Consistently Composing Creative Crystal Clear Communications Compassionately

Aside from filling my alliteration quota for the month, this leads us to one of the most important skills a writer should develop. It is the writer’s job to communicate their ideas clearly and without ambiguity. If the reader doesn’t understand something, it is the writer’s fault. This means any literate person is qualified to critique the writer’s work.

I’m hoping you might ask, how does a writer practice this essential skill? Writing blogs is an excellent source of practice. A writer should always be writing, even if it’s outside the type of writing they want to publish. In addition to blogs, I used a very unconventional method of honing my skills. I started flame wars. A flame war is a grand argument you have with a group of people over the internet. I used to post regularly to a forum dedicated to the underground heavy metal scene in California. It was the sort of place where nothing was sacred other than Slayer and Guinness. If your arguments were weak and your grammar flawed, you got the verbal beat down. It was the perfect spot for a writer to hone his or her critical thinking and argumentative prose. But it was not for the light hearted.

Luckily, there’s several other avenues where knowing the difference between Goth Metal, Black Metal, and Death Metal isn’t required. Critique groups, of course. I’ll talk more about those another week. But any place that you can write and have others review your work and communicate back with you, can provide the opportunity to practice. Forums where you write tutorials, or engage in a debate, can help.

When writing such posts, go back and proof read your work. Look for redundant sentences or phrases. You don’t want redundant phrases. Like that. Consider how each sentence you write could be misinterpreted. A sentence like, "The man bought his girl friend a new puppy and she had him fixed," can be interpreted multiple ways.

I have a habit of using “just,” “very,” and “really,” too often. So I just go through and really delete the very few unnecessary words I find. I’ll say that again. I go through and delete unnecessary words. The word “really” is supposed to strengthen the word that follows it. But I find that it’s used so often these days, it actually accomplishes the opposite.

In conclusion, remember two things. Clarity is one of the most important skills a writer must strive to master. It is also a skill that can not be mastered. You will always have room for improvement. And two, always remember it is the writer’s job to communicate clearly. If a reader doesn’t understand, they either represent a greater number of potential readers that will equally struggle, or they are an outlier. Be careful about assuming the latter too soon. Never argue with a reader who doesn’t understand your writing. If they didn’t understand it, then you, the writer, failed to reach them. From this perspective, they are always right in their criticism of your work.

Ghost Writing’s for Suckas

As a writer, you’re going to meet people looking for Ghost Writers. I think most of us know why to avoid this situation. If you haven’t yet encountered this, I’ll explain. The legitimate use of the term is when a famous person wants to lend their name, or brand, to a book, but don’t have the time or ability to do it themselves. The illusion when you buy a celebrity’s book is that you’re reading the words from the celebrity themselves. This is sort of why celebrity reality shows are popular. They’re just as scripted(with some exceptions), but can massive cut quality costs in hiring good writers, camera teams, and well paid actors. Then they pass off low quality television as “reality,” and people still buy it because they like the brand.

Celebrities and the people that handle them, probably pay their Ghost Writers well. And if you can get the work, it might be a fun experience. However, the other 99% of the time that people use this word, they’re using it as a scam--though usually not intentionally. There are many wannabes that have great ideas and think that ideas sell. They do not. Think of the most famous singers in the world. They are not famous because they’re good at singing. They’re famous because they have an amazing and powerful marketing team, “backup” singers, and trained studio engineers that can autotune a recording of a piano falling down a flight of stairs into The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Anyone old enough to remember when Milli Vanilli got caught lip syncing? Their careers were over. But notice that no one cared who the real singers were? It wasn’t music that made them famous. It was a colossal marketing machine behind them.

