EGWG WRITING CLASS – 1
Writers Helping Writers was the theme for the writer’s conference a few of us organized in 2018, and it’s the theme for these classes.
Most people write something every day whether it’s a letter, an email, or a text message. The different kinds of writing are many and varied. There are blogs, memoirs, non-fiction, fiction, short stories, novellas, how-to books, fanfiction, and the list goes on.
James Patterson, in his master class, said, “A writer is passionate about writing.” You’re here because you’ve caught that passion and you need to write. If you’ve been writing, you know what I mean. If you’re a beginning writer, welcome to the grand obsession. Your life will never be the same.
The reasons for becoming a writer vary from “I’m writing my life story for my children,” to “People need to know this,” to “I’ve got this great story in my head, and I have to write it or go crazy.”
In the coming classes, we’ll delve into everything from the first idea through editing and self-publishing. We have passed the outline of classes out; look it over. Are we missing a subject that’s causing you difficulties? Let us know.
So, you want to write. First, turn off the television. Writers need to look inward and use their imagination, and television will corrupt that process. Second, set up a dedicated spot to write, preferably, away from people. Third, for right now, write every day. Set aside as little as 15 minutes to several hours and let writing become a habit. Never say, “I don’t have time.” There are 24 hours in each day, you can make time to write if that is what you want to do. Fourth, invest in a grammar book and keep it handy. I recently bought The Elements of Style: Classic Edition (2018) which is the Strunk and White classic brought up to date. Any recent edition of Strunk and White’s Element of Style would be a good choice. I have and would recommend The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. I use it to correct mistakes or to prove that I’m doing something right. Say What? By C. S. Larkin is especially for fiction writers. And, if you’re a word nerd like me, Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer is full of what he sees coming across his desk as an editor. It’s a great reminder of what not to do and is a hoot to read.
Last, but Most Important, to write, you must have…
“I want to write a book about whatever,” isn’t what I mean by idea. You’ll need more than that, but first, how do you get an idea? Where do they come from?
Wonder aloud—the most mundane thing can become a wonderous and clever idea. Keep your eyes and ears open. When you notice something, train your mind to think, “What if?” If you see someone running down the sidewalk, what if will have you wondering why they’re running? Is someone chasing them? Are they running from or to something or someone? Or are they running for the sheer exuberance of it?
- Keep track of your random ideas. In today’s world, almost everyone has a smartphone of some sort, and most smartphones have a note app. This app lets you jot down your thoughts wherever you are and whenever they come. Some phones have a recording device, as well. Write fragments, paragraphs, or sentences when ideas or scenes come to you. Those bits and pieces will be the stepping stones to a chapter or a completed story.
- Recall stories told around campfires, or at gatherings of family or friends. Some of those wild tales might catch your fancy and what if will start the ideas flowing. Even news, or internet stories are full of ideas. “Based on a true story,” how often have you heard that?
Don’t forget the memorable things that have happened in your life. For example, When I was five, my grandparents took me to a hog killing. It was a big affair with picnic lunches and a party atmosphere. While writing my last mystery, I needed to kill off a character in a gruesome manner and used the memory of that horrendous day to murder him. I’ve used countless other memories in my writing, as well.
- One saying in the writing community is “write what you know.” Don’t take that to heart. In the bigger picture of that phrase is the idea if you don’t know the details about what you want to write—research. If you can’t find experts to pick their brains, the internet is a wonderful source of a wide variety of information. I promise, researching alone will give you ideas.
- Be patient. Let your idea percolate. Visualize and expand on the idea until you know how and when your story begins, several things that happen in the middle, and a general idea of how it ends.
Many authors say you should know the ending before you begin. If you do, you’ll have the resolution (ending) to direct your characters toward. The other side of that debate is your characters and other ideas are going to change the story in ways that will affect your ending. Whichever way you go, prepare to be flexible.
Who is your audience? The five main branches of genres are Mystery/Crime, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Thriller/Suspense. Does your idea fall into one of those categories? If it doesn’t fit perfectly, there are subgenres of each branch. A printout is included with this lesson. You should be able to slot your story idea somewhere in that genre tree.
