Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Personal Anecdote, Writing 101

Phone a Friend!

Hey comrades!

I know it’s been awhile (when have you heard me say that before?) but it’s time once again to talk writing. Today, I want to help you feel more comfortable about sharing your new (or old!) piece with a fellow writer that you trust. We’re calling this episode: Phone a Friend.

I was coming back from my bachelorette party this past weekend in NOLA (YES! It was that awesome.) and my riding companion allowed me to interrupt her social media binge to discuss where I was in my book with like 100 characters, 30 plot lines, and worldbuilding a semi-complicated societal structure. (She’s one of my bridesmaids and best friends. She has been a phenomenal beta reader for me, and she also happens to be an effective, amazing life coach – check out Anna Marie when you get a chance and listen to her podcast. Trust me…she’s worth it!) I then commence to tell her that I’ve been thinking about changing my original format and, instead, focusing each book on one character and that character’s individual subplot while all the books share a progressive, overarching main plot. (Much like my beloved J.R. Ward does in her (insert smack smack noises here) delicious Black Dagger Brotherhood series.

Without missing a beat, she looks at me with a side eye and says, “Wait. I thought that was what you were always doing?” She then breaks down some great advice and offers some suggestions to make it more engaging and enjoyable to my readers. It was invaluable to me. That’s why she’s always one of my go-to’s for advice or for beta reading. However, Anna Marie is NOT my only go-to (which I am sure she is thankful for by the way…). Each writer or creator (of anything) needs a tight unit of trusted, supportive voices to go to for bouncing off ideas, getting a ‘reality’ check, or finding a cheerleader. This group is otherwise known as – the mastermind circle.

Every writer needs a mastermind circle just like every NASCAR driver needs a pit crew.

In NASCAR, the pit crew refuels the car, changes the tires, does any necessary repairs, and makes mechanical adjustments… in seconds. We need the same thing! You need a small group of writers, editors, agents, readers, or some combination of the above that you can trust (people you’ve met networking, friends like mine, fans, or maybe even family members) who are SUPPORTIVE of your work. You must choose those whose number one intention is to be of service to your work, to your visions, and to your goals. They will help you by going the extra mile with critiques on ideas and storylines. They can tell you where there’s a plot hole or too much plot. Occasionally, they can be the ones to tell you when it’s just time to take a break or let go.

Writing is a solitary business by trade, but it is a team sport in practice. The writer is connected to the agent/publisher (if you’ve gone the traditional route), the editors or beta readers, and the final readers. We tell the stories of whole other worlds and our small, individual ones. So, it helps to invite others in and use that help to polish our completed product. I encourage you to seek other writers, some friends, or a writing coach (shameless plug!) to help you through. Don’t be afraid to phone a friend. They may have the answers you’ve been looking for all along.

Tell us in the comments if this resonates with your experiences as a writer or who you go to in your time of need!

As always, I can’t wait to read what you’re writing!

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Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Personal Anecdote, Writing 101

The Write Way to “Show; Don’t Tell!”

Have you ever had a writing coach/professor or perhaps an editor/publisher tell you something like this: “Good writers tell the reader what’s happening, but [great] writers show the reader?” Most of us have, and, if you’re like me the first time I heard it, you may have held back a cacophony of expletives. What does that old adage, “show; don’t tell,” mean? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the elementary school tradition of bringing your puppy or a cool seashell from the beach to school?

Let’s keep it simple:

The puppy and the seashell have something in common. They’re powerful visuals. Students can absolutely fumble their way through the “Mommy said YES to the puppy” speech or where they found the shell, but the honest truth is that by showing the class their puppy and seashell, the other students were able to fill in most of the blanks and tell themselves the rest of the story.

Keynote: To show in writing means to use strong imagery and effective scenarios so that audiences don’t require much narrative to fill in the blanks.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth was sad, therefore uninterested in conversation with her friends.

