Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Co-Author the Story with your Reader

Australian novelist Morris West, who during his lifetime sold 60 million books in 27 languages, once said: "[The writer] has to be the kind of [wo]man who turns the world upside down and says, 'Look, it looks different, doesn't it?'"

For me, there's something that separates an author from the pack, and that thing is the author's instinctive ability to ignore obvious descriptions. Instead of relying on the character's eyes, facial expressions or other characterizations to describe emotion, a truly gifted and conscientious writer finds ways to turn descriptions on their heads, so that the reader has a fresh vantage point from which to experience the emotion. These authors use things to convey emotion in ways that dynamically and emotionally enmesh them with the narration.

Done right, the readers are driven to create the story in their minds as they read. As readers' imaginations spark and emotions blaze, they are, in effect, co-authoring the unfolding story. 

For example, a writer could have her character complain this way: Esther rolled her eyes, pouting as she spoke. "I was sick to death of being constantly bombarded with sensational stories in New York City newspapers."

Esther's characterizations show us her feelings, and 'bombarded' is certainly a strong, high impact verb that carries a lot of emotional bang for its buck. But now consider how Sylvia Plath handled the described sentiment in the opening paragraph of "The Bell Jar":

"...and that's all there was to read about in the papers -- goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway."

Plath turned the character's complaint on its side by describing the headlines and the places where the papers were sold. The modifiers she chose painted for the reader the emotional portrait of the Esther's feelings. Plath's descriptions allow us see and smell what Esther saw and smelled, and that makes us feel what Esther felt. Her descriptions invite readers to participate in the scene.

I love this quote by humor columnist Patrick F. McManus: "Write out of the reader's imagination as well as your own. Supply the significant details and let the reader's imagination do the rest. Make the reader a co-author of the story."

Question For Next TimeDo you think about your readers as co-authors of your story? Does doing so inspire you?

[Note: I wrote this article for publication in the June 12, 2013 Drama Newsletter on
Photo Source.]

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hook 'Em Good

Writing is my oxygen, and I don't hold my breath on any given day. Lately though, life has forced my focus away from fiction, as my job in Public Relations involves writing in various nonfiction categories. It's required a complete rerouting of my creative circuitry, as you can imagine. There is one element that remains essential across all fiction and nonfiction genres: the all-important Hook. 

Whether your audience is middle grade boys or 18-45 year-olds into speculative fiction, or it's niche magazine readers in a small Georgian city or Internet surfers happening upon your blog, you need a dramatic hook to grab readers' attention and lead them into your writing. 

In fiction the hook typically appears on the first page, and it often works most effectively in the opening paragraph. In nonfiction, where you place the hook is as important as the hook itself. Here are some nonfiction genres and the most effective placement of their hooks:

Magazine Article -- The opening of a magazine article is the lead, the hook that propels the reader into the piece. It can be an interesting or shocking question or quote, an anecdote, or a short description of the subject or scene. The most important part of the lead is the first sentence, which will be most dramatic when it's short and punchy and pertains to the main focus of the article. 

Press Release -- In a press release, the headline must hook a journalist or reporter. Headlines should be enticing, contain 120 characters or less, use the present tense and active voice, and exclude articles such as "a" and "the." The writer should pull the most important keywords from the press release to form a logical and attention-getting statement. And using those keywords in the headline will ensure better visibility in search engines result lists.

Blog Post -- Bloggers know the vast number of sites readers have to choose from on the Internet every day. It's vital to draw traffic to their blogs, and bloggers hook potential readers with catchy, dynamic blog titles. Blog titles should contain less than 70 characters, as this is the limit Google displays in search results.

Cover Letter -- A cover letter is essentially a form letter. The hook is not in the first paragraph, where the applicant should simply introduce him or herself and state the position for which he or she is applying. It is the second paragraph which is the most important, the place where the candidate spins a clever web of qualifications and personality that will land him or her an interview.

Query Letter -- Unlike a cover letter, a query letter needs to hook the literary agent or editor in the first paragraph, even in the first sentence, if possible. The query letter hook is often baited with the unique voice of the book's main character.

Website -- Search Engine Optimization or SEO consultants work hard to drive increased traffic to their client websites. According to SEO specialists, the first 140 characters of text on any website page are critical. How do they hook readers? They are the first words that appear underneath the website keywords in a search engine result list. 

For example, if you do a Google search with these keywords: online writer's community, you will find in the results. Underneath the website title link (The Online Community for Writer's -  ), you will find these two lines:

Writing.Com is the online community for writers of all interests. Established in 2000, our community breeds WritingWriters and Poetry through Creative Writing ...

And yes, you guessed it, there are (just under) 140 characters.

Regardless of the genre, writers must know their targeted audience and know how to hook them. And when it comes to nonfiction, knowing where to place the hook will give you an important edge over your competition in grabbing readers and drawing them into your written work.

What's the last piece of nonfiction you wrote?


