Ditch the Gimmicks & Tell the Story

I would like to give a big warm welcome to my friend and fellow writer, Steven James. Hope you enjoy his words of wisdom. :) Also, note to all of you. Be sure to come to my new website www.devinberglund.com for fun, inspiring posts about writing, life, traveling, and health. I will be moving there permanently and would love for you all to join me! P.S. I am giving away a book for free… and all you have to do is sign up to be on my mailing list. You can even do it here.

In fiction, story matters more than anything else.

Yet, all too often, authors forget this and in their zeal to impress readers or wow editors, they end up peppering their writing with distracting gimmicks that undermine the story.

Never let anything get between your story and your readers. Here are six ways to remove some of the most common stumbling blocks:

#1 – Tone down the symbolism

A few years ago I picked up a literary novel that everyone was talking about. In the first chapter there was a storm; in the second, someone was washing his hands; then a character was crying; then there was a baptism. I remember thinking, “Okay, I get it. Your image is water, your theme is cleansing, now get on with the story.”

And from that point on, guess what I was doing?

Yup.

Looking for the next way the writer was going to weave a water image into her story. And she delivered, scene after predictable scene.

As a reader I was no longer emotionally present in the story. I’d become a critic, an observer. And that’s definitely not what a storyteller wants her readers to do.

The more your readers are on the lookout for your images, your theme, your symbolism, and so on, the less they’ll be impacted by your story.

Rather than building your story around a theme (love, forgiveness, freedom, etc . . .) or advice (“Follow your dreams,” “Be true to your heart,” etc . . .) or a cliche (“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc . . .) drive your narrative forward through tension and moral dilemmas.

So, instead of using the theme “justice,” let the story ask the question “What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent?”

Rather than giving the advice “You should forgive others,” let your story explore the dilemma “How do I forgive someone who has done the unthinkable to someone I love?”

Let your story do more than reiterate the cliche “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.“ Instead, challenge that axiom by asking, “When do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?”

Respect your readers. Assume that they’re as smart as you are. If you can identify imagery, symbolism, theme and so on, expect that they will too. And as soon as they do they’ll be distracted from the story itself.

#2 – Stop trying to be clever

There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent.

So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change those sections or remove them.

Some writers shoot for humor by using speaker attributions like, “she joked,” “he quipped,” “he mentioned in his usual fun-loving way,” and so on. Don’t fall into this trap. If your story is funny, you don’t need to tell your readers. If it’s not funny, you don’t need to draw attention to the fact.

Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions. Their characters chortle, grunt, exclaim, reiterate, gasp, howl, hiss and bark. Whenever I read a book like this I find myself skimming through the dialogue just to see what the next synonym for “said” will be. Readers get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.

In the same way, inserting your authorial voice intrudes on the story.

Drop those antiquated, obscure or uncommon words unless they’re necessary for character development or for maintaing the narrator’s voice. This isn’t to say that you can’t write intelligent, incisive, challenging stories, but any time the meaning of an unfamiliar word isn’t immediately obvious within the context of the story, choose another word that won’t trip readers up. This is especially true as you build toward the story’s climax since the pace of the story needs to steadily increase.

Also, avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your research, your vocabulary, your plot structure, or your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina.

When readers pick up your book, they’re not preparing for a spelling bee or a doctoral dissertation or a medical exam; they’re hoping for an entertaining, believable story that will transport them to another world and move them on a deep, emotional level.

It’s your job to deliver.

#3 – Avoid contrived literary devices

Writing something like, “She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet,” might have impressed your high school English teacher, but it does nothing to serve readers in today’s marketable fiction.

As soon as readers notice the alliteration they’ll be distracted—whether they’re counting up the number of times you used the letter “c,” or rolling their eyes at your attempt to be clever, you’ve caused readers to momentarily disengage from your story. And that’s the last thing you want to do.

You don’t even want readers to admire your writing; you want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it. Anything that jars readers loose from the grip of the story needs to go, even if it seems to make the story appear more “literary.”

