Saturday, April 8, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 pieces of advice for writers


Reprinted from ProWritingAid


by Fred Johnson Mar 08, 2017

I can give you professional writing advice until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, I’m not a bestselling author or a member of America’s literary canon. You know who is? Kurt Vonnegut, that’s who.

Kurt Vonnegut, author of such classics as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, stands today as one of the 20th century’s most important American writers. I can’t think of anyone better placed to give literary advice, and, thankfully, he agreed with me.

These eight tips were originally written by Vonnegut to apply exclusively to writers of short stories, but I reckon they’re just as useful for writers of longer fiction. Here they are:

1. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

This one seems simple: your reader (a total stranger) must not feel like they’re wasting time wading through unnecessary details, events, or descriptions—they must feel constantly engaged. If you give them an excuse to get up and wander off, they’ll do it.

This tip is about keeping your story focused. Your plot must be structured in such a way that the central conflict is always in view (here’s more on how to structure your plot). Even tangential storylines need to be relevant.

2. “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

This helps to keep readers engaged and on-side. Unsurprisingly, if everyone in your book is repellent, the reader will be repelled!

If a reader likes even one character in your story, they will feel invested in what happens to that character. This keeps them engaged and keeps them reading.

Who would have made it through all seven Harry Potter books if Harry, Ron, and Hermione were all insufferable brats?

3. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

This one is HUGE. Too often in short stories and novels, as well as on TV and in films, you see characters who arrive solely to fill some plot hole or who do nothing other than complement the protagonist.

For example, I was editing a fantasy novel recently where a new monster with some new adventurer-defeating ability would appear intermittently, only to be thwarted by some new arrival who would turn up unannounced, cast a magic spell to defeat the monster, and then disappear, never to be heard from again.

Why did he turn up? Who was he? What did he hope to gain by attacking this monster that wasn’t troubling him?

Your characters, even if they are monsters, should be believable as people—they should all have hopes, dreams, motives… even if that motive is, as Vonnegut says, a glass of water.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is good for this. All of his characters have established motives that justify their horrible actions: Arya wants revenge on those who’ve wronged her family, Cersei wants to protect her children and exercise her power, and Hot Pie wants to make nice pastries.

4. “Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.” 

 This is particularly true for short stories but is also something to remember for novels. No line should be wasted—you have to be ruthless with your prose. Don’t be afraid to prune and hack whole sentences off. After all, if you don’t, your editor will!

For example, sometimes I’ll see descriptive paragraphs overloaded with flowery prose:
  • Steven walked slowly and quietly into the kitchen. The units were glossy white and the worktop was a speckled grey. Behind the silver sink, seven small potted plants lined the window sill and brilliant sunshine weaved through the emerald green leaves, casting shadows on the patterned linoleum floor.
Now, as a descriptive paragraph this certainly conjures a vivid picture, but the writer should ask himself/herself what exactly such description is achieving. Is the kitchen a significant space in the plot? Do we really need to know about the units, the worktop, or the potted plants? Can we really justify two adverbs?

If the answer to these questions is no, the paragraph could be much improved:
  • Steven crept into the kitchen.
In a short story, that’s probably enough.

5. “Start as close to the end as possible.”

I was surprised by this one, but it makes sense. Short stories often fail through biting off more than they can chew. A good short story is intimate, limited in scope, and detailed in its characters, settings, and events.

Take John Cheever’s 'Reunion' as an example. It starts only a few hours from the end and focuses on only two characters in a few bars.

The story follows the narrator as he meets his estranged father for a drink, but the narrator’s father gets the pair kicked out of every bar they visit by being abusive to waiters. The story ends when they run out of time and don’t get to enjoy a drink together after all. The narrator goes to catch his train, leaves his father shouting at a newsagent, and is borne away. The story ends with the incredibly potent line: “and that was the last time I saw my father.”

6. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Every story needs an “all is lost” moment (or several!). TV audiences everywhere have learned the power of sadism through Game of Thrones, but this kind of cruelty isn’t exclusive to George R.R. Martin.

Terrible events make for good drama, and suffering serves to render characters vulnerable—and, as any good writer knows, it is only when a person is vulnerable that they can truly be known.

7. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

This tip is even more important today than it was in Vonnegut’s time. It’s about writing for yourself or for one person—never write for the sake of following a trend. As Strunk and White wrote in Elements of Style:
  • Start sniffing at the air, or glancing at the trend machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
Don’t be a sellout—write true, and write for yourself.

8. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

This is perhaps a surprising tip, and one that might not be suitable for writers of thrillers or horror fiction, but providing information aids in world-building, helps render events and characters believable, and, perhaps most importantly, will make any plot holes or instances of deus ex machina glaringly clear.

Of course, some trailblazers can get away with ignoring all of these tips—Kurt had this to say of Flannery O’Connor:
  • The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
Well, back to the drawing board then.

NEXT: How to Foreshadow Like Alfred Hitchcock


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Graphic overview to writing a series

Here's a helpful, concise graphic for anyone thinking about writing a series. It comes from a tweet from Author Accelerator (@AuthAccelerator).  
I'm just starting a coaching intensive with them and have great hopes for making lots of progress in the next 10 weeks. Check out Lisa Cron's book Story Genius and you can see what I've signed up for here.   Joyce Wycoff

Question for you: please respond in the comments section.

What's the best resource you've found to help your writing ... website, book, email newsletter, workshop, conference, coaching, or what? Please share your best learning resource.


 




Sunday, January 15, 2017

14 Stephen King Tips



















Stephen King is not only a great writer, he's great at offering powerful tips on writing, such as the following:
 1. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

2. Stories consist of three parts: 
  • Narration: which moves the story from point A to point B.
  • Description: which creates a sensory reality for the reader.
  • Dialogue: which brings characters to life through their speech.
3. The situation comes first. The characters - always flat and unfeatured to being with - come next.

4. Whether it's an epic of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.

5. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

6. The best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event.

7. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

8. Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character.

9. Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should end in the reader's.

10.  The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

11. Never use "emolument" when you mean "tip."

12. Set a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first. I suggest a thousand words a day.

13.  Call that one person you write for: Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.

14. If you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Friday, January 6, 2017

What's the difference between one apricot tree and an apricot orchard? The answer could change your writing life.

 Medium Daily Digest has become one of my favorite sources of inspiration and information. Today it delivered two metaphors appropriate for writers.

Renee Hopkins shares the idea of "lighthouse questions" - What else would you call the question that reliably guides you through stormy weather on very rough seas — a question big enough and important enough to guide a process of transformation?

 And Benjamin P. Hardy tells us to to plant an orchard rather than a tree, giving us these stories:
Before writing the first chapter of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling planned for seven years at Hogwarts. Harry Potter is one of the most read books of all-time.
Before creating the first Stars Wars movie in the 1970’s, George Lucas planned for at least six films and started at episode four, rather than episode one. Almost 40 years later, the entire world continues to be excited with the release of a new Star Wars film. This would not be possible if Lucas hadn’t thoughtfully and largely planned ahead.
The principle is simple: Don’t just plant a tree, plant an orchard.
Most of us know that "series" are the thing in the writing world. Readers like them, publishers almost demand them. What particularly interests me is the effect of thinking this way has on us, the writers. It takes confidence to write a series. And, I often wonder if confidence is the magic ingredient to writing success (or any other form of success), more than talent, more than education, more than resources.

If I plant an apricot tree in my yard, few people notice whether it survives or withers. There is little at risk and my commitment is casual. If I get a few apricots, I'll be happy. If I don't, life will go on.

However, if I plant an apricot orchard, I'm making a large, visible commitment. I'm telling the world that I'm going to do everything I can to harvest lots of apricots. I have to be come an apricot orchard master, learning everything I can about how to make an apricot orchard flourish. It takes huge confidence to plant an orchard. Confidence that you know, or can learn enough, to take it from tiny trees to harvest. Enough confidence to weather the storms. Enough confidence to know you can sell the apricots when they are mature.

It's fascinating how these to threads of information twined together. It is now clear to me what the lighthouse question for my writing life is: How can I build my confidence level enough for me to turn my writing into an orchard?


