Old Manuscripts and New Beginnings

Hello, dear readers! Today I’d like to share a little about where I’m at in my writing career, and what you can expect from me in the near future. Some new paths are being explored and new doors are opening!

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First things first: my feature film screenplay, To Kill a Secret, was recently chosen as one of the Quarterfinalists in the international BlueCat Screenplay Competition! I am beyond thrilled. A few years ago, I never would have guessed that I’d become a screenwriter, but when I started learning the craft in 2016, I became hooked almost immediately. Screenwriting is now very dear to my heart and I can’t wait to see if my screenplay advances any further in this competition, or in any of the other contests I entered that have yet to announce winners. Stay tuned!

Now that the writing part of my screenplay is done and I’m moving forward with marketing it, I’ve sensed that it’s time to shift focus and work on one of my novels for a while. Although becoming a screenwriter was a surprise to me, I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to be a novelist. But there’s one very important step to becoming a novelist: you have to actually finish a novel.

When I was about 13, I finished an endearingly immature novel that I called Valiant. Thankfully, that story was never published, though it remains special to me in spite of all its flaws (some of which I discussed in the Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self blog posts).

In the years following Valiant, I jotted down more book concepts, composed more short stories, and began writing more novels than I can remember. I did plenty of writing during that time, but because I was a kid/teen, my attention flip-flopped repeatedly and I never stayed focused on one book long enough to finish it. As it turns out, that was probably a good thing, because I didn’t have the maturity or the writing experience to create a really good novel yet. But those years were important for cementing my love of writing and my obsession with telling stories.

As I entered adulthood, I decided to make another go at writing a complete novel. Although I had dozens of story concepts to choose from, I ended up creating an intensely-remodeled version of my Valiant story, this time under the working title Believe. I got quite far with it, racking up over 77,000 words and taking the story to its climax. Then life happened, and I had to put the unfinished manuscript aside because I was just too busy. Thankfully, I was busy partly because I was learning a lot more about writing!

As I grew as a writer, new story concepts entered my head (actually, new story concepts enter my head almost constantly; I have never understood how writers could run out of things to write about!). These concepts were typically much better than any I’d had as a kid. (One of them was Dr. Flynn’s Shelter for Peculiar Animals.)

As I collected more of these concepts, I experimented by planning and writing pieces of some of them. I mostly forgot about Believe. The more I learned about writing, the more I realized how much work my old manuscript would need. Although Believe was still special to me, I shelved the idea and assumed it was something I’d return to in about ten years, after I’d published a few novels based on my newer concepts.

That brings me to the present day. Some changes are happening in my life again (good changes, never fear!) and it’s time for me to really and truly embark on this adventure of being a professional author—not a hobbyist writer, but a focused professional. To Kill a Secret is a big part of this venture. But the other part is that I need to finally devote myself to one novel and refuse to budge from it until it’s finished and ready to market to agents and publishers.

As this awareness has grown in me, I’ve been exploring it with a lot of thought and prayer. Mainly, I’ve been praying about which novel God wants me to focus on, because I’m determined not to start-and-stop anymore. I thought Dr. Flynn’s Shelter for Peculiar Animals would probably be “the one.” It’s a concept that I love, I’ve gotten good feedback on, and that I’ve done a lot of planning for.

But a couple of weeks ago, I felt led to dig through all my binders, notebooks, and folders and get my story concepts organized so that, whenever the time comes to work on them, I have everything for each story in one place. In the course of this organization, I found the print-out of my old Believe manuscript, which I hadn’t touched in years. I also found my old notes and scribblings for Valiant and its series, the precursors to Believe. Intrigued and more than a little nostalgic, I read over my Believe manuscript.

If you had told me that this old story of mine, which has been with me for half my life and needs tons of work, would be the novel God told me to focus on, I would not have believed you (pun intended). But as I read over it, I realized that in spite of the work that needs to be done, there’s actually a lot of good stuff in Believe. It’s not great. But it’s rewritable, and as many authors will tell you, the novel usually takes shape during rewriting. And, no small bonus, there’s already 77,000 words written of the first draft.

