Saturday, July 30, 2011

How to Hook Your Reader: Foreshadowing

Once your arm falls off, it’s not hard to figure out that the day is going to go way downhill.”

                “I sat in the field, baring my face toward the heavens as I watched the stars die.”

                I love coming up with first lines like this, almost as much as I love reading them. I love coming up with a line that will make a reader sit up straighter, or do a double take, or – most importantly – move on to the next sentence.

                Any reader knows how important the first lines of a book can be. They decide whether you keep reading or put the book in question back on the shelf.

                But what about the rest of a first chapter? If the first sentence is a taste of frosting that you’ve swiped, then the rest of the chapter is the whole slice of cake. As writers, our job is to help the readers avoid that sickening despair that appears when you take a big bite and realize that the main event isn’t going to live up to your expectations. It’s easy to forget about the necessity of a good hook when you’re writing a first chapter; there’s so much description that needs to take place introducing the setting and characters.

                Not to mention the rest of the entire book.

                So how do we keep a reader sniffing for crumbs and licking the plate?


In both of the first lines above, there are hints of the story to come. In the first one, the fallen arm serves as my attention-getter, while the rest of the sentence makes the reader wonder how exactly the day is going to go downhill.

                That said, there are a few different kinds of foreshadowing that we can use. I’ll list three here, but I’m sure there are more out there.

·         Plot: Show us something important. Make us realize that it’s important. Show us what the meat of the story is going to entail. What comes after the idle pleasantries of setting and character introductions? A (blatantly obvious) example:

“Well, gee,” Randy said, scratching his head as he took up his station guarding the glimmering crystal sphere. “Considering that there crystal is the life source of our solar system and the only thing that keeps neighboring planets from attacking us, it sure would be awful if someone stole it!”

Yes, it’s an awful example, but hopefully it helps you to understand what I mean. A savvy reader should immediately lock onto the fact that this crystal is crucial, and something is going to happen to it.

Some foreshadowing is more subtle than others, but a true master should be able to weave things together so skillfully that the reader will be having revelations about your plot progression days after they finish your book (ß I love these moments. XD)

Not sure how to use this method? Try looking at your climax/conclusion. Read through it. Now look back at your first chapter and see if you can find a place where a reader could look back and go, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t realize it the first time around, but they alluded to *this* way back on the first few pages!”

Because I’m freaking out about the impending awesomeness of Legend of Korra, I’ll use an example from Avatar: The Last Airbender that comes to mind. You know the episode where he’s floating around on a gigantic lion-turtle the size of an island, talking to his past lives? Think back to the episode with the library in the desert. In one of the scrolls Aang looks at, what does he see? A reference to a gigantic lion-turtle.

I geeked out when I noticed this. XD

·         Character Relations: The easiest way to use this method is with romance. You know what I’m talking about. Those two characters that you automatically know will be planning their wedding day by the end of things. The fun part is getting there. Romantic tension. Two characters who refuse to admit that they’re in love, despite the fact that everyone knows it already. Two characters kept apart by circumstances beyond their control. In some cases, this is the basis of the whole story. In others, it’s a welcome bonus that will keep a reader interested even if the plot is moving slowly.

To make things fun, I’ll use an example of gripping character interaction that isn’t romance:

Alice pressed her back to the wall as the guards escorted Fiona into the hall. She pointedly avoided Alice’s gaze, an infuriating smirk on her face. Alice busied herself gathering up her things, then hurried toward the door with her head down. Suddenly she went flying, her things skittering across the floor, and she looked  up to find the smirker staring down at her, hate in her eyes. She matched the expression for a split second before the guards dragged Fiona away.

Okay. This example is a little better, I think. XD Within a few sentences, we can already tell that these two hate each other, and might even end up killing each other. We’ve all encountered these characters, too. Rivals. Enemies. People who hate each other to their core. You could watch a whole series just waiting for these two to engage in a battle of epic proportions. And along the way, their little skirmishes will be just as entertaining.

·         Instructions: “I hope you enjoy your stay in the mansion,” the butler said, remaining stiffly by the door as the young woman took in the room’s surroundings. TV, hot tub, a balcony facing out onto the ocean… It was all so perfect!

“One more thing,” the butler said, hesitating. “We would ask that you don’t leave your room after dark. And if you should hear any sounds during the night… Unusual sounds… Well. It would be best if you did not mention them.” The door slammed shut behind him before she could even muster up a question.

What do you think’s going to happen next? Bingo. She’ll go out after dark and mention some strange noises. We constantly come across all these rules that you just know are going to be broken. What keeps the reader going here is the thought of what the consequences might be. >;)

                These are just a few examples of how you can use foreshadowing to keep a reader flipping pages.

