About Marcy Kennedy

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Tools to Help Bring Your Setting to Life

A tool that I regularly recommend is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Rebecca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus helps writers with building character emotions and showing rather than telling. So I’m very excited that these two ladies have come out with a pair of books that will now help writers with describing their setting. (And you know how important I think description is to fiction.)

Today, as part of their launch, I’ve allowed Angela to “hijack” my blog as part of the festivities they have planned. 

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As we storytellers sit before the keyboard to craft our magic, we’re usually laser-focused on the two titans of fiction: plot and character. Yet, there’s a third element that impacts almost every aspect of the tale, one we really need to home in on as well: the setting.

The setting is so much more than a painted backdrop, more than a stage for our characters to tromp across during the scene. Used to its full advantage, the setting can characterize the story’s cast, supply mood, steer the plot, provide challenges and conflict, trigger emotions, help us deliver those necessary snippets of backstory…and that’s just scratching the surface. So the question is this: how do we unleash the full power of the setting within our stories?

Well, there’s some good news on that front. Two new books have released this week that may change the description game for writers. The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces look at the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds a character might experience within 225 different contemporary settings. And this is only the start of what these books offer writers.

In fact, swing by and check out this hidden entry from the Rural Setting Thesaurus: Ancient Ruins.

And there’s one more thing you might want to know more about….

Rock_The_Vault_WHW1

Becca and Angela, authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, are celebrating their double release with a fun event going on from June 13-20th called ROCK THE VAULT. At the heart of the Writers Helping Writers site is a tremendous vault, and these two ladies have been hoarding prizes of epic writerly proportions.

A safe full of prizes, ripe for the taking…if the writing community can work together to unlock it, of course.

Ready to do your part? Stop by Writers Helping Writers to find out more!

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Description in Fiction Shouldn’t Be Boring

Description: A Busy Writer's GuideBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Description is often the unloved step-child of the writing craft. It’s undervalued and almost feared because writers tend to believe that things like dialogue and action are inherently better. We start to believe this because we associate dialogue and action with being active and interesting and we associate description with being static and boring.

Those are false dichotomies.

As a freelance fiction editor, I’ve more often seen people whose books lacked depth and emotion because they were dialogue heavy than I’ve seen people whose books were too slow due to excess description.

Dialogue doesn’t necessarily make our stories better. Good dialogue does. Bad dialogue makes our writing slow and boring.

Now here’s the fact we need to understand—the exact same thing is true about description. (And about every other element of the fiction writing craft.)

Good description is vibrant, interesting, and active. Bad description is slow and boring. Bad description is what readers skip over.

So what makes for boring description?

(1) A Flat Laundry List

Description should never be a simple list of objective facts. As long as we’re writing in first-person point of view or in a limited third-person point of view, description should be subjective, colored by our viewpoint character’s history, personality, and emotions.

(2) Description Whose Sole Reason to Exist Is to Show the Setting

Every passage of description should do two or more of the following things:

  • ground the reader in the setting (time, place, and/or culture) so that they know when and where they are
  • symbolize or foreshadow something important to the story
  • enhance the theme
  • add subtext
  • show something about the viewpoint character’s personality
  • show the viewpoint character’s emotions
  • add conflict or complications
  • hint at backstory

When we make our description serve multiple purposes, it becomes valuable to the story as a whole. If readers skip it, they’ll be missing something important.

(3) Purple Prose

Purple prose is writing that’s too self-aware. It uses fancy words when a simple one would do, it’s filled with flowery phrases, it’s laden with cliches and clumsy figures of speech, and it relies on adverbs and adjectives when a strong verb or noun would be better.

Purple prose can also be writing that’s there because the writer likes the sound of their own voice rather than because it serves one of the purposes I mentioned above.

(4) Description That’s in the Wrong Place

Description should happen only when the viewpoint character would naturally notice those things.

So, for example, if our character is running through the woods to escape a gunman, he’s not going to notice the nest of baby birds or the squirrels hopping from tree to tree. He’s only going to notice things that could either help him hide or help him take down his pursuer.

Much of the time, the feeling that prose is overwritten or boring comes from the writer describing things in detail that don’t need to be described at this particular point in time or which should have been described differently based on the situation.

Context matters.

(5) Description That’s Generic or Tells Rather than Shows

Showing is essential to strong description because it helps us be specific and bring the experience to life on the page.

I’ll give you a quick example.

Telling: He was ugly and deformed.

Showing: The skin on the right side of his face seemed to melt down like candle wax, and as he limped toward her, one leg dragged behind.

Just remember that telling isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a tool like showing and we need to know how to use it strategically. Description, though, usually isn’t the place for it.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

Are you looking for a way to add new depth and re-readability to your writing?

Are you tired of description being “the boring part that people skip”?

Are you a writer who’s struggled with making their story world feel believable and three-dimensional?

Description in fiction shouldn’t be boring for the reader or for the writer.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide will help you take your writing to the next level by exchanging ho-hum description for description that’s compelling and will bring your story to life, regardless of the genre you write.

In Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you will

  • find the answer to the age-old question of how much description is too much;
  • learn how to use point of view to keep description fresh;
  • recognize the red flags for boring description in fiction;
  • explore how to use all five senses to bring your descriptions to life for the reader;
  • discover the ways metaphors and similes can add power to your descriptive writing;
  • gain the tools needed to describe setting, characters, and action in engaging ways;
  • learn how descriptions can add conflict, enhance the theme, and amp up emotion; and
  • much more!

Grab a copy of Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide at Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble. It’s available in print and ebook versions.

Holographic Technology and Virtual Reality on the Horizon

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and one of the technologies my husband and I desperately want to see become a reality is the holodeck. While it might not be exactly a holodeck, Microsoft’s hololens technology moves us one step closer. These are virtual reality glasses that seem to create a 3-D environment for the viewer.

I’m going to include two videos below. If you’re short on time, just watch the first one. The second one is a TED Talk, and it’s long. Or you can just skip the videos and come back to my thoughts on this and storytelling in the future below the videos 🙂

The growth in this area of technology has implications for how we’ll consume our entertainment in the coming years.

For writers, it means we may eventually have another avenue where we can sell rights to our existing properties. Susan Kaye Quinn, for example, has had her work optioned for Virtual Reality by Immersive Entertainment. I suspect, though, that producing a book for virtual reality will be expensive for the foreseeable future, and so selling your virtual reality rights will be about as common as selling movie rights.

As a reader, I’d never want to replace the reading experience with virtual reality, but it would be a fun way to experience stories I already enjoy. My concern is that this could eventually replace 2-D movies, which will be a sad day for me if it turns out that I react to virtual reality as well as I react to 3-D movies (which is to say, not well at all).

What do you think? Are you excited about the possibilities for virtual reality?

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Creating Promotional Material That Works: Swag

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityOver the last two months during my guest posts at Fiction University, we’ve looked at writing a tag line for our books and writing our book description that goes up on retailers and on the back of our book.

This month we’re going to talk swag. Swag is physical items related to our book/series. It could be bookmarks and postcards, mugs or magnets with our book cover on it, or even jewelry based on something worn by our characters.

I decided to poll a group of authors for this post (thank you to the WANA group on Facebook!) because I suspected that experiences with swag might vary.

Please join me for “Creating Promotional Material that Works: Swag” where I’ll share what I learned about how to use swag to your best advantage and where to buy some of the fun items authors are using.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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5 Times Katniss Nailed Deep Point of View

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m guest posting today for Christine Frazier of the Better Novel Project. I hope you’ll join me because I’m talking about one of my favorite subjects–deep POV–and how we can learn about it from Katniss and The Hunger Games.

Join me to find out 5 Times Katniss Nailed Deep Point of View.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Sadness Is Valuable Too

Sadness Is Valuable TooBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A few months back, my husband asked me “Do you always have to be so cheerful?”

“Would you rather I were grumpy?” I replied.

He paused for a second, then nodded. “Sometimes.”

That started me thinking. Because sometimes I feel grumpy inside. I feel sad and angry, scared and worthless. I feel all those things, but I almost never express them.

I’m sure I wasn’t born this way, which means that somewhere along the line I learned that I shouldn’t have negative emotions. And if—heaven forbid—I had them, I’d better not let them show. Negative emotions were like dirty laundry. Everyone has dirty laundry, but you’d better wash it quick, and if someone is coming over and you couldn’t get it washed in time, at least have the decency to hide it. No one wants to have to see that.

The more I actually took the time to think about this, the more I started to see the subtle ways we’re trained to be ashamed of our negative emotions. I saw it happening to me and I watched it happen to others.