ShowingElizabeth did not make any of her usual stops on the way to her desk this morning. She bypassed Tom’s raised hand, ignored Mary’s offer for raspberry donuts, a first, and cut straight through the advertising team without joining them for a customary Monday cup of Joe. When she sank down at the computer, Elizabeth hoped no one noticed the one tear escaping her eye.

There’s a stark contrast, right? The same information is conveyed in both examples. However, one of them is stronger and more engaging, which is always your goal. Let’s notice that showing took a much higher word count, 10 words as opposed to 59!

Be aware that “showing” often requires the use of more expressive language, so it will generally not help you cut from a story that is too long. However, it can be the magic maker when your project doesn’t have enough words.

 

CAUTION: Even though writers hear this particular literary critique often, please be careful. The unspoken truth that many other writing coaches and editors don’t want to tell you is that “showing” can make your work drag. You never want to make your reader feel like they’re wasting time. Sometimes brevity is just as, if not more engaging, than verbosity. So, there are times when I encourage you to get to the point.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth hated Monday and all the crazy that came with it.

ShowingElizabeth knew it was the detestable first day of the work week by the way her alarm clock seemed so much louder than on other days and further away from her previously resting form. Once she’d silenced the menace, she sat up in bed and contemplated calling in sick from work so she could avoid all the cat-callers at the construction site in her neighborhood, the weird religious nut who rode her train every morning, and the annoying new assistant at her job who jabbered on until lunch.

 

This type of mellifluous prose sounds pretty, but it is not adding to the story. If these minor details are important enough for me to want to convey them to my readers, then I can show these details in action as my character moves throughout the day, or I can add them in as I write over time. Writing over time is the art of creating time progression in your piece. When done masterfully, it can allow you to slip in little details about your characters without throwing them at the reader all at once. It is a great tool for showing appropriately and telling moderately.

How do you learn how to write like that? Easy! I keep a checklist: Verbs, Adverbs, Characters/Dialogue, Setting. These are the 4 key places most writers can focus on to improve their “showing” and “telling.”

 

STRONG, SPECIFIC VERBS:

Rule 1: Choose the right verb for the right sentence. There are so many ways to express an action in English. Sometimes the easiest method to “show” versus “tell” comes just by choosing a more specific form of the verb you’ve already written.

Example:

Telling:    The dog ate his bone.

Showing: The dog devoured his bone. 

                  The dog nibbled his bone.

                  The dog gorged on his bone.

You can immediately tell the difference. Sometimes the fastest way to improve your writing is to just grab your closest thesaurus and jump in!

 

ADVERBS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS:

Rule 2: Use adverbs as a last resort. I guarantee that every show and tell slipup is connected in some way to adverb use. I, too, like the occasional modifier for verbs (not so much for my adjectives). However, most editors frown upon adverbs because they are rendered unnecessary by Rule 1. Correct verb choices often limit the need for adverbs. It also helps to give the reader a scene or situation that illustrates the moment being described.

Example:

Telling:    Her heart beat steadily with fear. 

Showing: Her heart quaked with fear. Each time she opened her mouth, shallow breaths stuttered in and out. Her palm was sweaty, so the microphone in her hand didn’t have a chance. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the poor girl ran offstage.

 

LET YOUR CHARACTERS/DIALOGUE DO THE WORK:

Rule 3: Use your characters’ unique voices to evoke emotion from readers. Every feeling and detail does not require explicit explanations for readers to understand your meaning or gain depth. There is a lot of information that can be expressed through character actions and interactions as well as dialogue. Allow your characters to bring us into their story.

Example:

Telling:    It was obvious to Brian that Emilia and Jarvis were an item, or at least used to be, and the atmosphere of the room became subtly discomforting as they exchanged passive-aggressive pleasantries. Brian wanted to crawl out of his skin in his desire to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Showing: Brian looked between the two, wondering if this was what Alex had tried to warn him about. He cleared his throat, “So, now that we’re here–“

                  “That’s a nice jacket,” Emilia cut Brian off without taking her eyes off of Jarvis. Her lips lifted at the corners, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

                 “Thanks. It was a gift.” Jarvis didn’t bother with the smile.