But don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t only reasoning that drew me to Believe. God just gradually made it clear that this is the novel I should work on. Once I finally settled on Believe as “the one,” I prayed for God to give me the right title because, let’s face it, the first thing that needed to change was the vague and uninteresting title.

And then I hit a wall. I expected God to tell me the title with hardly any effort or waiting. Instead, He took me on a mini-journey. I studied titles for popular books to see how they were structured and how they related to their plots. I jotted down tons of title options as I prayed and thought, but none of them seemed right.

You see, part of the problem was that this story has been with me for so long. It began when I was a kid, when I didn’t know anything about crafting a novel, and went through plenty of metamorphosis after that. This wasn’t just about God giving me a title; I needed Him to tell me what the story, at its core, actually was. That’s why I couldn’t just settle on a working title and move on.

Last night, the title finally came to me. I had been looking through some of my favorite Bible verses and jotted the phrase down without much thought. Then as I looked back over my list of title ideas, it stood out to me. I looked up some other verses with the phrase, and suddenly it just seemed to embody everything that this novel is about.

I won’t share all the details now, because I think that would spoil the novel. But for the foreseeable future, I plan to be working on this novel that has been retitled…The Edge of the Sword. My first order of business is to finish up the first draft. Then, I have lots of worldbuilding and planning to do, then rewriting, then sharing the manuscript with beta-readers, editing again, and eventually, sending it to agents and publishers.

I appreciate prayers as I embark on this new undertaking! I am excited and humbled by everything God has already done in my life through this story. I can’t wait for the day I get to share it with all of you.

Check back on the blog and my Facebook page for writing updates!

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Lessons From Literature: Reader Immersion in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Hello dear friends! I apologize that my Lessons from Literature series got interrupted; some personal things came up (nothing terrible, just lots to attend to) and so I couldn’t work on my blog the way I wanted to. But I have returned!

Welcome to the fourth and final Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a “children’s” novel: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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Yes, that’s right: I read the Harry Potter series for the first time in 2017. Growing up, my family was one of many Christian households that forbade the reading of Harry Potter books, and for me personally, I think it’s better that I read the series later in life. However, the focus of this blog post is not to evaluate the acceptability, or lack thereof, of Rowling’s magical tales. Rather, I want to explore the best writing lesson I took away from her stories, particularly the first book.

One of the main reasons I decided to read the Harry Potter books is that I wanted to see what made them so popular. As an aspiring novelist, particularly of middle grade and YA fiction, I thought there could be a lot to glean from examining Rowling’s writing. As it turned out, I was right (I usually am, hehe).

Lesson from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Leave room in your storyworld for your readers.

I’ve noticed that some of the most enduringly popular fantasy stories provide their readers with a way to “enter” the storyworld. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast Middle-earth can become an elf, dwarf, or hobbit during any number of centuries of history. Those who open The Chronicles of Narnia can easily imagine themselves slipping into a magic wardrobe, or falling through a magic picture.

In Rowling’s case, she designed her fantasy world to exist alongside the real world. It’s not hard for her readers to imagine that their Hogwarts letter simply got waylaid, or to figure out which of the four Hogwarts Houses they would belong to. Rowling told a good story, but she also left room for fans to make her fantasy world their own.

When you write, you don’t have to create a fantasy world that’s connected to our world—in fact, you don’t have to create a fantasy world at all—in order to find Rowling’s lesson useful. Consider this: is the story you’re writing “big” enough for readers to step inside, or is there only space for your characters?

To use a widely-known example, it’s not particularly easy to place yourself in the world of Snow White, at least as the original fairy tale stands. You might be able to imagine yourself as Snow White, or the prince, or maybe one of the dwarves (hopefully not the evil queen), but there’s no space in the story for other characters, including the readers. It’s all about Snow White and what happens to her. That’s as big as the world gets.

Rowling, on the other hand, creates a very “roomy” storyworld. Even though the books focus on Harry, the framework of the world can support any number of new characters. Not every student at Hogwarts is named; one of them could very well be you (at least in your imagination). Not every corner of Diagon Alley is explored; perhaps there’s a hidden shop there that only you know about.