Now some people who don’t understand this reality might think that their ideas are so great, that it will make them famous even without marketing. Maybe they think that investors sit around looking for that one story that’s so incredibly amazing that as soon as they hear it, they’re going to open up their pocket books and invest. Now, the music biz and the writers biz are radically different. Writing really is all about the words rather than the image of the writer. Eventually this great idea is going to have to be put down and presented in a medium appropriate for consumption. This is the point where the idea haver should get to writing and be prepared for the long haul. But the wannabe isn’t patient enough for that. So instead of investing the time and effort into turning their ideas into great stories, they decided to find Ghost Writers to do 99% of the work and split the profits with. This is the equivalent of driving someone to a job interview in exchange for them splitting their pay check for a year with you if they get hired.

Maybe you’re a wannabe reading this thinking, “Yeah, but my idea really is good. And I’d totally tell the writer what to put all the way so I’d be working too. In fact, I even have the whole story outlined already. I just need someone to actually write it. It’s really funny. It’s a true story. Everyone I tell this story to thinks it’s awesome.”

I wrote my first novel when I was 14. That would have been in 1987 to give some reference. My novel was about a young boy that went to a special kind a school for wizards. His teachers taught him how to brew potions and cast spells and what not. The school wasn’t very safe for him, however. He had a mysterious enemy that was always sending henchman after him to kill him. So, why is Harry Potter a household name and Maxwell Silver is not?

Well, for one, JK Rowling and I are not the only ones with this identical idea for a story. I’m sure thousands of writers have come up with this exact idea long before I ever started writing, what I thought at the time, was an original story. For Rowling, she was able to take a classic story, write it in a very clear and easy to read way, and build characters that were interesting to follow. Writing well is so important for a good story that I will even go as far as to say that the idea for the story itself is close to meaningless.

Building a Culture, pt 4

This series has focused on religion. Of course religion is only part of culture. I also want to point out that culture is generally not created by one person. But rather it’s a series of efforts over long periods of time that shape social behavior. These movements in cultural development could start out as folklore: cautionary tales, bedtime stories, and the like. They could also be part of mate selection. Parents(in addition to society in general) might pressure their children to select mates that follow the cultural rules. Prestige versus shame can shape behavior as well to keep people inline with cultural rules of conduct. One hunting tribe might honor the hunter who brings in big kills to encourage hunters to compete and work hard provide for the tribe. While another tribe might insult the hunter or belittle his accomplishments to keep him humble in an attempt to prevent jealousy and conflict. Two radically different behaviors. Each designed to solve totally different problems.

Now, let’s look at environmental conditions that could cause problems for a society to solve. First thing, they’re going to want food. The second thing is water. Water can be more problematic. Humans use an enormous amount of it from drinking, cleaning, bathing, cooking, and sanitation. Third, shelter, and forth security. These are essentially the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Culture will be designed around making sure these bases are covered. If you don’t believe me, try not having a job or means to support yourself and see how well society treats you. Not too good. That is because our culture shames people that do not follow the rules. And notice, these rules are not written down anywhere officially. We follow them because “that’s just the way it’s done” without giving it much though and then teach them to the next generation.

Now, let’s talk about some real world environmental differences and how they affect culture. China is a very old civilization, plagued by earthquakes causing their people to constantly rebuild after unpredictable disasters. Their culture emphasizes harmony and cooperation, this allows them to better work together to keep order in a chaotic natural environment. European colonists that came to North America saw this land as a mineral rich, underdeveloped nation. American culture stressed Manifest Destiny, rapid expansion, the American Dream, and consumption in the early days. Of those, consumption and entrepreneurialship persist. Our culture emphasizes rapid growth. Japan has a large population, densely packed on a small island, much of which is uninhabitable mountain. Japanese culture is very rigid with lots of rules governing honor and codes of fighting in an effort to maintain order. Japanese culture emphasizes social harmony in a resource limited environment. India, another densely populated area of the world uses a caste system to minimize interaction and thus limit personal conflict.

Oh, let’s not forget counter culture. In China, you have groups that protest against their government, when they feel their rights are more important than the maintaining of harmony. In American culture, we have groups that want to limit consumption or want to conserve, be it natural resources, the environment, or animals. There’s lots of examples of Japanese rebellion counter culture that can seem strange to the rest of us. The caste system in India is becoming a thing of the past. All of these examples are gross simplifications of extremely complex regions of the world. But hopefully you see where I’m going with this.

