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Writing Advice

How Reading Makes Us Better Writers

Things have been a bit weird lately. Part of it is just that I’m terrible at managing my time, so things pile up until I get overwhelmed. However, I’m also dealing with health challenges and the possibility of some big changes in my personal life, and having that looming over me is stressing me out. As Bilbo Baggins would say, I feel a bit like butter that’s been scraped over too much bread.

Much like my novel, my life is a work in progress. Reading too much into things makes me anxious, and I’m trying to teach myself not to overthink every little aspect of life. So I made a chore list that I’ll probably lose by next week. I tackled a project that’s been languishing for close to a month. Then I decided to take a step back from worrying about the rest and went to the library.

Writers need to read

We’ve got to keep up with what’s trending in our genres, what new tropes are out there, and what hot bestsellers might be comparable to our own work. Comps are a big part of pitching, and it’s been a while since I’ve done a deep dive into new fantasy titles. I’m way behind and I really need to get back into reading.

I didn’t pick up anything that looked like a comp on my recent library visit, though. Instead, I was looking for books to help me reconnect with myself. YA is my jam when I’m feeling lost because the characters are often searching for meaning in their own lives, so I headed for the teen shelves.

Look for the lessons

There’s almost always a lesson in a book. Sometimes it’s an overt bit of knowledge that the author planted for you to find. Other times, it’s more subtle. It might even be something the author didn’t realize they were sharing.

For writers, the lessons aren’t just whatever bits of information the author wanted to share. They’re also the way the author uses language to communicate with readers. You can consider anything from how the plot played out all the way down to the author’s word choices.

If you’re looking for a writing lesson in a book, here are some questions you can ask either as you’re reading or after you finish.

Was it more plot driven or more character driven?

In other words, did the story’s environment force the characters onto a certain path? Or did the characters’ choices determine the twists and turns in the plot? I think you usually get a little bit of both, but some books definitely lean more one way or the other.

Do you think the author made the right choice? What would you have done differently? I generally prefer books that are more character driven. Protagonists can start to feel a little weak if all of the major events in the story are triggered by external forces rather than a character’s decisions. It doesn’t sit right with me.

How did the main characters change from who they were at the beginning of the book?

If they didn’t change, what did they learn about themselves? And what did you, as a reader, learn about your own self? Good characters tend to be relatable. Great characters stay with us for a long time after we close the book.

How did the book make you feel?

Did you get a strong emotional connection to the characters or the story while you were reading? Did the book feel like an escape from reality?

If you can say yes to either of these questions, try to pin down what the author did that helped you feel this way. Engagement is one of the most important parts of writing. Analyzing stories that give you strong feelings can help you learn how to create a book that resonates with others.

If you didn’t feel anything, did you like the book at all, or did it feel like it was missing something? What did you like about it? What felt off?

Were there any passages that stood out to you?

In this case, it could be an entire scene or just a single word. Whatever it was, try to think about why it stood out. Did a character have to make a difficult choice? Was a paragraph exceptionally worded? Did it have great economy of language or a variety of descriptive appeals? Whether it’s large or small, when something grabs our attention, there’s usually a reason for that. If you can get to the heart of it, you’ll probably learn something.

Finally, how would you do it?

The last question you should always ask yourself is whether you’d do anything differently if you were the one writing a particular story. And if the answer is yes, why?

Books are full of secrets

I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things we can learn from books, but it’s probably enough for one day. Have you ever learned anything unexpected while reading? Please share in the comments if you have. I’d love to know what it was!

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Writing Advice

How to write a believable family

More likely than not, your character has a family. They may have a found family rather than a biological family, but I think it’s safe to say that most fictional characters have some kind of family ties. Today I want to talk a little about how to make those relationships and bonds feel real to your readers.

This is important because even if family members aren’t major characters, they contribute to your main character’s development. Seeing how your character forms bonds with other characters will help your reader form a bond with your character.

Keep it real

Remember, elements in a fiction book don’t have to feel real in the sense of the real world. Instead, they need to feel realistic to the world and culture you’ve created for your story. In other words, you don’t want to jolt your reader out of their suspended disbelief.

Personalities

Each family member should have their own personality and interests. However, the family as a whole might also seem to have sort of a group personality. Like, they might be doing their own thing as individuals on a normal, day-to-day basis, but they come together as a group in a time of crisis. Every person takes on an unspoken role, sometimes without even stepping on anyone else’s feet, and they just get through whatever conflict they’re facing.