It happens when someone asks how you’ve been and what you’ve been up to, then halfway through trying to share with them the truth about your week, they’ll say something like “Okay, no more negative talk. Let’s focus on the positive.”

And you’re left thinking why did you ask me if you didn’t want to know? So the next time someone asks, you lie. You bundle all the fear and pain inside and you feel very alone.

It happens when you’re having a bad day. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe your body aches. Maybe you’re living in fear of what the doctor’s phone call will tell you. Whatever the reason, you’re not able to put on the happy veneer demanded by social situations in our society or you’re a little more quiet than usual.

And someone, who probably meant well, says something like, “Just relax and have fun” or “I like that so-and-so is always happy.”

Bull crap they are. Bull. Crap.

How do I know? I’ve been told I’m “always happy” and I can tell you there were days when I was smiling on the outside and inside I hurt so badly it’s a miracle I wasn’t crying tears of blood.

I have to wonder if the rise of mental illness, specifically anxiety and depression, isn’t at least partially connected to the fact that we’re shamed for expressing negative emotions. It’s like an infection that’s not allowed to drain. We’re holding it all inside and our body is screaming for a way to release it because it knows it can’t heal until it finds a means to purge what’s slowly killing it.

Let me be clear. I am a naturally cheerful person. I believe it’s important to find joy in life as much as we can, but trying to find ways to enjoy our life regardless of our external circumstances doesn’t mean that we should deny or ignore our equally valid negative emotions.

I loved the movie Inside Out because wrapped inside of a cute movie was this very truth—joy is essential to a good life, but it isn’t enough. The character of Joy in the movie constantly shoves the Sadness character to the side, not letting her touch anything or be involved in anything. But it’s Sadness who’s able to comfort and help another character who has experienced a tragedy because Sadness validates the importance of what he’s lost. It’s Sadness who’s able to strengthen the relationship between Riley and her parents.

Sadness is important too.

It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be frustrated or scared or hurt. Having those emotions is natural. And it’s in facing them, not in denying them, that we learn and grow as human beings. It’s in facing them that we develop empathy, compassion, and courage.

Ignoring those emotions doesn’t make us stronger or happier or better people. It makes us insincere. It makes us liars. And it isolates us from real connections with other people.

And that’s not who I want to be.

How about you?

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Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 2

Reading as a Writer PArt 2By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.”

I started this series because the advice “writers should read” isn’t explained often enough. Writers can spend hours and hours reading without learning anything about how to write if we don’t know what to look for.

Last time we looked at openings. This week we’re looking at plot.

Like last time, I have a few requirements for you for the books you pick.

I want you to pick out three of your favorite books in your genre. While there are skills we can learn from books outside our chosen genre, if we’re trying to learn to excel within our genre, then we need to be reading what we want to write.

The books you pick for this week should be ones you’ve already read. You won’t be as likely to be distracted by the story if you’ve already read the book, and this exercise works best if you already have a general idea of the overall plot.

They should be books written within approximately the last five years. Learning how to write from a book that was popular 15, 20, or 100 years ago isn’t necessarily going to help us with writing today. Conventions change and writing has evolved a lot over the years, in part because readers have more distractions competing for their attention.

Try to stick to the first book in a series or a standalone book again. I mentioned this last time, but books that happen later in a series can be a bit different. You’ll need to look at those separately (which is a good exercise as well).

Pick books with a high rating on Amazon and a large number of reviews. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Trying to select books that many other people are loving gives us a better measuring pole to make sure this book is really as good as we think it is.

Now for each book, take a look at the following things:

(1) How far in does the “key event” hit?

I’m calling it a “key event” here so that this doesn’t devolve into a debate over terminology. Basically you’re trying to find the event that people reading your genre will expect and want to see early on.

For example:

  • If you’re writing a mystery, when does the first body drop?
  • If you’re writing a romance, when do the hero and heroine meet?
  • If you’re writing a fantasy, when and how does the writer cue the reader in to the fact that this world is different somehow?

Calculate this as a percentage based on the page where it happens compared to the length of the book. This will give you a “truer” result than if you just look at the page or chapter number.

You’ll likely find a range. For example, in a cozy mystery, the first body usually drops somewhere between 8-11% in the first book in a series.