I've been planting trees ... it's time to plant an orchard. How about you?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Writers' Conference Gold going to San Miguel Writers' Conference

Going to a writers' conference is like walking into the most elaborate Sunday Brunch ever ...and this one is going to go on for five days!

If you choose wisely, it can change your writing life ... without adding unwanted pounds or that sense of overwhelm that often comes when you're faced with too much information and too many choices.

Fortunately, the San Miguel Writers' Conference board is offering you a FREE tool to help you get the most out of the conference ... the


Writers' Conference Gold
Conference Journal

 We're delighted to be joining the San Miguel Writers' Conference & Literary Festival for their annual conference February 15 - 19, 2017 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

This is a great conference featuring top stars (Judy Collins, Naomi Klein and Billy Collins) and top authors and agents helping writers take their writing to the next level (see the LONG list here).

It's in a great location ... Read 10 Reasons why people fall in love with San Miguel.

And, it serves a great purpose ... bringing writing, creativity and arts to the children and residents of San Miguel. Read more here about The San Miguel Literary Sala and what it does.

What to Expect:

In early January, the conference planners will send you a link to a customized conference journal. You can print out the journal and put it in a binder ... or have it comb bound at a local print shop. The journal will help you know what to do BEFORE the conference, DURING the conference, and AFTER the conference. 

The Conference Journal uses the PREPARE model to help you know how to get the most from your conference experience:

                  P    Plan: What do I want and how do I get it?
                  R    Reframe:
Find something useful everywhere.
                  E    Embrace: 
Constantly ask: How could I use this?                   
                  P    Pitch: Be bold. Ask. Volunteer.
                  A    Align: Connect with others deeply.
                  R    Reflect: What have I learned?
                  E    Enact: What am I going to do?


 Here are some of the specifics the Conference Journal will help you with:


BEFORE:
  • better understand yourself
  • know exactly what to bring to the conference
  • develop your goals and objective
  • choose the best fit workshops and activities
  • create a list of questions that you want answered

DURING:
  • reminders to ask your questions
  • prompts to connect with people on a deeper level
  • simple way to capture ideas and information
  • how to engage others when you talk about your writing

AFTER:
  • follow-up with the people you've met
  • reflect on the lessons learned 
  • plan new actions
  • prioritize and implement actions



Friday, December 9, 2016

Writers Conference Gold Going to Sierra Writers' Conference

Going to a writers' conference is somewhat like walking into the most elaborate Sunday Brunch ever ... and this particular one goes on for a day and a half! 

If you choose wisely, it can change your writing life ... without adding unwanted pounds or that sense of overwhelm that often comes when you're faced with too much information and too many choices.

Fortunately, the Sierra Writers' Conference board is offering you a FREE tool to help you get the most out of the conference ...


Writers' Conference Gold
Conference Journal

We're delighted to be joining the Sierra Writers' Conference  for their annual conference January 20 - 21, 2017 in Grass Valley, CA.

This is an amazing regional conference featuring successful authors helping writers take their writing to the next level (see the workshop and faculty here).

What to Expect:

In early January, the conference planners will send you a link to a customized conference journal. You can print out the journal and put it in a binder ... or have it comb bound at a local print shop. The journal will help you know what to do BEFORE the conference, DURING the conference, and AFTER the conference. 

The Conference Journal uses the PREPARE model to help you know how to get the most from your conference experience:

                  P    Plan: What do I want and how do I get it?
                  R    Reframe:
Find something useful everywhere.
                  E    Embrace: 
Constantly ask: How could I use this?                   
                  P    Pitch: Be bold. Ask. Volunteer.
                  A    Align: Connect with others deeply.
                  R    Reflect: What have I learned?
                  E    Enact: What am I going to do?


 Here are some of the specifics the Conference Journal will help you with:


BEFORE:
  • better understand yourself
  • know exactly what to bring to the conference
  • develop your goals and objective
  • choose the best fit workshops and activities
  • create a list of questions that you want answered
DURING:
  • reminders to ask your questions
  • prompts to connect with people on a deeper level
  • simple way to capture ideas and information
  • how to engage others when you talk about your writing

AFTER:
  • follow-up with the people you've met
  • reflect on the lessons learned 
  • plan new actions
  • prioritize and implement actions