Some families also seem to have the group personality thing going on all the time. A group of siblings I knew from school were definitely peas in a pod. They dressed alike, looked alike, had similar interests, and were almost copies of each other. Even if you hadn’t met one of their other siblings (I attended school with 4 of the 10 of them), you’d recognize them as a member of the family on sight.

Traditions

Holidays are probably the first thing that come to mind when many people think of family traditions, but there are definitely other things to consider. A summer vacation activity or a special meal reserved for birthdays or celebrations might also be traditions. Maybe not every family observes holidays, or takes summer vacations, but I suspect most families have traditions they try to pass from one generation to the next.

Culture

This sort of ties in to tradition, but I thought I’d separate it. Culture plays a huge role in family life. Like, in some cultures the children are expected to move out and establish themselves ASAP once they reach adulthood. In other cultures, they might live with their parents until they’re married or even stay with the household after that and help take care of their elders. Marriage and child-rearing can vary a lot from one culture to another. Sometimes expectations are different for older children vs their younger siblings. You have a whole lot to work with here. When you’re establishing the setting for your story, look at how family dynamics play out in different cultures.

Conflict

When you live with other people 24/7, there’s bound to be conflict sooner or later. Family conflict is interesting because family members tend to know how to push each other’s buttons. Also, it’s hard to escape or avoid a conflict if you live with someone or see them regularly. Conflict with a household member can be a good way to add some tension to a story if you’re dealing with a bit of a lull.

Household habits

Every household is a little different, and each member typically has a role to play. Think about what the household routine might be, and what events might shake it up a little. A routine might cause conflict, for example if one person tries to dump a chore on someone else. Or it might be a source of comfort after a long, hard day. This seems simple, but there’s actually a lot you can do with it.

Unfortunately, some families just suck

There are plenty of unhealthy family dynamics out there, too. I could probably write many, many blog posts on possible abusive traits, or ways your character’s family could make them suffer.

For better or for worse, a bad family life can be a major plot point for your character. I’m sure you can think of a dozen titles, at least, that involve a main character with a crummy family. Lately, I’ve been leaning more toward trying to write stories where the characters have healthy relationships–or mostly healthy relationships, anyway. I just feel like there are so many bad family stories in fiction, and it’s time to turn that trend around. Reading about happy people was an escape for me when I was a child. It was one of the things that taught me how to build good relationships with people.

Try to keep your character’s family from turning into paper dolls

Your character’s family can be a way for readers to connect with them. Most readers probably know what kooky relatives are like. They understand routine, and what can happen if, say, one parent is late getting home from work. Some readers know what it’s like to have a family that isn’t supportive, and might even be abusive. Those shared understandings can help create a bond between your reader and your story. If you need some inspiration, try looking up family tropes, found family tropes, or sibling tropes and see what comes up.

Do you spend a lot of time developing families for your characters when you write? Please let me know in the comments. Feel free to share your traditions, too, if you want. Those can be really fun sometimes.

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Writing Advice

Using description to appeal to a reader’s senses

I’ve been doing a lot of critiques lately, and that always makes me think of new things to share with you all. I hope people don’t think I’m hating on them when I write a post like this one, because that’s not the case. I get inspired when I notice writers repeat similar patterns in their work. It helps me grow, and it gives me an opportunity to share that growth and knowledge with others. Today I want to talk about how you can use your descriptions to appeal to your readers’ senses.

First, let’s talk about the senses

Okay, so you all learned about the five senses at some point, right? In case you didn’t, I’m talking about touch, taste, hearing, sight, and smell. When you’re writing descriptions, you can also add movement (which I’ll refer to as kinetic appeals) and emotion to that list.

Why do sensory appeals matter?

There’s been a lot of research on how reading affects people’s brains. Some studies have shown that reading a lot can even change the physical structure of the brain. But the theory I want to touch on today is called embodied semantics. It seems like a lot of the data is more correlation than causation at this point, but still it’s interesting to consider.

Basically, embodied semantics theorizes that there are specialized hubs within the brain where the meaning of a word is tied to a sensory processing unit. In layman’s terms, that means reading (or hearing) certain words can affect different parts of a reader’s brain and trigger a physical response. So if you’re writing about your character running from a villain, your reader’s muscles might tense up as well. Maybe their breathing will get a little short. When characters are talking, readers might imagine hearing their voices. Or if you describe something your character can see, your reader might be able to picture it, too. And so on.

When you’re able to trigger one response after another, or multiple responses at once, readers (or listeners) theoretically become more and more engaged in the story because you’re accessing more parts of their brain.

If you keep that in mind, you can write scenes that feel very powerful to your readers. The unfortunate part of this lesson is that it’s hard to unlearn. Once you get it down, you’re going to notice when writers don’t use a variety of appeals.

