About Marcy Kennedy

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Is It Important for Writers to Also Be Readers?

Writers Should ReadBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As an editor and writing instructor, I have the privilege of talking to a lot of writers, at a lot of different career stages. So it’s not unusual for patterns to crop up—ideas, trends, challenges, and myths.

Today I want to debunk one of the myths I’ve heard frequently of late.

Here it is:

You don’t need to read novels if you want to write novels. You can learn how to write from movies and TV shows.

That thunk you just heard? That was my head smacking into my table in frustration.

I’ll explain why this myth is dangerous for writers, especially writers who want to create novels.

Yes, we can learn some things from movies and from TV shows.

We can learn how to create interesting characters that the audience will love, hate, and talk about.

We can learn about hooks. TV shows are especially good at the art of the hook because the writers know how easy it is for the audience to wander off during a commercial. They want to make sure the audience sticks around. (Movies, on the other hand, can’t teach you about hooks.)

We can learn about dialogue (though, even there, you’ll find some differences). Almost anything Joss Whedon worked on would be a great self-study for authors struggling with dialogue.  

No, we can’t learn everything from movies and from TV shows.

In fact, some of the most important elements of fiction writing can’t be learned from a visual medium. The written format brings with it special challenges that we can’t learn how to conquer by watching, only by reading.

We can’t learn internal dialogue. In fact, we can’t learn anything about how to convey the internal life of the character—their thoughts, visceral reactions, or unspoken motivations.

We can’t learn description. In movies and TV shows, the audience sees what’s happening around the characters and they see what each character looks like. As writers, we have to build everything we want the reader to imagine with our words.

We can’t learn proper written story structure. Some elements of structure are the same between movies and novels…and some aren’t. For example, movies have the freedom to start more slowly than books do because, once you’ve bought your ticket and you’re settled in with your popcorn, the movie would have to be pretty bad before you’d walk out. If the start of a book is slow, you’ll never buy it in the first place.

We can’t learn how to balance description, action, dialogue, and internalizations. As I mentioned just a second ago, there isn’t any internalization in movies and TV shows (voice overs don’t count). The description is automatically taken care of. The actors fill in the action. So we can’t see how to weave them together on the page to avoid spots that either drag or leave the reader feeling disconnected from the character or the world.

We can’t learn how to maintain a consistent point of view. Point-of-view errors are non-existent in a movie or TV show. In a book, maintaining a consistent point of view is integral to keeping a strong connection between the reader and the viewpoint character.

We can’t learn how to actually put words into tight, interesting, clear sentences. Just because someone wants to write a book doesn’t mean they were born with this skill. Most of us have to learn it.

I could keep going on the differences, but here’s the bottom line.

For novel writers, movies and TV shows can be good supplements, just like vitamins supplement our regular diet. They’re not a fitting replacement for the regular meals of reading novels.

Writers write. Writers also need to read.

What do you think? Is it essential that someone who wants to write a book also read books?

I’d love to hear your opinion even if you disagree with me. (I welcome discussion here as long as opinions are expressed in a respectful, logical manner. Trolls will be deleted.)

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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The Power of Contrast in Description

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

Readers need description to help them imagine the story world and to keep them grounded in the story, but often it’s considered the slow, boring part.

It doesn’t have to be.

Done right, description keeps the pace moving and brings out our point-of-view character’s emotions, backstory, and conflicts. It can also add subtext, foreshadow, and build on the theme.

One of my favorite ways to bring description to life and make sure it serves a bigger purpose in the story is to use contrast. I’m excited Jami Gold has welcomed me back to her blog today to share how to make this work.

I hope you’ll join me there to find out about the power of contrast in description.

Want to know more about writing description? Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide is available from Amazon, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. You can grab a copy in print or as an ebook.

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.)

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.

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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.)

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:

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.)

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.

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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.)

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: