Tag Archives: writing fiction

Just Write It


By Kay Springsteen

Hooker with a heart of gold meets rich man who rescues her from the streets: A lighthearted look at the life of a prostitute who hits the big time and then turns around to rescue the man who rescued her. Pretty Woman is one of those movies I love to watch. I don’t care that it’s older, or that the premise is extremely far-fetched. It’s fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense. And the interactions of the characters is amazing, as is the job the actors themselves do of portraying this complex group of people. Pretty Woman is billed as a romantic comedy, but did you know it didn’t start out that way?

The screenplay for this movie was originally written as a highly emotional, somewhat dark trip through the world of prostitution, an examination of the differences in class. The dead body in the opening of the movie originally played a much more prominent role and there were no funny snails at dinner scenes, lazy days in the park or quarter of a million dollar necklaces for trips to the opera. The story was seedy and gritty and heavy.

But the producers saw more potential in the story than that. By turning it to a romantic comedy they played to what the audiences of 1990 wanted. Pure, fun escapism. But not so much of an escape they couldn’t dream of that romantic rescue happening to them.

Add in an already established hit song by Roy Orbison, and you have audience appeal.

But what does that have to do with people who are writing fiction today? Everything. The plot of Pretty Woman was only loosely reminiscent of the original. But the author, J.F. Lawton, worked with the studio and producers and agreed to the changes that shot that movie to one of the most successful romantic comedies ever.

And?

Oh right, the lesson. Well, the lesson is simply to be flexible. Write what calls to your heart while you’re in the creative stages, but don’t write with a closed mind, and when you type that last word, don’t let it be written in stone. You never know who might come along with an idea of tweaking your story just enough to make it one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of its time. With a handful of tweaks, you might find yourself sitting on “the next big thing.”

All because an editor or a publisher or… a producer… says to you, “I really like your story but would you be willing to make a few changes…?”

So…would you? Or do you feel J.F. Lawton should have stuck to the original script?

I write highly emotional-charged stories. I don’t do romantic comedy nearly as well as I write drama. But if Hollywood called and asked me to change one into a romantic comedy, would I allow it? In a heartbeat. Time enough later to be a prima donna. First you gotta get to the top.

“You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.” (Melanie Griffith as Tess  McGill, Working Girl)

Happy reading and writing!

Kay

The Details Start the Engine


by Kay Springsteen

Imagine building a car and forgetting to install a crucial part of the engine. If it starts at all, it’s not likely to run well, and it may end up stopping rather abruptly. Those who assemble cars, no matter what stage of the car they work on, follow a blueprint—detailed plans that outline exactly what part goes in what position. Every part has a place and every place requires the part that fits.

Writing is much the same. A story is made up of various elements, to include characters, plot, setting… And it’s the details of each of these that are built upon to present the whole picture. A thought here, a bit of dialogue there, the way the wind pushes the curtain or a ticking clock fills a silence.

When my collaborator, Kim Bowman, and I wrote A Lot Like a Lady, we researched the historical details surrounding our chosen time period and our setting. We probably didn’t get it all right but we’re confident that some of it, at least, is as authentic as we could make it. But because of our research and desire to get it right, our writing actually suffered. Kim and I both tend to write in deep third person point of view and we love to show our characters’ emotions to the point where the reader feels them along with the character. We also like to pay attention to details of the setting – not heavy paragraphs loaded with description but a kind of filtering in of the details as the characters (remember in deep third pov) might experience them.

But in the writing of A Lot Like A Lady, it was as if all the research into the history meant something had to be displaced—the filing cabinet was too full and the detail folder slipped to the rear, or the detail tool bar slid to the side and we failed to notice it. So we wrote a good story between us. We knew what things were called, we found the procedures, the hierarchy of nobility, what servants did what…

And then we went to editing. We were thrilled to have one of the best historical fiction analysts out there as our content editor, J. Gunnar Grey. The attention to historical detail Gunnar gives when writing is carried over into the editing field. This was it. Picture Kim and I giving ourselves high fives. Our good story was about to be made better.

And then the sound of a whip cracking could be heard amid the partying.

“What room are they in? Is it light?”

“Does sunlight filter through the window? What does it hit?”

“Do sounds reach the characters from outside?”

“Are there any vases of flowers sitting around? Is the fragrance light and pleasant or overpowering?”  

Page after page of questions like this. Now imagine Kim and I looking at each other in confusion. Did we really write our story and forget all the settings?

