Good Stories Require Conflict

February 9, 2016

Whether you’re writing a fiction story or a nonfiction story, you need conflict to create a good story that keeps the reader’s attention. By definition, there are two sides to every conflict. Your job is show the conflict so well that your reader has someone or something to root for.

Simply put, conflict is confrontation–tension between characters or tension between factions of the environment or tension between characters and the environment.

What you’re really striving to write is action and suspense, better known as drama.

Here’s the formula: Effective drama creates exciting conflict that eventually develops robust action and substantial suspense. You instinctively knew that already, but now that the formula is simplified for you, you’re more apt to notice it in your own reading.

As always, you want to show, not tell, your reader what’s happening. When your reader creates the mental image of what’s going on in your story, he or she becomes more engaged and willing to root for one side or the other in the conflict.

Basic story plot requires someone wanting something (a goal). Something gets in the way (conflict). That something creates trouble for the character or for what the character wants or for the way the character can get it.

Characters get into trouble by something they do or by something done to them. Show the reader how the character solves the problem. If there’s action involved, show the character’s feelings (fear, anxiety, anger). If there’s suspense involved, show the character hiding, waiting, feeling dread of being caught.

Sometimes a character’s trouble comes from within. Show the reader how the character struggles with a problem such as betrayal, feeling too strongly (love or hate), or dealing with other internal conflicts. Show the reader the choices the character faces, then show the reader the action the character takes to move in the direction of one choice or the other. Keep the reader guessing about which way the character will finally go.

Keep the reader in the action of your story. You can do this by writing in present tense. Another way is using language that creates images in the reader’s mind. Active verbs help this. Which of the following two sentences creates a better image for you? He drank his beer. He guzzled his beer. A third way to keep your reader in the story is to appeal to the reader’s senses. Choose words that remind your reader of how something feels, smells, sounds, tastes, or looks.

Good stories require conflict. I hope these ideas spur some drama in the stories you write. Happy writing!


What You Write First Will Need Revision

June 15, 2015

Writing is a solitary activity. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that the first words written aren’t the best words for the final piece.

I was first published in the mid-1970s and have loved words and writing ever since. Here are a few tips I’ve collected that you might want to consider when you’re faced with going back over your manuscript to see what needs revision.

  • Write simply and clearly. Beginning writers often run the risk of falling in love with their prose. Offer the reader a clear and enjoyable reading experience instead of showing off your command of obscure words/phrases.
  • Realize that every new project is a challenge. The problems you faced (whether the problems are in the story, the character, the organization, the descriptions used, etc.) in your last project differ from those you’re facing in your current project. See each project with new eyes, even though you’re drawing on experience when you work on it.
  • Show the story instead of showing off. Consider how you would tell the story to a friend and start there. You’ll write differently when you think about your best friend reading your writing.
  • Be willing to let your subconscious take over when you’re stuck on a word or searching for an idea. Some of the best things come to us when we don’t force them.
  • Accept that every writer is really two people: (1) creator and (2) editor. Allow your creator to be the person he/she needs to be to get the words out, then call in your editor to do what he/she does best (improve your writing).
  • Give yourself permission to write first and edit later. Avoid falling into that terrible trap of telling yourself something (sentence, description, word choice, etc.) isn’t as good as it could be. So what if it isn’t? You can go back and make it better, but you can only do that if you get it down first. The more fun you have getting your original writing down, the better foundation you’ll have to work on when you edit.
  • Read your words out loud. Writers groups do that because hearing the words (rather than simply seeing them on paper) can point out problems with word choice, dialogue, and can even find typos in your manuscript.
  • Read the types of things you want to write. You want to write mysteries? Read them. You want to write biographies? Read them. Self-help books? Read them. Good cooks know what makes a good recipe. Good writers know what makes a good read.

I trust you’ll find something in this collection of tips to help you. As you grow in your writing career, you’ll risk rejection and failure, but you’ll also realize reward and respect on many levels. Happy writing!

Tips for Writing Your Memoir

June 3, 2015

Sometimes writers get stuck and stop writing. If you find yourself in that frustrating place, consider writing your memoir.

A memoir isn’t an autobiography (a life detailed with supporting documents, etc.). A memoir is a recollection (from memory) of your life.

Be aware, however, that most writers experience that out-of-control feeling one gets when the writing takes on a life of its own. It’s good to realize that’s a real possibility in memoir writing. You’re trying to preserve your story from memory, but one thought reminds you of another and that reminds you of something else and before you know it, you’ve restarted or refocused your memoir writing (possibly several times).

Of course you won’t want to put every memory in your memoir because that would make it too long or boring or disconnected. Here are some tips to help you focus your memoir and get you writing again.

