pounding action scenes are a good way to grab your reader by the eyelashes and glue them firmly to your book. And when done right, it’s like the epitome of “show don’t tell”—showing us the conflict, the world, and what the characters are like without a single infodump.

Cons: Contrary to popular belief, action—on paper, as in a sequence of active, blood-and-guts words--is not inherently interesting. It can, in fact, even be boring. And it most certainly runs the risk of being disorienting, especially when you have a tight focus. So it’s important to make sure both that your reader knows what’s at stake, and that the scene itself is a creative and arresting display of action and character.

Dialogue
Narrative Distance:
Medium

Continue reading "10 Ways to Get Your Chapter On" »

Playing with Focus: When Description Attacks

WritersdontcryLights Camera EmoticowAs readers, we want our description to be riveting. We want it to be absorptive. We want to feel like we are there—like we can see everything exactly as the author imagines it. But, of course, as writers, we know that we by necessity end up focusing on some things a lot, others a little, and the rest not at all. Otherwise, we’d be writing for days, and never get anything done. And, moreover, we know that choosing the wrong thing, too many things, or just focusing waaay too tight on even the right thing, can have disastrous (if entertaining) effects for one’s story. This makes writing description an exercise in picking just the right foci, and learning to turn just enough attention on them to let them shine.

It’s easiest to start thinking about the effects of different levels of focus—and different focal points--by stripping a scene of its description entirely, leaving it just with the bare bones of its dialogue. A scene so stripped immediately becomes something like a blurry picture. The blurriness in the picture represents everything the reader is providing with their imagination—things you’ve mentioned before, things absorbed from the cover art, and things they just plain made up. Everything you then describe gets pulled from that blurry background into focus. And, of course, the more time we spend on that description, the tighter the focus becomes, until we’re right up in the hero’s nose digging for gold that we’re sure, at that point, will prove pivotal in the execution of the plot.

So, that's all well and good. But when it comes time to add that description back in, how do you know how to tell if you have too many foci, the wrong focus, or even just if you've zoomed in a little too close? We've all experienced how terribly easy it is to turn an earnest desire to write immersive description into a focus-fest that leaves no nostril unexplored. For this reason--and in honor of the sanctity of all nostrilkind--I’ve thrown together three of the most common mistakes made with foci, their effects, and, of course, how to best avoid them.

Too Many Foci
The old, grizzled war-orc grimaced unhappily as he took a tentative sip of the dead, unfashionable dwarf’s fly egg-and-mold-infested ale, which was in an elegant, silver mug covered in the most amazing etchings  [--insert 75 words about etching here--], and disgustedly wiped his gaping mouth with his thick, knobby, sausagelike fingers of surprising girth, which also had sparse but coarse and determined hair growing out of them. The ale? Was nasty.

So, if a descriptive paragraph is a blurry picture, and describing things pulls things into focus, then why not just describe everything? That way, the reader can see what’s going on exactly as you do, in your head, right? Right? Tragically? No.

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Resolutions for Writers: 10 Ways to Hone Your Craft in 2013

WritersdontcryRachel E. MorrisLast year I came up with 52 writing exercises for writers. As I haven’t heard from anyone whose finished them all, I figured this year, instead of coming up with 52 more, I’d do something a bit more practical: a list of resolutions for writers, aimed at making writing as fluid as breathing. Now, you certainly don’t have to do them all! (Though you’d surely be some kind of Writing Superhuman if you did.) But picking even just one of these to commit to this year is a great way to improve both the quality and the quantity of your writing.

So, Happy Writing in 2013!

1. Make Writing a Habit
Oh, come on—you had to know this one was coming! It’s resolutions for writers, and what are burgeoning writers famously known for? (Hint: it’s not writing.) But despite the siren call of procrastination, writing really does get easier with practice--and the more you write, the better you’ll get. So try to make a habit of writing, and write for 30 minutes a day, five or more days a week. It doesn’t have to be good writing! We’re not talking publishable prose or polished poesy. Just write. Flash fiction, writing exercises, diary entries, or another chapter in the world’s greatest novel. It doesn’t matter. Anything will do. The whole idea is just to keep that writing muscle limber and maybe even beef it up a little bit, so that when you need it, it’s fit for action and ready to rumble.

2. Oh, and Make Reading a Habit, Too
Try to read at least 15 minutes of every day. Every day! (I know: that’s a lot of days.) But reading is way easy to slip into a day—especially a mere 15 minutes. You can read while eating breakfast, you can read in the bath, you can read before bedtime, and you can read on the bus, too. Or between meetings, or at lunch, or during coffee break. Really, books are so incredibly portable these days—with an increasing number of people reading on their phones—that you can read just about anywhere. And the benefits of reading? Reduced stress, a sharper mind, an enviable vocabulary, greater empathy, a steel-trappier memory, and a nimble learning capacity.