Rowling’s world is also very imaginative and, in spite of the rather troublesome bad guys, it’s the kind of world that most readers would love to visit. This adds to the possibility for reader immersion. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t like to have a pet owl to deliver mail? Or go to school in an old, magical castle?

No matter what kind of storyworld you create, you need to leave space for your readers to become characters. That’s when storyworlds endure throughout lifetimes and even across generations. If you’re writing about a realistic town, does it have a feel of its own—enough to make your readers want to visit the old, mom-and-pop ice cream shop on the corner of Main Street? If you’re writing about a fantasy world, your task is even easier, because you can entice readers with possibilities that the real world lacks.

There’s such a thing as making a storyworld that is too big, or simply spending so much time creating that you never write the actual novel. But don’t be afraid to create. Brainstorm some ideas. What would you like to experience if you were the reader? What would draw you into the storyworld? Who knows, you could write the novel that catches up to Harry Potter’s success. And if you do, please send me a signed copy. 😉

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog series as much as I have. Would you like me to do more Lessons From Literature sometime? Leave me a comment below with your thoughts!

Lessons From Literature: Character Depth in Thor: Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron

Welcome to the third Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a comic book collection: Thor: Goddess of Thunder, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Russell Dauterman and Jorge Molina.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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Yes, that’s right. I’m calling a collection of comic books a piece of literature. Although, I grant you, there are plenty of trashy comics in existence, others provide good examples of storytelling. In our current Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-dominated culture, it might be prudent to examine what the comics are doing for their readers that more “sophisticated” forms of literature are not.

The comics I’m discussing today are five separate issues contained in the single volume Thor: Goddess of Thunder. While I wouldn’t call this collection one of my favorites (mainly because I like older comics better), and while I’ll always prefer the original Thor, I did enjoy the storyline and I learned an important lesson about creating characters.

Lesson from Thor: Goddess of Thunder: Let your powerful characters experience weakness.

In these comics, Thor becomes unworthy of his hammer and a woman (who, in later comics, turns out to be Jane Foster) picks it up instead. The hammer gives Jane the power of Thor, along with much of his knowledge and elements of his personality. What this means, character-wise, for the new Thor is that she simultaneously exhibits Thor’s bravado and her own insecurity. She’s both experienced at the whole superhero-thing, and has no idea what she’s doing.

I thought this paradox created a fascinating character. Especially in these comics, in which Jane first becomes Thor, she can be in the middle of a fight, taunting her enemy, and also wonder how to best wield the hammer. She can face down a death threat without blinking, and also worry about her friends. She can fly into space, and also wonder how to steer. This conflict does a lot to humanize the new Thor, making her both entertaining and relatable.

Powerful characters can be one of the most challenging types to write because they have to be a paradox. If they’re too weak, they’re boring. But if they aren’t weak enough, readers can’t connect with them.

A good way to tell if your character is too strong is to ask, are they too invincible to be troubled by conflict? If the answer is yes, then you need to weaken the character. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, so your characters have to be vulnerable enough to be affected by conflict. Anyone can create a character who can beat up bad guys. But not everyone can make readers care about that character, and you achieve that connection by letting your powerful character experience weakness, particularly any kind of weakness common to the human experience.

I admire the writer’s ability to balance Thor’s strength and uncertainty in this comic collection. Her strength made me cheer for her as a superhero, but her uncertainty touched me as a fellow human. I understood her struggles and felt invested in her success because she had to work for it, in spite of her extreme powers. As a writer, this is definitely a strategy I’ll find valuable in any genre I work with.

What’s another comic series that handles character development well? Leave me a comment below!

Lessons From Literature: Beautiful Prose in Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Welcome to the second Lessons From Literature post! Today we’ll be discussing a classic novel: Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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2017 marks the first time I read a Charles Dickens book. I know, I know, it’s shameful to live so long without at least reading A Christmas Carol. However, I made up for it by reading through Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Hard Times, and Great Expectations in a few months. In fact, I had to read them so quickly (to meet deadlines) that I ended up having to skim sections in the latter three (which broke my heart), so now they’re on my re-reading list.

