Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Differents Types of Romance, or My Love For You Can’t Be Labeled

21 Sep

by Susan Dennard
~~

When it comes to romance in YA (or really any novel), how the romantically-involved characters first meet is dictated very much by the type of romance you want to create. For example, what’s wrong with this picture:

Scene 1: Boy meets girl. They meet eyes; their hearts skip a beat. He comes over and is ridiculously swoon-worthy.

Scene 2: Boy picks on girl. She retorts with her own insults, and soon they’re quarreling.

Yeah, those two scenes sound like two different kinds of romance, don’t they? Scene 1 fits with #1 below, and scene 2 is more of a #2 from the list.

We may think our love is indefinable and vast and SO WONDERFUL it can’t be squeezed into a label, but…the truth is, like most plots, there is a little bit of formula to romance.*

*Note: romance–like any plot–doesn’t have to follow a formula. It just often does because those formulas WORK. Formulas give the reader expectations, and expectations heighten the tension by transforming the question from, “Is their the potential for love?” to “WHEN WHEN WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN? Just KISS already!” The plot keeps the characters apart when we know they belong together, and that builds a natural tension into the story.

Here are just a few examples of romantic plot lines and what’s needed when the characters first meet:

1. Love-at-first-sight? Then you’ll want some visceral reactions that show the heroine/hero’s initial reactions. Sex appeal, yes, but not explicitly so. A heroine might find her mouth dry and her stomach fluttery, and she might think about how good looking the hero is. Or maybe she’s just wondering why she is so compelled to speak to/see/be near this guy… She doesn’t know, but the reader does! (Ex: Hereafter by Tara Hudson)

2. It could be an “I HATE YOU” to “You’re not so bad” to “I luuurve you” romance. Then, the hero & heroine will probably get off on the wrong foot, immediately argue, and then kinda want to kill each other. Personally, I’m a fan of these romances (oh, Mr. Darcy, how I love thee!), and Something Strange and Deadly has some of this. The visceral reactions/attraction will come later, and that pesky hate thing is a great barrier to the final admission of feelings. (Ex: Star Wars, Han Solo and Princess Leia—best romance EVER!)

3. Maybe it’s a friendship-to-love romance. In that case, we’ll see the hero/heroine as Just A Friend, and we’ll move through the story as the MC figures out his/her true feelings. Again, the visceral reactions/attraction will develop as the story goes along. (Ex: The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal, The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting)

4. It could also be a long term crush turned to love if the MC has always loved the hero/heroine, or vice versa. When we first see the love interest, we also first see how the MC feels. If the MC desperately wants to kiss the boy, then the reader wants her to too–and we’ve gotta keep turning pages until it happens. (Ex: You Wish Mandy Hubbard, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver)

5. Or it could just be a slow, natural relationship. The characters meet, find each other attractive perhaps, and their romance grows from there. The meet up will have just a slight element of attraction or maybe none at all until a few scenes later. (Ex: Paranormalcy by Kiersten White, Unearthly by Cynthia Hand)

What other romance meet-ups can you come up with? Please share!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

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Holding Yourself (and Your Writing) Accountable

22 Aug

 

by Susan Dennard

~~

I’ve talked about productivity before. About how BICHOK is one sure-fire way to get your writing where it needs to be. About how focused practice is the only way to get better.

But what about those times when your self-motivation (if you even have it to begin with!) starts to flag?

What about those days where you spend four hours at the computer and write all of 4 words?

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

On those days, my friend, it’s time to seek help elsewhere. It’s time to find SOMEONE ELSE to hold you accountable.

I mean, think about it: when you were in high school, you got your work done (or I hope you did…). Maybe it was at the last minute or maybe it wasn’t always your best work, but you finished. Why? Because someone else expected you to.

So why not put a dose of SOMEONE ELSE in your writing life?

It’s easy. Find another writer (or as many as you want!) and agree to talk regularly, share your goals, and check in often to make sure you’re staying on track.

