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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tools to Become a Better Writer

If anyone were to ask me what to do in order to improve their writing and get them on the way to publication, I would tell them three things.

1) Read, read, READ!
2) Get a critique group.
3) Attend writer's conferences

Numero Uno: I am all for college.  I actually have a lot of years of schooling, so I tend to do shameless plugs about getting a college education.  Here goes: Get one! Both stories I've written that have been picked up for publication would not have existed if not for my college education.  Did it do me good? I think so!  That said, no one gets published because they have a college degree.  Your writing must stand on its own.  Period.  What's the best way to educate yourself in writing technique?

Read, read, READ!

Read anything and everything you can get your hands on.  Read every genre of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, even screenplays.  The better grasp you can get on different approaches, angles, and styles, the better off you will be as a writer.  You will also learn a lot about yourself and your own writing desires by doing this.  If you want to write, you MUST read!

(Maybe sometime I'll do a blog about the books that have most influenced my writing.  Any takers?)

Number two: Critique groups are a hotly debated topic among both published writers and would-be published writers.  There are some who swear by them and others who would rather stop writing than use one.  Mostly, these opinions are due to individual experiences.  For me, I'm one who swears by my critique group, but I must add an asterisk.

* There are definitely critique groups that do more harm than good. The reason I swear by my group is because they're awesome! More specifically, they work for me.  I work for them.  We are awesome together. To make a critique group work, you have to find the right one. You have to find people that you like and trust, and that trust you.  They have to be sensitive to your feelings, but also willing to give you the harsh--but constructive!--criticism when it needs to be given.  They also need to "get"  your writing.  Sometimes, through no fault of anyone involved, writer and reader just don't click. If you write horror and the people in your group prefer chick lit and have no experience whatsoever with the horror genre, there's going to be problems.

One last note about critique groups: your attitude as a writer will go a long way. If you go into your critique group believe that your writing is awesome and couldn't possibly be improved--in short, if you're looking for a captive audience rather than a critique--your going to have some problems.  Go in with an open mind and a positive outlook for gaining valuable insight and improvement on your piece.  If all people in the group do this and strive to build each other up, rather than the opposite, your group can't help but be a success!

(Shout-out to my awesome group! They keep me honest, positive, learning and laughing.  We have WAY too much fun together!)

Trois: Go to writer's conferences.  Okay, I know conferences are expensive and time-consuming, but nothing beats them! Networking with other writers and industry professionals is so fun and so empowering.  And the sheer volume of information they throw at you: you won't get that anywhere else. I can't stress how only two measly conferences changed my writing so much--enough to get me published, actually.

After joining the League of Utah writers, I went to their annual conference and LOVED it!  The feeling of having hundreds of kindred-spirit writers in the room is indescribable.  There are events, workshops, classes, inspirational speakers, industry professionals, (fantastic food! Just sayin'.) and more.  The next year, I was stoked to go again.  I sat in on a class about how to show and not tell.  It was a simple, one hour class that showed you how to take your writing from good to great; to show rather than tell; to avoid passive voice; etc. I don't know about everyone else in the class, but it just clicked for me.  I went home completely overwhelmed, feeling like I'd have to completely re-write everything I'd ever written.  Okay, I didn't do that, but I did do an overhaul editing cycle on all three of my novels.  And guess what?  Within a few months, two out of three (the only two I've sent out, yet) had been picked up for publication.  That was a direct result of going to this conference.

Enough said?

Website for League of Utah Writers: luwriters.org

So, if you want to write awesomely, read, get a critique group, and attend conferences.  Publication is only a rough draft away. Sort of. :D

How would you other writers answer this question?

4 Keys to an Awesome Conflict

Photo Credit: lockbumping.org
The key to a great story (okay, maybe one of several keys)is great conflict. Have you ever read a story, and you really liked the settingor one of the characters, so you really wanted to like the story, but you justcouldn’t make yourself care? This can happen for any numbers of reasons, butmore often than not, the absence of compelling conflict is what turns peopleoff to the story. As a reader, it’s frustrating. As a writer, it’soh-so-avoidable!