                 “Interesting,” she replied, “From Belgium, I presume?” It sounded more like a statement.

                 “No. Morroco.”

                “I thought you’d never been to Morroco.” Her tone might have been sharper than she’d intended. Her lips flipped in the other direction.

                “Not with you.” Jarvis’s smile did come to his eyes.

               “Well! Look at the time!” Brian pulled his sleeve over an empty wrist and tripped over his shoelaces trying to grab the doorknob. “It’s been a great meeting everyone. Same time next week!”

SET THE SCENE:

Rule 4: Let your setting say more than you do. Think about how you can utilize the five senses in your story and try to draw them out as much as possible. Don’t simply describe the scene; take us there with you. Reveal to the reader what you see; play the sounds you want them to hear; and give them a sweet or sour taste in their mouth from having visited.

Example:

Telling:    It was a dark and stormy night as Allison made her way to the castle.

Showing: Allison no longer felt the shivers traveling through her long cloak. Everything from the long dark hairs on her head down to her toes in the leather, riding boots was numb. The reins in her hands slipped several times from wet, and she’d long since given up hope of being able to see past her horse’s head. She could only trust the mount to have better eyesight than she in this heavy wind and unforgiving onslaught. All around she could smell mold and mildew and leather as her party pushed forward towards their journey’s end. As they continued, a vast shape in the distance broke through the dark night at last. The familiar towers with their rising parapets rose like hands of God to tear the sky. Allison sucked in cold rain and bits of ice, but it didn’t matter. She could see the end. Home.

 

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed today’s post! I also hope that you take these steps into consideration during your current or next project. If you have other rules for “showing vs telling” or alternative feelings on this topic PLEASE leave a comment and help educate our growing community here. Please link us to some of your work or your blogs!

As always:

I’m excited to read what you’re writing!

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Book Reviews, Personal Anecdote

“Children of Blood and Bone” – A Review

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1)Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an EXCELLENT piece of writing, and I am so proud of Ms. Adeyemi for her fearlessness in presenting the voice of the instantly classic female heroines, Zélie and Amari. It often boggles my mind that, as open, far-reaching, and stereotype-pushing as Fantasy and Science Fiction wants to be, this beloved genre often falls prey to the same institutional biases that it rails against. I’m speaking specifically to the issues of race and culture. There are not enough SF/F novels based on or inspired by the civilizations outside of Western (Anglo/Euro) culture or influence.

Warriors still have codes that mimic the tenets of European “chivalry” during the Middle Ages, wizards are still old, mottled, grey-haired white or pale-skinned males, and a protagonist can come in every color but brown, red, or black. And there will never be enough female representation, even though on that front we are FINALLY making gains.

No longer. This book is a war cry that sets itself apart from the typical SF/F read while also holding true to the best parts of the genre that we love: magic, intrigue, star-crossed love, war, epic battles, and the power of one’s destiny.

You are IMMEDIATELY pulled into the world of Orïsha, and despite its MANY faults, by the end of the novel, you want to burn your passport and claim your citizenship. The images are so vibrant and effortless that the people and places leap off of the pages and tell you their story face to face.

I also love the many cultural references to Africa and the African Diaspora. The attire, the languages, the names, the perspectives are all beautiful.

But more importantly, her message in this novel is timely and relevant. We are in a world where marginalized voices can no longer remain in their corners while injustices flood our streets and news channels. We live in a world where hashtags can be conflated with oppression, and that same oppression is force fed to us in media outlets and by political pundits/talking heads. THIS NOVEL rallies against all of it. It is our anger, it is our frustration, it is our fear, it is our shame, and it is our hope. It is our faith.

I can’t wait to reread it (took me 2-3 days the first time). I devoured it the first time, so now I want to savor every syllable. I’m so thankful for the inspiration this novel has given me to finish my own. And I’m even more thankful for this novel (upcoming series!) for giving me the RIGHT to stand in my truths. Our truths.

