Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Pro-Tip: Characterization

6 Oct

How do you talk to your friends? To your family? Bosses and coworkers?

For every person and situation, there is a way we present ourselves. Why should this be any different for each of your characters? It shouldn’t.

I remember when teachers used to say, “Don’t start a sentence with ‘because,’” or “You can’t use contractions in formal or serious writing.” And they had lots of rules about slang. To a point, those rules were useful. In the context of their classrooms, they were golden. Following such laws ensured decent grades. After all, breaking a rule so explicitly stated would render the teacher unable to take you seriously beyond that point.

But now, it’s time to forget it. It’s rubbish. Rules like that have a place in the classrooms of the teachers who value them and little place else. Try writing a realistic character without breaking them. It’s nearly impossible if you want that character to sound like someone you could really meet. And that’s the key—creating characters that we see ourselves and others in, even when the character isn’t a human. Characters are textual embodiments of our human experience. Even a talking dog on Mars will be based on the actions and emotions we know because it’s impossible to invent an emotion or characteristic fully new and alien. It may seem different but, somewhere at its core, every new creation of fiction is rooted in the human experience. If characters aren’t experiencing and acting organically as you or I would, then what are they? Caricatures of prescriptive rules, rules which tell us how language ought to be but do not reflect how language is actually used.

Example: “Tom, it is late. I find we will miss the movie if we do not leave now. Are we not going to the movies after all?”

“No, Summer, we are not. I have to complete this project for chemistry lab. It is due tomorrow, and I neglected to begin work earlier. I am very sorry.”

Ok, so there’s nothing technically wrong with that exchange between Summer and her boyfriend, Tom. The scene is clear. But how forced did that feel? If you were Summer would you talk like that? If you were Tom? Maybe if this was an exchange between Data and a Vulcan… otherwise, I doubt it. Plus, would a Vulcan actually forget to do his homework? I digress.

Many readers play the scenes of a novel like a movie in their minds. Less visual learners may not, but chances are, they at least listen to the soundtrack of the words. Reading a conversation like the example is as awkward feeling as it would be to watch that scene play out in real life. It doesn’t flow. It sounds like a business exchange between strangers, not a dispute between partners, lovers. The formality slows the natural rhythm of reading. It gets in the way. In more colloquial speech, the words run together. They sound in a reader’s head as they would out of the reader’s mouth. Smooth, easy, and with more personality.

When writing, make sure you’re not stalling the tension and momentum of your scenes by being overly formal. Fiction novels aren’t research papers, agent queries, resumes, or instruction manuals. Make your characters talk like real people.

Since you’ve thrown out all of those rules I mentioned earlier, replace them with this: Each character must have a unique and realistic voice that reflects personality. All quirks will at that point appear purposeful because they will be unique to the character.

Perhaps one character really DOES talk that way in the novel. The choice to leave the dialogue formal, or fully informal, at all times, or even riddled with slang or nonsense words would be obviously purposeful to your readers because no one else would be quite the same. The way we talk is a part of our personality, and it is no different for the characters you create.

Keeping that in mind, let’s try the example again.

“Tom, aren’t we going to the movies? We’ll be late.”

“No, Summer. I’ve got this project for chem that’s due tomorrow. I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

OR

“Tom, we’re not going to the movies, are we?”

“Nope. I just remember I have a chemistry project due in the morning.”

“You promised.”

“I’m sorry.”

“See, you always do this. You plan all this great stuff and then you’re all, ‘Oh, well, I gotta do this instead.’”

“I don’t sound like that.”

OR

“You ready to go, Tom? We need to leave now.”

“I’m doing this chem lab. I can’t stop in the middle of it.”

“Really? You knew we were going out at 4. You saw me getting ready. Why did you start the project if you knew you couldn’t stop until the end? Why didn’t you say something an hour ago?”

See how a simple exchange can escalate if you let the language develop to who the characters are individually and what their situation is as a whole? With additional characterization and narration, the reader may already know or soon learn that these two always bicker, that she’s a little spoiled, but that her irritation is justified due to his aloof attitude and transient interests, or maybe it’s a first fight and the reader has to continue to find out if their relationship can withstand it. With more surrounding description, the reader should be able to say these sentences in the voices set up for each character—the reader’s own variation of what the author has led her to imagine.

The takeaway here is, within reasonable consideration of appropriateness to your target audience, abandon all rules that don’t suit the reality of a character or scene. If your character uses contractions in speech or starts sentences with “because,” let him. If the scene requires slang, go for it. If your protagonist only curses when surprised because she hates to be surprised, let it fly, but only in the proper scenarios. Stay true to the character. All of them should talk in the text like they would talk to you in real life.