Weed out figures of speech that don’t serve the mood of the scene. During an airplane hijacking you wouldn’t write “the clouds outside the window were castles in the sky.” Castles carry a positive connotation and undermine the suspense in this story sequence. If you were to use a figure of speech, perhaps choose one that accentuates the tense mood: “the jet plummeted through the dungeon of clouds.”

Over the years I’ve heard of authors who’ve written books without punctuation, or without using the word “said,” or without quotation marks, or novels that contain an exact predetermined number of words. But by becoming more important to the author than the reader’s experience with the story, those artificial constraints handcuff it.

Whenever you break the rules or keep them, it must be for the benefit of readers. If your writing style or techniques get in the way of the story, cause readers to question what’s happening, analyze the writing, or page back through sections they’ve already read in order to understand the context, you’ve failed.

You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story. Any time you draw attention to the narrative tools at your disposal, you insert yourself into the story and cause readers to notice the curtain.

In order to improve their writing, most authors need to cut back on the literary devices they use (whether that’s assonance, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, overwrought similes, or whatever), rather than add more.

#4 – Keep readers from asking “why?”

A plot flaw is, simply put, a glitch in believability or causality. When a character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, or when one scene doesn’t naturally follow from the one that precedes it, readers will stumble.

Imagine that your protagonist hears that a killer is in the neighborhood and she decides to go make pasta. Readers will think, “What? Why doesn’t she lock the door, or call the police, or run to her car and get out of the area?”

Do you see what happened? At the very moment in your story where you want your readers to be drawn deeper into the narrative, they’ve pulled away and started to question your character’s actions, and, to some degree, your storytelling ability.

As soon as an event isn’t believable it becomes a distraction, so ask yourself, “Is there enough stimulus to motivate this action?” And then make sure that there is.

Always anticipate your readers’ response.

Try to step back and read the story as objectively as you can, through the eyes of a reader who has never seen it before. If you come to a place where you think, “Why doesn’t she just . . . ?” or “What?! That doesn’t make sense!” you’ll know you have some editing to do.

Pointing out the story’s plot flaws can often solve them. Have your character say something like, “I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing. It just didn’t compute.” Readers will think, “Yes, exactly! I thought the same thing! There’s more going on here than meets the eye.” The more you admit that the scene has a believability problem, the less readers will hold you responsible for it.

Make sure every special skill or gadget needed in the climax is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Coincidences drive a wedge in believability. Foreshadowing removes them. So if the diver suddenly needs a harpoon gun to fight off the killer barracuda and he reaches down and—how convenient!—has one, readers won’t buy it. Show us the harpoon gun earlier so it makes sense that he has it at the climactic fish battle.

#5 – Reevaluate your “hook”

Many well-meaning writing instructors will tell you that you need to start your story with a good “hook” to snag your readers’ attention. And they’re right.

To a certain extent.

While I was teaching at one writers conference a woman gave me her story for a critique. It started with an exciting car chase. I said, “Great, so this is an action story.”

“No,” she told me. “It’s a romance. The woman goes to the hospital and falls in love with the doctor.”

“But it starts with a car chase and explosion. Readers will expect it to escalate from there.”

“I had a different opening,” she admitted, “but my writing critique group told me I needed a good hook.”

It may have been true that her story needed a better hook, but she landed on the wrong one. Hooks become gimmicks if they don’t provide the platform for escalation.

An effective hook needs to do seven things:

1. Grab the readers’ attention.

  1. Introduce a character they care about.
  2. Set the story’s mood.
  3. Establish the storyteller’s voice.
  4. Orient readers to the world of the protagonist (and enable them to picture it).
  5. Lock in the genre.
  6. End in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on, but not introduce them to the characters or setting of the story. Consequently, she’s forced to insert excessive backstory that undermines the forward movement of the story. Take your time, trust your readers, orient them to the world of the story, and then drive the story forward without having to explain why you started it the way you did.

#6 – Answer readers’ questions as they arise

Never annoy your readers.

