Tag Archives: writing

Ways to Hit Your Reader in the Gut

12 Apr

I found this list of “10 ways to hit your reader in the gut” compiled by Keyboard Smash Writers! (original article here) and thought it was worth sharing.

10 ways to hit your readers in the gut

One of the strongest bonds that link us to our favorite stories is the emotional tie, or books that sink a fist right into our guts. When you finished a book where you couldn’t let go of after the last page, chances are, the author successfully punched you in the spleen. If you’ve ever wondered how to do just that, here are some of my favorite methods:

  1. Make your reader root for your main character(s). Make your character stretch out their arm toward their goal, as far as they can to reach, until their fingertips barely brush it. Make your character want something so much that your reader wants it, too.
  2. When your character trips and stumbles and stops to question themselves, the readers will hold their breath.
  3. Push your character to their very limit, and then a little further.
  4. When your character hits the bottom, they should scrape themselves back together and get back up. Give readers a reason to believe in your character.
  5. If your character is challenging your plot, your plot should challenge your character.
  6. Leave a trail of intrigue, of questions, of “what if?” and “what next?”
  7. If a character loses something (a battle, an important memento, part of themselves), they must eventually gain something in equal exchange, whether for good or bad.
  8. Raise the stakes. Then raise them higher.
  9. Don’t feel pressured to kill a character (especially simply to generate emotional appeal). A character death should serve the plot, not the shock factor. Like anything else in your story, only do it if it must be done and there’s no other way around it.
  10. What’s the worst that can happen? Make it happen. Just make sure that the reader never loses hope.

Obviously, not every novel we write will need tons of gut-wrenching moments, but I really liked step 1.  The ability to create a character that wants something so badly that the readers want it right along with him.

Some of my beloved fluffy YA books (like Sweet Valley High) aren’t good at this.  Jessica Wakefield wants a new boyfriend almost every book, and as readers, we are mostly just reading to see what happens–not because we’re rooting for Jess to get her new man (or steal Lizzie’s current man).

I think Hunger Games did this well–in the first book, all Katniss wants to do is to win in order to  protect her sister.  As result, I developed a real affection for Prim, and Prim’s eventual fate (no spoilers!) certainly delivers that epic gut punch.  Katniss isn’t the most likeable character, but I still like and root for her because I want the same thing that she wants–to win and take care of her family.

I might go further and add a step 11–make sure they want something worth fighting for.  (Did anyone else start singing Mulan in their heads just now?)  If all your character wants is to get a boyfriend (ala Twilight‘s Bella), then I really don’t have a huge emotional stake in your journey.  (I guess a bajillion teenage girls can disagree with me on that point.)

What are some of your strategies for creating powerful emotional moments?  Or have you read books where there are way too many gut-wrenching scenes?  (Step Nine made me instantly think of A Song of Fire and Ice.   Characters seemed to die left and right for no other reason than shock value.  It’s a big reason why I wasn’t a giant fan of the series.)

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On Becoming a Writer

7 Apr

The movie Sister Act 2 has had a profound impact on my life.  When I was young, I wanted desperately to join a choir led by Whoopi Goldberg and practiced trying to hit that high note from O Happy Day.

When I got a little older, Sister Mary Clarence’s sassy words of wisdom were still impacting me.  Does anyone else remember this quote?

I went to my mother who gave me this book called Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. He’s a fabulous writer. A fellow used to write to him and say: I want to be a writer, please read my stuff. And Rilke says to this guy, don’t ask me about being a writer. If when you wake up in the morning you can think of nothing but writing, then you’re a writer. I’m gonna say the same thing to you. If you wake up in the morning and you can’t think of anything but singing first, then you’re supposed to be a singer girl.

I wrote my first book when I was six.  It was a picture book about me and my best friend Squanto (of Pilgrim/Indian Thanksgiving fame).  Squanto and I ran through the forest and shot guns and were chased by “woofs”.  My parents thought it was the most brilliant book ever penned, and I felt encouraged to keep writing.  I wrote stories about solving mysteries (during my Boxcar Children and later Nancy Drew days).  I wrote stories about exploring ancient ruins in Egypt (during my The Egypt Game and Indiana Jones days).  I wrote fan-fiction (really, really terrible fan fiction), and later I wrote for a magazine…and a newspaper…and a blog.  Did all that make me a writer?  Or was I a waitress/retail associate/admin/Sunday School teacher who also wrote?’