Because this isn’t about some of us….when you read this book, you will understand that is about ALL of us. As Zélie, Amari, Tzain, Inan, and many others learn in this great fantasy: We are all “Children of Blood and Bone.”

View all my reviews on GoodReads

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Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Writing 101

5 Steps to Better World Building

There’s something so captivating about a fictional setting that lulls you into submission. However, there’s also something so disappointing about a world that’s unfortunately “beyond belief.”

Every writer and poet can benefit from a lesson or review in worldbuilding because every story has a setting that occurs in some form of time and space. The best storytellers (including nonfiction writers!) can craft a world around their protagonists that becomes a character of its own, that lives and breathes, and that acts upon the protagonists in the story with as much intensity as any villain or friend.

There are countless examples of authors who give us worlds that we are just as enamored and enthralled with as we are with the characters that made them famous. From J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind-blowing land of elves and orcs in the award-winning The Lord of the Rings series to the engaging landscape of 1980s Iran from the mind of 14-years-old Marjane Satrapi in the nonfiction graphic novel Persepolis

So how do YOU do it? Well, we’re going to look at some of the greats at this. As I said, there are COUNTLESS writers we can point to…these are just some of my favorites. Feel free to give some examples of your own in the comments below!

Here are my 5 fool-proof starter steps to worldbuilding:

1. There’s a science to this thing.

You don’t have to get Star Wars technical about how you write your next great literary work, but trust me that it does need to make sense. Our suspension of disbelief does not qualify you to suspend good effort from the backstory. Your world should be self-explanatory and answer some key questions about why your setting is the way it is or how it came to be. Don’t just say it…make me believe it.

       

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For the same reason that Newton’s apple fell out of the tree in the real world, the laws of physics (or possibly lack thereof) should apply in ways your readers can wrap their minds around. Just because you have a futuristic sci-fi thriller that involves instantaneous time travel, does not mean you get to jump over the small details. What kind of change does that have on the time stream or the human body? Does your story involve magic? Well, magic has rules just like everything else in the world. Does it work like a muscle from the inside out that one has to develop or does it work like a tool from the outside in that one has to master?

If you are writing an epic fantasy, please be aware that armies do not move thousands of men across vast distances in days…or even weeks….in the olden days, it could take years to get armed military forces, supplies, rations, weapons, and animals from one place to the next. In HBO’s TV adaptation (“Game of Thrones”) of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, multiple epic plot points of the storyline happen in between military movements, in castles far from the bloodshed. So, keep these things in mind as you’re creating the plot line and building up to the epic battle scenes of your story.

       

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If you’ve built a world that is expansive, be prepared to play the long game with yourself. Travel over mountains and valleys, desserts and snowy terrain, marsh and beaches. How are the supplies ferried from wherever they come from to the troops? Are there weak points in this system that the enemy can exploit? Who are the major players making these decisions? Who are the major players on the ground working with and over the troops? Do they have the same agenda?

If it takes years to get where you want to go in your story because the world you’ve built has to be explored and the science or geography has to be explained, then tell us what is happening during the down time to build up to that climatic moment in the book (or series)? What is building up in the world, in the warring communities, to key individuals and organizations? Make the world you’ve built for your characters work for you, not against you. 

2. Define points of interest.

I see new writers (and even some veterans) who mess this up in their worldbuilding frequently, so it ranks pretty high on my list. At some point in the writing process, a writer can get so excited about their work and the world they are describing that they take us on a literary tour of every place and point of interest. Well, just like every country has its capitol cities and points of interest, so too should your story, book or poem. If there are a myriad of amazing places to visit in the world you are creating, then that is awesome. We want to read about them all…just not in the same chapter and sometimes not even in the same book.

There are sequels for a reason.

There are novellas and literary accompaniments (like guidebooks or maps) for a reason. 

