Writing without Words

Wait a minute here. Writing is using words, isn’t it? Yes, but it’s also more than that.

Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about the script for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together—the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare’s work, they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of visible ink. This term refers to writing that is readily seen by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the tellers point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of invisible ink, so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story. More to the point, it is the story. Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it.

—Brian McDonald, Invisible Ink, Chapter One. All quoted text is copyright original author. Emphasis mine.

Yesterday I started reading Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald. It was incredibly difficult to put down, and if I hadn’t had house guests that afternoon, I would have finished it in one sitting. Today I finished it.

I’ve read A LOT of books on writing. I own a bookcase—not just one or two shelvesfilled with books on the subject, and I have read dozens more. Most books repeat what others have said before them. Never have I read a book on storytelling that has so much original content as Invisible Ink. There were several subjects from the book of which I had not heard before, or had not seen explained well until reading the book.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the wisdom McDonald, who often consults for Pixar, offers in Invisible Ink:

  • Writing is more than just the words on the page.
  • The Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story
  • Establish the story’s reality at the beginning.
  • The idea of your story (sometimes referred to as “theme”) is the armature of your story.
  • Every moment in the story should illustrate the idea—otherwise it is superfluous. “Every decision you make should be based on the idea of dramatizing your armature idea.” (Chapter 3)
  • “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” (Chapter 3)
  • Jokes can teach you a thing or two about structure and set up.
  • The use of “clones” is a tool that master writers use to show, not tell, their idea.
  • Each character needs to serve a purpose in the story. Comic relief is not a purpose.
  • Have characters experience their own personal hell. It will make them better people.
  • Speak the truth, not the facts.
  • The best stories have “masculine” and “feminine” parts. Physical action and plot (“masculine”) as well as emotional truth (“feminine”).
  • The best stories transcend genre—anyone can enjoy them.
  • Don’t write subplots. Write supporting plots.
  • “You are a slave to your story, not a master.” (Ch. 5)
  • Think of the audience (Address and Dismiss, Address and Explain, Superior Position), but don’t bring attention to yourself as writer.
  • Once you pay attention to theme, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t in other stories.

This is an outstanding book and fast read. Grab a copy and read it. Highlight the head-scratchers. McDonald gives really great examples of his points using movies and books. Think theme isn’t important? Think morals in books are preachy? Check out Invisible Ink, and chances are McDonald will show you why your favorite stories have made such an impression on you.

Until Friday, dear readers.

Short Fiction vs Novels AND ALSO…Setting

First, a little bit about my background. Then, the difference between Short Stories and Novels. Last, a word about writing setting, and why it’s more important than I thought. Skip around if you want. I won’t be offended.

my writing background

If you’d asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have had one of three answers: 1) goalie in the NHL, 2) marine biologist, or 3) actress.

1—I grew up in the desert of Colorado and none of my friends wanted to play street hockey with me.

2—As a child I was deathly afraid of whales. They still totally creep me out.

3—Seemed most viable.

Problem was, this tiny little town I grew up in had very little culture, very few opportunities for me to pursue theater until it was introduced in 8th grade as an elective. Until that point, I read Shakespeare and wrote my own scripts. Writing was a means to an end.

My eighth grade year, my school also finally included a creative writing elective. It wasn’t much, but it was my first real instruction in writing, and it was short stories. I learned that writing could be its own reward.

I continued taking creative writing in high school and decided to major in writing in college (my grandparents, who helped me pay my tuition at this private liberal arts university, forbade me from majoring in the arts. Writing I got away with because I could train as a technical writer). Halfway through my junior year, I changed my major to a combination of writing and graphic design. That choice meant I had to give up some writing classes, and one that I gave up was “Writing of Place.”

I thought it was a good choice at the time. When reading, I usually skimmed or completely skipped paragraphs of exposition, unless I REALLY liked the book and was determined to read every. single. word. Setting seemed secondary to the rest of the novel. Who wants to read twelve paragraphs about how undulating the hilly landscape is? Not I.

Sometimes I just wished that all books were illustrated…

When writing skits or plays, I don’t have to write setting—I can write a line or two and leave the rest to the set designer. Setting was an afterthought.

I have a problem few others share. Most writers write too much and then have to edit, edit, edit, edit to trim the fat. I write a skeleton of a story and then revise and revise to give it some more fat.

So it comes as no surprise that, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo a few year’s back, I got about 3,000 words into my novel and realized that I was about halfway through the plot. That’s not a novel. That’s a pathetic, anemic excuse for a novel. I learned then that a novel is in a completely different league than short stories (not to mention plays).

the difference between novels and short fiction

First, there’s a difference in length.

  • Length—Novels are longest, novellas are shorter, and short stories are shortest. See the numbers below for my recommendations. For more information, check out this post on Novel-Writing-Help.com
    • Novel                  80,000–100K words
    • Novella               20,000–50,000 words
    • Short Fiction    2,500–10,000 words
    • Flash Fiction     fewer than 1,000 words

With all those extra words, novels have more room to explore…more.