The short, and somewhat embarrassing answer here is simply: Yup. We did. At least for the most part our first draft of A Lot Like A Lady had our characters telling their story in a vacuum.

Now, once we were made aware of this by our jewel of an editor, it became a simple matter to do what we both always do—that being to run back through the entire manuscript and filter in the details that show what the characters saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled. We added splashes of sunlight and gentle breezes, the scent of lilies, the splash of a brook.

To soften the blow of pointing out our mistake, our editor did, very nicely, tell us that it was obvious we had simply overlooked layering in these details during our first self-edit in our zeal to provide a more historically accurate picture.

Bottom line here? The details make all the difference. We added a few thousand words worth of details and our characters were no longer telling their story in a vacuum.

~Kay

Find A Lot Like A Lady on Amazon, Astraea Press, and Barnes & Noble

The Twisting Tale


by Kay Springsteen

I once had a dog named Hero. His tail was broken in three places before he even left his puppyhood behind because he had been born with tail bones that were on the brittle side. His tail had a natural curl over his back, then it twisted severely to the right, then to the left, and then back toward his rump. He never seemed to feel the breaks when they happened. He kind of just accepted them. One break happened when he was born. The second when he was about 8 weeks old and got it caught in the wires of the puppy pen. The third break we were never sure what happened. We went out for the evening and when we came home, he had another broken place.The twists and turns of his tail became woven into his personality. In the same way, the various twists and turns our stories take become part of the personna of the tale we are telling.

Most people read or write fiction in order to escape into a story that takes us out of our daily lives, and puts us smack in the middle of someone else’s life. Maybe we crave more excitement, maybe we want to forget the fact that our electric bill tripled this month. Either way, without a little creative storytelling, a few unexpected twists to the plot, or breaks in the tail, there is no story to tell. Enter the writer’s friend: The Plot Twist.

Who cares if we can relate because the heroine’s fiance broke up with her? That’s old news, possibly even happened to us once. So honey, suck it up and get on with life. But when the heroine who lost her fiance gets on a plane to track him down in a foreign country, meets a cute but somewhat shady French native. loses her passport, can’t get it replaced, and finds her cute new friend used her luggage to smuggle something through French Customs…THAT’S more exciting. In case you don’t recognize the scenerio, that’s French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. In the same vein, how many Cinderella stories can you tolerate? Who really cares about the hooker on the street corner? But put one on a corner being picked up by an uber-rich hunk of a guy with a brooding nature, who wants to pay for the pleasure of her company for the rest of the week and then falls in love with her…that’s fodder for Hollywood, baby. That’s Pretty Woman. Writers take the mundane, everyday things of life, such as a group of men and women with a passion for fast cars, and spin it into an adventure of street racing, rivalry, murder, and high-stakes highway robbery (The Fast and the Furious).

So what can we, as writers, learn from Hollywood fiction? Everything. Movies are generally 1-1/2 to 2 hours of story with tight dialogue, visual stimulation and interesting plot twists. Watching how the story unfolds via the movie will give you an idea how to tighten your writing, how to develop plot twists.to make them hook the reader/watcher.

What drives your story, the characters or the plot? How do you decide where your story will take the reader and how? Do you plan the overall plot, the subplots, and the various twists ahead of time? How do you make sure the story flows without becoming too cumbersome?

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“Tag! You’re It!”


by Kay Springsteen

If you were a director, or producer, would you make a movie that was nothing but a blank screen and a bunch of people talking? Maybe every once in a while a light would come on and show who was speaking so people wouldn’t lose track. Would that help?

How about a book? Would you write a book that was nothing but dialogue with an occasional “said John” or “Jane said,” tossed in?

Your characters have a lot to say. And it’s up to you to sort through it all and help them say it. Now, as the story teller, the writer has a fair idea of how things are unfolding. The writer hears it as the character is saying it, sees it happening as the character does it. The writer knows what the characters feel, what they think, what plans they may be making. The reader has only the knowledge the writer imparts. So a writer may have a firm grasp of the scene, but the reader starts out with absolutely no clue.And that’s where the writer’s job come in. The writer advances the story through action, thinking, dialogue, and narrative, all wound up into a presentable package that the readers shouldn’t want to put down until they get to the last page.

To set up mood in a scene, there is nothing better than action. Clenching fists, punching a wall, stalking away — great demonstrations of anger. Biting fingernails, lip chewing, fidgeting in the seat, shuffling from one foot to the other — great depictions of nervousness. The author can use dialogue here as well. “Where do you think you’re going?” or “I’m not sure I want to.”