Next, let’s look at some different kinds of appeals

I think it might be easier to show you what I’m talking about, and then I’ll discuss some things you can do to identify and remedy any problems you might have.

The last time I gave examples, I was pretty obvious about which one was “good” and which one was “bad.” I’m going to try to be a little more subtle this time.

Example 1

Faith looked like her mother. She was small-boned and short with long hair that she kept tied back in a simple braid. Faith and Serena even shared the same fashion sense. Faith’s uniform was a riot of color thanks to the pins and patches she’d stuck all over it. Flecks of glitter shimmered in her hair and on her skin, and her nails were a shimmering rainbow. The color of her hair and eyes might have come from Gabriel, but everything else was Serena.

Visual appeals make up most of this example. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you’re describing a character’s appearance, but you might have a bigger impact on your readers if you mix things up a little.

Example 2

Faith favored her mother. Sure, she had Gabriel’s hair and eyes, but that was where their resemblance ended. The way she tipped her head to one side when she asked a question was all Serena. Her voice was low, like Gabriel’s, but the warmth in it was not. Neither was the smile that came out to play in the corners of her mouth when she thought no one was looking. Gabriel wasn’t sure he even remembered how to smile. It didn’t look natural on him anyway. Faith was the best thing Gabriel had ever been a part of, and he was so thankful she hadn’t turned out like him.

I tried to use a broader selection of appeals in this example. Faith tipping her head is a crossover appeal–it’s visual because you can picture it in your mind, but it’s also kinetic because it’ll make some people think about the action of tipping their heads. Referring to a low voice is an audio appeal. Finally, Gabriel’s reflections are emotional appeals.

The way a character views another character can tell readers a lot about who they are and how they think. This goes back to economy of language–that is, getting as much out of your words as you possibly can. In this case, we learned something about Faith, and the way we learned it taught us something about Gabriel as well. He loves his daughter, but he does not think highly of himself, does he?

Visual appeals are the most common

I’ve done several critiques recently where the writers mainly focused on visual descriptions and very little else, like I did in the first example up above. You do need to give your readers a good idea of what things look like, so you can avoid white room syndrome, but a story that only uses visual appeals gets boring after a while.

Audio (aka hearing) appeals are probably the second most common. I’ve heard that some writers out there favor audio over visual, but I’ve yet to come across a story written that way. I have seen one writer who favored kinetic appeals. That was unusual. I really had to stop and think about what felt off about their work before I figured it out.

So what’s the best way to determine which appeals to use?

As always, this is going to vary a bit from one writer to another. I don’t plan much in advance when I write, so a lot of my descriptive passages get refined during the editing process. I’ll take my story a paragraph at a time, look at the types of appeals in each sentence, and make sure I don’t have the same kind of appeal more than twice in a row. It’s a pain sometimes, but I think it’s worth it.

If you are more of a planner, you might consider creating some kind of pattern, or a series of patterns, for your appeals. That way you don’t accidentally get stuck repeating the same type of description over and over. I know it seems like that might also become repetitive over time, but it’ll be so subtle that most readers probably won’t notice.

You do have to let the scene and the characters guide you a little, though. Like, you probably won’t have many visual appeals if a character is in a dark place or if something is blocking their vision. In that case, think about what your character can hear, touch, or smell, as well as what they’re doing and how they feel about their situation, and use that to appeal to your readers’ other senses. Also, think about your character’s personality and interests. If they’re a painter or photographer, they might have very visual thought processes. Maybe they’ll notice colors and other visual details that other characters miss. A musician might pick up on audio cues, like a tremor in someone’s voice. How might your characters use their special something to appeal to your readers?

I think that’s enough for today

I feel like this might be one of those topics I revisit, maybe broken down into posts that focus on each type of appeal, but I hope I’ve at least given you an idea of how this works. Give it a try in your own writing and see how it goes. If you’re still feeling a little lost, try analyzing some of your favorite books. Look at how other authors use appeals. Feel free to contact me or leave a comment below if you have any questions.

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Writing Advice

How to use outlines as part of your editing process

Anybody who’s followed this page for a while probably knows that I’m a total pantser when it comes to my rough drafts. I don’t make outlines for my stories or plan them out in advance because I can’t seem to stick to a plan. Ever. That’s not limited to writing, it’s just my chaotic life.

Anyway.

Even though I don’t plan my stories in advance, I do sometimes create outlines as part of the editing process. Let’s talk about that today.

