Category Archives: Writing Techniques

James Scott Bell: Write What You Fear

I am thrilled to have best selling author, JAMES SCOTT BELL, on today.

James Scott Bell

Jim is the bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and many other thrillers. Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. Jim  served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest, including the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure.

Jim talks today about killing our fear. You can also catch him on The Kill Zone where he blogs with other top thriller and mystery authors.

Write What You Fear, and the Death of Fear is Certain
By JAMES SCOTT BELL

I don’t think there’s a writer worth his or her salt who doesn’t, at least occasionally, suffer from some doubt or even fear over their writing. Indeed, if there isn’t any hint of those two emotions from time to time, I’d venture to say the writer doesn’t have sights set high enough. Such a writer is staying in a safe zone, where precious little that is original is produced.

Dick Simon (of Simon & Schuster) once said, “All writers are scared to death. Some simply hide it better than others.”

Why should that be? Even after one has reached the hallowed halls of publication? Even while in the midst of what might termed a career?

Because there is always lurking the idea that the rug may be snatched away. That some little dog will pull aside the curtain and reveal you there, a fraud after all. Even the top writers in the game get this feeling. No less a luminary than Stephen King cops to it.

Another reason excellent writers experience doubt is, ironically, excellence itself. Because these authors keep setting their standards higher, book after book, and know more about what they do each time out. That has them wondering if they can make it over the bar they have set. Many famous writers, unable to deal with this pressure, have gone into the bar itself, and stayed late.

Jack Bickham, a novelist who was even better known for his books on the craft, put it this way:

“All of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed. We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them.”

Yes, you learn to live with them, but how? The most important way is simply to pound away at the keyboard.

You write.

As Dennis Palumbo, author of Writing from the Inside Out, put it, “Every hour you spend writing is an hour not spent fretting about your writing.”

If a writer were to tell me he never has doubts, that he’s just cocksure he’s the Cheez-Wiz of literature, I know I will not want to read his work. That’s why I think doubts are a good sign. They show that you care about your writing and that you’re not trying to skate along with an overinflated view of yourself.

The trick is not to let them keep you from producing the words.

Truly memorable writing comes when you take a risk. And risk always involves an element of fear. Take a chance. Try to make something happen, and if you fail, fix it. Go to the places that are scary for you. This is where some of your best material is going to be. It is those authors who carry this off who become popular.

To paraphrase Emerson, Write what you fear, and the death of fear is certain. You will become stronger as a writer, and that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

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More tips from the masters: On POV, character & vocabulary

As I near the end of my Write a YA Novel in 9 Months class led by authors Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, I thought I’d share you with what I’ve learned along the way.

Here is part 2 of techniques and tips I’ve learned on writing for the YA or MG market.

Which POV?
1st person can be limiting. It’s a challenge to not break the one character’s POV. With 1st person you must remain in the same voice throughout the story.  Check to make sure that only the thoughts of your MC are delivered.

There are benefits to writing YA/MG in 1st person. It brings us directly close to the character, and we all know that kids are self-involved. Second, you can create internal exposition which allows for us to discover what’s going on beneath the MC. Third, it keeps us in suspense as we can’t see all that is going on.

Tip: Use dialogue scenes to give us other character’s POV without breaking from 1st person voice.

Writing in 3rd person can also be limiting. It doesn’t present the opportunity to give us all of the MC’s thoughts. The benefits are that you can hold back secrets and we can see the story from different angles. It can create suspense as we can see other parallel events happening that the MC is not aware of.

Tip: Pull off books from your book shelf and see how characters are introduced. Does it work for you? Copy what that author did.

Exercise: Write a passage where you introduce a character.

On Creating Character
Don’t name two characters starting with same first letter. For example,  David, and Deena. Or Jack and Jill. “Jack and Jill ran up the hill to kill the zombie.” We laugh instead of feeling scared for our characters because their names are so silly.

Got Character?

And please don’t use any of these names: Fred, Ted, Ed. “Howdy,”  Fred said. “Howdy yourself,” Ted said.” You get the issue here.

Have the MC describe how he sees or feels about other characters. In doing so it reveals his own character.

Show us character in the details the MC sees. The hardness of a chair beneath him, how he feels about an object, a photo the MC carries around, or the smell that reminds him of his dog back home, etc.

Stay away from clichés such as labeling a character a bully. Go deeper than that.