In the past, extensive use of dialogue tags and adjectives conveyed the tone to the reader. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded angrily. The most recent trend has been to eliminate all but the most common dialogue tags and to limit the use of adjectives, especially those ending in -ly. In the light of this trend, how can the writer make certain the emotions are communicated? With the tag and the adjective eliminated, we have the simple statement: “Where do you think you’re going?” The words themselves show a possible degree of firmness. If two people are in an argument and this statement is used, there is little doubt the words are said with at least a somewhat angry tone. But to emphasize it, the writer has the option of inserting an action. Actions, when used in passages with dialogue are the punctuation that explains the emotion. “Where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed her arm and jerked her back against him. “Where do you think you’re going?” He slapped his palm on the door and slammed it shut before she got it all the way open.

But what if the tone is not meant to be angry? “Where do you think your’e going?” he asked playfully. Take off the tag and the adjective and add an action and the picture becomes crystal clear. “Where do you think you’re going?” With a chuckle, he hooked an arm around her waist and pulled her back into his embrace, tickling her until she burst into helpless laughter.

The actions in your story give the readers a visual to go with the audio they are reading. Combining action in dialogue passages not only keeps the reader immersed in the story but also keeps the story from becoming stagnant and motionless.

Breaking Through Like the Boss


By Kay Springsteen

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…Or is it something worse?” ~Bruce Springsteen, The River

Bruce Springsteen has long been an iconic superstar in the music business. You might love his music or hate it, but you know who he is and more than likely you’ll recognize at least one of his songs. Born in New Jersey in 1949, he had a life that was fraught with many of the elements and tensions other kids his age grew up with. But instead of letting his family angst get the better of him, he used the emotions he experienced in his music. It wasn’t immediately accepted. Before he made it to the big time with his particular blend of music, he played the bar circuit. His popularity grew and he had moderate success in his early career.

And then he wrote an emotion-packed, story-song that Springsteen refers to as: “A breakthrough song for me. It was in the detail.” The song he refers to is “The River,” and it was based on conversations he’d had with his brother-in-law after the man lost his construction job and was struggling to support his wife and child. The wedding in the song refers to Springsteen’s sister and brother-in-law, who married young. The exquisite attention to the small details and the seamless way Springsteen presented them in the song told an emotional story that haunts the listener in the same way as the broken dreams and faded memories he sings about in the song.

As writers of fiction, we struggle with our creations, too. What to include, what to leave out. How much does the reader need to know? We may have had some moderate successes but maybe we haven’t hit The New York Times top ten yet. So in the meantime, we learn things and practice them…we hone our craft.

It’s no surprise to me that Springsteen’s breakthrough song was “The River.” When Springsteen states the success is in the details, he may have been speaking of all the emotional minutiae of the story that he told from beginning to end—not only did he tell a story but the song conveyed the feelings of sadness and frustration and the longing for happier times. He did this quite well with the words. But he also did it with the way the song is paced, which is, in itself, a detail. The verses that speak of the ongoing story itself are slow and carry a sad flavor. But with the mention of the river and all the carefree memories and sense of youth the river represents, the tempo of the song picks up to a livelier and happier beat.

As romance readers, we feel anxiety to get to the heart of the story, to see the couple come together that first time in a kiss, or a caress in the moonlight. We are restless, wanting to see them work through their issues and come to an understanding. Depending on the heat level we read, we might want the big reveal love scene. Knowing these things are ahead of us is part of what keeps us turning the pages of the book and reading the story.

As romance writers, it is a struggle to not simply skip the preliminary dancing around the mat and get to the center of the ballroom for the big dance. After all, we know what we want when we’re reading a book – to get to the meat of the story. So why not start at the meat and heat?

When we read over our own creation, however, maybe it seems to fall a little flat. It doesn’t produce that same desire to keep turning the page. We may lament and wonder why it doesn’t flow as smoothly or what it’s missing. When I’m asked this question as an editor, the answer in almost every case is the same. The writer moved the couple from encounter to encounter, and gave nothing in between these interactions to show who they are, what’s happening to them as individuals, and what is keeping them apart.

The answer is in the details. Some details the reader needs to know. And some details are part of the overall story. If you leave these out, you risk unbalancing the story. Is it still a make-up love scene if you omit the fight that sets up the need to make up? What to use or leave out is all in the detail of pacing. If you don’t lead your readers along a trail of fear and trepidation, or allow them to remember when they used to be happy, give them a taste of future happiness…if you don’t take the time to build the chemistry between the couple through evoking emotional responses in the readers, when you get to the love scene, you’re shortchanging those readers by showing them just another day in the life of a romantic couple. You’ve removed the C from the GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict), and reduced your readers to nothing more than voyeurs in the lives of ordinary loving couples.

