How does a reader know what is most important in a story? How can we, as writers, make it clear to the reader what to pay attention to?
Obviously, we can't capitalize or color the parts that we want readers to be especially aware of. We cannot use arrows or lights to signify what should hold weight. It is our job, as writers, to seamlessly show the reader what parts of a story are there as informational or logistical, and what parts are meant to have a deeper impact.
Writers rely on words and space, but the amount of words and the length of the space - the physical impression - not just the meaning of the words - can be used to a writer's advantage.
Although it might seem obvious, we can often forget that when something is important in a story or novel, a significant amount of time is spent playing out that aspect of the narrative in-scene. When something is less important, fewer words are used to get the information across.
Our eyes work with our imagination - as we lose ourselves in a story, we are also cognizant of how a story is being told to us. Lots of information on one subject means that subject should be paid attention to. As writers, we need to think as readers. Therefore, remember this:
Time on a page = importance.
Often, especially in writing workshops, one hears, "show don't tell", but there are certainly times where telling, and not showing, is appropriate. Usually, when something is logistical, or there to simply forward the plot, or if a character is used as a device rather than as a substantial part of the story, writers will write in exposition to get these moments across, and therefore, "tell" the reader.
A writer wants to "show" and not "tell" when they want the reader to pay attention. Moments that hold weight should be expanded upon, and made into scenes.
In the editing process, try going back and making sure that nothing that is unimportant is given too much "time". If something inconsequential is played out in-scene, change it into exposition. If something is in exposition that is important to the story, go back and make it a scene. Pivotal moments in a piece should almost always take up more "time", signifying to the reader that this is it!
For example, if Molly and Bob are your main characters, and the defining moment in the narrative is where Molly tells Bob her big secret, the story should not told, "Molly turned and whispered in Bob's ear that she had cut her own hair, and only blamed it on her father because she knew Bob hated it."
Instead, the scene might read:
The restaurant was dark but Molly could see Bob staring at her. She reached up to touch the few strands of hair that still grazed her neck.
"I'm sorry," Bob said. It was true. He had loved her hair.
Molly blushed, pulling gently at the short ends, as if sheer will would make them grow. It had been such a mistake. His eyes said everything.
"You're father is a monster," he said, trying to focus on the rest of her beauty, but kept getting lost in the space around her. If he squinted, he could imagine the dark hair that once framed her face, fell down upon her shoulders, the small pieces that curved into the valley of her collar bone.
Molly looked down and thought of her small, kind father.
"It's all my fault," Molly said.
"It will grow," Bob said quickly, hoping that his face did not show how he loved her less.
"I did it," she said, closing her eyes. She could not stand what she knew she would see when she opened them.
Recently I was asked to be on a panel for the Columbia MFA Program called "Life After the MFA" with a number of other writers who had graduated from the Program. Each panelist had a different experience, but we all seemed to be happy with the choice we made to attend.
Having had a good experience myself, I have encouraged my most talented students to apply to MFA Programs. For the most part, I believe they have had a positive experience as well.
Click here for some tips and more thoughts on the process of getting into and attending MFA Programs.
Take the truth. The minute I put it down on paper, it is my truth, and that truth is a narrative, a piece of fiction, a story. The difference between non-fiction and fiction is the heading and the work: in non-fiction, by the fact of stating it is true, it has credibility and therefore can seem unbelievable; for fiction, the writer must make you believe the story is true whether it is or isn't.
The truth in fiction is not what has physically happened, but the emotion behind it. My goal as a writer is to make the reader feel something, to evoke a response. What you feel is the truth inside you, not necessarily the logistics of the story.
The truth outside me is something different altogether. The truth outside me needs to be written so that it reads as "real." In fiction, I cannot defend my story when someone says it's unbelievable, by saying, "But it really happened!" This is one of the first rules in my fiction class: you can never say whether or not it is true.
So if the truth doesn't matter, but the truth of the story does, how does a writer make their work believable?
I never want to lose my reader: once something in my story is unbelievable, the reader is taken "out". Suddenly, there is laundry to do, a car to move...no longer are they in the world I have created with my words. But if you do not deviate from your voice, if you are consistent in your storytelling, your reader will not second guess your "truth." Above all else, no matter what kind of story or genre or style you are writing in, if you are consistent in the way you have chosen to write (even if you are consistent in your inconsistency) the reader will go where you take them.
Take the truth. Another way the truth factors into ones' fiction is where you decide to use it. Your life is filled with "fiction-worthy" moments. Your past and your present. Start to carry around a small notebook. It can fit in your back pocket or your purse. Write down your dreams, ideas, overheard conversations, observations from the world as you experience them. When you are faced with an empty page, look back on your notes to inspire you. Combine "truths." Take the one moment in which action transcends the physical and becomes an emotion. This is how you make a reader "feel."
