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If you have set out to write a novel, a memoir, or a non-fiction book, the question "How long will this take?" almost inevitably arises - especially if you have been at it for a few months.

That question is not easily answered, because it depends entirely on what you are writing. Some projects require months of research, others only need that special "Ah!" moment when a story somehow inserts itself in the mind of the unsuspecting writer.

Now that I've claimed the question can't be answered, I am going to answer it in a most unsatisfactory manner: Like childbirth, writing a book takes as long as it takes. If you are on a manic roll, it can take a couple of months. (One of my novels took only a few weeks to write. At 90,000 words, it was an exhilarating and exhausting experience.) If you are grappling with the text, writing your book can take decades. (It has taken me twenty years, so far, to finish another one of my novels. It is only 55,000 words, so I have no idea why this book is proving so stubborn.)

If you are stuck on a project, putting it down for a while can be enormously helpful. You may find that your unconscious continues to work on it, even when you are not writing. Working on other projects is also quite helpful. I usually write two books at once. That way, when I hit a snag with one, I can simply switch off to the other.

Writing in another genre is extremely liberating. If you are a novelist, write nonfiction. If you write long form, write a short story. Write a screenplay if you have never written one. By stretching yourself in different directions, whatever roadblock preventing you from finishing your book will be removed.

The important thing is to keep writing. Write anything. It is not important what you write, it is only important that you write.

Here are some famous books whose writers either took their time, or dashed them off in a rush. As you can see, how long it took to write these books has little to do with their quality.

At one end of the spectrum, John Boyne said that he wrote the entire first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in two and a half days, barely sleeping until he finished it. At 44,800 words, that amounts to 747 words an hour. It's quite possible to dash off 700 words for a few hours - that is how many of us write our short stories - but sustaining that kind of output for days is hard to imagine.

Other books on the short end of the scale include: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (6 days), A Clockwork Orange (3 weeks), A Study in Scarlet (3 weeks), A Christmas Carol (6 weeks), and As I lay Dying (6 weeks).

At the far end of the spectrum is J. R. R. Tolkien, who took 16 years to complete the Lord of the Rings. At 455,000 words, that amounts to 28,000 words a year, roughly the length of a novella.

Les Miserables took Victor Hugo 12 years to write, Catcher in the Rye and Gone with the Wind each took ten years, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone took five.

Realistically, your book should fall somewhere between Boyne's and Tolkien's.
 
 
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Whether you are submitting your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, a synopsis is an essential part of your submission packet.

Nobody likes writing synopses, in part because there is a natural desire on the part of writers to resist stripping their works of art down to the bare bones of plot points.

Writing a synopsis is also not particularly fun. If your strong suit is snappy dialogue or lyrical descriptions, you will be forced to leave all your little darlings behind.

The truth is you don't have to sacrifice creativity to write a synopsis, You can include descriptive adjectives and power verbs (avoid all forms of the verb "to be" and "to have" whenever possible). You can also include short dialogue if it is relevant to the plot.

How long is a synopsis?

Back in the day, synopses used to be quite long, roughly one page per every 25 pages of manuscript. (A 200-page book would have a synopsis of  8 pages.) But agents and editors are increasingly pressed for time, which means synopses have shrunk. The length now depends entirely on what the agent/editor requires.

It is a good idea to have several synopses on hand: a 3-5 paragraph synopsis (one page, or roughly 300 words), a 2-page synopsis, and a one-paragraph synopsis. Chances are the agent or house you are querying will ask for one of those.

Remember: A synopsis is a summary. It is designed to give an agent or editor a clear, concise idea of your story, not show your dexterity as a wordsmith.

Here are the basics for writing a synopsis

1) A synopsis must include all of your plot, including the ending. You can't end a synopsis with a cliffhanger or a question. "John dies" may seem like a spoiler, but that is exactly what an editor wants to know.

2) Be explicit. Details are important in a synopsis. A character should not experience "something unexpected." Say what that something is. For example,"The unexpected arrival of her father leaves Clarissa confused and angry." (It's important to include how your character feels. That provides a basis for motivation.)

3) Make sure your synopsis is structured. It must have a clear beginning, middle, and end, corresponding to the beginning, middle, and end of your book. The beginning introduces your characters, identifies the main conflict, and describes the setting. The middle outlines the main plot points. And the end resolves the conflict and tells us what happens to the characters.

4) Don't include too many twists and turns. It is not essential to include absolutely everything. If there are too many extraneous characters and subplots, it will be impossible to follow the story. Simplify wherever you can.

5) Make your synopsis stand out. If there is something unique about your story, make sure to give it the attention it deserves.

6) Write in present tense. 

Before you start ...

It's a good idea to write a couple of synopses for books you did not write before you tackle your own. Like every other aspect of writing, synopsis writing is a skill, and all skills benefit from practice.

