Marcy’s Blog

7 Ways to Make Yourself a Better Writer in 7 Days

7 Ways to Make Yourself a Better WriterBy Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

I wanted to take a quick break from posts on writing craft topics and instead give you a list of fresh techniques to help you become a better writer.

Do one of these each day in the coming week, and you’ll improve as a writer in ways that can’t be learned through a book or a writing course or even by writing.

#1 – Go someplace safe and allow yourself to cry.

We all have pain inside us that we’ve never really dealt with.

The problem with this is that, unless we face our own pain, we can’t give authentic emotions to our characters. When we’re trying so hard to hide or manage our pain, we’ll shy away from strong emotions on the page. We’ll be too nice to our characters. Our writing will feel shallow. Or we’ll go too far in the other direction and our writing will become melodramatic as we use the page as therapy.

The solution is to give yourself the chance to feel all the pain you’ve bottled up inside.

Cry for the disappointments that you minimized at the time because you didn’t want others’ pity or you didn’t want your loved ones to feel bad.

Cry for people you’ve lost, whose absence you still feel, who will always be missed. Cry for all those times you wanted to grieve and couldn’t because you had to be strong.

Cry for your regrets, for the shame of your past sins, failures, and mistakes—the ones you hate to face because you’re afraid of repeating them, afraid of someone uncovering them, afraid that they’re the person you truly are.

Face the pain.

Now that you’ve faced it, you’ll be able to give it to your characters in an honest way, and you’ll be less afraid of putting the emotions they need to feel onto the page. You won’t be as afraid of hurting your characters because you won’t fear facing the pain that comes afterward anymore.

#2 – Go to people in your life and ask them to tell you your weaknesses, especially the ones you’re unaware of.

Congratulations. You’ve just experienced what it will be like to blog or have any published work available that people can review.

You will receive cutting comments. You will receive negative reviews. People will insult you and point out errors and weaknesses you didn’t know you had. Some will even call your integrity and character into question.

And it will hurt. You can pretend it won’t and doesn’t, but it will and does.

Too many authors damage their careers by lashing out when they receive negative comments or reviews. Preparing yourself beforehand will teach you how to deal with your hurt feelings in a constructive, rather than a destructive, way.

#3 – Give yourself a deadline for a big project. Don’t work on that project at all until shortly before it’s due. Now force yourself to finish it no matter how late you need to stay up.

When you wake up the next day and feel like a troll tap-danced on your face, you doze off while sitting on the toilet, and your significant other wants to know when you swapped your personality for that of Oscar the Grouch, commit this moment to memory. When you re-read what you wrote and some of the sentences don’t even make sense, commit this moment to memory. This is not your best work. It’s certainly not your best self.

Write a letter to yourself about how awful you feel right now. File it away with the drivel you wrote while rushing to meet your deadline. Any time you consider procrastinating on a project in the future, read those pages. This will teach you to plan ahead and leave yourself the real amount of time you need to do something well.

#4 – Spend a day researching topics you know nothing about.

Keep a notepad beside you and jot down story or plot ideas that pop up as you read. You’ve now discovered an unlimited well of new story ideas. You might think you’ll never run out of ideas, but after you’ve been writing for years, you will hit a point where all your ideas seem stale, old, and trite.

Developing this practice not only gives you a way to breathe fresh life into your work, it also gives you a fool-proof method for beating writer’s block. If you’re blocked, pick a random topic and go research it. Maybe you won’t use those exact ideas in your story, but it’ll jumpstart your creativity.

#5 – Carry a notebook and jot down specific details about the world around you.

The grain in the wood paneling that looks like the ripples in the sand on a sand bar. The way the rain sounds like steak sizzling in a pan. The smell of burnt flesh in the dentist office.

The body language of the couple on the park bench across from you—she’s picking at her skirt with her gaze downcast, and he has his head thrown back, laughing.

The woman with the gap between her teeth, who whistles every time she pronounces an “s” sound.

Details are what bring your story world to life. Today you’re training yourself to pay more attention and to find fresh, interesting ways to describe your settings and your characters.

#6 – Attempt a completely new skill. Now observe someone who is excellent at it (or the results of their excellence).

Pick up a musical instrument. Take a ballroom dancing lesson. Ride a horse. Paint a picture. Try to surf. Bake a soufflé.