Take the truth. People often ask me whether my stories have happened or not. I think it is often hard for a reader to connect a person with their writing, or if they feel an intimacy with a character, to reconcile it with the writer who invented them. But I am a fiction writer. What happens in my stories are things that I know. They are not necessarily things that have happened, and if they have happened, they are still my own.
The emotions in my writing are the truth. If I can make you feel something, then I have done my job.
I'm sorry to say that this will be my last post as your guide here. Due to changing circumstances in other parts of my life I will no longer have the time to give this site the attention it deserves.
My brief stay here has been fun and rewarding and I'm sorry to have to go so soon. I've learned a lot and really enjoyed getting to know many of you.
I wish you all the best in your writing adventures!
There are three ways I generally start writing a new story. Most often I start with the scrap of an idea, almost as often with a character, and once in a while a setting grabs me and starts the ball rolling.
There is a fourth way to get a story started, and it's one I've largely ignored. That method is to begin with a theme in mind. I've avoided this method of story creation largely to avoid writing fiction with a "message". I write to entertain, not educate and having my writing come across as a sermon does not appeal to me.
In researching theme and how best to use it I came across some interesting takes on theme that made me think differently. I now believe that starting with the theme in mind does not have to lead to preachy fiction at all. I also believe that the sooner you have a handle on your theme the faster and easier your writing will be.
Check out Know Your Theme and see how redefining theme can help your writing.
The first draft, for me is always the toughest. I know that once I get that down I have something I can edit, massage, and shape into a solid polished work. Something real. It's wading through the first draft that nearly stops me every time.
I think it's because I write too slowly. I get sidetracked. I start editing - which in a first draft is death. I know I need to power through, to just keep typing. But it's tough to do. It's hard to leave things in a messy, embarrassing state for long.
So I've started trying to up my word-count. To write fast. And the best way I've found to write faster is to do a little more planning, to structure things so I have a better idea where I'm going when I start to write. This small amount of planning just before each writing session has saved me tons of re-writing, and upped my daily word-count by a ton.
I've been taking that idea a bit further lately and really digging into story structure. I'll share my thoughts on that with you in an upcoming article.
For now, here are a few more thoughts on How to Write Faster.
I'd love to hear your tips and techniques for getting that first draft done, and how to write quickly.
Want to be a more interesting writer? Then lead a more interesting life.
It's that simple - and that difficult.
Writing can be a very solitary occupation, and most writers grow to be content with being alone for long stretches of time. While I think that this obsession with writing is pretty much a requirement of the working writer, it can make you dull. And that's a problem.
You might not even notice it at first since your previous life experiences have given you plenty to write about, at least for a while. But sooner or later you need to get out in the world and refill the creative tanks.
So remember to take a break from the keyboard and go do something. Anything. Interact with people, play basketball, go to the pub, it doesn't matter. Interesting, involved people have interesting stories to tell.
So be interesting, and your writing will never be dull.
First off I want to apologize for lack of blog posts lately. I was hammered with two nasty colds in a row and it was all I could do to get some articles written. But I'm back at it and the content will be flowing freely once again.
I've been examining my writing life and trying to make some decisions about what direction to go in a few areas. One of the tough decisions for me is the choice of genre. I love several categories of genre fiction and I've been finding it tricky to nail down exactly where to specialize.
That got me thinking about marketing in general and platform building in particular. I think my main excuse for not doing more to build a platform has been that I needed to know my genre. So with those two thoughts in mind I've added a couple of new articles to the site that I hope will help those of you with similar decisions to make.
Give them a read and feel free to comment as usual. I'll have some new stuff up soon.
My first few weeks as a guide here have been interesting and fun. It's made me take a serious look at my writing life and forced me to get more organized about when and how I do things - something we should all do more often.
Whenever I'm presented with a new writing challenge like this I tend to find inspiration, motivation and guidance in books on writing. I have a massive collection of these books and tend to read almost everything new that comes out.
The downside of this habit (addiction) is that I often use the time reading writing books as an excuse not to write while still feeling like I am being "productive". However, there are a few books that I find myself reaching for again and again that never fail to get me back in my chair and writing. I've just posted a review of my favorite one, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
Please share some of your top reads on writing and creativity in the comments. I'd hate to think I missed one!
The Tuesday after a long weekend is rarely a productive one for me and today has been no different. I did have grand plans about getting up super-early and banging out a ton of great writing this morning, but after three days of inactivity I ended up sleeping as late as possible and dragging myself into work.
The real problem was that I took the entire weekend off. Three days without writing always shuts me down. If I had managed to do even a little work over the weekend I'm pretty sure that I would have jumped back in this morning with more gusto. My advice is to never go more than a day or two without writing. Every time I do it, I regret it and it takes me a week or more to get back in the groove.
If you're in the same boat after a few days off, make sure you write something today - anything. I have already promised myself I will not go to sleep tonight without putting some time in at the keyboard - you should do the same. Don't let a few lazy days derail your habits. Write!
If you need a little motivation to get started, check out some of these writing prompts.