Epistolary Storytelling

Dandelion seed-headMost writers eventually find themselves writing about some kind of text. A lover might leave a note that changes the course of a novel, or a character may complain about a major plot event in his diary. Some writers take things a little further by using an epistolary structure to frame an entire narrative.

Epistolary stories are told entirely or in large part through texts. Traditionally, they’re told through letters, but modern works like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Joseph Fink’s Welcome to Night Vale have used everything from advertisements to elaborate fake scholarly articles to tell their stories. Generally speaking, these narratives don’t break the fourth wall – they get their appeal from the way they communicate with an audience as fictional as they are.

The thing about epistolary narratives – and this can make them either excellent or wildly inappropriate for your story – is that they ask you to manage a very complex relationship. The narrator is communicating with an audience which exists within the universe you’ve created for the story, but the readers who pick up your book in real life are the ones who really need the information. You need to carefully and subtly work in world-building elements when you write an epistolary narrative. The narrator will need to spend some time talking about how people in your story go about their day, and their linguistic choices need to represent their background and their personalities.

A lot of writers don’t write many stories in epistolary form, but there are some who find it’s the most effective way to tell about a story. If you want to challenge your readers, some form of epistolary narrative can certainly help you provide an unusual and colorful narrative. However, writers should be extra conscious of clarity when using this intimate narrative form.

2XTreme4Dialect: Using Slang in Prose

Olive pickingMost writers learn quickly that when we refer to the English language, we’re really talking about a group of micro-languages, or dialects, which are so similar that a speaker of one can easily understand the speaker of another. Dialects are differentiated from each others by a variety of markers. Highly important among these markers (at least for writers of fiction) is slang.

Slang can do a remarkable amount of work when it comes to establishing the time and place of your novel. Terms like “Doll-dizzy” and “Killer diller” are as essential to the fabric of a 1940s US setting as bebop records and wartime propaganda. These informal expressions help the reader feel at home in a historical setting. They can also be used to add a modern touch to a story set in the present day, but be warned: in a few years, they will date your narrative and may jar the reader.

Slang can also help you build your characters. While nearly everybody uses slang to some extent, more educated characters (particularly in historical settings) will prefer to use more formal, ‘correct’ language. Moreover, characters from different backgrounds will use different kinds of slang. For example, a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars would have a rather rich slang vocabulary that is distinct from other slang of that era.

There are situations, of course, when you want to avoid the use of slang. Formal and technical writing are obvious areas, and some writers (such as myself) prefer to even keep it out of the narrator’s lines in fiction. You also want to steer clear of slang where it would make your characters seem stereotyped, and you never want to overuse it to the point where your writing becomes impenetrably gimmicky. However, a little informal expression here and there can help you make your settings and characters more rich, varied, and believable to your readers.

The Art of Summarizing

Wisteria single flower 2“Summary sucks, please read” is one of the great proverbs of amateur fiction writers. Go ahead, type it into Google and count the search results. Fanfiction, original fiction, and even poetry is burdened with this well-worn disclaimer. I used to use it myself, tucked away in a corner of the high school library. “Summary sucks, please read,” I’d write before hitting “post” and refreshing my story’s statistics every five minutes to see if anyone had reviewed it.

Now, eventually, I had some people take me up on my requests. They’d read my stories, send me helpful or hateful or ecstatically encouraging reviews, and subscribe to my profile. Slowly but surely, my readership grew – but still, my stories never got that much attention until I put some effort into learning to summarize.

If my success as a teenage fanfiction writer was hampered by my poor summary skills, then imagine what this deficiency will do to your chances at success in commercial writing! Your summaries are not just asking your readers to take five minutes out of their day to read about Draco confessing his love for Hermione; they’re asking your readers to give you some of their hard-earned money in exchange for your story.

Your summary needs to not only give your readers a sense of your story’s subject, but also give them a sense of your skill as a storyteller. It needs to tell the reader who the characters are, tell the reader what the conflict will be, and give the reader some sense of the main obstacles in the characters’ way. It should be elegantly written, and it should end on a mysterious note (usually a question or cliffhanger) that has the reader clicking the “add to cart” button instead of scrolling down.

The summary of your book is one of your most important marketing tools. Make sure it’s an effective one, and your readers will reward you for the extra time you spent tantalizing hem.

Avoiding the Dreaded Comma Splice

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar close up, croppedThe comma represents no sound, but we pronounce it anyway when we read a sentence in English. A comma is a signal that we need to regard a word as a sort of ending point. Used properly, commas enhance the flow of your writing and let you develop a lovely, unique cadence. Used improperly, commas can muddle your writing and make your sentences awkward.

One frequent comma error is the comma splice, this sentence is a perfect example of one of them. It contained two clauses, one on each side of the comma. Both of the clauses were independent, and yet they were joined only by the weak mooring of an unadorned comma.