3. Keep an Idea Notebook
New York Times best-selling author Laini Taylor wrote an excellent piece for Figment the other day about keeping an idea notebook—a place for all the things that, as Taylor said, “set [your] mind on fire.” She credits her idea notebook with helping her find the story of The Daughter of Smoke and Bone--and then, to further back that up, she shows excerpts from her journal that uncannily spell out huge swathes of the story. And what a brilliant idea! Both the book, and the idea notebook. So resolve this year to write like Laini Taylor, and keep a journal filled with the things that inspire you and keep your fire burning--and see what ideas your brain has in store for you.

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Why Side Characters Steal the Spotlight (and How to Steal Some Back)

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Hero_bigMain characters, as we all know, are golden gods of absolute awesomeness, with sharp intellects, shiny biceps, and sparkling personalities that make fair folk of all genders faint out of sheer want—both in and outside of the novel. Okay, that’s not really true (we all know biceps can’t really shine: they glisten). But even so, it can feel like it when we think about the huge amount of pressure that rests on the glistening deltoids of any main character: the direction of the action, the flavor of the narration, and most importantly, addiction of the readership. (No pressure.)

So, given all that (and how very much time you can spend on your main character as a result), it’s amazing how some random, throwaway character, who was only supposed to have maybe ten seconds of fame--max--can suddenly steal all the spotlight and demand your readership’s full attention (not to mention the author’s). Somehow, what your imagination coughed up in a moment of thoughtless need ends up being more gripping than the most carefully crafted character, in whom you’ve invested every hope and expectation!

But what makes these seemingly accidents of ink, these minor--yet somehow spectacular--characters so enthralling? It has, I think, something to do with those very pressures and expectations that make a main character so important to begin with. Here are a few different reasons that side characters can outshine main characters, along with a few suggestions as to how your main character can get her sparkle back.

Mary Sues Always Lose

Remember all that pressure we talked about? It weighs a character down, and forces them into a tiny little box where their every personality trait is measured for its heroic quotient before being allowed out to play. And there’s a good reason that! I mean think about it: generally speaking, no one wants a hero who is unlikable, foolish, incapable, or, worst of all, boring (unless, of course, it’s a “thing”). So it follows that heroes tend to be likable, smart, and capable of extraordinary things--as well as anything else the author believes befitting of a hero.* For example, if an author admires those who can operate coolly and logically under pressure, then his main character will likely do the same.

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Turning Passive Plots into Active Plots

WritersdontcryConfrontationThe sentence, in which the performer of the action is of negligible importance. The character, who waits for things to happen to them. The plot, that is built around reaction rather than action. They all have one very important thing in common: they are passive. Agentless. And capital B-O-R-I-N-G. I mean sure, passive can translate to mega drama, but only when it’s used as a counterpoint to an overwhelmingly active narrative—not as the basis for your fundamentals.

And yet, it is ridiculously easy to fall into using passive plots, passive heroes, and passive turns of phrase. Active plots, by contrast, tend to come from the heroes striving to do something, rather than striving to stop (or not do) something. For example, the one ring is essential to making The Lord of the Rings active: without it, the heroes have no hope, no plan, no active thing they can accomplish to stop Sauron from gaining power. Nothing to strive toward, only something relatively intangible to strive against. The one ring transforms the rather reactive and passive heroic action into something active, idealistic, and time-sensitive. It gives it focus and a guiding arc that the heroes can (and sometimes do) fail to meet. It gives it drama.

And it has become one of the standards of the genre. Since then, any number of ringlike devices have been instituted in countless fantasy stories down the years: we must interrupt the ritual, we must defend the door/chains/weapon; we must get the seven pieces of the magical muffin and use it to stop the great Muffinater from covering the world in gooey muffin streusel. And those methods do work; that ring substitute takes a passive plot and makes it active. But it’s still hard to pull off without feeling too mechanical. Here are just a few ways active arcs go astray, along with how to bring them back into fold.

My Plot Is a Mystery
The Set-Up:  You know this plot. Everyone’s read one, and most of us have written one. It’s when the characters know there is some evil thing they have to stop, and they know they have to defeat it, but they don’t know how to defeat it, or really, how to even go about figuring out how to defeat it. This starts out with a compelling idea—not every Evil should come equipped with a “Press X to Delete” button, and letting the characters uncover what they need to do to stop the Big Bag is both more realistic and packed with plotastic promise.

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Five Dos and Don’ts for Picking an Editor

Writersdontcry

It used be that editors picked authors. But these days, with self-publishing flourishing, and with an ever-increasing number of authors looking to tweak their manuscripts before sending them off to prospective homes, sometimes it’s the author who is picking the editor. And that can be a tricky thing! I mean, an editor’s work is by nature invisible—if you can spot it, they’re generally doing it wrong. But if not by the evidence of their work, by what should you judge this would-be judge?