If I could offer new romance authors one bit of advice, it would be to build chemistry between your main characters by setting a pace that will at once interest and frustrate your readers. The balance is tough because you don’t want to send your readers into tearing out their hair saying “get to it already.” But the romantic aspect needs to follow a reasonable progression of time and events. Not only that, but it must take a few back steps that also follow reason. Consider this romance you’re portraying like a sword fight, to include dancing (around the subject), engaging (sometimes nicely, sometimes with a sharp edge to the tongue), parrying (giving back as good as they get), and, well…you get the picture. I promise if you build slowly and evenly, rather than diving headlong into the kissing and sexing, when you finally get your reader there, the explosion of emotion will make an unforgettable read.

It really is in the details – what to include and not include…all the elements that drive the pace.

~Kay (storyteller, editor, and romantic at heart)

What’s Your Hurry?


By Kay Springsteen

Have you ever read a book and when you get to the end you let out a big dreamy sigh? You wanted to get to the end – to see the characters you’ve come to adore get their satisfying ending. And yet…when you turn that last page and read the last word, you’re sad, too…because you have come to love these people and you really hate to leave them behind.

Those are the books we wish we could prolong…the ones that generate excitement when we realize there’s a sequel.

But lately, I’ve been reading books and finding I’m sorry to read the last word for a completely different reason. I’ve been running across stories that have absolutely superb potential. I come to care about the characters, wonder about their future…but instead of that satisfying ending I’m reading toward, I get a rushed rendition of winding up the events in the story with long expository paragraphs, often a quick kiss, and some version of  “…and they all lived happily ever after.” (Or sometimes, just happily for now.)

Whatever happened to showing how the bad guy is discovered and ultimately foiled? Why can’t we be shown in greater detail how the couple got over their differences and decided to make a go of it? Why can’t writers throw in an extra plot twist, increase the stakes and the tension, so I (and other readers) have to wonder if that happy ending is going to happen?

I don’t know exactly what has brought on this rushed phenomenon in the industry. But lately I’ve been reading more books that are little more than short stories with shallow, single-stranded plots. There is no intricate path to follow on which I may lose myself in the story – it’s a straight shot from beginning to end, and over far too quickly to become lost in. There are only limited events occurring through which the characters actually develop chemistry…and in some cases, there are so few events, the characters themselves don’t develop beyond cardboard cutouts.

I recently read a very, very well-written historical. That is, the writing itself drew me into the story, made me care what happened. The research into the era had been solid. The story revolved around one main character nursing the other through a dangerous illness. With something like 80 pages spent on the nursing part, the ill character was mostly unconscious and/or delirious. So I was ready for some serious chemistry to develop when the character pulled through, became stronger, and started working about the farm. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. In the space of the next 20 or so pages, the farm was tilled, planted, and some bad guys chased away, and the couple was ready to build a life together. I loved this author’s writing so much, but what made the story disappointing was that rushed ending. With so much intricate detail spent on nursing a character to health, I would have loved to see the same poured into building more chemistry between them. But the ending of the story was rushed once the character became conscious and aware, and opportunities for character development and couple chemistry were ignored or lost, not to mention a pack of loose ends that were left dangling.

I’ve seen this altogether too often lately. While the reverse is just as appalling (that is, a story that runs on and on and on, well past its expiration date), it is these suddenly ended but not quite finished stories that I’m seeing too many of lately. They simply don’t feel complete. They often feel more like watching one episode of a weekly TV series and not being able to see the other episodes. Certainly, they don’t have a movie feel about them, and not a complete novel.

A story needs to show a balance of action narrative, dialogue, and descriptive narrative from beginning to end. Back story is a place where many readers become hung up. They aren’t sure how much to tell, or when/how to present it. Back story often presents as a problem in the form of an information dump.

Information dumps can about along in a variety of ways, but they all have one thing in common. They have the potential to jar the readers out of the story. Any time too much back story information is being given to the reader, whether in the form of the character thinking about the past, or telling about an incident from the past in lengthy passages of unbroken up dialogue, or (worst of all) narrative that simply explains what happened that brought the character to a particular place, the story slows down and becomes a bit of a yawn…and far too easy to put down. A lot of attention has been devoted to showing authors the perils of not being careful with presentation of back story.

