When I travel I like to take “light” fiction with me. By that I mean ones that don’t make me think too hard. I like to download them to my kindle app on my iPad, so I’m also not carrying extra physical weight.
The first one started out so well—set in Africa, viewpoint of a baby rhino, then switched to the people. I loved what the people were doing—saving at-risk animals. But there were sections where something would be shown and then it would be followed up with an unnecessary telling sentence. I don’t want to give an example from the book directly, so I’ll make one up:
Showing: Dark clouds scrolled across the sky and Lydia shivered in the sudden wind. Before she could reach the porch, rain stung her bare arms. A flash of lightening flared, immediately followed by a boom of thunder. Lydia ran up the steps and under cover, but she was already soaked.
Telling: It was a terrific storm.
D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining.” (Italics mine.)
The next book. After an intense scene in the viewpoint of the child who is the main character, we hung around too long. She was only four. I remember a few powerful happenings from when I was very young, but not a lot of detail. The excessive detailed memories of a four-year-old made me lose my suspension of disbelief. It needs to be logical or we need to be provided with reasons why it is logical. I really like this post by Dr. Vicki Hinze on “Suspending Disbelief” where she discusses how to do it in your writing.
Later I was in disbelief again when the main character, now a teen, blamed herself for her older brother drowning in the pond. She felt it was her fault because she went off to do something else. Foreshadowing suggested it could have been suicide, but the character never thought anything about that possibility, ever, which would have validated the drowning and her feelings of guilt. I felt as if I’d been lied to. In Anton Chekhov’s famous book of writing advice, he says, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Note: I bought both of these books. I was trying new-to-me authors, and unfortunately they won't be new favorite authors.
So, my reading choices weren’t the most successful, but someone this week recommended the Netflix movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and I loved it! Here’s a link to the trailer. I since discovered it was based on a book, so that’s my next reading choice.
What are you reading and learning from?
It’s been ten weeks since my knee replacement surgery, and it’s been a fight to feel normal. Fortunately, I didn’t look as beat up as this cat… After weeks of physical therapy, I’m finally up to writing and doing writing related business on a regular basis.
Okay, maybe you haven’t had surgery, but summer itself can be a disruption. Vacations, kids home from school, hot weather—although this year we put in whole house air conditioning and it is such a relief—all those can distract.
I also see writers being disrupted by fear of what’s going on in our country. Others experience some kind of crisis—family, financial, job related—that makes writing the last thing on their minds.
Once things calm down, how do we get back into writing?
I usually ease back in. Recently, I’ve been able to catch up on reading writing related newsletters, listening to writing related podcasts, and doing research. My email inbox isn’t so frightening anymore and I can engage with others about writing again. Good things that motivate me to get back into writing blog posts and, yes, to working on that novel.
There are times when a story itself has pushed me back into writing. I love this quote from author Sarah Noffke, “A day will come when the story inside you will want to breathe on its own. That's when you'll start writing.” I’m not there right now though.
I've used submission deadlines and critique group meetings as motivation. “Must get something written/revised and ready to go!”
But, sometimes we just need to sit down and write. Read what Harriet Beecher Stowe said in a letter to her sister-in-law, “Since I began this note I have been called off at least a dozen times—once for the fish-man, to buy a codfish—once to see a man who had brought me some baskets of apples—once to see a book man ... then to nurse the baby—then into the kitchen to make a chowder for dinner and now I am at it again for nothing but deadly determination enables me to ever write —it is rowing against wind and tide.”
Deadly determination, yes. That’s what it comes down to in any case.
Guest Post by Cindy Ervin Huff
There are a few interesting factoids I’ve learned while writing and researching my stories. I’ll share a few things about setting that I found both interesting and surprising.
I am directionally challenged. If you tell me go west, then turn south my eyes roll back in my head. I need landmarks and left/right directions, and even then it can be iffy. Writing a novel in the town I live in suffered from my affliction. I needed my husband to help me rewrite scenes for New Duet to get the placement of setting correct. He can go somewhere once and still remember how to get there.
Directions are just one piece of the setting that is very important to get right in novels. People from the area may read your book just because of the setting, and if you mess it up, they are disappointed. I read a novel set in the town I went to high school in. This best-selling author crafted a wonderful story, but the details of the setting were so off. She must have relied on maps and never visited the town. It ruined the story for me.
In my first historical romance novel, Secrets & Charades, I named my fictitious towns off the top of my head. I submitted the manuscript to a contest and had judges telling me the towns were in different areas of Texas. I guess my subconscious mind chose names of real towns. After much research, I finally found two names that didn’t exist as towns in Texas. I named the hero’s town after one of my favorite Golden Age actors, Charleton Heston. So Charleton, Texas passed muster. I researched ghost towns for the brief mention of the town in Missouri my heroine came from.