I’m often told that my subject matter is very interesting.That’s the non-writer’s way of saying that my conflicts are engrossing. As awriter of dystopian, I have to create conflicts within conflicts. My dystopianworld has to be one big conflict, my characters have to be facing conflicts,and it helps if they’re a little conflicted within themselves. So, what makes agood conflict? What is it that makes you devour a story verses devouring dinnerinstead of reading?

I got to thinking about this and came up with a few keys tokeeping your reader engrossed. As you read, apply these points to your favoritestories. They may help you discover the formula for why those stories are yourfavorites!

1)      You haveto hook them. Make them care to begin with. I said that conflict is one ofmany keys that make a story work. Another is characters. In my experience, yourconflict could be relatively boring, but if you make your readers care aboutyour characters, and your characters care about the conflict, then the readerwill care about the conflict too. So, make your characters likable, human,relatable. Give them at least one quality that makes the reader root for them.If you can do that, then your reader will keep reading past the first fewchapters.

Photo Credit: mechtild.livejournal.com
2)    Make yourconflict something your characters are passionate about. Make sure there’ssomething very threatening to the MC about the conflict. I recently (tried) toread a novel and stopped about a third of the way through. The writing wasactually quite good and the characters were okay, but there almost no conflictin the story. At first the MC was kidnapped, which was good, but then she wassuddenly jumping through all these fantastical worlds, and I just couldn’t makemyself care. I realized that I had absolutely no idea why she was doing whatshe was doing. Make it so that if your characters don’t act, something terrible will happen to them or someone theycare about. If Frodo didn’t run from the black riders, they would have killedhim. If Katniss hadn’t volunteered for the Hunger Games, her little sisterprobably would have been killed. If your character is passionate to the pointof hyperventilation about the conflict (or perhaps putting a stop to it) thenyour readers will feel the same way. Trust me.

He's pissed the book ended that way!
Photocredit: goofybabies.com
3)     Raise thestakes. No matter how dire things are at the beginning of the story, they must get worse as the story progresses.In a way, you really have to stress your reader out. They must fear for thecharacters and what will happen to them should they fail. Things can get worse,plans can fall through, a mentor/friend can die, a worse bad guy can show up. Thesethings will cause your characters (and therefore your readers) stress, whichmeans they will keep turning pages because they so desperately need the releaseof relief when things are finally better. (Why do you think people scream andthrow books at walls when a volume of a series ends on a cliffhanger?)

Photo Credit: banmilleronbusiness.com
4)     Shockyour reader. That’s right! Shock them. How?
a.      A twist in the plot. Now be careful withthis one. You must make sure the twist is both worth it (twisty enough) andalso realistic enough to be believable (not too twisty). There are some twiststhat are done WAY too often. Since TheSixth Sense came out ten years ago, everyone and their dog has ended thestory with the-character-is-actually-dead scenario. I also thinkthe-character-is-actually-crazy thing is done too often. The best way toorchestrate a twist is by putting in tiny, subtle details early on. They mustbe small enough that the reader won’t pick up on them, but potent enough thatwhen you reveal the twist, they’ll remember the details and have a light bulbmoment.
Photo Credit: cineplex.com
b.     Shock your character. I went to a writer’s workshop about a year ago wherethe speaker (don’t remember her name, which is terrible!) said that you must always know what the worst thing youcould do to your characters is. You don’t always have to do it, but you have toknow what it is. Doing the worst thing to them definitely heightens theconflict, though. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this in Harry Potter. Books 3-7pretty much all ended this way. What was the worst thing that could have happenedto Harry at the end of book 3? Losing Serious after finally finding him. Book4? Facing Voldemort unprepared. Book 5? Death of a loved one. Book 6? Death of another loved one. Rowling figured outwhat would be the worst thing for Harry and did it to him…right before the endof the book. Woman’s a master, if you hadn’t already figured that out.
c.      A betrayal—this one is good, but alsosometimes hard to pull off and *warning* your readers may hate you for it. Ifyou take a character that’s awesome and lovable and relatable, and then havehim/her betray your MC, that will shock your audience. Some of them will hateyou for it, but it definitely ups the conflict.
d.     Death of a character. This only works asa shocker/conflict enhancer if the audience loves the character. Side or stockcharacters don’t count. By far the best author I’ve seen at this is George R.R.Martin. He always said he wanted to write a book that people were afraid tokeep reading. Well, he’s done it. He’s been known to let you love a characterfor two or three volumes (some of them over a thousand pages, people!) and thenkill the character off. Was I sad? Yes. Did I chuck the book across the roomand swear? Uh, pleading the fifth. Did it make me a die-hard fan of the series?Absolutely! Just saying.

