Tag Archives: writing

Call it Instinct

Most authors don’t think about poetry when they’re writing, but they’re well aware of the flow of words, how the words will sound and the rhythm behind them. A battle scene uses smaller, focused words. A love scene (usually) uses softer, smoother words.

For most people the rhythm of language is instinctive. We use it all the time in conversation, in e-mails, in other forms of writing, but for some reason when we sit down to write we think that we need something different.

We don’t. Think of the last argument you had. Did you stop to think about how to make the words flow? I doubt it. And yet the argument moved without a hitch. If you have an argument between characters it’s going to flow in a similar way, with similar words and emotions.

I doubt that you took time to elucidate the abstract considerations of the debate or describe the color of the walls. Um…no. So in writing an argument, description comes far down the list–unless the argument is about the color of the paint, your characters are not going to notice. Nor will your readers, if the scene is constructed properly.

When I think of a battle, I’m thinking lunge, thrust, crunch, dart. Single syllable words that make the reader move faster through my prose. Short, punchy sentences because the scene is moving fast in my head.

In an emotional scene I don’t necessarily want the words to flow faster–I want to give my readers time to absorb what is happening, to experience it. So I choose words and structure sentences that will create a setting and a mood–far more setting and mood than I would use in the battle scene.

People in a battle are going to be paying more attention to their footing and avoiding that sword than to the color of the sky or the fact that their father is missing. Those are considerations for after the action.

You really don’t want people getting lost in your lyrical prose while a sword is swinging toward your MC’s head. You also don’t want your readers speeding through an emotional goodbye scene.

Pacing, rhythm and flow are mostly about scene logic–they should be instinctive. Just like a conversation, if we choose the correct words and structure we’ll end up with a scene that flows and leads readers through to the next, without drawing attention to the fact that it was carefully constructed to do so.

Those First Million Words . . .

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

There is a popular quote in the writing world (though Google has shown me that the proper attribution is somewhat disputed) that goes something like this:

“Your first million words don’t count – be prepared to throw them in the trash.”

I’m sure you’ve all seen variations of this quote, and at different times you’ve probably had different reactions. One day you might think, “My first novel needs a little revision, but it’s mostly great.” Other days you might think, “More like two million.” And most days you’ll probably be somewhere in between.

Recently I stumbled across another quote from novelist/freelance editor Erin Bow, and I think I like this quote a lot better:

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Franciso is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfranciscensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better. (emphasis mine)

No writing is wasted.

I love that idea.

Does it contradict the idea that it takes many (most) writers a million words of practice before they get published? No. But those words do count. They aren’t just trash. They are the words that till, cultivate, and fertilize your mind. They are the words that hone your skills, pump up your writing muscles, and train your word-craft until you can perform before a crowd without fear of falling down.

Even better, your first million words don’t all have to be in your genre. Do you want to get published in young adult fiction, but you write a blog on cooking just for fun? Guess what – if you put care and effort into those words, they count! So do your journals, your personal blogs, your fan fiction, the practice character or dialog sketches that never made it into a story, or all the discarded stories from your creative writing assignments in high school and college.

Every one of those million or more words have cultivated an ecosystem in your brain that will make your new writing tastier than ever before.

Will it take you a million words to get published? Maybe, maybe not.

But no writing is wasted.

The Butterfly Effect

Last spring I saw a butterfly.  It was tiny, about half the size of my thumb, and I only saw it for a moment, but it flashed its wings at me and disappeared into the flowers.  It’s not even the colors.  I didn’t see the pattern.

Sometimes I’ll read something that makes that kind of impression–a flicker of wings that sticks with me long after I close the book.  I can laugh for days on the sheer inebriation of it.  Inebriation.  I can’t think of another word that fits.  It makes me hyper, excited, laughing, so full of energy that I sometimes have a hard time sleeping.  Once I went through a full day at work without realizing I hadn’t eaten.  I wasn’t even hungry.