For a great list of synopsis examples, check out Writers DigestSynopsis Writing

 
 
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Neil Gaiman always has good advice for writers, and in this video (see below) he addresses overcoming writers' block with a number of practical suggestions.

While Gaiman is specifically talking about how he approaches writing, all of these observations are applicable to any writer, regardless of their medium.
Here are some of his major points:

1) "Your first draft doesn't count."

This is probably the most important piece of writing advice you will ever get, not only because it will free you to face the terror of a blank page, but because it is the truth.

Aside from you, nobody will ever see your first draft, because you will never show it to anybody.

In the euphoria of having finished your novel, or short story, you may be tempted to submit it to publishers, agents, friends - DON'T DO IT! Instead, let it pumpkinate. Put it away, and come back to it after you are well into another project. Otherwise, you will never see the mistakes you have made - but everyone else will.

2) "Write even when you are not inspired."

Gaiman says to "just put one word after the other" as if you were building a rock wall. If you wait until you are inspired you will not finish your project. I agree with Gaiman completely on this piece of advice. Paradoxically, even if the muse has deserted you, once you start writing she will return. The trick is to write something - every day -  in order to get the juices flowing. (It's called discipline.) Successful writers approach their work as if it were a job.

3) "Read outside your comfort zone."

Ray Bradbury also offered the same advice, and for a good reason. If you only read in your genre, you won't be exposed to different styles, different points of view, and different solutions to age-old problems. (Problem-solving is at the heart of every great novel.) So, read nonfiction, read poetry (especially poetry), read Shakespeare, read essays, read anything that isn't what you are writing. It will stretch your mind.

4) "In the beginning you will imitate other writers, but only you can tell your story."

The process of imitation is important. Those writers are your models, so choose them well. But, as you get your writing legs, you will naturally develop your own style, If you have a story to tell, your voice will shine through.
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Related posts:

"If you don't know what's impossible, it's easier to do it ..." ~ Neil Gaiman

Ray Bradbury's Words of Wisdom - Write Like Hell!

Writing Advice from Frank Herbert: Concentrate on story

 
 
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Two weeks ago a former MFA professor named Ryan Boudinot published what can only be called a diatribe about MFA programs in a Seattle alternative paper.

The article, in which Boudinot skewers the majority of students who enter MFA programs - and more specifically his own students - drew not only 211 irate comments, but a counter article from one of his students pithily entitled "I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry: A Response to the Insensitive, Shit-Stirring Rant That Made a Lot of People—Including Me—So Mad."

Having never taught in a graduate writing program, I can't comment on what they do, or don't, accomplish. However, having taught in a number of other disciplines - artistic and academic -  I can address some of Boudinot's academic requirements for success in the arts.

1) Talent, as Boudinot says, is required to be a good artist - of any type. No matter how many years of training you have under your belt, if you don't have that ineffable quality of talent (which is like porn; you know it when you see it) you can't succeed at being good. You can, however, succeed commercially. There are plenty of simply atrocious writers out there who have earned big bucks because they had a marketable idea. (I'm not naming names, here. Just saying ...)

2) I take issue with Boudinot's assertion that taking writing seriously in your teens is required to be a successful writer. Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, began to write at age 40. James Michener wrote his debut novel, Tales of the South Pacific (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948) at age 40. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News, was 53 when she published her first full work of fiction, the short story collection Heart Songs. And at 41 years of age Mark Twain published his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ... the list goes on and on. Writing at an early age is not necessary; what is necessary is to love reading. (And since when do teenagers take anything seriously anyhow ... apart from sex, that is.)

3) "If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out." This complaint should have been modified as "If you complain about not having time to do the work I assign you, please drop out." All grad programs are demanding, and students should be aware of that before entering one. I am with Boudinot on this point. However, if you are a writer who is not in school, and have a day job and/or a family, feel free to complain liberally. The only mature adults who have enough time to write are either independently wealthy or in solitary confinement.

4) "If you aren't a serious reader, don't expect anyone to read what you write." Again, not true. "Hard" books are not necessarily good ones. More to the point, writers should read everything - the good, the bad and the really bad. Dissecting bad writing is just as valuable as dissecting good writing. Developing an "ear" means you should have an intuitive grasp of what sounds good, and what doesn't.

5) "It's important to woodshed." By this, Boudinot means that it is not always the best idea to rush into publication. Your writing will benefit, he says, if you take some time off, let it simmer for a while, then go back to it. I couldn't agree more.  

Although Boudinot has made some valid points, it is more than apparent that he is a mean-spirited man whose heart is two sizes too small. Still, it is worth reading his article if only to give some context to the counter article written by his student, J.C. Sevcik ("I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry"). Sevcik makes a lot of good points about writing, and about MFA programs - their benefits as well as their drawbacks.