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico,

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Pro-Tip: The Importance of Napping

9 Sep

Fair warning, today’s tip has nothing to do with the actual meat of your writing. This tip has to do with YOU.

I’ve read a lot of “How to Write” books, articles, blogs and all of them take considerable time discussing how vital it is to MAKE time to write. These how-to resources are quick to assume that aspiring writers are not full-time writers. I’m not saying this assumption is fully incorrect. Let’s face it; it’s very difficult to get by financially on the hope of future publication. For those who have not already started to earn a living by their craft, the reality is that writing is a part-time job, a late-night endeavor, a when-I-can hobby. Something else has to bring in the cash while we write toward that big break or perfect job.

So, while these how-to articles are not wrong to say that it is vital to plan a time to get the work done, they often neglect the person behind the task. I realize it’s difficult with jobs, families, and other obligations (plus the desire for a social life) to make time to write. What is even harder, sometimes, is to make time to relax. It’s easy to feel guilty for not using empty time for writing when all of these outside sources say that the best, easiest, only way to make writing a career is to force a place for it into your schedule. Sometimes, though, when you have free time, that’s exactly what you want to do with it. Be free. I call this post “the importance of napping,” but I don’t mean you literally have to nap—although I LOVE to nap. What it comes down to is avoiding the burn out or writer’s block that comes from stress.

Mind-fry is common when balancing so many facets of life, especially under the immense pressure for perfection that we put on ourselves as authors (see earlier Pro-Tip about obsessive revision). As important as it is to prioritize a part of your day for writing, it is equally important to prioritize some time (any time, even if it’s not daily) to mellow. Getting away from your writing can help you hash out new ideas, come back with fresh eyes, see mistakes you overlooked, and feel a general boost in motivation. How can you be excited to get started on something when you’re never away from it? Instead, it just stagnates.

So, don’t feel guilty or lazy or irresponsible for taking some time for yourself to nap, day dream, meditate, or take a walk. Not to sound cliché or sappy, but it’s true that if you don’t nurture yourself, you can’t nurture anything you’re trying to create.

Happy writing (and napping),

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Pro-Tip: Dump the Junk

2 Sep

If something in your writing isn’t working, CHANGE IT. Don’t get too attached to the first version (or second or third) of something. Jot it down and save it for later before erasing it from your work completely. It may become useful again in a different area of the text. If not, it may apply to another project at another time. This is especially useful for those lines we write and really, really love. You know the ones. They’re hard to delete even if they’re no longer serving your purpose. Sometimes things get said just right. So dump the junk, but save it. Be a line-hoarder. Your literary house is spotless, but you’ve got that crammed closet your friends don’t know about. If and when they find it, you know what it’s there for. Like Monica says in the video link, it’s where all the things that don’t fit in belong.

New Beginnings

26 Aug

Life is calming down and allowing me to retrain my focus here. In September, I will relocate to South Carolina. I plan to make my editing company a full-time venture, which means you will see a lot more of me around here. No longer will I need to divide my attention between teaching, editing, and nannying. YAY!

With this change comes a new series of posts I will add periodically. I’m calling them pro-tips. They’re along the same lines as my self-editing tips, but shorter, grab-and-go solutions to common problems. I decided to move away from the self-editing tips series because I felt that I covered most of the grammar basics already. Short of writing a grammar text book, it’s all here. I hope the pro-tips take on a new, more useful life than the self-editing tips by touching on more real-world writing topics that go beyond just grammar and mechanics. Three tips a week is the goal, but in this time of transition, no promises yet.

For now, that’s all the big news I have, but I’ll be sure to update often. Thanks for listening.

Happy writing!

Mandy Marsico

-Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Self-Editing Tip #23–Taking a Step Back

13 Sep

Even editors need an editor sometime. AND IT’S OK. Don’t think of it as an admission of imperfection or as a sign of incapability to improve your own writing. The reality is that after working on your own project for a considerable amount of time, it becomes nearly impossible to see certain mistakes. After reading through a 300-page manuscript three times, you know what you’re trying to say. That doesn’t mean the writing makes the point so clear. It’s OK to need an outsider to say, “Hey, that section isn’t very cohesive,” or, “I don’t think you followed through with that thought.”

So, it doesn’t matter how great of an editor of other people’s work you are—you can’t always be that great editor for your own work. Yes, do your self-editing, do your grammar checks, spell checks, typo checks. Yes, try to make sure you tie up all the loose ends, the Chekhov guns and Red Herrings. But don’t get your pride hurt for realizing you need a second, third, fourth reader to make sure you’ve found all the missteps. Besides, what aspiring writer would ever turn down valuable input from the people that could one day become a paying audience?

