Three Books that Helped Me as a Writer

Anyone who does anything has a mentor or some sort, whether it’s a person, a group, or even a motto. This mentor encourages you to improve your skills and helps you find your way in a moment of weakness or anger. Personally, I have three special books that serve as my mentors for different reasons, all of which revolve around the central theme of helping me as a writer:

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Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

This book is very special to me because it is the one that got me writing in the first place. Upon finishing it and strongly disliking the ending, I decided to re-write the last few chapters so that it better matched what I thought it should have been.

As with all of our first pieces, it was terrible, but it lit the spark that got me to where I am today. This book in particular (the second in a trilogy) is what transformed me from a reader to a writer.

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Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

This is a very basic novel plot that uses its simplicity to share a very important message. The main storyline focuses on a girl who is forced to relive her last day alive over and over again until she finally figures out out what she has to do. It sweeps you along in a mesmerizing fashion that keeps you hooked until the last word.

This book was very helpful when I hit a rough patch in my writing, caused by massive plot holes and uncontrollable characters. The simplicity of the plot and the elegant writing style helped me recognize the fact that I was just taking my writing too seriously and that I didn’t have to make everything quite so complicated. I learned to trust my gut and go with the flow. After all, the characters know best.

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Hourglass by Myra McEntire

Before reading this book, I didn’t really have much of an idea of how to have fun with the narrator of the story. I kept thinking that s/he had to essentially be invisible and simply tell the story. It made for some boring scenes.

The narrator of this story, however, is anything but quiet. She doesn’t hesitate to make observations or insert little quips that make the serious scenes lighter and easier to read. It helped me understand that the narrator is intended to be a character, too. So, using this book as my point of reference, I got used to creating a 3D narrator that helped me move a scene along. I really was able to understand that narrators are people, too.

There are so many books out there that have made a great impression on me, both as a reader and as a writer, but these three are definitely the best of the best. Feel free to share some of your own below!


Writer Quirks

You hear a lot about gamers or comic book enthusiasts being characterized and stereotyped based on some “strange” characteristics that they have. As far as I’m concerned, we all have quirks that make us individual. When you read those “relatable” posts, however, it’s scary how accurate some of them are – no matter the label. Here are a few writer quirks that I think fit the bill:

Strange conversations

No matter what genre you’re writing, getting together with other writers always leads to strange conversations. Some writers will argue that there is no such thing as a strange conversation in the writer community; no topic is abnormal, and overhearing a snippet at random can be equal parts entertaining and terrifying. For example:

If I kill off the crush too fast, she won’t be crushed enough, so he has to stick around for a few more chapters. Maybe I could, like, cut off his leg or something in the mean time…she’d have to fall in love with him then, right?

That’s one of the mild examples of ordinary conversations. Anyone else would be confused or perhaps freaked out, but us writers get it.

Scolding your characters out loud

When a chapter, intense scene, or plot twist just isn’t going well, it’s usually because a character isn’t behaving correctly. When we’ve re-written the same sentence five times and it still isn’t right, our characters tend to get yelled at or scolded, and sometimes just doing it in our heads isn’t good enough:

Just cooperate, will you?!”

“Stop complaining, I’m working on it!”

“Okay, that’s enough. Go to your room!

It doesn’t always work, but it makes us feel better most of the time.

Grief at saying goodbye to our characters when we finish the novel

These characters are our creations, children that we watch over as they grow up and get their fairy tale endings (or not). When the time comes to type “The End” on the last page, a real grief leaves us in a funk for a while. These characters are real people to us, so living without them can be really sad and hard, even when the time comes to move on to new characters and plots. Saying goodbye to our characters is the same as saying goodbye to family or close friends. It hurts!

These are some of the quirks I find to be universal amongst short story and novel writers, If you’ve got some of your own, feel free to share them in the “comments” section!

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Past and Present

When we start to write a novel, there are lots of things to think about: appropriate plot twists, rounded characters, and a snarky antagonist or two. Something many of us don’t tend to give much thought to is what tense to write in. Some writers believe it’s a personal choice, while others believe it should be decided based on what genre we’re writing it.

For the most part, writing in the past tense tends to be the preferred method. It’s familiar and comfortable, not to mention that it’s the most popular tense of all the big-shot writers out there. Writing in the past tense allows the reader to feel more connected to the narrator, listening to him/her tell the story as everyone sits around a campfire or a kitchen table. It helps you invest in the characters and plot in a gentle way so that you’re hooked before you know it.

