I don’t often discuss the technical side of writing in depth, but after reading the self-published works that inspired last Monday’s post, I’ve decided to discuss the biggest problem I’ve seen in these novels: overwriting.
What is overwriting? There are two ways authors overwrite: with excessive details, and with particularly wordy phrasing. Even a perfectly spelled piece with flawless grammar can be made frustrating if the author overwrites them. It makes a book frustrating to read and in today’s fast paced society, most readers will walk away. I’m particularly forgiving of this if the story captivates me, but enough of it will make even me gash my teeth.
So today I’d like to discuss some of the things that can–and should–be cut from your writing whenever possible to make it easy reading.
Let’s start with the details:
1. Characters brushing their teeth. Or combing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. These things should only be included if they’re used to add depth or move the story forward. For instance, if your character notices a giant bruise developing on their face while they’re brushing their teeth in the morning, that’s a good use of the scene. In fantasy settings, often the nobles have servants to dress them, and these scenes can be used for gossip with the servants to great effect. George R. R. Martin uses this technique often to pass information between characters.
2. Details of your setting that don’t matter to the plot. Festivals, events, street names and other details of your setting should only be mentioned if they’re important to your story. If you’ve spent hours creating your location or done months of research it can be tempting to include all the details, but that will bog the story down. Include only what is necessary to the plot. People don’t pick up a novel expecting a detailed tour of the city or town in question. They want a story, not a tourist guide. Some detail helps them enjoy the story. Too much irritates even the most patient reader.
3. Most flashbacks. There’s often a more efficient way to mention past events, and flashbacks should only be used when absolutely necessary. Unless you’re doing a story intentionally that starts at the end and shows you how the character got there, the best way to give readers a feel for the important parts of your character’s past is to mention them briefly and then expand on them bit by bit later. Make it a gradual thing rather than a flashback or a long winded explanation, and you’ll keep the reader’s interest more easily.
And some words that can almost always be left out:
1. Just. It seems like an innocent word, but while it doesn’t ruin your grammar, it’s often redundant. Think about these sentences:
He was just a little bit taller than me.
She lived just around the corner from the scene of the crime.
In both sentences just is grammatically correct, but does it need to be there? Consider these sentences:
He was a little bit taller than me.
She lived around the corner from the scene of the crime.
The sentences are now a little bit stronger and shorter without having changed meaning. Getting rid of ‘just’ might not seem like a big deal, but once they’re gone, you’ll see a big difference.
2. Then. This is one I’ve been ripping mercilessly from my manuscripts. Sure, there are occasions where it’s essential, but often it’s unnecessary, particularly when used after the word ‘and’. Consider these sentences:
And then she kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and then held it in front of her defensively.
Now look at these:
She kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and held it in front of her defensively.
Which sentences do you think are stronger? In the end, ‘then’ is just another word bogging down your work. Cut it whenever you can, especially when you see it after ‘and’.
3. Very. This is another unnecessary word. Take a look at these sentences:
The mansion was very big.
She was very angry.
Now consider these:
The mansion was massive.
She was furious.
By eliminating very and using stronger words, I’ve made these sentences shorter and more visual. Look for this word in your work and delete it whenever possible. Be ruthless. There’s almost always a better way to emphasize something than using the word ‘very’.
Exercise: Pull out a story/project you haven’t looked at a while and a highlighter. Highlight every excessive detail and every instance of just or very that you see within the first three pages. Count them, and then find ways to get rid of them. Remember that overwriting doesn’t make you a bad writer–almost all of us do it in our first few drafts. Editing may be painful, but it gives your work the best chance possible for success.
Just for fun, post how many instances of overwriting you found in your first three pages. For each reader who does, I’ll look through one of my old projects and count the instances of overwriting. Let’s compare numbers!
Since you’re planning to write a 50, 000 word novel next month–dividing into 1,667 words per day–it’s a good idea to get warmed up by doing some writing exercises over the next few days. A good goal would be to write at least 400-500 words every day until Nanowrimo starts, so you’re already in the writing groove on November first. This warms up your writing muscles without leading to burn out before Nanowrimo begins.
Today I’d like to share three exercises designed to help you do just that. These exercises can be done with your Nanowrimo characters or completely different characters. I usually use them to flesh out the characters and world I’ve already started creating for my novel, because I find that you discover many things while writing that you never will in a thousand brainstorms. Often these are crucial details, such as character names and important moments in their history.
While these exercises are aimed at both warming up the writing muscles and fleshing out your characters and your world, you can find dozens of more basic prompts both here and on many sites across the web. There are even entire books filled with prompts to help you get going, ranging from picture prompts to detailed scenarios for you to throw your character into. These exercises are my attempt at finding a proper middle ground.
Without further ado:
1. Write about a large social gathering in the place where your story is set. This can be from the main character of your novel’s point of view, in third or first person, in the point of view of your villain or whoever you want it to be. The important thing is that you focus on what the occasion is, what people are wearing, how people act and mention any unusual customs. I can’t begin to explain how many times I’ve discovered really important things by writing scenes like this, especially about cultural expectations and traditions. Often the details you need come more easily when you’re just writing, not trying to rip them out of a blank page.
