Using Writing Sprints for Consistent Results

We’re far enough out from New Year’s that our excitement over making and meeting writing goals may have waned, and we find ourselves slacking. You know what can help boost your output? Writing sprints. Whether you choose a goal based on time or word count, working in sprints can maximize your time and build consistency into your daily writing routine. Paul Bonea is here to show us how they work.

One of the more difficult things to do when it comes to writing is to maintain consistency and structure to your schedule. This is especially true if writing isn’t what you do (yet) for a living, when regular jobs and chores can quickly sidetrack you. 

One solution to reach daily consistency with your writing is to work in quick sprints, with firm but easy-to-reach objectives. Once you reach these objectives, you’ve finished writing for the day. How ambitious your objectives are should depend on your own circumstances, such as how much time you have, energy levels, time of day, etc.

The objectives themselves can be set up as either time based, where you allocate a certain amount of time to write each day, or word count based, where the goal is to write X amount of words daily. 

Time-Based Sprints

The greatest advantage to writing a set number of hours or minutes per day is that it is psychologically sustainable. You don’t feel pressured by a hard word count you must meet and instead can just apply yourself at a comfortable pace in order to find that right combination of words.

This is especially useful when writing difficult scenes or passages, where the wording is critical to create the right impact. It’s easily possible for one such passage or scene to slow down your writing from 800-1000 words per day to 200-300. During these slow days, a daily word count target can be stress-inducing since it can make you feel you’ve made very little to no progress.

A time-based approach bypasses this issue by measuring your efforts instead of your results. Even a bad writing day (with little inspiration and ideas) can feel rewarding—like a step in the right direction—if you know you’ve hit your 60-minute or 90-minute writing time. 

A pitfall to this method is that distractions can quickly eat up your allocated time. 3-5 minutes spent browsing social media, another 5-10 while you eat something can quickly add up and defeat the purpose of setting time limits. The only way to counteract this and prevent you from stealing your own hat is being disciplined to stick to the clock. 

Another potential issue you might face is the inconsistent amount of actual writing you produce. In three consecutive days, you may write 300, 1000, and 100 words. When you measure performance in effort rather than results, it’s easy to trick yourself into doing just the bare minimum to qualify. 

Word-Count Sprints

The good old words-per-day system is the traditional measuring stick because, in the long term, it works (as long as you stick to it).

A word-count sprint has simple principles: you set yourself a target amount of words to write for the day and don’t stop until you’ve achieved that. The major challenge when using this method is to figure how much or how little your can write on a daily basis. This is entirely dependent on your own personal circumstances, writing style, and even personality. 

A quick Google search will show that many big-name writers hover around 1000 to 2000 words daily. 1000 words might not sound like a particularly difficult target, but unless you write full-time you might not have the time nor the energy to produce this amount of output. 

Setting up too-lofty goals and not being able to achieve them is a guaranteed way of frustrated yourself. The point of a daily word-count sprint isn’t to force you to write as much as possible as quickly as possible; instead, it’s supposed to foster consistency in your routine. In an ideal situation, you want to create a sustainable word-count target that is challenging but easy enough to reach every day, any day, for as long as you want without burning you out.

However, one possible concern with this method is that you just churn out the words to hit your target while tossing quality out the window. Many a good book has withered by drowning in needless words, passages, and redundant explanations.  The only way around this solution is to be aware of any tendency you might have of fattening things up and then cut things down in editing. 

On the flipside, the gentle stress of a word count can actually stimulate your creativity to the point where most of your output is solid.

What System Does This Writer Use?

Over the years, I’ve used both of these systems with great results. From personal experience I can say that time-based writing sprints are great when you have a tight schedule and cannot commit yourself fully to writing. While it’s not much, finding a 30-minute or one-hour block and squeezing in as much writing as possible can lead to a few hundred words here and there. However, over a two- or three-month period, they quickly stack up, and before you know it, you’ve made real progress.

When my schedule is clear and I can fully focus on writing, I almost always default to word-count sprints. I have found that overall, they help me cover more ground much faster than timed blocks, even if they can be more mentally draining.  

And now, it’s your turn. Have you used writing sprints in your daily routine? Which do you prefer, and why?

Paul Bonea is the author of Hasty Reader, a blog centered around books, self-improvement and science articles, where he reads and extracts the most useful information a reader can use in his life journey.

Posted in Goal and Milestones, Time Management, Writing Craft, Writing Time | 6 Comments

Critiques 4 U—with a BIG Bonus! ~CONTEST CLOSED~

It’s time for our monthly critique contest, and boy do I have exciting news for you! Former Resident Writing Coach Sara Letourneau, who has her own editing and coaching business, reached out to see if she could maybe do some critiques on our next contest, and I jumped at the chance. I mean, a professional editor providing you guys with feedback on your first pages? Absolutely, 1000 times, yes!

