Category Archives: How to be an Author

How to Be an Author

Ed Kociela Your Way guest post headshot

It’s Your Story: Tell It Your Way

How many times have you been told that there are rules to writing and that your story should adhere to those rules? In today's guest post, Ed Kociela suggests that rules are all very well (I'm an apostrophe obsessive, myself!), but only if they don't interfere with your story telling.
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Tell Your Story Your Own Way

by Ed Kociela

Ed Kociela Your Story guest post headshot
There’s no lack of hints and advice available to the fledgling author.

The Internet is filled with tips on how to write the Great American Novel.

The problem? For every tip, there is a contradictory bit of advice about how to string words together in a coherent manner.

It reminds me of a creative writing class I once took in college. The professor was a stereotypical, Irish writer, down to the red-bulbed nose acquired from many years of imbibing copious amounts of Jameson Irish Whiskey to the tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth.

Every sentence, he told us, must have a certain number of words. Every paragraph must have so many sentences. Almost every noun requires three adjectives.

Yeah, that kind of thing.

I was sailing through the class, adhering to his rules until one day when I raised my hand.

“Isn’t the point of writing supposed to be one person communicating their idea to another?” I asked.

“Well, of course,” he said.

“When we speak to each other, don’t we construct our thoughts in different ways, sometimes using many words, other times using very few?” I asked.

“Well…uh…yes,” he said.

“Then shouldn’t we, as writers, find the most appropriate way to communicate rather than over-burden our reader with all this flowery bullshit?” I said.

“Aye…do the next assignment your way. Let’s see whatcha got.”

And, the fight was on. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, and many others were brought into the fray until, finally, the exasperated professor unclenched the pipe from between his teeth, pointed the stem at me, and said: “Aye…do the next assignment your way. Let’s see whatcha got.”

I did, and when he returned the assignment, my grade was an “A,” with a lengthy scrawled note about his desire to teach us the rules so we could then know how and when to break those rules.

So, when I see these online tips about how to go about writing, I think of Professor Casey and the brash kid who, unbeknown to him, had been earning money through writing for four years before taking his class, working in a drab and smoky newsroom of a small, southern California daily newspaper.

I would like to think that by the time somebody decides they want to write a book they would have studied grammar, know how to punctuate, and have assembled a vocabulary that allows them ample words to precisely describe the scene and characters growing in their mind.

As writers, we are under-valued. We have all listened as that relative, friend, acquaintance tells us, “You know, I been a lot of places, did good in English, and people like my stories…I oughta write a book. At least that’s what people tell me.”

After the initial urge to strangle them, we are calmed when we remember that if you placed a monkey at a keyboard, sooner or later it would peck out a complete sentence. I know that for a fact because as a newspaper editor for more years than I care to count, I worked with my share of monkeys.

Just because you can turn on a laptop doesn’t mean you have the ability and discipline to put together about 100,000 coherent words. If you think so, I’ll be happy to buy you a bunch of bananas to sustain you while you pound away on the keys.

Because I have a couple books under my belt at this point – “plygs,” a journalistic novel about a fundamentalist Mormon cult that lives along the Utah-Arizona state line, and “It Rocked! (Recollections of a reclusive rock critic),” which is a memoir from my days as the rock critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner – I have had several writers contact me with questions about writing, from technique to fighting writer’s block.

“technique is a personal thing”

I always explain that technique is a personal thing and that writer’s block is something I know very little about because I have rarely experienced it.

I have read sample chapters, outlines, bits and pieces of thoughts and half-thoughts submitted to me by writers. I always encourage them to keep at it, to see where it leads, to hang on to some of the passion that inspired them to want to tell the story in the first place. As writers, we all share a certain amount of insecurity and, at times, need a little pat on the butt to keep going.

Other than that, I offer little else because I would hate to change the writer’s voice, inhibit their thought process, or interrupt the rhythm of their words. The best you can do is simply encourage them to keep moving forward. They will strengthen their words in the second or third rewrite.

A lot of writers make the mistake of emulating their heroes. The inherent danger, of course, is that there was only one Steinbeck, one Hemingway, one Mark Twain, one Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve seen writers who try to adopt the style of another. No good ever comes of it.

So, if there is one solid piece of advice I can offer, it would be, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”

“Know yourself, know your purpose, know your limitations”

Know yourself, know your purpose, know your limitations as well as your abilities, and tell your story as you see it, and not in the manner of somebody else or to please somebody else because, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Write to please yourself. When you write to please others, you end up pleasing no one.”

It’s your story.

Tell it your way.