For example, right now, the Let the Words Flow ladies are sharing their daily word count goals. In the morning, we all email how many words we want to type out before night…and then that night, we email to say how much we actually wrote.

I can assure you that simply knowing the other ladies are gonna see my daily progress really pushes me to keep TYPING! And, if for whatever reason one of us is flagging, we all shoot out upbeat emails–and when I’m the one behind, that support REALLY helps me get back on track.

So if you’re finding you need a bit more motivation in your life, I challenge you to find another writer who’ll hold you accountable and send you lots of smiley faces when you need ’em.

Is this something you would ever do? Or do you already have someone like this in your writing life?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Writing a Saleable Book

10 Aug

by Susan Dennard

~~

Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.

🙂

My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.

I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.

That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).

Parts of a Good Book

1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.

The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.

2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).

This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.

Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.

3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.

4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.

Finding Problems

My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!

When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems

When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).

What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Victory Fist Pump!

20 Jul

 

by Susan Dennard

~~

So, the first round of the Nautilus Writing Workshop Writing for Young Adults came to a close last week. Sarah and I hope (and think!) our six diligent students learned a lot, but there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain they all came away with. I know it because I came away with it.

And that is this:

One of the most important pieces of your writing life is TO TALK about it with other writers.

This same maxim applies to other crafts–interior design, knitting, water colors, whatever. There’s really nothing that will motivate you to work, stimulate your creativity, or make you smile quite like talking about your art.

From sharing your experiences and dreams to discussing your toolbox to bemoaning your frustrations–you’ve just GOTTA talk about this stuff. But more importantly, you need to talk about it with someone who knows what the heck you mean.

It’s one thing to have your idea-bouncer-offer-person–someone I do believe we all need in our creative lives–but it’s quite another to have your writing buddy who knows the terms, the trials, and the terror.

So I’m coining a new phrase.

Victory Fist Pump Buddy: a person who is also a writer, and therefore knows just how freaking hard this whole writing biz can be. This person is qualified to Fist Pump over your victories and share a tissue over the roadblocks. This person actually knows what it takes.

I mean, we all know how it feels when you see that dude at the supermarket…

DUDE

Oh, so you’re a writer?

YOU

(proudly)

Yeah, I just finished my first novel.

DUDE

Awesome! When’s it come out?

YOU

(uncomfortably)

Um, well…it doesn’t quite work that way.

Or how about this conversation?

YOU

I just got an agent! Oh my gosh, this is the happiest moment of my life!

DUDE

(staring stupidly)

Why? Aren’t you the one that hires them?

YOU

No. It’s a really competitive thing–like, thousands of writers all have to send query letters and… Oh, what’s the point. Forget it

You throw your hands in the air and storm off.


Or maybe even this one:

YOU

Oh. My. Gosh. My book has SOOOOLD!

DUDE

Sweet! I’ll go buy it! Does Amazon have it?

YOU

(frowning)

No, it takes an average of 2 years for a book to reach stores.

DUDE

(stupidly)

What? Why?

YOU

Because! That’s just how it works. And no, it is not a reflection on the quality of my book! I’m really proud of my novel.

DUDE

Oh, well that’s still awesome! So your book will be the next Harry Potter, right?

You just roll your eyes and stalk away.

But then you have your writer buddy–your Victory Fist Pump Buddy who knows EXACTLY what you’re talking about. When you tell them that an agent requested a partial, they squeal with delight. When you groan over lack of self-motivation, they offer to keep you in check. When you feel like jumping off a bridge, they talk you down.

I never knew how much I was missing until a year ago, when I joined some online communities and suddenly felt connected–felt like I’d found people who really understood.

And since then, my relationships with other writers–the LTWF community, in particular–have grown stronger and more valuable. I can’t live without my Victory Fist Pump Buddies! Sorry to my husband, but when it comes to writing, your ever-willing-to-listen-ear just isn’t enough. I need someone who’s been there too! Someone who’ll nurture my creativity while also challenging it.