If you’re game, here’s the amazing person you’ll be working with:

Sara Letourneau is a poet, freelance editor, and writing coach based in Massachusetts. At her company Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services, she offers editing and creative coaching packages for authors, poets, and other storytellers. Her editing offerings in particular range from in-depth manuscript critiques and developmental editing to basic copy editing and proofreading. She specializes in fantasy, speculative fiction, YA, and literary fiction, though she’s happy to work on other projects that seem like a good fit. You might also recognize Sara from her previous posts as a Resident Writing Coach here at Writers Helping Writers, or at her bimonthly column on literary themes at DIY MFA.

Visit the Heart of the Story website to learn more about working with Sara, or her writer website to read some of her poetry and freelance writing.

Contest Guidelines

This month’s contest will work exactly the same as it usually does, only Sara will be the one contacting you if you win.

If you’re working on a first page (in any genre except erotica) and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment. Any comment :). As long as the email address associated with your WordPress account/comment profile is up-to-date, Sara will be able to contact you if your first page is chosen. Just please know that if she’s unable to get in touch with you through that address, you’ll have to forfeit your win.

Please be sure your first page is ready to go so she can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to her right away, let me ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of.

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, Sara will be in contact to get your first page and offer her feedback. Best of luck!

Posted in Uncategorized | 59 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Paleontologist

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. 

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Paleontologist

Overview: A paleontologist is someone who looks for fossils that may be (dinosaur bones, eggs, egg fragments, fossilized wood, excrement, leaves, footprints, and various other vertebrate and invertebrates). The work is slow and taxing, involving countless hours of sifting through layers of dirt and rock to uncover fossils to determine their age, and whether they originated from land or sea.

Paleontologists travel to interesting locations (living simply while doing so) and may also work onsite with archeologists (who study ancient civilizations) by analyzing animal remains found in these areas. This will help archeologists understand the diet of that time period. Others may teach, write and publish papers, run educational programs, organize collections and maintain exhibits, work in museums, or do research for private companies. The hours can be long, and the pay is not always a lot, but the work is rewarding for those who love uncovering the mysteries of the past and getting the chance to prove one’s theories and possibly make a new discovery.

Necessary Training: A person can practice paleontology without a degree, but to gain employment, a degree in geology with courses in paleontology, a master’s degree, or a doctorate in paleontology is likely needed. Not many universities offer degree programs in paleontology, so if education is a component of your story, make sure to research schools in the real world.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, a knack for making money, basic first aid, carpentry, exceptional memory, fishing, foraging, gaining the trust of others, photographic memory, predicting the weather, promotion, sculpting, strategic thinking, wilderness navigation, writing

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, adventurous, ambitious, analytical, cautious, cooperative, curious, diplomatic, disciplined, efficient, focused, independent, intelligent, meticulous, nature-focused, objective, observant, optimistic, organized, passionate, patient, persistent, resourceful, responsible, simple, studious

NEGATIVE: fussy, nosy, obsessive, perfectionist, workaholic

Sources of Friction: Losing your funding for a dig, the stress of not producing results (that will ensure continued funding), inclement weather, theft at a dig site, loneliness, working with others if there are personality conflicts, illnesses contracted while in an exotic location (malaria, parasites, etc), suffering an injury and being far from adequate medical help, accidentally damaging a find, relationship struggles resulting from being away for long periods of time

People They Might Interact With: archeologists, students, interns, laborers, drivers, university staff, editors, researchers, locals (for obtaining resources, information, shelter, guiding, etc.)

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Paleontologists that dream of making a new discovery or proving a theory might becomes discouraged because they are so focused on the end result and so not draw satisfaction from their career as they believed they would
  • Esteem and Recognition: Characters in this field may struggle if others are making interesting discoveries (and being acknowledged for them) while they are not, leading them to question their own abilities, lowering self-esteem
  • Love and Belonging: This career may create challenges for characters who are always away on digs rather than spending time with their significant other
  • Safety and Security: Funding can be a constant area of struggle, and make income less secure

Common Work-Related Settings: ancient ruins, arctic tundra, badlands, campsite, canyon, cave, country road, creek, desert, hiking trail, lake, mountains, old pick-up truck, quarry, teacher’s lounge, university quad, waterfall, workshop

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Struggling with Writing Flashbacks? Try Using the P.A.S.T. Method 

Hi everyone! Today we have a past Resident Writing Coach visiting us: Sara Letourneau, editor and owner of Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. She’s sharing some terrific insight on flashbacks, so please read on!

Flashbacks can be tricky to write. On one hand, they can reveal a powerful emotional moment from the protagonist’s past or reveal important information about her, her circumstances, or other characters. But on the other hand, they can lack urgency, become confused with the present-day narrative, or seem more like backstory. So for your readers to believe the flashbacks matter just as much as what’s happening in the protagonist’s life right now, you’ll need to craft those scenes with intention, skill, and care.

Again, sounds challenging, right? Don’t worry, though. This is where the P.A.S.T. Method comes in.

What is the P.A.S.T. Method, you might be wondering? It’s a simple mnemonic tool to help you remember four techniques for crafting effective and powerful flashbacks. Here’s what each letter stands for:

P: Purpose

A: Attention

S: Switch

T: Transition

Let’s go over each one in more detail.

P is for Purpose, or Ensure Each Flashback Has a Purpose

Every flashback should have a reason for being in the story. Whatever that reason may be, it should be clear to the reader immediately or (if the flashbacks tell a story or reveal clues for a revelation) sometime within the sequence of memories.