What you choose doesn’t matter as much as the fact that this is new ground for you. And that you’ll be terrible at it. If possible, have someone video your attempt. Compare your results to someone who has worked on this skill for years.

Here’s what this teaches you—you won’t be an awesome writer the first draft of your first book. It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, you’ll think you’re ready to publish long before you actually are ready to publish. I know. I thought so too.

And that’s okay. Remember this moment. Remember what you learned.

Don’t rush to publish. And don’t stop either. Mediocrity is easy. Excellence takes time and hard work.

#7 – Pick your three favorite movies. Or pick your three favorite books. What do they have in common?

These need to be the three movies that you never tire of watching or the three books you never tire of reading. You can quote lines from them.

They might be from different genres, and at first, it might look like they have nothing in common. Look deeper. Look past the fact that one’s a romantic comedy and the other is a high fantasy. Don’t be blinded by surface elements.

Are there similarities between the main characters? Is there a common message or theme?

When you find the thread that ties them together, you’ve taken the first step in defining your personal brand as a writer. This is what you love. This is what speaks to you. This is what you need to do.

Instead of denying who you are, embrace it. The world is full of people like you, needing the same things you need and loving the same things you love. Forget about trying to please the ones who hate what you love. They were never going to read your work anyway. Trying to make everyone happy means we make no one happy, including ourselves.

Today you’ve learned to write for you and the people like you.

Do you have any other non-writing tips to help us all become better writers?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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*Image Credit: freeimages.com/Viktors Kozers

How to Use Your Logline, Tagline, and Pitch to Create a Stronger Story

Logline and PitchBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Most of us think of a logline, tagline, and pitch as marketing tools we write after we’ve written our story so that we can use them to land an agent or as our book’s cover copy.

We’re doing it backwards.

If we wait until we’re done with our book, any problems our logline, tagline, and pitch reveal could mean major re-writes. By creating them first, we’ll save ourselves a lot of unnecessary work.

Pantsers – this is especially true for you! Even though I’m a hard core plotter, I’ve co-written a novel with an equally hard core pantser, so I know how much you hate planning. Using these tools before you start to write can make sure you have a strong idea and still give you the freedom to discover your story as you go.

And I’m about to show you how.

A logline is a one-sentence description of your book that captures your main character, the conflict they’re going to face, and the stakes if they lose.

It contains the three most important ingredients in a strong story. Leave one out and it’s like leaving the chocolate chips out of chocolate chip cookies.

In a logline, you don’t use your main character’s name, so you’re forced to figure out what makes them interesting and unique. Plotters, this forces you to distill down what’s most important about your main character from the pages of description you’ve no doubt created. Pansters, this allows you to have a clear picture of your main character without writing out the character sketches you likely find tedious. For both, your logline helps you figure out who the story belongs to.

Conflict boils down to what your main character wants and what’s standing in her way. No conflict, no story. I don’t care whether you’re writing a romance, a thriller, a fantasy, a memoir, or a work of literary fiction. If you can’t clearly state what your conflict is, you don’t have a story.

Plotters, because you write detailed outlines, you can sometimes lose sight of your main story among the subplots. Pantsers, knowing the main plot keeps you from getting so distracted by bunny trails that your first draft is a tangled knot you don’t even know how to begin untying. (Or worse, you end up without a main storyline at all.)

Usually when you hit the conflict portion of your logline, you’ll include your antagonist/villain. You do have one, don’t you? If you don’t, you don’t have a story.

Stakes are what your main character stands to lose if she fails. Why should they care what happens? If they don’t care, then the reader won’t care.

Seeing your stakes on paper this way forces you to ask if they’re big enough. Will they change your character’s life forever? James Scott Bell is fond of saying the stakes should always be death. I agree with him. Physical death. Emotional death. Spiritual death. Your character needs a reason to fight to the very end.

So a logline tells you what your book will be about. Your tag line is a catch phrase. (Don’t confuse them.)

The tagline captures the tone or emotional essence of your book. It also hints at the genre. It’s what you see on the front cover or on a movie poster.

Life is like a box of chocolates – Forrest Gump

You know you’re going to get a story that has moments of humor and yet manages to be profound. You could guess this is going to be a drama.

Don’t go into the water – Jaws

It sets the tone for a story that’s going to scare you. You know it’s going to be either horror or a thriller.

