writingtips

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How To Use Writing Tips

Published November 27, 2016 by nruhwald

**This blog is on hiatus until the New Year. Thank you for reading.***

It occurred to me lately that I could use Pinterest to collect writing help articles as well as blogging help articles. Since then I’ve been swamped in writing tips. I think I have to start saving more dessert recipes and crocheting patterns just to keep things in balance.

But with this newfound access to a ton of internet knowledge, came the responsibility of using it properly. How and when do you apply writing tips? Are you supposed to have a list of writing rules open beside you as you write and keep referring to them?

Duh, no.

You’d never get anything done. When do we use writing tips, then, and how?

The short answer: during planning and editing.

For the long answer I’m going to go through some common types of writing tips and how to use them.

The Word List

(This also applies to your thesaurus)

Many of these lists have themes, such as words to use instead of “went,” words that evoke sensory details, words that “every writer should know.”

In general I think these lists are good, but use with care. Just like a thesaurus, it is very easy to look pretentious if you use words your audience doesn’t understand. There is also the risk of using a word incorrectly because you don’t understand what it means.

In which case you end up looking silly to those readers who do.

However, you can use these lists. These are best used in the final polishing, or line-editing, of your work. For instance, if you notice your characters are constantly “dashing” everywhere, a good word list with action verbs can help you out. A thesaurus is also helpful if you are struggling to remember a word. Often you can find it by looking for words with similar meanings.

The only “words to use instead of” list you should never use is the “said” replacement list. Do not, ever, replace “said” with anything. Except perhaps “asked,” although some suggest that a question mark is sufficient.

Unlike pretty much any other device used in fiction, “said” is supposed to be boring. It is there to be skipped over, so that the reader sees the character’s name and knows who’s talking, and that’s it. The dialogue itself does the rest.

If you must specify that a character is shouting or whispering or whatever, use an action tag.

Lists of “words every writer should know,” are a particular danger zone. While I agree writers should probably know what these words mean, they are almost always exactly the sort of words writers should use very, very infrequently. Or not at all, unless needed for voice or characterization purposes.Use a thesaurus with the same caution.

With one exception: if you have a very-highly educated and/or pretentious character, it is perfectly fine to use these words.

How To Plot A Novel

These articles usually cover things like the progression of suspense/conflict in a novel (inciting incident, rising action, climax, ending). Or they may cover plot points, and any of the other large-scale building blocks of novels generally. This also applies to articles on how to write a scene.

This kind of information you should know and have in the back of your head when you’re going through the plotting stages of the novel. Which, depending on your style, may occur before any writing begins or intermittently during the process of writing the novel.

It may also help you realize what a horrible mess you’ve made of your novel after you’ve written it. For example, if you go over your novel’s plot and realize you’ve glossed over the climax entirely, or you have no plot points at all…

…then you’ve probably successfully created a first draft, and are now ready to begin the arduous process of rewriting it. Congratulations.

How To Write The First/Last Chapter/Page

These I also find useful in the planning stages. Or if I’ve tried to write the first scene (or whatever) a few times and it just doesn’t seem to be working. They’re also a handy guide for rewriting said sections.

Oh, and the first page of your novel is absolutely the most important part and you should rewrite/edit it fifty bazillion times. Of course, you also have to back up your fabulous first page with a high-quality novel, but the importance of first impressions cannot be overstated.

Unless of course you are paralyzed with doubt about your first page. In that case, just forget it for the moment and move on.

Character/Setting Profiles

I think these are super neat. Ideally these are used in the planning stages, where they have the greatest potential to save you grief later on, but can also be used if you find yourself running into problems during writing, or as a primer prior to rewriting.

My deal is, although I think these are really cool and I like the idea of them, so far I have never used any. I tend to daydream up sufficient detail about most places and people organically.

While these profiles certainly can be useful, they also feel a bit artificial to me. Like a school project. Which is also why I don’t normally make use of writing prompts or creative writing lessons, even though those things are probably beneficial too.

Unless the writing prompt results in you writing a cliché or the creative writing instructor doesn’t know what s/he is talking about. Which can happen too.