As far as genre goes, writing in the past tense is best for those books that are plot driven (ex: action, mystery) rather than character-based (ex: romance, coming-of-age). As mentioned, the reader is able to connect with the narrator as s/he tells the story. So, the writer can slip comments and prejudices to the reader (overtly or otherwise) and make the mystery a little trickier, or give the action story an extra plot twist.

Writing in the present tense can be jarring and distracting for the writer as much as the reader and cause all sorts of problems. Its intention is pure enough, it works to help you get in the head of the character as the action is happening, but the truth of it is that it isn’t always effective. It can allows you to get in the mindset of the character and go on the journey with them as it happens, giving the reader the feeling of making the decisions along with the character. The reader will put stock in the character and form a strong, emotional connection that way. Present tense writing can do a lot in the slower, more emotional plots that require you to invest in the characters. You may be thinking “but, I know all sorts of romance novels that are written in the paste tense,” and you’d be right. Choosing the tense doesn’t have to involve anything but personal preference for many writers out there, despite what I’ve been saying.

Personally, I much prefer writing and reading in past tense. When I’m reading, I can focus on the story without getting distracted by the writing itself. When writing, I feel much more confident in the past tense. The several times I’ve written in present tense, everything was choppy and awkward, not to mention that I randomly switched from third person point of view to first person. The bottom line for me is that writing in the present tense is just plain distracting, no matter what genre I’m in or what story I’m trying to tell.

Does anyone else feel partial to the past tense? Or, maybe feel that writing in the present tense is more comfortable? Feel free to say it all below!


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Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part III

Now for my final thoughts on language and the power it has. I’ve talked about how the power works and what it means, but I haven’t really explained how it applies to writers.

Our job is to tell the stories that we care about, be it through short stories or novels. No matter what language we’re writing in, words are critical to doing that job. We can have the best characters and the most exciting plot ever seen, but if we use the wrong words to tell the story, no one is going to read it. As you can imagine, that puts a lot of pressure on us.

We spend years writing books, rejecting draft after draft because something just doesn’t “feel right”. There is a craft to writing, sure, a necessity in learning what makes a good story, strong characters, etc. But, a lot of the “real skills” of writing come from trusting your gut. You’ll get this niggling somewhere inside that something in that chapter isn’t working. Or, maybe you’ll get the sense that the last sentence you just wrote isn’t quite right.

These are frustrating moments because we are the only ones that can get that chapter/sentence just right. Other writers may be able to offer a word or two of advice, but they have their own nigglings to take care of. The entire perfection of the novel is sitting on our shoulders alone, and it is no fun what-so-ever. In fact, not being able to perfect that one sentence is a huge contributor to the terrifying writers block. Sometimes that niggling even gets so bad that we scrap the novel entirely. So, you see, using the right word could save a character’s life, maybe even a whole world.

There is a silver lining, though. It’s that instant when we finish a perfectly executed cliffhanger, or create the best scathing line of dialogue. Those little shivers that zap down our spines and leave us with the thought, “Yes, that’s it. Perfect!” These moments may be rare, but they’re powerful and leave us on a high for hours after. These are the moments where we feel like real writers, the moments where we feel as though we’ve conquered language and its power, even if it’s just for a little bit.

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Each writer uses words differently; each spins a different tale, telling stories of their own characters in their own worlds. The power of language – of the written word – unites us all, though, in a quest to construct the perfect sentence and novel. Having an appreciation and understanding of the language and the power it wields makes us better writers.

Learning another language, as I mentioned way back in Part I, has helped me understand and respect the power of language a lot more, making me a much better and more confident writer.

While writing gives me as much trouble as the next person, I trust that the words will lead me to the right place when the time is right and all will be right with the world.

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part II

Last week I talked about how words have deeper meanings that can’t be translated to another language or explained fully. The words have lives of their own and, when used correctly, can gift you with a really beautiful expression or sentence. Now, I want to look at how words can mean multiple things at the same time, especially to a writer. This isn’t in the context of definitions, but rather, how words can be used to make a sentence mean thousand different things by understanding their different levels. Confused? No worries, it’ll all make sense. Keep reading!

