Thursday, August 23, 2012

Writing Advice That Completely Changes Things


Once a month on Go Teen Writers, we're lucky enough to have a group of authors take the time to answer a writing question. This month's question is:

What writing technique made a big difference between you being published and not published?




At my first writers conference, Ken Petersen (then an editor at Tyndale, now the big-wig at Waterbrook), sat down with me and said two words that changed my writing for the better:  Tension Management.  He then pointed to a spot in my manuscript where the bad guy shot the hero.  "Your chapter needs to end here," he said.  Not where I had ended it - several paragraphs later when the tension was low again.  Keep them reading, he said.  And I got it -- my goal was to manage the story's tension to keep the reader turning pages.  To do that, I needed to end chapters with something so compelling that the reader can't wait to keep reading.  Because of Ken, my number one goal for all my writing became (and continues to be): Don't Bore the Reader!





I think the best writing technique I've learned is SHOW, DON'T TELL. Learning to write cinematically solves a host of different writing issues in itself. For instance, when I write as though the scene is playing out before me, it helps me write actively, rather than passively. Showing instead of telling keeps the pacing moving quickly. It also helps me write strong characters because instead of telling the reader, "He was furious" I SHOW the reader how his nostrils flared and his fists clenched and his face turned red. Showing is like painting with words. It creates a vivid image in the reader's imagination––or more importantly, in the imagination of the editor I want to buy my story!




It wasn't just one, but several. When I first started writing, I knew next to nothing about crafting a book, but the things I learned that made the most difference in my writing are showing vs telling, using dialogue beats rather than tags, and using lots of action and just a little narration.





Write in scenes! Once you’ve got your scenes drafted, make sure each one of them moves the story forward. If it doesn’t, cut it.





Concentrating on story. All other techniques fade in and fade out, but a good plot keeps you published and makes your work classic.





My biggest problem was proper use of points of view. I did some serious head-hopping within scenes. My publisher/editor had to take me to school on that one, to give the poor readers a break. Now I limit myself to three or fourth POVs in a story, and focus more on the lead character. I've also experimented with first person in some of my unpublished projects.




Learning good story structure. The book that made the most difference in my writing was Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which explains classic story structure. Once I understood structure, I could see where my story didn’t work and why, how to make it work, how to pace, and how to challenge my characters. I also learned to use goals and secrets and fears to amp up the tension.





For me, the writing technique that made all the difference was learning to use the omniscient narrative.

In a market where "Show Don't Tell" has become the battle cry, classic omniscient narrative style has fallen into disfavor. It's all about strict-third person or first person narratives . . . even first person present tense is considered preferable! Thus, when I first began to study creative writing, I followed the "show don't tell" law to the letter, restricting my work to a strict third-person. And I learned a tremendous amount while doing so!

But then I started to notice something: All my favorite authors used the omniscient narrative.

I don't mean just the classics like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, or any of the Victorians with their long rambling narratives. Nor do I even mean the renowned C.S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien, who more recently put the omniscient narrative to brilliant use in their modern-classics. As much as I love all of these writers, I can see why (unless you're Susanna Clarke and write genius work like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) that style would not fly with today's readers.

But my favorites, my very favorite current YA novelists, all wrote using the omniscient narrative as well! Megan Whalen Turner, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Sir Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaimain . . . brilliant storytellers all, who have created  some of my most-loved literary characters. They were getting into multiple viewpoints within scenes . . . they were describing things that the viewpoint character could not have actually seen . . . they were addressing their reader . . . they were "telling" as much as they were "showing" . . . and they were doing it so well!

So I took a step back from the strict third-person narratives I had been pursuing and began experimenting with the omniscient. It took a lot of work to learn a whole new writing style, very different from anything I was seeing promoted among CBA authors of that time. And even now, I get flack from various folks in the market who believe that my narrative voice is "wrong" and "outdated." I have even had a reviewer call my work a "publishing travesty" simply because of the narrative voice I chose to write in!

But my editors at Bethany House Publishers were thrilled to have something fresh and different come across their desks. Working with them, I have continued to hone a stronger and more vibrant omniscient narrative voice, and I really love it! It's just the right tone for my Fairy Tale adventure novels, and I would never go back to strict third-person.

That being said, the omniscient narrative is not the right style for every story out there. I recommend young writers to try it, however. See how your work-in-progress sounds with a little extra narrative heft, with a little "telling" here and there. See what happens if you write multiple points of view all in the same scene. It can be terrible! But it also can be truly beautiful.