This comma splice can be corrected in one of three ways: the comma can be replaced by a break between sentences; the comma can be replaced by a semicolon; or the comma can be supplemented with a conjunction. These techniques keep your sentence’s clauses from running together, and they help your reader process the information your sentence is trying to get across.

Writers frequently have issues with comma splices in dialogue. It may be well and good to use conjunctions and semicolons in descriptive passages, but speech patterns tend to vary ever so slightly from the cadence of descriptive prose. Let’s face it: people speak in comma splices, and it’s tempting to write them into lines spoken between characters. However, you should opt for the emdash instead. It conveys a pause between two independent clauses – not quite a period, but more grammatically correct than a comma.

Comma splices are one of those little habitual errors that many writers have a hard time shaking off. However, it’s worth it to keep an eye out for this common mistake, because it can make your writing seem unpolished and make it hard for your readers to follow you. Be sure to always use something stronger than a comma to link two independent clauses.

Following Your Bliss at the Expense of Your Beginning

Baby nectarineMany of us expect the storycrafting process to follow the flow of the story. You write the beginning first, the middle after that, and then conclude once you’ve gotten to the climax of the action. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, you get to a point in the story when you realize that your narrative has completely turned around in your hands. You might see exactly where you need to take the story, and you might love where it’s headed – but good God, are you unsure about the beginning.

In times like these, the important thing to do is to keep going. Writers can produce mediocre or even terrible work whenever they feel like it, and we so rarely get those moments of really knowing exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a novel when one of those moments hits you. Follow the good stuff, and worry about fixing your beginning once you’ve completed the draft.

Of course, fixing the beginning is much easier said than done. When my second half of a story deviates wildly from the first, I sometimes find myself completely rewriting the beginning. This is just as much hard work as it sounds; the silver lining is that I know which events I need to foreshadow, which characters are going to take priority in their development, and which themes I need to introduce as the story gets rolling.

If you’re struggling through a narrative when you’re struck by sudden inspiration, it can be tempting to ignore the bright light and keep trying to elevate your mediocre story. Make the radical change instead. It’s going to take work and time, but plodding on with your current course is probably going to take more work and more time. Go with the inspirational moment, even if it means you have to completely rewrite your story’s beginning.

Showing vs. Telling: A Cognitive Approach

Coloured bottles with ripple, vignette and maskMy mother says that I talk in riddles, and she’s more correct than I like to admit most of the time. I do have a tendency to state the facts that lead to what I’m trying to say, and then leave off the bit where I actually say it.

I didn’t develop this tendency by accident. As a writer of fiction, I’ve been trained to ‘show’ information to my readers rather than ‘tell’ it to them. On one level, this is a matter of choosing vivid imagery and using efficient language. On another, more philosophical level, this is about asking my readers to understand my writing differently than they understand other kinds of prose.

When I write a technical or legal piece, it’s absolutely my business to ‘tell’ my reader what I want to say. My readers are busy, and I have a lot of information I need to get across. I take pains in these instances to walk my reader through the process of understanding my ideas. I spell out the premises and conclusions of every argument, and I make every effort to spare my reader the task of digesting my information.

When I write a work of fiction, on the other hand, I keep in mind that my readers want to go through a couple of extra cognitive steps to understand my ideas. Although I need to provide enough information that my readers can pick up an accurate picture of what I’m saying, part of the fun of reading a work of fiction comes from the unconscious process of ‘connecting the dots.’

This isn’t to say that your fiction needs to be enigmatic or so puzzling that your readers could spend all day trying to figure out what you’re getting at. Indeed, it shouldn’t take more than a moment of thought for you reader to fill in the gaps between the facts you present. When you find the right balance between too much and too little explicitly stated information in your prose, your readers will have all the delight of solving a riddle without having to put in much effort at all.

Making Sure Your Writing Has a Job to Do

SainfoinNow and then, I come across a scene in my writing that I desperately want to like. It might be beautifully written, or it might contain some interesting details, or it might contain a charming minor character. Nonetheless, the scene comes across as lackluster and screams “delete me” at full volume. More often then not, this is because the scene isn’t doing enough work for my narrative.

A good story is like a well-designed machine. All of its parts work well together, and no part is left unemployed. A bloated narrative is hard to follow and tends to bore your reader. If you want to make sure that your stories are lean, mean, reader-engaging machines, you should make sure that every scene is doing plenty of work for your story.

Its is not enough for a scene to “add to the scenery description” or “add to the character development.” Your strongest scenes will do two or three different jobs for your story, and if you want to succeed as a commercial writer, your work needs to be entirely composed of your strongest scenes. If you like a scene but don’t know if you need it, ask yourself what it’s contributing to the story. Is there information elsewhere that you could convey in this scene instead? If so, then great! You can shorten a less interesting part of your narrative and help this scene be stronger and more useful.

