Tag Archives: How To Write
Today’s Craft Thursday entry is from my Jaye’s Office Hours vlog. James asked me how to avoid writing cliched stories, and this is my answer. Did you know I have lots of craft posts over on my Youtube channel? Subscribe today so you never miss a video!
This week, I wanted to let you know that I’ve started a new thing called “Jaye’s Office Hours.” Since I can’t get everywhere to teach writing classes or speak about my books, I decided to use vlogging to get some of my lessons out there. Jaye’s Office Hours won’t just be about craft. I’ll also answer questions about my stories and do virtual readings, etc.
Here’s my most recent vlog, where I discuss the three types of research I use to write my books.
Be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss any of the videos. Also, if you have a topic you’d like for me to tackle or a question about my writing or how to write, let me know in comments!
Today I thought I’d tackle one of my favorite little tricks for writing vibrant prose. Synesthesia is a neurological trait where a person processes sensory stimulus through a non-traditional sense. For example, they might taste sound or see numbers in color or hear colors as music. Cool, huh?
Believe it or not, you probably already use lots of synesthesia in your everyday life. Yes, friends, I’m talking about our friend the metaphor. We use them all the time without even realizing we’re doing it. But what I am going to propose to you today is consciously using synesthetic metaphors to enhance your writing.
Compare these two sentences.
“He was afraid.”
“Fear choked him with its metallic fist.”
Okay, I cheated a little. The first sentence it not only passive, but it also is a classic example of “telling.” The second sentence suffers from neither of those issues. But it also packed a one, two punch of synesthesia (there’s also some personification in there for good measure). Does fear have a flavor (metal)? Does it have a tangible form (the fist)? Or a touch (choking)? Of course not. Yet the sentence works because it’s got the figurative ring of truth.
I use synesthesia all the time to keep my metaphors fresh. Because cliched metaphors are both lazy and so overused that they lack impact. It’s especially important to be fresh with your figurative language if you’re trying to highlight a scene or beat of high tension. Otherwise, if you rely on cliche, the reader will just skim the line and move on.
But you can used synesthesia for more than just moments of tension. If you want to highlight an object or a setting, employing the technique will help plant the image in the readers’ minds. So when my character walks into a magical laboratory, she doesn’t just smell “the astringent scent of rosemary” she also detects “the calming, purple fragrance of lavender.”
Purple is a descriptor normally used for describing how something looks, but I’m using it here to describe a scent. Get it?
Some other examples:
“His sandalwood scent made me think of swelling romantic music and silky sheets.” (Scent associated with sound and touch)
“Her screams tore at the air and left bloody, red wounds.” (Sound described with color and touch)
Now, before you run off to add synesthesia to your work in progress, a warning: Do not go through and use synesthesia in every metaphor and description in your book. Like most figurative language techniques, it’s more effective when employed with discretion. If you use it for everything, you’ll lose impact in sentences where you really need that extra oomph.
Have you used synesthesia in your writing?
Psst!Did you know that my publisher posted Chapter 1 of BLUE-BLOODED VAMP? Go ahead and read it because today’s Craft Thursday post is all about story openings. Go on, we’ll wait for you.
Here’s some reading music for you.
First, let’s get this out of the way. The way I write openings isn’t necessarily the way you should write them. Genre conventions, author voice and all sorts of other issues dictate what kind of opening a book should have. However, in general most genre fiction books are all about the fast hook.
In media res is a phrase often bandied about by us writer types. It means, “in the middle of things.” Thus, you throw your reader into the story without a lot of context. The unanswered questions and lack of reference points often works to hook them into the story so they can’t help but find out what’s going on.
You’ll notice, of course, that unlike most of the other Sabina Kane novels, our heroine doesn’t actually fight anyone in these two opening scenes. It was a conscious decision based on the fact that a) Sabina has grown as a character over the course of the series and b) she’s recovering from some pretty heavy emotional issues after the end of SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL and I needed the opening to reflect that.