But back story is not the only time information can be presented in a less-than-ideal manner. Consider the following, which is not back story, but a telling of current events, and yet is no less an information dump than is back story.

They all went to Stan’s house, where Stan and Stella met them at the door. Stan hugged everyone, and then they went inside, to find Stella had cooked a nice dinner. They all sat down at the table and chatted while they ate steaks and baked potatoes. Then they ate dessert out on the patio. After a while, the conversation turned to a discussion of their latest problem: how to handle the new boss at work.

This is glossing over the present details. Just as too much back story slows down the reading of a story, so does glossing over the details throw off the pace by making the readers feel they were dragged through. The thing is, if you, as a writer, find yourself glossing over details, it is entirely likely the information you are presenting is unnecessary to the story. Look at the passage again. How much is really required?

They all met at Stan’s house for dinner but they kept conversation light until they got to dessert.

“Let’s take this to the patio,” suggested Stella, dishing up pie ala mode. “We can talk about the new boss.”

On the other hand, maybe the meeting at the door was important, or the dinner conversation was relevant, or the fact that Stan hugged everyone when they arrived. In that case, the passage should be expanded.

Jim, Kari, and Buddy arrived at Stan’s around the same time. Stan was waiting in the front yard. As Kari stepped out of the car, Stan locked her into a giant bear hug.

“I’m so glad you all could make it.” He turned to Jim and shook his hand. “You must be Jim. Buddy’s told me a lot about you.”

Stella joined them. “I have steaks on the grill. Who wants to help peel the potatoes?”

Pacing in a story is critical, and that’s why the balance is important. Just as you need to plan your beginning, middle, and end to avoid rushed endings or endings that drag on, you also need to plan how much action narrative, dialogue (including thought), and descriptive narrative will give you the most balanced scenes throughout the story. You may also find yourself with explanation narrative, but it’s best to place this in dialogue or thought when possible or you risk point of view problems.

The key here would be to take it one scene at a time. Plot each scene within the overall plot of the story. For the pantser this will be harder to do, but it is not impossible. A plotter would decide during the outlining phase. A pantser simply writes the scene and then must be willing to go back into the just-written scene with red pen and scissors to trim the unnecessary bits and add in the layers and details that will round out the people and the scene itself.

One thing I sometimes suggest to authors I have edited is to use the font color option on the computer. When you read back what you’ve written, simply change the color of the font according to what type of writing – for instance, blue for action narrative, red for dialogue, and green for descriptive narrative, and perhaps keeping the explanation narrative black. Then check the colors for evenness or chunkiness throughout the scene. Frankly, there should be much less explanation narrative than action, description, or dialogue. Action and dialogue, and to an extent description are what should actually drive your stories forward.

Do you pace your stories in any way?

And now for a bit of shameless promotion: My Christmas novel, Operation: Christmas Hearts, has just been released. For today through midnight Tuesday PST, anyone who purchases a copy of this book and provides proof to my email address, wordsprite@gmail.com, will be given a PDF copy of their choice of any of my previous published works. Just include the words Operation: Christmas Hearts Cyber Monday in the title of your email.

Amazon   Astraea Press   Barnes & Noble

Please Clean Your Lint Filter


by Kay Springsteen

Have you ever washed a blanket and dried it in your dryer and then discovered a good portion of the blanket has ended up in the lint trap as a layer of fluff? I swear, sometimes when I clean my dryer’s lint filter, there’s so much fluff there I could use it to make a second blanket. The only thing is, no matter how much fluff is in that filter, when you peel it out of there, all you have in your hand is a wad of fluff. It may have peeled off in a sheet but the moment you try to spread it across a bed, it’s going to fall apart. Why? Because it’s fluff, insubstantial and useless.

Have you ever been writing along and gotten so caught up in the setting that you spend a great amount of time describing the sweeping lawns of the mansions, the canopy of trees lining the old street, the tall white columns of the Greek ruin? Have you found yourself so entranced by your setting that you go into painstaking detail about every bent blade of grass in each trace of footstep in the normally well-manicured lawn, when maybe all you need is to mention that someone had left a trail of imprints when they cut across the lawn? Consider two different sentences saying the same thing.

In the forest, leaves in every color and hue clung to the trees, as the vivid reds and oranges high overhead battled for attention against pale yellows and dark greens of the lower bushes.

The example above is descriptive and definitely informs the reader that this is autumn in the woods. But it’s also a little wordy, and as a reader, I would probably skip that sort of passage and go looking for the real heart of the story. In short, this sentence is dryer fluff. It takes too many words to put the picture in the minds of the readers.

