Monday, May 31, 2010

The Writer's Cardinal Rule: Show, Don't Tell

My creative writing instructors in college pounded one rule into my head with such vigor that sometimes I swear the echo lodged between my ears like an annoying Jiminy Cricket, chirping:


Abstracts and generalizations do little to flesh out a story. Instead, employ the five senses to describe the scene in real time. And do it through the character's POV. For example, let's pretend the character is a starving guttersnipe by the name of Smolliver. Let's drop him in a bakery. Since this is Smolliver's scene and his stomach is growling like a pit full of of rabid ligers, what will hit him first about the bakery, how "truly scrumptious" everything looks in the glass cases? No! Avoid excessive adjectives and vague descriptive phrases at all costs. Get into specifics. Personally, I'd start with the aroma of cinnamon buns hot from the oven and still dripping gooey frosting down the sides, but that's only because I have a sweet tooth for said gooey buns. Smolliver might be partial to buttermilk donuts.

To paraphrase one of my favorite instructors, Dr. Dean Hughes:

"Don’t claim a thing is magnificent, show it. And don’t use the word magnificent."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Found Poetry

Sometimes it's fun, even essential, to do something that has absolutely NOTHING to do with your current novel project in order to get the creative embers stoked. One such exercise is "Found" poetry, which takes words and phrases from other pieces of literature in order to create something new.

Here's an example I created using snippets from the Bible:

A Word Fitly Spoken (Proverbs 25:11)

Therefore Sarah laughed within herself (Genesis 18:12)
Oh that my words were now written!
Oh that they were printed in a book! (Job 19:23-24)

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places (Psalms 16:6)
Words to the end of the world (Psalms 19:4)
And it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness (Ezekiel 3:3)
As certain also of your poets have said. (Acts 17:28)

*You can also mix and match your own original work with other literature if you prefer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SO WHAT? The Sticky Finger Factor

When I read a novel, I don't want to be entertained, I want to be captivated, drawn like a sailor to shipwreck because I can't put the book down until the siren syllables let me go after the last page (sometimes not even then).

Which brings me to the question, how do I achieve this "Sticky Finger Factor" in my own novels? I believe part of the answer lies in two words my first creative writing instructor wrote on the board, two words that form the kernel of every story:


Or in other words, what is it about your protagonist/plot that will compel me to read more? Why should I give up a precious string of sixty seconds reading your sentence when I could be updating my Facebook status, watching yahoomovie trailers for the tenth time today, or making a scrumptious Pear Clafauti?

When the SO WHAT? of a character, chapter, scene, or even a line of dialogue is weak, the story suffers, because it's the stitch that binds everything together.

As a venerable dude once said, "Justify your existence!"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Character PSP

Part of the reason I started this writing blog was to organize the monstrous pile of notes I accumulated in college. So I've decided I'm going to start a collection of my favorite writing elements and exercises.

But first, I must give credit where it is due. I learned the following character exercise from the legendary Master Newel, creative writing teacher extraordinaire! Define the characters' PSP: physiology, sociology, and psychology. It's a great way to flesh out both major and minor characters.

By PHYSIOLOGY, I mean much more than their physical characteristics such as eye color, hair, height, or a petunia-shaped birthmark under their left armpit. I want to know their style of clothing and mannerisms. Do they have a tic, are they a frequent sneezer like Daniel Jackson in Stargate? Are they neat freaks constantly breaking out the hand soap or slovenly piglets who scatter crumbs in their wake? Do they have fifty piercings, tattoos, or none? Here's the most important question of all: why? Fleshing out the physiology can give you insight into the next two character sections.

By SOCIOLOGY, I mean the character's cultural upbringing, education and economic status. Were they raised in slums, suburbia, or in a palace sucking a chocolate-coated silver spoon? What level of education did they achieve? What was their family status--only child, adopted human with twenty reptilian siblings, neglected middle child in a set of sextuplets, etc.? What is their religious world view, if any? For example, do they believe in an afterlife, or do they even care? What makes them ashamed, what is taboo?

By PSYCHOLOGY, I mean their phobias, passions, and hobbies. What makes them tick? What's their biggest aspiration in life, to find the last twinkie on Earth or backpack in the Andes, or maybe just take over the universe? Do they have a temper or are they timid? Are they easily empathetic, or are they cold and distant because the tooth fairy skipped them as a child and they've held a grudge ever since? Given all these factors, how would they react if thrown into a lion's den? Would they cower in fear, tame the ravening beasties, or make fur coats? You get the idea.

*Now, I never use half the stuff I write down in this exercise in my actual novel, but knowing my characters' PSP helps me to round them out into more believable and unique individuals. Besides, it's fun!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Writer-friendly Environments

I dread sunny, summer days. They simply aren’t writer friendly! I can’t stand the way sunlight slips through the window and dribbles ultraviolet honey all over my keyboard as I tap away like a hunched monkey. Honestly, how can the ghosts in my brain, however lovely, beat the wealth of a star?