8 Tips for Short and Sweet Descriptions in Fiction #FabulousFridayGuestBlogger

by Kassandra Lamb

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While editing the book I’m releasing tomorrow, and especially while trying to pare down the scenes that beta readers and my editor said were dragging, I truly came to appreciate the importance of a finely honed description.

Descriptions in fiction are needed to ground the reader in the setting and allow him/her to visualize characters. But they can also bog down the pace and bore the reader if they are too long, and they can be jarring if they’re in the wrong spot. Today I’d like to share some thoughts about how to make descriptions concise and effective.

1. Why descriptions are so important. People’s brains tend to show a preference for one sense over the others when processing information, and which sense is in the lead varies from person to person. Some people are primarily auditory (30% of U.S. population); they process words and sounds far easier than what they see or sense in other ways. Others are primarily kinesthetic, i.e., movement and touch-oriented (3%). A rare few are primarily smell and taste-oriented. Continue reading

6 Answers Writers Have for the Grammar Police

I thought you all would find this post interesting, and Marcia said today would be a good day to reblog it here. Enjoy, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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One of the frustrations of being a fiction writer is the occasional need to defend ourselves when accosted by the Grammar Police.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t sometimes become the Grammar Police ourselves. Most of us have had a lot of training in the use of language, including proper grammar. So we grind our teeth when we see flat-out errors (apostrophes in places they don’t belong is one of my pet peeves).

But often our own grammatical “mistakes” really aren’t mistakes at all.

Certainly we writers do sometimes make boo-boos in our writing. Anytime one is feverishly typing — trying to get the words down before the muse snatches them away again — there is bound to be an occasional “your” slipping in where we meant “you’re.” (That’s why it’s so important for writers to get fresh eyes to proofread their final work.)

But many of the things the Grammar Police see as horrific errors are more examples of literary license and/or the evolution of language.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

1.  Sentence fragments are okay in fiction. Honest! They are. For emphasis. They should be used sparingly, but it really is okay to leave out the subject, or even the subject and the verb, or some other component of a grammatically-correct sentence, when writing fiction.

Read more…

 

Forget that image of Bruce Jenner and start writing

write write write copy By Ned Hickson

I’m going to open with a simple truth:

Step one to being a writer: Write!

That advice seems pretty straight forward. The kind of obvious straight forwardness that carries you with complete confidence toe-first into a brick. Like most advice we’re given, the wisdom behind it is simple; the problem comes in the execution.

And while there are countless books out there offering tips on everything from how to get inspired and avoid writer’s block to the kinds of foods that promote creative thinking (which, judging from what I read, you will be doing mostly while on the commode), all of those books essentially come down to one universal truth:

Nothing promotes and stimulates writing better than…

You guessed it:

Excessive drinking.

But let’s suppose you don’t want to become an alcoholic? Does that mean you’re not truly committed to being a writer? Could it jeopardize your dream of becoming a novelist, columnist, short story writer or inner city tagger?

Let me answer those questions by answering the single most important question you’re probably asking yourself right now:

Has HE been drinking?

Of course not. At least not yet.

I have four children, remember?

Regardless, my point is that the other universal truth to writing is this:

The fastest way to jumpstart the writing process is to put your fingers to the keyboard and just start writing.

I purposely sat down to write this post without any preparation. I did this to 1) challenge myself, and 2) because I really had no idea what I was going to write anyway, so it seemed like a good plan. To that end, I started putting words on the screen.

Did I take a wrong turn or two?

Absolutely.

But the beauty of writing is that — like the Kardashians — nothing is permanent, and you can easily fix imperfections by injecting or removing the things you don’t like. And many times, what you thought was going to be a wrong turn or dead end leads to a doorway you hadn’t expected — or at least a window you can jump out of.

Especially if you walk in on Bruce Jenner getting a body wax.

OK, in an effort to move on quickly from that image, how about a show of hands from anyone who has ever found themselves staring at a blank screen with their fingers poised over the keyboard, even if they have applied my advice?

Seriously, I’m watching, so get them up.

I ask this because, in spite of my advice, there are still times when you need to jump-start your jump start.

Something I’ve discovered from writing a daily blog is that the interaction with other writers on blogs and websites — whether replying to a comment or leaving one on another writer’s site — is a great way to grease the creative process.

… Great, just when we had gotten past that image of Bruce Jenner…

Sorry, everyone.

Anyway, starting your day with some social interaction at your computer not only gets you into writing position at the keyboard, but can get the creative process started by reading others’ work, getting inspired by it, and formulating responses or comments in a creative frame of mind.

Warning: Set a time limit!