Autumn had splashed her vivid palette across the forest canvas.

The second example also paints a fairly vivid picture of autumn in the woods, and since most people reading your stories will know what autumn color looks like, it’s likely they will be able to picture an autumn wood without being told of the presence of each color. The second example is the real blanket that you will use to keep warm. It doesn’t fall apart because it’s not made of flimsy fluff.

These two examples are very extreme ends of the spectrum. In reality, the best solution for fluffy writing is possibly to set a goal for somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Description is not an exact science. But if you start noticing that you’ve written paragraphs filled with detailed description of a setting or an outfit or a meal, you should probably check your story’s lint trap and see if it needs to be emptied.

Focusing on the Whole Picture One Step at a Time


By Kay Springsteen

To continue our comparison of the art form of writing to the art of photography, today I’m talking about focus.

Your story may have many elements, main plot, subplot, red herrings, detours, symbols. And as you’re writing, you need to take the reader on a journey that focuses on exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.

Let’s say your story has two characters, each with his/her own internal tension. You want to tell their individual stories, explain their tension as you introduce them, and also show how that tension can possibly relate to each other, and ultimately how it all fits together into a single story. You do this with focus. With two characters and two points of view, you have the ability to focus on the individuals separately, then show them together but still with an individual focus, and then, as the story progresses, to show the overall picture and how they fit into it.

Take these pictures. In the first one, you see a young woman balancing herself on a rock. She could be doing anything from just sitting down to contemplate the universe, to just getting up after eating a snack, to falling and landing on her behind. You have only this part of the story, whatever it turns out to be: a young woman on a rock. Next, you see a young man from the rear with a camera and a backpack. He’s near some bushes and it looks like he might be leaning or hanging onto something. He could be wilderness trekking and taking pictures, walking a skinny trail, climbing a mountain. But all you really know is, you see a young man near a bush with a backpack and a camera.

Now, moving back to the young woman’s point of view, we can zoom out just a little bit and we see the young woman appears to be sliding off the rock into some water. Zoom out on the young man, and you see that he’s also standing on a rock, and that little bit at the bottom of the picture is probably wet, too. We’re getting closer to having them in the same scene—with same goals, motivation, and conflict.

Zooming out completely, but keeping the focus on the young woman, we see the couple are in the same space at the same time, but their story hasn’t exactly meshed yet. We have only her point of view, the information she knows. She doesn’t yet know his story, his intentions, or his motivations, and neither does the reader. Shift the focus over to the young man, and we can see that he has a story, a focus, but he doesn’t yet know her story; the focus is still on him.

But expand the focus by creative storytelling, so the reader knows the stories of both characters, and you have given the reader the entire picture. In this case, a young woman is trying to cross some rocks near/in a creek and the young man is giving her directions, and is also in a position to probably give her a hand to keep from falling into the creek.

As you tell your stories, this is how you want to do it. Focus and tell, shift focus and tell, expand focus and tell, shift and expand again, and so on, until the story is complete and the reader has all the pieces. By presenting the story a little at a time and offering a shifting focus, the story expands with a relatively even flow outward.

The thing to avoid is retelling, which is at best stalling the story and at worst actually running backward. In our story with the young woman on the rocks, we see from her pov that she is climbing on some rocks and possibly slipping into the water. We experience from her pov the way the slippery rock feels beneath her feet, the panic she feels when her feet slide. Having experienced that from a firsthand pov, there is no need to then shift to the man’s pov and repeat the slip on the rocks. In his case, he got close to her just as her feet slid out from under her and she landed on her behind. So he pointed to a dry rock and guided her closer and then held out a hand to help her the rest of the way along the rocks. We can feel the rock wall under his hands, the brush of leaves against his arms. If we repeated her fall as seen through his eyes, we would be taking the reader on a backward journey.

Now, last week, I discussed the rule of thirds—three parts of the basic story – beginning, middle, and end. That rule still applies with the focus and shift and expand. But you must focus, shift, and expand inside of each section of the story. For instance, in this two-character model, you would show the two characters in their individual roles in the opening or introduction of characters and elements. You would also show a bit of the conflict but not necessarily how it relates to either of the two main characters. In this case, the elements are introduced as a female lead, a male lead, and a creek.

In the second part of the rule of thirds, typically the longer part of the story, where you show the conflict, you would zoom out to show two individuals, and tension, conflict, or dilemma, but not necessarily how these characters are going to solve this tension together. You might even see them in the same setting, but the focus is not yet on any kind of working together.