Food, Water, Shelter, and Security are the main issues that humans will develop culture to deal with. No two environments will be exactly the same, thus no two societies will have exactly the same culture. Now, Although this is the foundation of culture, this doesn’t cover music, dress styles, food preparation, ceremonies--the stuff people generally think of when they think about culture. Most of us in American Culture decorate Christmas Trees, don’t wear white after Labor Day, say “Bless you” after someone sneezes, and celebrate American Independence by shooting off fireworks made in other countries. This is all pretty weird stuff. And although it’s important to us, none of it solves problems in our environment. So how does this fit into things? These are all temporary elements of culture, that, while fun to participate in, may all go away two hundred years from now and be replaced with completely new, and equally strange customs. As you write your fictional world, you should be able to make up as much weird customs as you want, mixing and matching from other cultures, as long as these don’t conflict with the foundational, problem solving cultural base.

Ok, let’s close with how speculative elements can affect culture. Magic and high technology are tools that will first be used to solve basic problems much like culture does. Wizards and sorcerers are going to be a lot more interested in doing practical things like automating farm work, channeling out aqueducts, constructing housing, and maintaining order than they are in... well just about everything that they seem to do in stories. Nearly every fantasy story out there has wizards obsessed with war and combat related magic. This is not realistic. Now, you might be thinking that fantasy, by definition, is not supposed to be realistic: that defeats the entire purpose. True, but I think global culture is changing. And the epic fantasy that captivated fans of Tolkien is slowly being replaced by a harder, grittier, and more realistic brand of speculative fiction. That’s my hope at least.

This concludes my thoughts on building culture from the ground up. I hope it was helpful. I’d love to hear any thoughts on it. Next week, lets take a break from world building and get back into writing.

Building a Culture, pt 3

Last week, we talked about a pre-industrialized, Polytheistic society. As a society starts to industrialize, it needs to be able to formally educate its people. Through scientific understanding of the world, a society stops believing in things like Gods who drive a sun chariot across the sky and starts relying on science to explain the natural world. There are still things that no amount of technology can control and no amount of science can explain--death and human behavior. So how does society deal with such a gap? This is where Monotheism steps in.

Unlike Polytheism, Monotheism doesn't attempt to explain why the wind blows, the grass grows, and a river flows. It needs only deal with good versus evil behavior and what happens when we die. Interestingly enough, these two are usually related in Monotheistic religions--unlike Polytheistic religions where your after life is usually the same no matter what your moralistic behavior. Monotheistic religions stress rules that govern moral behavior. When a member of a society breaks these rules, they are considered evil and their after life is a reward or consequence of that behavior.

Fantasy writers tend to either focus on fictional medieval to prehistoric settings or on modern day, alternative Earth settings, aka, Urban Fantasy. So there isn't much more to say about Monotheism in this regard that isn't common knowledge. It's important, perhaps as we look at religion and it's place in Sci Fi.

Predicting the future of religion is about as difficult as predicting future hairstyles. Many Sci Fi writers either continue modern day religion, ignore religion completely, or revert back to Polytheism or Animism--which may or may not make sense in a society of advanced technology. The best bet here is to remember that religion, like culture, evolves to fill a need. So ask yourself when looking at the future, fictional society you're writing about: what rules of behavior does the society need to function?

Ok, so we've covered the big, over arching theory of Cultural Functionalism. But good writing is often about the details. How about next week, we cover how speculative elements of magic and space ships might affect those details.

Building a Culture, pt 2

We last left our budding culture at the Animist stage. In nearly every hunting and gathering society in history, the men hunt and the women gather. There’s some cross over. But in general, this is about as far as the division of labor goes. Women generally learn to make baskets to aid in gathering and, although this is highly skilled labor, it’s something that all women in that culture will learn to do just as all men will learn to make better hunting tools.