These are some awesome ways to up the ante in your stories andmake sure your reader cares about your characters and their conflicts. Take amoment to examine your favorite stories. If you can find where the authorescalated the conflict and made you care just so darn much, you may havediscovered the formula for just why those stories are your favorites. Happystressing everyone! :D

The Number One Ingredient in Great Writing

 As you know by now, I attended Roundup about a week and a half ago. There was a stellar lineup of classes and speakers and, inevitably, I didn't get to listen to them all. Every year there’s at least one hour when two classes are taught that I want to attend, and I have to choose. One class I didn't attend, but wanted to, was on creativity, where it comes from and what exactly it is. I went to a different class that I wanted to hear just a bit more, but I thought this was an intriguing idea.

My niece Cheveya looking out the window.
This is a picture of my niece, Cheveya (also known as Eve, Munchkin, Baby, and Stay-out-of-the-toilet!) She likes to get up on the couch and look out the window. She’s not quite two years old, so she has a very limited vocabulary. Most of what comes out of her mouth is just baby gibberish. When she looks out the window this way, she pounds on the glass and waves to our neighbors and passersby. She screeches when she sees dogs or cats, and whimpers with fear when a loud car or plane passes.

She’s just naturally curious and LOVES being outside. When she can’t go out, she looks out the window.

I think that’s how writers are as well. We’re naturally curious about everything in the human condition. We like to learn about it,observe it, explore it, and find ways to deepen it.

I’m sure you’ve all heard this a million times, but I’ll say it again: if you want to be a great writer, you need to be a great reader. Reading is one of the best ways to observe human behavior and learn to analyze human motivations. I always say I’m not much of a people watcher, but I am a people analyzer. I analyze everything to death. (What can I say? I’m a writer.) Besides, if I spent my afternoons on a park bench creeping people out by staring at them as they pass me and scribbling ominous things in a composition notebook, I probably wouldn’t be very popular.

Cheveya's adorable Sunday morning face!
I’m not really sure what this post is about except to say: Be like Cheveya. No, don’t play in the toilet water when Mommy isn’t looking. But be naturally curious about everything around you. Take delight in everything you observe, and strive to learn something from it. Children are that way. They can be positively bowled over by the smallest things. They can teach us to live in the moment and savor every experience, be it sensory, emotional, or spiritual.

So the next time you get writer’s block or just don’t feel very inspired, go to your window, look out, and ask yourself what you see. Or perhaps, what a child would see. Chances are that somewhere in Utah, a blue-eyed two-year-old has her face pressed against a window, and is gibbering to her novelist aunt about the wonders of the outside world.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone! :D

3 Tips to Avoid Passive Voice

Every newbie writer struggles with passive voice. We've all been there. But it's difficult to define what passive voice is without sounding like an 8th grade grammar teacher (or just a geek). Sometime try explaining passive voice to a non-writer. There's a two-hour conversation that will leave you contemplating going the way of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Anyway, I'll give you a quick definition but it's by no means comprehensive. My definitions tend to be directly tied to my tips, so...

Passive Voice: When your narrative describes indirectly or in a round-about way, instead directly and strongly.

*Understand that this is different than telling vs. showing. That's an entirely different problem that I may revisit next week.*

To avoid passive voice:

This explains it WAY better than I do!
1) Describe things directly and using the senses of one of your characters. "A strange sound was heard from the cave" is not as strong as "Bob heard a strange sound emanating from the cave." Why is that? For one thing, saying who specifically heard it grounds the sensation in the POV character, which means the reader can identify with it more easily. If "a sound is heard," it begs the question, who heard it? Furthermore, the second example allows you to use a word to describe how the sound was being heard (i.e. emanating).

