Class three has come and gone, only one week left...
Again the information came thick and fast, with the teacher constantly saying "does everyone understand this?" We're all nodding and yes-ing, well, I was, then again, "does that make sense?", more nodding and yes-ing....a couple of questions from others as I tried to scribble down everything I'd just heard.
By the time I got home, my brain was pure mashed potato, not a single coherent thought.
So here's what I think I learned:
Many writers, especially new writers, use what is known as "life preservers."
Which means they write pieces that are too standard, too bland, mediocre; pieces that could double as school reports; pretty much the same stuff that every one else out there is writing. Tried and true concepts that are used again and again.
If you are entering a piece in a competition, these pieces will put the judges to sleep.
You need something different, something creative, something that will "hook" the judges right from the beginning.
Start with an old standard type story if you have to, then edit and change, get creative, add a twist or two.
Make it different.
This was emphasised by a story she had us read from a new writer who had been short-listed seven times, then won a competition in Writing Magazine (British**) with a story in the "holiday" category.
It really is a very good story and after reading it, I kind of felt like a five year old who would probably write "on my holiday I played with my cat."
She explained that your story needs a character with a distinct personality, (a 3D character, not flat) a strong plot, which is able to drive your character(s) through the conflict to a satisfactory resolution.
You need to be able to stay on track. One method is to not overthink at first, just write the whole thing, then go back and edit. Make sure everything matches with characters, details, timelines etc.
Write down every idea you ever have and file it somewhere. One day you may need one or two of these to pull together something in your current writing which isn't working as you'd hoped.
Details are important, if there is something a reader needs to know, some detail, then put it in where it belongs, not as an aside somewhere in chapter five.
With timelines again, if you are writing about a 45 year old character, go to your library and access the newspaper archives to find out what might have happened in the town/country/world at a time when this character might have been 5 or 10 years old. What kind of issues were around that might shape him into the character you are now writing about?
"Hooking" your reader is important.
A hook is something, that makes your reader want to keep reading. Something that makes the reader say/think to themselves, what's going on here, what will happen next? and turn the page, not close the book.
A hook in your very first chapter or even in your very first paragraph is good. You've grabbed your reader.
But don't stop there. You need to keep the reader interested. Another hook in paragraph two, maybe another in paragraph three, but then you need to write something which explains the first "hook", so the reader isn't left wondering..."but what about...?" Hooks are the questions in the readers mind and they need to be answered. But not immediately. That's too easy for the reader, who might then get bored.
Too many hooks without clarification might have your reader tossing aside the book because all you are doing is teasing them along. But still you need to be careful about inserting another "hook" before answering a previous one. You need to keep your reader hooked.
You want your book to be the one they "just can't put down."
* (me, personally)I remember reading something, somewhere, years ago, where the writer set a scene and for the rest of that first chapter gave nothing but detail, detail, detail, to the point where I was saying out loud, "for god's sake, get on with the story already!" It didn't happen, I read the entire short book waiting for something to happen, but closed it after the last page feeling very dissatisfied. That book went into the recycle bin. *
A writer also needs to be aware of stereotypes and avoid them if possible. Men aren't always burly outdoor types, women aren't always sweeping floors and baking cookies. If you find your characters doing this in every story you write, you may want to think about switching things around a bit.
Or a lot.
If, however, you are writing a piece, (story, book, poem) set in a particular era where that is the norm, then go ahead, but still "hook" your reader, perhaps with a character that doesn't fit the mold, someone who rebels, struggles against the way society says that character should behave.
(All this is good to learn and now I know pretty much where my own problem lies. All stories need a strong plot and some kind of conflict, (problem, struggle, issue) that the character must work through and resolve. I'm currently unable to create conflict. I'm not a highly emotional person and there hasn't been any conflict that I'm aware of in my life that I can draw upon.)
We learned that passive characters create a lack of conflict just as much as lack of conflict in your story will create passive, flat, characters. Your character(s) need to be challenged (conflict/struggle) to keep the story moving along.
(I'm a passive character, a drifter, not a fighter)
Another tip from our teacher was to buy a baby names book or two. One English and one other, maybe German or Irish, Russian, maybe, so if you are writing a story set in another country or based on immigrants, you can use appropriate names for your characters.
Again, this is where newspaper archives come in handy. Background detail on what might have shaped your character during his childhood or youth in a different country will help you write the character as he/she is now in this or some other country.
Much more information was given, which I tried to take in, but like I said earlier, I got home with a head filled with mashed potato.
Next week is the final class, where I will again take many notes and try to figure out how one creates plots and struggle with no personal base to draw upon. You might say, "copy other writers with what they've done, but in your own words." And maybe I could start there, but I think there's a danger in that, where I might end up writing something that has already been written thousands of times.
It's a little discouraging, but I'm not giving up just yet.
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