Types of fiction
- Literary novels or Serious Fiction usually have deep themes such as social commentary, political criticism, or the exploration of the human condition. This type of book uses symbolism and complex literary devices, such as similes, metaphors, irony, hyperbole, alliteration, etc. Literary fiction rarely sells a huge number of books.
- Commercial or Genre Fiction is intended as entertainment. They include all the genres and subgenres mentioned in the genre tree.
Each genre has a certain structure that readers expect to see. If you want to know what the different structures are, go online and enter “How to write a mystery or the elements of romance,” or whatever you choose. You’ll find many sites that will tell you what components that genre should have. Readers will expect those elements and will voice their displeasure in a review if they aren’t there.
Take romance, for example. Its formula, simply put, is boy meets girl—boy loses girl—boy gets girl. There are many tropes, or devices in romance. Three popular ones are: friends become lovers; the two are soulmates, as in love at first sight; they meet again and have a second chance at love.
- Crossover Novels begin as genre stories, and by using complex and meaningful elements, as mentioned above, the books override their entertainment value to become literary novels.
- If you aren’t already, read books in the genre you choose to write in. Look for the structure and formulas in those novels and apply them to your story. This can’t be stressed enough—read, read, read.
Not to be confused with genre are age categories.
- Children’s stories. These are anything before middle grade and be anything from picture books to stories for and about children under 10.
- Middle Grade. The story is about children 9 to 12-years-old and aimed at children below 14.
- Young Adult. These stories concern teenagers 13-17 and are aimed at the 12-18 age group.
- New Adult characters are 18 to 24. Their aim is for ages 10 to 30.
- Adult Fiction. This is everything else.
You’ll need to know your audience and which age group category your story will fit into. I will ask you.
Along with a great idea, setting is vital. A writer must build the stage for the story, and setting is the background.
Without a clear setting, the reader will float around, wondering where the story is taking place. They will never fully enter the novel’s world, and they might stop reading.
The amount of detail needed for the setting depends on the genre being written. For example, a western will need less detail than science fiction, where a world or a spacecraft must be created for the reader’s benefit. Keep in mind that less is sometimes better than more. There’s a thing called the Laundry List, where every tiny detail is described. Don’t do that. Describe the important things, but not the everyday objects. Let the readers use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.
- Where does your story take place, in a certain country, region, or city? Where are your scenes taking place, an office, a hospital, a coffee shop, a ranch, on earth, or somewhere in space? Is it an actual place that you’re familiar with or somewhere fictional? If the location is an actual place or is in a historical era, research it thoroughly and get your fact right. Use the internet for maps and pictures of the area to make your setting realistic. If it’s somewhere you can’t visit, join a writing group on Facebook and ask specific questions about a certain location. That worked well for me while researching neighborhoods in Chicago for another novel that’s in the works. Remember, location is background and will slip the reader into your story.
- Does the story take place in the past, present, or future? What’s the duration of the story? How much time takes place between page 1 to the end? Is it a day, a year, or decades? The reader needs to know, and you need to keep him updated as time passes.
- Mood or atmosphere. This decision will dictate the personality and emotions of your characters. The mood of the story will impact which words you use, as well. Think of the difference between a person’s mood on a sunny day and on a cloudy or rainy day. Genres have moods as well; a horror story is usually dark and somber while a romance is sunny and bright. Moods can shift during the story. Let the plot determine what atmosphere your character’s needs.
- Climate and geography. What are the natural elements? Does it rain or is it dry, tropical, or wintery? What season of the year does your story start in? What geographical features are there? Is there a river, forest, mountains, cement sidewalks, skyscrapers., or prairie, stretching as far as the eye can see? What animals and plants populate the story’s world? If the science and physical attributes differ from earth, how so?
- Politics and culture. This will determine how the characters act in public and in private settings. What’s against the rules of the culture? Culture is, again, like an onion, there are layers. Which layer does your character fit into? Are the political forces conservative, liberal, self-serving, monotheist, pagan, or what?
- After you research or create the history of your story and backgrounds of your characters, set them aside.