Simple gestures can say volumes. For example, “Josh took two steps back while Amy took two steps forward.”

If writing in 1st POV, how does the MC see the other characters through his eyes? This tells us volumes about the other characters and also about the MC.

Exercise: Write down your major and minor characters then list how they would describe themselves through their own eyes.

Exercise: Describe something from your MC’s perspective.

Vocabulary for YA/MG
Write smart. Don’t dumb down the language for kids. Kids read up.

Make sure your language is appropriate for the age. Try not to write “trendy” language. For example: “That’s fat. Cool. Rad.” It could make your book outdated later.

Exercise: Revive memories of being the age of your YA characters. Draw a picture of the neighborhood you grew up in, pin pointing details. Remember what you saw, what you felt, and how you reacted to events there.

Tip: Take a scene and strip out all words but the dialogue to see how your character’s talk. This reveals the beat of character’s words and speech. Then flow it through your book.

See tips to writing a YA Novel from the masters Part 1

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Write a YA Novel in 9 Months: Tips from the masters

As I near the end of my Write a YA Novel in 9 Months class led by authors Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba, I thought I’d share you with what I’ve learned along the way. I’ve met a great bunch of writers across genres in this class and I am happy to report I finished my book in 7 months!

Here is part 1 of techniques and tips I’ve learned
on writing for the YA or MG market.

Getting started. Before you write…

Recent trends in writing for YA/MG audience
MG horror is hot now, especially 2-4 books deals in a series running about 40K words each. Think Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book or R.L. Stein books.
Books are released in e-book first, then if good show doing a print run.
YA e-anthologies are hot! Allows kids to read a story in class and review real time vs. a novel. (Adult anthologies more for small press). Check out Campfire Weenies tales on this.
Pitching is on now year round to agents,  no usual slow times in August and after Thanksgiving. Agents continue to seek next best book.

Genres (YA = Young Adult MG = Middle Grade)
Remember kids ‘read up’
Younger YA – 12-15
Older YA – 15 -17
MG – 8-12

Outline your book
Write a chapter outline with bullet points for each chapter.
Create doc for revision notes so you can fast draft without stopping to edit.
Write a preliminary synopsis of 1-3 pages of prose, single spaced. This is where you talk yourself through the plot. This isn’t the finished synopsis so don’t worry, just for plotting purposes.
Write book logline, that 1 sentence pitch.
TIP: Write 1st and last chapter first. Write to the end of the book so you know direction to go in.

Promo copy
Write back book jacket. Review similar books to get an idea.
Write 1 paragraph description of possible next 2 books in the series.
Create submission list (sub list) of a dozen books that are similar to yours. This is where your book would fit on a bookshelf. Books must be recent successes and in print and in age range to your book. Check out LibraryThing for authors in your genre where you can search by genre/sub genres.

Critique Partner
Find a partner who writes similar to you and once you’ve written the first 25 pages, swap out with each other

Resources:
Check out verlakay.com message boards, a place for children’s writers and illustrators to gather and share information, help each other and have fun while learning the business of writing and illustrating for children.
Books – Rotten Rejections, 20 Master Plots and Exercises, Writing Treatments that Sell.

Now start writing!

More tips to write a YA novel from the masters Part 2

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Do you give your characters theme songs when writing?

I know some writers who listen to music while writing. Some even craft soundtracks like my friend, Jess Cooper. She goes to Pandora’s Box to find music that fits her mood for particular a book she’s writing and builds a soundtrack. Jonathan Maberry notes he ratches it up at a local coffeeshop or bookstore with tunes for the writing of that day. Eric S. Brown swears by Weird Al.

Some writers I know write in complete silence, like Michael Ventrella. I am one of those, but I also find a dark corner alone in Wegman’s cafe provides a low buzz that fills the void around me in a blend perfect for my writing at times.

What I can’t do is write with music on. However, I do search for theme songs for my characters. To feel close to my writing I listen to the songs in the car and right before sitting down to write. And then I shut it off. But I hear the song in my head and it fuels the moment I’m in. I feel the character and their situation from the music and it drives me with passion.

My husband doesn’t like it. Why? Because I fell in love with Country a few years ago. (Gag, he says). But heck, where else can you find fitting angst to inspire words on the page but from Country songs?  Country has it all…lost love, out of work blues, hard times, no-good family and lots of drinking. Need inspiration? Check out the Top 100 Country Songs of All Time.