Outlines are macro edits

Macro, or developmental, edits apply to large chunks of the story. When you’re doing a macro edit, you’re looking at things like your plot as a whole. Or a character’s development from the beginning of the story to the end. Because you’re working with so much material at once, it helps to find a way to break that down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Outlines can help with that.

My recent outline experience

I had a hard time with the plot of my latest Writers of the Future entry. The characters and settings were all fine, but there was something wrong with the sequence of events. Even though it was a fairly short story, I couldn’t keep some of the details together in my mind well enough to see the full picture. So I sat down and created an outline. It took five minutes and really helped me figure out what was missing from the story.

Due to contest rules, I can’t share that outline with you. I’ll share some screenshots from a different one with you instead, though, so you have some clear examples to follow if you decide to try this on your own.

Step 1: Make a list of acts

The first part of making outlines is pretty simple. Go through the story and make a list of each act. I don’t bother with summaries or anything fancy at this point. I just try to think of one or two key words that describe the most important events or time periods in the story.

Because this story took place over a large part of one character’s life, I decided to use the protagonist’s age as keywords to describe my acts.

outline step 1--acts

Scrivener has an outline function, but I haven’t actually sat down and figured it out yet. I just used Docs for this.

Step 2: Which characters are involved?

Under each act, write down which characters have major roles. Just the names are enough for this step. I’ll fill in the rest in a moment.

Since this is a short story, I thought it would be easier to go with characters for this step. If you’re doing a novel outline, it might be better to add another subheading for each chapter or scene, and then put the characters under their respective scenes.

outline step 2--insert characters

Step 3: What’s happening?

Write a brief summary of what the characters are doing, or what they’re involved in if they’ve been swept up into something. Try to limit it to just a sentence or two. I know that can be hard, but think of it as practice for the day you’ll have to write a blurb or a pitch.

outline step 3--insert summaries

Step 4: Analyze

Once I have everything in front of me, I try to think about how characters and events connect to one another, and look for some of the following things:

  • How are characters connected to each other? Examine the ties between characters. If their relationship is supposed to build over the course of the story, make sure readers have enough clues that it doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of nowhere. If there’s conflict between characters, make sure readers know why.
  • How are characters connected to events? Again, this is mainly to make sure big events don’t feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. I’m all for a plot twist, but it’s got to feel believable and true to the story.
  • Have the characters failed? Ideally, the protagonist will have at least one major failure over the course of the story. Two or three would be even better.
  • Is the climax actually climactic? This is the story’s big moment. I can’t wimp out now.
  • Does the conclusion tie up loose ends appropriately? This can vary from one story to another. Sometimes the protagonist doesn’t get what they wanted, and that’s fine. But plot events and characters’ decisions have to line up in such a way that the ending is believable.

So what was wrong with my story?

Lily’s story lacked tension and conflict, and the thing with her dad felt rushed. Plus I suspect most people who would read this kind of a story would want Lily to get with Seb in the end and she didn’t. I’m honestly still at a crossroads with this one because even though it reads well, the underlying structure feels weak.

In the Writers of the Future submission, the ending came about as a sort of deux ex machina. I catch myself doing that a lot because usually there’s more stuff in my head than I get into the computer in early drafts, so major events can sometimes feel like they were resolved too easily. Luckily this time it was an easy fix, and I was able to tweak one character’s plot so the ending felt more natural. I feel good about it, and I got good feedback in my critiques, so now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what the judges think.

Don’t feel bad if outlines don’t help you

Everybody writes a little differently, and what works for one person may be completely useless for someone else. My outlining skills are kind of hodgepodge anyway, so you might do better if you look into someone else’s technique. The Snowflake method gets thrown around a lot if you need an example.

It’s also very hard to analyze your own writing, especially when you’re just starting out. I’m a pretty good editor, but I miss things in my own work all the time. I’m so grateful for the folks on Critique Circle who help me figure out where I’ve gone wrong. A good critique is worth its weight in gold, y’all.

Have you ever tried creating an outline to guide you through the editing process? What do you do? Feel free to let us know in the comments! If you thought this post was helpful, please use those social media buttons down below to share it with your writer friends. Thanks!

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Writing Advice

Coming up with your story’s theme

Theme is another one of those tricky high school literature subjects. Some writers will tell you there’s no such thing as theme in a good story, that it’s something teachers assign students as busywork. Or they’ll say that if you try to write a story around a theme, it becomes forced and preachy.

And sometimes that’s true.

However, it doesn’t hurt to explore your story’s deeper meaning and try to give some emphasis to it as you go.

What is theme?