  • Consider your life experiences in broader terms–that is, not just as personal experiences, but also as experiences humans have.
  • Ask yourself what happened to you, why you think that happened (sometimes we make mistakes and those mistakes have consequences).
  • Review your experiences and be honest about how you responded. Examining your own response may be useful to others reading your memoir.
  • Be honest in accounting for your behavior, feelings, etc. Your life brought you to this point and helped you form your world view, decide on your behavior, and become the person you are. Chances are things happened in your life that you wish hadn’t, but they did and they had an impact on you. You owe it to yourself to understand and accept that life isn’t always what we wish it was.
  • Embrace the drama you’ve experienced. Everyone’s life holds drama at some point. There’s nothing wrong with remembering the drama as long as you don’t let it become an obsession. Instead, see it in your memory, accept that it is just that–a memory, and decide what influence it had in making you who you are.

You might want to begin by spending some quiet time remembering your life. Don’t document every year. Instead, jot down memories as they come to you. Everything’s connected under the umbrella of your life. Now it’s up to you to decide what to include in your memoir. Happy writing!

Who Tells Your Readers Your Story?

April 20, 2015

Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, you need to decide which character is telling your readers your story.

Short stories typically rely on the protagonist to do it, so I’m not going to say more regarding short stories.

If you’re writing a novel, however, here are some tips to help you decide which character will share his or her thoughts, show what he or she sees, reveal his or her emotions, and communicate his or her knowledge.

Consider using these tips to help you determine the point-of-view character you’ll rely on to tell your story. Once you make your decision, you must remember that the character whose point of view you’re using is the only character whose thoughts are known because you can only be in one head at a time.

I used to tell my students that each of them only knows what’s going on inside of self. They can guess what’s going on inside another person’s head, but they can’t absolutely know. When you’re creating the whole world (as fiction writers do), it’s easy to forget that you’re only in one head (one character’s point of view) at a time.

Now for the tips to help you determine which character is telling your readers your story.

  • Remember that readers get to know everything your point-of-view character does. Thus, the character telling the story has to know everything you want the reader to know so he/she can share it with the reader.
  • Consider where the point-of-view character will be throughout the story. Since the character is telling your story, he/she has to be present in the scenes that are crucial to your story. And, just as importantly, he/she has to be in the culmination scene that brings everything together.
  • Decide which character requires the most involvement in the story. Your point-of-view character shouldn’t simply narrate the story. Instead, he/she should be involved and have something personal at stake–a risk of danger, a quandary of some sort, a threatened loved one, etc.
  • Figure out which character will be changed the most by what occurs in the story. Avoid characters too stubborn to change, characters who won’t survive the story’s timeline, and characters who are careless or who are unaffected by life.
  • Get involved with your point-of-view character and make sure he/she is telling your story the way it should be told. One mystery author friend of mine had to rewrite her mystery because the character she originally chose as the murderer wouldn’t commit the murder. Other authors have shared similar experiences about characters taking on lives of their own, so make sure you’ve selected the right character to tell your story.

If you’re currently writing fiction, measure your character against these tips. If you’re contemplating writing fiction, use these tips to help you decide which character gets to tell your readers your story. Happy writing!



A Writer Writes

April 15, 2015

When I taught my class on becoming a writer at two of the colleges in the Twin Cities, I asked students to define what it means to be a writer. Almost to a person, they included being published as a requirement for being a writer. I explained that writing and being published are two very different things.

Then I told them they could not be published unless they had written something. That concept brings me to my definition of what it means to be a writer: A writer writes and sometimes gets published.

Here are some tips to help you get (and stay) on track with your writing.

  • Realize there is a mental and a physical connection to writing. Most writers think about writing, but forget to put the seat of their pants on the seat of their chair in order to start moving their fingers over their keyboards (that’s the physical part).
  • Understand there’s power in conditioning–by that I mean conditioning by creating a writing place that triggers the writing impulse whenever you see it (remember Pavlov’s dog?). If you’re conditioned to eat at your kitchen table, it’s likely you won’t be conditioned to write there as well. Your writing place doesn’t have to be large, but it does have to be conducive to making you write in that place.
  • Collect the tools you need for writing. I live in the country and my best option for Internet access is satellite. With the spring thaw, my dish sunk over an inch (the technician told me), which meant I didn’t have Internet for a few days until the technician could come out. I typically look up definitions, etc. online, but I have other tools (reference books) I can use and was happy to have them available during my “down time.”
  • Decide what you want to write–then read everything you can in that subject or genre and read critically. I’ve said before that I think fiction is the hardest writing to do (at least for me), but I love mysteries and read them constantly. I found two errors so far in the mystery I’m currently reading (one was a missing word that was important to the sentence and the other was a spelling error that turned pubic hair into public hair during a discussion of rape evidence). Should an editor have caught that? Sure, but the reflection is on the author, not the editor.
  • Write something every day. What counts as writing? Ideas jotted in your notebook. Revising yesterday’s writing. Research. It all counts if it contributes to you committing words to paper.
  • Consider that all large projects are simply a combination of smaller ones. Novels are written in chapters. Chapters are written in dialogue, scenes, descriptions, characters. Non-fiction books can start out as articles, research in one topic that leads to another, etc. It’s okay to write small, as long as you write.