On a personal note, I would like to point out that I did not begin writing seriously until I was in my 40s. My first novel was published by Random House when I was 50. And not only did I never take a graduate course in writing, the only writing class I took as an undergraduate was a single workshop in poetry. (I think I took a few English classes in high school. As I recall, they were okay.)

For those who enjoy poking fun at MFA programs, click HERE to read The Toast's hilarious spoof of MFA workshops.

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Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

By Ryan Boudinot, The Stranger, 2/27/15

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. That's not to say that someone with minimal talent can't work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can't squander it. It's simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

If you didn't decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one's 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

Read the rest of Boudinot's diatribe HERE

Read Sevcik's retort HERE.

 
 
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This morning, I received an email from Joni Labaqui of the Writers of the Future Contest. 

While I normally pay no attention to writing advice (I have a knee-jerk reaction to break all the rules), this letter turned out to be pretty good. 

I scrolled down through the sections, I was distinctly aware that not only judges look for these qualities in stories, but editors and agents do as well.

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From: Joni Labaqui

We recently asked our WotF entrants what they would like to hear from us. Many requested some information that would help them understand why their last story submission didn’t win.

Our Contest Coordinating Judge and First Reader, Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) just recently wrote the following article. It’s filled with information that I feel will help you with your next contest entry.

While I fear this is really too long for an email, I know that more of you are reading this than our blog (but we will be posting it there too). So here goes...

How to Win Writing Contests and Big Publishing Contracts

By David Farland

When I was in college, I wrote a story and—on the advice of my professor—entered it into a contest. It won third place, and as I considered my fifty dollar prize, I realized that I had made over twice the hourly minimum wage writing that story.

So I wondered, “If I worked harder, could I win more money?”

I was going to school full time and didn’t have a job, so I set a goal to win first place in a writing competition.  In order to boost my chances of winning, I decided to enter several contests.  I worked for six months and entered them all within a couple of weeks of one another.

To my surprise, I won all six of the writing contests, including Gold Award for the International Writers of The Future Contest.

When I went to receive my award atop the World Trade Center, several editors approached me and asked to see my first novel.  The outline interested the editors enough to start a small bidding war, and within a couple of days, I got a three novel contract.  I went on to get rave reviews for that first novel and won a Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for it.  It stayed on Locus’s Science Fiction Bestseller list for five months, and that helped set the tone for my career.

So, how did I win those contests?

Well, I started by making a list of lists of ways that that a judge might look at my work.  For example, some judges might look for an ending that brought them to tears, while another might be more interested in an intellectual feast, and a third might want to be transported to an intriguing location.

Recently, several people have asked me to share my list.  Over the years, it has grown.  I’m a contest judge now, not an entrant—though I did recently win six awards for my latest novel, including the International Book Award and the Hollywood Book Festival’s “Book of the Year.”

I no longer have that original document, but here is a list of things that I might consider in creating a story that I want to use as an entry to a contest—or for a novel that I want to submit to a publisher.

First, a word of warning: when I was very young, perhaps four, I remember seeing a little robot in a store, with flashing lights and wheels that made it move.  To me it seemed magical, nearly alive.  My parents bought it for me at Christmas, and a few weeks later it malfunctioned, so I took a hammer to it and pulled out the pieces to see what made it work—a battery, a tiny motor, some small colored lights, cheap paint and stickers.

Don’t want to ruin your illusions about stories, and as you read this list, it might feel a bit like those bits and pieces.  Maybe that’s because it’s only part of the equation.  Your story is more than the sum of parts.  So as I list these parts, be aware that a great story is more than any of these.  It should feel magical and alive.  It’s your job to add the magic:

Setting 

My goal with my settings is to transport the reader into my world—not just through the senses, but also emotionally and intellectually.  I want to make them feel powerful emotions and keep them thinking.  This can often be done by using settings that fascinate the reader, that call to them.  So here are a few questions to ask yourself as you consider your settings.

•    Do I have unique settings that the reader will find intriguing?  In short, is there something that makes my setting different from anything that the reader has seen before?

•    If my setting is in our world, is it “sexy” or mundane.  People are usually more intrigued by sexy settings.  Even if we place a story in a McDonald’s, we need to bring it to life, make it enjoyable.

•    Do I have any scenes that would be more interesting if the setting were moved elsewhere?  For example, let’s say that I want to show that a king is warlike.  Do I open with him speaking to his counselors at a feast, or would it be better to open on the battlefield?

 •    Do I suffer by having repetitive settings?  For example, if I set two scenes in the same living room, would one of them be more interesting if I moved it elsewhere?

 •    Do my descriptions of settings have enough detail to transport the reader?

•    Did I bring my setting to life using all of the senses—sight, sound, taste, feel, smell, hot/cold?

 •    Do my character’s feelings about the setting get across?  What do they think about it?  What memories does it arouse?

