Writing queries becomes easier using themes

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Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing skills from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot.  Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.


Writing to Get Into Someone’s Head

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brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. The getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Journalism Supplies Emotional Skills For Stories

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reporterNot everyone who writes for a career has a writing degree. It’s common to see the letters MFA, for Master of Fine Arts, behind a name of an instructor or an accomplished writer. But there’s another degree — really a set of practices and studies — that delivers compelling writing. Bloggers, who tell stories all the time in great numbers, are starting to rely on the skills of a degreed journalist. The thinking is that journalism, as practiced by a professional with experience, gives you a great storytelling voice. The reporter’s.

Over on the Write to Done website, a handful of tips help writers become better earners while practicing their craft. Once you go beyond the joy of writing for the experience of creation — what I call The Writing Life — you can graduate to a Writing Career. You don’t have to pursue a career, of course. Becoming a writer who earns a living with their storytelling is the entry to a Writing Career.

Journalism skills, in the voice of the reporter, are the Number 1 talent in the Write to Done article. It says, in part

#1. Draw them in with story.

Many writers feel their job is to merely convey information, and so that’s what most of us do: We put numbered lists and ultimate guides on our blogs, or enumerate the benefits of our copywriting clients’ products in a brochure — and then sit back and wait for the accolades to roll in. Oops. The fact is, no matter what kind of writing you do, your job is to connect with readers by telling stories.

Sure, those stories will convey information, but they will also help readers understand your info emotionally as well as logically. Pick up any women’s health magazine and you’ll see articles that lead off with an anecdote about a woman who survived a dread disease. Scan through a business publication and you’ll notice stories of entrepreneurs who increased their profits through the downturn, or hired homeless people, or succeeded despite going up against big box stores. Parenting articles are rife with anecdotes from real moms.

You can use the same technique in your web pages, blogs, and books. Instead of listing your client’s amazing qualities in a brochure, tell a story about how their product improved someone’s life. Rather than writing “just the facts, ma’am” in your book or blog post about time management tactics, weave a story about a hopeless case who turned his life around by learning to manage his time.

Using storytelling techniques like journalists do will not just teach your readers, but make them care about what they’re learning.

The idea of making someone care about your writing is important. It gives your stories emotional weight, heft, and leaves the reader sticking to what’s being told. The journalist’s craft — really, an art considering how few words we get to use — can be supplemented by extended work in setting, and in dialogue. Most journalism doesn’t build scene as extensively as fiction, or creative non-fiction. But the exemplary writing does. It’s the kind that can sell an app, or make a reader cry. Journalists have something call a nut-graf, the paragraph in the story early on that lets the reader know “why should I care?” Journalists set the stakes early in their brief stories. Early stakes is an essential part of good storytelling. You can read a lot of literature where the stakes are hidden, or not even considered, in lieu of the beauty of the language. Beauty is essential, but not at the expense of story — if your writing will be memorable.

Memories make up memoirs, and that’s another place where storytelling becomes essential. A mid-grade memoir, one that won’t find a wide readership, is going to be bogged down by too many details and too little emotion. It takes the structure of a story, illustrated by memorable places and lively scenes and drama, to make an exemplary one. Good journalism is easy to find in places like the website longreads.com.

How to Start a Memoir

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WritingWellWilliam Zissner, a giant in the nonfiction writing world and the author of On Writing Well, gives us the most simple advice. From an essay of his in 2006, on the American Scholar website.

As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

Here’s what I suggest.

Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.

Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.

Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.

Of course, the “putting together” the late, great Zissner describes can be one of the most creative aspects of this project. But until you have pieces, you can only imagine what your memoir will say, or hear the voice that will be telling the tale. You must be patient and write awhile, to begin.

8 Fundamentals to Writing Better

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Storytelling is your writing tool, whether for fiction, or non-fiction essay. Story is the new secret weapon in communication for non-fiction, a tool that’s been proven through the charms of fiction over the ages. Non-fiction writers can use the structure and arc of a story to teach or make a point, always in service of transmitting an idea or an experience to a more receptive readership.

Meaning, sense, and clarity: These three foundational blocks in the tower of writing make everything else possible. Write sentences that say what we mean; to ensure that our logic makes sense; employ the clarity of economy to make our writing succinct.

Paragraphs and the unit of meaning: Break down a long piece of writing into units of ideas. Locate those that may be most effective at the length of a single sentence, for emphasis.

Commas, colons, periods and other stops: Practice the use of various kinds of punctuation: those methods that give effective writing good flow, as well as simplifying ideas.

Making muscular writing: Strong writing flows from using straightforward words and stronger nouns and verbs. Muscular writing emerges from a branch-to-the-right structure. Vary sentence lengths to create powerful writing.