Take a step back and enjoy what your writing has become.

P.S. It’s OK to get help.

 

Happy editing!

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

www.linkedin.com/pub/amanda-marsico/7b/ab8/b/

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

Self-Editing Tip #21–The Known-New Contract

28 Aug

In keeping with our composition-related topics this week, we’re going to talk about the known-knew contract. Simply put, this states that you give readers a little bit of what they already know as clarification, reiteration, or summary in order to lead in new material. It’s a way to keep the text cohesive by relating it back to what you’ve already stated. This principle is generally taught in relation to academic writing, but I’ve always thought it applies to every type of text (except poetry).

In its originally intended use, the essay, you’d put this to work by grabbing bits of your introduction statements, or details from previous body paragraphs, to clarify and link the new points you make as you move forward.

Ex. Known-New at paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Thesis: Solar panels are the future of energy efficiency.

Paragraph 1—a fact is stated: Solar panels are efficient because they reduce x, y, and z.

Paragraph 3—remind readers of the fact to lead in a new idea: Since solar panels reduce x, y, and z, advocates of green living are pushing for tax incentives for those who purchase panels for their homes.

In business writing, this is especially important. Consider a project proposal or summary with lots of technical jargon. Those documents are meant to make a very specific type of (often persuasive) statement. It’s the known-new contract that helps a writer make sure the reader walks away remembering the most relevant points.

Ex. Known-New at sentence level and paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Proposal Topic: New Ad Campaign

Paragraph 1—proposal for ad campaign: We propose a new ad campaign for television. A television campaign will increase our company’s exposure to potential customers by 60%.

Paragraph 2—supporting facts: Increasing our exposure by 60% will cost us $x in resources with a potential $x profit.

In fiction, you must remember your audience. If the story is geared towards younger readers, the action of linking previous plot details to the new ones is more important than stories for older readers. The reading skill of tying events together to get that “Oh, I see what just happened,” moment develops with age. Plainly stated, the little ones need the writer to connect the dots for them more often than teens, and teens more often than adults. Don’t insult your audience’s intelligence by including too many breadcrumbs back to the “known.”

Ex. Known-New at chapter/plot level (bold type = known, underlined = new)

Chapter 4—“Melissa, did I tell you about that guy I met at the mall yesterday?”

Chapter 6—“Chris, the guy from the mall, never called.”

There’s a fine balance to strike in order to make a cohesive story that isn’t redundant or dumbed down. It takes practice. Ask yourself, “If I don’t restate this point in some way, will my audience forget about it/no longer understand the text as a whole/fail to put together a key dramatic moment meant to coalesce in this moment?

 

Happy writing!

 

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

Self-Editing Tip #20–The Red Herring

26 Aug

Ok, guys. I promised on Friday that today’s discussion would continue the composition-related tips. Let’s talk about the good ol’ Red Herring principle. Like Chekhov’s Gun, this topic deals with the motivation behind including details in a piece of text. However, while Chekhov’s Gun is inherently good in its intentions—advising writers how to follow up on details—a Red Herring is more mischievous. It might be something you want to avoid for genres outside of mystery/detective or action/suspense/drama.

The label is used to describe two instances. The first is a more general situation not limited to literature: the logical fallacy. The logical fallacy is something you’ll want to avoid no matter what you’re writing. Check your text. You’ve got one if, whether intentionally or accidentally, the premise stated never truly supports the proposed conclusion. As a literary device, non sequiturs do this to the extreme as a comedic tool. Non sequiturs in logic are similar in that the conclusion does not logically follow the support given beforehand, but in logic, the goal is not humor.

Ex. You’ve got so many books in your office! I bet the trashcan gets full quickly.

As a literary device, a red herring is a purposefully misleading detail that distracts from the true plot point or conclusion and, therefore, leads readers to believe x,y, or z is different than it is.

Ex. You tell your readers that Joe is dead. They stop wondering if he was the killer. All the while, the killings continue. The readers don’t realize yet that Joe isn’t dead, he is the killer, and he has continued killing under the cover of his “death.”

This would be a great use of the Red Herring concept. When written in a way that improves suspense, shock, or mystery there’s nothing wrong with misleading readers a little. It just needs to be done within a genre that can support that type of trickery, and done in a way that enhances, not irritates. And remember, confusion is not the same as mystery!

There are so many real-life variations of the red herring, wild goose chase, and other similar plot distractions named after wildlife. Check out the Chewbacca Case and Cherry Picking if you’d like to know more. I can’t list them all.

 

Happy deceiving!

 

–Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

marsicoam@gmail.com

www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

https://twitter.com/MarsWriteSite

http://pinterest.com/wordsnsounds/

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