But as a society grows, so does its needs. Eventually, the material goods produced by a growing society become varied enough, that our tribe of generalists will need to start specializing. There’s pottery to craft, clothing to stitch, meat to smoke, beads to trade for, and crops to sow. That brings us to the rise of agriculture. This seems to be the stage where labor first becomes highly stratified and a growing culture turns from animism to polytheism. Of course there are always some stubborn cultures in history that buck this trend--many Native American tribes from the central plains for example which made the jump to polytheism without agriculture. But for the most part, once a society stratifies, so must its culture.

But as a side note, let’s discuss agriculture as there’s a misconception to clear up. We tend to think growing our food instead of hunting and gathering it is somehow better or more civilized. This is not the case. In fact farming is the less valuable alternative in nearly every way. Farming is a lot more work. It’s high yield, and high risk. That means when crops fail, there’s mass starvation. You’re also stuck, imprisoned if you will, to stay near your field to tend and protect it for long periods of time. And once you harvest your food and store much of it over the winter, you have to constantly keep it protected from bandits. This leads to cities and walls and armies and all kinds of hassle. Under no circumstance would any sane group of people chose farming over hunting and gathering, except for one. Hunting and gathering can’t sustain more than a small group in an area. Do not make the mistake of having your small fictional tribe see agriculture for the first time and think it’s a good idea if they can get by just fine hunting and gathering.

So as our society turns into specialists, they develop Gods and Demigods that equally specialize in different parts of the cosmos that need to be tended to. You might expect at this point, a society will develop Gods that do the same things they do. For example, a God of Basket Weaving, a God of Carrying Water for the Village, etc. But we all know this is not the case. Gods are, instead, created to personify things that the average individual cannot easily control: natural phenomenon, human behavior, acquisition of wealth and luxury goods, luck or misfortune, etc. Consider the most famous Gods and Goddesses cross culturally: Zeus is the God of Thunder and Lightning, Isis the Goddess of Fertility, Quetzalcoatl is the God of the Sun, Loki is the God of Mischief and Misfortune, Mars is the God of War, Lakshmi is the Goddess of Fortune and Beauty, and on it goes. Once these Gods are created, individuals can do things to gain favor with them in an effort to have some control over what they represent. Roman soldiers may pray to Mars. Egyptian farmers may pray to Isis. Hindu shop owners may pray to Lakshmi while Norse ones try to avoid attracting the attention of Loki.

Speaking of praying, notice that a shaman reaching trance state to commune with spirits is not terribly different from meditating to find inner peace or wisdom which is not terribly different from praying to a God. Do not make the mistake of assuming one is better or more civilized than another. They are simply different methods to achievement the same results of having more control over what is otherwise unpredictable. But notice how natural a transition it is.

So consider this when creating Gods in your agriculture, pre-industrialized based society. What aspects of their world will individuals want more control over? Up next: monotheism and the industrial revolution.

Building a Culture, pt 1

For the next several posts, we’re going to take a step back from writing and talk about planning. Specifically, this series of posts is about creating a back story for a fictional culture--be it science fiction or fantasy. Too often writers pick pre-existing Earth civilizations, change the names, plop in some magic, elves, spaceships, or ray guns, and just sort of hope for the best. In this series, I’m going to try and help you avoid culture cloning by sharing the fundamental building blocks of cultural theory.

Ok, let’s start by discussing what the point of culture is in the first place. If you’re an American like I am, or are familiar with our culture, you might know we are obsessed with freedom and prestige. We are a consumption based society and our culture reinforces the need to keep people spending. Every Anthropologist eventually sets upon the task of defining the word culture. Here is mine--a social construct created to solve problems unique to the geographic environment of the society. America is a land rich in resources. We need a culture that inspires production and consumption. Ok, before I get into too much trouble here, let’s move on to the very basics in human cultural development.