A lot of books out there are considered “classics,” and I’ve read some that made me wonder, “why on earth is this called good literature?” Charles Dickens’s works, however, can justifiably be called masterpieces. You can ponder the social commentary, admire the intricate plots, and get acquainted with fascinating characters, but my biggest takeaway from Dickens’s works, particularly Bleak House, is his stunningly beautiful use of words.

Lesson from Bleak House: Take the time to write beautiful prose.

There’s a vast difference between slapping words onto paper to convey a concept, and artfully shaping them to tell a story. Some people might not like Dickens’s tendency toward long descriptions, but I often found myself awed by the precision of his words. Take this example from the opening paragraph of Bleak House:

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

There are several elements to notice about Dickens’s prose style, even in this short section. The first is that his novels are not meant to be read quickly (as I can attest). So many books these days are written with rapid-fire words that pound at you to “keep your interest.” Dickens’s writing is different. You have to let the words unfold, give them time to paint a picture in your head—and once you give them time, you’ll have such a wonderfully detailed mental picture, you’ll think you’re standing in the middle of it. When you read these sentences, can you feel the inhospitable weather? Fight against the pull of the mud on your shoes? Shiver from the damp of the sooty snow?

Another part of the magic in Dickens’s words is his use of metaphor. When he writes “as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth,” he’s referencing the account of Noah and the Flood in the Bible. That’s also why he mentions a dinosaur. Because he compares muddy London to an ancient land just freed from the Flood waters, he says it wouldn’t be surprising to see a dinosaur wandering the streets as well. Those kinds of metaphors and images are ones that stick in your readers’ heads—not because they’re outrageous, but because the connection is both logical and marvelous, and because the image is described so solidly. You can’t get a much better image than “waddling like an elephantine lizard.”

Lastly, I love the imagination in Dickens’s descriptions. He tells you exactly how something looks, but he often takes it a step further. He gives the image a bit of fantasy that removes it from the realm of pure reality. Consider the last sentence of this excerpt. Dickens first describes how the smoke mingles with the snow, turning it black. Then he adds that the snowflakes have “gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” By adding this phrase, Dickens invites his readers to do more than “see” the images. He wants readers to interpret the images, to get a deeper meaning out of them that sets the tone for the whole scene. In Dickens’s work, images have great significance to the rest of the story.

As you can tell, I really like Dickens’s prose. But I’m not saying all great writers have to create stories like he did. I don’t even think that’s possible, because every writer has their own voice and style. Consciously trying to replicate Dickens would result in writer’s block more than anything else.

However, I do think we should approach writing as a craft the way that Dickens did. When you read his work, you can feel the care he took in putting words together. Writing is about much more than making sense. It’s about creating a piece of art purely from words.

Lessons From Literature: Originality in Cinder by Marissa Meyer

A-ha, you’ve stumbled onto my latest blog series! Welcome to the first Lessons From Literature post. Today we’ll be discussing a YA novel: Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

Any good writer has to be, first and foremost, a great reader. In this blog series, we’ll explore the writing lessons I learned from some of my favorite 2017 reads. Each post focuses on one major lesson from a single piece of literature that I read for the first time in 2017. These pieces come from all ends of the genre spectrum, from classic novels to comic books, to illustrate that skillful storytelling depends on the writer and not the format.

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Cinder is a difficult book to categorize in a single genre, and that’s what I love about it. The story has elements of fairy tale (because it’s a “Cinderella” retelling), sci-fi (because there are new technologies, people living on the Moon, mind control, and so on), romance (again, “Cinderella” retelling), and dystopia (because there is a worldwide plague, impending war, mutant soldiers, and more).

Lesson from Cinder: Let your imagination remake tradition.

In case you haven’t read the book, here’s a link to its description on Meyer’s website. If I had to summarize Cinder in a single sentence…it’s “Cinderella” set in the future, and the Cinderella character is a cyborg. Yes, you read that right. A CYBORG. Who doesn’t want to read that?!

As you can tell, Cinder was one of my favorite reads from 2017, which surprised me because I don’t usually like YA romance. It tends to be very shallow, both in terms of plot and characters. Moreover, while I do enjoy fairy tale retellings, there are a TON of them out there. Perhaps no fairy tale has been redone as much as “Cinderella.” The glass slipper is wearing thin; ways to make the story fresh and exiting have all but disappeared. That’s why I was so impressed with Cinder.