One ring to rule them all – Lord of the Rings

This is going to be an epic fantasy. Whole countries will be at stake. Maybe even the whole world.

Behind every great love is a great story – The Notebook

Romance. Probably going to be tears involved.

By writing your tagline, you know tone you’re going to use when writing your book. Will your story be dark? Funny? A real tear jerker? A consistent tone is essential. Knowing it will save you from a million rewrites because you switched your tone three times during your first draft.

Which leaves our pitch, the six- to ten-sentence summary of our book.

Your pitch should only cover the first third of your book, with emphasis on what I call the Commitment Point.

The Commitment Point should happen 25% of the way in. It’s the point from which your main character can no longer turn back. The main conflict of the story is introduced, and your MC commits to their goal. This is the important part of it—you identify what’s going to make your main character commit.

Your Commitment Point isn’t your main character being wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder. It’s his decision to escape when his bus crashes and to go on the run to catch the real killer. (From The Fugitive, one of my favorite movies.)

Knowing the Commitment Point makes you answer a key question–how are you going to convince your main character to take on a task that looks like it can only end in failure and death? If your main character could escape from their quest at this point, they would. They would take an easier road. So you need to know what’s going to make them go forward anyway.

ANNOUNCEMENT:
On Saturday, July 25, I’ll be teaching a 90-minute webinar where I give even more tips on crafting awesome loglines, taglines, and pitches. You can sign up by clicking here. If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to registrants.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers 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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*This post originally aired at Writers in the Storm. They’re a fantastic blog for writers, and if you haven’t checked them out yet, I strongly recommend you do.

*Image Credit: freeimages.com/Takis Kolokotronis

Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Marketing Plan

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The marketing section of our author business plan is unique in that we need to think about our overall marketing strategy as well as the specific marketing activities we’re going to use for each individual book we produce.

It’s important that we look at it from both levels. Doing so provides us with guidance and stability in an ever-changing environment.

If you’d like to read the rest of the post, please join me at Fiction University for my regular monthly guest post.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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The Secret to Destroying Episodic Writing in Three Easy Steps

Destroying Episodic WritingBy Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

One of the main causes of the saggy middle syndrome many books suffer from is episodic writing. Episodic writing also makes our books feel slow to the reader.

“What’s episodic writing?” you might ask.

Episodic writing is when your story is composed of a series of loosely related events. Those events might be exciting. You might even have a few scenes that tie tightly together. But when you look at the big picture, something still seems off and the story feels like it lacks direction at times. Readers are easily able to put the book down and feel no compulsion to pick it up again.

If episodic writing is something you’ve struggled with in your past (or present) manuscripts, here’s how to fix it in three steps.

Step 1: Give your character a story goal.

The story goal is what they’ll be pursuing over the course of your book.

Sounds simple, right? Where most of us trip up on this step is confusing a goal with an ambition.

An ambition is vague. You can’t take a picture of it.

A story goal is concrete. It’s clear by the end of the book whether our character reached her goal or not.

Ambition: Be a successful author.

Okaaay…but what does that look like? How will you know when you’ve achieved that?

Goal: Hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestseller list for my category.

Do you see the difference? One more example before we move on to step 2.

Ambition: Have a well-behaved dog.

Goal: Have a dog who sits on command, comes when I call, and doesn’t bite the mailman.

Because ambitions are vague, they can mean different things to different people. Goals are specific and clear.

Step 2: Build a chain link from beginning to end.

To reach her big story goal, our character will be attempting to take a tiny step toward that goal in each scene.

Where most of us tend to stumble on this step is that we’re either too nice and the story lacks tension because our character reaches her scene goal too easily, or we’re too mean and we stop the story dead.

In other words, when asked whether our character reaches her scene goal, we answer with a simple “yes” or a simple “no”

I’ll give you an example.

Scene Goal: Go to the murderer’s house and arrest him.

Does our character succeed?

Answer: Yes.

…Now where does our story go from here? Is it over?

We often think this is the way to make sure our plot has forward progress. After all, doesn’t our main character need to succeed at least sometimes if they ever want to achieve their goal?

They do need forward progress and some success, but this is the least interesting way to go about it.

Answer: No.

The murderer wasn’t at his house so they couldn’t arrest him.

That grinding noise you hear is a writer’s brain struggling to decide what to do now. We threw a disaster at our character, why isn’t it working?