In the third part, with the climax, we zoom out, initially with individual focus but then applying focus to the entire picture. This is where the action takes place, the pace is fast and the loose ends are effectively tied up. The entire picture emerges and the dilemma is solved. The young woman avoids a dunk into the stream because the young man helps her out of her precarious predicament.

In this way—focus, expand, shift—stories are built from the ground up until readers have the entire picture and the story is complete.

Do This, Don’t Do That


By Kay Springsteen

A lot of how-to writing has been dedicated to the craft of fiction. Tell this, show that, use the senses, don’t use a passive voice, watch your point of view. . . Lots of good advice is to be found out there from other writers – seasoned writers, writers who made it, writers who took a class and want to share. Lots of questions are being asked by writers just starting out, writers seeking to improve, and writers looking to try a different approach.

With all the tips out there, it’s important to remember that many writing techniques—or the need for their use—are open to individual interpretation. What one person understands about a technique might be different from another’s perspective. In addition, writers may place different emphasis on what is most important in a manuscript. One writer may develop the ability for crisp, snappy dialogue and might suggest this as the best way to move a story along. Another might prefer to evoke strong imagery as a way of involving readers in the story, and thus may concentrate on how best to do that. If those striving to learn or improve at writing could absorb the how-to of all the varied techniques as presented on all the blogs and books about the subject, we would all be powerful writers, wouldn’t we?

Or we could simply find our brains cluttered with the advice of others, with no room left to develop our own writing voices.

The market changes constantly and you never know who might be the next big thing in fiction. That doesn’t mean all you have to do is sit at the computer and write and you might pound out the next Harry Potter. But it does mean that amid all the advice, you have to hold on to who you are as a writer, and your own sense of style. You also have to understand the market you are seeking to join. The best way to do this is to write the kinds of stories you enjoy reading. At least I believe that’s the best place to start. Pay attention to the small details in the stories of your favorite authors. What techniques have you read about that they utilize? How do they move the story forward? How do they handle dialogue? Back story? What makes you want to continue reading? What makes you put a book down? Sometimes reading your favorites authors with an objective eye will help you see and understand the various skills they employ to pull their stories together.

So research the market of your chosen genre. The best way is to read the top sellers, even if they didn’t necessarily appeal in the past. An author is a best seller for two intertwined reasons: (1) They got the attention of an editor, and (2) the public likes their writing. So find out what works for other authors, even try to figure out why. Discuss the work with others in noncritical forums – at this point, you don’t want to hear why someone doesn’t like certain top-selling authors. You want to know what people like about them. Talk to other authors who write the kinds of stories you do. Join a critique group, if you haven’t yet taken this step. A critique partner is good; a group is better. The more people who look at your work, the more chances you have that what they concentrate on in your writing will balance and compliment each other’s perspective. But, as I stated earlier, you must understand that everyone has an individual understanding of the writing craft. So don’t make yourself crazy trying to employ every single bit of advice from crit partners/groups. You risk losing yourself in the voices of others.

Ultimately, the choice of who you listen to, of what advice you heed is up to you. So, don’t stress out if you feel you aren’t “getting” something, and don’t feel you have to be perfect at every aspect of writing. The art of writing fiction is a process. You don’t just sit down and automatically have a great story and the tools to know how to tell it. A good author is a combination of born storyteller and attentive student, always changing, always developing his or her skills, always evolving. If you don’t understand a technique, not stressing over it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn about it, but stressing because you don’t get something seldom leads to understanding. Asking questions, on the other hand, will help lead to understanding. Find someone knowledgeable on a particular subject or technique and ask them to explain not only the skill but the reasons for its use.

Research and learn. Ask questions of other writers and learn. Take a course. Read books you enjoy and consider why you enjoy them. But above all, become aware of your own writing voice. Whatever you learn along the way, remain true to yourself, and never stop evolving as a writer.

Whose Head Is This, Anyway?


by Kay Springsteen

What does point of view mean? If you’re a writer you have probably at some point in your life seen your editor question your PoV. Simply put, this is the perspective from which the story is currently being told. A large trend these days is to tell stories from the third person-deep point of view. This means the story is written as though being observed by an outside party, but with the added ability of the narrator to tell the thoughts and feelings of the main characters, usually two to three per story, and only one viewpoint at a time. Good-sized chunks of the story are told through the eyes, or point of view, of each of the main characters. The chunks don’t have to alternate, and sometimes they don’t, but generally each main character’s points of view should end up approximately equal at the end of the book for a more balanced read.