2) Explain action as directly as possible with as few words as you can manage. Returning to our friend, Bob, "Bob ran down the street" is much stronger than "Bob was running down the street." The second one is used a lot by amateur writers because it's past tense, but the former is also past tense, and it's stronger because it's not passive voice.

Example 1. Anytime you use 'was' before the action word and put an 'ing' on the end (i.e. was running) you are using passive voice. Granted, there may be a few exceptions when this is necessary, but I guarantee 99% of the time, that's not the case. Anytime you catch yourself doing this in your writing, ask yourself if using the past...what would that be? Participle?...would work. Ran instead of 'was running.' If the sentence still makes sense, trust me, use that version. It's stronger and you won't be accused of using passive voice.

Example 2. Don't say that one character observed another one doing something; just say they did it! Don't say, "Bob saw Fred sit down." Just say "Fred sat down." If Bob is the POV character anyway, the fact that he's doing the observing is implied. You don't need to state it. All it does is jack up your work count and stray into passive voice.

3) Don't use "seemed" unless the character is unsure. I've mentioned this before in other posts, but it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Newbie writers often overuse the word seemed. 'He seemed to be walking...' 'She seemed to have a headache...' 'I seemed to think I was a writer!!!' Seemed implies that the character is unsure. So if your bff seems to be sad but you aren't sure and need to find out, then it's fine to use it. But if someone is walking down the street, either they are or they aren't. They can't 'seem' to be walking down the street.  Every time you use seemed, ask yourself if your character (or you!) is sure of what's happening. If they are, you don't need seemed. Delete it!

That's it for this post. Not comprehensive in the least, but just a few things I've seen over and over again while editing. Hope this helps a few of you.

How about you? What are your tips for avoiding passive voice?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Streamlining my Blogs

Hello All!

I've decided to streamline my two blogs, this one (LKHill) and the second one (Musings on Fantasia). I'm trying to figure out a custom redirect, but until I do, if you want to read my latest content, just head over HERE, to Musings on Fantasia. All the same features--Historical and Crime Tidbits, Tuesday lists, Thoughts for Thursday, Follow and Funny Fridays, as well as reviews and writing posts--will all still be present, just at that URL rather than this one.

Thanks a ton! Hope to see you all over there! :D

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Funnies

Welcome to Friday Funnies! Because everyone needs a good laugh on Friday.

Evil Author Plan!
Funny story! :D

SOOO want to say this to people sometimes!

Oh so creepy! (Source)

Some GoT humor!

This had me and my sisters giggling for WAY too long last night! :D

Hope one of more of these gave you a laugh. Everyone have a wonderful, safe weekend! :D

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Midnight Dreary by John Evangelist Walsh

The full title of this book is Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. I've had this book on my shelf for some time and finally got around to reading it. Like many before me, I am fascinated by Edgar Alan Poe, and studied him at some length while in college. So, when I heard about this book, I knew it was one I would want to read. Unlike most of my reads, it was a non-fiction.

Discussion/Plot: Walsh takes what little remains of Poe's personal correspondence and the well-documented facts of his life, as well as those surrounding his death, and analyzes them. This includes whether or not Poe's drunkenness truly could have caused his death, what women he was involved with at the time of his death (women, as much as booze were a trial for him) and what can be read between the lines of surviving letters.

He also examines some unfortunate prejudices that have sprung up in popular Poe culture, which have long clouded the issues that must be explored in order to understand the poet's death.

Conclusions: At the risk of spoilers, I won't give the exact conclusions Walsh comes to, in case anyone would like to read for themselves. Besides, Walsh does a good job of explaining the characters that populated Poe's life at the time of his death, and without the history he furnishes, the conclusions would be near-meaningless. 

That said, I found his conclusions to be compelling. He makes a good case for his argument, and I think he may just have it right.

Overall: An easy, thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone who's ever wondered about the mystery of Poe's death. While of course there is a certain amount of conjecture involved, it's all based on established fact. Most people don't understand that in order to truly understand history, conclusions must be drawn. And more often than not, when someone is searching for a specific answer, and does an in-depth study, the inspiration they receive is all kinds of accurate. Because of this, I love reads like this one. I would highly recommend it!

Has anyone else read Midnight Dreary? What did you think of Evangelist's conclusions?