Now compare it to your book. If you’ve ever gotten feedback that someone “couldn’t get into” your book or that your book “felt rushed,” it might be because you didn’t meet their expectation for where they subconsciously thought the key event should happen.

(2) Compare what happens in each book at around 20-25%, 50%, and 75%.

These are your major plot points. I call them the Commitment Point (20-25%), the Flip Point (50%), and the All Is Lost (75%). (The percentages are approximate.)

This isn’t a post about plot, so I won’t go into a ton of detail here (later this year my book Plot and Structure should be available), but I’ll give you a quick overview.

The Commitment Point is the spot where your protagonist commits to pursuing their goal and can’t turn back without serious consequences. James Scott Bell calls this the first Doorway of No Return.

The Flip Point is where the stakes or the protagonist’s perspective on what’s happening in the story changes. (It “flips.”)

A lot happens around the All Is Lost, but the main element that I named it after is the fact that usually at this point it seems like the protagonist cannot possibly achieve their goal.

That’s a general overview, but how these plot points look in each genre is different.

Let’s quickly compare a cozy mystery to a contemporary romance just as an example.

Commitment Point:

In a cozy, our amateur sleuth makes the decision to investigate the crime. Her story goal is to find the killer.

In a romance, the hero and heroine often start the relationship.

Flip Point:

In a cozy, the stakes are usually raised through a threat to her “life.”

In a romance, the stakes are often raised through the first “I love you,” the first kiss, or the first time the characters have sex with each other.

All Is Lost:

In a cozy, there’s often a false resolution of the crime. The murder seems solved, but it isn’t really. The true killer is still at large.

In a romance, it appears that there’s no way the hero and heroine can possibly end up together.

Within each genre, there’s still a lot of room for creativity and developing a surprising, interesting plot, but we need to be building plot points that fit with what readers in our genre crave.

(Jami Gold recently wrote a post about genre expectations that I highly recommend you read as well.)

(3) How does the writer hook you from one chapter to the next? Why do these hooks work?

That why question is back again.

Chapters are the natural place for readers to stop, put the book down, and possibly never pick it up again.

Look at the last sentence/paragraph of each chapter. How did this particular writer make us want to keep reading regardless of how late it was or what other responsibilities we had?

Now look at the end of each of your chapters. It’s hard to be objective, but does each chapter end with an irresistible hook? If it doesn’t, you should be able to find a better place to stop your chapter or come up with a stronger hook based on what you saw in the books you analyzed. If you can’t, it’s time to question whether you might have a bigger problem with your plot. (But that’s another post for another time.)

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Creating Promotional Copy That Works: Book Descriptions

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Last month I started a new series on creating promotional materials for our books with a look at tag lines.

A tag line is a teaser or a catch phrase meant to capture the emotional tone of the book, hint at the genre, and hook the reader. They don’t tell the story. They don’t name the main character. They are bait.

This month we’re going to look at book descriptions. These are what we’ll upload to our book page at all the major retailers and put on the back cover of our print versions.

Please join me for my regular monthly guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Using Deep POV to Capture Readers’ Emotions

Image Credit: LastClick/www.freeimages.com

Image Credit: LastClick/www.freeimages.com

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The books that we remember the best are often the books that made us feel something. Those are the books we recommend to our friends. Those are the authors we seek out to see if they have more books that will provide us with that vicarious experience again.

So it makes sense that when we create our own stories, we want to provide that same emotional experience for our readers too 🙂

One great way to create emotional involvement in our readers is through deep POV.

Please join me today at Jami Gold’s blog for the rest of this post!

What’s Coming Next? I’m guest posting next week as well at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University about writing your book’s back cover copy, but then I’ll be continuing with my series on dissecting books and reading as a writer here the following week.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Enter your email address to follow this blog:

Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 1

Dissecting a NovelBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of the pieces of advice that every writer hears until it makes us sick is “you need to read.” And that’s true and valid advice. (And if you don’t love to read, why are you writing?)

Here’s the piece that most people miss though. It’s not enough to just read, as if the knowledge we need will be magically absorbed into us. The truly great books make us forget we’re reading, which also means…you guessed it, we’re not paying attention to how they made that book awesome.

We need to read mindfully.

So I decided to create a mini-series to take the “writers need to read” advice deeper and show you ways you can dig into published books to learn and grow as a writer. Dissecting a book to understand how and why it works is a skill in itself. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

This week, we’re going to do it for free using Amazon’s preview feature to explore the opening hooks of books in our genre.