2. Write a scene in which someone dies. You can learn a lot from someone’s death, both in real life and in fiction. In fiction, it can teach you how your characters react to death, what common dangers are in that world and how death is treated in your world. Death scenes can be incredibly powerful, and you can make them as long or as short as you want. For this exercise I’d suggest writing first person in the PoV of one of your Nano characters and making the dying person someone close to them. Of course, you don’t have to do that–the important thing is just to get yourself writing, not what you write.
3. Write something about pets. Everyone loves pets. Nowadays we have micro pigs, cats, all manners of dogs, birds and lizards. In ancient times, pets weren’t usually kept unless they served a purpose, and often weren’t even called pets: dogs for hunting, horses for riding, goats for milk. Where does your world stand on the issue? Are live animals rare and most pets robotic, as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or are your people so poor they can’t keep useless mouths, restricting them to dogs and horses? Or do they sit somewhere in the middle, where anything can be a pet and everyone has one? You can learn a lot about your world by considering what pets they keep–and more about your characters by how they treat their pets.
Of course, when doing these exercises you don’t have to use your characters and setting for your Nanovel, but if you’re still trying to flesh out your world and your characters, these exercises will add an extra level of depth to your novel. And for those of you who are just chomping at the bit to get started, writing these back story scenes is a great way to get some writing done and give your characters some loving without cheating and starting your novel early.
What is your favourite kind of writing exercise?
With only twelve days before Nanowrimo start, there isn’t much time to finish building your world and planning your novel, so you have to focus on the important details. Creating a map for your world–anywhere from a basic map establishing cities and borders to a complete road map–and a fact sheet to bring together all your knowledge of the world you’ll be writing your novel in is a great way to figure out what you need to know to begin your novel without hours of hard labour. The fact sheet also provides you with a place to put notes when you discover new things about your world. Today I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a bare-bones world with these tools.
Mapping is incredibly easy, though you can make it as complex as you like. I always do a simple map on graph paper. Trace out odd shapes–too round or square is odd for land–and turn them into continents and islands. Start by drawing out the physical features of the lands where your story takes place. Use upside down Vs for mountains and draw blue lines and circles for lakes and rivers. For forests, draw small triangles or other simple tree shapes. This is a rough map, so don’t worry about how it looks.
Now, create borders for your kingdoms and label each one. Mark your towns with dots and your cities with stars or other symbols. Castles, bays and docks should be given special markings as well. Drawing in a few roads to give yourself a guideline for how people travel between cities is a good idea, but don’t worry about a complex map with every trail named at this point–unless, of course, you’d prefer to do that.
You might also want to create more local maps, or if you’re working in a real life setting find maps on the internet. Local maps are easy to create as long as you establish symbols for special buildings such as libraries or schools. Of course, real artists can always draw the buildings in more detail so each one stands out, but that’s a lot of time you probably don’t have before November first, so don’t worry about it. You can make pretty maps later; right now what you need is functional.
Creating a Factsheet
For every world I create–and depending on the world, sometimes every culture and even every character–I create a factsheet. This compiles everything I know about the world through writing exercises and brainstorming in one convenient place that I can easily refer to while working on my novel.
Expect that your factsheet will likely be more than one sheet. Odds are as you write down every fact you can think of, you’ll discover more and realize you need to answer more questions. Writing down everything you know about the world makes your notes more accessible and gives you an idea of what you still need to figure out. Armed with that knowledge, you can spend your last few days of preparation filling the holes in your knowledge.
Write down everything you can think of, even if it doesn’t seem right. You can always cross it out later. It’s also a good idea to leave a few blank sheets at the end of your list. This way, you won’t have to squish your notes together or go hunting for paper when you discover something new about your world.
This is also a good time to go back and create factsheets for each of the characters you’ve established and to create a similar sheet with a point form outline of your plot. None of these sheets need to be detailed. Spontaneity in writing is often a good thing, at least in the first draft. Don’t get too attached to these facts either; keep a red pen ready in case you find out some of them aren’t true.
While these simple exercises won’t build a detailed world all on their own, they’ll give you a basic framework from which to build your novel. By the end you should know who lives where and have a good idea of what life is like on your world. That’s the most important thing–after all, half the fun of writing your first draft is the things you discover along the way. And half the fun of Nano is flailing around in a world you don’t yet understand, along with all the other participants.
Happy Friday the thirteenth! Originally today’s prompt was going to be based off of a single emotion, but in celebration of the fact that it’s Friday the thirteenth, I decided to go for a more… morbid prompt:
Write a story beginning with a character sitting at the very front, looking out the front window of a train when someone jumps in front of it.
Please post your first sentence in the comments.
My first sentence:
I’d always joked about seeing a jumper, so when it finally happened my first thought was ‘hmm, I thought the splat would’ve been louder’.