One way of ensuring each flashback has a purpose is to ask yourself, “What is the purpose of sharing this memory with the reader? How is it important to the story?” Your answers will likely include one or more of the following objectives for flashbacks:

  • It helps explain how the protagonist’s current dilemma developed.
  • It offers clues that, by the end of the story, will reveal a secret or shocking truth that the protagonist currently isn’t aware of.
  • It illuminates the protagonist’s relationships with other characters.
  • It shares critical details about the protagonist’s backstory, historical information, or a fictional setting’s worldbuilding.
  • It contributes to the story’s themes in some way.

Here are two examples of purposeful flashbacks from published novels:

  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys: At first, Lina’s flashbacks of the months leading up to her deportation with her brother and her mother from Lithuania to Russia seem like “slices of life.” But in reality, they offer hints that help Lina (and the reader) discover why she and her family were been deported and why her father was separated from them.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: During the Reaping scene (when Katniss and Peeta are selected to participate in the Games), Katniss recalls the rainy day when Peeta, a baker’s son, gave her two loaves of bread and how Katniss’s family had been on the verge of starvation up to that point. This introduces Peeta as a kind, generous young man despite his circumstances, and provides much-needed backstory about Katniss and her family as well as additional worldbuilding details.

A is for Attention, or Give Each Flashback the Attention (a.k.a. Length and Depth) It Deserves

Recently I read a book where select chapters for one POV character began with flashbacks about each of the character’s seven adoptive fathers. The purpose of these flashbacks was clear (to show each father’s influence on the character), but the flashbacks themselves were… well, not all that interesting.

Why? Because the flashbacks didn’t go into enough depth. Rather than offering details that showed the character’s relationship with each father, each memory summarized the relationship in a couple paragraphs and focused more on elaborate prose than specifics. In this way, the author glosses over each relationship, and readers aren’t able to witness or experience the character’s bond (or lack thereof) with each father. It even made me question whether those relationships mattered to the character – and why the flashbacks were there to begin with.

It’s true that we can’t recall all the bits and pieces of our own memories. But if an event from the past evokes strong emotions in us, we often remember it clearly for a long time. The same goes for our characters. When you include enough dialogue, sensory details, brief setting descriptions, and significant objects in a flashback, you accomplish two important feats:

  1. You show the reader why the protagonist cares about this moment from her past.
  2. You give the reader a reason to care about that flashback and feel more endeared to that character.

And nurturing that character-reader bond is one of the most crucial parts of story-writing, right?

S is for Switch, or Use Clues in the Text to Indicate the Switch from Present to Past… or Not

When writing flashbacks, it’s a good idea to use “visual” cues in the text to signal the change from past to present. This will make it clear to readers that what the protagonist is about to share isn’t part of the present-day narrative.

You can indicate this switch in two ways:

  1. Change the Verb Tense: If the main storyline is written in present tense (is, eats, asks), write the flashbacks in simple past tense (was, ate, asked). And if the main storyline is in past tense, use the past perfect (had been, had eaten, had asked) for the first few verbs in the flashback, then switch back to simple past until the last few verbs, when you switch again to past perfect to signal that the flashback is ending.
  2. Make the Flashback Its Own Scene: Sometimes it helps to set off a lengthy flashback as a separate scene from the present-day scene that “triggers” it (more on this shortly). You can usually achieve this with a simple line break. If you want to emphasize the change further, use an ornamental symbol in the middle of the line break and/or italicized text for the flashback.

What if, however, your intention is to blur the lines between memory and reality? In that case, you can play with these rules to your liking, maybe by alternating between past and present tense or crafting ambiguous transitions between flashbacks and the current-day storyline. Be careful, though. This approach can give a distorted, disjointed tone that might not be appropriate for the story. It needs to fit the character’s circumstances, the plot, and themes, like with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In each novel, the protagonist experiences frequent flashbacks because of the grimness of their present – and when the distinction between those flashbacks and reality becomes less distinct, it heightens each character’s sense of nostalgia in surreal and terrifying ways that fit each story perfectly.

T is for Transition, or Craft Your Flashback Transitions Carefully

Just as how each flashback serves a purpose, the transition from the story’s “real-time” to that flashback should make sense. Something in the current scene should trigger the memory: another character’s words, the task at hand, an eerily similar setting or situation, or even a hand gesture. Between Shades of Gray features excellent examples of these skillful transitions, including this excerpt that shifts from Lina’s present situation to a memory of her cutting her father’s hair.

I thought about Papa. Did he know about the war? Did he know we all had lice? …. Did he know how much I missed him? I clutched the handkerchief in my pocket, thinking of Papa’s smiling face.

~

“Hold still!” I complained.

“I had an itch,” my father said, grinning. (Page 73)

See what Sepetys does here? She uses Lina’s longing for her father (whom she’s separated from in the main story) and her current health predicament as a launching pad for the flashback, which involves both her father and hair. Plus, the questions Lina asks herself about her father and his well-being create a natural path to her thinking of his smile and then to the haircut memory.

