Three Writing Lessons from High School

I learned some valuable writing lessons when I was in high school, and not all of them were in English class.  Here are three things that stuck with me and influenced me as a writer.

1. A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
This came from my favorite English teacher during my senior year of high school, and I think it applies to more than just poems.  She taught us to go back and take a second look, a third look, a fourth; keep revising, keep tweaking.  There is no such a thing as a perfect, finished work.  I might get to a point that I feel something is ready to be shared, where making major changes becomes minor tinkering, but there is always something that can be improved. 

2. Give me details!
Brevity may be the soul of wit, but there is such a thing as too brief in writing.  This is something that I learned (painfully) in two history classes.  I always struggled to reach the required number of pages for our papers, because I thought and wrote succinctly.  I also left out a lot of important stuff, as it turned out.  Unlike some authors, who decrease in word count on revision, my novels always get longer.  The details are often key, whether in a history paper or in a story!

3. Sometimes it’s a good to give the readers what they want, and sometimes it isn’t.
I learned this one from my high school best friend.  She started writing a fantasy story our junior year, building the initial character ideas from our group of friends.  At the time I read silly fluff (mostly romance novels) but she was starting to introduce me to fantasy.  There was a scene in her tale where the character based on me had a potential romantic entanglement. She wrote it to be a challenge to the characters, a problem they had to overcome.  I wanted it to be fluff!  (You’ll have to forgive my silliness; I was a teenage girl, after all.)  Somehow she managed to move the characters through the challenge and still weave in some legitimate romance for the vaguely Leigh character, but not in the way I originally requested.  (On top of that, another one of our friends took the initial problematic scene and ran in some ridiculous direction with it.  That story, with flaming oranges and mauve towels, became something of a legend in our group.)  In Dragon I knew I was going to irritate some people, but I stuck with my original plan.  It’s good to think of your readers, but don’t feel like you have to coddle them!

To be honest, I am many years removed from high school, so these memories may not be 100% accurate.  The key lessons still ring true today, though, and it’s fun to reflect on them from time to time!

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Provocative Statements

Sometimes there are ways that things can be worded which create a very specific response in a reader.  For example, how would you respond to the following opening line?

The girl was clearly asking for it.

See what I mean?  While this doesn’t have to be a negative statement, it immediately puts certain images/connotations/responses in your mind!

As a writer, there are some reasons to use phrases like this, and some reasons to avoid them.  There may be times when you want to bring the “typical” response into a reader’s mind.  Putting someone in a specific emotional state, however minor, can be useful.  In the case of the sentence in question, it can generate suspicion of the narrator or character with point of view, or it can unsettle someone enough to keep reading.  It also creates innuendo, because the reader is now in a potentially icky place and may take innocent things that follow in the wrong way.

That’s both a potential reason to use and reason to avoid.  It can be tricky to write something innocuous when your readers’ minds are already on a certain path.  You also run the risk of offending a reader; sometimes a positive, but it is usually not a great idea if you want to keep your readers.

I happen to like the concept of using a phrase like this and then shaking the reader’s expectations by following it with something that clarifies and makes innocent the words that, on their own, have no weight of negative.

She couldn’t even talk, or at least hadn’t spoken to me, but her outstretched hand and giant, pleading eyes made the message plain.  When I handed her the bright pink carnation, the grin that crossed her face confirmed it; she’d wanted the flower all along.

Not what you were expecting, was it?

Can you think of any other phrases that might work like this one, creating an immediate gut reaction which may not be warranted or accurate?

Description Game Follow-Up: A Confession

On Monday I posted a little game for you to play.  If you missed it, you can read more here.

For a review, here are the descriptions that I wrote:

1. She lifted the plump, glistening berry to her lips.  As she bit into it, sweet juices flooded her mouth.  She grinned and reached for another.

2. The liquid was refreshing as it rushed down his throat.  He took another mouthful and let the cold sweetness linger before he swallowed.  With a sigh of contentment he carefully set down his glass on a coaster.

3. As the steam rose, she inhaled and enjoyed the scent of the soup in front of her.  She dipped her spoon into the bowl and let the savory warmth pour across her tastebuds.  Reaching for a piece of bread, she held it into the soup and let it soak.

4. He grinned as he licked the sweet, creamy icing off of his fingers.  With one finger still coated, he dabbed the bottom of the cupcake paper to collect the last few crumbs.  One cupcake gone, he paused and then reached for a second.

Before I tell you the “answers” I have a confession.  For two of these, specifically #2 and #3, I didn’t have a concrete image in my head when I wrote them.   In fact, I wavered between a couple of different items as I wrote them.   Now that I’ve made that admission, here’s what I was picturing.

1. Strawberry – this is the description that inspired the game!
2. I wavered between lemonade and sweet tea.
3. I started with beef and vegetables, then switched to baked potato.
4. Chocolate cupcake, of course, with white (or maybe green) frosting.