That said, I challenge YOU to find your own Victory Fist Pump Buddy. If you don’t already have one, go out and meet some other writers (online or in person) TODAY! If you do already have some buddies in your life, then drop ’em a line and tell them how much you appreciate having them around.

I appreciate all of you guys–all of you readers who leave us comments that let us know we’re not alone. I appreciate my fellow LTWF gals who answer my panicked or joyful emails with unwavering support and love.

So let’s all do it together in a super cheesy made-for-TV movie moment:

::victory fist pump::

Huzzah!

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

30 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to suggest a strategy for research that will provide the authentic details you need without bogging you down in the process.

Step 1 – Make notes about the factual issues that you will need to research.

What will you need to learn to ensure that your story is authentic and appropriate for its genre? (I mention genre here because some genres have higher standards for accuracy than others. A “police procedural” mystery will require far more exacting details than would a contemporary fiction that includes an arrest in the plot.)

Once you’ve made a list of topics and facts you will need to research, divide it into two categories – “big picture” and “important details.”

“Big picture” knowledge is the information you need as you create the over-arching idea behind your novel and start your first draft. Examples would be:

  • In pre-Columbus North America, were horses a part of daily life?
  • Would a heart transplant be an option for a pregnant woman?
  • How long does DNA evidence last at a crime scene?

What qualifies an issue to be in the “big picture” category is the fact that it is at the heart of your story and essential for your concept to make sense. For instance, if your novel is about a crime that was committed aboard the Titanic, and how it is solved in the present day by the use of DNA evidence, you need to take the time to research these facts at the outset. What you learn about DNA evidence will have a huge impact on the course of your novel.

Step 2 – Attack the “big picture” issues and gain knowledge about the facts that will help form the spine of your story.

If you know that there is an area of study that is a major component to your plot, investigate that area as you form the seed of your story. If your story is set in Vietnam during the war, study up on the geography and the people. If your story is about an astronaut who makes an error that threatens to kill his entire crew, get an understanding of space missions and how they are structured and staffed.

Step 3 – Firm up your concept and dive into your first draft.

This is why you divided that list from Step 1 into two categories. The second category – “important details” – can be put aside for now. I’m not saying that you won’t have to look up those questions and answers eventually.  What I am saying is that you don’t need to know every detail of life in revolutionary France before getting started writing your rough draft. Authentic details will be required before you turn in your final draft, but you shouldn’t let research prevent you from getting started. If one of your characters lights a candle to read by, and you find out later that gas lamps had replaced candles ten years before your story takes place, that detail can be fixed in the revisions stage.

Step 4 – Firm up the details and make your revisions.

This step is where you need to add accuracy. What kind of gun would a pirate have used? Did matches exist or would the main character light a wick from the fireplace? How long did it take to travel from Glasgow to London by carriage in 1814?  Now that you have your first draft down, you can take the time to get the facts straight without interrupting the flow of your writing.

Do you do a lot of research for your writing? What process do you use? Do you have any ideas to add to the above? I look forward to reading your comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard

~~

Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Allow me to romance you while you question your sanity.