So when writing your own flashbacks, make sure the trigger for each one is in some way related to the character’s current circumstances. This will create a transition from the main story to the past that’s not only logical, but also smooth and seamless.

How do you use the four parts of the P.A.S.T. Method to write flashbacks? Do you find it challenging or easy to effectively incorporate flashbacks into the present-day narrative? What other tips would you add?

Bio: Sara Letourneau is the independent editor and writing coach behind Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. She offers a wide range of editing packages and one-on-one coaching to help writers tell compelling and well-crafted stories, finish (or get started on) their projects, and develop greater trust in their creativity. She is also a columnist at DIY MFA, an insatiable reader, and a poet whose work has been published in various literary journals. Visit the Heart of the Story website to learn more about working with Sara, or her writer website to read some of her work.

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Posted in Backstory, Characters, Flashbacks, Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 11 Comments

Goal-Oriented Storytelling: Novelty

In the first post of my four-part series, I introduced ANTS, my framework for helping storytellers make strategic choices that increase reader engagement. ANTS stands for the effects a storyteller should seek to cultivate in their story: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. Last time, I covered the basics of attachment. Now it’s time for a closer look at novelty.

Novelty comes in countless forms. It’s found in jokes that make us laugh, uncanny description that creeps us out, and deep characters that fascinate us. It holds up the monsters that scare us and the mysteries that fill us with awe. It’s so varied, I wouldn’t blame you for wondering how I could possibly classify all those elements as the same thing. But regardless of the form, novelty reveals itself by generating an early burst of interest that fades quickly with exposure. Jokes are never as funny after being retold a dozen times. Monsters aren’t as scary once we become familiar with them. Novelty is embodied by ideas that are new and unexpected.

In many ways, this makes it the opposite of attachment. Whereas attachment takes time to establish but can endure long after, novelty is instant but ephemeral. That also means novelty is the most viral of the ANTS effects. Look at any instant online sensation, and you’ll see novelty is the key ingredient. For a meme to go viral, it has to engage people after a brief glance, but once someone shares it, it doesn’t matter if they forget about it a few seconds later.

In writing circles, we don’t discuss novelty that often, but we do have a special slur for its opposite: cliché. A writing cliché is an idea that has been repeated so often it has a novelty deficit – not only offering no entertainment value, but also being actively tiresome. While most storytellers are taught to avoid clichés, we receive less instruction on cultivating novelty. So how do we do that?

Technically, any part of a story can be crafted to feel novel, whether it’s creative description, witty dialogue, or an unexpected plot twist. However, different genres have different conventions for producing novelty. I specialize in speculative fiction genres such as fantasy and science fiction, which create novelty primarily through worldbuilding. We love fairies, zombies, and Mars colonies precisely because they don’t exist. The real is familiar and, therefore, less novel.

Many other genres put more emphasis on unique and complex characters as a way to generate novelty. If you look at a cross section of fictional crime shows, you’ll see a pattern of giving detectives wildly different backgrounds and traits. This sleuth is a human lie detector, that one is a bone analyst, the next is the devil himself. In the currently running series iZombie, the main character is a zombie who solves crimes by eating the brains of murder victims. By doing this, she gains memories she can use to solve crimes and acquires personality traits from her last meal. So not only is the detective and her method of solving crimes fresh, but the premise also provides more variety from episode to episode.

Since it comes in so many forms, adding novelty is often as simple as making your story stand out from the pack. However, your fresh ideas must have more than a superficial presence in your story. Imagine that you were excited by the idea of a zombie detective, but once you started watching the show, you found that the main character was like any other person. While technically a zombie, she solves crimes the standard way and she’s never tempted to eat anyone’s brain. That would be disappointing. Instead, novelty must be brought to life with a wealth of relevant detail. Viewers of a zombie detective story will want to see how being a zombie changes everything from her personal relationships to her morning routine. This is where all those lessons on showing vs telling will come in handy.

Unfortunately, novelty only lasts for as long as you work at it. A fascinating premise may provide entertainment for the length of a short story, but it’s unlikely to last for a whole novel. To keep it going, you must continually introduce fresh elements. For instance, each book in the Harry Potter series describes new creatures, spells, and other unexpected aspects of the world. However, in many works, including the Harry Potter series, novelty also becomes less important as the story continues. As novelty fades, attachment and tension rise, keeping readers engaged.

While novelty is an essential means of entertaining readers, it can be equally helpful for writers to understand how novelty affects their work habits. Many writers get caught in a cycle of moving from one new idea to the next, never finishing anything. A common cause of this pattern is relying too much on novelty for motivation. Cool ideas may get us started on a new story, but sticking with it over months or years often requires an emotional connection to our work. While novelty is fun, it’s not usually meaningful.

In my next post in this series, I’ll cover the ANTS effect that cuts both ways: tension. See you in June!