This month winter will begin turning into spring–or at least, it’s when winter is supposed to begin its transformation to spring. It seems that the warmth comes sooner every year, though the snow always returns once or twice more just to confuse people. But March is usually when it really starts to look and feel like spring. It’s not quite spring yet, but it’s almost spring.
It’s a time of change, of transformation. In a month or two everything around us will be colourful again, the leaves returned to their trees, the flowers blooming.
For now, appreciate that change. Appreciate the first time you hear the birds chattering away in the morning, the first time you see a robin. Admire that first leaf bravely growing from its tree, reaching out to the sunlight. Appreciate nature.
Today I want you to find out how one of your characters appreciates–or maybe doesn’t appreciate–nature:
Write a story in which your character is celebrating–or moaning about–the first flower they’ve seen blooming since winter.
Please post the first sentence of your response if you find the time to come back.
The new year has just begun. This first week is a great time to set the tone for the rest of 2012. We all have our own goals, both writing related goals and completely separate goals, for the new year. If we take the first steps towards those goals now, we’re ahead. Don’t tell yourself you can wait to start working on something because you have the whole year. Start working on it now.
Right now I’m finishing up Birth of a Vampire, a short-ish story that will probably end up a little less than 10K. I’m also formulating a plan to edit my novel. As part of my plan to write and submit twelve pieces of fiction this year, I’m going to be writing an actually short story that I’ll be editing and submitting before February 1st. I’m not going to wait until halfway through the year. I’m tackling my goals now.
Today I’ve got a prompt that will hopefully inspire you and help you along the way to your own writing goals.
Write a scene in which two of your characters go to the marketplace in a country they’ve never been to before.
Think outside the box. Please post your first sentence in the comments section or a link to the piece if you put it on a blog.
Character is for many writers the driving force of their fiction. Knowing your characters thoroughly is just as important as knowing your plot. Sometimes, it’s even more important. When character comes second to plot, characters often seem stereotypical and dialogue becomes wooden. In order to make your fiction come to life you must bring your characters, especially your main character, come to life for the character.
I’ve compiled a list of exercises to help you develop your characters. You can do one of them or all of them for any and all of your characters. How much work you do to prepare for Nanowrimo is really up to you, but it’s good to have a basic grasp of your characters, setting and plot before you begin. It helps to make for less rewriting.
So how can you develop your characters?
1. Interview your character. This is a fairly common technique in which you interview your character as if for a magazine. Ask your character what their favourite colour is, what their childhood was like, and what made them who they are today. If your character is well known for some reason before the story begins, ask them specific questions about what it is that makes them so well known. Write what you learn down on a separate fact sheet afterwards. Fact sheets are very valuable resources to have when you’re in the midst of writing the book. It’s easier when you don’t have to look through pages and pages of prose to find a useful piece of information.
2. Write about your character’s first love. How somebody acts towards somebody they love, or at least claim to love, is usually a pretty good indicator of their personality in general. Focus on how your character feels about this person and how they express their feelings. If they’ve never fallen in love before, write about a very close friend or mentor who they are no longer connected to. By examining how they think about the person they love and how they communicate with that person, you can figure out whether they are trustworthy or not, whether they tend to obsess over people or things, and how they react to loss. Knowing how your character reacts in a number of different situations is vital to making them come to life on the page.
3. Map out your character’s family. Create a family tree for your character. Figure out at least who their parents and siblings are, and whether or not their siblings have children. I prefer to begin with their grandparents. As you’re mapping them out, write down one sentence about each person in the family. When you’ve finished, write a paragraph or two about how they all get along. Take as much or as little time as you need, and write it from anyone’s point of view–a random stranger is fine here, too.
4. Write about the first time your character meets someone–from the other person’s point of view. It’s important to know your characters very well: what they do for entertainment, how they see themselves, and how others see them. Sometimes writing about one of your characters from the point of view of a stranger tells you a lot about that character. It’s good to know how they are when meeting new people and how they come across to others when you’re in the thick of the book. The more you know about how your character interacts with people, the more realistic you can make their interactions throughout the book.
5. Write about what your character does on an ordinary day. Think of this as a Dear Diary post. It’s really up to the character and how they live what is said and how many words it’s said in. If your character lives a boring life or isn’t very wordy, this exercise might only be a couple of sentences. If your character likes to describe things intimately or lives a life of constant adventure, you might write a couple hundred words. Focus on what they do on a normal weekday, whether it be farming, bartending, or running a large corporation. It’s always good to know what your character does when they’re not saving the day in your novel.
I hope these exercises work for you. I’ve done each at least once and I’ve always learned something. Some characters are easier to learn about than others. Just like real people, some of them are shy and others are mean. Some have hard exteriors but are really all gooey on the inside. Some are waiting to kill you in your sleep. Some exercises will work better with one character than with another. Figure out what works for you, and figure out those characters.
If you liked this blog post and you’re looking forward to Nanowrimo too, please sponsor me this Nanowrimo season.
How do you develop character?