- If what you’ve created in any of the above elements doesn’t play a major role in the story, don’t put it in. When world-building, drip-feed history and backstory to the readers only where needed for clarity. Editors don’t allow info dumping, and you shouldn’t get into the habit of dumping info.
While setting is an important part of the background, there are two major things that are imperative:
What the characters are doing?
What happens next?
Think of your story as an iceberg. The top is what the reader reads, the bottom, and largest part, is what the writer knows. Dole out the information carefully.
All of the above is true for memoirs. Without an idea, you have nothing to write. Without a setting, the reader is in the dark. We are a mobile world, and few people live where they were born or raised. Give the details of where you grew up, the town, neighborhood, and house or houses. What do you remember about the area and the people in it? Be sure to help the reader keep track of time as the years pass in the telling of your life.
Point of View
Before you begin writing, choose which Point of View (POV) you want to use. The third class is in this series is on POV. For now, decide which character or characters are telling the story.
- If it’s a single individual, your choice would be first person, using the pronouns I, me, my, mine and ours.
- If more than a single character is telling the story, then use third person limited, using she/he, his/her, they/them theirs and ours. Limited refers to a limited number of characters POVs used. Limited is restricted, usually, to the main protagonists and antagonists and secondary characters.
- Third person omniscient uses the same pronouns as third person limited. The narrator knows everything about every event and all the characters, and he tells the story. Be aware this POV can lead to head-hopping, which is confusing to read and has fallen out of favor with both editors and readers. Head-hopping is when the POV jumps from person to person with no warning or separation, leaving the readers scratching their heads and rereading that section to figure out what just happened and who’s talking. You don’t want the reader to do that.
POV is as necessary for memoirs as it is for fiction. POV will give your writing either a personal or an impersonal feeling. Think about this before you begin your story.
Characters don’t magically appear ready-made. A writer must develop a character before they tap the first letter on their keyboard, or put pen to paper. Characters can enliven your story or bog it down. It’s up to the writer which happens. In fiction, there are one or more protagonists and one or more antagonists and various secondary characters.
A compelling character is the foundation of a successful story. If readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t finish your book.
Characters should be motivated or should want something. They need a goal or a problem to overcome.
In writing a memoir, the main character is you. The other characters are family, friends, and those who aren’t friends—the villains in your life—and that’s as it should be. You’ll draw characters from yourself and the people in your life, but don’t overdo it to the point of stereotypical people. (Unless, of course, they are stereotypical.)
People are complex and contradictory, build your characters so they are not one-dimensional. Exciting things need to happen, and readers need to empathize with not only your protagonist but also your antagonist. Villains aren’t all bad, and heroes aren’t perfect. They both have flaws, doubts, and struggles.
We all have our quirks. When your characters have quirks, make them relevant. Quirks, used too often, impede the story, and after a while, they cease being amusing and become annoying. This includes biting lips, running hands through hair, using specific words to excess, to name a few. Don’t overdo it.
In the back of today’s lesson is a sheet labeled A Simple Character Development Form. It lists information you should know about each character. You may not use all the information in the story, but knowing it will increase the probability of writing a likable, rounded character.
Just as in journalism, we begin with the five W’s and one H: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Filling out the form will answer many questions and will supply a handy reference as you get deeper into drafting your novel. Especially when you can’t remember exactly how tall your character is, how old he is, and if his eyes are blue or green.
When someone asks why one of your characters did or did not do something, you’ll need a sensible answer. You’ll have one because you’ll know that character’s background.
Consider how you want a reader to feel about your people. Build them so they come across in whichever way you want them to appear to others. For instance, are they aggressive or passive, mean-spirited or kind, an introvert, or extrovert?
Give them an attitude and personality. Make them laugh, cry, love, hate, and get angry. Let them be human and make mistakes. Have them rely on another character for help. Don’t make your protagonist superhuman; a character that does nothing wrong and is always right is not likable in true life or in fiction.
Avoid stereotypes unless you turn them upside down. A person might act in an expected way in public, at work, or with strangers, but their actions are completely different when at home or with friends. His speech might be clipped when speaking with others, but quite different when he’s talking to his friends.