 

God bless, and happy writing!

(Come back next week for a new sneak peak of The King’s Children.)

 

 

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Grow Your Blog By Helping Others

Published November 20, 2016 by nruhwald

penYou can do this in two ways. First, by supporting other bloggers by reading and engaging with their posts. Second, by using your blog to teach other people how to do things.

Be Active On Other Blogs

I’ve known about this strategy for a while, and talked about it in an earlier post on the subject, so I’m not going spend much time on it, except to say that being interested in other bloggers makes them more likely to be interested in you. Furthurmore, the more active in the blogging community you are the more you learn about things that can help you in blogging.

Things like StumbleUpon, and possibly Reddit and GoodReads, depending on what your niche is. These sites still seem rather mysterious to me, since I’m still trying to wrap my head around Pinterest and Twitter.

Help People Get What They Want

But I hadn’t considered the teaching aspect until my post offering blogging advice gained attention like crazy. At the time of this writing, it is the single most popular post I have even written.

Which makes sense, really. The vast majority of my readers are other bloggers, and they all want to know how to grow their blogs.

I’ve also noticed that pretty much all prosperous-looking blogs seem to be developed primarily to teach people. They offer courses, instructional e-books (sometimes for free in exchange for signing up to their e-mail list), infographics, and more. This includes large blogs in my niche. These ones just happen to also have a few pages about their self-published books in addition to the course material. (Most traditionally-published authors don’t tend to have this instructional element to their website, as far as I am aware.)

As someone who is not totally opposed to the idea of monetizing one day, great. As an artist, this concept gave me pause. Don’t I want to be known for my novels more than online instructionals? Don’t I want to spend time writing and not doing other things?

For me, yes this is true. I also don’t want to become one of those blogs so bogged down in ads that the blog becomes virtually inaccessible. The video pop-ups are the worst for this.

Depending on your style and what kind of blog you write, this may be true for you too. The good news is, you can benifit from the same strategy while not taking it to the same extent Mr/Ms Fancy Pants Online Tutorial does.

I’ve decided to keep up with the blog and writing tip posts. But I’m also posting more of my own fiction, because that’s primarily what I’m about.

So make use of whatever strategies out there you can, but just remember you don’t have to do it the way someone else does.

God Bless.

Writing Fundamentals: Plot Points

Published August 28, 2016 by nruhwald

Plot-PointsWhat is a plot point?

Like scenes and the four stages of a novel (inciting incident, rising action, climax, and ending), plot points are another structural element of your story which you’ll need to keep track of.

For the writer, plot points are destinations. We write with the purpose of moving the characters towards the plot point. For the character, however, the plot point is a beginning.

A plot point happens when a character makes a decision which sets the story going in a new direction.

In questing stories, often in fantasy genres, plot points are linked to physical locations. In the Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, most plot points occur when Frodo decides to go somewhere, and he often adds or subtracts people from his group at this point as well.

  • Frodo begins the quest when he decides to take the ring and meet Gandalf at the Prancing Pony in Bree. (Adds Sam, Pippin, and Merry)
  • Frodo decides to go to Rivendell. (Adds Strider)
  • Frodo decides to take the ring to Mordor. (Adds Legolas, Gimli, Boromir, and finally meets up with Gandalf.)
  • Frodo decides to…

You get the point already.

Plot points are also a useful way of determining who your main character is. If you struggle with this question, try mapping the events of the story, and identify which events change the course of the story. Your main character is the person whose actions cause those changes.

The actions of antagonists and other characters happen between plot points and serve to push the main character into making her (or his) decision, but it will always be the main character who causes the story to change.

The Plot Point is Not…

…necessarily super dramatic

It all depends on the novel you’re writing. If the novel you’re writing is about the MC’s relationship between people and not a life and death situation, the plot point could be quite subtle.

I once read a book where the plot centered around a woman trying to gain self-confidence. In this type of book, a plot point could be as simple as a decision to take a self-defence course, or a decision not to attend an event.