Sometimes I read books in which the author withholds information from readers “to create suspense.” But failing to give readers what they want doesn’t create suspense, it causes dissatisfaction.

For example, don’t leave a point-of-view character in the middle of an action sequence.

So, if, during a chase scene, you write (about your protagonist), “She careened around the bend and crashed into the cement pylon jutting up from the side of the road,” and then you close your chapter, readers will obviously want to find out if the woman is conscious, dead, etc . . .

But some writers will then jump to another point-of-view character, often in a less stressful situation, then come back to the woman in the car (or maybe she’s in the hospital by then) a chapter later.

If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section. That means that as you write you’ll constantly ask yourself what the readers want at this moment of the story.

Then give it to them, or surprise them with something even better.

799bb96230fe0e8c3cb120093b8266a9Steven James is the award- winning author of 30+ books including the critically acclaimed Patrick Bowers thriller series and the newly released Jevin Banks series. He has an MA in Storytelling, is a contributing editor to the Writer’s Digest, and has taught writing and creative communication around the world. When he’s not writing or speaking, you’ll find him trail running, rock climbing, or drinking a dark roast coffee near his home in eastern Tennessee.

Writers Can Learn MORE From Television Shows…

Photo Credit : The Walking Dead – AMC

__________________

Writers Can Learn MORE From Television Shows
Than Just Procrastinating From Writing

I am fond of certain television shows.

Do you have your shows that you love watching?

Are you a writer and do you enjoy watching certain television shows?

Do you ever wish you were as good of a writer as some of those script writers?

Do you want to know how to write like those script writers that can pull you into their story as easy as a witch waving her wand?

If you answered yes, I know a few points and hints that may help you!

The shows I have found myself drawn into are The Walking Dead, Switched At Birth, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars.

INTRIGUE & PASSION

There are funny moments in a show where I am sitting on the edge of my seat with my nails tearing the cushion because of the conflict in the writing. I know exactly when more conflict will enter the story. It’s as soon as good things start happening to characters.

eg. 24 – This show isn’t running anymore, but I have been watching it with Johan lately and when ever the characters have a chance of being safe or getting what they want. It is then, at that very moment that something bad happens. (MISSION: What does your character want Most?” In the first season, Jack Bauer’s wants his wife and daughter and when they are one step closer to being back together together what happens?

Something causes them to be seperated for longer. This reminds me of what Best-Time-Selling Author Steven James once told a bunch of writers at a Writer’s Conference, “What does your character want most? When you figure that out – tear that “Wanted” thing or person away from your character.”

“What does your character want most? When you figure that out – tear that “Wanted” thing or person away from your character.”

Television writers are really good at this. I hadn’t always been into tv shows, but it makes me happy that I can see the conflict coming. In your writing you want to make the readers so happy that your father character and daughter character are about to be united again… but then, WHACK you need to throw your readers for a ride. Oh, Oh… She gets kidnapped again? NOooo…

This also is a great way to build conflict and pace your story! AND not to mention it will make your readers continue reading. :)

I have made up a list of some things I don’t like about some screen-writers: (Things that can push a reader/watcher away from a story)

Pushy or preachy (Pretty Little Liars) (Mr. Brooks) Shows and movies like this cause problems in my mind… they deal with things that are not okay in society and make them seem like they are okay. Like in Mr. Brooks, the pov character is a serial killer, and throughout the whole movie it makes you feel like you are the killer…

And with Pretty Little Liars, I have already posted on that one day… I hate how they are pushy with gay stuff. I mean there are shows with gays that I have watched and been able to keep watching – but I think what bugs me so badly here is that I really love the story because it is well written, but then they throw in a gay girl and only have one pair of glasses and that is a fully accepting view. It bugs me because I do not agree with that…

I don’t like watching things that make me feel icky and bad for the next few weeks… I like reading, watching, and writing things that make a person walk away from the show, story, or book with a good feeling.