The focus of PoV for each chunk is usually chosen for which character will show the scene in the strongest light. Who is going to have the greatest impact on that particular part of the story being told? Which character has the most investment in that scene? For instance, if a woman is waiting to see if she’s pregnant, that scene will probably be hers. However, if her husband is waiting with her and he’s got a significant stake in the outcome, for instance if he has a fertility-robbing type of cancer, or if he knows he has Parkinson disease (which is a genetically transmitted disorder, which he could pass to the child), his stake might be slightly higher and the emotional impact greater if the scene were shown through his eyes. Or if the writer wants to keep his thoughts about these things secret, it would be shown through the heroine’s eyes with no explanation given about any negative reaction on the part of the husband but perhaps a lot of confusion on the wife’s part (this scenarios would be used to build tension and that is a whole different subject).

Once the PoV is chosen, it should be an easy thing to simply tell the story from that character’s perspective, right? Not so much as you might think. For some reason, we writers like flashing eyes, whiskey-honey voices, luscious red lips, and sexy swaying walks. All of these are fine if the character relating these can actually see, hear, feel, and THINK about them.

However, when we are being shown the story through the heroine’s eyes and she says something to the hero using her best sexy voice, he may hear it as a whiskey-honey voice, but she wouldn’t necessarily think of it — or describe it — in those terms. Reading and writing from a specific point of view means we must think like that character. Would you see your own eyes flash in anger? Assuming you don’t chronically look at your reflection when you’re mad at the hero, probably not. Would you think of the way you talk as sounding like honey? Even if you knew you had just put on your best blazing red lipstick, would you think of your own lips as luscious and red?

Successfully writing in from one PoV or the other, without hopping to the next head mid-scene is a matter of paying strict attention to what the character would logically see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and think. If we are in her head, it’s highly unlikely that she will think about how entrancing he finds the wind lifting a tendril of her hair (unless he speaks the thought out loud). From her PoV, the tendril isn’t some sexy reminder of how soft her hair is or how glorious it looks when it spills about her shoulders; it is an irritating piece of hair that keeps getting caught on her hoop earring. When we are in his head, he isn’t going to be thinking in terms of his flexing muscles or the way his behind fills out his jeans. He’s going to grunt when he picks up something heavy and wonder if the jeans are going to hold or split up the middle when he bends over to lift the tire onto the car.

Another thing to watch for is impossible knowledge.  For instance, in her PoV, she can see him do something but unless he states it, she can’t know why he did it. Sometimes these shifts are pretty subtle and hard to notice when you’re writing them, but when you’re re-reading can be easy to spot if you understand what you’re looking for.  Example, in HER PoV: The words froze the blood in his veins and he grabbed the door frame to steady himself.  Obviously, SHE cannot know his internal reaction to the words (froze the blood in his veins). BUT, she also cannot know the reason for grabbing the door frame (to steady himself). It CAN be shown that he steadies himself, and she may make assumptions. As she finished speaking, he reeled sideways and his knees buckled. He grabbed the door frame, squeezing until his fingers turned white. The latter sentence shows he had a reaction after she finished speaking. Depending on what was said, it’s assumed he’s having a reaction to the statement. But the latter sentence does not make an internal assumption while in the other character’s PoV as to why he’s grabbing the door frame. Had the PoV been from his perspective, the first sentence would have been completely appropriate–he would know exactly why he grabbed the door frame.

One way I’ve found to keep the PoV straight is to put myself into the character as I’m writing. Inside the PoV, the character sees (everything but himself), feels, smells, tastes, hears, thinks (but in a specific way ABOUT him/herself), acts, reacts, and speaks. The non-PoV character can only be shown acting or reacting, and speaking. By remembering the limits of the scene’s secondary character, we can police our work and edit out things the PoV character in that scene cannot possibly know or see, etc.

The trick is to realize that even one tiny word can signal a PoV shift into the other character’s head. Think about the following several lines and try to figure out if they are being shown from the main PoV or could be the secondary character.

1.  “I’m the medical examiner. I’ll nail you to the wall.” She snapped her latex glove into place with a knowing smile.

Her PoV or someone else’s?

2.  She secured her hair with a pony tail, gasping at the pinch from the elastic band on her fingers.

Hers? Or from the outside?

3.  He ran a hand through his sun-kissed hair.

His? Or not?

4.  It was obvious she didn’t believe him, and he wondered why he kept trying.

His or hers?