What about YOU? What have you learned about writing that's made a big difference in how you do things?

Related Posts:
June's 1 question Interview: Ups and Downs of the Writing Life

28 comments:

  1. They always tell you to JUST WRITE when it comes to your first draft, and just getting your ideas and the words on paper. And that's hard! I'm finally getting used to just writing my scenes as I have planned them so far, knowing that any improvements to make (and they do exist!) will be made later. I've finally convinced myself that my current draft won't be sent to a publisher. No way on Earth.

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    1. Mine either, Katie! That would be scary! LOL

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  2. Oh my gosh, I've learned so much. Deffinately making my characters goals strong and obvious has been something I've really been trying to work on.
    Um...what is omniscient narrative??

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    1. Yeah, I didn't totally get that either. :/

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    2. That's something I learned, too, Maddie! Characters are so important!

      Omniscient is a point of view, one of many ways of telling a story. Some books are told from one person, some from several in different scenes or chapters. Some have a narrator who isn't actually a main character. And some books are told in an omniscient style with many anyone the author wants/needs as a main character, which can be confusing when it's done poorly. But when it's done correctly, can work quite well. If you've read a book in which you see through several character's eyes within the same scenes or chapters, that's omniscient.

      The Septimus Heap books are omniscient point of view.
      The Percy Jackson books are first person, past, point of view.
      Hunger Games is first person, present, point of view.
      The Harry Potter books are third person, past point of view. And there are a few parts that feel omniscient, though we find out later that Harry is in Voldemort's hear while he dreams and can see other things.

      Until you master the different types of points of view and showing vs telling, I don't recommend trying omniscient. Doing it well is one of the hardest types. My two cents. *shrugs*

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    3. Thanks Jill for clearing that up:)

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  3. Wow! Excellent post! I always thought that the omniscient writing style was a big publishing no no, but I was reading a book last night that was doing a lot of telling rather than showing, and head hopping. At first, I was irritated. It was a publishing nightmare, after all! Then I read the beginning of an insanely popular book, and *gasp!* The author was telling! But it was absolutely great (unlike the first book, which was unfortunately boring because of it. . .). It made me wonder, "How seriously am I supposed to take the 'rules' of writing?" I've heard also that you learn the rules, then break them. I guess it's almost a shame that I'm such a perfectionist. But, maybe I should worry less about the rules of writing and just work on making my story perfect in the way it's meant to be told. This was such a great post! Really makes me think!

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    1. I agree, Ms. Nickname-Giver :) Made me think, too. That was some great advice!!

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    2. Yeah. I never stick with the rules. I don't take a six week break after I finish a WIP (I probably should, but I don't). It's quite terrible of me, but I just can't stick with the rules. Sometimes you just have to do what works for YOU and your story. Great advice Vamp! :)

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    3. As far as sticking to the rules... unpublished writers are judged more harshly. Karen Kingsbury, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Nicolas Sparks... these famous writers break all kinds of rules. But they can because they're famous. Unpublished writers have to write better than these people to get published, and publishers and agents hold new authors to higher standards. It's not fair. It's just is.

      I think you need to do your best to stick with the rules until you truly understand them enough to break the rules on purpose. I know that might sound confusing, but once you have that, "Ah ha!" moment, you'll know what I mean. It's like training for any sport or activity. You have to go through that period of time where you learn the basics. Some people think they don't need the basics and skip that part, but it's those people who take their chosen art seriously enough to know that the basics are a foundation who will blow those who rush out of the water.

      That's what happened to me, anyway. I did it my way at first and it blew up in my face and I had to go back to the beginning and start over.

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    4. Well, I've been trying the best I can to keep to the rules! I'm typically too much of a perfectionist to stray from those guidelines. I'm not sure if I've broken any or not, but if I ever do--just like with the rules of photography--I'll only break them if it will truly make the work better.

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    5. Aha. Understand that Jill. It actually makes perfect sense. :) I worded my comment wrong. I just break some rules and I know I shouldn't, I'm working on it though. ;) I don't break "all" the writing rules, but I have broken some. Unlike Kelsey I tend to stray from the guidelines at times. Granted I've only just started learning all the writing rules in the past year or so, but I DO try my best to stick with the rules. Certain things just haven't worked for my story at times though so I've done different things. *cough* I really need to work at wording things better so I don't sound arrogant...(Wasn't my intention, but re-reading it..Ugh...)