Head over to Amazon. (I’m using Amazon because it’s the easiest tool for this exercise.) And my apologies to my international readers, but it’s also best to use Amazon.com for this one.

Select BOOKS, then KINDLE BOOKS, and then the category that you’re writing in. Each genre category has slightly different conventions, and it’s important that you study what you’ll be writing. I’ll use Mystery, Thriller & Suspense as our example for today.

Now pick Best Sellers. For this particular exercise, we want to learn from the books that are grabbing enough readers to hit the lists.

Now we’ll need to dig a little more into the sub-category we’re writing in. Let’s go to Suspense > Psychological. (You don’t want to go any deeper into the categories than that, even if given the choice. We want books that are moving a lot of copies every day.)

Here’s what I found for Psychological Suspense.

Psychological Suspense Bestsellers

We want to collect a sample of at least five books out of the top 10.

Out of the top 10, cross off all books that aren’t a standalone or the first in a series. Mid-series books sometimes start differently because, ostensibly, readers are coming in already familiar with the characters and what’s happened before.

Now cross off any duplicate authors. You want a diverse sample, so if an author has more than one book in the top 10, pick just one of theirs.

Eliminate any obviously cross-genre books. For example, #6 in my screenshot failed the test because it’s more horror.

Also, eliminate books that seem to be at a promotional price compared to the others on the list. We can’t be sure whether they ranked because they’re great or because of the price. For example, the #1 book in my screenshot is priced at 99 cents compared to a $2.99-$5.99 average price.

Here’s the list I came up with:

  • The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft
  • The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen
  • The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  • Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston
  • Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

Once you have your list, it’s time to read the samples.

When you finish each one, ask yourself these questions.

(1) Did the first line hook me? Why or why not? How did they hook me?

The why is important. I’m going to be writing a whole series of posts on openings later this year, but for now, let’s look at the opening lines of the five books above.

On the night I asked my father the question, my family had been five years in the basement – The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

Daphne didn’t quit college to become a roofer – Orchids and Stone by Lisa Preston

It had been easy to get him alone – The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft

It was raining when they came for me – Kill Me Again by Rachel Abbot

I’m sitting at the breakfast nook sipping from a mug of cocoa when the phone rings – The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The first four opening lines all hook the reader by making them ask a question. What question did he ask his father and why had their family been in the basement that long? Why did Daphne quit college? Why did she want to get him alone? Why did they come for her and who are they?

The final three opening lines hook by creating fear and suspense as well.

The Good Girl does it in a subtle way. We’re primed to expect that phone call will bring bad news. (She also builds on this in the rest of the paragraph with images of dead leaves, clinging lifelessly and an overcast sky.)

(2) Did I want to keep reading? If I did, what made me want to keep going? If not, why not?

Again, the why is important. Why did we want to keep reading? Was it an interesting premise? A setting you wanted to explore more? A quirky character whose voice you wanted to keep listening to?

Don’t just stop there. Think about the specifics. If it was an interesting setting, how did they bring it to life? What types of details did they use? What made it interesting to you?

If you didn’t want to keep reading, what made you want to stop? Sometimes this can be personal preference—for example, we don’t like that particular writer’s voice. I’ll personally stop if a book contains too much profanity.

Sometimes it can be something specific that they did—for example, did you lose interest because nothing seemed to be happening (i.e., the story was taking too long to get rolling)? Were you turned away because the viewpoint character was too unsympathetic?

(3) What was the viewpoint character doing? How did you feel about them? Why?

You’ve probably noticed the why again there. In that sense, writers need to be like children. Asking why is how we learn.

Openings are tricky because we need our characters to be doing something interesting, while also making the reader care enough about them to read on. (Don’t confuse that with being likeable. Readers will stick with an unlikeable character pursuing an intriguing goal that matters to the character.)

What’s important here is to see what works and what doesn’t and then figure out how the writer made it so.

Now apply all of this to your opening.

If you have a finished book or even a work-in-progress, read approximately the same amount as you saw in the samples.

Does your book do any of the things that made you stop reading? Can you incorporate some of the elements that made you want to keep reading those other books?

What other things would you suggest fellow writers analyze in those samples? Anyone brave enough to share how their book’s opening compared to the bestsellers in their category?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

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