A straight “no” can work, but more often leads to episodic writing because we’ve brought our story to a complete stop. Too many simple “no” results in a row can mean the story feels static and lacks that sense of escalation that readers crave. If we back our character into too deep a corner, they can sometimes end up seeming like too much of a weakling failure or waiting passively for outside circumstances to change.

The solution is to create variations on these answers.

Answer: Yes, But

Yes, they arrested him, but some of what they saw in his house called into question whether he was truly the murderer or not.

We allow our character to succeed, but we introduce a consequence or complication.

Suddenly, we have forward motion. Our character makes progress, in a way where each scene is directly connected to what came before, but it also creates excitement and a sense of escalation. The reader keeps reading because they want to find out what will happen next.

Answer: No, And Furthermore

No, they didn’t arrest him, and furthermore, he’d rigged his house to explode and our main character’s partner was injured. Now they’ll have to either continue investigating alone or accept the help of the rookie cop who screws up everything he touches.

These endings work because we’re continuing to increase the stakes and obstacles, consequently raising the tension in the reader. Because too many of them can stall the story out in the same way as a simple “no,” they’re often best saved for the big turning points in the plot.

Both “yes, but” and “no, and furthermore” build a chain link that leads you from the start of the story to the end because each scene directly connects and grows out of the one that came before.

Which leads us on to…

Step 3: Escalate the failures from bad to worse.

It’s not enough to throw “but” and “furthermore” at our character. Each one needs to present them with a bigger challenge, push them harder toward their breaking point, and require more ingenuity and grit to overcome it.

Have you ever struggled with episodic writing? Any tips you’d like to share for how you overcame it?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert

50 Years Ago This Island Didn’t Exist

By Worldtraveller at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

By Worldtraveller at en.wikipedia (Creative Commons License)

By Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature.

One of the great myths is Atlantis–the advanced civilization whose island sank into the ocean.

Although Atlantis is a myth, an island actually exists in our world that appeared and is now disappearing.

Surtsey formed between 1963 and 1967 from volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland. Originally, it grew to around a mile square, and plant and animal life moved in. In the years since its formation, however, Surtsey has shrunk by half.

I think that’s fascinating just as a fact, but for those of us who are writers, Surtsey can be great idea-fodder.

What if a new island formed near an overpopulated region? What kind of conflict might arise over that land?

What if our character’s society won that battle, but now it’s 100 years later and their island is shrinking? And what if no one will believe her about the danger?

What if our character is a modern-day myth-hunter trying to prove that Atlantis really did exist and an island like Surtsey provides him with the final clue of where to find the true Atlantis?

If you ever feel low on ideas, search the world around us. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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I Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Pictures

This is the new picture I'll be using online.

This is the new picture I’ll be using online.

By Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

Turns out I have a love-hate relationship with pictures.

I love them because they grab important moments and help keep memories alive. I find great joy in looking back at pictures from times past. I hate them because, in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed I look older in them than I once did.

I know, right? That shouldn’t have come as a surprise. People grow old. But I’m a person who has always struggled to be comfortable with her appearance, and a photo shoot for my new website/online photos just over a week ago drudged up a lot of old insecurities I’d thought I’d put to rest. When I’m held still in an image, all the imperfections that I trick myself into thinking people don’t notice in real life can’t be hidden anymore.

I needed to replace my current photo because it was nearly eight years old. I didn’t want to replace that photo because the truth is the thirty-three-year-old me doesn’t look as good as the twenty-five-year-old me did. And as time goes on, that will get worse, not better. I won’t ever be able to go back to that girl’s face or her body.

I found myself wishing I could have a picture like Dorian Gray’s that would grow old for me. And as I thought that, I remembered a post I’d written a few years ago for August McLaughlin’s Beauty of a Woman blogfest. At the time, I wrote it because a lot of women around me were struggling with the turning-thirty hurdle. Now I’m dragging it back out because I need to remind myself of those lessons.

Dorian is the title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian is an extremely handsome man, so handsome an artist friend has asked to paint him.

On the day the artist will finish the painting, Dorian waits with a much older gentleman named Lord Henry. Lord Henry tells Dorian he should enjoy his youth and beauty while he has them because those are the only things that matter.