At first in our social evolutionary journey, humans scavenged. We hid up in trees to keep away from possibly lion-like predators at night. During the day, we used rocks to smash open the long bones of discarded carcasses to suck out protein rich marrow. We lacked the fangs, claws, tusks, speed, etc, of the other animals. Instead, we used our big brains to make us efficient hiders and scavengers. This is an important point because a brain is extremely inefficient. It takes an enormous amount of energy and protein to maintain. That means humans have to eat a lot of high protein meat without having the means to kill. In designing your Sci Fi alien people with claws, fangs, and all the other things that would have made having a large brain unnecessary for survival, consider that.

After hundreds of thousands of years of alternating between scavenging and being lunch, humans did learn to make weapons to kill and hunt and thus our place on the food chain shifted upward. This is where we start to see how our adaptation of having a big brain is starting to pay off. Hunting with spears and clubs is not very efficient, however. It takes a high level of luck and skill. There aren’t always animals around. Many of them run really, really fast and aren’t nice enough to hold still for you while you throw your spear at them. This is the point where humans(or alien / fantasy sentient beings) are going to seek ways to control that luck. How, might you ask? Through superstition and magic. A prime example, let’s look at modern day hockey players who use magic.

Like most athletes, hockey players on winning streaks might do things like eat the same foods, wear the same everyday clothes to the game, refuse to shower or wash their uniforms, refuse to shave during the playoffs, etc. Some players may tap their goalie’s pads with their sticks, refuse to touch the Stanley Cup unless they’ve previously won it, uh, what else? On and on the list goes. Through today’s rationale, we call this silly superstition. But this is ritualized practice of magic. It’s no different from a shaman consulting spirits to gain information about herd migrations, which holistic medicine to give the sick, influence of the weather, or other highly unpredictable events of which have high stakes. Whether it’s million dollar sports endorsements or survival, humans will turn towards the supernatural to influence their outcome. Now, hockey players live in a complex society like the rest of us, so they have multiple levels of social constructs. That’s because hockey players, though under a lot of pressure to play well, are not also under pressure to find food and shelter. So they have different levels of needs, and thus different layers of social constructions to solve these problems. But if you’re living in a cave or mud hut and your primary source of food is hunting and what you can gather as you migrate, then you have no reason to develop any higher level of social construction than animism and shamanism.

Ok, so at what point will a society advance to polytheism? Let’s say you want to build a society like the ancient Greeks and you want a God of the Sun, Hunt, Music, War, and all that good stuff. That’s where we’ll start for next week.

Research What You Write

Along with "Show, don't tell," comes the all time great writer advice hit: "Write what you know." Too often, this is taken as a restriction to mean you can only write about what you know. But the reverse should also be true: "Research what you want to write about." A writer should not live in a bubble, writing about whatever passes by. A writer should explore.

Since stories are about people, writers should explore people and all the many places they are encountered. I like to do something I call field work. Field work for a writer means going out to environments I'm not all that familiar with and observing human reactions and interactions. Which of these places are you familiar with? A church, grocery store, a traffic court room, the field at a little league game, a mall, a homeless shelter, a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room, a popular park playground, a political rally... think of all the public places you could go to observe human behavior. Now bring your notepad with you, and try and observe the goals of each person there. Does everyone have the same goal? Who are the people that participate the most? Who holds back? Can you observe a difference?

As a writer, you need to start training yourself to pick up details about people. If you're not used to doing this, your first attempt at field work might not produce much. But as you get better at it, you'll observe quite a lot. These details you pick up will really make your writing come alive.

Hopefully, you either went after a college degree or are considering one. Many writers naturally gravitated towards an English degree. If that's your choice, I would strongly recommend at least taking some classes in Psychology and / or social behavior of some kind. As a Sci Fi / Fantasy writer, I chose to get my BA in Anthropology because I wanted to be able to create fiction cultures from the ground up without having to base them on a pre-existing Earth culture.

Speaking of SFF cultures, how about next week I talk about how to create a fantasy culture from the ground up.