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The End(ing)

A story, like all “good things,” must come to an end. The ending, also known as Denouement, is as important to the story as the Beginning and the Middle . A good ending leaves the reader with a sense that the story has come to a logical, satisfying conclusion. For writers, it's important to remember what an ending shouldn't do. By understanding what constitutes a weakly executed ending, we're more likely to avoid these pitfalls in our writing.

A story ending SHOULDN’T:Leave Unanswered Questions – Regardless of the length of a story, be it flash fiction or a novel, the ending should tie up all the loose plot strings. All issues, minor or major, introduced in a story must serve a purpose and move the plot forward. By the end of the story, the reader should have answers to all questions posed in the narration and have learned how the character(s) cleared all their obstacles.

Make the Reader Decide What Happened – You want your reader to feel satisfied by the outcome of the story. This doesn’t mean you need to spoon-feed exactly what happens in a play-by-play commentary. Readers enjoy having enough information to imagine what happens next, beyond The End. What frustrates most readers is realizing the story has led them to a plot intersection, and the author has placed on their shoulders the burden of deciding how the story ends.

Be Too Abrupt – Have you ever read a story that was chugging along at an enjoyable pace, and suddenly it was over? This usually happens when the climactic scene is pushed up against the ending, and the writer skipped right over the falling action. Authors need to be mindful of the pacing of events and manipulate the emotional impact each moment has on the reader. The reader should be left with the impression the ending was the natural conclusion to the story, the terrain that leveled out at the bottom of the hill, rather than feel like the plot had been pushed off a cliff.

Be Too Long – Another pacing problem occurs when the time between the climactic scene and the story’s end is too long. The story seems to fizzle out. All the excitement of earlier scenes is forgotten. If your ending is too long-winded, you risk boring your reader.

Be Illogical – Your ending must make sense on two fronts, Plot and Character(s):

*Bullet* Plot: Resolution of the central problem has to be achieved by means of a logical chain of events. Suspension of belief is sacrificed when the ending promotes a breakdown of cause and effect. The reader simply won’t buy it.

*Bullet* Characters: If during the story’s ending, a character behaves in a way that is in direct contrast with his or her established personality, with no logical explanation for the shift in behavior, the reader is going to raise an eyebrow. The character, and the ending, will feel false and contrived.

Be Too Predictable – Readers love a story with a twist. It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering. However, a creative ending that sheds new light on what the reader believed to be true will ‘up’ the entertainment factor of the whole story. On the other hand, if the reader has suspected a predictable ending since the rising action, s/he will feel let down, and the entire story will seem uninspired and weak.

Have a “Night in Shining Armor” Save the Day – Readers want to feel emotionally invested in the main character’s future. They embrace the hero or heroine, who is flawed with conflicts s/he must rise above in the course of the story. When readers have been rooting for the heroine, cheering her on through her struggles, they aren’t going to appreciate someone else swooping in at the end of the story and saving the day.

The ending you write is important to the overall success of your story. It will show how far your characters have come since the beginning and wrap up their story. A clever ending leaves your readers inspired, satisfied, and intrigued. And even the strongest writing will fall short on the reader’s entertainment yardstick if the ending is weak.

The following article is a must-read! Willie Meikle explains ten overdone, clich├ęd endings that he feels, (and I agree!), should be avoided at all costs:

10 Story Endings To Avoid

Thanks for reading, and happy writing!


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Life in a Subway

A subway car is a microcosm of life. Its riders are a random sampling of society, the characters in that scene from life's novel. Look at this picture. Who are these people? What would happen if a disaster struck, if the train jumped the tracks moments after this picture was snapped? The answer depends on the personalities of the people thrown together and what they carry with them in terms of priorities and their life experiences.

I'm a virgin novelist, as many of you know. I may be approaching this project backwards, but it's occurred to me that assembling my first cast of characters is a little like walking onto a subway train and picking a handful of people. As I get to know the strangers I've invited into my project, I'm reminded of a great truth in life: We're all struggling down our life paths.

Nobody has it easy in life. You can take five people, for example, and in the group have:
  • A successful Marketing Rep
  • A gorgeous fitness model
  • A creative storyteller
  • A well-known entertainer
  • A Martha Stewart-style homemaker
But within that same group, you also have:
  • A person paralyzed by fear of failure
  • A woman who kicked her cheating husband out but is afraid to divorce him and truly be on her own
  • A drug addict, in and out of rehab
  • A blind person
  • A first-time mother transitioning to the new life of parenthood
If you were sitting on a subway train with these five people, you probably couldn't guess which description went with which person (unless New Mom had Baby with her!).

As I flesh out my characters, I appreciate the importance of acknowledging all the successes and failures with which the characters are dealing, within the time frame of the novel. How a person acts and reacts in a scene is dependent on the combination of their conflicts and what they've experienced in life. I'm enjoying exploring what those things are and deciding how they will impact the plot of the novel.

What about you? When you start a project, are you more apt to know the personalities you need and build characters around them? Or are you like me and create characters who then reveal themselves in ways you didn't anticipate, so that you have to adapt the plot to accommodate them?