                So, Ladies and Gents. What kinds of foreshadowing have I left out? How have you been attempting to foreshadow in your writing? What books/movies have left you geeking out days later because of a connection you never noticed before?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Step Back: A Wider Perspective

The library. For a reader or writer, it’s close to paradise. Imagine you’re in a new library for the first or second time, exploring the shelves that make up your favorite section or genre. You sidle past, one step at a time, eyes lingering on the covers and titles as your fingers trail along behind you. Every once in a while, when a title catches your eye, you pull the book from the shelf and read the summary, then place the tome either back on the shelf or on the stack you clutch to your chest.

                You near the end of the shelves, eyes still skimming across the beloved books. There are still so many books on the shelves. The load in your arms seems puny, by comparison. But the rejections keep coming. That one doesn’t look interesting to me. That one I’ve already read. I don’t like that author, usually. I’ve heard that book isn’t very good.

                Finally you reach the very end, and have a certain melancholic confidence that the books you’ve selected are the best ones on the shelves. They are the elite. The treasures. The rest are simply there to fill the shelves, or to supplement a less discerning reader, or one with different tastes.

                You curl up in one of the chairs provided, selecting one of your finds to begin reading. You glance over at the shelves…

                And spot a cover that catches your interest. And another, and another, and another. What is this? How did you miss them the first time? And why could you only notice them after taking a few steps back?

                The same thing happens in our writing. We’re caught up in a scene, or a character, or a train of thought that moves faster than your fingers can type. We’re excited! This is the best story we’ve ever written! Everything is so perfect!

                As any participant of NaNoWriMo can tell you, this feeling has the potential to carry you all the way to a ‘The End’. But after the ‘The End’, when you want to start the revision process and turn it into a work that other people can read without burning their eyes out of their skulls, this feeling can be very, very bad.

                Take a step back. Look at it the way you’d look at one of the books you pulled off a library shelf. Forget for a few seconds that you wrote this monster of awesomeness, and look at it from a calm, unbiased point of view. If you can’t get yourself into that mindset at the drop of a hat, then put the story away for a while, or work on something else. Then come back to it, but be careful to leave that step between yourself and the work.

                Read it. Just like you’d read any other book.

                Suddenly, our fantastic characters look fantastically flat. Their actions throughout the story don’t seem to have much purpose, and the world we made up is just one big cliché. Why didn’t we notice these things before? Why didn’t we notice how pointless this scene was, or how nonsensical our villains’ actions were?

                It’s okay. We can fix them. We just have to take a step back, see where we have problems, and then ask ourselves some questions.

What’s motivating our character? How is the setting affecting them, and what makes the setting interesting to the reader? How does a certain chain of events fit together? Which scenes were so fun to write that you dragged them out way longer than they deserved, and what are some ways we can close up that gaping plot hole that seems big enough to be a portal into Narnia?

Who knows? Maybe you’ll finally figure out how to tie things together perfectly in a place where you struggled the first time around.

Take the step back and look at your story from a wider perspective. You’ll be surprised what you might realize in the process.

So, readers. Have you ever finished a story only to notice a real ‘Duh’ moment? Do you find it hard to take that step back, or simple? Are you still having trouble realizing when a scene you write is less than perfect? Or maybe your problem is taking the step forward while writing, and you find it hard to forget about all your story’s problems. I’d love to know your thoughts.

((Btw, for those who are interested, I won Camp NaNoWriMo on the 15th with 50,086 words. Since then, I’m… Taking a break? XD))

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ignoring Advice - Breaking the Rules of Writing, with Style

Remember that post from last week about passive voice and how it can subtract from your writing and you should avoid using it when you can? Well, forget about it. That’s right. Usher the thought from your mind. Tell the part of your brain that’s been obsessively replacing ‘was’ and ‘had’ to sit back and relax for a while. Completely ignore everything I told you.

Okay. Maybe not completely. And maybe you shouldn’t forget about it entirely. The truth is, it is a good tip that many people recite when they talk about writing, and using active voice in your writing really can be more effective in gripping your reader and getting your story across in an interesting way. It is good advice.

But it’s just that. Advice. To be taken or left at will.

I recently finished a book that I rather enjoyed, and I’ve just started another book that promises to follow the grand tradition of all such books by that particular author. And something I noticed in both of these books is that they use passive voice pretty often (especially the first one).

Obviously, I noticed, so was it entirely unobtrusive? No. Was it always as gripping as more active verbs might have been? Maybe not. But did it fill me with dread at the thought of reading the book? Did it make me want to chuck the novel in question into the fire pit and roast s’mores over its smoldering pages? No. I liked the book, even if it did use passive language from time to time. Its narrative was very proper, very… formal. And the passive voice worked fine with much of that narrative. It was a good book, with a great plot, and I enjoyed it.