A lot of writers think that to hook a reader you have to have explosions and sirens and all sorts of literary pyrotechnics. I, myself, have been guilty of this thinking. Witness the first scenes of THE MAGE IN BLACK, which featured a kung fu battle in the middle of a mini-mart that culminated in a couple of flambeed vampires, a shotgun battle and an explosion. (BTW that’s still one of my favorite scenes ever).
Over time, though, I’ve realized that you don’t need all that noise to craft a great opening. Violence for violence sake can be fun as hell to write, but without some really excellent tension and character development it’s pretty empty reading. So when I started writing the opening of this book, I focused on creating the promise of action.
The promise of action is a technique where you present an inciting incident that tells the readers, “Look, there’s some really exciting shit coming. You might want to stick around.” Basically, what I’m saying to you, is you have to promise (AND DELIVER) exciting conflicts–both internal and external–for your characters to overcome.
In the first scene of BBV, we have a lot of promise. First, we know that Sabina’s determined to find the man who killed her sister, even, as she says, if it means putting a gun to her friend’s head to get his cooperation. Second, we know that this promise she made to Asclepius is going to bite her in the ass–a major complication in an already complex mission. Third, there is the promise of internal conflict for Sabina, i.e. she’s going to have to learn some hard lessons along the way, including maybe that revenge isn’t the answer.
Mind you, the promise of action doesn’t mean you don’t still need actual action. Sabina isn’t sitting around talking about everything she wants to do. The conflicts are revealed by showing her interact with the people in her world and react to things they say and do.
A quick note on exposition here. BBV is the fifth (and final) book in a series. That means that I had to use some exposition in the first chapter in order to bring readers up to speed on the major facts they needed to know going into this story. Namely, that her sister is dead and that Sabina is set on revenge. There are also a couple of mentions of other characters, like Giguhl, because long-time readers of the series would have been distracted wonder where Sabina’s sidekick was if I hadn’t mentioned him.
For you, however, especially if you’re writing the first book of a series, you need to use as little exposition as possible in your first chapter. The goal is to hit the ground running, keep the reader guessing and promise some really cool shit.
First of all, yes, I know it’s Friday. But since I got caught up yesterday and couldn’t post my Craft Thursday entry I decided I’d slip one in today.
Today I’d like to discuss point of view. I’m not talking about first (I) vs. second (you) vs. third (he/she/it). Instead, I want to address the importance of getting into your character’s skin so you can see their world through their eyes. Sounds creepy, doesn’t it?
Anyway, when I was 22, during the summer following my college graduation, I spent a month taking a class on Native American Mythology in Taos, New Mexico. I spent my days learning about Hopi creation myths and Jungian symbolism followed by helping the local church re-adobe their walls before heading to Pizanos, the local pizza joint for a few beers and delicious pie.
My best friend was there, too. She was a studio art major, so her days were spent just like mine, except in the mornings while I was geeking out over Jung, she was painting in the campus’s studio. We stayed in the same casita and spent a lot of time on the patio in the evenings chain smoking and waxing poetic about the vast mesas of potential laid out before us. It was a heady time.
One day, we signed up for an early morning hike through a local canyon. Above the trees and trails, high cliffs dotted with old Anasazi caves rose like ancient skyscrapers. When we arrived, the sun was just above the horizon and its light bathed the cliff walls. Our group paused to admire the show before starting our hike.
You know those moments of clarity? The ones when you’re fully invested in the instant of time you’re in? When you feel as though the secrets of the universe are within your reach?
As I looked at those high, red cliffs with the pink and pale yellow light dancing across its planes, I brushed up against infinity. I turned to my friend and said, “Everyone sees something different.”
She frowned at me. “What?”
“You’re an artist, so you see the interplay of light and shadow. The range of hues and the composition. Right?”
“But an anthropologist or historian will see something different. They see those cliffs through a lens of history. They won’t notice the light and shadow, but they’ll see things an artist would miss. A myth and folklore geek will love the symbols on the cave walls and the significance of the caves themselves as symbolic wombs. A geologist will see the rock formations and appreciate how rain and wind created something so majestic. Isn’t that fascinating?”
Being my friend, she wasn’t unused to me making such pronouncements back then–I was young and often very impressed with my naive wisdom. She looked at me, and without blinking said, “You’re an art history major with a history minor whose studied anthropology and loves myths. What do you see?”