Sometimes it’s only the first read that does it, but sometimes it sticks with me.  Never movies, for some reason.  Always books.  A few of the books that have been like that for me are The Thread that Binds the Bones, The Hourglass Door, and Uncertain Voyage.  The interesting thing is that sometimes it changes.  I’ll read something, then come back to it six months or six years later and I don’t find that magic any longer.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything that does that for other people, but I’ll get a hint of wings at the edges of my sight that makes me wonder.  I caught a hint of it when I wrote Undersea, a hint in Demontaint.  Maybe I’m just too close to my own stories, I can’t see the inside of my head.  I just hope that someday one of my readers finds that same magic in something I wrote.

An Unnatural Act

Poet Mary Ruefle recently said the following:

Writing is a very, very unnatural act. Most people are out living—their bodies are, they’re walking and they’re talking and they’re working and playing and they’re interacting. Writing’s very unnatural because you are not living when you write. But at the same time, what a great paradox—because you’re all writers so you all know. You’re all going, Oh but no, no, I’m most alive when I write. So you are more living or less, we can’t use “more” or “less,” it’s just different. And this is the crux of any writer’s life. It is the essential paradox and question and torment and joy. Are you writing or living and what’s the difference and where’s the line and how do we divide those activities? …

I’ve spent my whole life thinking, Is this unnatural? Shouldn’t someone be parading outside my apartment with a cardboard placard saying, “Insanity’s taking place on the inside”? They really should, there’d be a point to it. And then, in other moods, I go, No, no, no, the insanity’s taking place out there. And I waffle back and forth. And this waffling back and forth, when you yourself experience it, it’s called life. And you are going to experience this waffling back and forth for the rest of your life. And whenever you do, don’t think you’re unnatural or broken or different. It’s life, and we’re living it, and that tension is life.

—Mary Ruefle, in conversation with Alice Quinn at the NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, September 6, 2012. (Podcast)

How do you handle that “unnatural” tension in your own life?

I know that almost daily I find myself in conversation with family or friends or my children, and my mind drifts to the characters living in my mind and the journeys that they are taking and that often feels more real to me than the conversation happening right in front of me. Sometimes I fight this tendency, other times I give in. I haven’t figured out how to manage this balance between my inner and outer lives. At times I’m not even sure if I need to find balance, or if I can just keep on going as I am without guilt or shame. What helps the most is knowing that there are communities of other people out there who feel the same way I do and live in this same strange writer-realm that I inhabit. Because there is nothing unnatural about community. In fact, it might be the most natural thing of all.

Share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments.

By Jocelyn Nash Carlin

When inspiration strikes, how do you keep from losing it?

Remember that time you overhead a really fascinating snippet of a conversation the next booth over in a restaurant and wanted to remember it when you got home, but couldn’t? Or when that interesting article on the migration pattern of wolves sparked tons of ideas in your mind, but you forgot to bookmark it and Google isn’t finding it again?

These specific examples might not have happened to you, but I’m willing to bet that something similar has. Something you read or overheard or saw sparked your creative fires, filling you with story ideas, and then you went and forgot all the ideas, or had trouble connecting them together once the source of that inspiration had vanished from your memory. How can you stop that from happening again?

I’ve met writers who carry notepads with them everywhere to jot down conversational snippets or ideas that hit them while they are out and about. This is still a good strategy; however, in the world of modern tech there are many more options. You could easily take digital photos of places or people that spark ideas for you, use a voice recorder app on your phone to mutter a few quick thoughts or repeat a conversational phrase that you want to remember, or even send an email to yourself. When you find articles on the internet you can bookmark them in your browser, or copy them into a document. Google users can save things to Google Docs, so that their inspiration will be out there on the Cloud, to go wherever they go.

The point is, it’s easier than ever before to save your inspiration when it strikes. So don’t feel bashful about pulling out your smart phone to snap a photo, record a message to yourself, or type in some notes. You never know when a piece of inspiration will spark the story that will finally get you published. It’s totally worth looking like a geek while furiously typing notes to yourself on a tiny touchscreen.

What are your favorite apps or online tools for keeping track of your sparks of inspiration? Share them in the comments below.