The plot point has to be a big deal to the character, and must set the book on a new course. But it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a character leaving a spouse, or taking a new job. That big of a move may very well be reserved for the climax.

…ever ever ever caused by something other than the previous events of the story.

I will talk about this more later on, so I’ll just touch on it now. It has to be the previous events of the story which push the main character into making the decision.

Otherwise, you don’t have a plot point, you have a plot ticket. Plot tickets are to plot points what an ex machina is to the climax. You don’t want a plot ticket.

…laid out neatly like a road map for the character to follow near the beginning of the book.

This is another kind of plot ticket, but this kind is worse because no changes are even being made to the course of the story. I have watched some movies in which the MC was told “you need to get these special items in order to defeat the bad guy. You will find them here, here and here. Off you go.”

I do not like those movies. Sometimes the sub-villians at each of the destinations are interesting enough to keep me watching, but they are never interesting enough to make me think of watching it again without groaning. The story still feels too amateurish.

Normally, these movies are intended for young children who do not know better. This sort of storytelling is marginally acceptable in videogames, but never in novels.

The plot point has to change the course of the novel. Ergo, the MC has to make a decision to do something s/he was not previously planning to do. The story takes a new direction, it does not simply move into the next phase of an already decided-upon plan.

…a complete shock to the reader

While the plot point is a complete change in the story’s direction, there are already forces at work pushing the character into taking the story in that new direction.

For instance, when Frodo reached Rivendell, he wasn’t planning on taking the ring any farther. However, the reader likely realizes that Frodo’s story doesn’t end at Rivendell, and might well have predicted that Frodo’s quest with the ring would continue all the way to Mordor.

 

Planners vs. Pantsers

Do you need to know what all your plot points are going to be in advance?

Short answer: no.

It is widely recognized that there are two generally categories of writers. Those who prefer to plan everything out in advance before they write, and those who do not. I’ve never truly considered myself a “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of her/his pants), because I do quite a bit of planning.

On the other hand, I can list off the top of my head, the plot points I have already written in my current WIP, and the plot point I am writing towards. I also know generally how my climax and ending are going to work. As for the rest of the plot points, I don’t have a clue. That’s not quite true, I do have a clue. But not much else.

I don’t really know how my characters are going to react when I reach my next plot point until I’m actually in the moment, so speculating on the effects of my MC’s next big decision seems like a waste of time. This is probably also why I always write chronologically.

Either way works, but for those of you of the pantser persuasion, I believe you should always write towards a plot point. This will keep your plot on track and driven by your MC.

Cousins of the Plot Point

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the event that sends your character’s life in a new direction. So, in theory the inciting incident could also be considered a plot point. But it need not be, and most usually aren’t.

Unlike your climax and the inciting incident, this is the one time in your novel when something major happens which does not need to be directly caused by your MC. That said, if your inciting incident is not caused by your MC, the inciting incident will soon be followed by a plot point in which your MC decides what course to take based on the inciting incident.

Returning to the Fellowship of the Ring, the inciting incident in this story is Bilbo’s decision to run off to Rivendell and leave Frodo the ring. Soon afterwards, we have the plot point in which Frodo decides what he’s going to do about it.

However, the inciting incident can be driven by a decision made by your main character, thus making it a kind of plot point. In the newest Star Wars movie, the inciting incident is actually a decision made by one of the characters to leave his previous life. Just in case someone out there has not watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, I won’t go into any more detail.

The Dreaded Plot Ticket

Also sometimes called a plot cookie, you should avoid the plot ticket like the plague.

The plot ticket happens when a change in plot direction occurs, but it is not driven by a decision made by the MC and/or the decision is not driven by previous story events.

For instance, imagine how odd it would have been if Frodo had decided to take the ring and run off to Mordor on his own (with Sam) straight from the Prancing Pony. Weird, right? Why would Frodo do that? How does Frodo even know what he’s supposed to do with the ring? (In most plot ticket blunders, some random thing happens which lets the MC know what s/he is supposed to do. The MC gets handed a “plot ticket” essentially.)