I smiled. “I see all of it.”
It took me eight more years before I started to seriously write fiction, but now that I’ve been a writer for a while, I realize how important that moment was in my development. It was the first time I understood point of view.
As writers, it’s our job to see the world through the eyes of our characters. Often these characters will have experiences and knowledge we lack. Everyone sees colors and hears sounds and tastes foods and feels things as individuals. So when we write, we must constantly be aware that our characters are not us because they have unique experiences and biases and talents and challenges. Acknowledging this is the first step toward writing good characters.
The second step is learning how to do what I call “method writing.” You’ve probably heard of method acting. The Method, as it’s often called by Hollywood types, involves immersing oneself into the feelings and thoughts of the character. Often this is achieved by the actor recalling sensations or emotions from their own life.
It’s the same with writing. If I’m writing a scene where my character is angry, I recall a time when I was angry and bring those visceral memories to the page. I’ll amplify or reduce the severity of those sensation depending on the needs of the scene. But I’ll also adjust them based on the character I’m writing.
It’s more complicated than that, of course, because of what we’ve already covered. An assassin will experience grief differently from a child. I’ve been a child, so I can bring my experiences there into play. But I’ve never been an assassin. So I have to put myself in an assassin’s shoes. This is where imagination and the ability to extrapolate are your friends.
I can imagine, for example, that an assassin has to be somewhat hardened against emotions. Death is not a stranger to be feared. In that case, I’d write the emotions as the opposite of the ones I’ve experienced during my own meetings with Thanatos. In other words, I always start with how I’d react and adjust those known sensations to fit what I think my character would experience.
I hope that makes sense. It’s what works for me. It’s not an easy way to work by any means. I laugh and cry my way through every book I write and often walk away from sessions an emotional wreck. Also, lord help anyone who interrupts me when I’m writing a fight scene.
No matter how you manage to write convincing characters, the bottom line is that you have to be able to write from many perspectives. Sometimes your characters will do things that you would never do. Think dangerous thoughts and say disturbing things and perpetrate acts that disgust you.
You are not your characters. Your characters are not you. But during the space of time that you are writing them, you must learn to get inside their heads and hearts. You have to understand that an artist will see the waltz of light and shadow across cave openings, but a serial killer wants to crawl into those rocky wombs and paint the walls with tourists’s blood.
Welcome back to Craft Thursday, campers. I spend a lot of these posts going all militant-Oprah-y on your asses,so today I thought I’d take the discussion back to actual writing craft.
That’s right–I’m going to share some of my tricks.
Okay, now, simmer down. I know you’re excited. I mean who doesn’t love writing tricks? But before I share them, I need to lay some caveats on you. First, these work for me. You may disagree with them. That’s cool but remember that no piece of writing advice applies to every writer. Second, these are not earth-shattering nuggets from the gods that will suddenly transform your ugly duckling of a manuscript into a magical swan. These tips apply to helping your word craft–they won’t fix gaping holes in your story or weak character development.
With all that understood between us, behold–Jaye’s Top Five Writing Tricks
5. Be a rebel. That’s right. I’m kicking this off by telling you to ignore every grammar rule Mrs. Gillespie taught you in sophomore English. Besides the fact she undoubtedly taught you some horrible habits (see no. 1 below), she also had a grammar stick up her pooper.
Fiction ain’t about following rules, son. (The screech you just heard was Mrs. Gillespie spinning her grammar grave) And God help your soul if you ever write one of those “introductory statement, three supporting sentence, summary statement essay formats” in a novel. GOD HELP YOU!
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you you shouldn’t KNOW your grammar rules. Instead, the deliberate flouting* of grammar rules can be an effective way to add a little flair to your sentences.
For example, one of my favorite stylistic choices is to begin sentences with conjunctions. I am well aware this makes the grammar mavens cringe. But it’s an excellent way to bring attention to a sentence or idea. And it’s fun.
Don’t get me started on proper grammar in dialogue, either. If your characters don’t recklessly mangle grammar like real people then you’re going straight to writer hell, where Mrs. Gillespie (in a red latex devil suit) will force you to write essays like, “What I Did for Summer Vacation” for eternity.
