Writing

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!

Writing

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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Writing

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 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!