I have found these are some really important things to stay away from if you want to keep your readers. :)

  1. What are some things that you like and dislike about television shows
  2. What are your favorite shows?
  3. What can watching tv shows do to help you with your writing? 

Be Blessed x

Devin Berglund <- I enjoy walking through gardens, having picnics and spending time with my boyfriend Johan. I find old train stations to be romantic and I love to writing about everything from my journey in Australia, my writing, and life. Follow my blog and twitter. I’m also on facebook! This month I’m working on my 1st novel in a trilogy. I’ll also be participating in NaNoWrimo. Add me as a buddy if you are also participating! I love meeting new people, especially writers. Add me and I will add you back! Can’t wait to get to know you all. Be Blessed! x

Writing Goal met for today…

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Maryanne Williamson

I have been typing out my notes from “The Ragged Edge” and while doing that I have been revisited by the thoughts and things that the authors spoke about. It was an amazing experience, truly, to talk to Ted Dekker, Eric Wilson, Robert Liparulo, Steven James, Tosca Lee, and also by getting to know some amazing writers from around America. I met two girls and we started a writing group via email. I am super excited to see how it goes!

The quote above means heaps to me, Tosca Lee told us all about it, and you know what? It is 100% true! Not just a little bit true… but completely true. My sister and I are in Minneapolis now and will be heading home tomorrow, so, I am extremely excited to get home so I can write, write, write. I decided I would like to have the first draft of my book “The Created Ones” done before October. So, that means I must WRITE everyday and a lot!

I made my wordcount for today! I wrote 1,390 words. YAY!

I also decided that I would start reading more, so a few days ago I started reading Robert Liparulo’s book “The 13th Tribe” and the cool thing about this book, is that it’s the pre-release book and he let it out for the Ragged Edge writer’s only, so I am reading it and if I get a review in before November (which, I will.) My acknowledgment will be in the front of his book.

Two last updates:
1. Sweepstake: Let your friends on facebook/email/blogs know about my blog and  facebook writer’s page – Just let them know about me by posting my blog or facebook writer’s page on their wall or something and then show/tell me what you did. Give me the Url and I will be able to see it! The winner will be told, on August 18th.
2. Book Reading: August 18th, 7-8:30pm, at the Teaberry in Fargo (on Broadway, Downtown.)
3. Arts Publication: I have a writing meeting coming up with a Arts publication in Fargo North Dakota on the 23rd. I am excited and will definitely share more about this soon.

It will be tricky and up and down like a roller-coaster because along with my goal I will be going shopping and stuff in Minneapolis (as my sister will be going away to college next week!) It is so hard to believe that she is old enough for college, as I still see her as the little tomboy sister, with a baseball cap, pocahantas shirt and jean skort with crooked pig tails. I miss that cute little person, but to think that she has grown up and is still here. It’s just hard to see that soon, she will be in another States following her dreams.What are your dreams? Tell me yours and I will tell you mine in the next post. :)

Tomorrow, my writing goal will be 2,000 words. Welcome to my dungeon, ready for a trip? Buckle up because, I promise… it is going to be unlike any other.

Blessings!

Devin

The Ragged Edge, Part One [August 12, 2011] – Writer’s are a strange breed

My Role Model for writing. :) Hello Everyone,
I didn’t write last night, because I was so sleepy. I felt like a steam roller had rolled over my brain. I got sooooo much information that my brain almost exploded. :P There were 5 authors there including Ted Dekker. The others were Eric Wilson (Fireproof), Robert Lipuralo (13th Tribe), Tosca Lee (Demon), and Steven James (The Pawn). They were amazing. It’s really hard to explain to you how amazing it was.
     “You are a BLUE monkey in a brown monkey’s world.” – Ted Dekker.