But you can not–repeat CAN NOT–be willfully ignorant of grammar and then proclaim your mistakes part of your avante garde style. You have to know the rules to know how to break them for effect. If you need to learn proper grammar, I’d suggest you start with Strunk & White.
4. Adverbs are lazy. Yes, I know. This is repeated so often I considered not repeating it here. Also, some of you are pulling out my novels to look for any instances of lazy adverb usage so you can call me a hypocrite. I’ll save you some time–I use adverbs all the time. Sometimes they’re unavoidable.
And yes, plenty of successful authors use them prolifically (see what I did there?). For example, I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series to my son and J.K. Rowling uses them in almost every damned dialogue tag and sentence. They certainly didn’t harm her career.
But I would submit to you that your writing would certainly benefit from less adverbs. You’re a writer–use your imagination to come up with a way to describe something in a fresh way. Here’s a sample from SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL.
After a few tense moments, we both spoke at once. Our words tangled in the air like alphabet confetti. Self-conscious laughter followed. “You first, ” I said.
If I were an adverb apologist, I would have written that passage like this:
Our words stumbled awkwardly over each other . We both laughed self-consciously. “You first,” I said ruefully.
Anyone who chose the second passage as their favorite needs to go sit in the corner. Go on.
3. Tension requires brevity. Say you have a big scene. Huge fight. Your protagonist is cornered. Do you really think that writing this scene in long, flowery sentences–the kind filled with asides and tangential phrases enclosed in em-dashes or set off by the dreaded semi-colon–are going to convey the sense of urgency you’re hoping to impart to your reader?
Of course not. You want to keep people interested. You want to keep the action fast. Keep your sentences short. Period.
2. Backload. This is a trick I learned from Margie Lawson (one of many–seriously, take her deep editing course). Backloading is simply a technique wherein you save your power word for the end of a sentence.
She raised the gun and cocked a hip.
She cocked a hip and raised the gun.
Why does this work? Because humans tend to remember the last word of a sentence. Therefore, if you want to power up your sentences, you’ll save the strongest word for last. The cool thing is that most people won’t be able to tell why your writing is suddenly reading like you’ve injected your sentences with steroids. But you’ll know and you’ll smile.
1. Watch your Thats. This is another very basic technique that nets huge results. The first time a critique partner pointed out my that problem, I had no idea how much I used the word. When I did a search of the document she was critiquing, I found that I’d used it something like 2,000 times in a 400-page novel.
Some of you might be asking, well, so what? I use “that” all the time.
Stop it. Stop it right now.
Quick lesson: That is used in restrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses are parts of a sentence that restrict the meaning of another part of the sentence. For example, “Eyes that are blue are pretty.” If you took out the that, the meaning of the sentence would change. To wit: “Eyes are beautiful.” The speaker intended to say only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes.
Two things. First, if you read “Eyes that are blue are beautiful,” and didn’t hear fingernails scrapping down your mental blackboard you have a problem. It should read, “Blue eyes are beautiful.”
In other words, the restrictive clause isn’t need at all because blue is a perfectly awesome on it’s own as an adjective without mucking the sentence up with the unneccessary restrictive clause.
Also, some of you probably read this sentence above, “The speaker intended to say only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes,” and wondered why I didn’t write it this way, ” The speaker intended to say that only blue eyes are beautiful, not all eyes.”
The that isn’t needed. Trust me, it’s not. The sentence meaning doesn’t change by removing the that. And that is the rule of thumb–if removing the that changes your meaning, leave it. If not, you must destroy it mercilessly, if you’ll forgive the adverb.
For some reason, a lot of people use that when they shouldn’t. It’s like they like to just throw them into sentences for a little spice. Don’t be tempted to do this. That is the spice of the devil!
Nine times out of ten, you don’t need it at all. And the few times you feel you do, you could probably rewrite the sentence without changing the meaning. You’ll probably also make the sentence better. Trust me on this.
*Thanks to Minveradamama who informed me on twitter that I used “flaunt” when I meant “flout.” Never let it be said I don’t take edits well.