Narrative Voice

One thing that's pounded into the heads of us writers is the phrase "Show, don't tell." When I first started writing, I increasingly took this to such an extreme that I never mentioned what the characters were feeling, but rather described their facial features and body language. The problem I had with this, is that my audience didn't always share the same level of attention to such things as I do, and thus, might not be able to relate to what I was trying to say.

As such, I've had to experiment a lot with the right narrative voice that accomplished what I wanted. Interestingly enough, I've found that some stories are best suited with different writing styles, so you should never feel limited by picking one and using it for all your stories. Let's go through some styles and talk about how they might best be used.

Third Person, Observant is the style I first described. This can be effective for short stories, prologues, or other disconnected scenes where the audience is not meant to get too attached to the characters. It's rare you, as an author would actually desire this effect, but it does have its places.

Third Person, Omniscient is the most powerful. The author jumps from character to character, describing what is important to the story at the time. I called this powerful because the author can stay with a single character or group for a while, then switch over to somewhere else, advance that for a while, etc. This is primarily how tv shows, movies, and most novels work.

Third Person, Limited is where you stick with just one person. As the name suggests, it's far more limiting, but let me explain why I like it better. If you stick with one character, the reader will better connect with and feel invested in that character. The reader learns what the main character learns at the same time. This can create a bond between protagonist and reader. Both Omniscient and Limited allows mention of the moods and feelings of the characters where Observant does not.

Lastly, I'll mention First Person. It's a style I recently started vigorously using. What I like about it, is it gives me incredible control over the telling of emotional reactions the protagonist has. This is very helpful for stories that spend a significant chunk of time taking place in the main character's mind. A big disadvantage of this style is the protagonist, being the narrator, can only describe what they know, and through the prism that they understand it. This can be good in that the reader can get a sense of the character in how they see the world, but it can be bad if you need to tell the reader something that the narrator wouldn't know or care enough to think about.

I sometimes get around this problem by mentioning observant things(similar to the first narration style I mentioned), that the narrator observes and describes in a way that the reader would understand, even if the narrator doesn't. This can sometimes even be done quite humorously. For example, if a young child is the narrator and walks in on his or her parents and decides the parents are wrestling on the bed. We, the readers, know what's happening. The author knows what's happening. But the narrator does not.

Let's look at a story about Claire and see what might work best for it. So far, I've used Third Person, Limited in all the short examples I've given on this blog. But as she feels alone in the cafe from the last example, I could chose to write about a nice guy sitting on the other side of the cafe, that Claire is not yet aware of. I could jump to his perspective and describe what he's also feeling alone. This would be Omniscient instead of Limited. What I could do with this, is build tension in that the reader, if sympathetic to Claire, will hope the two meet. When they miss a connection, we have the makings of what could be an interesting love story. If Claire isn't aware of this nice young man, such a story would be incredibly difficult to write unless I wrote it from the man's perspective, or through Third Person, Omniscient.

Lastly, it's important that you pick one style and use it consistently throughout your story. Some novelists, myself included, break this rule with regards to Prologues and Epilogues. I will often write my Prologues in Third Person, Observant to get a basic setting down through a short story. I won't use the main characters in the Prologue again as main characters for the rest of my novel, if at all. As such, I use Observant perspective so the reader feels disconnected from them.

Speaking of phrases being pounded into us, how about "Write what you know"? Next week, I'll talk about what to do if what you know is not what you want to write about.

Character Sketches

So last week I said a writer should never suffer from writer's block. Writers that do, do so because they focus too much on the story and how to advance it. This is the wrong approach. In my first post, I said that stories are about people. This is so true, that writing the characters should come before writing the story.

So put on hold that story idea you've been kicking around in your head, and think of a character. Let's use Claire. I think of her as a college student. Maybe she's in art school, but she has some other secret ambition. Hmm, contradiction can often make very compelling characters. Maybe she's a good person, but her mom drank, and she's scared of ending up like her. Like a lot of young adults, she'd like to change the world for the better, but she's not sure how to start. Ok, we have a basic personality, a little background, and a life long goal.