Looking for language: Study skills to expand vocabulary while keeping our message clear. Practice how to choose Saxon- vs. Latinate-rooted words and eliminate clichés.

Propelling your pace: Working with the concept of the Gold Coin – essential moments of each communication, spread like coins throughout – practice skills to master pace.

The road to revision: The power of the second pass is essential. Practice making first drafts smaller and compact, as well as finding the redundant expressions that are common to those early drafts.

How to write great sentences

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Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?

Prose goes on to show an example of what a writer can do while ignoring the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown at left; just click on it show a full-sized, readable page). Woolf’s sentence is something I share with our weekly workshop members during our eight-week sessions. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

A good sentence is the meat on the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?
  • Is my meaning clear?
  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?” A novelist friend of mine compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially is you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your toolkit. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.

Making your point by changing POV

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In this morning’s meeting of our Writer’s Workshop Manuscript Group, we wrapped up response to five writers’ offerings with a brief talk about changing point of view. The writers who meet each first Saturday went home with advice from Josip Novakovitch (Fiction Writer’s Workshop) and Sherri Szeman (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing).

POV gets tagged a lot during manuscript workshops, in part because deviating from the missionary-position of single POV is so easy to spot. Making POV changes is an opportunity for both failure and brilliance. Just make sure each change is worth the trip.

Which POV are you choosing, or using? There are many definitions. Across the two writing teachers listed above I compiled the following list:

First person
First person multiple
First person collective observer
Second person
Epistolary, or first person letters
Outer limited
Inner limited
Third person
Third person limited
Third person objective
Third person subjective
Third person limited flexible
Third person omniscient
Third person multiple
Multiple viewpoints

There’s the possibility of “combo” as well, mixing several of the above throughout a story.

Novakovitch offers consistency as a guideline to help authors manage their shifts. Start early with a definite pattern, then stick to it. He also says first-time novelists or short story writers will do better by observing the conventions of POV. However,

Switching POVs can … derive information about an event initially in the first person. After the story has been assembled by several witnesses, and enough inferences have been made to cover even what has not been told by the witnesses, the event may be described without references to the sources; things can assume an objective third person perspective — and a composite report can be written about the motives of everybody involved.

E.M Forster said that shifting POV is “the right to intermittent knowledge” and that it parallels our perception in life. “We are stupider at some times than others; we can enter into people’s minds occassionally but not always, because our minds get tired.”

The best reason to shift POV might also come from Forster, who said that “this intermittence [of POVs] lends in the long run variety and color to the experiences we receive.”

Taking the shortcut to telling

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Show, don’t tell. It’s a chestnut, a bromide, a mantra for writers. Those who want to sketch pictures of stories that readers want to live in, they make a habit of showing a world, not telling about it.

Telling can be a hard habit to break. A lot of the writing many of us began with was reporting: on books, our summer vacations, the literature we were force-fed in high school, current events or debate team ammunition. Facts, or our feelings, told instead of painted. It’s one of the greatest differences between fiction and non-fiction. The former needs to show to do its work. The latter tells as a matter of course.

But sometimes fiction can abide a bit of telling. To move things along, in brief stretches. To set up a scene briefly, which follows the telling immediately.

Telling is a shortcut in writing fiction, or creative non-fiction. Readers want the longer path so they can dally in the delights of a world created by words.

Notes on dialogue, Iowa-style

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One week ago today I enjoyed a long, fun day at the Summer Writing Festival. I read a short bit in an open mike session, reveled in an Elevenses lecture on metaphor. I also learned a good deal about dialogue that can improve my own novel, Viral Times.

Here’s just a few quick notes:

1. Dialogue should sound organic. Answers don’t necessarily follow questions, not directly, anyway. The answer can change the subject. The answer sometimes doesn’t reflect the question. This is one way to make dialogue surprising.

2. Dialogue doesn’t indicate emotion. It shows emotion. No “he exclaimed” or “he whimpered” to indicate. Search your imagination for dialogue whose words show exclamation or whimpering. Or use gestures that might match these feelings.

3. Dialogue should be motivated by both character and situation. Rent Pulp Fiction. Eaarly in the movie, you’ll notice how there’s very little of the explanation of the hit mens’ plans in their dialogue. Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) say:

“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”
“How many up there?”
“Three or four.”
“Counting our guy?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So there could be up to five guys in there.”
“It’s possible.”
“We should have fuckin’ shotguns.”

These fellows stand in front of a car trunk while they talk this over, loading .45s. Their plan must to be kill someone, several people. Nary a word is said about the plan directly.

In dialogue, the central thing is not named, so it can gain power during the scene.

Oh, and the shorter the dialogue per character (total number of sentences), the better. People don’t speak in long sentences (most people, anyway). Too many sentences and you have a speech. Leave that for the sequel, the narrative writing that follows the scene.

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