Your story’s theme is its underlying meaning, and it’s often something that can be summed up in just one or two words–faith, family, love. Most books have one, whether the author realizes it or not; it’s often an unconscious bias we include because of patterns we experience in our lives. It’s something so normal to us that we often don’t notice it until someone else points it out.

How do you identify your story’s theme?

This might depend on your writing style. For me it happens when I’m editing, and I look over my story and discover patterns of behavior, or certain emotional beats that I return to multiple times.

I’m still in the early stages of editing my current novel, but right now I’d guess that my theme is exploitation. A lot of plot events revolve around how people in power take advantage of the vulnerable.

If you had asked me about my story’s theme in my early stages, I might have said it was about women’s rights. Although women’s rights can certainly fall under exploitation, it’s not the whole picture and I couldn’t see that until recently.

Why does it matter?

Honestly, I think it’s subjective and it’s going to depend on the story, the writer, and the target audience. A theme can make a story feel deeper, but maybe you’re writing a story that doesn’t need much depth. Or maybe your ideal reader wouldn’t recognize or appreciate depth if you smacked them over the head with it.

Does your story have a theme?

Do you want it to have one? I feel like expanding on my novel’s theme is going to give the story an extra level of detail, but it should be subtle enough that readers won’t feel like I’m preaching at them. What do you think? Please feel free to share your opinion in a comment. As always, use those social media buttons down below to share this with your writer friends. Thanks!

Image Credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production

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Writing Advice

Drafting for pantsers

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you probably know I’m not one for planning before I write the first draft of a story. I’ve tried it, and I just never stick to the plan. It’s a waste of time for me. I prefer diving right into a story and dealing with problems as they present themselves. Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about my drafting process.

Rough/Zero draft

Some people claim that every writer is a planner because most writers go through multiple drafts of a story, so your first draft is your plan. I don’t believe in arguing with strangers on the internet, especially about something as minor as drafting stories, so…Whatever.

For me, a rough draft (or a zero draft) is a quick and dirty version of my book. It doesn’t feel like a plan or an outline, it feels like a novel. It’s an ugly novel with bad pacing, info dumps, and settings that look like sketchy white rooms, but it’s still a novel. There’s a main character with a goal, something stopping them from reaching that goal, conflict, dialogue, the whole nine yards. It may not be perfect, but that’s not the point. The point of a rough draft, for me, is to figure out the beginning, middle, and end of the story. That’s it.

I have a few goals for a rough draft.

  • Establish a macro world and micro worlds
  • Rough out my major characters
  • Figure out the major conflicts
  • Write out the main plot and get an idea of subplots

Second draft

What I do in the second draft, and really in all subsequent drafts, depends on how the rough draft turned out.

In my current novel, I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t continue writing because I was missing a major character. I had known something was missing for a while, but I got about 3/4 of the way through the story before I figured out what that was. Basically, my antagonist needed a henchman to do his dirty work. This character is a real villain–he’s downright evil–and he’s going to appear several times throughout the story.

I also need to rewrite certain elements of the main plot.

I suspect I’m going to have a massively different story by the time I finish the second draft, but it should still loosely follow the chain of events from the rough draft.

Goals for the second draft:

  • Work the villain’s scenes into the rest of the story
  • Rewrite the deuteragonist’s storyline so it fits in better with the main plot
  • Make the protagonist more dynamic

Additional drafts

I’m hesitant to say what I might do in later drafts of my story because things are still in early stages. I’d guess that I’ll have less work to do as I refine ideas and details become more solid, but we’ll see. Sometimes you think you’re on the right track, and then a critique shows you that you’re way off base.

It’s too soon to worry about all that, though. For now, I’m just going to work on what I know is problematic and deal with the rest when I get to it.

Do you have a system for drafting stories? Feel free to share your experience in the comments.

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Writing Advice

How can characters show affection?

Let’s talk about love. I don’t want to limit today’s post to romantic love, but it’s definitely part of this conversation. When you’re writing, even if you’re not writing romance, odds are good that your characters will form relationships with other characters and you’ll want to work in little ways they can show affection for each other.

If you want to get really deep into this, you can give your characters love languages and have them act according to those. I don’t know that it’s necessary, but it’s something you can consider when you’re working on character development.

Today’s post is pretty simple. I’m just going to give you a list of ways your characters might show affection for others. It doesn’t matter if they’re friends, lovers, coworkers, family members, whatever. Even two characters who are enemies might team up and do something to earn each other’s trust if they have to.

I’m sorting this by love language because Yoast gets grumpy if I don’t use enough headers, but you don’t have to use the languages if you don’t want to.