Now let's make another character. Let's call him Bob. Bob can be a little obnoxious, but he uses it as a defense mechanism. He's a college student too, working towards his MBA. He feels pressured to be a corporate heavy weight just like the old man and he tells everyone, including himself, that he wants that too. He tells people how he's going to take over the world. But deep down inside, what he really wants to do is _______.

These two characters might actually get along if both are patient in getting to know the other, but very likely they won't at first. Now, we can put them in a scene together where there's bound to be some conflict and just write what we think would happen. Can you picture Bob saying something obnoxious and Claire being put off by it? Maybe Claire says something idealistic and Bob rolls his eyes at her. We already have some tension. See how easy that was?

One of the things I found useful, I started writing down unusual physical and behavior traits of real people I knew. It can be fun to mix and match characteristics from people you observe or know in real life.

Next week, I'll talk about tone and point of view styles. In the meantime, it's not a bad idea to make list of character sketches, even if you don't have a story in mind to plop them in yet.

Poetic Devices

Poetry, like art, is difficult to define. My definition of poetry is to call it an indirect telling of an idea through imagery and emotions rather than direct and simple communication. A poetic device could be rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, simile, or a vast other number of things. But for this week, let’s just focus on those last two, and how to use them effectively outside of poetry and put them in prose.

Let’s take poor Claire out of that dark alleyway and put her some place more pleasant.

"Claire entered the open air cafe. The scent of oven baked strudel and imported Dusseldorf flour wrapped around her like a blanket in the mid morning air. She plopped herself down at the only available table.

To her right, a young couple held hands. The man brushed his thumbs back and forth across the woman’s pale skin while he stared into her caramel eyes. Beside them, two children giggled as their father told stories and made faces. To her left, a young woman cradled her swollen belly in her arms as she sat. A man rested his hand on her belly and smiled at her.

Claire twirled her finger through her Washington Apple red hair as she looked at her table. Three empty chairs stared back at her."

Let’s start with the poetic devices I used. Air isn’t a blanket, but with this simile, I’m telling you that Claire feels comfortable and safe here. I have no idea if they make flour in Dusseldorf, but it puts in the reader’s mind some far away place. Of course, I might use a different place if I was selling this article to a German based publication. Right after, I use the carefree verb “plop” to let you know her mood is a pleasant one. The next paragraph is all about pleasant things without any tension or intrigue. This is where I can start to lose readers if I don't start making things interesting. Most people can only take so much warmth and fuzziness before they get bored. The hook I use is to throw in some contrast to this happy image.

I compare her hair to Washington Apples in the next paragraph. What exact shade of red is a Washington Apple? I don’t know. It’s not important. I used it because it does a couple things for me. One, apples are pleasant and gives us a good feeling about Claire. And two, it contrasts the name of a German city with an American symbol. What I’m saying here is that Claire is an American in a foreign environment. She might be in a foreign country or just down the block from her apartment. So far, it doesn’t matter. It’s the contrast that she doesn’t quite fit in. And although she’s content with that at first, her mood starts to change.

If I’ve done my job as a writer, this will really hit home when I mentioned the chairs are empty. Chairs can’t stare at anything. This is a sort of metaphor in that I’m personifying the chairs at the same time calling them empty and devoid of life or companionship. The table was available, so we already knew the chairs would be empty, but the fact that I said so, should let the reader know how alone Claire suddenly feels despite being around so many happy people. I chose to describe the other people as in various cycles of romantic life: a couple in love, a pregnant woman excited about her future, and a father with his children. Claire is feeling left out.

I could have easily just said Claire went to a cafe, saw other people in love, and felt lonely. But this really short opening scene has a lot more impact because of the imagery. The two poetic devices I used also packed a lot of meaning into very few words--and right where I needed them.

Now, none of this matters if you, as a fellow writer, don’t know what you want to write about. Next week, I’ll go over why writer’s block is something no writer should ever have to suffer with and how to get writing immediately without stopping.