The whole “different levels” idea makes a lot of sense when I put it into the perspective with a quote from the book The Golden Compass, the first book of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This is a personal favorite series of mine and is known to be stuffed full of subtle (and not-so-much) hints and images over a variety of sensitive subjects.

The trilogy focuses on 12-year-old Lyra, a rough-around-the-edges tomboy who is destined to save the world. To help with her journey she is given a truth telling device called an alethiometer. It’s a large compass-like object and has a series of images on its face. In order to use it Lyra has to move the three hands to different symbols that form a question and the fourth hand will swing from symbol to symbol on the compass to give its answer.

As you may have already guessed, each symbol has multiple meanings so that any question can be asked and answer given. There are thousands of meanings, and the user of the alethiometer must go through various encyclopedias to get the right meaning. Lyra differs in that she can look at the alethiometer and hold all of the meetings in her head, knowing where to move the hands to ask the question and how to interpret the answer:

“And how to do you know what these meanings are?”

“I kind of see ’em. Or feel ’em, rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there’s another rung. Well, I put my mind down and there’s another meaning, and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put ’em all together. There’s a trick in it like focusing your eyes.”

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Image Credit: http://www.gotchiworld.de (via Google)

In the same way that Lyra talks about the symbols having different “levels” for different meanings, words have that same power. When we, as writers, construct a sentence, we have to make sure that we are using to correct words on the right “levels”. Using the wrong word and/or level would lead to a different meaning entirely.

To me, words have the same magical power as the alethiometer has to Lyra. Sometimes I’ll go back and forth between three synonyms for hours in the back of my mind because using the wrong one really does change everything. A lot of the time to read or may not be able to notice the “small difference” of a sentence that has the wrong word, from that with the right one, but they will feel it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s my job to make sure they don’t misinterpret the sentence by ensuring and using the perfect words.

If you’re still following, keep an eye out for Part III, the final section, of this idea net week. Also, feel free to comment with alternative comparisons to complex/deep levels of words, I’d love to hear them!

Language, Writing

The Power of Language: Part I

The most challenging thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer is that words are not just dead pieces that make up a sentence, they have life to them that make each one unique. No, seriously stay with me. Each word that we use carries a specific meaning and, shall we say, power, that none of its synonyms have. You can see this when using the word “shrieked” instead of “yelled,” sure, but my point becomes much clearer when looking at different languages and word translations. This is where I truly understand how each word is so individual.

When you’re in the beginning stages of learning another language you learn how valuable a translation dictionary is. You’ll be looking up words as you move between languages in reading and writing, gaining a bigger vocabulary as you go. Then, there comes that magical point where you can write a complex paragraph or read a chapter with little to no help from the dictionary and recognize the words in the language you’re reading/writing in. This is exciting for two reasons:

  1. You’re remembering the vocabulary, yay! You’re one step closer to fluently speaking a foreign language.

  2. The words in the foreign language for taking on the meaning of their own instead of simply being a translated word.

This is the nugget right here. A word in one language doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing in another. Okay, literally speaking, yes it does, but work with me! Once you’re accustomed to the foreign language, you start to see its words differently. They take on a deeper, more complete meaning that you’ll notice when you finish a well written paragraph and think “Wow…that was powerful.”

The expression “lost in translation” is another way to understand it. Say you love that well-written paragraph so much that you want to share it with your best friend who doesn’t speak the language. You translate it using the best word you can think of, but it still loses something no matter how hard you work. This is how we can understand the power of each word.

For this reason I’ve really come to be in awe of words and language in general. As a writer, it’s my job to pick the best word for each sentence, and knowing what I do about words, I’ve discovered that sometimes even the best words still fall flat. Sometimes you need to throw in those foreign expressions, like “je ne sais quoi,” or “bon appetit,” to name a few of the most popular ones. They are so much more powerful than their English equivalents and can’t really be translated to carry the same weight and significance.

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So, words have a lot to them, much more than you would think at first glance. Learning another language has really helped me understand words and the deep, profound impact they can have. As a result, my appreciation of great writers has really grown. I’ve got more to say about this, so keep an eye out for next week’s post where we will explore part II of this topic!


Part of my World

Writing involves many exciting jobs in preparation, like reading or researching, memorizing a thesaurus, or maybe even travelling. The best task, though, is the people watching. We all do it, whether we want to admit it or not. As writers, we have an excuse; to find new characters!