Being efficient with your writing is more than a matter of wise word choice and effective sentence structure. It also involves making sure that every scene in your story contributes to more than one element of your narrative. Although you don’t want to overburden your scenes, making sure that they’re all gainfully employed is an important part of strengthening your writing.

Getting in the Write Place

Pellet stoveWhen I was younger, I could and would write anywhere – much to the chagrin of my schoolteachers and well-meaning relatives. As long as I had my notebook and a working pen, I found that I could drown out the world around me and get lost in whatever story I was working on at the time.

Although that skill hasn’t entirely disappeared over time, I do find myself somewhat more easily distracted these days. It’s one thing to sit down and get lost in a writing project when you’re a high school student with little else to do with your time, but it’s an entirely different game trying to focus on your writing when you’ve got a million other important projects to attend to. This is why I’ve found it helpful to set aside a space in my house where I work on my writing projects and nothing else – no housework, no paperwork,  and certainly no socializing.

I jokingly (and sometimes not-so-jokingly) refer to this space in my basement as my ‘dungeon,’ but in truth I find it rather freeing to sit myself down in a place I’ve come to associate with focusing on my work. It functions not only as my office, but also as my escape from the numerous distracting little tasks that can pull me away from a project and keep me mired indefinitely while I finish ‘one more chore.’ It helps me take my projects seriously, give them the full attention they deserve, and maintain the job/life balance that can be so hard to keep when you work from home.

Of course, I haven’t always been able to dedicate a space entirely to writing, and I know that it’s not an option for many people. You don’t have to have a dedicated office set up in order to give yourself a space where you write. What matters is that you assign something – be it a spot on the couch, an hour or three after work, or a seat at the library – to the task of writing, and that you stick with that assignment. You’ll be amazed at how quickly your projects grow once you give them some space of their own.

Perfect Pacing

SnailWhether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, the speed at which a story moves is very important to us. A story that crawls along is not likely to be interesting enough to hold our interest, while a story that whips past us at light speed is liable to confuse us too much to keep reading it. Many beginning writers struggle with pacing, but it’s easy to fine-tune your skills by thinking about your story as a collection of blocks of information.

Some of us have learned in school to think of a story in terms of introduction, exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement. While this formal division can be useful, there’s no reason you shouldn’t customize it to fit your story’s narrative. Try describing your story as you would to a stranger in ten sentences or less. Each of these sentences will represent a block of information that your reader needs to understand in order to grasp your overall narrative.

Once you have a good idea of what your reader needs to know, give yourself a strict budget of words you can use to get that information across. Sticking to this budget can be hard. You’ll soon discover which parts of the narrative you tend to gloss over and which parts you tend to overburden with language. Once you’ve recognized these weak spots, you can practice writing them until they come a little more naturally. This will help you even out your pacing, and the overall effort of sticking to your word budget will help you get a feel for pacing.

A short story will move at a different speed than a long novel, and many writers find they need a little practice when working on a story much longer or shorter than they’re accustomed to writing. Fortunately, working in sections and sticking to a word budget make it easy to improve this important part of story crafting.

On the Joys of Being Wrong

Dcp_0384I literally just bought this computer a month ago, so it’s very important that I not punch the screen. I’ve had to remind myself of this a few times today, because I got about halfway through my latest book and decided that my whole concept is incredibly stupid. The plot isn’t any good, the characters are unlikable, the premise is borderline offensive – oh, God, what am I even doing trying to get this abomination to market?

I had no interest in the actual answer to that question: I was doing the same thing that my readers loved last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Nobody in the midst of a Very Important Writing Crisis wants to hear that they’re doing just fine. If we’re doing just fine, then we’re completely wrong about all the horrible things we’ve been saying about our work, and I have never met a writer who will just accept being wrong when they have their blood pumping.

So, instead of continuing to wring my hands and berate my poor little novella, I went fishing. I got the first mosquito welts of the season, I aggravated my chest cold, and I didn’t land a thing longer than my ring finger, and it was fantastic. I got to ruminate on the weather, on keeping my lure out of the weeds, on the exact identity of that smell coming from behind that concrete thing – in short, on anything but my Very Important Writing Crisis.

When I returned, it was as if a miracle had happened. I could pinpoint one spot – a dialogue between two characters that doesn’t last 250 words – that had created the sense of weakness I had about the whole narrative. With a few lines deleted and a few lines added, I had the passage carrying the information it needed to get across. It turned out that I was wrong about the Very Important Writing crisis I’d been having, and I was distracted enough that I could finally shrug and say, “yeah, okay” about it.

It doesn’t always take a fishing trip to resolve my Very Important Writing Crises. Sometimes, cleaning the kitchen or taking a dance break (or both at the same time!) will get me removed enough from my pity party that I can take a more objective look at the piece. I’m sure different people have different things that work for them – the important thing is that you eventually accept that you are, in this instance, wrong.