For my new novel it’s Jake Owen’s Barefoot Blue Jean Night album that sends me colliding with my characters. My protagonist’s theme song is Dierks Bentley’s Love Grows Wild. My husband is glad to not share these private moments. (But just to get him back I sneak in his car and switch all his radio stations to Country ones.)

I’m starting a new novel now and I can’t even listen to the music from my last novel. It confuses me about how I feel for my new characters.

Besides being an author, my next #1 dream is to be a country singer. Got to git me a guitar, harmonica and a fringe skirt. My husband might run off if that happens though. But he’ll sure miss me waving goodbye to him in my cowgirl boots and hat as I line dance across the porch.

Is this a writing quirk that just I have? Do you find theme songs for your book that you don’t actually listen to when writing?

Share with me how music fuels your writing – or doesn’t. Even if you ain’t a country gal.

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Creating your novel title. How do you do it?

Titles. How do we create our titles? And what’s in a title?

My recently completed novel A Human Element came from this premise. We all have a human element in us that is redeemable, even if we’re half alien and a bad-ass. Even if we wander through life with a vision-less goal, making the wrong choices until we find the right one. (Kinda like the author).

I found a title generator online that was fun:
Some good titles: Bloody Bananas. Freaky Aliens.
Favorite: The Daring Murders. (What murder isn’t daring?)
Funniest: The Human Runs. (Talk about messy)

My new novel I’ m plotting was a bit more abstract. The River in Me. An adopted girl who never feels like she belongs as the blood that runs in her is not that of her adoptive family. The climax occurs around a river. In the end she learns to embrace the river of blood she carries within her. She belongs to herself and there is peace in that, and it can’t be taken away. Ultimately she creates her own family where she belongs. Being adopted myself, the title came from deep inside. The river in me.

I want to know. Do your titles come from your own personal experience or the plot itself?

Are you drawn to creating your title before you write your book? I am. It solidifies the premise for me and fuels my blood – the blood that runs unique in me. And now my own created family completes me. I do belong. We belong to each other.

What makes your title unique?

Share it here.

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Creating Multi-Genre in a Multi-Media World

We’re sitting down with writer Anna George today. Not only is she a fantastic writer but a great classmate to swap writing with!

Anna George

Since her first  first rudimentary letters scribbled on construction paper, she has written two full novels, and is currently in the process of revising her latest one, “A Wolf in the Hallway”, a young adult fantasy based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast”.

When she’s not writing, Anna  teaches language arts, literature, and literacy to teens. Anna is a member of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

I asked Anna to share her take on teaching writing in the classroom using multi genres.

Multi-Genre in a Multi-Media World
By Anna George

As August begins, I find myself thinking about the upcoming school year.  Last year, I taught 115 eighth graders, and I picture them as they prepare to make the harrowing step into high school.

A seasoned co-worker recommended I create a “multi-genre” project for my students to complete—I won’t lie—I hesitated. What did she mean?  Multi-genre? And will my students take to it? I decided to go with it.

Research:
Each student was assigned a specific Holocaust-related research topic, such as Anne Frank, Dachau, or Kristallnacht.  The student then completed a great amount of research on their topic in the library and on the computer.

Multi-genre options:
I then provided my students with several different multi-genre options that they could use to present their research. Students were to choose three multi-genre options, the most popular being the poem, memoir, and illustration. Some of those options were newspaper articles, memoirs, illustrations, comic strips, poems, songs, plays, interviews, scrapbooks and yes, even a persuasive essay (which, you won’t be surprised to find out, no one chose).

Results:
The results were astounding.  With their final products, all five of my classes created what they called their “Holocaust Museum”.  Throughout my classroom, I displayed their projects, and on the afternoon of the “museum opening”, they had the opportunity to tour and examine all of their hard work and effort.  There were some truly moving pieces, exquisite paintings, and magically enough, some remarkable writing!  Though the students obviously beamed with pride, so did their teacher.

I then wondered how I might apply this to my own writing.

Processing multi-genre knowledge in a multi-media environment:
As I’ve been taking on the task of writing a young adult novel, I began to think of how my students read and process books, articles, and text in general. My students work within a fast-paced reading environment.  On their computer screens, they might have up an instant messenger box, a Facebook newsfeed, a YouTube video, or a newspaper article—all at once.  Meanwhile, their TV is flashing across the room and their phone is buzzing by their side.