 •    Do I want to show a setting in the past, present, and suggest a future? For example, if I set a scene on a college campus, I might talk about a college’s historical growth, or the character’s view of its future importance, etc.

 •    Can a setting be strengthened by describing what it is not?

 •    Does my setting resonate with others within its genre, so that it creates a positive emotional feel?

 •    Do my settings have duality—a sometimes ambiguous nature?  For example, my character might love the church where she was married, have fond memories of it, and yet feel a sense of betrayal because her marriage eventually turned ugly.  So the setting becomes bittersweet.

 •    Do my settings create potential conflicts in and of themselves that aren’t explored in the text?  For example, if I have a prairie with tall grass and wildfires are a threat, should I have a wildfire in the tale?

 •    Do my characters and my societies grow out of my setting?  If I’ve got a historical setting, do my characters have occupations and attitudes consistent with the milieu?  Beyond that, with every society there is almost always a counter-movement.  Do I deal with those?

 •    Is my setting, my world, in danger?  Do I want it to be?

 •    Does my world have a life of its own?  For example, if I create a fantasy village, does it have a history, a character of its own?  Do I need to create a cast for the village—a mayor, a teacher, guards, etc.?

 •    Is my setting logically consistent?  For example, let’s say that I have a merchant town.  Where would a merchant town most likely be?  On a trade route or port—quite possibly at the junction of the two.  So I need to consider how fully I’ve developed the world.

 •    Is my setting fully realized?  Let’s say I have a forest.  What kinds of trees and plants would be in that forest?  What kind of animals?  What’s the history of that forest?  When did it last have rain or snow?  What’s unique about that forest?

 •    Do I describe the backgrounds (mountains, clouds, sun, moon), along with the middle ground (say a nearby building) and the elements nearest to my protagonist.

 •    Does my setting intrude into every scene, so that my reader is always grounded?  (If I were to set my story in a field, for example, and I have men preparing for battle, I might want to have a lord look up and notice that buzzards are flapping up out of the oaks in the distance, already gathering for the feast.  I might want to mention the sun warming my protagonist’s armor, the flies buzzing about his horse’s ears, and so on—all while he is holding an important conversation.

 •    Are there any settings that have symbolic import, whose meanings need to be brought to the forefront?

Characters

I want my characters to feel like real people, fully developed.  Many stories suffer because the characters are bland or cliché or are just underdeveloped.

We want to move beyond stereotypes, create characters that our readers will feel for.  At the same time, we don’t want to get stuck in the weeds.  We don’t want so much detail that the character feels overburdened and the writing gets sluggish.

So here are some of the checkpoints I might use for characters.

 •    Do I have all of the characters that I need to tell the story, or is someone missing?  For example, would the story be stronger if I had a guide, a sidekick, a love interest, a contagonist, hecklers, etc.? (Note: if you don’t recognize those character types, Google dramatica.com.)

•    Do I have any characters that can be deleted to good effect?

•    Do I have characters who can perhaps be combined with others?  For example, let’s say I have two cops on the beat.  Would it work just as well with only one cop?

•    Do my characters have real personalities, depth?

•    Do my characters come off as stock characters, or as real people?

•    Do I know my characters’ history, attitudes, and dress?

•    Does each character have his or her interesting way of seeing the world?

•    Does each character have his or her own voice, his own way of expressing himself?

•    Are my characters different enough from each other so that they’re easily distinguished?  Do their differences generate conflict?  Remember that even good friends can have different personalities.

•    Have I properly created my characters’ bodies—described such things as hands, feet, faces, hair, ears, and so on?

•    Do each of my characters have their own idiosyncrasies?

•    Do I need to “tag” any characters so that readers will remember them easily—for example, by giving a character a limp, or red hair, or having one who hums a great deal?

•    How do my characters relate to the societies from which they sprang?  In short, are they consistent with their own culture in some ways?  And in what ways do they oppose their culture?

•    What does each of my characters want?

•    What does each one fear?

•    What things might my character be trying to hide?

•    What is each character’s history?  (Where were they born?  Schooled, etc.?)

•    What is my characters’ stance on religion, politics, etc.?

•    How do my characters relate to one another?  How do they perceive one another?  Are their perceptions accurate, or jaded?

•    Does each character have a growth arc?  If they don’t, should they?

•    How honest are my characters—with themselves and with others?  Should my readers trust them?

•    What would my characters like to change about themselves?  Do they try to change?

•    Do my characters have their own family histories, their own social problems, their own medical histories, their own attitudes?  Do we need a flashback anywhere to establish such things?

Conflicts

One of the surest ways to engage our audience is through our conflicts.  When a conflict is unresolved, and when the audience is waiting breathlessly for its outcome, the reader’s interest will become keen.  They’ll look forward to the resolution unconsciously, and may even be thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good!”  That state of arousal is called “suspense,” and it’s perhaps the most potent element of a tale.