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully,” Lord Henry says. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats.” (Chapter 2, page 26)

Dorian can’t shake Lord Henry’s words, and when he sees his picture, he’s filled with despair because the beauty in the picture will last, but his own won’t.

“When one loses one’s good looks,” Dorian says, “whatever they may be, one loses everything.”

He claims he would trade his soul in order to have the picture grow old in his place.

Lord Henry’s lie—and it is a lie—is the same one society feeds us.

It sells us Botox, liposuction, anti-aging creams, and Spanx. It tells us wrinkles and grey hairs are things to cover up. It glorifies youth and irresponsibility and marginalizes the elderly, with all their wisdom. It believes a woman should never admit to her age.

And if we buy into the lie, it puts us at peril of the same fate as Dorian.

Because of the trade he made, Dorian stays young and beautiful, while his picture ages and grows grotesque with every year that passes and every evil Dorian commits. His outside stays beautiful at the expense of his inner growth and beauty.

Eventually, overcome with guilt for the murders, suicides, and other sins he’s been part of, Dorian stabs his picture, thinking that will free him. Instead, the picture returns to youthful beauty and Dorian, in death, becomes a withered, disgusting corpse.

Like Dorian, when we buy into the lie, we start to focus more of our time and energy and money on trying to match the unrealistic standard of beauty our society holds up for us to worship. We focus less on trying to cultivate the beauty we have inside.

And in the end, we’ll never win the battle against age. We’ll all die, and most of us will die old and wrinkly, saggy and age-spotted.

Instead of dreading it, fearing it, we should rejoice in it. The most beautiful woman is one who’s lived a full life.

I’m going to wear each new crinkle in the corners of my eyes as a badge of honor speaking to the hours I’ve spent laughing with friends.

I’m going to remember that my no-longer-perfectly-flat belly is because I’ve chosen to enjoy pizza nights with my husband, eat birthday cake and ice cream with my each of my elderly grandparents, and bake cookies for my parents.  

I’m going to treasure the dark circles under my eyes (the part of my age I hate the most) because it speaks to how deeply I love, to the nights spent lying awake trying to think of ways to help hurting friends or crying over deceased loved ones and pets. Deep love leaves deep marks.

So as much as I’d still like to have a picture like Dorian Gray’s, I’d never want to be like Dorian Gray.

Because external beauty is not the most important thing, at least not to me.

Do you struggle with growing older? Do you love having your picture taken or do you hate it?

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Do You Believe in Second Chances?

Lord of the RingsBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Long after I finished reading the books and watching the movies, the character from the Lord of the Rings trilogy I couldn’t stop thinking about wasn’t any of the plucky hobbits, Viggo Mortensen’s ruggedly handsome Aragorn, or Gandolf with his words of wisdom.

It was Gollum.

Born a hobbit-like creature named Sméagol, Gollum wasn’t always the shriveled, conniving wretch we meet in Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t until Sméagol was in his thirties that Sméagol’s friend Déagol found the powerful ring that Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring would later seek to destroy. Overcome by lust for the ring, Sméagol killed Déagol and took it for himself.

The ring prolonged Sméagol’s life, but began to corrupt him until his family finally cast him out. From that point on, he lived alone in the dark caves of the Misty Mountains, eating raw fish. Déagol’s death haunted him.

When Frodo learned about Gollum, he said, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” (Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 78).

“Pity!” Gandalf answered. “It was Pity that stayed his hand.”

Gandalf believed that everyone deserves a second chance—a chance at redemption. He went on to tell Frodo that even Gollum wasn’t wholly ruined: “I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many” (79).

Gandalf’s words stuck with Frodo.

Later, when Frodo showed him kindness, the Sméagol side of Gollum’s personality found the strength to fight against the Gollum side. What good was left in him tried to drive out the evil. Frodo’s kindness gave him a second chance.

Sam couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see past the disgusting parts of Gollum to take into account what he’d been through—isolation, torture in Mordor, the clutches of a ring that ruined all who carried it. He refused to try to see what Gollum might become if given a second chance.

When I first met Lynn* in elementary school, all I saw was a girl who disliked me for no reason. She seemed to take pleasure in embarrassing me in particular, and it seemed to me, in my ten-year-old wisdom, that she thought she was better than the other students. I found her annoying and wanted nothing to do with her.

When I should have been Frodo, I was Sam.

I didn’t bother to find out her true story, her past and her struggles.