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Image Credit: blog.shareaholic.com (Google)

Characters can either make or break a story, do you have to make sure they’re great ones. The only way to do that realistically is by basing them off of ear leak people, am I right? What are some of the places that you go to in order to get interesting people to watch? I love going to the mall to do it, but unless you sit in the food court, you don’t get to see people for longer than 20 seconds.

The most important part of people watching is to get a variety, and the food court is a great place for that. Also, you can overhear conversations and not down some great pieces of dialogue. The quick turn over always offers lots of people to eavesdrop on and makers you inconspicuous because no one I will notice you sitting there for extended periods of time.

When I’m hunting for a good character, I tend to watch for big groups of people. The best thing about a large group is that it holds the most options for the perfect character. If you’re starting from scratch, the different options are endless in a group of just four people. If you’re starting from a few characteristics – shy, loud, gentle, brave – then that makes a group fun in the sense that you can take characteristics that match the personality that you want, and create a strong, round character.

Finding your protagonist in a crowd isn’t hard, but one character that can be hard (and a lot of fun) to find, is your antagonist. Usually, they’re loners that are obsessed with revenge, or maybe they’re the popular “it” girl with identical drones giggling at everything they say and do. Regardless, essentially every person exists at the mall, and with the right skills and knowledge, can be found.

Antagonists can typically be found in stores, particularly in long lines that are moving at a snail’s pace. Those bring out the ugly in just about everyone, so you’ll find the bad and shady characteristics there. The same thing goes for the ones arguing with the cashiers. They have all the traits you can want for a kick-butt antagonist.

The mall works in finding new characters so well because people tend to relax, they figure that there are too many people to worry about being watched. At first, the “prim and proper” personality is up in front of the real personality and everything is correct and polite. By the time they’re ready to leave the food court or the store, though, they have started to let their guard down and their real personality shine through, allowing you to get to the good stuff.

That all being said, the best dialogue, plot twists, or personality traits can hit at anytime, so, like all writers advise, always have a pen and paper on you for just such an occasion. Characters are crucial, so don’t use the stock ones because you can’t think of anything else. Possibilities are all around you, so there is no excuse not to have a great character.

What do you see as the most important element in a story? Do you prefer to read about stock or original characters? What are some examples of strong characters?


Food for Thought

Words are crucial in writing of any kind, that’s what writing is all about after all. In any language, strange expressions exist, and English is no exception. Two of the ones that get my attention the most involve cheese and corn. Yes, you read that right. The expressions are synonyms, too…or maybe for the purposes of sticking with the food theme, we’ll refer to them as “cinnamons.” No? Okay, anyway.

They’re used when referring to something as cliché or predictable: “Oh, that’s so cheesy.” or “Man, is that ever corny.” So, they’re totally inter-changable. My “beef” with these expressions is that there doesn’t need to be two food related expressions that mean practically the same thing, one will suffice! Having two expressions that mean the same thing makes me confused about which one I should use and why they’re both important.

I have the same problem with other expressions that have unnecessary duplicates. We writers know that having more than one way to say something is a good thing, but there is such a thing as having too many options. So, the question is clear: Is something cheesy or corny? Which word best describes something that is cliché? Personally I tend to use “cheesy” more often than “corny”, but I don’t have a reason for that. What are your thoughts on the cheese vs. corn debate?

On another note of expressions that aren’t entirely useful, there’s the idea that sometimes they are hard (if not impossible) to explain to someone who doesn’t know them.  This is especially true when someone is new to the language or doesn’t have much experience in the more colloquial part of a language.  I find that I have the same problem when I am reading in Spanish or having a conversation with a native speaker.  I miss some parts if it because they’re colloquial expressions that just do not translate into another language.  Then, when I ask what it means, they are at a loss as to how to tell me what it means even if they are trying to find a English equivalent.

That leads me to the question of why expressions change from language to language. Shouldn’t there be a universal understanding? But, then again, languages belong to different cultures and each culture has their own customs and, thus, expressions. Each culture has a right to have their own expressions, which explains why “cheesy” is not able to be understood in other languages. I just wish that there were a couple that could go from language to langue so that everyone understood them universally.  But, that’s just my opinion.  Do you think that some expressions should be universal, or that different ones in each language are a good thing?

