Friday, January 31, 2014

No Such Thing As Beginner's Luck in This Game--This is for YOU New Writers!

Not to sound mean and discouraging (because this post is really meant to help) but you cannot expect to sit down and write a perfectly good novel the first time round. Sorry, but it's physically impossible. And you know what? That's a good thing, because if you don't mess up and have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, you'll never be a good writer. Today I'm going to address several problems a lot of beginning writers have to help you along a little. I've had them, we've all had them, but we've all gotten past them and become better writers. I hope that might give a little hope to those who might be discouraged, that, yes, it does actually get easier as long as you're willing to learn from your mistakes and also to change things that really aren't working, even if it's painful. I've had the pleasure of helping some new writers with their stories and to me, it's a really fun, if not sometimes hard, job. In doing so, I have come across several common "mistakes" that new writers are wont to make. Here's a few words of advice that might help other new writers move past those, or at least get you to thinking.

For those who write too little:

Something I have seen a lot from new writers is lacking content. This was something I personally had a problem with when I started, and sometimes still struggle with, so I know a lot about how you can go about fixing it. Sometimes you just don't get everything onto the paper that needs to be there, and scenes feel hollow and flat because of it.

Why?: When you write, you picture something in your head, a lot of times very visually, and when you're new to writing, you might now always get everything down because you subconsciously feel that the reader will automatically know what's happening, like you do. Well, we're not in your head, so we need a little more help picturing what's going on. This might be what you're thinking of:

Caroline reached across the table to grab the sapphire necklace from Richard's hands, horror washing over her face. "You did not steal this!" she cried, but his proud smirk and the way he lounged back in his chair said it all as he replied, "What did you expect?"

This might be what comes out:

Caroline grabbed the necklace from his hand. "You did not steal this!" she cried. "What did you expect?" Richard replied.

Here's the information we have in the first snippet that we don't have in the second:

-They are sitting at a table
-The necklace is sapphire, and therefore likely expensive
-We know Caroline does not approve that Richard stole it whereas in the second one, we don't have anything to go on for her reaction except the ! which could indicate any strong emotion.
-Richard is obviously proud of what he did, and a commonly cocky individual. In the second snippet, we don't know how he replies-it could be indignant, angry, or anything.

How do you fix it?: This one's a little hard to catch for new writers, because it's not easy to pick it out by yourself. You really need another reader to be able to tell you when you're missing things. Fixing it isn't hard though. Adding things is always easy. All you need to do is take a really good picture of what is in your mind and write the scene out on paper. You might have problems with adding too much on occasion, that can happen too, but eventually you'll get the right recipe. Just remember that the most important parts are description of surroundings, emotions during dialogue, and movement of characters. We need to let readers know that they are not just talking heads, but real people.

For those who write too much:

On the flip side, there are those beginning writers who write TOO much. Not as common, perhaps, but it happens. Some writers are almost somewhat paranoid, and feel they have to put everything down, even the little mundane things that, to be frank, are just going to end up boring readers. I might enjoy Sir Walter Scott's books, but, let's be honest, he's really bad about this.

Why?: A lot of times, it might be the result of lots of research done. Which is good! Research is always a very good thing, and to be a beginning writer who does copious amounts of research for their book, is getting off to a very good start. However, the reason this can be a crippling effort for new writers is because they have not yet learned what to put in and what to leave out. That's always the bane of research. Veteran writers learn to bite the bullet--we only really use a very small percentage of information we have researched for months. It's hard not to share your knowledge, but you have to know what you can safely put into yours books and what needs to go at risk of boring the reader. We need to have enough information on a place, or historical setting to know what's going on and where we are the significance of it, but after that, the rest needs to go.

How do you fix it?: Close you eyes and chop. Sometimes consolidation works, but the best thing to do is just chop it out. Here's the rule I usually tell new writers and even myself: If it does not further along the plot or help the characters in some way, it needs to go. A good solution is to make a detailed author's note or appendix in the back of the book so that you can put all that information you researched there, for interested readers. Some people are going to be interested, and want to read more about the subject, but they should also have a choice and not be bombarded with things. Keep that in mind and never forget that just because you spend three months researching a subject, it doesn't give you leave to put every note into your story. That's just the way it is.

Explanation Through Characters:

This goes hand in hand with the last one and this isn't something that only new writer's do, but you should stop doing it as soon as possible if you're a culprit. I have read plenty of published novels with this problem, and it has always been annoying, lazy, and something that makes not only your readers seem stupid, but your characters as well. It is never okay to explain something to the reader by having the characters ask questions, unless it has never be address to the characters and it is actually part of the story.

Why?: Yes, things need to be explained in books sometimes, but never like this:

"Jim, could you explain again why we have to carry iron out on All Hollows?"
"Because it repels the faeries," Jim said, handing around the small blades. "It's one of the few things that actually hurts them."

Instead of explaining it like that, try something like this:

Sean held up the knife that Jim had given him, standing his ground as the faery advanced. As soon as he lunged with the knife though, the faery leapt back with a hiss. Sean cast a glance down at the small knife with new admiration. So that was why Jim had insisted on his carrying it!

Let the reader find out with the character, not by asking, but by experience. It is okay for a character to ask things sometimes, but not just so we can let the reader know information.