As I can attest, it’s easy to lose track of time, or become so caught up in commenting and replying that your momentum is carried in the wrong direction. I usually give myself until I finish my first cup of coffee.

Which, by the way, I have switched from the giant 128-ounce Big Gulp size to a standard mug. Not only because I was using it as an excuse to blog until noon, but also because I discovered my bladder only holds 120 ounces.

Bottom line, once you’ve established a writing routine, solidify it by putting words on the page — whether for your actual writing project or during a social network warm-up — each time you sit down at the keyboard. Before you know it, your writing will be waiting for you in your mental queue at the same time each day.

Assuming you can get the image of Bruce Jenner out of your mind.

Again, my apologies for that.

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Me, myself and why: Learn to avoid yourself when writing in first-person

image By Ned Hickson
First, I’d like to point out that this week’s topic actually came from blogger Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who asked:

What are the compositional and elemental changes in astral rock once it passes through a solar flare?

Since she is the first person to ever ask me that question, we will be talking about first-person perspective in writing, and why it’s important to avoid overuse of “I” “Me” “My” and “Astral Rock.”

First, let’s do a quick overview of the four main voices authors use when writing:

1) Omniscient — This is the all-seeing God-like voice, which was coincidentally used by my ex-wife. Haha! Just kidding! (she probably heard that). This voice allows the author unlimited access to any character, timeframe, observation and inner monologue…

I am the all-powerful, all-knowing Omniscient Voice! I can be anywhere I want, any time I want, with access to anything I want, including any gas station restroom without lugging a key attached to the rim of a 1974 Gremlin!

2) First-Person — For many reasons, this is the most common voice writers use. It establishes a sense of immediacy and connection by allowing the author to speak from a singular perspective, therefore keeping the reader privy to only the main character’s knowledge and thoughts. It’s an especially effective choice for writers with a strong, stylish voice. If William Hung is reading this, I would highly discourage you from taking this approach…

I am First-Person perspective! Everything is in relation to me, my thoughts, and what I say. I hope you like me. If not, I will try telling you even more about me so I can bond with you, but not in an E.L. James kind of way… which reminds me, have I told you what my new safe word is? That’s right! “Me!”

More on this in a bit.

3) Third-Person — Think of it as the demi-God of Omniscient Voice; it has some God-like powers by allowing the author to shift points of view — but to a limited capacity. All observations, thoughts and dialogue must be linked to character perspectives. There is no external narrative and limited opportunity for foreshadowing. The advantage is that it allows more exploration of characters and situations than First-Person, but without the additional burden of establishing an Omniscient narrative. William Hung, if you’re still reading, think of it as you singing, but with a choice of back-up singers to drown out your voice…

I am Third-Person perspective! I can do things that mortal First-Person can’t do, but I will never live up to the expectations of my Omniscient-Voice father! Stop talking to yourself, Third Person! Sorry Dad! *whimpers*

And finally,

4) Last-Person perspective — The least popular and most difficult technique a writer can attempt, mostly because Last-Person voice always goes something like this…

I just got here, so what did I miss? WHAT?! Why am I ALWAYS the last person to know!

Now that we’ve established a basic overview of the four main voices authors utilize, let’s focus on today’s topic: Writing in the First-Person perspective. The same things that make writing from the First-Person so effective in establishing a relationship with your reader can just as quickly end that relationship — for the same reason many relationships end: Too much focus on “Me,” “My” and “I.”

Although improper handling of the toilet seat is a close second.

According to the word count indicator, we are 684 words into this post. Including the references I’m about to make, the “I” or “Me” words have been used nine times. And because I know some of you are now going back to count, I’ll wait here…

…Okay, fine. Ten times.

The point is, one of the easiest ways for a columnist to avoid too many “I” references is to replace them with “We” when possible. Not only do you cut down on the “I” words, but you also make the reader feel they are part of what’s happening. Assuming they want to, which isn’t always the case with my readers.

But you get the idea.

While this technique doesn’t necessarily apply to novel writing, the basic principles of avoiding too many references to yourself are the same. Let’s take that last paragraph and change it to how it could have been written by using more “I” words…

MY point is, one of the easiest ways for ME to avoid too many “I” references is by replacing them with “We” whenever I can. Not only do I cut down on the “I” words, but it also helps ME make the MY readers feel they are part of what I’M writing…

Have you seen paragraphs like that before? I mean, other than in the last 15 seconds? It makes you want to stop reading because the writer is talking at you instead of with you. This brings us back to the relationship analogy, and why it’s important to look at your writing — whether it be a column, blog post or novel — as a conversation with someone you are in a relationship with. Because you are. If you’re doing all the talking, the other person will stop engaging in the conversation and, eventually, they will find someone else. Probably at a book store. A lot of authors make the mistake of viewing their writing as a one sided conversation. This is particularly easy to do when writing in the First-Person voice.