There’s no good reason for Frodo to choose to go anywhere by himself especially given how dangerous his situation is. And beyond that, we don’t want Frodo to leave. We just got introduced to an interesting new character (Strider), and we want to find out what happened to Gandalf.

Now, fast forward, and Frodo has just seen Gandalf “die” and witnessed the destructive effect of the ring on Boromir. The fellowship of the ring is falling apart already, and Frodo doesn’t want the ring or his quest to do any more damage to his friends. So he chooses to go alone (with Sam.)

See how much more effective the plot point is when it’s driven by previous events?

 

The Plot Twist

Plot twists are very effective. I love plot twists. In fact, one of my pet peeves is reading the first chapter and being able to accurately predict the entire plot of the book (*cough* romance novels *cough*). I like surprises.

However, plot twists are not plot points. They may radically change something, but they cannot directly change the course of the novel. Plot twists come out of the blue (with foreshadowing), and plot points do not. Instead, plot twists work very well as one of those events which push the MC into making a decision which completely changes the course of the book, thus creating a plot point.

For instance, Luke Skywalker’s fight with Darth Vader would have ended the way it did whether or not he learned that Darth Vader is his father. Either way, Luke loses the fight and has to get picked up by his friends. At the time, the only thing this really changes is Luke’s mental state. Instead of being disappointed that he failed to kill Darth Vader (and relieved that he survived the fight), Luke is having a massive personal crisis.

However, this emotional trauma dramatically effects the decisions, and thus plot points, Luke makes later on.

 

 

Becoming a Better Writer

Published May 24, 2016 by nruhwald

relax-working-on-the-garden-picjumbo-comAll writers go through stages of believing their work is utterly fabulous, and believing their work is awful, even the best ones. Though when you’re thinking clearly, flawed is a better word than awful.

After all, what you wrote yesterday is better than the chicken scratch you were churning out ten years ago, right?

So you know you’re somewhere between complete drivel and genius. But where, exactly, are you on that spectrum? “I know I write well, but am I good enough” is the recurring theme.

Answering the “good enough” question, even if it were possible, probably wouldn’t be very helpful. You want to know, but really only if you’re going to be told you are good enough. In which case you would get complacent and stop seeing your errors.

All you can do is get better. Keep learning the craft of writing.

You’re not as good as some people say you are. You’re not as bad as other people say you are. You’re learning. We’re all learning.

Here’s how you can do it.

I’m not going to go into a bunch of techniques, there is a lot out there already for you to find. I’m talking about attitude.

First, you need to get into a headspace where you can see your mistakes, let’s call it the editorial mindset. It’s not as much fun as the writer’s mindset I’m going to talk about next, but it’s not the “every word I write is trash” mindset either.

Taking writing workshops and the like is helpful, I imagine. I’ve never done much of that, but I probably should. I like to get out and observe people calling out writing mistakes in the “wild”. You can do this three ways, by getting critiqued yourself, by reading the critiques other people have written about other people, or by critiquing other people’s work.

The middle option sucks the most, and you may very well need to time to move out of the “every word I write is trash” mindset before you can think clearly again. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most effective methods. Learning correct writing principles is one thing, applying them to your work is another.

Having someone do that for you shows you what mistakes to look out for in your work, and it makes the lesson difficult to forget. Like, impossible.

Secondly, you must put aside (not forget) everything you learned in step one, and enjoy yourself. This is the writer’s mindset.

Are you good enough? Good enough for what? Why are you doing this anyway?

You do this because you enjoy it, and enjoy it you must or your writing will be as dry as toast. And you probably won’t do very much of it. Dry toast crumbs.

Some parts of writing are just for you. First drafts mainly, anything you write from scratch. Mr. Fancy Pants Critique Man is not invited.

Just write, enjoy it. Do you unreservedly love what you just wrote? No? Wonderful! You’ll fix it later. Keep going.

To learn to write better, you have to write. Make a mess. Then fix it.

And get those people who love whatever you write no matter what to critique your work, too. You may not learn anything from them, but you need them. When you do get published, these will be your readers.

Some people will love what you write, some people already do. But keep getting better. Keep writing.

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