I also made sure the church in New Duet that would be closing did not exist in Aurora. That kind of plot twist could offend a congregation.
Some publishers are very picky about using well-known branded names such as Cubs, Red Lobster, or Panera’s. There can be copyright issues. And if a crime is committed in McDonalds or Target you might have a lawsuit.
Most privately-owned businesses don’t mind. They love the idea of their shop being a location in a book. C Hope Clark has a whole series of murder mysteries set on Edisto Island. The residents love it. Knowing what the publisher expects and asking for permission ahead of time saves the headache of going through your manuscript and changing the names of restaurants to something made up.
Even if you create a fake town be sure the saloon or restaurant is always located in the same area of town. Draw a visual for yourself to keep it straight. Even a two-street tiny town can be confusing to readers if the mine is south of town in chapter one and north of town in chapter sixteen. And it is lots easier to do than you would suspect.
Double check setting details before you submit, and your future editors will thank you.
Cindy Ervin Huff is a multi-published writer and her debut novel Secret’s and Charades won the Editor’s Choice Award in 2014 and placed third in the Maxwell Awards in 2017. Her contemporary romance New Duet released in May 2018. She has been featured in numerous periodicals over the last thirty years. Cindy is a member of ACFW and founding member of the Aurora, Illinois, chapter of Word Weavers. Although she has been creating stories in her head since childhood it wasn’t until high school those imaginary characters began appearing on paper. After raising her family, she began her novel writing adventures. Cindy loves to encourage new writers on their journey. She and her husband make their home in Aurora, Illinois. They have five children and six grandchildren. Visit Cindy on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cindyehuff, follow her on twitter @CindyErvinHuff, or check out her blog at www.jubileewriter.wordpress.com.
Amazon Buy link for Secrets & Charades: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946016144
Amazon Buy link for New Duet: https://www.amazon.com/New-Duet-Cindy-Ervin-Huff-ebook/dp/B07CRV46PQ
Vary Sentences to Make Your Writing Interesting
(guest post by M.R. Anglin)
When I submitted my new book, Prince of the Sun, Princess of the Moon, to the publisher, I had already written the second book in the series and had a rough draft of the third ready. My release day came and went, and I set down to prepare the second book to send to my publisher. But when I read the draft, I noticed something odd. The first few chapters felt . . . dry. Normally, I like to use the first few chapters as an introduction to the point of view characters (those characters whose POV I’ll be telling the story from). But this time, it felt like I was tossing the characters at the reader saying, “Here. This is so-and-so. Let’s get the intros out of the way so we can get to the story.” To be frank, it was boring.
And I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The content of the chapters themselves were interesting; the characters felt compelling to me; but the presentation was off. Then it hit me. It was the structure of my opening sentences. In the first five chapters, four of them started in roughly the same manner. That made the text come off as stale.
I had known for a long time that the first sentence in a story will draw your reader in or will put them off. But now I’m realizing that the first few sentences in your early chapters could just as easily color your story in a negative way.
For an example, I’d like to share with you the first sentences of the first five chapters in the sequel while in revision:
1. The human world had a saying that always made Plandte smile: “Great things come in small packages.”
2. Alandri lifted her hair and examined herself in the mirror.
3. Lumina alighted on the sun and blinked in its brilliance.
4. Marcos tapped his fingers on the desk in his apartment, listening to the hold music on the other end of the phone.
5. Shielle narrowed her eyes at her computer and continued to type.
Do you see it? After the first chapter, there is no variation in sentence structure. They follow the pattern “character, verb, object/prepositional phrase.” Having the same type of sentence over and over again gets monotonous and boring. The solution: vary the sentences.
There are several ways to change up the sentence structures so that your old standbys don’t get stale. Here are some examples:
- Start with dialogue. Some writers don’t like this technique because it sort of throws the reader in with no context, but I am a fan. I just try to explain what’s happening quickly and smoothly without an infodump.
- Start with a gerund. For example, “Looking in the mirror never gave Amber an accurate view of herself.” In this case, the phrase “Looking in the mirror” is the subject of the sentence even though it contains the verb “looking.”
- Start with some background descriptions. I don’t like doing this unless I tie it into a character. For example, “The setting sun sparkled off the lake water, dazzling Kevin’s eyes.”
There are other ways to vary your sentences to make your writing interesting. So don’t settle for just one. Find different and interesting ways to give your sentences a punch and see if it doesn’t make your story that much more interesting.
-*heart* M.R. Anglin
M.R. Anglin has always had a fascination with space—particularly the moon and stars. She also has three amazing nephews, two adorable “near-nephews” (with another one on the way), and one brilliant niece, so it’s no wonder she eventually wrote a story that combines these loves into one. You can often find her gazing up at the Florida sky at night or hunching over her notebook/computer by day.
