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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

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.

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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

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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)

Writersdontcry

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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Writers Don't Cry 2012 Picks: Five Books for Writers

Writersdontcry WDC PicksWriters crave a steady diet of fierce, thoughtful, and heartbreakingly well-worded books. These books should have the paragraph structure of the gods, dialogue to die for, and a narrative voice you would follow through gates of hell (though it would never lead you there). And it is through enjoying and analyzing these rare and inspired books that writers can best hone their craft.

But which books in particular are good examples of such technical expertise? Well, you could make the argument that you can learn something from just about every book you read—brilliant or not so brilliant. And that even if something is not to your taste, there is something to be gleaned there. But, I have to say, I prefer to learn while enjoying my pants off.

So! To that end, I’ve put together a list of five books I think make great studies for writers. Now, I understand that traditionally, these lists are temporally discriminatory, in order to keep Harry Potter, Twilight, and George R. R. Martin from ruling the world (or rather, this corner of it). However, since I don’t just read books that came out this year, this is not going to be such a list. Instead, I will attempt to immortalize five (just five!) of the many inspiring and instructive books I read this year. (Or maybe the year before. Hey, it’s my first list, cut me a little slack!)

May I present, in no particular order, five books for writers, how I found them, what they’re about, and what you can learn by studying them.

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