Which brings me back to my point. Advice is advice, and whether it applies to your writing depends on you, your style, the mood and narrative and maybe even setting of the book you’re working on. This isn’t exclusive to passive language, either, people. For every piece of advice you get about writing, there are going to be plenty of published books out there written by successful authors who have taken those ‘rules’, rifled through them, and then tossed them out the window.

Use lots of description. Don’t get bogged down in description.

Use adjectives and adverbs. NEVER use adjectives and adverbs.

Use more interesting words for ‘said.’ Only use ‘said.’

Read everything. Read nothing.

Always use active voice… Except for when you use passive voice.

Even the most rigid ‘rules’ of grammar – the things that your English teachers stapled to your brain with commands to never forget them – are more flexible than you might think. Part of writing is breaking these rules, for emphasis and rhythm and preference of the author. Maybe the grammar Nazis out there will call you out on it. With the short stories I’ve posted online, I’ve had people ask why I use single quotes even outside of dialogue (as I did up above here, when talking about ‘rules’). I’ve had them try to correct stylistic ‘mistakes’ that I’ve made on purpose.

And you know what? In most cases, another reviewer was quick to respond and say, “Hey, actually, it’s fine to do it that way.”

I’m not saying you should completely ignore any and all advice people give you. Chances are, it’ll be good advice. It might address something that you really should try to fix, and most of the time it’s best to go along with the conventions of language and writing.

What I’m trying to say is, advice is not always set in stone.  A published author’s casual tip is not law. It’s up to us – the developing writers – to find our own styles and decide what kind of writing works best for us.

                And it’s up to us to know what kind of writing doesn’t work, and when it’s time to make a change. XD

                So, ladies and gents. What rules do you constantly break, accidentally or on purpose? What conflicting advice have you received? What books have you read that break the rules, but do it with style?

There’s a quote about this somewhere, and I know I’ve heard it before, and I know it has to do with getting conflicting advice… But when I tried to find it online, the closest thing I found was this:

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

-- Somerset Maugham

Still a very good, very appropriate quote.

Here's another:

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."
-- Truman Capote

And, I also stumbled onto this lovely article:

Which talks more about ‘bad’ advice, and addresses some of the same things I have in this post. In a more clear, more professional way. ^^
And, half a week before this scheduled post is made public, this lovely writing blog, the YA Lit Six, posted on a similar topic, but focusing more on how to break the rules in dialogue.

Fun fact: I wrote this post before the one on passive voice. XD

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Problems with Passive Voice

                 Passive Voice versus Active Voice. It’s often talked about, but sometimes hard to understand. Even if you understand it, it can be hard to keep in mind while writing. So, what is passive voice? How about an example?

                The path through the forest was being traveled on by Little Red Riding Hood the day after she had received a letter that was written by her sick grandmother, asking her for some special cookies that were made by Little Red’s mother. Little Red had packed up the treats quickly and had started down the path toward the house that was owned by Little Red’s Grandmother, but halfway there she was stopped by a wolf that had been waiting by the path for hours!

                I wrote that in approximately thirty seconds. There are multiple problems with it, but hopefully one of the things you picked out was the little thing most often referred to as ‘Passive Voice.’ It’s kind of boring, not very gripping, and maybe even a little hard to follow in places.

Let’s try rewriting those sentences in a more active voice, and see if we can make it more exciting. See if you can pinpoint the difference.

Little Red Riding Hood skipped along the path through the forest, a day after her sick grandmother sent a letter asking for some of her daughter’s special cookies. The basket of treats swung against Little Red’s hip as she made her way toward her grandmother’s house. Just as she spotted her grandmother’s front gate, a snarling wolf loped onto the path in front of her, looking hungry. But his gleaming eyes weren’t focused on the basket of cookies.

Still not perfect, but I think we could all agree that it’s better than the first example. Not only does it have a little more action and a little more connection with the events taking place, but it also gives us more detail about what’s going on, even though it’s actually shorter than the first example.

And all I did was replace some of the passive voice with more descriptive words.

Many examples of passive voice follow this basic formula:

form of ‘to be’ + past participle = passive voice

In other words, something like:

                To put off working on my NaNoWriMo novel, I was forced to write a few blog posts.

                Was is the form of ‘to be’ (others include is, are, am, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being).

                And forced is my past participle (a form of a verb that usually ends in –ed).

                Now, passive voice isn’t technically wrong. Sometimes, you have no choice but to use it. In certain kinds of writing, it can even be preferred (science writing, reporting crimes, more ‘official’ things like that, or places where the person who’s carrying out an action isn’t all that important). Even in my example, there was one sentence that I left in a passive voice – “But his gleaming eyes weren’t focused on the basket of cookies.”