So how do you avoid too many “I” references while still establishing your voice? Again, it’s relationship time. Once you’ve written your first draft, go back over it with your reader in mind and eliminate those “I” references — either with a simple “We” fix or, if necessary, by re-working the passages to be more inclusive.

That said, avoid going to the polar opposite with your revisions because again, just like in a relationship, you don’t want to lose yourself entirely.

For more on this, watch any season of The Bachelor.

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

The Best Writing Tips

One of my most popular blog posts included quotations by famous authors, so I thought I’d share them again on The Write Stuff. The original post (with pictures and more text) can be found here: Writing Tips

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Jack London

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” Barbara Kingsolver

“If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King

“Beginning writers must appreciate the prerequisites if they hope to become writers. You pay your dues—which takes years.” Alex Haley

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” William Faulkner

“You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.” Phyllis A. Whitney

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry David Thoreau

“My aim is to put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.” Ernest Hemingway

“I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” H.G. Wells

“Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.” Ezra Pound

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Robert Frost

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” E.L. Doctorow

“As for the adjective, when in doubt leave it out.” Mark Twain

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” Kurt Vonnegut

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.” John Steinbeck

“There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.” E. B. White

“When you get in a tight place & everything goes against you, till it seems you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place & time that the tide will turn.”  Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Shut down the internet, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write. Hopefully, when the timer goes off, you will be involved in your story enough to keep going.” Marcia Strykowski

Do publishers really give a [Tweet] about a writer’s social media presence?

image By Ned Hickson

Welcome to this week’s writing tip, which is advice 50 Shades author E.L. James has called “My literary yardstick, which I’d like to break over someone’s…”

But enough accolades!

This week’s writing topic was actually suggested by talented writer, mom and blogger Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who asked:

Dear Mr. Hickson: Does having a blog help or hinder getting published?

She followed this up a short time later, after what I’m guessing was a glass or two of wine, with a more specific question:

Listen here, Neddy-O: Do you think publishers really give a [TWEET] about a writer’s social media presence? DO you? And hey, is it just me or does Thor’s hair need some de-tangler?

The short answer to Michelle’s question is that, while there are certainly arguments for and against the merits of the exposure one gets from traveling between worlds, most women wouldn’t care if Thor was bald. Ok, no woman really cares.

The long answer, as you might’ve guessed, is a little more complicated and actually has nothing to do with Thor’s choice of hair products. Though I realize that most women have stopped reading this post to Google Chris Hemsworth — Fine, all women — I still plan to answer Michelle’s question regarding the value of social media in the eyes of publishers who, coincidentally, almost never look like Thor.

On the surface, the advantages of establishing a blog and linking it to social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, MySpace and others seems pretty obvious. The bigger your presence in the cyberworld and the larger your following, the more likely your book will catch on and be embraced in the world that truly counts: The buying world.

For those who thought I was going to say the world of “Asgard,” I really need you to close that Chris Hemsworth window on your monitor.

Keep in mind that, particularly for a writer without a previous track record, a large online readership can get a publisher or agent to at least raise an eyebrow after reading a well-written query letter or email about your book. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to include direct links to your blog and other active social media sites at the end of your query, as well as a link to a sample chapter online. Unless specifically requested, don’t ever include an attachment with your emailed query; emails with attachments that actually make it past SPAM filters are routinely deleted. Even if you know the recipient is a female and you type “Thor” in the subject line.

While having a large online presence certainly doesn’t hurt, publishers also know that pushing the “like” or “follow” button is fast becoming a conditioned response which, more often than not, happens without a visitor even thinking about it. This obviously doesn’t includes anyone who visits THIS site, but you get the idea: Having 5,000 followers does not translate into 5,000 book sales.

However, there is another “plus” to building an online presence that tends to get overlooked but can be especially encouraging to an agent. Sure, having a large readership may or may not be a true reflection of the number of actual devoted readers you have, but the quality of your writing and regularity in which you post will speak for themselves. Notice I didn’t say “frequency” in which you post. An agent or publisher isn’t as interested in how often you publish as they are about your adherence to posting quality work on a regular basis.

My blog is an obvious exception to this rule.

I’d like to thank Michelle at MamaMickTerry for suggesting this week’s topic. I’d also like to thank Chris Hemsworth for giving me yet another reason to keep my gym membership.