There is a multitude of ways that students take in and process knowledge.  This constant influx of information may seem overwhelming at first, but they’ve adapted well. We as writer’s must too in today’s world.

How using multi-genre can benefit your writing:
Once I began considering multi-genre for my own writing and their reading, I realized I already use it within my creative process.  I’m a pretty big fan of the scrapbook for inspiration.  I like to visualize my characters, my settings, the animals, even specific objects and places.  When I find visual examples of what I’m looking for, I tend to print them out and cut and paste them into a scrapbook, just so I can turn a page and visualize my thoughts (quite literally) when my mind begins to wander.

When I began to think of adding multi-genre elements to my writing, I knew that I needed to scrap the illustration idea.  I’m really not much of an artist.  But newspaper articles, poems, diary entries, and letters were all still at my disposal.  Instead of dedicating scenes to describe an event that happened, such as a naval ship sinking off the coast, I could use a newspaper article; a quick flash of information for my reader to get the main idea.  Once they were aware of that event, I could move directly into the consequences with my narrative and dialogue.  Letters might have a great amount subtext that reveals more about the character than what is actually written.  When I write in third person, a brief diary entry allows me to break into a new and perhaps more interesting and pertinent voice.

As I begin to conclude my first draft of this young adult manuscript, I’m excited to see where my multi-genre inquiry takes me in revisions to come!

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I like big butts and I can not lie. Real not fake.

Oh My God, look at her butt. I mean her butt…it’s just so big. I can’t believe it’s so round. It’s just out there. Gross.
I like big butts and I can not lie.

A big, gorgeous butt

This song got stuck in my head recently.
Watching a fake butt shake did it.

Really.

Having fun on a girl’s night out recently, we gals wandered through a lingerie store. A store that sold fake butts. I didn’t know these things were on shelves for the buying. I have been lucky not to ever have to wonder about where to get one.

Then I saw her.

A big, gorgeous woman packed into a neon green lace balloon standing in the hallway between the dressing room doors for all to see. She peered behind her, admiring her greatly endowed butt cleavage and asked her friend:

“Does it look real?”
“Hmmm, Lorraine, shake it a little. Let me see.”
I was mesmerized watching undulating buttocks and thighs jiggle in delight.
“Faster, Lorraine! Faster!”
The jiggle became a blur of rippling cellulite.
“Oooh, that’s real good.”
“But does it FEEL real?”
“Hmmmm…” getting a double squeeze in. “Yep, soft and bouncy.”
“You sure it doesn’t look fake?”
“Nahh, big and grabby.”

I wanted to cheer her on and belt out:
Has your girlfriend got the butt? (Hell yeah!)
Tell ’em to shake it! (Shake it!) Shake it! (Shake it!)
Shake that healthy butt!

It was a good public butt shaking that made me realize, why DO we stuff our butts? Is it because we want attention, we want to stand out?

Nemo did this. “He touched the butt.” **whispering** He wanted to prove something.

He touched the butt. That's a pretty big butt.

As writers we want to prove we can write.
Is that what we try to do when we stuff our scenes with fake stuff? Add flowery prose. Dangle pretty adjectives and endless adverbs. Making ourselves puff up inside with our fancy sentences.

We’re shaking the fake butt.

Most people know a fake butt when they see it. It covers up the beauty of the natural butt. Every butt is different, like your book.

Don’t puff up your words to sound better.
Has another writer told you this? To not shake your words at us to say “Look at me! This is what I am trying to convey in this scene! This is what my character is feeling! This is what is happening, in case you didn’t know!” **sheepish** me.

Less IS more.
I’ve been told to say it in less. Use one description, not three. Use a simple word versus a fancy one. If its raining, just let it rain. Not. The whizzing drops flung themselves about in a hysterical, wet torrent like a raging monsoon. This is what first drafts are about. Then time to weed whack. I should know!

Do you have an image system in your book?
Is it consistent? Let’s not cram images in our books to dazzle us with fake visuals that don’t mean anything. They have to make sense, connect us to a character, an event, or a place. I admit to being a butt stuffer at times with this.
**sheepish** again. It’s when I go back in editing I hope I pull most of it out. All that stuffing covers up what you’re book is really about. What your premise is. Who your characters are and what they experience.

Ask yourself.
What are you shaking? Are you the real thing or fake? Be you.

A bigger butt isn’t going to make you more glamorous. It just covers up something great hidden underneath. I should know. My butt is big enough!

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