By Jocelyn Carlin

Whisperings beyond the Window

Once upon a time a writer had a desk job, in an office, with a window.  She worked at her desk job day in and day out, and when she went home she thought about her desk and the work waiting.

Then one day she looked out the window, in her office, beside her desk.  She saw people out there, living out their lives, and she wondered about the woman in the mini-van and the driver of the semi parked in the driveway.  Was he aware of the two people idling behind his semi, or the one who just went over the curb to get around it? 

Was the semi full of explosives, or had someone drilled up through the pavement into the cab and kidnapped the driver?  Writers wonder about stuff like that.

And as she wondered, she noticed a computer sitting on her desk.  And slowly the words began to come.  One word.  Then another.  And the wonderings became reality, so quickly that she wondered (there’s that word again) if these stories were sitting in the other cubicles around her desk, in her office, or just on the other side of the window whispering the details of their lives to the writer.

The wonderings became more wonderings, and soon the desk vanished (her work was done for the day) and the office vanished, and the window vanished.  Still she continued writing, and will, I’m certain, until they nail shut her coffin.  With her computer by her side.

Once upon a time, a writer had something to say.  It’s that simple.

Writing from Prompts

Do you ever need a break from your novel-in-progress but don’t know what else to write? Or are you ready to start a new project but don’t have a good idea?

One way to break free from that kind of writer’s block is to write from prompts.

Never heard of writing prompts? Here’s the idea: someone gives you a scenario, an image, a setting, a line of poetry, a song lyric, a news story, a single evocative word, etc. Then you write a story inspired by that prompt—or by a combination of prompts.

Basically it’s a way to force your mind to break out of a rut by challenging you to make a story work when it’s coming from an external source of inspiration.

Prompts might only result in a piece of flash fiction (less than 1,000 words). Or even a single scene or vignette. Or perhaps a short poem. If you get very lucky, your brain might take a prompt or prompts and turn them into a whole potential novel.

For example: my current novel in progress came from three prompts. First, I was spending a lot of time in my garden a few summers ago, and I decided to write something that involved gardening. Second, I’d recently written something about princesses and wanted to try another princess story. Third, I’d recently completed a short story set in the Aztec civilization, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it and wanted to try again. Those three ideas came together when a blog I followed issued the challenge to complete a ten thousand or more word story in two months time. So I used the prompts: Garden, Princess, Aztec, and I started a story in a Mesoamerican milieu about a princess with magical powers over plants. Eventually the princess became a priestess and her powers became linked to her god, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I got a great idea for a story that I loved by combining three prompts from three different sources. I have enough material in my mind for several novels set in my alternate Mesoamerica, now.

So where can you find prompts? Anywhere. Do you have a Google or Yahoo homepage with news articles? Collect the most interesting and thought provoking ones. If you write science fiction, subscribe to scientific magazines or blogs. If you write history or fantasy, try subscribing to periodicals or blogs on history, culture, anthropology, etc. Make notes of interesting details from everyday events. Write down interesting lines from books or poems, or even snippets you’ve overheard from strangers in the grocery store. Do Google image searches and save your favorite pictures of places or people. You never know when the prompts you’ve collected will spark a new idea in your mind, or provide a needed break from an on-going project.

If you need even more of a kick-start, some writer’s blogs regularly post prompts. Children’s fantasy author Gail Carson Levine ends nearly all of her blog posts with prompts. Podcast Writing Excuses ends all their episodes with writing prompts, and you don’t even have to listen to find them—all are transcribed into the blog posts on their website. I belong to a prompt-based writing challenge Live Journal community: Pulped Fictions (one caveat—you must have a Live Journal account and apply for membership to view the prompts). Also, a quick Google search for “writing prompts” resulted in a long list of places on the web to find prompts to get your mind spinning.

Let me finish off with a few prompts of my own:




Use just one or use them all. I 100% guarantee that your story will be vastly different from the one I came up with.

Do you have a favorite place on the web to find prompts? Or a writing-prompt success story to share? Share them in the comments—I’d love to hear from you.