I am occasionally guilty of emulating my favourite writers - do you have to watch yourself and your writing the same way? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and with your friends, using the handy buttons!

Giulia Simolo Writers Multiple Lives post graphic

The Writer’s Multiple Lives

As authors, we often feel like we're multiple people living multiple lives. This week's guest poster, Giulia Simolo, explores this concept. How do you experience the Writer's multiple lives?
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The Writer’s Multiple Lives

By Giulia Simolo

Giulia Simolo Writers Multiple Lives post graphicIt was midnight. I could not sleep and my mind was wandering like a ship in the night, unsure of its destination but unwilling to throw its anchor overboard. That was when the voice came to me. It felt like that of an old friend, and yet it belonged to someone completely new and utterly fascinating.

Was I going crazy?

“how do you explain the connection you experience with these characters”

To the world, you might feel that this would be labelled insane. Hearing voices? Seeing images of someone in your mind? You, of course, know that this is a character for your new story that demands being written on the page immediately. But to the world, the idea that someone out there is speaking to you could make people question your stability! Added to this, how do you explain the connection you experience with these characters, and how you feel loss when the story ends and they stop pestering you at midnight? How would you explain to a non-writer that you feel that the characters choose you instead of you picking them from your imagination?

And yet, these are the kinds of things that happen to a writer. Once you meet your character and he or she settles in for tea, you start building on that initial impression to ensure they are not a whimsical creature made of slivers of lace but actual three-dimensional beings. When tackling characterization, there are often tips and various forms of advice handed out to writers, such as that it’s important to have a full sketch of who your character is (and this should be very detailed) before you embark on the writing journey. Tips such as the above are helpful, however there is one aspect that no one can control and which must not always be reined in during this process: the writer’s mind.

“The writer takes on a role similar to that of an actor”

Award winning Irish writer Emma Donoghue once said, ‘[Writing stories] lets me, at least for a while, live more than one life…’ Through our writing we can experience various things, many of which are in contrast to our daily lives. For instance, we might put ourselves in the shoes of a protagonist who travels the world or is obsessively dieting, or a drug addict… The writer takes on a role similar to that of an actor: he or she has to play the part, explore it, invest in their imagination, and try to make it as real as possible. This experience in the mind will be different for every writer. Although one’s characters are essentially made up, the writer is spending hours, days, weeks, months and sometimes even years with them, constantly perfecting them and their stories. Through these characters, the writer not only explores their lives but their own life if they were the character - all inside their own head. It is a vicarious way to live out a different reality, which can be exciting and liberating.

We have been told many times that keeping a diary or journal can help us process feelings or situations. Writers take this idea one step further by allowing their characters to do the elbow work for them. If you cannot understand or surrender to a situation you find yourself in in real life, such as illness or heartache, it can be vastly therapeutic to allow your character to find ways to deal with the problem on your behalf. Turn your character into a sci-fi knight to slay your disease! Allow your character to be a tough-talking, independent woman who rejects the man instead of getting her heart smashed into pieces! Perhaps, if you feel you cannot do or say something in your real life, you can take your frustrations or solutions out on the computer screen, changing reality somewhat. The power that comes with the imagination! Allowing ourselves to live different lives on the page can transform our reality, helping us come to terms with our dilemmas, and offer the world an incredible story that will hopefully inspire readers who can relate to it. As the brilliant writer Virginia Woolf expressed: ‘Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.’

The reason I say one cannot, and should not, control the writer’s mind is that, as brilliant writer Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Art is the most intense form of individualism that the world knows.’ Every writer starts with a perspective, thought or idea that no one else would fully perceive. This is what makes every writer so unique, like a snowflake or fingerprint. Maintaining this state of being instead of feeling afraid of it is crucial to the writer excelling in his or her craft. However, the writer’s mind is at work long before any contact with the pen and paper occurs. It is as though characters are marinating in our subconscious before we meet them. They appear to us as though they are answering our private call in the small hours of the morning, and maybe they have been waiting for the right time to enter our lives. The most amazing part about characters is that they are really just ourselves answering our own calls.

“Meeting your story’s character is like meeting a part of yourself”

Meeting your story’s character is like meeting a part of yourself. Even if your character is very different when compared to you, they are a part of you. You created them, even if you didn’t realize you were doing this until they stormed in unannounced. Before pushing them out so you can get back to bed, ask them why they are there and who knows? It might just be the start of a wonderful story.