One of the questions authors are always asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”
While I believe most people who ask this question are genuinely interested in and maybe a little baffled by the writer brain, it misses the whole point of what being a writer of fiction is all about.
Just like an inventor isn’t an inventor unless they take an idea and turn it into a product, a writer isn’t a writer unless they do the work to transform an idea into a story. Getting ideas, in other words, isn’t work. It’s a fact of the average writer’s life. Our brains are wired to constantly scan our surroundings for story inspiration.In every moment of our days, we are both participants in our lives as well as observers.
Instead of thinking of writers are blood hounds constantly on the trail of that one perfect idea, it’s more realistic to imagine us as vacuums. Every waking moment–and usually also when we’re asleep because dreams are fertile with ideas–we’re sucking up everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We become dusty vacuum bags of experience. Every snippet of conversation we overhear, every oddity we notice as we drive, every news story, blog post, commercial, TV show, billboard–all of these things go into our idea bag, where they wait for our subconscious to push them through the filter and offer them up as needed for stories.
I think one thing that unites all writers is that we’re endlessly curious about the world and the people in it. So we watch. We collect. We analyze. Nothing we witness isn’t fodder for stories. So you’ve got this idea bag filled with millions of story nuggets. Does that mean you’re a writer?
No, my friend. You have to use those ideas to create something new.
This is where things get tricky. Let’s using cooking to illustrate my point.
Let’s say you’re hungry but you haven’t been to the store for a while. You open your fridge and find you have three eggs. Hmm, you think. What could I do with these? You rifle through every egg recipe you’ve got in your head. You could just scramble or boil them, but that’s boring. You look in your fridge again. This time you come up with a chunk of cheese. That’s better, but still a little plain. Hmm, you remember you had half a bell pepper and some onion left over from that salad you made two days ago, and a little detective work in the drawers nets a couple slices of ham from the deli.
You set all these items on the counter and realize you’ve got everything you need for a Western omelet. Now, we’re cooking.
But wait. You don’t really have a Western omelet yet, do you? You just have the ingredients. You still have to make them work together. You still have to crack the eggs and beat them. You have to shred the cheese, slice the peppers, onion and ham. You have to cook them all and add the ingredients in just the right way if you want an omelet instead of an egg scramble. You have to master the wrist motion to perfectly fold your omelet. You have to sauté your bell peppers and onions. You have to know when you add the ham and cheese. And when you’re done with all that, you finally have breakfast.
Do you see? Having ingredients (ideas) on hand is not the same as having an omelet (story). It takes creativity and work to turn those ingredients into a meal.
Anyone else hungry?
When you ask me where I get my ideas, I’m not being flippant when my answer is, “Everywhere.” My brain is hardwired to collect ideas. The magic happens when my brain gets a hold of all these disparate elements and proceeds to mix them together to create a story.
But it’s more complex than that. Of course it is.
Your brain would take the same collection of ideas I have and come up with a completely different tale. Why? Because you have different experiences than I do. Experiences we have act as a filter for ideas. If you see a bottle of wine, your brain might filter it to become a romance about a sommelier and a waitress. My brain will take that same bottle and turn it into a vineyard run by vampires as a front for an illegal blood farm (as I did in RED-HEADED STEPCHILD). You might see a roller derby match and decide you want to write a story about a young girl who finds herself and a new family by joining a roller derby team (the movie WHIP IT). I see a roller derby bout and turn it into a subplot about a roller derby team made up of vampires, mages, faeries and werewolves that are coached by a Mischief demon (SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL).
Ideas are everywhere. Everywhere.
But not every idea goes anywhere.
Writers discard more story ideas in a year than they can count. Some seem so perfect but end up being duds. Some duds end up becoming brilliant. The only way to find out which way an idea will go is to work with it. To write.
I could give you a brilliant, million-dollar idea, but unless you get your ass off the couch and open your laptop, that idea plus $2 won’t even buy you an omelet.
You want to know how I get my ideas? I want to ask you how you manage not to get them? But then, you don’t really want to know about ideas at all. You want to know how I tell stories. And the answer to that is quite simple.
I crack a few eggs.