Of course, you can’t just judge all editors on the same scale. Editors come in all types and experiences, just like writers. And an editor who is an awesomtastic fit for one author may be an awful fit for you. So really, the important question is how to find an editor who is a good fit for you and your needs. This means finding an editor who has both a strong understanding of what you are trying to achieve and the editorial skills to help you achieve it. And, perhaps most importantly, it also means finding an editor who communicates in a way that works for you.

Finding the perfect editor for your book could take a while—but it’s worth it. A good editor is like a book’s best friend: they share the author’s vision and help draw it into even sharper focus—making it the best version of that book it could possibly be. So, to that end, here are a few of the dos and don’ts for how to play matchmaker for your manuscript, and suss out just the right editor to satisfy you both.

DO Ask the Right Questions

It seems self-evident, but making sure you and a prospective editor are on the same page is vital to satisfying edit. Even the term “editing” can hold confusion! I mean, there are many different types of editing, from developmental or story editors who work on things like plot and characters (and the hiring of whom most of this article addresses), to copy editors who focus on things like spelling, grammar, and inconsistencies.* So, it pays nail down your expectations—and those of the editor—before getting in too deep. And that means . . .

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Erin M. Evans on Writing Dialogue to Die For

WritersdontcryDialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It’sBrimstone Angels totally immersive, it’s evocative of character and place, and it can add layers of tension and nuance like nobody’s business. Not to mention, it’s eminently quotable. All this, and it seems so approachable! I mean, we almost all talk in one fashion or another, right? So clearly, we should all be masters of The Dialogue. But dialogue is deceptive tricky—and it takes a clever author to work it to its best effect.

One of those authors is Erin M. Evans. When I first read her book Lesser Evils, I was immediately struck by the dialogue. It was just so effortlessly natural. And the characters didn’t all sound alike, either. It was one of those rare stories in which you could really figure ouEMEvansAuthor2012colort what each individual character would say in any given situation, and how they would say it. Not only that, but you wanted to repeat it to your friends later. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dialogue so much, that in my 2012 Five Books for Writers column two weeks ago, I picked it as my favorite book for studying the subject.

So, you can imagine how pleased I was when Erin agreed to do an interview on how she gets those characters to speak! Because while you can figure out a lot from reading Lesser Evils and studying it, the chance to learn techniques from the author herself cannot be beat.

 

Susan: What are the goals of dialogue?

Erin: Dialogue is one of the strongest pillars of storytelling. It’s immediate and immersive. It can carry a lot of details about characters and plot and setting without being too obvious about it. It can be used to adjust the pace of your story, or land a beat you might otherwise miss.

Susan: How do you make dialogue compelling?

Erin: I think you start by listening to a lot of people talk (real people! Not TV or movie people!). The best thing you can do is get a feel for the cadence of voices, the word choice people use when they’re feeling a certain way, the way they convey information—especially when there are other factors at play. Like someone eavesdropping on them! Think about why people say what they say the way they say it. I think reading or listening to great dialogue is definitely helpful too, but without that “primary source” you’re echoing something that’s already been distilled. It can end up sounding stiff or goofy.

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Elevator Pitches: How to Talk About Your Book

WritersdontcryOne of these days, you’re going to have to talk about your book. It’s true! No matter if you’re submitting it to an editor or agent, trapped in an elevator with another writer, or just chatting with someone’s book-junkie grandma over cocktails--unless you never talk to anyone about it ever, it will come up. So, it’s in your best interest to figure out how to talk about your book. Briefly, because you can always talk about it more later, once they’ve expressed interest.

This is means coming up with the dreaded elevator pitch—the fastball version of your book so short and compelling you can sell someone on it between floors. Now, the elevator pitch has a lot of mystique built up around it. Most authors hate it—I mean, seriously? If you could capture the whole essence of your book in a mere paragraph of prose, why would you have written a whole book? Your story is complicated! It has layers! It is inexpressible in a measly paragraph. (Hence: book.) But you are a writer. You can do this. All you have to do is write one paragraph that gives readers a quick but strong impression of your book.

The best part is? Just the process of figuring out that elevator pitch will make it way easier to talk about in the future, with or without your script. So, to those ends, here are a few tips for creating an elevator pitch of your own.

X Meets Y
It’s like Highlander meets Black Swan . . . in space!

One popular method for creating an elevator pitch uses the framework “my book is X meets Y,” where X and Y are popular books or movies—sometimes with an additional qualifying factor, like “in space.” Now, some people loathe this method, since when done poorly, it tells you exactly nothing about the book (though it can be downright hysterical). But it has to be said: when done well, it is an awesome shortcut to describing your book.

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