Of my readers, Nicole W. was closest, with these answers: 1. Strawberry 2. Lemonade 3. Chicken noodle 4. Chocolate with whipped white frosting

Thanks for playing!

Description Game

I love the movie Alex & Emma.  Watching an author (however fictional) dictate his story to a stenographer who comments and critiques the whole time is highly entertaining.  I find that it holds some helpful little tidbits of advice for authors, as well.

For example, take one of my favorite comments from Emma (Alex’s response is in parentheses):

I hate it when they do that.  (Who? What?)  You.  Authors.  You use a name like John Shaw and I picture in my mind thin, with a stylish mustache, and then when you finally get around to describing him he’s this fat old fart with a hole in his teeth.

Needless to say, she convinces Alex to change the description of Shaw.  I keep this in mind when I’m introducing a new character or describing a scene, because it’s true.  If you wait too long to give a description, a reader may have already created one based on their own imagination.  When they get to your description, it might irritate them, or clash with their image.  And while it is sometimes worth it to wait to describe someone, and in some cases it’s helpful to encourage the reader to think the wrong thing, I also like to be kind to my readers when I can.

In the spirit of this, I want to play a little game.  I am going to describe some people enjoying food.  At the end I’m going to ask you a question about each food. Are you ready? Here we go.

1. She lifted the plump, glistening berry to her lips.  As she bit into it, sweet juices flooded her mouth.  She grinned and reached for another.

2. The liquid was refreshing as it rushed down his throat.  He took another mouthful and let the cold sweetness linger before he swallowed.  With a sigh of contentment he carefully set down his glass on a coaster.

3. As the steam rose, she inhaled and enjoyed the scent of the soup in front of her.  She dipped her spoon into the bowl and let the savory warmth pour across her tastebuds.  Reaching for a piece of bread, she held it into the soup and let it soak.

4. He grinned as he licked the sweet, creamy icing off of his fingers.  With one finger still coated, he dabbed the bottom of the cupcake paper to collect the last few crumbs.  One cupcake gone, he paused and then reached for a second.

Ready for your questions?  They are basically the same.

What kind of berry did she eat?  What is he drinking?  What type of soup is in the bowl?  What flavor was the cupcake, and what color was the icing?

We’ll see if everyone (or anyone!) has the same answer as what I was imagining when I wrote them.  🙂

Wait! Where’s the Birthday Challenge?

For the past two years, I’ve done a Blog Birthday Challenge, where the goal is to see how many hits I can get on my birthday.  To coincide with this, I post two or three new posts as well.

Today, on my birthday, I drove past the hospital where I was born at almost exactly the time I was born.   At that moment I realized that I forgot to do a birthday challenge this year.

The real reason is simple: I forgot.  However, there are many other pieces that go into it.  I moved less than a month ago.  I jumped in feet-first in the busy season at a new job, and almost immediately added another role to my job.  We had a major event at work this week, too, which means that work has been looming larger than usual (I hope).

On top of that, the purpose of the Birthday Challenge in previous years has been to try to bring new readers to my blog.  Friends tell friends, readers tell people they know, and new folks come to visit, at least for the day.  Within the last six months or so, my blog has been growing slowly but steadily in followers.  (Thanks!!)  It means that the Birthday Challenge is still fun, but less necessary.

If you missed the Birthday Challenge, or at the very least the cool posts that go along with it, please accept my apologies.  I’ll try to get some birthday-caliber posts up within the week, just for you.

Numbers!

In honor of breaking the 3-digit barrier on the number of followers, here are some numbers for you!

There are now 101 followers of this blog.  (Yay and THANK YOU!!)  I also have 41 fans on Facebook.

As far as the blog goes, this is post #698.  There have been 1,122 comments approved to date, and 21,209 views of the blog.  My best day as far as blog visits is still my first birthday challenge, in 2010, with 420 visits.

There have been 34 copies of The Queen’s Butterflies e-book purchased to date.

Those numbers tell me one thing: I need to show my gratitude to my readers and followers out there.  Other than a big thank you (see below), how would you like me to show my gratitude?

THANK YOU READERS!!

Irritated Reader

One of my coworkers just finished reading Dragon, and she gave me quite a scolding this morning.  Needless to say, she didn’t like the ending.

She was really rather irritated with me about it, in fact.

Now, I won’t spoil the end for you, but I will tell you that her irritation pleased me for two reasons.  (When I told her it made me happy, she gave me a dirty look.)

The first reason it was a good reaction is that it means she finished the book.  She doesn’t read a lot, and is not a fantasy reader, so she obviously enjoyed it enough to finish it.  She also told me that, with the exception of the end, she did like the book.  (Her cameo as a mermaid amused her, which is what I was hoping.)

The second reason is that her frustration reaffirms my ability to write.  Why, you ask?  Because I developed a character that she cared enough about to become passionately upset when the ending of the book was not what she wanted for him.  I work hard on my character development, and it means a lot to me when my readers feel that connected to the people in the story.

It seems odd to be happy that I irritated a friend and reader, but I am.  🙂

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