•    What is the major conflict in my story?

•    Do I have proper try/fail cycles for it?

•    Is the major conflict resolved in a way that satisfies the readers?

•    Is it universal enough so that the readers will find it interesting?  (Note that a conflict becomes far more interesting to a reader if it is something that he must deal with in his own life.)

•    Have I brought the conflicts to life through the incidents that I relate?  In other words, are their ways to deepen or broaden the main conflict?

•    Do I have secondary conflicts?  Most stories require more than one conflict.  For example, a protagonist will often have an internal conflict as well as an external conflict.  He may also have a love interest.  He might have conflicts with nature, with god, and with his companions.  So as an author, I must create a host of conflicts and decide how each one grows and is resolved.

•    How do my characters grow and change in order to overcome the conflicts?

•    Do my characters perhaps decide to adapt to a conflict, struggle to live with it rather than beat it?

•    How ingenious are my character attempts to solve their problems?  Ingenuity often adds interest.

•    How driven are my characters to resolve their conflicts?  Character who will go to extremes are needed.

•    Do I have any namby-pamby attempts that I should delete?  For example, if I have a protagonist whose main problem is that she doesn’t have the nerve to talk to her boss about a problem at work, should I strike that entire try/fail cycle?  (The answer is “almost always you should strike out the scenes and replace it with something better.)

•    Is my hero equal to or greater than his task at the start of a tale?  If so, then my hero needs to be weakened so that we have a better balance.

•    Does my protagonist ever get betrayed?

•    Does my protagonist have an identity conflict?  At the heart of every great story is a character who sees himself as being one thing—charming, heroic, wise—while others around him perceive him as being something else—socially wanting, cowardly, foolish.

•    Do I have enough conflicts to keep the story interesting?

•    Should some of the minor conflicts be deleted, or resolved?  (Remember that not all conflicts need to have try/fail cycles.)

Themes

Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale.  A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging.  Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader.  But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer.  Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments.  Shakespeare made every story an argument, and the “theme” was the central question to his tale.

Some people will suggest that dealing with themes is “didactic.”  Don’t be fooled.  Those same writers will put themes in their own works, and usually they’re taking stands that oppose yours.  For example, if you argue that morality is innate and central to what a human is, they’ll argue that it’s situational and we’re all just animals.  They don’t oppose the idea of stories having themes; they may just be opposed to your views.  So make sure that your arguments are rigorous and persuasive.

 •    Can I identify themes that I consciously handled?

 •    Are there themes that came out inadvertently?

 •    How universal are my themes?  How important are they to the average reader?

 •    Are there themes that need to be dealt with but aren’t?  For example, if I have a policeman who is going to take a life, does he need to consider how he will feel about that?

 •    Are there questions posed or problems manifested that bog the story down and need to be pulled?

 •    Do my characters ever consciously consider or talk about the main themes?  Should they?

 •    Do my characters need to grapple with important questions?  If not, perhaps they should.

 •    Do my characters change at all due to the influence of new ideas or beliefs?

•    If my theme is going to “grow,” become more important as the story progresses, do I need to add or modify scenes in order to accommodate that growth?  In other words, do I need to let the theme help shape the tale?

 •    As your character grapples with a theme, does he find himself led down false roads?  For example, let’s go back to our cop.  Let’s say that he shoots a boy at night, and feels guilty when he discovers that the boy wasn’t really armed.  What the cop thought was a gun turns out to have been a cell phone.  Would other characters try to influence him?  Perhaps a senior officer might take him out to get a drink—because alcohol has been his salvation for 20 years.  Another officer might suggest that the kid was trying to commit suicide by cop, and our protagonist that he ‘did the kid a favor,’ and so on.

 •    Does my character ever have to synthesize a thematic concept—come to grips with it intellectually and emotionally, so that it alters the character’s behavior?

Treatment

Your “treatment” is the way that you handle your story.  The number of items that come into play in your treatment is so long, I can’t get into all of them.  We would need get down to the real nitty-gritty of putting a sentence together.

You’ll want to create your own list of items to look for in your treatment.  If you notice for example that you’re creating a lot of long, compound sentences in a row, you might make it a goal to vary your sentence length.  If you find that you’re using weak verbs, you may want to go through your tale and search for instances of “was” and “were.”  If you find yourself using the word “then,” you might want to go through in your edits and make sure that incidents in your tale are related in sequential order, so that you don’t need the word “then.”  If you find yourself stacking modifiers in front of nouns and verbs, you might want to watch for that in your editing.  If you tend to over-describe things, you might want to watch your descriptions.

In short, whatever your own personal weaknesses are in writing, you’ll want to create a list so that you can think about them when you write.

But here are a few elements to consider in your treatment.

