Tuesday, July 24, 2012


The theme of this week's tip is theme.

(I just had to write that sentence because I do love the sweet taste of irony.)

When I first began to write, I didn't focus on theme per se. I wrote the stories that spoke to me, focussed on characters I cared about, and the theme would emerge as the plot unfolded.

You might be screaming, "What?!" at me right now, because theme is so critical. Theme is the guts of the story, the filling in the Oreo, the sauce on the pasta.

How dare I write a story without the theme flashing like a neon sign in my frontal lobe?

The short answer is, "It depends."

Some stories explore a theme. These stories require me to know the theme upfront.

Some stories explore a character. Thus, I begin with a sketch of the character, their problem, their strengths, and their ultimate desires.

Some stories ask a question. Usually speculative fiction stories begin the question with, What if...?. In these cases, I require that question to be formed in intricate detail in my mind before I begin to write the rough draft.

Of course, some stories combine all of these elements together: exploring a theme that is based on a character who is thrust into a world where the "What if" is a reality. Generally speaking, these combo stories are the good ones that resonate and linger long after you finish reading them.

Combo stories win awards.

At least, we naive authors hope that they will at least be nominated. Because we want our stories to matter, I mean really matter.

If you have your theme solidly affixed in the front of your mind (or stuck to your laptop with a Post-It) then chances are the prose will be infused with meaning.

What is a theme, exactly?

The theme is the point of the story.

If you are unsure as to the theme of a story, try asking the question, "What's the point? Why am I telling this story? Why do the protagonist's problems matter?"

Oh no, Suzanne, don't you dare start sounding like my high school English teacher!

Fear not, young Padawan. I used to teach high school math, not high school English, so you're safe in my hands. Really.

I will not list books and their respective themes. If you found my blog, you're more than capable of using a search engine on the web to find them yourself.

I'll wait...

Keep looking...

Okay, are you with me now? Great, let's get to the good stuff.

Choose a theme that resonates with readers. You can go with the big emotion-themes like loss, or forgiveness, or love. Or choose character-centric-themes like coming-of-age and fate vs. free-will. Or choose morality-themes like good vs. evil, greed vs. selflessness, and optimism vs. pessimism.

Many tried and true themes exist, and you can take another break and search for them later.

For now, remember this:

Theme is what matters.

And thus, the corollary:

For your story to matter, it requires a deliberate theme.

Do it now
Do a search on books and themes. Choose three that you would like to explore.

For each of the three themes, write three 1-sentence story ideas. See if you can include a chunk of character and a dose of "What if" along with the theme in the ideas.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Caring For Your Instrument

Anyone who plays a musical instrument knows that lesson one, before you even learn how to pull the bow or wet the reed is learning how to care for the instrument--putting it together, cleaning it, tuning it, and carefully transporting it from one place to the next.

You might be thinking, I do care for my instrument! I carry my laptop in a padded bag and I do plenty of data backups, to sticks as well as CDs or external drives.

Bravo! Regular backups are important. Your computer is your lifeline, so you must take good care of it at all times.

But there's more to writing than your computer, or a nice fountain pen, or a beautiful PaperBlanks journal.

I'm talking about your body, mind, and soul.

Body: You need your fingers to type or write your story. You need a strong back to sit with butt-in-chair for long stretches. You need to be able to go anywhere or do anything to research the places your characters will go and the things your characters will do.

Mind: Writers are idea people. Every word we put to paper lives in our minds first. Every scenario we throw at our protagonist requires thought on our part.

Soul: This is the tricky one, because it involves abstract terms like faith and balance. I'm not going to get all preachy because writers come from every walk of life and every religion (or no religion at all if that's the way you lean). But without this vital piece of your psyche intact, the words might be as blocked as a gridlock-stalled highway.

So, you're wondering now, how to care for your instrument? The answer is simple: take care of yourself.

For the next section of the post, I might sound like a cross between your doctor, your mother, and your coach, so writer beware.

You must exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep.

Harrumph, you say, I don't have time. No one has time!

You must make time, just like you make time for writing.

Park the car in those empty sections at the back of the mall, skip the chip-and-pop aisle at the grocery store, and don't cheat sleep to get words on paper.