You might want to keep a copy of these tips handy in your writing space. It’s so easy to put writing aside while you do something else, but I urge you not to do that. Only you can write from your perspective. If you claim you want to be a writer, you have to write. Writers write, right? Happy writing!

Reality and Fairness in Writing

April 6, 2015

Writing fiction is harder than writing nonfiction for me. That said, however, writing nonfiction has its challenges as well. The cliche about every story having two sides creates the basis of two primary challenges in writing nonfiction–reality and fairness.

Whether you’re writing an article about a person or an issue or an event, there are multiple viewpoints to consider. When writing a personality profile, for example, it’s important to remember that no person is perfect. The reality is everyone has experience with mistakes, failure, and regret. As a writer your challenge is to decide how much of that to share in an article highlighting the person’s success or contribution to society.

I realize I’m stating the obvious when I say there are two sides to every issue. If you’re writing about an issue, you again deal with the challenges of reality and fairness. That means you’ll have to decide on balance in resources quoted, for example. You’ll also have to decide if you can be fair in seeing both sides of an issue you’re considering writing about.

You even deal with the challenges of reality and fairness when writing about events, holidays, celebrations, sports, etc. All you have to do is look at or listen to the news to find examples such as the recent coverage of the Final Four in Indianapolis. Some write about the Final Four as a sporting event. Others write about it from the perspective of an event to be boycotted.

Sometime, just for fun, try experimenting with listening to the news to find an issue that interests you. Then create an outline of the article you would write about that issue. What are the two sides? How would you handle each one? What types of resources/experts would you need? If you find yourself leaning more favorably to one side over the other, consider what it would take to tell that other side of the story.

Reality and fairness in writing are two of the biggest challenges writers face. Learn to accept those challenges and you’ll become better at doing the writing you love. Happy writing!


Give Yourself Permission to Write

March 19, 2015

When I taught my “Writing for Fun and Profit” series at a college in Minnesota, I asked my students to define what it means to be a writer. The answer inevitably came back that writers had to be published before they could call themselves writers.

I understood why students thought they couldn’t claim to be writers unless they were published, but that thinking is incorrect. Here’s the definition of what it means to be a writer: A writer writes and sometimes gets published. But you cannot get published if you don’t write.

Writers have to write. They love to write. And that’s exactly why they don’t. Sometimes the guilt about indulging self becomes so strong that writers put off doing the very thing only they can do–write from their perspective.

Give yourself permission to write. If you don’t, you’re denying the rest of us your ideas, your interpretations, your view of life.

Granted, not everyone will love everything you write. Even you won’t love everything you write. But it’s important you get in a habit of writing something every day. Figure out what motivates you to write. Then form the habit of writing something–a character sketch, an anecdote, a description, a feeling, a memory, a plot idea–every day.

Life gets complicated. There are so many demands on your time. Jobs, commitments, daily routines, entertainment, responsibilities, and the list goes on. You will always find something to fill your time. You probably keep your promises to everyone else. But what about your promise to yourself to allow yourself time to write? How well do you keep that one?

Again, I’m not encouraging you to write simply for yourself. I’m encouraging you to write so you can share your creativity with others. Happy writing!

Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

February 6, 2015

For more than fifteen years, I wrote a weekly newspaper column that was published in three newspapers. Granted, that’s not many newspapers, but I had a following, so needed to make sure I didn’t let my readers down. There were times, however, I experienced writer’s block I had to overcome. Here are some tips to help when writer’s block hits you.