When she disappeared in high school, I didn’t even notice. I cared as little for her as Sam did for Gollum and would have gladly left her behind in my past. When she came back during our senior year, she wanted to be my friend.

Second chances are tricky things. You could get your finger bitten off the way Frodo eventually did. Every second chance comes with another opportunity to experience the pain you did the first time.

I was hesitant, skeptical. But, to borrow from Gandalf, my heart told me that she might still have a role to play in my life.

Years later, we stood up in each other’s weddings. We joke now about back when we didn’t like each other and talk about who disliked whom most. And we laugh.

But if I hadn’t given her a second chance, I would have missed the trips we’ve taken, times we’ve cried on each other’s shoulders, good advice exchanged, secrets shared (and kept). I would have missed out on knowing a woman who’s now one of my dearest friends and who I admire for her strength, her grace, and her faith.

For me, the chance to get exactly what I did was worth the risk of giving her that second chance.

Has there ever been a time you decided to give someone a second chance and were glad you did? Do you believe in second chances?

*Lynn isn’t her real name. I’ve changed it to protect her privacy.

*Thanks for reading this blast from the past while I recover from my trip. Even though this post is a re-run, I’d still love it if you’d leave a comment.

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10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter

10 Writing Mistakes That KillBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m teaching at a writer’s conference this week, so instead of one of my in-depth posts, I thought I’d create a quick checklist for you.

Here are 10 writing mistakes that kill your first chapter (in no particular order). Get them before they get you!

#1 – A Boring/Generic First Line

Don’t show me the character doing anything completely normal and forgettable. Waking up, getting out of their car, folding their laundry…

Your first line needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind and make them curious or hint at trouble/conflict. Preferably both.

#2 – Point-of-View Shifts

Head-hopping is always a problem, regardless of where it crops up in your manuscript, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean a point-of-view shift carried out with a proper transition.

Confused? In your first chapter, one of the things you need to do is convince the reader to invest in your main character. They need to spend time with them to do that, and if you switch POV characters within the first chapter, the reader doesn’t have enough time to make that connection.

#3 – No Clear POV Character

This point is the doppelganger of (2). It’s extremely difficult to be interested in a story when you don’t know who matters, what they care about, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Connect the reader to a character immediately and allow the reader to experience the story through that person.

(If you’re writing in omniscient POV, ignore this point, but make sure you wow the reader with your distinctive voice.)

#4 – Too Many Characters Introduced at Once

How am I supposed to remember all these people, especially if they’re introduced without much to set them apart? Drip feed your characters, and make each important character memorable in some way.

#5 – Clumsy Formatting

This could be internal dialogue that fills the page with so many italics that my eyes start to bleed, dialogue where I’m not sure who’s speaking, or any number of other distracting, confusing formatting glitches. These pull the reader right out of the story and shift their focus onto something they shouldn’t even notice.

#6 – Allowing a Character to Speak or Think Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!) at a Time

I could actually expand this to say “allowing your character to do anything uninterrupted for too long,” but giving a speech or musing to themselves are particularly problematic. Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just three reasons why this is an issue. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead.

#7 – Too Much Backstory

Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.

Which leads me to…

#8 – No Trouble or Conflict

I suspect that we writers fall into Happy Person Syndrome because we want to make the reader like our character or because we’re trying to follow the advice to “establish their normal world before you disrupt it.”

A calm, happy opening isn’t the way to establish your character’s normal world or make the reader like your character. Show them trying to solve a problem in their normal world. It’s active, it creates reader sympathy, and it shows the normal world.

#9 – Telling Instead of Showing

If you’ve read my book Showing and Telling in Fiction, then you know I’m an advocate for telling having a good and useful place in fiction. Your first chapter usually isn’t that place.

Showing is more entertaining and more interactive, and engages reader emotions—all good things if you want to hook a reader and keep them turning those pages.

#10 – Stilted Dialogue

Is your dialogue too formal? Do you have everyone using direct address? (E.g., “Did I see you at the movies today, Mary?”) Do you have too much filler dialogue? (E.g., hellos, goodbyes, how are yous.)

Dialogue doesn’t automatically make your book feel active. Good dialogue does.

Do you have any other common first chapter problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.