By Hook or by Crook part 2

I’ve got a thing for hooks right now. I pulled a bunch of books off a shelf at random and looked for hooks in the first page, filling in the “who-what-when-where-why-how” and paying close attention to when my focus wandered or was piqued. This is what I found:

In “Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov, the hook is the implied disappearance. He uses the phrases, “two minutes before he disappeared”, and “the face of the world he knew”. The why and how are left as questions, or hooks, in the reader’s mind.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “A Fistful of Sky” used a hook that surprised me. The word “We” is used repeatedly, giving a sense of unity against outsiders, against ominous forces: “the force we supported each other against was right in the house with us”, implying a currently unseen—and imminent– threat. “I” is not used until the last paragraph of the first page.

Mary Higgins Clark’s “Pretend You Don’t See Her” and Anne McCaffery’s “Renegades of Pern” had no strong hooks, no risk, no questions raised without an immediate answer. These two authors being the names they are, I wondered if they were relying on their already substantial readership to sell the books. A simple evidence of this was the fact that I also looked at Anne McCaffery’s “Dragonflight”, (one of my personal favorites). This is one of McCaffery’s first published books, and the hooks were obvious: “Lessa woke cold.” This is a cryptic question that lends to the atmosphere of discomfort and fear, foreshadowing the recurrence of a familiar terror. The cold of the early morning is only the beginning.

All in all, these are some of the hooks I found:

*Mood: recognition of danger, sense of fear or threat, mystery and unanswered questions. In every case, the “why” and “how” went unanswered.

*Implied danger to the family or society.

*Implied social difference: “Special child destined for greatness”; a misfit or underdog in society.

*Humor or personality in the authorial voice or the characters.

*Repetition of an emotionally evocative idea, as in “the reaping” in “Hunger Games”, and the “We” in “A Fistful of Sky”.

What are some of the hook techniques you like to use? Or ones that stand out to you when you read?

By Ava Mylne

In two weeks Lauren will be posting a blog on why we read what we read, and asking for your input in a poll. Here are some of the questions ahead of her article. Be ready to tell us what you think!

1. Would you buy more books if you didn’t have to worry about your children / siblings / nieces and nephews finding them on your book-case?

2. Do you buy e-books because you can lock (or hide) your e-reader?

Meet Author and Editor Heather Moore

Heather Moore

Introducing Heather Moore, author of LDS historical novels such as Alma the Younger, and owner and editor of Precision Editing. Learn about her books and editing company and comment on this podcast for a chance to win her book Abinadi. Email us with the correct number of books she’s published for an extra entry or Facebook, Twitter or blog about this contest and leave us the links to your Facebook, Twitter, and blog with your comment for extra entries. For more information on Heather and her books go to: www.hbmoore.com.

Abinadi book cover

Download here
(To download right click and select “save link as”)

Writing the Uncomfortable

From time to time, as authors we find ourselves writing about topics that we (or our audience) might find uncomfortable or even dangerous. If you’re never writing anything that might discomfort your audience you’re probably writing technical manuals or advertising (which is fine, but this isn’t about those types of writing).

Especially at this time of year. Religious holidays—and that word’s a redundancy if I ever heard one—are in the current social and political environment anathema, not to be discussed in polite society.

See my blog at www.lauren-ritz.blogspot.com for my politically correct version of Santa Claus.

I’m not going to go into the social ramifications here, and this is not a discussion of specific holy days. At some point we have to face difficult topics in our writing. Even the shallowest of writers sooner or late writes something that makes one of their readers say “Huh, I never thought of that” and it makes a difference.

If we avoid writing about the hard topics, if we deliberately or subconsciously avoid any mention of things our audience may find uncomfortable, we shortchange them and ourselves. Writing, particularly fiction writing, is about the human condition and making our readers sympathize with our characters—even the villains. If we didn’t empathize with them on some level, they wouldn’t feel nearly as dangerous. Villains are the embodiment of the dark madness that we would rather not reveal to those around us.

If you find yourself writing around a difficult topic, it may be something that you want to explore instead. Whether you choose to incorporate that topic or not is your own choice, but ignoring it should not be an option. Maybe you’ll learn something by exploring it. For certain your readers will.

By Lauren Ritz