Chris Winkle is the editor-in-chief of Mythcreants, an online magazine dedicated to fantasy and science fiction storytelling. You can read more of her articles on writing or listen to her talk about stories on The Mythcreant Podcast.
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Posted in Cliches, Reader Interest, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 8 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Animal Trainer

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Overview: Animal trainers teach animals in a variety of ways—to make them better pets, train them for entertainment purposes, or develop them into service or work animals. They may choose to work with dogs, horses, marine species, exotic animals, or any animals needing training (such as those being used in a movie). Marine trainers will likely work at a zoo or aquarium, horse trainers may work at farms, stables, or a personal residence, and dog trainers may work out of a vet’s office, doggy day care, animal shelter, or in the home. People pursuing this profession may be employed by an animal organization (such as the zoo or shelter) or be self-employed.

Necessary Training: Trainers working with marine animals are often required to have a degree in an animal related field, such as marine biology, veterinary studies, or animal studies. This kind of four-year-degree can also be helpful in other training fields, but a high school diploma is usually all that’s required, though further certifications and a certain amount of on-the-job experience will be necessary.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A way with animals, basic first aid, empathy, gaining the trust of others, mentalism

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Affectionate, alert, calm, centered, disciplined, empathetic, enthusiastic, gentle, kind, loyal, nurturing, observant, passionate, patient, persistent, persuasive, playful, resourceful, socially aware, trusting

Sources of Friction: Being injured by an animal, being hired to work with an animal that is difficult to train (due to low intelligence, stubbornness, a neurotic disposition, etc.), the heartbreak of dealing with neglected or abused animals, suspecting an owner of abuse, owners with unrealistic expectations for their animals, one’s work with an animal being undone due to inconsistency or poor practices on the owner’s part, working with an aggressive or dominant animal, realizing that an animal is untrainable and having to break the news to the owner, vouching for an animal and having it attack or injure someone, the untimely death of an animal, an injury or chronic illness that makes one’s job difficult, social difficulties that make it hard to communicate with clients

People They Might Interact With: Animal owners, veterinarians, shelter workers, other employees (if they work at a facility), other trainers

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Esteem and Recognition: This occupation doesn’t pay a whole lot, so the character’s esteem could take a hit if they’re unable to live out their preferred lifestyle, or if other people look down on them for their humble financial status.
  • Love and Belonging: Animal trainers are animal lovers. If they pair up with a love interest who hates animals, this could spell trouble for the relationship.
  • Safety and Security: There are many ways a trainer could be injured or infected on the job, so their safety and security could easily be impacted should things go south while working with an animal.
  • Physiological Needs: It’s rare that trainers are killed, but it does happen, so this is a possibility.

Common Work-Related Settings: Amusement park, backyard, barn, big city street, circus, county fair, farm, living room, pasture, pet store, race track (horses), ranch, small town street, vet clinic, waiting room, zoo

Twisting the Fictional Stereotype: Animal trainers are usually nurturing but disciplined types—gentle but firm. Consider throwing some unusual character traits into the mix to set yours apart: quirky, whimsical, disorganized, or antisocial.

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Layering Character for Believable Fiction

Layering: the deepest, richest, most compelling aspect of character 

We hear a lot of talk about “layering” as a storytelling device. The more layers a character has, the more complex and individual they are, allowing authors to sidestep cliché and create cast members that are interesting, unique, and compelling. So let’s talk about some effective ways that we can use layering with our characters.

Layering Character with Behavior

All layering is based in the character’s needs.

Louisa May Alcott created layers to Jo March. We all believe Jo is gutsy, tough, smart, creative, and adventurous. Heck, yes. She put the “Oh, boy!” in tomboy. So what gives Jo her layering?

Her tenderness.

Sometimes Jo is wreaking havoc with Laurie, sometimes sassing Marmee, and sometimes swashbuckling around taking off pirate heads in the most dastardly, unladylike way.

However, when Beth is dying, Jo drops everything—reading to her, caring for her, holding her hand and watching her slip away with tears in her eyes. 

This is the layering that makes Jo a three-dimensional character and allows her to step off the page into the lives of her readers. 

We really do vacillate between our tough outer shells and the things that move our hearts. We do both flout authority and spontaneously give of ourselves. We do both make stupid mistakes and accidentally create flashes of light in another’s darkness. These details—the ways in which we act out our values— are the stuff of fiction.

Layering Character with Confusion

Eugene Henderson is an extraordinarily ordinary person. He’s a hearty, good-natured American businessperson who goes on business trips. In fact, he goes on a business trip to Africa. 

When Saul Bellow sent him, in Henderson the Rain King, on a bizarre pilgrimage into the African foothills in search of an elusive tribe, he wanted Henderson blind to himself because he knew that confusion often leads to epiphany.

So he gave Henderson surface motivation to venture into that African wilderness. But he also gave him hidden motivation, a reason for going on this pilgrimage that an ordinary man like Henderson wouldn’t have: an unacknowledged longing to discover something more in life. 

Eventually, the confusion Henderson has about his own hidden side leads him not only to the obscure tribe, but to the tribe’s inexplicable ritual for calling rain, a ritual in which Henderson—precisely because of the qualities of innocent heartiness and good nature that make a him an ordinary businessperson—becomes inevitably entangled.

And the next thing Henderson knows, he’s gotten into an experience that would be strange as hell even for the most conscientiously bizarre. Henderson has accidentally become the tribe’s new Rain King.