(You might also be interested in checking out Grammar for Fiction Writers, Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Would You Be a Mermaid If You Could?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature. Today I’m taking a look at one of the most unusual “schools” I’ve ever heard of–mermaid school.

Apparently, mermaid schools are cropping up all over–in the Philippines, in Germany, and even in Canada. While it’s never been a dream of mine to be a mermaid (though swimming underwater with sea creatures is extremely appealing), I’d love to try this for the workout.

Does being a mermaid appeal to you? If you had the opportunity, would you try out mermaid school–if for no other reason than that it’s supposedly a good workout?

If you like suspense, I hope you’ll take a look at my ebook Frozen (it’s only 99 cents). Twisted sleepwalking. A frozen goldfish in a plastic bag. And a woman afraid she’s losing her grip on reality.

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6 Major Writing Problems in Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 3

Avengers Age of UltronBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Today’s post is the final installment in the three-part mini-series I’ve been doing on what writing lessons we can learn from the mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you missed Part One and Part Two, I recommend you read them first.

Mistake #5 – A Villain Who Is Melodramatic, Not Scary, and Inconsistent

In the trailers for Age of Ultron, Ultron seems dark and frightening. In the movie, however, he’s over the top and almost goofy. He lacks the depth and complexity of character and dark heart of Loki. I suspect this disappointed me because it didn’t match up with how the trailer portrayed things and because how he developed didn’t match up with how it seemed he would develop when he first entered the movie. The more over-the-top he became, the less I felt like he was going to be a real challenge for the Avengers to defeat. He stopped feeling like a real threat.

In The Avengers, Loki was definitely insane, but two things kept him from going so far over the top that he became laughable. The first was that he was smart enough to realize the Avengers could be a threat to him, and he came up with a plan to tear them apart. The second was his motivation was consistent. He felt he should be the one ruling Asgard instead of Thor. So, in revenge, he decides to rule over Earth, the planet Thor loves. Even though it’s a plan to take over a planet, it’s really a story about jealousy between brothers.

Ultron’s motivations came across as inconsistent. He was originally created to protect humanity, and so a well-developed villain would have taken that good intention into a misguided direction. This could have been taken in many believable ways–a police-type state for one. Annihilating the elements of society he saw as a threat to peace might have been another. Instead, he decides to…wait for it…create an extinction event. That’s right. He’s going to wipe out humanity and leave the world for robots. Try to figure out the logical progression on that one. If you do, let me know. Because it also begs the question of why he wanted a more human body if he was planning to create a robot world. When you throw on top of that all his strange Biblical references it becomes even more unbalanced.

Takeaway:

Don’t misrepresent anything just to hook a reader.

Your villain needs to be as well-developed as your main character, including giving them a consistent motivation. For more on creating villains, you might want to read my post “How to Create a Truly Frightening Villain.”

Mistake #6 – A Half-Baked Romance

Although I don’t read a lot of straight romance, I love a good romance subplot. For me, it always makes a story feel richer and more real. But the keyword there is good.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re dropped into the story and asked to believe that a romance has already been blossoming between Black Widow and the Hulk. It’s too big a leap because there wasn’t even a hint of it in the first movie, and we don’t get to see it develop. In the first movie, he turned into the Hulk and almost killed her. Now, suddenly, she’s the only one who can help him change from green monster back into a man by stroking his arm. The only reason given for why they’re even a good match is that neither of them can have biological children.

Because of the other mistakes made with this movie, there wasn’t room to develop their relationship fully, but the problem could have also been solved if the scriptwriters would have slowed the relationship down a bit. They could have easily had this Avengers movie show their attraction starting to develop rather than jumping in when it’s already fully formed. They could also have shown how Black Widow and the Hulk figured out the “lullaby” trick that brings him back into human form.

Takeaway:

It’s not enough to say two characters are attracted to each other. The audience either needs to be able to watch the relationship believably grow or be shown why these two characters are a perfect match. Preferably both.

Also, don’t be afraid to take it slow. The longer you build the sexual tension between two characters, the bigger the payoff when you finally fulfill it.

I know these posts made it sound like I hated the movie. I didn’t. But that brings me to the overall writing takeaway I got from it as a writer.

If we’re writing a series, we’re making promises to our reader with the first installment. It’s important for us to understand the promises we’ve made to them and to continue to fulfill on those promises. If we don’t, we’ll end up with a disappointed or angry audience.

What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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