My father is one of my heroes, and he was one of the people who really propelled me to want to become a writer writer (and not an analyst who also writers).  Funnily enough, he paraphrased the Sister Act 2 quote about writing, and told me if that’s what I thought about and did all the time, then that’s what I should do.

So, I did.  I dusted off a novel I’d been tinkering around with for years, and I started polishing.  And polishing.  And polishing.

In less than a year, I finished a novel, signed with an agent, and am about to sign with a publisher.   It’s surreal to say the least, but I also still hesitate to identify myself as a writer.

I think my personal definition of a writer is someone who can make a living by their words.  But, then this small part of me argues that even if I end up making zero money and have to refund my advance…I still wrote a novel.  (Or two or three…)  Am I still a writer then?

How would you guys define someone who is a writer?  Can anyone be a writer?  Or are there talent levels involved?

How to Write a Novel in Five Easy Steps

4 Apr

So, you want to write a novel?  Are you okay with getting your work ripped apart by beta readers/agents/editors/publishers/readers?  Can you handle massive amounts of criticism?  Long nights of writer’s block?  Tight deadlines?  Multiple characters all talking over each other in your head making you feel like a crazy person?

Great!  Let’s get started!  (Also, please note that this will not be easy at all.  But it will be fun!)

1.  BRAINSTORM! You can’t write your book until you have an idea for a book.  I get ideas all the time from the most random things–the other day, I was reading Suri’s Burn Book (aka the most brilliant blog on the planet), and I started thinking about what Suri would be like in twenty years.  What would it be like to grow up in a world where everyone already knew everything about you?  Where you never had a chance to figure out who you were or make mistakes?  That sounds like the beginning of a story to me.

2.  Outline.   These can be a huge help when trying to plan out your novel.  I usually start my books with a giant outline that looks something like this:

A.  INTRO TO SURI

B.  SURI INTERVIEWS FOR A POSITION AS AN ADMIN

C.  SURI’S INTERVIEWER ONLY WANTS TO TALK ABOUT KATIE AND TOM

D.  SURI RUNS INTO THE LOVE OF HER LIFE

E.  THE PRESS RUINS HER CHANCE AT ROMANCE

F.  SURI DECIDES TO FLEE TOWN AND JOIN A CIRCUS

G.  SURI MEETS A CLOWN WITH A SECRET

etc etc all the way until…

Z.  FINAL  BOSS FIGHT.

You don’t necessarily need to know what each of those chapters will contain.  You don’t even necessarily need a totally complete outline.  As long as you have a general idea of where your stories (or characters) are headed, it’s enough to keep you going.

3. WRITE!  I know it sounds simple, but you can’t ever get your characters moving along until you actually let them out of your mind.  Listen, it doesn’t need to be pretty.  No one needs to see it but you.  Just ASAKFJ:LSKDFJ: all the words out of your brain and onto paper.  Don’t agonize over how things sound or look.  There’s time for editing later.  Don’t be a perfectionist–just write.

Outlines help here too.  If you feel stuck on a scene, just move to the next scene.  Building a bridge is always easier when you know where it’s going.  Sometimes if my scene is dragging on forever, I’ll just be like “AND THEN THEY…” as a placeholder and keep writing.

4.  Use the Buddy System.

Heavyweights?  Anyone?  No?  Uh…well, the Buddy System will help you become a much better writer.  Find someone who’s opinion you value, and ask them to read what you’ve written.  It helps if they’re also a writer, but regular people work too–after all, your audience isn’t comprised solely of writers.  Ask them to read and give you any thoughts or questions they have.

Your key here is to NOT get angry or defensive when they do give you feedback.  “What do you mean you don’t get the symbolism of Suri’s Ruby Slippers?!  It’s so obvious!”  If one person is confused, chances are more people will be confused.  As a writer, you will constantly have your work torn apart and rebuilt–remember, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.  It’s not an attack on you or your talents–it’s just a way to make you better.

5.  You’ll never finish Editing.  Ever.

People think writing is the hardest part, but I think editing is even harder.  I can edit the same thing 23 times, and still want to go back for a 24th pass.  Question every word–every phrase.  Look at POV’s.  Look at plot.  I think editing could warrant any entire post by itself, but the majority of your time will be reworking your material until it’s close to perfect.  I don’t think any writers get to a place where they sit back and say, “Ah.  It is finished.”  I sometimes have to force myself to stop editing.

I know this list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a start.  Would you guys have added any other steps?