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

Writers who don’t talk to themselves scare me

image By Ned Hickson

Whether you’re a novelist, columnist, poet or Subway sandwich artist, talking to yourself during the creative process is important. Admittedly, I can only speak with some authority on the first three; that last example is mostly an observation based on the two Subways in our area. Regardless, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I think every good writer needs a certain level of multiple personality disorder with a dash of schizophrenia. That’s because, as a writer, you need to have the ability to do more than simply observe and notate things about people and situations; you have to be able to inhabit them in the same way that, say… Justin Beiber inhabits his role as a skinny caucasian gangster.

Except unlike Justin Beiber, you must be believable.

To do this, you have to be willing — and able — to step outside yourself and literally experience things as someone else in order to formulate reactions and dialogue that ring true. Even as a columnist, I have a few individuals who make appearances from time to time because they allow me to approach a subject more effectively than through simple narrative.

One of these individuals is Ima Knowitall, the “self-proclaimed best selling author” behind the novel, Fifty Shades of Time-Traveling Vampire Love.

Confession time: I’m not actually a 30-something, pessimistic female writer who wants so much to believe in her own fame that she constantly projects a facade of celebrity to the point of ludicrousness.

If you need a moment to fully process this realization, I understand. My wife was pretty shaken by my big reveal as well, once we took the leap from Match.com to meeting for the first time seven years ago…

Welcome back! (Coincidentally, the same words I used at the beginning of our second date.)

As I was saying, Ima Knowitall is an individual I turn to when I feel that exploring an idea is better suited — and more engaging for readers — if they feel like an active participant in the conversation. That’s where multiple personality disorder comes into play. Even if what you’re writing is an over-the-top character or situation, readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief as long as there is an element of truth. Screenwriters for sci-fi, horror and action movies constantly rely on this element to convince viewers to go along for the ride.

And that element is the believability of your characters.

In order to make an individual like Ima Knowitall work, three things need to happen:

1) What she says and does must stay true to her character
2) My reactions and responses to her as the “interviewer” must embellish, not contradict her
3) Anyone else we “interact with” must do the same

To pull that off, you have to engage your MPD in order to shift your points of view convincingly from one individual to the next. For novelists, this is the first step in graduating from linear plot-driven writing to richer, character-driven stories.

Or in the case of a humor columnist, the first step toward a life of alcohol abuse.

Which brings me to the effectiveness of talking to yourself. First, let me clarify this shouldn’t occur in a room full of strangers or, for example, while making someone’s Cold Cut Combo at Subway. But when utilized as a tool in the privacy of your own home or office — or even during your morning commute if you pretend to have a Bluetooth — actually verbalizing dialogue is the best way to hear if it rings true. Not only will it identify phrasing that would be too difficult for someone to say (Note: This does not apply to characters written by Aaron Sorkin), it can also be an integral part of “inhabiting” that individual in the same way an actor verbally explores a script to understand delivery and motivation.

My fellow journalists in the newsroom have become accustomed to my mumblings on deadline days. Even if I’m in the break room making a sandwich…

image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Visit his blog at Ned’s Blog)

Do You Have A Favorite Blog for Grammar Tips?

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One of the things I’d like to do with this blog, is share resources with each other, especially ones that are thorough, yet easy to understand. Most of you are probably a lot younger than I, so this might not be quite as big of a problem, but I went to high school a very long time ago…graduated in 1962, to be exact. (Your math is correct. That’s more than 50 years ago!) But my point is that my English, while better than average, probably, is far less than perfect. And for me, good grammar is essential when writing a book. Don’t ever think that people won’t notice, because they do. And they mention things like that in reviews, which are so important to the sale of your books. So, unless you are an English teacher (and maybe even then, on occasion), you are going to want to have a quick and easy reference to grammar rules close at hand.

I have my trusty copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style on my desktop, of course. (I firmly believe every writer needs a copy of that.) But I often head to websites and blogs that provide quick and easy to remember ways of refreshing the rules for me. One of the most useful blogs I’ve found is C. S. Lakin’s  blog, Live, Write Thrive. She has some of the best and easiest ways to remember grammar rules, plus she gives fantastic advice on plotting, structure, and other topics we writers often want to learn more about. 

When I Google for something like “the difference between affect and effect,” say, I frequently end up on Grammar Girl’s site, too, though I have to say, the page itself has gotten a bit unwieldy for me these days, with a ton of pop-ups and a less user-friendly interface than it once had. That could just be my browser, perhaps. But there’s a lot of great info to be found there.

I’d love to know what resources you’ve found that you can’t live without. I’m talking quick and easy references here, as opposed to the larger writing forums out there. Is there a blog, bulletin board, or website you use regularly? Inquiring minds wanna know! 🙂