Personally, I think a great example of how to do this well is J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. If you haven’t read this dark, paranormal romance then you should. It’s littered with amazing, indecent leading males and females who cover the gamut of hotness, ferocity and chivalry. It is also an epic example of worldbuilding in the modern era. Set in the real life borough of Caldwell, New York, the Brotherhood fight a hidden battle that goes from the city streets to the rural farmlands to underground hospitals to a mansion in the woods to a cave in the mountains to so on and so forth. However, most of each novel takes place in no more than two or three locations. 

Over the course of 15 plus books, two spin-off series, and a host of novellas and anthology short stories, Ward has taken us through every nook and cranny of this would-be small setting, expanding it with relish and fervor in our minds. But she never felt the need to give us too much at once. As you build the world your characters live in make sure that the major plot points are happening in a manageable amount of places. Not only does it help you keep your story from running away from you, but your reader can process these snapshots of places in each story much more than they can handle being ridden around the globe in every novel you write.  

3. A good setting is organic…it develops.

The trick to this is that you can’t be afraid of change. I know what you’re thinking. “I spent so much time creating this idea and making it work….” And it can continue to work, but don’t be so frigid about the how. The same way that characters can grow and develop in ways you didn’t originally plan, so can your characters’ world. Maybe the endless universe suddenly comes to an end or the someone kicks over the playground bully’s bike for the first time. Whether the change is small or grand, it doesn’t matter. Epic comes in all sizes.

In the Harry Potter series, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a perfect case; the entire setting is actually created to shift at will with moving staircases and rooms that change positions and characters in paintings who go from frame to frame throughout the castle. Hogwarts also undergoes numerous transformations during the Golden Trio’s (Harry, Ron and Hermoine’s) time. These changes were not just the physical sort as when the school regenerated itself after the major battle of the last book, but also in the nature of how Rowling described Hogwarts according to what was going on in each novel. 

There was a sense of awe and amazement during the first novel as Harry acclimated himself to the Wizarding World, and as time went on the magical happenings of Hogwarts began to be described as more and more commonplace because both the main character and the readers were growing accustomed to it. Another example is the atmosphere of the books during Hogwarts’s takeover by the corrupt Ministry of Magic. It goes from being a safe, secure haven to being the threshold of the enemy. Things get darker and heinous very quickly in the same place where peace and joy once reigned.

   

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Rowling’s ability to take the same setting and play on different emotions based off of the needs of the scene is amazing. She demonstrates how influential both physical and metaphysical changes in worldbuilding can be. Keep this in mind as you work through your own manuscripts. Are you taking advantage of changes in season, day and night, destruction of important or holy places or maybe even the creation of them to add a different dimension to your story?

4. The setting and the plot should mirror.

This step goes hand in hand with the previous one. Just as your setting should develop along with your plot line, it helps to paint a picture for the reader if the setting and plot mirror each other as well.  Take for example, the dystopian page-turner Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins about a girl from an outlying, poor district of the fictional country of Panem accidentally getting in the middle of a rebellion to overthrow the country’s despot. Katniss could have grown up in the Middle Ages for all the poverty, wildness and brutality of her original home, District 12, verses the vibrant El Dorado of The Capitol.


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The series (and movies) also take us through technologically advanced training and monitoring centers …


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…as well a harsh and unforgiving wilderness where the children of this country do battle.


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The genius of Collins’s writing style is that the various settings of Panem play together in such a way as to show the depths of the hypocrisy, classicism, and machiavellianism that run rampant in this culture. The setting pushes the plot without any of the characters necessarily pointing it out. Their reactions and responses to each new place (and how these responses differ from character to character) add a unique layer to the overall themes and arc of the story.

5. Make your setting is the main character of your story.

To help keep that organic flow we discussed earlier, you have to think of your setting like it’s another character. What is its backstory? Is it the protagonist or the antagonist? If your world could make a wish, what would it would wish for? Who or what is standing in the way?