Meyer didn’t just rearrange the characters and events of “Cinderella” into a new book. She added her own world to the existing story. This is what makes Cinder feel so rich and “big” compared to the original fairy tale, and why it stands out among other retellings. Meyer kept the framework of “Cinderella” and added androids, cyborgs, mind-controlling people from the Moon, a deadly plague, spaceships, marriage alliances, junkyards, a lost princess, a desperate doctor…and on and on.

As a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the magic and depth of Cinder’s storyworld. As a writer, I remembered the importance of letting my imagination run wild (in an orderly fashion, of course) with existing ideas.

When boiled down to their most basic level, many stories sound the same. The plot of Star Wars: A New Hope shares many similarities with The Lord of the Rings. It’s the setting and characters that make these stories feel separate from each other.

In other words, if you’re trying to come up with a totally new story concept, it’s not going to happen. There will always be elements of it that “have been done before,” or that sound similar to another concept (research the theory of intertextuality if you don’t believe me, or better yet, read my essay about it). So what’s a writer to do? Accept that those ideas have been explored before (a retelling is the extreme case) and find ways to make them your own.

Meyer decided to make Cinderella a futuristic cyborg. J.K. Rowling wrote about wizards who go to school. Brian Jacques created knights who are mice, squirrels, and other woodland creatures. Every great writer finds a way to make an idea their own, and when executed well, the story feels so unique that readers believe no story like it has ever existed before.

There is a lot to enjoy about Cinder and its subsequent books, including great characters, good writing, and surprisingly clean content for a secular book. But my big takeaway was the reminder to start with an idea and let your imagination play with it, like a child crafting with clay, until you’ve created something all your own.

Have you read Cinder? How do you make your story concepts uniquely yours? Leave me a comment below!

Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: A Worldview That is Too “Young”

Hello and welcome! This article is the last part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

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Without further ado, the final Major Flaw, #5: a worldview that is too “young.” A similar problem can occur with a worldview that is too “old,” but my struggle as a writer has always been with the former, so I’ll discuss the issue from that perspective.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had as a writer has been making my characters act their age. It got easier after becoming an adult, because I had personal experience as a child, teen, and adult and could better differentiate between these ages when writing my characters. Still, I have to be intentional about the mannerisms and life problems I give my characters.

In my old manuscript, my main characters have woeful age discrepancies. As ages go, my three main human characters are young adults, but they behave more like twelve-year-olds. This isn’t particularly surprising, since I wrote the novel when I was 13. It’s hard to understand the unique advantages and disadvantages of a given age if you’ve never been there, or at least haven’t observed someone closely who is that age.

I’ve been writing for a long time, and while I don’t like this fact, I’ve come to realize that there are some stories you can’t write until the right time in your life. Sure, you can get the words on paper, but they won’t turn into the story you want to create. My novel was intended to be an epic fantasy on the order of The Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t have the writing experience or the personal maturity to create such a thing at the time.

Does that mean writing this novel was a waste of time? Of course not. It formed the basis for an entire fantasy series I intend to write someday, when it’s the right time. Besides, every word you put on paper gives you more experience as a writer, and in that sense, no writing is wasted. Don’t let worry about “the right time” keep you from writing now, but be willing to do some tough edits or even let go of the story temporarily if that’s what’s best.

With that said, there are a few factors you can consider to get your characters to act their ages. Consider these two questions: what life problems are the characters dealing with, and how do they interact with other people?

A character’s problems say a lot about their age. A twelve-year-old is mostly concerned with completing schoolwork and having fun. A twenty-year-old is dealing with a job or internship and probably college. These are generalizations, but you can see that your character’s problems will communicate a lot to the reader about their age.

Interactions with other characters are important age indicators as well. A child character won’t have as much restraint on his emotions, so the character might go from cheerful to petulant in the space of a paragraph. A teenager might be moody or just distant. The way other people react to the character is important, too, especially with parents. A parent will usually be more authoritative and rigid with a younger character, whereas they’ll tend to treat an adult child as an equal.