  • Remind yourself your ideas are there waiting for you to write them. Avoid any negative thoughts that you can’t write. You can. You’re a writer.
  • Take some writing action every day. When I taught my “Writing for Fun and Profit” series at two local colleges, I encouraged students to find thirty minutes every day to work on writing. Then we brainstormed what counts as writing. Could be research. Could be note taking. Could be writing. Could be editing. You get to decide what writing action you take every day.
  • Write about something that interests you. There’s a cliche that says writers are observers of life. Write about what you observed that you cared about enough to think about, try experience more of, or simply tell others about.
  • Allow yourself time to write before your deadline. Some people like the adrenaline rush they get from waiting until the last minute before meeting a deadline. Others like to get things done early, then take the remaining time to go over what they did and fine-tune it. If you’re not in the second category, consider trying it at least once.
  • Stare at the blank screen or paper. You read that right. If you want to write, but nothing is coming, just sit there in your writing space for as long as it takes to finally start writing. You may not be writing about what you sat down to tackle, but at least you’re writing. WARNING: If you use this tip, allow no distractions (phone, email, music, visitors, pets, etc. during your staring time).
  • Change your routine. If you write at a certain time every day, do something else during that time, then write at a different time. Try this for a few days.
  • Reward yourself. When our children were small, we hung charts on the wall for each one that showed things they were to accomplish (brush their teeth, make their beds, pick up their toys, etc.). At the end of the day, if they did whatever was listed, they got to place a shiny star in the box on the chart for that day. At the end of the week, they got a reward based on their accomplishments. What reward would you like? Lunch with a friend? Go to a movie? A quiet hour just for you? Once you decide on your reward, decide how you’ll earn it. Perhaps you’ll write four pages a day. Perhaps you’ll research your current topic for an hour. You get to decide.
  • Write in chunks. Sometimes the project we face is overwhelming because it’s so large. You’ll feel more in control if you think about writing a small part of the project. Could be a character sketch or a scene or dialogue or even a complete chapter. What’s important is that you break your big project into smaller pieces and work on those pieces.

If you haven’t experienced writer’s block, chances are you will one day. Keep these tips handy and use them when you need them. Happy writing!

Tips for Writing a Profile

January 27, 2015

You’ve discovered an interesting person you want to write about. You’ve prepared your interview questions and conducted the interview. You’ve connected with others who know the person and now you are ready to pull all your research together into the written article. Here are a few tips to help you.

  1. Figure out where to start. It could be something you noticed about the person’s appearance. It could be something you noticed in the person’s surroundings. Whatever it is, make sure it establishes the person as a human being and is compelling enough to make your reader want to keep reading.
  2. Become the reader’s eyes and ears. As trite as “Show, Don’t Tell,” is, it’s some of the best advice you’ll get as a writer. If you don’t show your reader the person’s expression, surroundings, habits, body language, etc., your reader can’t know about those things and how they relate to the person you’re writing about.
  3. Put the person’s life in perspective. Decide what about that person will interest your reader. Then decide where in that person’s life to start the story. Not every story requires a full background disclosure. In fact, most don’t. Focus on answering the question, “Why should the reader care?” and your reader will thank you.
  4. Fill in the gaps. Too often writers know what they want to say and think they’ve said it, but they’ve left holes in the story. Ask yourself why the person you’re writing about did that or went there or stopped doing this or started doing that. Have people you trust give you honest feedback after reading your profile. Ask them to let you know what’s missing or what questions they still want answered.
  5. Avoid using too many direct quotes. It’s okay to quote the person you’re profiling, but too many direct quotes can take away from the story.
  6. Make sure your profile is accurate. What else is there to say about that?

Finding and writing about interesting people can be some of the most fun you’ll have as a writer. These tips can help. Happy writing!

Write Using Your Own Voice

October 28, 2014

Writers are readers, so naturally they favor the voice of certain authors over others. One of your challenges is to make sure you’re writing in your own voice, not a clone of one of your favorites.

Here are some tips to help you.

  • Realize you see things from a perspective that is unique to you. When I taught my college writing courses, I set a cube in the middle of a rectangular table. Students sat in chairs around the table. I had students look at the object from their perspectives and write down the description of what they saw. What they didn’t realize is there were different images on each side of the cube. Thus, each description was different. The point of the lesson? They all saw the same thing, but their descriptions differed.
  • Understand everyone won’t adore everything you write. I just finished Gone Girl and liked some of it, but not all. Regardless of what I think, the book is a huge success. The local library’s request list for it is over 300 patrons long.
  • Remain true to yourself in your writing. Your writing is based on your thoughts, experiences, and how you express yourself. Of course there are rules and conventions you must follow in writing, but make sure you stay true to you in the process.
  • Read your writing out loud. When I was a member of the Minneapolis Writers Workshop, the writers read their work out loud to the rest of us. It was amazing how often writers made changes after hearing their words read aloud.
  • Be aware of the pitfalls of contemporary references in your writing. Thrillers taking place during the Cold War may still be fun to read, but probably aren’t a first choice for many of today’s readers. On the other hand, most likely it was the Cold War references that kept the story from being bland. You get to decide whether to write your story with universal appeal (no contemporary references) or spice it up by adding contemporary flavor. Just be aware there are pitfalls when you add things that date your story.

Hope these tips help you write using your own voice. Happy writing!