Henderson’s transformation from ordinary businessperson to African Rain King is so implausible that it would be simply impossible if it weren’t for Bellows’ meticulous, matter-of-fact record of significant details, which allows the reader to experience the transformation with exactly the same level of oblivion and insight as Henderson. By the time Bellows is done with us, we are Henderson the Rain King, trapped in an inexplicable reality from which we have no escape. 

Layering Character with Two Classical Needs

Vincent Parry is a canonical protagonist, caught between his need to live and his need to love. And I can’t begin to tell you how much fiction—great literature, pulp—has been created through layering these two most classical needs: survival and love.

David Goodis sent Parry into his story in Dark Passage, as so many protagonists are sent, running for his life from very real danger on page one. Violence! Injustice! Death! Oh, no

We all believe enthusiastically in a character’s need to survive.

At the same time, almost the first person Parry meets is a babe. Flirtation! Sex! Passion! 

We also believe with all our hearts in a character’s need to love.

So Parry’s two conflicting needs are not unique to him at all. They’re common to every human animal. Back and forth, throughout the story, Goodis tosses Parry between these two most classical needs: survival, love—survival, love.

Every time Parry thinks he’s on top of survival, something crops up in his need for love: his best friend dies mysteriously shortly after Parry visits him, then a woman he once rejected surfaces.

And every time Parry thinks he’s on top of love, his life is threatened again: a Nosy Parker turns up, someone begins stalking Parry and the babe.

Until eventually Parry must choose between his safety and his passion for the babe—the only possible Climax for this story.

We recognize this, don’t we? Of course we do. Irene Némirovsky used exactly the same needs—survival, love—for her gorgeous story, Dolce, although otherwise the two stories couldn’t be more different. James M. Cain used them for The Postman Always Rings Twice. Emily Brontё twisted the daylights out of them for Wuthering Heights.

A protagonist trapped between their need for survival and their need for love is one of the few eternal plots that we have. When layered with all the myriad significant details of existence and humanity, they become an infinity of stories. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, really. There are so many ways to add depth and dimension to our characters. What other layering options have you found effective?

Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.

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Story Threads: Fixing Rips in Our Story

As we write, we weave our characters, plot, dialogue, action, narrative, backstory, etc. together to create a full picture for our readers. However, during the revision process, we might have to rip through our carefully-constructed story.

We might need to reduce our word count to meet publishing specifications, or we might discover a subplot drags down our story’s pace. Or we might need to add new scenes, subplots, or characters to fix other story problems.

Regardless of the circumstances, we can’t simply delete or insert and move on. Instead, we have to repair the broken threads, weaving our story back into a smooth storytelling experience for readers. How can we stitch the pieces of our story back together after big changes?

Think of Story Elements as Threads

Our story elements are like threads that stretch forward and back through our story. That subplot we need to delete might be foreshadowed two scenes earlier. Conversations from that subplot might be referenced three chapters later.

In stories that follow what’s known as the “But and Therefore” rule to avoid episodic writing, every piece of the story is affected by what came before and likewise affects what comes after. Plot revelations and character epiphanies don’t happen in a vacuum.

So the hardest aspect of big revisions is recognizing the story threads of anything we touch so we can fix the frayed ends throughout the rest of the story. When we struggle to see the strings, a checklist might help. *smile*

Before Changing Anything…

  • Before removing a chunk, identify the still-relevant elements in the deleted section.
    Does it share important information with readers? Does it show a bonding moment between characters? Etc.
    Decide what elements are important to keep and brainstorm how to include them somewhere else, such as sharing important information in a different scene or giving characters a different way to bond.
  • Before adding a thread, know why it’s important to include.
    How will it fit into the big picture of the story? What does it accomplish that can’t be accomplished in other ways?

Repairing Frayed Threads: The Basics

Once we understand the nature of our changes, we can analyze how they affect the story as a whole:

  • How do the scenes before or after need to change to seamlessly follow the new cause-and-effect flow and/or to include the still-relevant elements?
  • Do we have old foreshadowing to remove and/or new foreshadowing to add?
  • Do we have references or callbacks to a defunct thread’s setups to delete or change?
  • Do our characters change due to a defunct thread in ways that need to be adjusted?

In the big picture, we need to smooth out the transitions between the old and the new, stitching them into a seamless story cloth.

Recognizing Frayed Threads: Advanced Steps

The hardest part of making big revisions is finding all the minor ways our changes affect our story:

  • Check for “in passing” references to a defunct thread in the following scenes.
  • Introducing a new character aspect, like a motivation or fear? Ensure hints and references before and after are consistent so the new inserts don’t feel out-of-character.
  • Did an earlier scene trigger the defunct thread? Is that scene or trigger still needed? Or should it be deleted so as not to imply future story events that no longer happen?
  • Did something in a defunct thread trigger later events or reactions? Should the later events or reactions be deleted as well? Or should they be triggered another way?
  • Are we now missing setup or motivations for later events or reactions? Can they be added elsewhere?
  • How does the defunct or new thread intersect with the main plot, subplots, themes, or arcs? Do those intersections need adjustment?
  • Did events in a defunct thread round out or help motivate the character in ways that need to be replaced in other scenes?
  • Did the changes introduce repetition we don’t want?
  • Did we introduce characters, settings, emotional issues, motivations, relationships, questions, goals, breakthroughs, ideas, etc. in a defunct thread that now need to be introduced elsewhere?
  • Are characters’ internal and emotional arcs still smooth? Or is part of their journey now missing or zigzaggy?