Words of Affirmation

First, let’s look at characters who express themselves through dialogue. It might seem like this method lacks some subtlety, but you can be sneaky about it if you do a little brainstorming. Really look at the little details in your story, and you’ll figure it out. Okay? Okay.

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Compliments
  • Praise
  • Encouraging statements
  • Standing up for the other person
  • Texting to make sure they got home okay
  • In jokes or secret language

Quality Time

Next, look at ways your characters can spend time with one another. Sometimes they might be forced to spend time together, for example students who share classes. However, they should make it a point to seek each other out in their free time, too.

  • Hiking together
  • Watching movies
  • Doing homework or chores together
  • Talk face-to face without reaching for phones
  • Making eye contact
  • Making plans to spend time together
  • Having a daily routine (example: we always do the newspaper crossword at breakfast)

Gifts

Continuing along our affection journey, let’s look at those characters who like giving or receiving gifts. I think this is an easy one, but it might be hard for some stories. Additionally, think about any symbolism or themes when you think about gifts. A gift from someone your character cares about is likely to stick with readers, so you might try to do something to make it special or important to the story somehow.

  • Flowers and/or cards
  • Books
  • Snacks or meals
  • Mix tapes
  • Attending an event to support the other person (example: going to their tennis match to cheer them on)
  • Giving them pretty much anything they might need, or anything your character has observed they might like

Acts of Service

Our penultimate love language, acts of service, is one of the more subtle ways characters might show affection. If you’re careful, you can do a lot with a little here; an act of service might be as simple as making someone a cup of tea, or sharing an umbrella on a rainy day.

  • Helping with chores or homework
  • Carrying their books
  • Cooking them a meal
  • Cutting up fruit
  • Mending clothes

Physical Touch

Finally, we have physical touch. I know this rings romance bells for some of you, but remember that characters who aren’t romantically connected might still use touch to show affection. For example, mothers cuddling their babies, or teammates giving each other high fives after someone scores a goal.

  • High fives or fist bumps
  • Hugs
  • Holding hands
  • Back rubs or massage
  • Kisses
  • Intercourse

I’m sure you can come up with more

Those were just a few things I came up with, but obviously there’s a lot more out there. I hope this post gave you some ideas, or introduced you to a new way of thinking about love. How do your characters show affection for each other? What do you do to develop their relationships? Feel free to let me know in a comment!

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Image credit: Dayne Topkin

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Writing Advice

White Room Syndrome

Not too long ago, I shared some basic details about micro worlds with you. Today I want to talk about what happens when you don’t spend enough time developing your micro worlds. White room syndrome is a struggle for me because I have aphantasia, and I can’t visualize anything. The tips I’m sharing today are strategies I use almost every day.

As always, let’s start with a definition. What is white room syndrome?

White room syndrome is a phenomenon that occurs when a writer doesn’t use enough details to describe their setting. The reader is left to imagine the characters talking in an empty white room.

Obviously that’s not ideal. Here are some things you can do to get around it.

First, think about what’s happening in the scene

You don’t need to describe every last detail of a room, but you should highlight things that set the scene. What stands out to your characters? What are they thinking and doing? Find a way to tie the scenery into what’s happening in your story. Or set up a juxtaposition and make the setting details contrast what’s happening in the outside world.

Pick a few focal points

Rather than try to describe an entire room from floor to ceiling, I try to pick a few smaller details that will stand out in some way. Think about things like sleek lounge chairs, photos on the walls, trinkets displayed on an elegant etagere, dirty socks on the carpet. What other little things might attract a character’s attention? Also, remember characters experience a setting with all of their senses, not just with their eyes.

I don’t have a hard and fast rule of thumb for sensory description, but I always try to think about things like how the character’s shoes might sound on the floor or what other noises they might hear, what the room smells like, or things a character might touch and how those things would feel.

Describe it from different angles

You may or may not need to do this, depending on what kind of book you’re writing. If you’re going to reuse a setting, try describing it from a different angle every time your characters are in it.

A character’s bedroom is an easy example. In one scene, they might be in bed, so you describe what they see from there. Next time, maybe they’re at their desk; their focal points from their desk will be a little different than it was from their bed. Another time, maybe they’re getting dressed. They might be standing in front of their closet or a mirror. Also, consider how a setting might change over time. Maybe your character tends to drop things on the floor, or they move their furniture around. Maybe the house catches fire, although that’s a little extreme, and they’re left picking up the pieces after the room is destroyed.

At any rate, reexamining your settings from multiple angles is more work for you, but it helps keep your story fresh for readers.