                But in fiction writing, you generally want to use a more active voice. Passive voice can be hard to understand, unclear, and even wordy. It’s harder for a reader to get into the action of your story.

                Personally, I noticed the other day that I use passive voice more than I should, which contributes a lot to my tendency of making everything I write long. Really long. T-T It’s a problem.

                Do you struggle with Passive Voice? Is there something I left out that you feel should be addressed? What other problems do you sometimes struggle with when writing?


Links to more information on Passive Voice, and sites that explain it better than I do:

By the way, for those of you who are interested...
Current JulNoWriMo wordcount: 30,424 words.
It's going rather well. ^^

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Quibbles With Quality and How to Ignore Them: Camp NaNoWriMo

Is there anything more satisfying than writing unfathomable quantities of words in a very short period of time? Perhaps. I certainly wouldn’t complain if those unfathomable quantities actually translated into good writing. But that’s what revision is for!

                That’s right, boys and girls. It’s that time of year again. Kind of. While NaNoWriMo usually takes place in November, this year they’ve begun another venture: Camp NaNoWriMo. Two sessions, in July and August, for those who can’t find the time to write a novel in November, or for those of us who just can’t get enough of the event.

                Perhaps you’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month in the past. Perhaps it’s something you only vaguely understand, or perhaps it’s something that you’d like to do someday but haven’t yet. Perhaps you’re a veteran Wrimo, like myself. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with this grand tradition, one simple sentence sums up the lovely insanity of it all.

                Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

                Yup. Pretty cool. I’ve actually blogged about NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy in the past, back in the posts where I had no idea what I was doing with a blog, but this is a new era of Pro(b)logue, and a new branch of NaNoWriMo, so I figured I’d post about it once more.

                A lot of people have trouble getting started with their novel. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Getting started isn’t the problem. The problem is the middle doldrums that strip you of your imagination and send you running for work, chores, TV… Anything to keep you from writing, because you just know that whatever you write will be awful and dumb and not worth seeing the light of day.

                That’s where NaNoWriMo and programs like it come into play. For one month out of the year (or two, or three, depending on how many events you choose to participate in) you have permission to write horribly.

                You sit down, open a new word document, and start writing. Very, very quickly. Your first paragraph sucks? Don’t worry. There’s sure to be worse. Your main character is flat? You can fix it later. Or spend three pages info-dumping his backstory, to be more smoothly incorporated at a later date. You have no plot? No problem! Insert ninjas and watch the fun ensue as the pages stack up.

                NaNoWriMo is for people who can’t bring themselves to keep going with a project. People who get bogged down with getting everything perfect. People whose inner editors hold them captive and stop an idea long before it gets anywhere exciting.

                With NaNoWriMo, you can write without worrying, and get something down on paper. Your rough draft will be awful anyway, so you may as well get it out of the way now.

                Take my Camp NaNo novel, for example. It’s the second book in a series I wrote the first book of almost a year ago. I have a rough (rough) plan for it, but not enough of a plan that I was looking forward to writing it. I was sure I was going to screw it up and lose my motivation for the rest of the series. I didn’t even have the first book revised to perfection, so how was I going to write a decent sequel? But a few days before Camp NaNoWriMo began, I thought about the two main characters and realized that they were so adorable, I had to get their story down on paper, soon.

                So, on July 1, I started writing Vermin #2: The Hidden War.

                Now, on July 2, my current word count is 5,206.

                Is it good? NO. Not even close. I have hardly any idea where I’m going with it, my description leaves a lot to be desired, and my narrative sucks. But I’m writing. And I’m writing a novel, which I haven’t actually done in quite a while – I’ve been so busy trying to revise old rough drafts and write short stories that I feel like I’ve gotten a little rusty with my novels. Another reason why I’m glad to be doing Camp NaNoWriMo this year. My hope is that, once I get further into it, I’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.

                Oh, and did I mention that I’m getting a lot of ideas that I want into the story? And I’m already discovering new things about this setting and plot and the aftermath of the first book? So, even if this novel is awful when I finish it (and trust me, it will be) I still think it’ll be salvageable. I’ll have a starting point to work off of, and for I think the first time (maybe second) I’ll have actually written the second book in a series I’ve planned.

                Which’ll be really cool, indeed.

                *sigh* I apologize for this rough blog post. I’m still in NaNo mode, so my thought process is a little jumpy right now, and I want to get back to my novel. Trust me, the whole thing is a lot cooler than I’m making it sound. Hopefully my next blog post will be a little more organized.

                Are you doing Camp NaNoWriMo? Have you done the event in November? What about Script Frenzy, or any other events like this one?