Experiment with different factors to make your characters act their age, but also ask yourself if you’re ready to work on a certain project. I’ve found that some story ideas just feel right for where I’m at as a writer, whereas others are better off in my near future, waiting for me to grow into them.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog series. I loved getting to discuss some of my writing challenges and experiences with you all!

Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Awkward Dialogue

Hello and welcome! This article is the fourth part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

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Ah, yes, Major Flaw #4: Awkward Dialogue. Sadly, even many published novels and produced movies feature awkward dialogue, a testament to just how difficult dialogue can be to write.

The best and easiest advice for writing good dialogue is: after you write it, read. it. out. loud. You’ve probably heard this a million times. I know I have, and I still forget to do it. A lot of other writers forget too, if the manuscripts I’ve seen are any indication. But seriously, hearing your dialogue spoken will clue you in to anything unnatural about it.

You could pen the most fantastic novel ever written, but if readers hit a scene with awkward dialogue, they’ll be jarred right out of the story. As you’ve figured out by now, my old manuscript is far from being fantastic, and I found myself laughing over most of my dialogue scenes. Because I had way too much dialogue to begin with, and far too little action (see the previous post), there was plenty to laugh about.

I’ll give you an example straight from the pages of my dear old manuscript. There is one part where two characters, one older and more mature than the other, are discussing a calamity that has befallen their country. The older character says to the younger, “‘You appear to be a very capable young man. You seem to have kept your head, even with all this trauma. You have my respect.’”

I can’t help grinning as I type those lines. In defense of my younger self, I was aiming for a medieval fantasy tone and trying to make this character sound wise. But let’s be honest, no one—even a medieval sage—would talk this way. It’s hilariously cheesy, not to mention verbose. Besides, respect is something that is shown through behavior, not by telling someone you respect them. My manuscript would have been better if I just let the older character’s actions and facial expressions indicate his respect for the younger.

This is the most obvious form of awkward dialogue: writing dialogue that doesn’t sound right, no matter who is saying it. But some dialogue sounds awkward just because it’s said by the wrong character. You wouldn’t expect my medieval characters to talk like American Southerners, for example.

Different regions in the world—both the real world and fantasy worlds—have different dialogue patterns. Idioms are different, as well as the terms used to describe certain things (for example, “soda” versus “pop”). You don’t have to make yourself crazy trying to plan out each character’s dialogue, but if you describe a character as hailing from a particular region, readers will expect the character’s dialogue to be written accordingly.

One quick note: if your character is from a region where words are often slurred and contractions are common, do NOT write out every one of those. Just use a sprinkling of them in the dialogue so readers get the idea. There’s such a thing as making dialogue so accurate that it doesn’t read smoothly. Let’s be honest, how many of our real conversations would sound right if they were transferred to paper verbatim? I’ve heard before that writing good dialogue isn’t about writing completely accurate dialogue, but about creating the illusion of real dialogue.

Research comes in handy for making characters sound right. Not only can you find articles about word usage in different parts of the world, but thanks to websites like YouTube, you can access videos featuring people from every corner of the globe. Watch interviews or TV shows with someone from the region you want your character to reflect, and take notes on what you notice about their speech patterns.

Finally, a certain amount of dialogue awkwardness can come from flowery dialogue tags. I’m always being reminded by my writing mentors to avoid complex dialogue tags, such as, “breathed,” “ejaculated,” “bragged,” and so on. Most of the time, a simple “said” works better. I’m not saying to never use the more descriptive tags, because sometimes they do add to the dialogue. However, it’s best to use them sparingly because they can easily get overpowering. When you can, write a line of action instead of a dialogue tag to give the reader a better impression of the movements and facial expressions accompanying the words.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Too Many Plans, Too Little Action

Hello and welcome! This article is the third part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 3

Onward to Major Flaw #3: too many plans, too little action.