Use photos for reference

If you’re really having a hard time visualizing how a room should look, it’s okay to find reference material. Pinterest is an option. You can also check out home decor blogs, magazines, furniture catalogs, and even television shows or movies. Combine elements from different sources if you need to. Whatever works.

Let’s add a little color to those white rooms

I hope I’ve given you some good ideas to combat white room syndrome in your stories. If you have any tips, feel free to leave a comment below! Also, don’t forget about those social media buttons! If you liked this post, please share it with your writer friends. Thanks!

Categories
Writing Advice

A look at micro worlds

I wrote about worldbuilding back in November, and today I’d like to get a little more specific. Let’s talk about an aspect of worldbuilding that’s easy to overlook: micro worlds.

It’s entirely possible that there’s a better name for this. Micro worlds just works for me.

What are micro worlds?

Your macro world is the world or universe where your novel is set. It’s the world that encompasses every setting, culture, and character that exists your novel. Micro worlds are the places your characters occupy in each scene. They’re places like the town square. A favorite booth in a local restaurant. Your character’s bedroom, or maybe even just their bed.

Developing micro worlds

A lot of writers devote tons of time to their macro world, coming up with loads of cultures, political systems, geographic details, cities, you name it. And that’s great. But I would argue that the details of your micro worlds are at least as important, if not more so. If you skimp on those details, you’re going to end up with white room syndrome (I’ll talk about that soon).

Here are some ways you can add more detail to your micro worlds.

Prepare a lot of them

This is tricky if you’re a pantser, but it’s something to keep in mind as you write.

Almost every scene in your book should have its own unique setting, which means a novel needs a lot of micro worlds. When you reuse a setting, you need to try and describe it from different angles every time to help keep things fresh.

Go small when you’re trying for a deep emotional connection

Rather than describe a setting from the rooftops down to the weeds poking out from the cracks in the sidewalk, pick a few smaller elements that will help connect your reader to what’s happening.

Even though everybody always says you should go big or go home, sometimes the easiest way to punch a reader in the gut is to hone in on something small. There’s only so much a person can keep track of at a time, so I’d go easy on heavy descriptions of things we’ll never see again, and instead focus on details that have a deeper meaning to the story.

Sharing a few small details, like a doll abandoned in the gutter, or family photos on the wall, will help the reader connect to your setting and to what’s happening in your scene. Sometimes you need to devote space to large scale settings, like suburbs or countries, but I believe less is more as a general rule. A description of a macro setting can turn into a boring info dump if you’re not careful.

Use photos for references

I struggle with visualizing things. I always have. It’s really hard for me to craft settings, especially micro worlds, because I just can’t picture detailed scenes in my mind. I’ll have a vague idea of what I want a space to look like, but then I need an actual image to look at before I can put it into words.

Pinterest is very useful because I can create boards for my micro worlds, and then use all of those images when I need to put a room together, describe a shop, a forest, or even a continent.

You can also use stock photos, magazines, books, or even TV shows or documentaries as reference material if you need it. I like to start with a few keywords, like “medieval castle,” or “farmhouse,” and then go from there. Sometimes it takes several searches before I’m satisfied, but it’s still a fun process for me. If I ever get tired of writing, maybe I’ll take up interior design.

Your settings will vary from one book to the next

Sometimes you need micro worlds more than others, and sometimes those worlds will need more development. It really depends on the book. I still think it’s a good idea to at least consider the possibility of micro worlds, even if you’re just writing a short story. Your settings help ground your reader into your characters’ lives, so you need to put some thought into them. It may not be something you pour a lot of energy into when you’re writing your first draft, but you should work on those details before your final draft.

I’m devoting the second draft of my novel to refining my characters and a few major plot details, but I know I need to tackle my settings soon. Some of the larger ones might even need mapping out.

Do you think about micro worlds when you develop your story? What kinds of things do you try to keep in mind when you’re worldbuilding? If you’d like to share, please leave a comment below. Thanks!

Image credit: Daria Rom, Unsplash.

Categories
Writing Advice

Trust Your Reader

I seem to be on a roll with old writing rules lately. Trust your reader goes along with classics like “show, don’t tell,” “write what you know,” and “kill your darlings.” Most of these old school rules come from a good place, but they’re often misinterpreted or poorly explained.

Today’s post was inspired by a barrage of questions I’ve come across recently in writing groups. Things like, how would you describe the sound a cat makes when it’s hissing? How would you describe a hamburger? Or they’ll post a photo of a random object and ask for a description.

These are writers who don’t trust their readers. Let’s talk about what that means, and what you can do about it.