There’s a difference in scope.

  • CHARACTERS—Short stories usually focus on one or two characters. Novels often introduce a larger cast of protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters, and minor characters.
  • PLOT—Novels have longer, more complex plots. Short stories have to be simpler than novels because of the length constraint. However, I think there’s more freedom with short stories because they have a selective plot. Making Shapely Fiction is a great resource on the variety of “shapes” short fiction can take.
  • SETTING—Novels take you to more places, switch scenes more often, or stay in one place through more seasons.

And there’s a difference in depth.

  • CHARACTERS—Novels can explore depth of character in more words. But this can be a pitfall, because it tempts writers to spend far too much time in backstory. Feel free to get carried away during the drafting process, but kill, kill, kill! during revision
  • PLOT—Novels have plots, subplots and twists to keep the reader turning pages. Short stories usually focus on one plot line.
  • SETTING—A more generous word count means novels spend more time exploring setting. 

setting

Too much setting, and the reader’s eyes glaze over and they skip a few paragraphs. Too little setting, and you have a novel that no one can connect with because all they can visualize is a bunch of nobodies floating around in nothingness doing nothing. Unless you are Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, it’s not going to work. In fact, I think that Waiting for Godot is a waste of ink.

You really don’t want to know what I know about writing setting because…I really have no idea what I’m doing yet. But the best resource I have yet found on the subject is “Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life” by Moira Allen. You can read it here. Yes, the website isn’t the prettiest, but the text is what is important.

practice

So here’s your Monday Motivation.

  1. Take a character you know fairly well. Your WIP’s protagonist, your favorite fictional character, yourself, etc.
  2. Choose a mood for your character. Angstful? Annoyed? Embarrassed? Lonely? Something else?
  3. Pick a setting/situation and place your character in it.
  4. What is happening? How does your character react? What does your character notice? Keep his or her mood in mind—how we feel influences what we see and what we do.
  5. Write until you feel satisfied that you learned something or challenged yourself.

School is in Session

With Labor Day over and out, kids are back in school and I figure there’s no better time for me than the present to get my act together! Forget New Year’s resolutions—you don’t have to wait that long. We need to Write, Now! Here are my goals (perhaps “aspirations” is a better term) for the new school year, in no particular order:

  • Write EVERY [week] DAY
  • Schedule a time to work every day
  • Use my typewriter more often so am not distracted by the interwebs
  • Use my typewriter more often so I can’t go back and edit while writing
  • Read more books in the genre in which I am writing
  • Read at least on week nights so I can get through said books
  • Write, even if/though the first draft really is utter crap

I’ve been doing pretty well so far. (It’s been three whole days.) Today I typed 6 pages on my typewriter, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s certainly more than I’ve been doing lately, and not being able to delete anything is going to be a good challenge.

On Tuesday I picked up a couple books from the library: The Encyclopedia of Medieval Times, Volumes I and II, and this gem: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

It’s bitingly sardonic, so if you don’t have a sense of humor, leave this one on the shelf. But if you do have a sense of humor, this is definitely one of the most entertaining books on the subject. Do note that there is a chapter on how NOT to write a sex scene, and there’s some colorful language. So if you are sensitive to that sort of thing, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bethany asked a question on an older post about what kind of technology I use to write, and mentioned Scrivener. You can read my response here, but I basically said I didn’t find Scrivener to be something I needed to purchase after the free trial. I use Evernote all the time because it syncs across my devices, but as I am trying to wean myself from being continually distracted by the internet, I’m going old school and unplugging more often. I’ve printed out worksheets, put them in a binder, and started to type on my typewriter, as mentioned above. It’s working pretty well for me. Better even than paper and pencil, because the text is legible, I write faster, and my hands are less likely to cramp up. Though I will go back to pen and paper when I do my edits. There’s nothing like a nasty red pen bleeding on a field of black and white.

Whether you are enrolled at school or not, what are your goals for the school year?

Story Berg and Goal Boat: A Lesson in Backstory (and Goals)

This is Part Two in the Write, Edit, Repeat Character Series.

Backstory. What’s backstory?

Backstory is whatever happened to the characters before the story starts. It’s the stuff that the writer knows (or discovers), but what doesn’t show up in the story that the reader is reading.

Backstory is the reason we have Pottermore. Rowling had so much backstory that she could make an entire interactive experience for her readers out of it. An obsessive fan base and millions of dollars to create it doesn’t hurt.

Anyway, the most logical visual for backstory is an iceberg. All the stuff under water might be interesting, in fact, it might be really really good. But if it isn’t absolutely necessary to drive the story forward, then it doesn’t need to appear above water, in the finished piece. Continue reading