28 Jun

by Biljana Likic

~~~

Ah, l’amour!

Love, in any form, is pretty sweet. It’s why you constantly see me writing about it. I’m a hopeless romantic. And while I can’t consider myself an expert on romance, I do know a thing or two about it. My favourite part is the tension.

The thing that makes something exciting is the lead-up. You can talk all you want about how you hate waiting, but half of what’s making your stomach flip is anticipation of what’s to come. It’s like when you hear a crush will be at the same party as you. Your mind goes into overdrive. Will they see you? Will they talk to you? Will they, dare you think it, accidentally graze your arm as they reach for the punch they’re getting for your rival? Will you finally be poisoning it tonight?

The wonderful thing about that last question is that it’s only a half-joke.

In writing, it’s no different. If you want the reader to be rooting for two people to get together, make them feel like they’re part of the romance. Make their stomach flip when it looks like the boy will finally notice the girl. I’m not talking about endless woe-is-me from the protagonist, or secret, long-suffering proclamations. I’m talking about subtle things. Things that really show how every moment the girl spends in the boy’s company electrifies her.

What makes it doubly fun, is having her not know if the boy is doing it consciously or not.

She walks into the room with a glass of wine. Her eyes are drawn to him like magnets and she stares at his face. He’s sitting by the cake, already having eaten his dinner. She decides dinner isn’t important anyway and makes a beeline for the three-tiered confection, pretending to be considering the cake whenever she thought he looked over.

She’s there before she wants to be. Her sudden proximity to him is making her aware of every insecurity, from the slight tummy she could never lose to the fact that she isn’t very good at walking in heels. She watches him from the corner of her eye and jumps when he turns to look at her. She makes brief eye contact before taking a drink of wine to distract herself.

“Would you like some cake?”

She almost chokes on her drink. She clears her throat.

“Excuse me?”

“You seem to really want some cake,” he says.

A rush of embarrassment pours through her as she realizes she just spent the last few minutes seemingly entranced by white frosting and pink sugar bows.

She clears her throat again. “Is it any good?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer but stands, taking a natural step towards her, and picks up a cake knife. He’s unbearably close. He cuts a piece and hands it to her on a plate. She has to be careful how she raises her hand to accept it so that she doesn’t accidentally touch him. He’s watching her as she takes it, and she feels his fingers brush hers.

“Thanks,” she says quietly, not looking at him.

“You’re welcome.”

She sits down stiffly. A moment later, he retakes his own seat beside her, and as he pulls in his chair his thigh comes into contact with hers. Her grip tightens on her spoon as he starts to flirt with the girl on the other side of him, and it’s a good ten seconds before he moves his leg.

She sets down her plate, takes up the wine glass, and drains it.

Not once does it talk about how she’s infatuated, and nowhere does it outright say that she’s attracted to him. This is an example of showing instead of telling. Through her reactions, you can see that she’s attracted to him; it never has to be said. And it’s done with the little things, the tiny details: tensing up when he looks at her; staring too long at the cake out of nervousness; skipping dinner altogether for dessert she doesn’t want.

Scenes like these are what makes you want to scream. They make you want to either yell at the girl to grow a spine, or punch the guy in the face.

But, most importantly, when they finally get together, the event makes you squeal with delight.

What I love most about this stuff however is that they can lead to a happy, squee-inducing ending, or they can be the first sign of doom. As it stands right now, that scene can go in two directions: one is amusing, possibly frustrating, but ultimately happy; the other is degrading, miserable, and ultimately resentful. You don’t have to say right away right kind of relationship these two people will have. All you have to do is convey the immediate events. And though I would love for every scene like the one above to end in romance, it can always turn sour.

In the end, when it’s all said and done, the moment you leave the territory of maybe and cross into yes or no, the tension dulls considerably, and the conflict just isn’t as fun anymore. It is, after all, anticipation of the answer that keeps you at the edge of your seat.

And when it comes to romance, there’s nothing more exciting than maybe.

~~~

Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.