Once we’ve fixed all the necessary changes we can think of, we can then search for keywords of the defunct or new thread, subplot, or characters involved to look for other sections we might have missed. For example, if we’re removing a character’s motivation or false belief, we can search for the words we used with the previous descriptions.

Then we should always finish with a reread of our story. No matter how carefully we try to stitch pieces together, we’re likely to find a few loose strings. *smile*

Do you have any questions or insights about fixing torn story threads?

After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat. Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.
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Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Nanny

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Nanny

Overview: Nannies are professionals caretakers whose primary job is to take care of a family’s children in their home. They provide a nurturing and safe environment for a child, help them grow and mature, and will educate and discipline as needed. Nannies usually also prepare meals for the children and do light housekeeping. They may take children to school, to appointments, and accompany them on extracurricular activities. (The duties and expectations will shift with the age of their charges, and the requirements of the parents.)

While the full scope of duties should be agreed to in a contract between the nanny and the parents, many nannies either do not have a contract or their duties evolve over time as parents pile on responsibilities without discussion, which can cause friction. Nannies may work full or part time, and be live-in or not. It is very common for nannies to become very attached to their charges and the family as a whole.

Necessary Training: Nannies can have different levels of education, and typically the more they have (associate degree in childcare, certifications, safety training, etc.) the more they are paid.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, baking, basic first aid, blending in, charm, empathy, enhanced hearing, enhanced sense of smell, ESP (clairvoyance), exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, gaming, hospitality, making people laugh, multitasking, photographic memory, reading people, swift-footedness

Helpful Character Traits:

POSITIVE: Adaptable, affectionate, alert, calm, centered, charming, confident, cooperative, creative, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, easygoing, efficient, empathetic, enthusiastic, friendly, funny, generous, gentle, happy, honest, honorable, hospitable, imaginative, independent, industrious, kind, loyal, nurturing, obedient, observant, organized, passionate, patient, persuasive, playful, protective, responsible, sensible, tolerant

NEGATIVE: frivolous

Sources of Friction: Parents who micromanage or make unreasonable demands, parents who expect the nanny to accomplish tasks (such as toilet training) but then don’t continue the hard work of training or enforcing behavior themselves when they have the kids (undoing the nanny’s hard work), parents who are poor communicators or don’t make time for discussing the children and what happened through the day, being paid an unfair wage for the work, having one’s duties change and more responsibilities added without a pay increase (or a discussion as to whether these new duties are okay with the nanny), feeling isolated after long days with no interaction with other adults, kids who struggle with following the rules, understanding expectations, or proper behavior because their parents do not enforce the same rules and expectations as they demand the nanny enforce, putting up with unhappy employment conditions because the nanny is attached to the kids (like a refusal to pay for additional hours, disrespect for one’s position, being late or changing plans without any regard for the Nanny’s schedule, adding in housework duties or expecting everything to be immaculate when these duties were not part of the original agreement, etc.), disagreements over discipline or parenting, watching parents neglect their children or place unreasonable demands on their maturity and development, a lack of benefits and health care, struggling with taxes (or establishing a credit rating if the nanny is being paid under the table), feeling drained because so much energy is being given at work, jealousy toward the nanny because she has built a strong relationship with the children who may show a preference to be with her rather than a parent

People They Might Interact With: parents, children family friends, delivery people, teachers, librarians, coaches, the parents of other children one’s charges play with, doctors, dentists

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: If one’s identity is to become a parent but this is impossible (due to economics, relationship status, genetics, etc.), this Occupation would bring the character close to what the want most but also be a constant reminder of what they themselves cannot have
  • Esteem and Recognition: If the character works for a family that doesn’t respect the nanny’s time, schedule, skills, or needs, this can really sabotage their sense of self-esteem and worth
  • Love and Belonging: Being a nanny can be isolating and draining, especially of one is a full-time live-in, reducing their ability to find a partner or diminish their energy to maintain a romantic relationship

Common Work-Related Settings: amusement park, attic, backyard, beach, birthday party, casual dining restaurant, child’s bedroom, circus, community center, elementary school classroom, fast food restaurant, garage, grocery store, ice cream parlor, kitchen, lake, library, living room, mansion, movie theater, nursery, outdoor pool, outdoor skating rink, parade, park, pet store, playground, preschool, principal’s office, rec center, school bus, shopping mall, skate park, teenager’s bedroom, tree house, zoo

Visit the other Occupations in our collection HERE.

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Three Ways Writers Tell, Not Show (And How You Can Fix Them)

One of my favorite writing coaches is here with us to dish some helpful advice on Show and Tell. Please welcome Janice Hardy and read on…

Show, don’t tell, is drilled into every writer’s head, and most of us have been frustrated over it. In my early writing days, I spent months figuring out what it meant—and more importantly—how to find ‘told prose’ in my work.