What are some expressions that you think could be totally omitted from spoken and written language? Are there some that you’re more likely to use in writing than in conversational language or vice versa? Go ahead and share them!


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Image Credit: thefinsters.com (Google)

NaNo Prep: Student Style

As this year’s season of NaNoWriMo approaches, I find that I am nowhere as prepared as I have been in previous years. Being a full-time University student can really take a toll on having a fully thought out plot. A couple days ago I got to thinking that maybe I don’t have to have a completely fleshed out plot, maybe I can be like most writers and just figure the story out as I go. I’m not intending on writing a long novel this year, as I simply don’t have the time, but even so, the idea of not plotting every little detail out totally terrifies me!

I’m an organizer by nature, and my writing process is no different. I wrote a blot post a while back about how spontaneous plots differ from from planned out ones, and still think that both have a lot of potential. That being said, I still have to plan out everything before November 1st, otherwise, it’s going to be a rough 30 days.

Normally, in NaNo season, my plot will change as I start to write and find out that, no, I can’t write 2 000 words on how pretty that forest is. You realize pretty quickly that if you’re bored while writing the chapter, then your reader is going to be even more bored. So, you need to adapt to a new style of writing so you don’t fall asleep while in the middle of a sentence.

Successfully completing NaNoWriMo, is hard. I mean, the goal is to write 50 000 words in 30 days! Regardless of whether you get to 2 000 or 100 000 words, it’s really tough going. Other than attempting to make your word count sky rocket, you are trying to breathe life into brand new characters, keep your plot from deflating due to plot holes, and shut down your inner editor that keeps nit-picking every 50 words or so. Oh, and while you’re dealing with all those issues, you have to still do everything in your normal life. For 30 days. Is it just me, or does that sound totally nuts? Yup, but it’s a lot of fun, too.

My advice is to totally immerse yourself in NaNo life during November. The website has plenty of ways for you to get involved locally with NaNoWriMo. After all, you aren’t going to be the only one in your town or city that’s participating, and a huge project like this is always better when you have a friend to do it with.

As I said, I’m really struggling with my prep this year. I have a great plot, but I just don’t have a huge chunk of time that I can sit down and work out the potential issues and plot holes. What are some of your favourite ways to prepare for NaNo? What are some tips that you have to share? To those of you participating in this crazy adventure, happy writing!

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Image Credit: ywp.nanowrimo.org (Google)

Writer Talk

As writers, we are in charge of a lot of things when creating our imaginary worlds. We have to consider plot twists, character development, and keep an eye on those pesky, ever-present plot holes. It’s not surprising that non-writers talk about how most of us seem to be lost in our own worlds, because we usually are. It’s not easy ruling the world, you know!

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In my Creative Writing classes, we do a lot of critiquing (which I talked about in another post) and it’s great to be able to discuss our work with fellow writers. They will get what you’re trying to do with that expression, or why you put that comma where you did. That being said, it’s hard to include a non-writer in a situation with a bunch of fellow writers because of the difference in conversation topics.

For example, a couple of days ago, I had just finished up in a Creative Writing class and was running off to a Spanish one. When I arrived, my friend asked me how my class had been. It had been an extremely productive class and there had been so much excited conversation that we had gone over the time limit, causing me to rush.

Forgetting that she wasn’t writer, I started explaining about how we had gone over the time limit because we were so busy debating over whether one of the phrases should had had a semi colon instead of a colon. Her blank eyes and amused smile reminded me of how strange and bizarre I must be sounding to her, going on and on about grammar.

That proved to me how valuable it is to have friends that hare writers as well as how important it is to have friends who aren’t. They keep us balanced as people and make sure we don’t live in our writing worlds too much. There is much to be learned from the real world, after all, and we’re missing out by living entirely in our created one.

I have to say, though, having a group of writer friends makes me feel really good about myself as a writer. I can discuss a powerful line in a movie and they will understand why it means so much to me. Even if they don’t like the same particular line, good writing is good writing. Between two writers, the friendship has a level that is beyond words, it’s more about the passion of words. When talking about a good line of dialogue, sometimes the conversation will go in circles just because there’s so much to say about this particular line. To non-writers, it’s incredibly boring. But fellow writers would leave the conversation with a buzz of energy that is telling us to go and write something as amazing as that.

For all the writers out there, what are some inspiring conversations that you’ve had with fellow writers? What about any good writer jokes? Share away!