Is the writer crazy? Absolutely not. On this earth, we are all walking stories, made up of different ideas, contradictions, and sometimes feeling like different people. We change, sometimes from one minute to the other. All we are doing as writers is allowing ourselves to live out all those fancies and ideas in another realm. The beauty is when this reaches full circle: when a reader grasps onto the character and feels that they are mirrored in them, that they can survive another day or the character’s words echo the machinations of their own soul. That is when the writer’s so-called folly becomes beautiful fiction, the caterpillar of self-doubt transformed into the hopeful butterfly with wings constructed out of the most powerful material that exists on earth: words.

Giulia Simolo's book, Eat Your Heart Out, can be found on Amazon.

Some of us have many narratives all going on at the same time. What's your experience of this? Please share your thoughts in the comments below - and this post with your friends!

fiona Carter scintillating dialogue headshot

Scintillating Dialogue

Ever felt your dialogue was not what it could be? In today's guest post, Fiona Carter covers tips for bringing your characters' conversations into the real world.  Enjoy!

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On Writing Scintillating Dialogue
By Fiona Carter

Dialogue is one of my absolute favorite parts of storytelling, and as a result, it’s a part I’ve put a lot of conscious effort into getting right. Like most authors, I struggled with that stilted feeling in my earliest attempts, and I’m certain I have plenty more to learn, but I’m proud to say that I’m often told now that my funny, sweet, and/or rip-your-heart-out scenes of dialogue are my greatest strength, so here, in a nutshell, is what I’ve figured out on the topic throughout my career thus far.

First, a note on stylized vs. realist dialogue:

These are not two different techniques so much as a sliding scale. All good dialogue is, by its very nature, stylized to some extent, just as all fiction is. Reality has lots of fluff that isn’t particularly meaningful or entertaining and never leads anywhere, both in and out of conversation.

Fiction conveys emotional truth by reflecting a distilled version of the emotionally relevant parts of reality, and dialogue is no exception. 100% realistic dialogue would have a lower frequency of memorable, resonating moments and be unreadably long-winded and aimless in places. On the other hand, dialogue that is far enough removed from reality that it no longer feels sincere has also failed at fiction’s goal.

Whether you aspire to be an uncanny realist or the novelist version of Quentin Tarantino, these tips should help give your dialogue the impact you’re looking for.

1: Listen to your characters.

Really listen. Hear what they sound like. All people, even people who grew up together, have slightly different speech patterns. Your characters should too. Depending on their life experiences and individual dispositions, different characters will use different turns of phrase, often turns of phrase you wouldn’t choose for yourself.

They’ll also verbally respond to situations differently. Some will have emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, and some won’t. A volatile character who doesn’t react to a major occurrence will feel wrong (unless there’s an exceptional reason for it), as will a usually stable character having a meltdown over a minor occurrence (again, unless their unusual reaction is a noted plot point). If you need a tough character to have a meltdown, be prepared to arrange a plot that will convincingly push him or her over the edge.

That said, if you’re going to write a dialect dramatically different from your own, be careful. Study people who speak it, and err on the side of subtlety.

2: Write it from all sides.

Give all characters the dignity of speaking as if the scene is from their perspective. As writers, controlling all sides of a conversation, we have the power to tweak things a little bit to set characters up for better reactive lines than we’re likely to get in reality, but don’t abuse the privilege.

Every line spoken by every character, even the most minor of minor characters, must have some plausible, in-character thought process behind it. If a character only says something to set another character up for a line, or to offer exposition to the reader, the line will sound unnatural.

If you can’t find an effective way to rationalize it from the speaker’s perspective, find another way to slip in that exposition, or cut that great comeback you were setting up. Your work will benefit from it as a whole.

3: Remember that a scene is more than a script. It’s also a performance.

Your readers can’t see or hear your characters the way you can. They can only see the words. Think about how many different undertones the word “okay” can carry, depending on whether it’s said grudgingly, cheerfully, or somewhere in between. Consciously look for any unintentional way the spirit of the words could be lost or misinterpreted, and make the mood clear. A single line description of a character’s body language can make all the difference.

4: Let characters say what they want to say, not what you want to say.

Few things are more obvious or damaging to suspension of disbelief than an author pushing characters into a sock puppet argument analyzing an issue. Characters can certainly express beliefs if they come up naturally and help to develop the plot or relationships, but those beliefs must believably belong to those characters and be expressed the way those characters would spontaneously express them. When dialogue begins to sound like a rehearsed, structured demonstration by a school debate club, it no longer belongs in fiction.

If your story has a message, trust the subtle, honest exploration of the world, characters, and events to communicate it naturally.

5: As in all things, show, don’t tell.

People rarely talk about how they feel in clear, clinical terms. Moments of startling honesty are great if they’re used sparingly and set up believably, such as when characters are under extreme pressure, chemically/magically/otherwise mentally altered, or in company they deeply trust, but often a point can be made much more effectively through how they say things and in what they don’t say.

