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.
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.
Introspection by your main character is good, but it can also be too much of a good thing. I know I get annoyed when introspection does the following:
I like what novelist Gail Gaymer Martin says, “Too much can be boring since introspection is passive, and too little deprives the reader of getting to know the depth of a character’s needs, longings, and struggles.”
Check that your main character’s introspection serves a purpose. Does your character change because of his thoughts? Does she realize something new? Is a new action realized due to the internal monologue? “Introspection is one of the key elements of growing up and moving forward,” Kelly Rogers says. That works for our characters too.
Just like with description, mixing internal dialogue in with action helps avoid too much at once. “That new understanding or new goal or desire, and the size of it, may only become apparent in bits and pieces and stages, not necessarily one huge Moment.” – Emma Darwin
Introspection should also show something of the main character’s personality or beliefs. I love this quote I found in an absolutewrite forum, “Make sure it oozes personality: Is your character funny? Sarcastic? Morbidly dark? Hyperbolic? Adding bits of their personality to the introspection makes it more engaging.” – Raivnor
Keep on target. Elizabeth Grayson says, “While our thoughts sometimes come in stream of consciousness, a genre fiction character’s thoughts are relentlessly logical. They must segue from one to the next in a manner the reader can follow — even if the character you’re writing is a flake.”
What are your thoughts on introspection?
Sometimes we all need encouragement to keep writing. I have several things I do when I’m discouraged.
One, since I’m a quote junkie, is read or collect encouraging quotes. Here are some that either encouraged me or were reminders to press on:
“The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write.” – Gabriel Fielding
“It’s easy to think that you haven’t made any progress when you forget where you were when you started out. Be kind to yourself, you’ve come a long way and overcome a lot.” – Patricia Caldwell
“A book might not sell, but that doesn’t mean the writer wasted time on it, not as long as the writer is learning and growing.” – Laurel Gale
“Rejected pieces aren't failure; unwritten pieces are.” – Greg Daugherty
“The voice of the inner critic can shut the whole process down. I tell it to take a number.” – Barbara Taylor Brown
“Have faith in your art, even when others don't.” – Sean Qualls
“The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language.” – Mary Kole
This last quote is a good segue into number two. Catch up on reading. This comes in two parts.
Today I’m reading some writing newsletters I’ve not gotten around to. I’m reassured by things I already know. I’m inspired or challenged by others. I learn something new. And I share some of these posts or articles with my tribe.
Part two is reading in and outside my genre(s). That’s always a good reminder of what I want to do. Plus, it gets me into the rhythm of those types of stories or makes me look at something in a new way. Read what Nicholas Sparks has to say on this topic, “By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it's possible to learn how things are done - the mechanics of writing, so to speak - and which genres and authors excel in various areas.” Yes, I learn by what others do and don’t do.
Three, spend time with your writing tribe.
It can be done online or in person. Online is a nice quick fix. I use Facebook groups, writing list serves, and Twitter.
Face to face takes more time, but in the end is more rewarding for me. I have a critique group and just knowing a meeting is coming up makes me want to have something ready for them to hear and comment on. But even if I don’t, I get encouragement from them.
Four, attend writing events.
These can be book signings, talks, workshops, conferences, intensives, retreats, writing times. I almost always get something out of them. Sometimes I get a whole lot. And, I'm with my tribe. But most importantly, they inspire me to write.
So, what helps you have the courage to get back to writing? Feel free to comment below.
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.