Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Top 5 Writing Tips

Let me begin by clearly stating that I am not qualified to teach creative writing; nor do I present myself as an editor or adviser.

But I've been writing in one form or another for most of my life. To my great relief, the feedback from readers has been generally positive. Along the way, a number of folks far more skilled than I--teachers, blogger/reviewers, editors, publishers, readers, and other writers--have been more than generous in sharing their considerable expertise. I learned long ago that literary people are--by nature--kindly souls who derive great satisfaction from helping others perfect their craft. While perfection continues to elude me, I can state with absolute certainty that I give writing my very best effort every time I sit down at the keyboard. THAT commitment will NEVER change no matter where my writing pursuits take me.

So, what have I learned? I've boiled those accumulated nuggets of wisdom down to a series of guidelines I strive to follow during my writing frenzies. While this is by no means complete, I've assembled a Top 5 Writing Tips List for your perusal.

If this humble offering assists even one author, I'll consider this post a worthwhile investment.

Here goes (in no particular order):

1. Overwrite your characters.
As they say in the great state of Texas, make them LARGER THAN LIFE.  Make them huge; make them bombastic; make them breathe fire and spit nails; make them deep, wide, long, and bursting at the seams with quirks and idiosyncrasies.

There's nothing more boring to a reader than a colorless, dull, listless drone taking up page space.  In fact, such a character has no place in a work of fiction at all.

By design, I painted the principal players in "Child of Privilege" with very vivid strokes:

Following in the grand tradition of literary louses, Richard Van Werner redefines evil.  :(

Some various descriptions: white-hot-steel-in-your-lower-intestines nasty; an extreme "Type A" semi-humanoid turbo-obsessed with winning and destroying all competition; patriarchal monarch; unprincipled bastard; despicable woman-beater; all-around predator and psychotic.  Why bring a monster like this into my novel?  What's the one thing people remember most about the legendary Dallas prime-time soap?  Of course, it's J.R. Ewing, villain extraordinaire.  Despite not having a likable bone in his body, the late Larry Hagman's character created a buzz that continues to this day.

For a moment, imagine the consequences of an alliance between J.R. and Richard Van Werner: even Superman, Marshall Dillon, Thomas the Tank Engine, Batman, The Lone Ranger, and Mister Rogers (plus his entire Neighborhood) fighting side-by-side would be powerless to save us.

The entire world would be doomed.  Let's all hope that Richard and J.R. never get together!

Reavis Macklin was, quite simply, a nauseating excuse for a human being.  He was a crude, obnoxious, hormone-obsessed reptile who laughingly pictured himself as Mister Waaay Too Cool.  If not for his unfulfilled compulsions to please Richard and lay Dana, this vulgar buffoon would've been a waste of oxygen.

Dana was a lovable "girl next door" with an unmistakable edge.  She became so fed up with being victimized that she finally gave herself permission to fight back against anyone who gave her any more crap.  You can push a good woman only so far.  When she decides to fight back, you'll find yourself in some very deep doo-doo.  If you don't believe me, just ask Richard and Reavis.

Maggie was the ultimate doormat.  Soft-spoken, good-natured, submissive, and compliant, she was once cruelly described by Richard as marital "window dressing."  In a misguided bargain with the devil, she traded her body and soul for greenbacks and blue blood.  While she did achieve a sort of "consolation prize" revenge against her husband, that satisfaction cost her dearly.

A private investigator who secretly despised his boss, Angelo Saranello enjoyed the job security and income derived from his labors as Richard's personal henchman.  But he was continually doing inner battle with his values and morals.  While no kneecap was safe in his presence, his conscience finally got the best of him in a most tragic way.

Nothing boring in this ensemble, is there?  No bland, flavorless personalities either.  'Nuff said.

2. Take the long way home.
Aside from being the title of a 1970's rock 'n' roll hit by Supertramp, it's also a great way to keep your story alive, interesting, and moving.  An added benefit is the opportunity to heighten the suspense so vital to keeping a reader involved and turning the pages.  If I recall my Geometry (barely!), a line is the shortest distance between two points.  Well, that's great for drawing nice straight lines or for reducing your gasoline consumption while driving.