Many writers will use exercise to help move past writers' block. Any kind of exercise from going for a walk, to swimming, to cleaning the bathrooms. (The last one is double-helpful, because at the end of it, you'll have clean bathrooms!)

Stimulate your mind with every possible input.

Read, not only fiction (to see how the good writers do it) but non-fiction that will fill your plots with believable premises and your worlds with colourful and exotic locations.

Watch movies and television, but not passively. Think about what dialogue works and what doesn't, think about plot twists that excite you.

Surf the internet for cool facts and interesting stories.

Go to art galleries, museums, rock concerts, and live theatre.

I've touched on this mind-stimulation concept in my posts on Living in the Shrubs and Inspiration.

This is the tricky/personal one.

If you're feeling "off" sometimes emotions like depression, grief, joy, longing, etc can help to strengthen your writing. But too much emotion, too much loss or confusion or regret can make the blank page haunt you day and night.

Do whatever you need to do to nurture your spirit.

Only you know what works best for you, but anything from attending church, synagogue, mosque, temple, to meditating, to seeing a therapist, to chatting with friends and/or family can help to keep your spirit balanced.

Most authors thank their spouse in the acknowledgement section and that's because your spouse/partner plays a large role in keeping your spirit balanced.

So take care of yourself. Your body, your mind, and your spirit.

Dump the booze, toss the cigarettes, turn out the light, and hug your significant other. Your writing instrument may work that much better tomorrow when you sit down to write.

Do it now
Write down everything you eat, all the exercise you get, and all of the sleep you manage for three consecutive days. Choose one area to improve and spend the next three days eating healthier, getting an extra hour of sleep, or going for a walk.

Spend the next week trying to learn one cool fact each day. To make it a little more fun, report your findings to your spouse, kids, mom, roommate etc each evening, so that you're accountable.

Try guided meditation. There are plenty of free podcasts on the internet. I've found these particularly helpful. Alternatively, attend a religious ceremony of your choosing, especially if you haven't done so in a long while and you miss it.

An Interview with SWG member Suzanne Church

Stop-Watch Gang writer Suzanne Church's Proust-questionnaire-style interview is now live at Open Book Ontario.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Recommended Books on Writing

Since it's the summer, and plenty of people catch up on summer reading, I figured this week's writing tip would include a list my favourite books on writing.

Why read books on writing when I should just write?

Because learning the craft is at least as important as practicing the craft. When you learn to play piano you take lessons, right? When you take up knitting, you chat with the experts at the craft store. And when you become a new parent, you read plenty of books and magazines to ensure you're not doing a horrible job. (Even if it feels like you are!)

The book that is ALWAYS my number one recommendation for writers is written by my favourite author:

On Writing by Stephen King

Not only is this book fun to read, it provides essential and fun advice to keep you motivated. In fact, I plan on reading it again this week, to remind me what I'm doing right and what I need to improve.

My number two recommendation is a book that also comes with a companion workbook. I have been using both to try and improve the novel I'm currently writing and I also highly recommend it for all writers:

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

This book is fantastic, but the workbook is also excellent because it gives you exercises to put Mr. Maass's advice into practice. I carry the workbook with me almost all the time.

Now that I have extolled the virtues of these two fabulous and essential books, let's move on to more great recommendations.

For ALL Writers:

Word Work - Surviving and Thriving as a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (aimed at screenwriters, but useful for all writers)
The Successful Novelist by David Morrell
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
I Have This Nifty Idea...Now What Do I Do With It? by Mike Resnick

For Science Fiction Writers:

The Science of Science-Fiction Writing by James Gunn
How to Write Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder

For Fantasy Writers:

The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference by Terry Brooks, Daniel A. Clark, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Allan Maurer, P. Andrew Miller, Michael J. Varhola, and Renee Wright

For Horror Writers:

On Writing Horror Edited by Mort Castle

For Mystery Writers:

Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden

I also have several books in my "to read" pile that are on writing which I, personally, have not yet read, but they were recommended to me by other writers, so they may be of use to you.

Many Genres One Craft - Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction Edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

So that's my list. I hope one or more of these books help you to be a better writer.

Do it now
Buy On Writing by Stephen King and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I mean it. Look them up on Amazon or Indigo or wherever you shop and get these two books shipped to your house as quickly as you can afford to. You will not regret the purchase!