      I get the blowing up in your face part. I am kicking myself for not formatting my WIP from day one....I am also kicking myself for using crazy fonts in past WIP's. *sigh* I am also kicking myself for not learning the basics of writing sooner, but I think you get the point. :)

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  4. Ah omniscient narrative! It's not a style that I feel like I would be good at writing (though I would love to experiment with it some day), but it's one that I always love reading when it's done well. And it certainly can be done well, even today, as Anne Elizabeth Stengl's books are proof! :)

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  5. Hmm... Maybe only saying absolutely necessary exposition helped me the most. I used to make up stories with my sisters out loud which had INSANE amounts of unneeded info. We were the queens of bunny trails. Like, we were once making a story that was supposed to be about really bad teachers, but instead we went on about how when one character was really young, she drew her M's one hump at a time, so she sometimes only drew one hump (like a lowercase N), and once she made an M with three humps.

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  6. Do publishers expect first time authors to be good at dividing up chapters? It's not something I know much about yet.

    Right now, the thing that has made the biggest difference for me is from a writing I listened to by Robin Jones Gunn. She said one of the reason beginning writers have such a hard time is because the try to go to deep at add too many things the first time around. Her advice is to choose once character with one problem and very narrowly stick to that problem writing it beginning to end. After you can go back and add subplots and more if needed. It's really gotten me to look at books I'm reading and ask what the main problem is?

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  7. Great advice!

    I enjoy reading first person POV the best. It really helps connect the reader to the character.

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  8. Great advice, Thanks!
    I used to write everything in omniscient and though I do a lot of different stuff now, I still really like. I don't know if I do a good job, but I like it. :)

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  9. So many good pieces of advice!

    One of the most influential pieces of advice I've heard was to jump into the middle of a scene, instead of describing everything leading up to that point. At first, I thought it would take away from the story, but after trying it for myself, I realized how much stronger it made my plot. That piece of advice made a huge difference in my writing!

    Now when I write scenes, sometimes I intentionally write unnecessary intro stuff (just to get myself warmed up), then go back and cut it out later.

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  10. Not really advice, but something I figured out mostly on my own, or just through absorbing(? Is that what I'm really going to call it? I think yes.). But, I find it's so much easier for me to (1) write in first person (2) write in present tense - walk, not walked (3) let my comedy streak show and (4) don't be afraid to get lyrical.

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  11. Thanks for all the great advice!

    One of the things I learned that helped my writing hugely was how to write good conversation. I read that every conversation should have a purpose, a goal, or a conflict of its own. That advice helped me cut a lot of unneccessary blather. :)

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  12. Awesome advice, Stephanie! I too struggle with 'head-hopping' and POVs. Though, I am curious about that topic. I know some novel styles (mostly mystery and action) that have continous 'head-hopping' between characters. One author I know who does this is Frank Peretti. In his novels, he may 'head-hop' between up to six to eight different people! Is this a type of novel style, or has even Frank Peretti gotten it wrong?

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  13. Some of the most awesome advice I've learnt are...use the five senses! Write them! Know them. Show them (which adds into the "show, don't tell", which I love too). Love the advice and suggestions in this post. It's really cool hearing published authors give advice! amazing! Thank you so much. :)

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  14. Thank y'all so much for doing this! These are really good answers. I'll have to keep them in mind.

    Probably the advice that has helped me most is that of making characters that need to change, and do over the course of the story. That is SO big.

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  15. Loved reading through all of these. Especially Anne Elizabeth Stengl's! I've read Heartless and wondered why the POV was like it was. But I agree, it sets just the right tone for her fairy-tale adventures! :)

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  16. I'm curious, is there anything wrong with writing in first person, present tense? I mean, I suppose there's no right or wrong way to write a story, but what are some of the downsides to it?

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    1. I'll jump in on this one!

      There is nothing wrong with first person, present tense. In fact, it is becoming an increasingly popular tense in which to write fiction these days, with many popular authors using it to successful effect. It is a relative newcomer to the fictional world, however, especially when compared to the omniscient narrative. It is also a writing style of which I'm not particularly fond, not because there's any "downside" per se . . . purely a matter of personal taste! But, as with all narrative voices available to a fiction writer, it is one worth experimenting with.

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    2. Okay, thanks! I just wasn't sure. That's what I've been writing in - it felt easier, more natural than third person. But I can see how omniscient could be useful - Harry Potter's written like that, and it's amazing! I'd just have to figure out how to use it well :)

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  17. Ahhh . . . If you don't like your story, either change it so you like it or ditch it. If you don't have fun making the story, chances are your reader won't have fun either.

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