Have a little faith in your target audience

In a nutshell, if you trust your reader, it means you don’t feel a need to explain basic concepts to them. You know they’ve probably heard a cat hiss before, either in real life or on television, so there’s no reason to try to describe that in your story. You can just say, “The cat hissed,” and leave it at that.

Part of this comes down to knowing your target audience. If you’re writing a book for very young children, you might actually need to describe the cat hissing. It’s possible they’ve never encountered it. But most other audiences will know. You don’t have to tell them.

How to avoid doing it

I feel like learning how to trust your reader means having a little self awareness as well. You’ve got to really understand that you don’t have to explain every last detail of what’s happening in your story. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself if you’re struggling.

Who is my target audience?

If you don’t know who your reader is, you can’t put any faith in them. So take a moment and really decide who you’re writing for. Kids? Teens? Adults? Do you think you’re more likely to attract a certain gender? Are you aiming at readers who are a certain religion, ethnicity or race?

Depending on your story, you might have a really narrow target audience–say, LGBT Christian teens who are struggling with finding a balance between their sexuality and their religious beliefs. Or you might write chick-lit and have a pretty broad audience, like women ages 18 and up. The important thing is that you have at least a general idea of who your readers are.

Is my audience familiar with what I’m describing?

If you’re writing a book for adults who live in the developed world, you probably don’t need to describe how to drive a car step-by-step. There’s a good chance that most of them have at least some familiarity with the process. You don’t have to tell them “Bob walked out to the car. He beeped it open with his remote, then sat down in the seat and buckled his seat belt. Bob’s Prius had a smart key, so he didn’t need to put it in the ignition. He just pressed the start button, then shifted into reverse and used his camera to back out of the driveway.”

Are you bored yet?

Exception: If something unusual happens during a process that your reader should find familiar, you should mention that. Like maybe Bob’s backing out of his driveway, and his car won’t stop. An oncoming vehicle hits him, and he discovers his brake line was cut.

If your audience is not familiar with what you’re describing, you should still use a light touch. Be as clear and concise as possible, and stick to details that are relevant to your story.

Is it relevant to the story?

I feel like some writers get so eager to show off their knowledge base that they sometimes include details that just don’t matter to the story because it means something to them. This brings us into kill your darlings territory. I know it’s hard, but technical details can be really boring to readers.

I’ve done this before. One of my short stories is about a girl who decides to become a spinster–literally, in this case, spinning fiber into yarn and making it into cloth so she can earn a living. I love fiber arts almost as much as I love writing, and it was a real struggle to stick to the story when I wanted to go on and on about technique.

Is something unique or unusual happening?

If the answer to this question is yes, please give us the details. Nobody cares much about a fast food hamburger. We already know they have a weird texture and a lot of them taste more like condiments than beef. But what about a stupidly fancy burger that some bougie rich guy buys your protagonist because he thinks throwing money around will impress her? Like…A wagyu burger topped with shaved truffles, caviar, and gold flake?

Obviously we need to know a little more about that. Don’t be heavy-handed when you describe it, but don’t treat it like a Big Mac either.

Mind your word choice

Sometimes a “trust your reader” type error happens due to your narrative voice rather than a decision to overload the story with information. I’ll give you an example.

Frederick listened to the forest around him. He heard the sound of leaves rustling over head. He heard bird calls. He didn’t hear anything that sounded like human footsteps.

This is…Not great.

Leaves rustled over Frederick’s head. Songbirds twittered until a bluejay’s harsh cry interrupted their gentle trills. The forest was alive with sound, possibly because no human interlopers crashed through the brush.

This one is a little better, right?

You could also consider this showing vs telling, or a deep POV exercise. Call it what you want, but to me it’s a sign that the writer hasn’t spent enough time ironing out the wrinkles in their prose.

When you’re in a limited POV, whether it’s first person or third, you don’t always have to tell your reader “he heard,” “he felt,” “he saw.” A lot of the time, you can get right to your character’s experience and it won’t confuse the reader.

Sometimes trusting your reader is about confronting your own insecurities

Maybe you’re worried your readers won’t get your story unless you include certain details. Try not to stress. If you’re concerned, ask your critique partners or beta readers, and trust their judgment if you can’t trust your own.

Readers will get what’s important without being hit over the head with tons of information. They’ll also form their own conclusions about your book, and that’s okay. I think it’s a good sign.

I’ll try to mention other times you should trust your reader in future posts, so please keep an eye out for that. If you have any comments or questions, be sure to share them below! And, of course, feel free to use those social media buttons. Thanks!

Image credit: Dose Media, Unsplash.