 •    Is your tone appropriate to the tale?  For example, let’s say that you want to invest a bit of humor into your story.  You start it with a joke.  Do you maintain the tone throughout the rest of the tale, perhaps layering the humor in, scene after scene?

 •    Do each of your characters speak with their own unique voices?  You’ll need to do a dialog check for each character before you’re done.

 •    Do you as a narrator establish a voice for the piece, one that you maintain throughout?

•    Is every description succinct and evocative?

 •    Do your descriptions echo the emotional tone of the point-of-view (POV) character?

 •    Do you get deep enough penetration into your protagonist’s POV so that the reader can track their thoughts and emotions?  If not, is there a good reason why you neglected to do so?

 •    Is there music in your language?  Do you want there to be?  Ernest Hemingway once said that “All great novels are really just poetry?”  With that in mind, listen to the sounds of your words.  Consider changing them as needed to fit the meter and emphasis that you need.

 •    Do you use enough hooks to keep your reader interested?

 •    Could you strengthen the piece by using foreshadowing?

 •    Do you use powerful metaphors or similes to add beauty and resonance to your work?  (If not, you’re in trouble.  Your competition will.)

 •    Is your pacing fast when it needs to be, and slow when it needs to be?

 •    Do you waste space with unnecessary words?

 •    Is your diction appropriate for your audience?  By that I mean, if you’re writing to a middle-grade reader, is the diction understandable to a ten-year-old.

Story Parts 

Sometimes when you’re looking at a story, you need to think about it in “chunks.”  Here are a few things that I think about when creating a tale.

Is the basic idea of my story original and powerful?  (In a contest, entering a story with a mundane concept probably won’t get you far.  For example, if you enter a story about a young man fighting space pirates, it probably won’t do well—unless you come up with some new technology or angle that sets it above all other space-pirate tales.)

Do you establish your characters swiftly?  We should probably know whom the story is about within a scene or two, and we should probably be introduced in a way that tells us something important about the characters.

We also need to establish the setting in every single scene.
  • Do you get to the inciting incident quickly and cleanly?  (The inciting incident is the place where the protagonist discovers what his main conflict is going to be.)  
  • Are there any storytelling tools that I could use to make this tale better.  (For a discussion of storytelling tools, see my book “Million Dollar Outlines,” which is available at www.davidfarland.com/shop.) 
  • Does my story escalate through the following scenes, with conflicts that broaden and deepen?  
  • Does my story resolve well?  Do I have a climax that really is exciting?  Is the outcome different from what the audience expects? 
  • Do I tackle all of the resolutions in a way that leaves the reader satisfied? 
Writing a story can be an exhausting exercise—intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. When you’re in the throes of it, it may seem daunting.  But you’re never really done until the outcome feels magical, and if you take care of all the little things that you should, the outcome will indeed seem wondrous.

Happy writing!

And good luck to you!

Joni Labaqui

7051 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California 90028, United States (323) 466-3310

 
 
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The best parts of Stephen King's book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, are when he stops talking about writing in general, and focuses on how he writes. Anybody who writes, in fact, anybody who creates anything - including the theory of gravity - will recognize the process through which King came up with Carrie. Creative works come from the sort of haphazard confluences that King describes.

It also helps to have somebody around who has unswerving faith in you.
___________________________
Stephen King: How I wrote Carrie

The Guardian, April 4, 2014

While he was going to college my brother Dave worked summers as a janitor at Brunswick High. For part of one summer I worked there, too. One day I was supposed to scrub the rust-stains off the walls in the girls' shower. I noticed that the showers, unlike those in the boys' locker room, had chrome U-rings with pink plastic curtains attached.

This memory came back to me one day while I was working in the laundry, and I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no U-rings, pink plastic curtains or privacy. And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn't know what it is, and the other girls – grossed out, horrified, amused – start pelting her with sanitary napkins … The girl begins to scream. All that blood!

I'd read an article in LIFE magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena – telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first...

POW! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea …

Before I had completed two pages, ghosts of my own began to intrude; the ghosts of two girls, both dead, who eventually combined to become Carrie White. I will call one of them Tina White and the other Sandra Irving.

Tina went to Durham Elementary School with me. There is a goat in every class, the kid who is always left without a chair in musical chairs, the one who winds up wearing the KICK ME HARD sign, the one who stands at the end of the pecking order. This was Tina. Not because she was stupid (she wasn't), and not because her family was peculiar (it was) but because she wore the same clothes to school every day.

Sandra Irving lived about a mile-and-a-half from the house where I grew up. Mrs Irving hired me one day to help her move some furniture … I was struck by the crucifix hanging in the living room, over the Irving couch. If such a gigantic icon had fallen when the two of them were watching TV, the person it fell on would almost certainly have been killed.

I did three single-spaced pages of a first draft, then crumpled them up in disgust and threw them away.