When worldbuilding you have to have a setting that is as integral to the storyline as the characters themselves. There’s something very anticlimactic about a reading a book, thinking it’s well-written, but it could have taken place anywhere. This was my foremost thought after reading Soundless by critically-acclaimed author Richelle Mead. Now, I’ll mention Ms. Mead again in subsequent posts because I really am a huge fan of her work. Her YA series Vampire Academy and its spin-off Bloodlines totally inspire me as far as emphasizing the diversity of feminine strength and the power of being able to write distinct roles for girls that do not succumb to the same modern pitfalls of most novels.

However, Soundless, a story about an ancient Chinese girl from an isolated, deaf-mute village in the mountains who wakes up one day as the first person in generations who can hear, does not meet the mark as Mead’s previous stories did. It wasn’t the characters who were an eclectic mix of youth battling between the traditions of the past and needs of the future or the storyline which had ample plot twists (though the ending was quite contrived). The most basic issue I had with the novel was that it could have happened anywhere. I kept asking myself, “Why is this girl Chinese? Why a mountain? Why not Polynesian and on an island or Scottish-American living on a rural farm?” The characters didn’t the setting, and the setting didn’t need the characters. Their relationship was accommodating towards each other at best.

Remember that you can’t force your characters into a world that doesn’t make sense or force your world to adhere to pre-created plot points for your characters. Don’t build up how treacherous a mountain is or how rare the golden goose egg is and then every five chapters someone finds a new egg or scales the mountain with only a few bruises and scrapes. And never write a story where the world you’ve set it in is unimportant to the storyline. It’s one of the most important characters you can write.

I hope that these steps help you on your journey towards crafting a better work of art. Writing is something that you have to work at, and you’ll find that all the magic happens in the editing. My goal is that this guide makes your process that much more effective and thoughtful.

Are these helpful hints for you or were you expecting something else entirely? There are so many points to better worldbuilding or other books and stories that make great examples beyond the ones mentioned here. Share in the comments what books you would have chosen or which steps help you in your process? This way we all get to be a part of the process.

Don’t forget to share!

I can’t wait to read what you’re writing! 

—xoxo MéShelle

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Personal Anecdote

How I Knew I Had to Write…

Not everyone can say they’ve been writing their whole life, including me.

My relationship with the “ink and quill” didn’t formally kick off until I was 10 years old.  Half bribed, half dragged into a chair by my 5th grade teacher, I had a piece of paper and a pencil, plus the promise that I could skip leaving the classroom for lunch, recess, art, and music class so I would have time to finish a poem on “Backgrounds” for some arbitrary competition. [More on that poem and the significance of it in my life….on a later date!] Why would I be so lucky as to skip all of my FAVORITE out-of-class activities? My teacher waited until the last day for submission to tell me that there was even a contest. Well, obviously I was excited about rising to the occasion (although I silently resented missing lunch with my friends to eat by myself in the classroom), and I knew I wouldn’t need that many hours to complete the task. As a matter of fact, I set a goal to be finished before the music ended with enough time to sing a few bars before art. I reached that goal and then some. My piece that was barely submitted on time ranked #1 in the Clayton County School District and continued on to place in the top 10 in the state of Georgia.

That went a long way to boost the confidence of a kid who’d just hit double digits and felt like it was time to start making something of herself. Great grades just weren’t as exciting or challenging for me by that time (and to be honest, that trend would become a problem for me in college, but that’s for another post!), so I needed an outlet. Writing seemed like an interesting venture. I’d never competed against myself before that moment.

I had a lot of pent up words to share…even if I just shared with myself.

So, I started with notes and poems and thoughts. Suddenly, everyone knew about my award-winning debut as a poet. There were spare journals, diaries, notebooks and all manner of floral, sparkly, pastel stationery in my room. They seemed to be taking root and sprouting out of the walls, under the covers, inside the drawers and behind the closed doors of the closet. Every birthday, Christmas, moving day, spring cleaning, or “just because it’s Wednesday” gift featured something to write with or on. The expectation was obvious, yet mostly unspoken….so was the pressure. Continue reading

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