In constructing a storyline, the shortest distance between two points is the LAST thing you want.  Rather:

  • Take side trips; they represent golden opportunities to unfold intriguing plot complications.
  • Follow detours; they provide great devices for introducing antagonists just itching to make your hero's (or heroine's) life more miserable.
  • Explore the side roads out in the middle of literary nowhere; they're perfect locales for heightening suspense and adding urgency to your storyline.
  • Take those lesser-traveled back-roads; they make ideal routes to unexpected and plot-enhancing twists.
Remember, you're not racing to reach "THE END."  You're striving to tell a textured, multi-layered story.  Take some time to explore the landscape.  You never know what might be waiting behind that next unmapped bend in your story.

3. BE your characters.
What has become one of my favorite (and admittedly most bizarre) writing practices is my "acting out" of many scenes in my living room.

During these impromptu "performances," I ask myself a number of questions:

  • Are the characters' physical movements plausible and realistic as scripted? (If a character is currently depicted as lying flat on the floor, and then swinging from a chandelier 5 seconds later, there's a transitional issue that needs to be addressed)
  • Does the dialogue sound like "normal-people-speak?"  Is there too much dialogue?  Too little?  Is there too much narrative?  Too little?  Is the scene too long or too short?
  • Is the language appropriate? (Anyone who has read "Child of Privilege" knows I'm not afraid to use street language (gasp!) when it's germane to the characters or to the scene)
Only when a scene feels "right" in my "living room theater" will it be included in the final manuscript.

4.  Put faces on the names.
While it's necessary to describe a character's physical appearance, I like to take that to another level.  If at all possible, I like to mentally "cast" my players (as though I were casting a hypothetical movie version) using the faces of the thousands of actors and actresses I've seen through the years.

I did just that with "Child."

I've found that it lends an additional dimension of humanity to my characters which aids me tremendously in my writing.  I not only write my characters' words, but I also "hear" them and "see their faces" (in my mind's eye) as they execute their dialogue and subplots.

Maybe it shows in the finished product; maybe it doesn't.  I'll leave that judgement to the reader.  But it helps me as a writer to develop and showcase my players' personalities.

Just for grins, meet the hypothetical cast of the hypothetical "Child of Privilege - The Movie":

Richard Van Werner: Nick Nolte
Dana Van Werner: Reese Witherspoon
Maggie Van Werner: Dana Delany
Angelo Saranello: Sylvester Stallone
Reavis Macklin: Richard Grieco

I'm working on my acceptance speech for the awards ceremonies in Hollywood ... not.

I know, I know; I'm delusional.

5. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
An English teacher I greatly respected advised me once, "Conflict is the root of all good fiction."

Let's face it: how many folks would want to read a story in which the lead character's life is totally joyous, fulfilling, harmonious, and devoid of any problems, hardship, and pain?


Even television's happiest families--the Waltons, the Nelsons, the Cleavers, the Bradys, et al--tangled with each other (or someone else) every week, for cryin' out loud!

To quote that venerable fast-food commercial: "Where's the beef?"

The meat of a gripping story consists of the villains, trials, tribulations, pain, tears, despair, friends, and enemies that surround a lead character who must overcome them all in order to ride off into the sunset with a hard-earned happily ever after:)

A tall order?  Perhaps.

But here's my favorite recipe: cook up multiple antagonists, multiple conflicts, and plenty of neck-breaking plot twists, each one tightening the noose around your hero's/heroine's neck; sprinkle in some supporting players on both sides of each conflict; then top it all off with a climax that finishes the story into a neat, seasoned tale that grills up lean and juicy.

You're now ready to proudly serve it to your readers.  They'll thank you for a tasty, satisfying, literary meal they'll savor for hours afterward.

In writing, conflict is good.

There you have it: writing stuff that they'll never teach you in school ... for good reason.

Now I'll spend the rest of my evening working on that acceptance speech.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Your comment here