The next night, when I came home from school, my wife Tabby had the pages. She'd spied them while emptying my waste-basket, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper smoothed them out and sat down to read them. She wanted me to go on. She wanted to know the rest of the story.

• This piece is taken from Stephen King's book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and his "Introduction to Carrie." It has been abridged by his British editor.

 
 
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Computer scientists have developed an algorithm which can predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether a book will be a commercial success - and the secret is to avoid cliches and excessive use of verbs ...

Scientists find secret to writing a best-selling novel

By Matthew SparkesThe Telegraph, Jan 9, 2014

Scientists have developed an algorithm which can analyse a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.

A technique called statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar, was found to be “surprisingly effective” in determining how popular a book would be.

The group of computer scientists from Stony Brook University in New York said that a range of factors determine whether or not a book will enjoy success, including “interestingness”, novelty, style of writing, and how engaging the storyline is, but admit that external factors such as luck can also play a role.

By downloading classic books from the Project Gutenberg archive they were able to analyse texts with their algorithm and compare its predictions to historical information on the success of the work. Everything from science fiction to classic literature and poetry was included.

It was found that the predictions matched the actual popularity of the book 84 per cent of the time.

Find out what else these computer geeks discovered HERE.

 
 
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Before I launch into a diatribe about romantic illusions, disheveled writers (that would be Franzen), and the general role of mythology regarding the life of the Escriteur, let me just say that if Franzen feels self-doubt, it is entirely warranted. (Have you read Freedom? Tell the truth, now - did you actually like it?)

Does this mean your beloved novel is a piece of crap, and that you should quit right now before you follow in Franzen's footsteps?

No, keep writing. And keep revising. And make sure that you've given your finished manuscript to the most critical readers on earth, and that they have drawn blood.

Writing is not about self-doubt, or guilt, or shame. It's about pain.

Embrace it.

OK, now that I've gotten that off my chest, this is what I think about the whole insecure, suffering artist shtick: It gets old very quickly, especially when you have to support a family, diaper babies, and make sure they don't drink and drive when you have finally finished weaning them.

If you want to be a writer, in all likelihood you will be poor for a very long time. But, by god, if you've got something to say, you should just go ahead and say it - without all the guilt and shame and self-doubt and badly needed counseling of writers who have been hugged by Oprah.

Do your work as best you can, and don't waste time gazing in the mirror.
_______________________________________

Literary self-loathing: How Jonathan Franzen, Elizabeth Gilbert and more keep it at bay

By Michele Filgate, Salon, Dec 1, 2013

Self-loathing is in the writer’s blood. When you’re an artist of any kind, there’s no certainty that what you’re working on won’t be a complete failure. But when writers reach a certain level of fame, when they make Oprah’s Book Club or the cover of Time magazine, surely they don’t struggle with the same massive insecurities we lesser known writers face?

The answer, of course, is that it’s human nature to struggle with oneself. That icky feeling of discontent we often experience is what sometimes inspires the best art.

“I experience shame and self-reproach more or less continually,” Jonathan Franzen (author of “Freedom”) told me. “The only way to deal with it is to keep trying to immerse myself in the fictional dream and hope that good sentences come out of that.  Once there are good sentences on the page, I can feel a loyalty to them and start following their logic, and take refuge from myself.”

I love the idea of the writer taking refuge from who he is by putting words on the page. Writing, in fact, provides a much needed escape or confrontation with our worst emotions.  It’s just so hard to get to that blissful place where the words are all that matters.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the vicious trap of self-defeat. My bedroom is the most organized when I’m on deadline. Is there anything more uncomfortable than staring at a blank page and knowing that you have to fill it with not only words, but words that matter? It’s far easier to walk away from the laptop, to alphabetize the piles of books on my floor, to call a friend and complain about my lack of productivity, to check Twitter and post an inspirational quote about literature or writing. To declare to your followers that you are writing, even when you’ve only written a few sentences and deleted them. The irony, of course, is that what’s uncomfortable is not writing. And the majority of writers spend many hours of their waking lives not writing — whether they’re doing their day jobs or tending to parental duties or just avoiding it. So most of a writer’s life is ridden with guilt.

If you aren't already wracked by guilt, and/or nausea, you can read the rest of this article HERE.

 
 
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There is no doubt about it, Ray Bradbury could give a great lecture.

In 2001, Bradbury spoke at Point Loma Nazrene University in San Diego, California, where he imparted his wisdom: Read the greats, broaden your mind, and write like hell.

We've heard it before - practice makes perfect - but nowhere is this message delivered with greater honesty, more clarity, and deeper conviction than when it comes out of Ray Bradbury's mouth. Because this is a man who waited until he was 30 before he wrote his first novel, Fahrenheit 451, and who spent the previous 18 years writing "millions of words" until he got it right.