High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

The Importance of Focus

21 Jun

by Kat Zhang

~~~

Hi guys! Wow, it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve done a real post here! I’ve missed you guys 🙂 ❤

I’d like to start this post off by showing you two pictures. First, this one:

Not exactly a great picture, right? In fact, you could say it was downright bad. The lighting is awkward. The focus is all wrong. You’re not quick sure what you’re supposed to be looking at, and nothing looks particularly good.

Now let’s look at this picture:

Now, I’m not saying it’s award winning or anything, but it’s a whole lot better, right? The flower in the foreground is clearly the subject. It’s clear and properly lighted, while the background is blurred slightly, giving the viewer the idea of something being there, but nothing too distracting.

The above two pictures are of the exact same flower, and all that changed to make one picture rather terrible and the other pretty good was the focus (I’m not really talking in concrete photography terms here, so I’m including lighting in there).

The same goes for writing. A scene can pop so much more if you adjust your “lens” correctly and take the perfect shot. The subject itself doesn’t have to change. At the heart, it’s the same scene. But you draw out different elements and present them to the reader while keeping the rest in the background, just like how the second photograph drew the closer flower into focus while blurring the ones behind it.

Let’s start with an easy example. Say you’re writing a fight scene. Focus is especially important in action scenes because you want your prose to move quickly. You need to get the sense of tension and motion and adrenaline to your readers. Every line of description slows this action down. Remember that. But you can’t just turn the fight into: “Jim hit Drake and Drake slugged him back. Jim fell down. Drake jumped on top of him.” That’s boring, and your characters are floating in a vacuum. You do need a certain amount of background. The second picture doesn’t have a blank canvas behind the flower, it has a blurred scene. Paint a background in broad strokes, but keep the details tied to the action.

This isn’t only important, however, in action scenes. Any scene can be weighed down by a scattered focus, by too much description of unimportant things. Yes, it’s very important to situate your readers, to make sure your characters aren’t floating in a vacuum, but always keep in mind: 1) what are my characters paying attention to? This is especially important in 1st person and close 3rd. If your character is in mortal danger, she is most likely not going to be going into great lengths detailing her attacker’s fashion. 2) what do you want your reader to be paying attention to? Often, 1 and 2 are the same. But sometimes it’s not, especially if you’re trying to drop clues for the reader about something that the main character doesn’t know yet.

If you’re itching to describe something that neither falls under 1 or 2, that’s fine. But consider the length. Remember, every line is slowing down the action, the forward momentum. Sometimes you want to slow down the momentum. Other times, you need things to be going along as quickly as possible, and that is when you really need to start paying attention to focus.

Pictures above were taken by yours truly at the Botanic Garden in Madrid.

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Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID (currently undergoing a title change) is about a girl with two souls. It recently sold in a three-book deal to HarperTeen. You can read more about her writing process, travels, and books at her blog.

Knowing When to Take a Break

20 Jun

by Susan Dennard

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As some of you may know, I took a break from the internet for 1.5 weeks. No, I didn’t completely leave the internet behind, I just stopped tweeting and only answered emails of Absolute Importance (e.g. from my editor or agent! Okay…and my mom).

I needed that time off–like desperately needed it. My brain was at a breaking point from using precious time each day to answer emails, to answer blog comments, to write blogs, to maintain twitter conversations, etc. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE doing these things. In fact, I’d way rather do all that instead of my work…

And therein lies the problem. My heart wasn’t in my writing.

GASP!

You read that right: my heart wasn’t in my writing! But it took me a week long internet break to even figure that out. You see, it wasn’t the Internet and all you amazing online friends that were keeping me from my work.

It was ME keeping me from my work. So during my internet break and without the usual culprits to distract me, I still wasn’t getting any work done!

Now, I’ve talked about when forcing your story is bad or when the solution to a writing slump is BICHOK, but this was different.  I wasn’t forcing SCREECHERS or SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY–I adore both those stories!  And no matter how much I sat down and BICHOKed each day, I wasn’t making a whole lot of progress…  As you can imagine, I was really scared I’d lost my writing mojo forever.

And then I decided to take a drastic measure: stop working.  For two full days, I was going to give myself the luxury of not doing any work.  I read, took bubble baths, watched crap TV, and read some more.

You know what?  It totally worked. At the end of the two days, I came back to my computer completely revitalized.  Or, at least, I was able to focus… My heart, though, still wasn’t in the work–which was, at this point, SCREECHERS.

And so now I’ve decided to take another drastic measure: work on something completely different.  I don’t like not finishing what I start–not when I still adore the story.  But at the same time, the quality of what I’m trying to force onto the page…well, considering I wrote one scene, rewrote it, and then rewrote again and am still unhappy with it, I’m kind of wasting my time.

So for the next two weeks, I’ll focus on other important things–other books, my blog, etc.–and after that, I’ll try BICHOKing SCREECHERS again.

And who knows?  Maybe inspiration will strike again during that time.  Either way, just the prospect of this other-stuff-break has lifted my mood enormously! 😀

What about you? Do you ever need a break from a particular story or your work?

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.