Suppose your characters are making up after a big fight. A gesture of peace, a few brief words about the heart of the problem, or even a few words about some inconsequential detail of the fight if your characters are still skirting their issues, will take you much further than a whole chapter of them analyzing their psyches in marital counseling session levels of detail.

6: Finally, say it out loud!

Act it out, the whole conversation, back and forth, the way you intend it to sound, with the narration left out. It’s the most effective way to identify those last little awkward parts that need adjusting, reactions that don’t quite follow logically, contractions that need to be added or removed.

Happy writing, everyone, and may your dialogue sparkle!

Fiona Carter writes under the pen name J R TitchnellF.J.R. Titchenell and is the author of several short stories and her latest full length novel, Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) can be pre ordered from Amazon now.

Share your thoughts on writing scintilating dialogue below - and this article with your friends!


Self Editing

Most of us think of editing as a job for someone else - and dread it! This week's guest poster, Milissa R Bailey, makes a persuasive argument in favour of self editing. Enjoy!
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She Devil She Is – Self Editing

by Milissa R. Bailey

Milissa R Bailey self editing guest post graphicInvading my nostrils with bitter, acrid stench I knew without a moment’s hesitation the bane of my literary existence was within reach. Her penchant for deftly reaching into my work, ripping from it the very heartbeat of the message and snipping it into little pieces of pabulum was an art known only to the most wretched of life’s ambassadors of doom, better known to most authors as self editing.

I write for the passion of telling a story. And when I write, like so many of my fellow authors, we want to paint that picture as accurately as possible. We want the reader to see, breath, taste, yes even chew the story. But in this birthing process, where words flood, gush, sometimes rush to the surface, we find ourselves overloading the reader, sinking our own proverbial ship of synonyms. Then it comes to pass, you glance back upon your handy work and it is time to take scalpel in hand and edit.

“Does this scene contribute to the story?”

I will be the first to admit when I gaze upon my handy work I think, “How can I remove such a wonderful scene?” The work that went into the intricately woven fabric of character banter, posturing and laying of groundwork promising to build to a fabulous crescendo... But alas.
[h3]Making the Story Better[/h3]
However, the secret many of us discover after our first significant purge… almost without fail, the story becomes, well, better. I know, I know, hard to admit as it is the question you need to ask yourself, “Does this scene contribute to the story?” Or is it just a beautifully written sideline only sustaining your desire to be eloquent?

Self editing, she devil that she is, has actually become a “freeing” experience for this writer. No, I have not been seduced into the dark side. But rather gleaning your work also frees the reader to take in what you truly want them to in your written world. You’ve heard it before, you don’t need to “spoon feed” your readers. Giving a reader “just enough” is the key.

Granted some will say hitting the reader over the head with the obvious story line, beating them into the ending has made for some very successful authors. That I cannot argue. But as an avid reader and one who loves trying to solve the mystery ahead of the words on the page, the tease, hint, promise of what I’m reading between the lines is much more enticing.

“when slicing and dicing a scene, I tuck it away, both mentally and physically”

Okay, I will admit, when slicing and dicing a scene, I tuck it away, both mentally and physically (what do you think copy and paste was meant for?) Justification for said act? I may use it in another venture, or glean from it later. Plus is makes things a little less painful.

One of the biggest traps I find myself in, falling in love with secondary characters. And with that comes the nagging desire to tell the reader about them. I’ve overcome this addiction by allowing myself to write said detail and then moving the excess baggage to another book. Cheating perhaps, but whatever it takes to get the flow going, I’m all for it!

Yes, there have been times where it has been a near death experience to strip the flaws and foibles of a beloved character from the pages. “How could anyone reading this book not want to know this?” Come on, you know what I’m talking about.

Thankfully the “no pain no gain” has worked well. The cast offs have spurred storylines never thought of before, causing this author to take pause. True believer in the mantra “everything happens for a reason,” I take solace in someday the she devil’s handiwork will be for the greater good. Dramatic, yes. But as many a writer will tell you, this casting off of sorts can be physically and emotionally draining.

Take the leap; embrace your inner editor

Step one: The sentence reads fine without all the “extras” DELETE
Step two: The scene is fluff, not that it isn’t beautifully written, but, you’re not making a quilt here. You’re weaving a story!
Step three: Breathe, you’re doing great!

Self editing - Necessary Nemesis.

Milissa's latest book, Gracier, can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

What are your thoughts about editing - self or otherwise? Please share your thoughts in the comments below - and with your friends, using the handy buttons!