As a young writer, I was constantly enthralled by details of the real world: a pretty necklace in a magazine, a cool sword in a movie, a beautiful horse in a roadside pasture. I wanted to combine all of these details into my novel, but the problem is, there just wasn’t enough room in the story for that many subplots. Nor did it make sense. I wrote about a special sword that had been passed down through generations until reaching my “chosen one” main character, which would have been fine, except that she also had a special ring with a similar backstory, and a special winged horse friend…and there’s a special dagger in there too…

Most fantasy stories have symbolic objects: the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Horcruxes in Harry Potter, the Stone Table in The Chronicles of Narnia, the sword of Martin the Warrior in Redwall, and so on. But my manuscript just has too many of these special objects. There are so many that they not only lose their significance in the story, but I didn’t have space in the manuscript to play out all the subplots connected with them.

The number of half-formed plot ideas in my manuscript show my inexperience as a writer at the time. I would get an idea, throw it into the story, and then fail to carry it out later on. Only recently, in the course of completing my movie script project, did I realize how much I’ve improved in this area. And I improved largely because I kept the subplots and symbolism to a minimum, letting the story dictate the ones I did include.

When you include a special subplot in your story, whether it’s connected to an object or not, you have to make sure this subplot will result in action for the story. Readers don’t want to slog through a long explanation about why an object is significant (see the previous post on exposition). They want a subplot that will enhance the momentum of the story: heighten the stakes, add a threat, create a deeper bond with the characters, etc. The subplot may be cool, but if it doesn’t improve the story, it’s got to go.

Moreover, you have to let your story tell you what subplots to create. As I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of cool subplots in literature, but most of them wouldn’t work very well in the context of a different novel. Just imagine how an evil, magic ring would mess up the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In my manuscript, for example, the special ring idea didn’t add much to the story, but the special sword actually made sense for my main character and for the world’s history.

In short, you have to see what works for your novel. It’s okay to try a few things, but don’t be afraid to eliminate subplots that are slowing your story down instead of advancing the action. One or two solid, memorable subplots are far better than a dozen weak ones. Just make sure any subplot you add to the story pays off by the end.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Exposition VS. Revelation

Hello and welcome! This article is the second part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 2

Today we’ll examine Major Flaw #2: exposition vs. revelation. To clarify my meanings of these terms, exposition is directly telling your reader something, usually through narration or dialogue. Revelation is revealing something through the natural course of the story. As you may guess, revelation is what we want to aim for.

When I wrote my novel manuscript, I thought I was being extremely clever with my exposition. Because the story is in a fantasy world, I needed my readers to understand certain facts about the way that world worked—what countries and creatures were involved and the history between them all. So, I had my main character go to a library and read some scrolls that provided this information. I wrote out paragraphs of exposition as if they were content from the scrolls. And when I read over the manuscript recently, I was bored to tears by my “clever” exposition.

Especially in a manuscript with a complex storyworld, it’s always tempting to “info-dump,” i.e., tell the reader a lot of facts through exposition. You’re excited about the world you’ve created, and you want to tell the reader all about it! On top of that, exposition is an easy way to make sure the readers “get” everything about this unfamiliar world. After all, you don’t want your reader to feel lost—but, trust me, readers pick up on things a lot faster than you might expect.

If you’re like me, you also write exposition to finalize some of the story details in your own mind. It’s great to write out your thoughts when planning a storyworld, but it’s a bad idea to do so within your manuscript. Create separate storyworld documents so you can plan all the details of your world without boring your readers by telling them the intimate details of dwarfish birthday celebrations or the many magical properties of unicorn hair.

Besides writing obvious paragraphs of exposition, I noticed another major way I created exposition in my manuscript: rhetorical questions. My friends, please learn from my mistakes and avoid the rhetorical questions trap. They have their place, but my younger self had no idea how to use them effectively. Instead, I wrote rhetorical questions with extremely obvious answers, all for the sake of steering the reader toward a certain reaction to the story. I’ve seen other writers do this as well.

Misusing rhetorical questions not only comes off as boring, but it’s also insulting to the reader. If you, as the writer, are doing your job correctly, the reader will automatically react to your manuscript the way you want them to. When your main character finds a key, for instance, you don’t have to guide the reader by writing rhetorical questions such as, “Could this be the long-lost key to open the treasure chest?” The reader is smart enough to guess that. Don’t spoon-feed it to them.