Since then it’s been easier to show and not tell, and help other writers find their own tells. Today, let’s look at three common ways writers tell and how to edit those areas to show.

Tell #1: Explaining the motives of the characters

Avoiding unnecessary telling in fiction

Wanting to know why characters act the way they do is a compelling reason for readers to keep reading, and explaining those motives robs them of the chance to figure it out themselves. It also steals the mystery from the scene and lessens the tension, because when readers know the answer, there’s little worry about.

Many of these motivational tells involve explaining backstory or history, telling readers why a particular character is acting in a certain way. They explain a law of the land, or a past trauma, or a character’s habit. “This character is doing this thing because of this reason.” These tells happen because it’s easier to explain than to slip details into the background that feel natural to the scene.

The most common motivational tell is minor, but it’s my favorite example:

She reached over to pick up the book.

Seems perfectly fine, right? Countless sentences just like this are written every day, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, it explains the motive for why the character reached over. She did it to pick up the book. But notice we don’t actually see her pick up the book. There’s no action shown aside from her reaching over.

For these little “to verb” tells, simply changing to to and fixes most of them.

She reached over and picked up the book.

Now it’s shown. This one-word edit will fix many tells, but for some you’ll need to rewrite a bit. For example:

Lila knew she had to watch John carefully because he’d stolen her project notes last month and taken all the credit for her idea.

To fix, think about how someone with that motive would act or think, and show that instead.

John walked into her office. “Got a minute?”

Lila frowned and hid her notes with a folder. Not this time, buster. “What do you want?”

Readers don’t yet know why Lila is hiding her notes, but it’s clear she has an issue with John, and will keep reading to see why.

Some red flag words to search for if you think you have some motivational tells in your writing: “to verb” phrases, because, and knew.

Tell #2: Explaining the emotions behind the actions

Being told someone “felt something” is different from seeing the outward signs of that emotion. These tells slip in because it’s often easier to say “She was heartbroken” than to dive deep into the emotions of the character. For example:

Shayla felt the pain of the betrayal deep in her chest. She sobbed in misery.

Do we see the misery? The heartbreak? No. We’re told she feels it and why she’s crying. But when we think about how someone who is heartbroken might act and think, we get:

It was over. Truly over. Shayla sank to the ground and sobbed.

You can choose to show as much or as little emotion as needed for the scene, but beware—trying to show too much risks writing a melodramatic breakdown. Such as:

It was over. Truly over. How could he just leave her like this? Shayla gasped, holding back the tears blurring her vision. Her chest tightened. This wasn’t happening to her, not to her. She sank to the floor, wrapped her shaking arms around her knees, and sobbed.

Plenty of emotion there, but perhaps a bit too over the top. Remember—a little goes a long way.

Some red flag words to search for if you think you have some emotional tells in your writing: “in emotion” or “with emotion” phrases, and felt.

Tell #3: Explaining the subtext in the behaviors

Subtext is a powerful tool that builds tension and piques reader curiosity because nothing is spelled out. Readers get to decide what the truth is by observing the characters, but when everything is explained, the scene loses that mystery. For example:

Bob wanted to ask Jane to run away with him, and if she said yes, they could leave before Sally got back. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen if you wanted to go. Couple days walk, maybe.”

Jane shrugged, not wanting to look too eager. “That road is crawling with zombies. We’d never make it.”

“Not the skybridge.”

Maybe, but just the two of them alone? How would they survive without his survival-savvy wife? “I don’t know if it’s worth the risk.”

There’s little left to wonder about here. Jane shows some interest, but only with the explanations. But take out the explanations…

Bob brushed the dead leaves off the hood of the car. If she agreed, they could leave before Sally returned. “It’s not that far to Aberdeen. Couple days walk, maybe.”

Jane smiled, just a little, then shrugged. “That road is crawling with zombies, though.”

“Not the skybridge. We could make it.”

She stared wistfully down the road, and he thought she might say what a great idea it was. “Bad place to get stuck if we’re wrong. Will Sally be back soon?”

“She said not to wait up.”

A lousy joke, but Jane giggled. His heart leapt, but she glanced away, face flushed. She scanned the treeline again. “It’s just too dangerous. We’re not the killing machines she is, remember?”

We can guess Jane has some affection for Bob, but it’s easy to see how Bob (and readers) could be unsure about her feelings. It’s also uncertain what she means by dangerous—the zombies, Sally, or being on their own.

No red flag words for subtext tells, but check the internalization and see if you’re giving away what the dialogue and actions and trying to convey. Would the scene be more interesting if less was said?

Show, don’t tell can make a writer want to scream, but once you realize what told prose looks like, it’s easy to rewrite it to show. And after you train yourself to spot it, you start avoid it naturally.

If you’d like more examples and a deeper discussion of show, don’t tell, I suggest my book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It).

Have you struggled with show, don’t tell? How did you figure it out?

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she’s not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.

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Posted in Backstory, Character Arc, Characters, Description, Emotion, Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Show Don't Tell, Subtext, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 22 Comments