In an age of instant gratification and overnight success stories (a very bad idea for writers, by the way - overnight success usually kills a writer's career), Bradbury's words of wisdom may fall on deaf ears.

But that does not make them any less true. Here is the writer's problem, as Bradbury saw it:

"The problem with novels is you can spend a whole year writing one and it might not turn out well."

He's right. In fact, chances are that if that novel is the only thing you have ever written, it will turn out to be a piece of crap. Unfortunately, writers are a stubborn lot - fixated on their "little darlings" and their plans for world domination.

Nonetheless, those who are wise will follow Bradbury's advice:

"If you can write one short story a week, it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start – at least you’re practicing. At the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones. It can’t be done. After 30 or 40 weeks, all of a sudden a story will come that is wonderful – just wonderful. That’s what happened to me..."

While you're coming up with your wonderful gem, read the great short story writers: Richard Matheson, Nigel Kneal, John Collier (brilliant short stories), Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Melville, Hawthorn. Read the great poems. Read the great essays, from various fields. "Stuff your heads!"

Watch this fabulous video - this man is one of the greats, and well worth listening to.


"The sooner you know how to write a metaphor, the better off you'll be."

Ray Bradbury, August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012

 
 
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Normally, I don’t like to give people advice about writing. I prefer to offer advice on how to get your writing published, how to deal with the publishing world, how to be a success. I leave the writing instruction manual to other less qualified people – by which I mean famous writers.

These are the people who get big bucks to tell other people how to write. Their publishers figure, “Hey, the guy’s famous. People will want to hear how he got there.” That much is true; people do want to hear how Stephen King, for example, became a writer. But do famous writers really know anything about writing?

After reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I have to conclude that famous writers don’t know jack.  That’s because they are writing intuitively. They have a gift, and the substance of that gift cannot be transferred. They can only say, “This is how I write.”

The section of his book in which Stephen King chronicled his career as a writer (starting in grade school) was wonderful. It was funny, and scary, and very down-to-earth - just like his novels. Unfortunately, he spends most of his book telling us not how he wrote his novels, but how we should write ours. No doubt, if you follow his advice, you will probably end up sounding a lot like Stephen King. (The question is, do you want to?)

Stephen King's Rule #1: Don’t use passive voice

Active voice is great if you want to produce a driving passage, filled with energy and momentum. But what if you want to convey something else – mystery, suspense? Here is an example of passive voice:

The body was hanging in the hall. It had been hung there some time in the night, when we were sleeping. As we made our way down to breakfast, we all stepped around it. Nobody looked up. 

We all knew who it was.


Would this passage have worked as well using active voice: “Somebody had hung it in the night"? Absolutely not. The focus here is on the body. Using passive voice increases the tension and forces us to wonder, "Who hung it there?"

Stephen King's Rule #2: Don’t use adverbs

The overuse of adverbs (anything ending in -ly) can be clumsy. However, the adverb, much like any other part of speech, fulfills a purpose. Sometimes you need to describe how someone is performing an action, without a lengthy descriptive phrase.

Gently, oh so gently, they lifted my body out of the river. They placed it on the bank and arranged my tattered clothing to cover what remained of my flesh. Then they stood around me, in perfect silence, their hats in their hands.

If only they had shown me such respect when I was alive.


That passage could have begun without the “gently.” But the impact of the (dead) narrator’s voice would have been compromised, and the force of the final line would have been diminished.

Stephen King's Rule #3: Don’t use a long word when you can use a short one

English, a gloriously complex language, is a mashup of Germanic and Latin roots (among other things). The Germanic lexicon is agglomerative: get up, get down. Latin roots are inflected: ascend, descend. Academic writing favors Latin roots, while colloquial speech prefers the Germanic. If you want to sound like Hemingway, or Stephen King, stick to the Germanic roots. But, if you are after a more scholarly effect, go for the Latin.

As the waiter stared at the coin in his hand, a slow flush spread across his cheeks. 

The time traveler leaned back in his chair, adopting a stern demeanor. “My good man,” he said, “I trust the generosity of my emolument will not tempt you into drink." 

The waiter threw the dime on the floor. “Next time you can get your own damn burger and fries!”


I'll admit I’ve cheated. In dialogue anything is permissible. But, placed well, those five-dollar words can accomplish much more than their one-syllable equivalents. Here is the last phrase of Camus’ The Stranger, taken from two different translations:

… and that they greet me with cries of hate. 

… and that they greet me with howls of execration.

Which version do you think you will remember?

The real rules of writing

There is only one rule for writers. So pay attention. I will not repeat it.

You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.

That second clause is the key. If you can pull it off, whatever it is, you will have written a masterpiece. If you can’t, you will have produced a piece of trash. Being able to do something successfully is what is important, not whether you follow the rules.

 

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