If you know of a good book on writing that isn't on my list, please include the title and author in the comments section.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

She Ran Her Fingers Through Her Long, Blonde Hair

I don't know about you, but I feel as though I've been doused with a dose of something between annoying and ridiculous when I read a sentence like the title of this post. And let's face it, when a character, "runs her fingers through her long, blonde hair," the reader feels as though they've been transported into the book trailer for a second-rate romance novel.

Not that there's anything wrong with well written romance novels.

Some of my friends write romance. It's a huge industry. Women all over the world read romances religiously, so don't write a flaming rant in the comments section about how I'm demeaning the genre because I'm not.

What I am trying to do is break novice writers of the habit of describing a character's physical traits using second-rate techniques.

When I write short stories, I often don't describe my characters' physical traits. As a matter of fact, I purposely leave out details such as skin colour, eye colour, hair colour (okay, pretty much all of the colours) from the equation. But that's my preference. My writing style hovers closer to the minimalist side of writing than the purple prose side, right or wrong.

Maybe that's why my ratio of rejection-to-acceptance is pretty high. But I can live with the ratio, because that's how I roll.

Ways to Include Character Attributes

Let's use the example from the title of the post.

She ran her fingers through her long, blonde hair.

Rather than telling the reader, directly, have another character in the scene do the talking. For example:

Her hair was the colour of sunlight. The way she kept it tied up in that pony tail, all I could think about was pulling it free, running my fingers through it, and taking a whiff.

Wait, that's fine for the protagonist to daydream about, but what if I'm writing from a tight point of view (POV)? How can I include what another character is thinking without breaking POV?

Avoiding jumping heads is often important. (If you're unsure about all of this POV-business, read the detailed explanations in my posts POV1 and POV2)

When you can't use internal dialogue, use the full-blown version. For example:

"I like your hair," said Jeff. His face turned a bright shade of red.
"Thanks," said Stephanie. "I get so many negative comments about it."
"Like what?" he said.
"You know, 'Dumb blonde,' or 'What a blonde moment,' that sort of thing."
"Right. Sorry. I mean, not sorry that your hair is blonde, but that you get teased, because it's a nice colour."

In this example, although it takes a while for us to learn that Stephanie's hair is blonde, we also learn about Jeff, specifically that he likes her, and he struggles with embarrassment when he talks to her.

The hardest POV + Description combination is trying to illustrate a character's attributes when the story is told in first person POV, because the main character is rarely going to talk about how they look to themselves. Then again, from personal experience, when I'm obsessing over how I look before an important event, I might stand in front of a mirror and ridicule the parts of my appearance that are not cooperating -- like a cowlick, or uncooperative mascara, or those last few inches I can't seem to burn away from my butt. (I'm sure guys worry about similar issues.)

So in some situations, if your first person POV character is about to go to a job interview, or on a first date then they might take a moment in-front-of-a-mirror. Keep in mind that mirror scenes can be terrible or trite, so be very careful with mirrors.

The last tool you can use is straight description, but use it sparingly. Too much and your reader will feel like they're reading catalogue descriptions for mail order brides or sperm donors, not your compelling and insightful prose. For example:

Stephanie wore her blonde hair long, to emphasize her curls when the need arose, or to straighten them when they required taming. Like every starlet in Hollywood, she had come to the conclusion that long hair can be a magnet for attention, and she definitely craved attention. Even if attention did not always entirely present itself.

Here I've given one physical trait, but also included details about how the character reacts to the trait. Ultimately, the reader finds it easier to picture the character's physical attributes while being interested in the feelings and adventures of the character.

Most readers want to know how to imagine your characters. So give them a few nibbles. Squeeze the details in the most natural and unobtrusive way possible.

A good way to determine whether the text is working or feels ridiculous is to read the section out loud, either to yourself or to someone else. If they roll their eyes or groan in frustration then you know you've got some editing to do.

Do it now
Grab a book that you've read and thoroughly enjoyed and then skim it for the parts when the characters' features are described. Jot down what worked and what might have felt a bit over-the-top to you.

Write a paragraph that describes your personal characteristics in an entertaining way. Massage the prose until you feel as though it's as natural and entertaining as possible.