Remember, just as you need time to get to know a new person, so a reader needs time to get to know your characters. Don’t info dump their complete description. Hit the most remarkable thing about them first. Choose one or two noteworthy things, whether it’s height, body type, eyes, age, hair, etc., and add other descriptions later, as needed. Let the reader’s imagination do some of the work.
When writing a memoir, these points are just as valid. A memoir will have many characters besides you. Those other people need to be well-developed just as much as in fiction. Consider using all the attributes of a fiction story in writing about your life because our lives, after all, are stories. Filling out a form for the important people in your life will cause you to remember details you’ve forgotten, and raise questions you need to answer.
This has only scratched the surface of characters. The next class will delve deeper into the different types of characters, character arcs, and more.
8 Common Mistakes Writers Make
1. Not being consistent in the spelling and capitalization of names and places. If you spell a character’s name Jayne in the first three chapters and spell it Jane later in the book, the reader will notice and wonder if they’re a new character. They may stop reading and go back to check the spelling.
I had to consult my grammar books on capitalizing while writing my first fantasy. The problem word was alpha. People kept telling me this use of alpha should be capitalized, but don’t use caps for that other use of alpha. I decided to mentally substitute president for alpha as far as capitalization went. That helped me use the word correctly
- Names beginning with the same letter or sounding the same. Jim, Jennifer, and Jake met at the restaurant. Mac and Jack were best friends. Cases like this can lead to misnaming somebody in a scene. Again, this stops the reader and makes him reread a section. It’s an easy thing to do, so keep the names distinct from one another to avoid confusion.
- Naming a character after yourself or your name somewhat altered. Editors will toss your story in the trash because you’re an amateur. (This doesn’t apply to memoirs.)
- Shifting tenses for no purpose. Stay in one tense, usually that will be past tense. If you’re using past tense—He moved to the door, and then use—He sits in the chair, it’s annoying and it is an error.
- Misusing a thesaurus. Don’t use it to find bigger words. Simple is better. The best advice is don’t write at more than an eighth grade level. Using big words is pretentious.
The thesaurus is perfect for finding the right word when the one you’ve used sounds wrong, but you can’t think of a better word. It’s useful in finding a similar word when using too many of the same word. It’s helpful in finding a better verb as well—He walked becomes he strolled, stomped, or crept across the parking lot.
- Making mistakes in professional procedures: medical, law enforcement, military, even mechanics; any profession that takes specialized training needs to be as accurate as you can make it. Don’t have a nurse or any other professional person doing something they aren’t trained to do or that is unethical. Be aware someone out there is one of those people and they will scorch your hide in a review if you get their profession wrong. Research. Talk to people in those professions. I’ve found that people are willing to talk to me and answer my questions when they hear that I’m writing a book.
7. Repetition of description, action, dialogue. There is no need for a character to repeat the same action or scene to different people. He told her what had happened, covers it. Tell events once. Period. You can save some bit of information to add as in, he told her what had happened, and added, “And then this other thing happened.”
8. Forgetting to use contractions. Without contractions, your writing and dialogue will be stilted and robotic. People use contractions when they talk unless they’re stressing something. “No, I said you can’t go,” compared to “No. You can not go!” Please, use contractions in dialogue and narration.
If you wish a downloadable copy of the character development form, email me at: [email protected] and I’ll send it to you.
A SIMPLE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT FORM
- Their full name? Are they named for anyone?
- When and where were they born, where were they raised, and by whom?
- Where are they living now, and how’d they get there? Are they happy or sad about where they are? Where would they rather be?
- Description, including height, weight, body type, hair, and eye color, left or right-handed, and facial features. Do they have any distinguishing marks or scars? What race are they? Gender?
- What are their hobbies or special interests?
- Do they have any physical or verbal quirks or habits?
- Friends; do they have any? If not, why not?
- What do they do for work? Do they like their job? What would they rather be doing?
- What are their soapbox issues? Why?
- What angers them? What makes them happy?
- Love life? Is there someone special? Do they wish there was? Would they rather be alone?
- What type of person are they; kind, generous, mean, angry, even-tempered, spiteful, extrovert, introvert, strong, weak, or…?