She is the author of several books, including the self-published, ongoing Silver Foxes series and Lucas, Guardian of Truth (LampPost 2012). She has also has stories included in anthologies and posted online.
Social Media Links:
Purchase Link for referenced book title: https://www.amazon.com/Prince-Princess-Moon-Rulers-Galaxy-ebook/dp/B078T6KJSN
Should you use flashbacks?
Expert Harvey Chapman says, “…if you can tell the story without them then so much the better.”
Author K.M. Weiland says, “Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.”
Author Nancy Kress says, “Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over.”
Author Joëlle Anthony says, “Flashbacks inevitably go on too long and aren’t usually the best way to tell a story. A flashback is only effective if it moves the story forwards and it’s the only way to tell that part of the story.”
Screenwriter Jenna Milly says, “It’s better to see your character react to the information the writer wants to get out there in the here and now rather than have it explained in flashback.”
Personally, a recent professional critique made me realize I shouldn’t use a flashback in an opening scene. Making the story chronological gives the reader a chance to be grounded in the present. Author Bharti Kirchner says, “Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground.”
Another editor pointed out where a flashback scene in my novel wasn’t necessary. I read the story without the flashback and it made sense, so I totally cut it. Maybe writing the flashback was necessary for me to know what the characters were doing, but it wasn’t necessary for my reader.
But how do I get the information from the past into my story without a flashback?
First off, during a life and death situation, you don’t. A main character hanging by their fingertips doesn’t have time or energy to spend on memories—they’re trying to figure out how to survive!
Something from the past can be shared in brief dialogue or thoughts. And these thoughts or words could be inspired by a found object, sensory experience, or current event. In other words, something reminds the character of the past. For example, certain scents take me back to a vacation spot in the redwoods when I was a child.
Through conflict. Jenna Milly says, “Or better yet, another character notices how upset your protagonist is when he or she picks up the ring and then pushes for answers. This is how you get conflict – in the here and now – into a scene and also give us the information that would come out in the flashback.”
Use summaries. “One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes,” Kyla Bagnall says. “You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.”
Tips for using flashbacks:
In her article “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” K.M. Weilland shares two reasons to have flashbacks. First, “the character has an interesting backstory.” And second, “the backstory moves the plot.”
In her article “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” Nancy Kress talks about using a flashback after a strong scene, orienting the reader in time and space, and using verb tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback.
In his article “How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing,” Harvey Chapman has three points: 1. “Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time.” 2. “Hook the Reader First.” 3. “Make the Flashbacks Natural.”
And I love what Kayla Bagnall says, “A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does.” This is from her article: “5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story.”
Flashbacks can be a useful tool in nonfiction, too. This article “Time Traveling: Writing Graceful Flashbacks” by Mason Inman has interesting examples and explanations.
Writing is a solitary act for most of us. And usually we are too close to what we’ve written to see what is working and what isn’t. This is where a critique can be powerful. My favorite critiques are from other writers. (This is all separate from an editorial letter from an agent or editor, which would be after critiques.)
I’ve been in a number of critique groups as I moved around the country. Critiques of my work have caught typos, pointed out awkward or confusing sentences, asked for more depth, inspired me, taught me, and corrected me. My critique partners have suggested where to tighten, brainstormed when someone is struggling with a particular issue, shared marketing news, cheered successes, discussed possible comp titles, and become faithful friends.
So, what elements have I seen that make a good critique?
First, encouragement. It can be as simple as “Nice title” or “I like this character” or a smiley face. It could be: “I know you’ll figure this problem out.”
Second, kindness. A lot depends on how something is said. E.g. “I’m not getting this.” versus “This doesn’t make sense.”
Third, honesty. I’d much rather hear something isn’t working than be told polite lies that will become evident when others see my manuscript. E.g. “This is really good,” when it’s not.
Fourth, basic writing knowledge. Most of us don’t know everything about grammar and spelling, but critiquers need to have some basics to catch others’ mistakes.
Fifth, current readers. Those who read in the category and genre you write will have a better understanding of what is working in the current market.
Sixth, questions. Sometimes I learn more from questions than anything else. “Why is your character doing this?” “Where or when is this happening?” “What is your character’s motivation?” Oh, I haven’t made that clear, I realize. Or, I hadn’t thought about that. One of my critiquers often asks, “What’s the heart of the story?” Such a good question. Audrey Chin says, “Critiquing has taught me that the best stories are still the ones that move hearts.”
Seventh, time. It takes time to give a critique, whether it is in person or written. My favorite critique groups are face-to-face and have the writer read the material aloud. Each listener writes comments (positive and negative) on the manuscript, then the comments are shared aloud (unless someone else has already mentioned an issue). Time consuming, but so helpful, especially when one person’s comments prompt confirmation, disagreement, or suggestions from others.
Am I missing anything? Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.