Rhythm in Writing

New fiction writers often don't consider the difference between words and meaning. Think of words as containers that carry meaning. A high words to meaning ratio can often slow the pace. Ever listen to someone spend an hour saying 5 minutes worth of information? You feel like you're going to die of boredom. The reverse isn't always true. A high meaning to word ratio can speed up the pace, but slow down the reader as they try and keep track of the chaos, even if all the details are there. Ever listen to someone tell you an exciting story but you need to sit down and digest everything before it registers?

There is a balance, but that balance shifts back and forth dynamically. When someone tells a good joke, they slow down and take their time with the set up. When the teller is ready to give the punch line, they give it quickly and clearly.

Writers sometimes have trouble recognizing what rhythm they should use at what point and what mechanics are involved in changing rhythm. Let's look at how this effect is done in film. Character and world building moments are done with long takes. Often, directors use close ups of characters to show their emotions so we get an idea of their character through how they react to events. Something sad happens and we get a close up of the protagonist looking sad so we sympathize. We get a close up of the antagonist's face, who isn't sad so we know that's the villain. In these scenes, the camera stays on one person or scene for long periods of time so we have time to soak up the emotions of the moment. When action scenes happen, the director uses a lot of cuts or camera angle changes to give us the illusion everything is happening quickly. Rarely in action scenes is new information given. But when it is--like if a character pulls out a hidden knife in the middle of a fight--the camera will focus on the knife for a longer period of time, so we can adjust to the new reality of the scene. Once enough time is given for us to accept there is now a knife involved, then the scene proceeds as before with fast camera angle changes until the action stops or slows.

This same technique can be done in writing. Use of short, choppy sentences forces us to use a high meaning to word ratio. This is great for fast action scenes. Let's carry on the example from last week with poor Claire in the alley way.

"The man steps from the shadows. An old scar cuts into the side of his face. He pounds his fingerless gloved fist against his palm as he stares at her.

Claire scans the dark alley. Beside her, the broken leg of an old wooden chair lays discarded. He steps towards her. She brings her fists up to block her face. The man swings a right cross. Claire ducks in time. The wind from the blow rips at her short, crimson hair. She dives for the chair leg, holding the splintered end towards the man. He reaches into his coat and pulls out a knife. The blade's cold steel glistens in the moonlight."

First off, let me say, had I been writing this as a real story, I wouldn't use uncreative, cliches like physical disfigurements and fingerless gloves to identify the man as a villain, but you get the point of what I'm doing here. Notice how I switch between short, choppy sentences for action, then I use a longer sentence to slip some detail about the characters in between? It serves a dual purpose. It gives a sense of a brief passage of time in between attacks, and gives the reader some details. If a reader can't picture the scene, it doesn't have any impact.

But there are other, non action, times you want to pack a lot of meaning in a short period without choppy sentences. For example: describing side characters and scenery in places where you don't want to distract the reader too much from the important stuff. You want the reader to be able to picture a scene, but the scene isn't the story. Next week, I'll talk about how to use poetic devices to accomplish this.

Stories Are About People

"It was a dark and stormy night."

Other than being a horrible cliche, this classic, terrible story opener fails to do the most basic thing an opening line is designed to do: grab the reader. No one wants to read stories about the weather. So how do you grab the reader in one line?

Humans are social creatures. We are naturally curious about other people--even fictional ones. As such, an opening line about a person in a sympathetic situation should do the trick. Imagine a story that starts out...

"Claire was running out of time. She squeezed at the small puncture on her arm. Her vision blurred as she peered around the corner in the dark alley. The silhouette of a man stood between her and freedom."

The first sentence gives us both a person to root for and some tension. We, as readers, are conditioned into thinking the first character introduced is generally the protagonist. Therefore, we already know to root for Claire by the end of the first sentence.

What's coursing through her veins? We assume it's poison. Maybe she was drugged or bitten. At this point, it's not explained in detail. Why? Because that's not important right now. What is important is that the protagonist is in trouble, the situation seems desperate, and there's a shadowy figure that serves as an obstacle Claire will need to overcome before time runs out.