How do you fix it?: Try something like the example I gave above. It goes back to the classic rule "show don't tell". That is not by any means a stupid rule, it is very relevant. If you have a problem with this a lot, you may want to consider trying a book in first person. First person characters are allowed to have asides to the reader where they explain things. The reason it's okay, is because, one, they aren't actually asking another character, they're internalizing it, and two, a lot of times, a first person narrator will have some interesting quirk of character that will make his explanation more enjoyable to read. If written in first person, the scene above might read something like this:

"Take this, and don't lose it whatever you do," Jim said, handing me the small blade that I looked at critically. 
"This is pitiful," I said. "What good is it going to do in a fight?"
"It's iron," Jim said with a meaningful look, and I finally realized the significance: Iron is one of the only things that will ward faeries and on a night like tonight, I was going to need all the help I could get."

On Writing Descriptions:

This is something that takes a while to learn, but is actually very easy and fun. It kind of goes along with learning to add the right things to make a scene more interesting, but it also forces you to be more visual.

Why?: It's hard at first learning exactly how to describe things, whether it be people, places, clothing, or even movement or action. A lot of new writer's have trouble finding the balance between too much and not enough, especially when describing characters and places. This is another thing that you might need another pair of eyes to help you with.

How do you fix it?: Practice for the most part, but also looking at the thing you're trying to describe if possible. For characters, find someone who looks like them, for places, visit if you can so you can feel the atmosphere or if it's something you made up, find pictures that kind of look or remind you of it. Do exercises with just describing things, maybe give them to friends and have them tell you back what they think the place looks like just from your description. This is, unfortunately, one of those things that has no simple solution but practice, but like everything else with writing, it will eventually become second nature.

Cardboard Characters:

This is a big one, and one I always stress as majorly important to new writers. Most people read books and fall in love with them for the characters. Sure, nothing can beat an awesome plot, but if it's not accompanied by well-rounded, real characters, then it's always going to flop. Characters are the life of the story, they are what drive the plot, or get caught up in it, they are the ones readers connect with, often on a personal level. They have to be just as real as the people we know. In short, they can't seem like characters, and it's your job as a writer to make them as real as possible.

Why?: New writers make the mistake of writing characters as characters, not as people. Puppets. stereotypes and suchlike. But that is not how you form a character. They need to be flesh and blood, not paper and ink. You need to believe that it's possible for them to walk in the door. A lot of times new writers don't know how to listen to their characters and because of that, they just throw them into situations they probably wouldn't normally be in. The characters are made to fluctuate--they don't have a solid character. They seem flat, two-dimensional, and all the supporting cast melt together. This is never okay. Each character needs to make some sort of impact on the reader the instant they step onto the page. How you write dialogue goes into making the characters too. If they don't have their own voice, or you can't distinguish who's talking just by the lines, then the characters aren't living. In my favorite books, someone could read a snippet of dialogue and I'd know the character who was talking. That's what you have to do.

How do you fix it?: This is the hardest thing to get right, and you never will until you hear your characters in your head. If you are not hearing your characters in your head, then you are not officially a writer yet, and there's nothing you can really do until they start coming to YOU, not the other way around. If that last bit sounded weird to you, then you're obviously not there, because veteran writers know exactly what I'm talking about. And trust me, there's going to come a day when you're just as crazy and have people talking in your head. I distinctly remember when my characters first started talking to me, and my writing was so much better because of it. Yours will be too. I can't say when it's going to happen for any individual, you can't coax it, it's just one day you're going to be lying in bed, and you'll start hearing people converse in your head. And that's when it starts. And once that happens creating characters will be easy and effortless, because YOU don't create them, they create themselves.

My blog is named "Character Purgatory" because that's what I call the place all my characters sit in my head. It's like my mind palace (totally slipped in a Sherlock reference) but just for characters. Like the green room in a theater. Still weird? Just wait.

What I usually tell new writers is to pick up their favorite books, ones with their favorite characters and really take a look at what makes that character tick and why exactly you like them so much? What are the qualities that make you fall in love with them? I'll say this: I'm not a huge fan of fan-fiction (at least not shared fan-fiction) because of what people do with it (and I'm not nocking it all either because I'm sure there is actually some pretty good and decent stuff out there too) but I learned to write on it (Redwall fan-fiction, yep) and that taught me a lot about forming characters. I used ones I loved from the books, and added some of my own, and in order to keep the original characters from paling in comparison, I had to step it up, and learn how to create the hard way. This might be a good exercise for people who have problems forming characters. And the best part? No one ever has to read these stories if you don't want them to. I have tons of stories no one has even seen or heard about from my days of practice. They're bloody awful, most of them, but through those that I wrote by trial and error, I learned a lot about writing in general and certainly about writing characters.

And as for my last parting bit of advice? Read. Read and read and read some more because you can't write unless you know how words are strung together, and characters are created and worlds are built. The beginning writers I know who are hugely avid readers (and who read GOOD books by brilliant authors) write that much better than ones who don't read as much. And also, the best thing you can do for yourself is to know from the start that your first story is not going to be perfect. Ever. It just doesn't happen.

I hope these little tips might help some people out. If you have any other questions about things I might have missed, or personal concerns, let me know! I'd be glad to help =)

(All the snippets were written by me, by the way, I came up with them on the spot, it's my curse, now I have these characters in my head and am starting to wonder about them...)

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