One thing that I really took away from the first day of the conference was that I am not alone. Devin Lillian Berglund is not alone, in this world. “Writer’s are a strange breed.” Ted Dekker. I am very happy to know I wasn’t just this strange, weird person that wrote things and thought about the world in a weird and different way than others. Ted spoke about how writers and artists feel things different than other people. We see the world and feel it with our senses about 10 times stronger than others, and that leaves us being more open to deep and dark feelings. Each of the authors spoke of a dark past: either of rejection, lack of love, suicidal thoughts, or depression. No wonder a lot of writer’s in the past have committed suicide. (It’s really sad to say this, by the way!) Because God has given us (artists and writers) that sensitivity. It is part of our gift and something that we can give to the world.
Some of the things that they spoke about hit deep because I to have had a darker past… just like everyone has probably experienced at one time or another, which are depression and suicidal thoughts. I am majorly touched when I even watch the news and people die or are killed. It’s really sad.
Why I bring up the deep, scary thoughts from my past is because we were all brought back to the times that we experienced pain, fear, or joy. Tosca had us revisit those times, and at moments I felt like I was in a psychologist’s office bearing my soul to the page. Tosca said that if we can make people feel that way in our writing… that we will succeed in what we write.
So, tomorrow my sister and I leave from Franklin, TN. Wish we could stay longer. :) I will continue writing about my thoughts about the Ragged Edge conference, as I have been moved and am going to write, write, write until my book is done. It will be done, in two months. If I set a deadline… I know that I can do it!
My sister and I are going to explore Franklin and find something to eat. I will write again very soon! Promise!!
Check out my sweepstakes. :) Follow me. :) I will be having some new things coming up on my blog, like featuring other writers, reviews, and excerpts.

Speak soon!!

Devin

Watch this youtube video! It is totally a nice video that matches this blog post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPE9uSFFxrI&ob=av2n

Left Illinois, Kentucky, and made it to Franklin Tennessee.

Hello good people,

We made it to the hotel in Franklin, Tennessee! I am so excited about the conference tomorrow although I am nervous, because the first thing I saw when I walked into the groovy-modern hotel was a bunch of professional looking people with computer bags and brief cases. It will be a great experience to be in a place with a bunch of people who love writing and telling stories!
It was a great and interesting experience driving here to Nashville and also when I was driving through St. Louis the other day, because I haven’t done much BIG city driving, but I would have to say it is a great accomplishment and it’s a wonderful feeling to know you can do it! Although, I can say that I am very excited that I wont have to drive much overly in the next two days.

My sister and I stopped at the Grand Ole Opry Theatre today and also the Opryland Hotel. It was pretty and also so warm out today! I have never been to Tennessee before, but it is definitely a beautiful State. It is green, hilly, and full of forests. Franklin has a lot of history connected to it.

Hope you enjoy these pictures! I promise I will load more as the days go by! :P

SWEEPSTAKES:
1. Tell as many friends about my blog
2. You can either do this on your blog, facebook, or even another site.
3. In order to qualify for the sweepstake you must show me that you have shared this blog with others, on your facebook wall, or featured on your blog. So, if you have shared it online… just leave a comment below with the url, so I can see! :)
4. Example of entering the contest: add the page Devin Berglund on facebook and invite your friends to be friends with the page and tell them about the blog.
Literary & Arts book

2.) Book Reading will be happening at the Teaberry in Fargo, North Dakota on the 18th of August at 7-8:30 pm
3.) If you are looking for “New Branch of the Journey” in bookstores… it is available at Book World (Detroit Lakes), The Rainbow Shop (13th Ave. Fargo), and Zambroz (Broadway, Fargo). Check them out!
4.) And if you are not able to get to the store you may also write on my blog or facebook page that you are interested in a copy! It is available for $25.

I have the conference tomorrow! I am so excited!!!! Can’t wait to see what Ted Dekker, Tosca Lee and the other authors have in store for us!!! (Wow.. I have been using a lot of exclamation points… shows I am excited!)

P.S. I love seeing other people who love to write, tonight there was a young boy sitting outside near a window and he was writing in a notebook! It’s awesome! If you write, WRITE!!!

Question for you all who are reading this: Do you like to write? What do you like to write?

Happy Reading & Writing,

Devin <3