The solution to clunky and insulting exposition is revelation (I almost wrote that as a rhetorical question, and then I took my own advice. Hehe). You might have notebooks upon notebooks filled with plans for your storyworld, but your reader does not need to know it all. Readers only need—and, usually, want—to know the information relevant to the storyline. And they want to learn it from the storyworld itself.

When you’ve worked hard to plan the details for your storyworld, all you have to do is let that world reveal itself in the work. For example, reveal the layout of a town by having a character walk through it and describing the sights, sounds, and smells that the character experiences. Readers will notice the details that are different from the real world and will make inferences about your storyworld as a result.

Everything you write needs to move the story forward. Use storyworld details in ways that are relevant to the characters and their desires—because character desire is what drives a story. When you write about your storyworld as if it’s real, as if its unusual details are fact, instead of explaining everything like a textbook, that is when readers will fall in love with your novel, because you’ve made the world feel natural through revelation.

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!

Writing Mistakes of My Younger Self: Too Many Characters

Hello and welcome! This article is the first part of a new, five-post series I’m doing on the blog. I recently unearthed a copy of the novel manuscript I wrote when I was 13 and reread parts of it. With the editing abilities I’ve gained in the last decade, I’ll be analyzing the major flaws in my manuscript in hopes of helping myself and other writers avoid the same pitfalls.

Writing mistakes 1

Let’s dive into Major Flaw #1: too many characters. Allow me to clarify for a moment. There are some books out there that have a large cast of characters, yet handle them very well—the Harry Potter series comes to mind, as do the Redwall books. In those novels, all the characters serve specific purposes. This is not the case in my poor old manuscript. Some of my characters have important roles, but many of them are essentially warm bodies along for the ride.

When I wrote this manuscript, it had only been a year or two since I first read The Lord of the Rings books and watched the movies. Naturally, when I began my fantasy novel, I patterned some concepts (both consciously and unconsciously) after Tolkien’s work, which I considered to be the epitome of a good fantasy tale. My manuscript ended up featuring a long journey and, essentially, a fellowship of allied characters (sound familiar?).

When Tolkien created his Fellowship, he chose specific characters to fill important roles in the storyline. Can you imagine how the journey through Moria would have been deficient if Gimli, or Gandalf, hadn’t been there? What about how it would have been less exciting if Elrond came along? He’s such a powerful character that his presence would have removed a lot of the story tension.

Moreover, Tolkien had the sense to break up the Fellowship after the first book. He knew nine central characters would be too much to manage throughout the series, so he split them into smaller groups and had each group accomplish a task that was vital to the storyline.

When I wrote my own manuscript, I didn’t understand any of this. I just knew I’d created a bunch of characters I liked and I wanted to throw them all into the spotlight. Here’s a summary of what that looked like: the story starts off with three humans (my main character, her brother, and her best friend). When they begin their journey, they’re joined by three talking horses, which makes practical sense for travel, at least. A short time later, three winged horses join the group, which makes the first group of equines a bit superfluous. Then, two talking big cats (a cougar and a black panther) get added in. And then (oh, you thought I was done?) three more humans—with their own non-talking horses, I might add—complete the party.

Do you see how this might have been a bit much?

The big problem, as I’ve mentioned, is that most of these characters don’t serve a specific purpose. The two types of horses, for example, are just different iterations of equine characters who help the humans travel. There’s no need to have both, but I was a horse-crazy kid, so there you have it. Even the big cats don’t add much because they don’t do anything on the journey that couldn’t be done by another character. If I want to get really brutal, I’m not even sure the main character’s best friend is a necessary character because her brother fills a best-friend-type role.

When you plan your story characters, ask yourself what needs the story has. What tasks must be accomplished and what purposes must be served? Which of these needs could be combined and addressed by a single character? Then, once you’ve determined the needs, plan the characters.

Creating characters is tons of fun, which is why writers often create too many. But it’s more fulfilling to write a few well-rounded characters than a ton of flat ones, as my old manuscript illustrates. If you create a fantastic character that just doesn’t fit in your novel, well, that’s when you write a second novel!

What experience have you had with this writing pitfall? Leave me a comment below!