Writing

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.

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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6 Clues You’re Overusing Internal Dialogue in Your Fiction

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

Internal dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal. It’s an advantage we have over TV and movie script writers and playwrights. It’s also one of the least understood and most often mismanaged elements of the writing craft.

As writers, we each tend to either overuse or underuse internal dialogue. (It’s rare for a writer to do both at different times in their book, but it happens.)

Today I’m going to walk you through the six main clues that you might be an internal dialogue overuser.

Overuse Clue #1 – We’re repeating the same thing in internal dialogue as we’re also showing in dialogue or action.

Each sentence we write should introduce something new to the story. It’s the concept of everything in fiction needs to be there for a reason and needs to move the story forward. When we repeat ourselves, in any fashion, it doesn’t move the story forward.

So, for example, if we use internal dialogue to show a character thinking about how she wants to cry or how she wants to slap the person who stole her job, and then we show her crying or show her slapping, our internal dialogue and action overlap.

It might seem obvious, but we also shouldn’t double up on what’s said in internal dialogue and in spoken dialogue. You’d be surprised how often I see something like this…

Who did he think she was, Houdini? She didn’t know how to pick a lock. “I don’t know how to pick a lock.”

Overuse Clue #2 – We have as much internal dialogue during a tense action scene as we do during a quieter reaction scene.

When we want a scene to feel fast-paced, we need to use less internal dialogue overall. We don’t have as much time to think when our life is in danger or when we need to make quick decisions to prevent something bad from happening.

If you find that you’re using the same amount of internal dialogue in what should be a fast-paced action scene, it could be a clue that you’re overusing internal dialogue.

One of the main causes for this is if we haven’t laid the groundwork well enough prior to this scene. In other words, we’re partway into our fast-paced scene and we realize that the reader doesn’t yet know a key piece of information. We start adding to the scene to make sure the reader isn’t confused. Fast-paced action scenes aren’t the place for that. If we figure out we’re missing some foundational pieces, we should backtrack and add as many of them as we can prior to the action.

Overuse Clue #3 – We’re using internal dialogue to sum up our scene at the end or forecast what’s coming before the scene starts.

When we forecast through internal dialogue, we’re often hoping to hook the reader. When we sum up our scenes at the end, we’re often hoping to remind them of what’s just happened so they’ll carry it with them into the next scene.

Neither are necessary. Both indicate that we’re overusing internal dialogue, and it’s time to make some hard cuts.

Before I move on to the next point, I want to clarify the difference between foreshadowing and forecasting. Some writers think that what they’re doing is foreshadowing when in reality it’s forecasting.

Foreshadowing is a good thing. In foreshadowing, you drop subtle hints for the reader of what might be coming in the future (e.g., your main character notices something just in passing that becomes important later in the story, or you show your main character’s ability to tie knots and that ability will be crucial in the climax). In forecasting, you tell the reader what’s coming.

Overuse Clue #4 – Within our internal dialogue, we’re repeating the same idea in multiple ways.

Of all the overuse clues, repeating the same idea in multiple ways can be the trickiest to spot because it’s a balance issue. It’s easy to confuse with developing a character’s internal situation during an important moment.

Here’s what I mean by that. When something extremely important happens to our point-of-view character, we need to spend more time on their reaction to it.

Where we often stumble, though, is that each sentence in that reaction needs to show progress rather than wallowing in the same ideas, phrased differently. Allow me to show you an example.

How could he have done this to her? She felt like she was trapped in a bad remake of Shallow Hal where it turned out Hal didn’t care about Rosemary after all. Only the lowest level of slimeball pretended to be someone’s friend just to get a leg-up on a promotion at work. It was as bad as dating the boss’s daughter to get ahead. Using any kind of relationship for the sole purpose of bettering yourself in a job was unethical.

Are you tired of hearing the character think about this yet? When we don’t introduce anything fresh, the reader quickly finds the character’s thoughts boring. It’s like when someone tells you the same story every time you talk to them. After a while, you cringe inside when you know they’re about to start up again and you tune them out.

Don’t let this example lull you into a false sense of security, though. Maybe we don’t have our character think about the same thing in different ways within a single paragraph, but we have them think about the same thing at different times throughout the story.

If our character is thinking about the same thing without making progress in either her emotions toward the situation or how she wants to handle the situation, or in finding evidence to either prove or disprove what she believes, then we’re overusing internal dialogue. Our character can think about the same event, but each instance of internal dialogue needs to show progress of some kind.

Overuse Clue #5 – Every paragraph focused on the POV character includes internal dialogue.

Not every paragraph that focuses on the point-of-view character needs to include internal dialogue. Not every line of dialogue by the POV character needs to be preceded or broken up by internal dialogue. If you have a large chunk of internal dialogue in every other paragraph, that can be a clue that you’re overusing it.

Do you struggle with too much or too little internal dialogue in your fiction?

Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide is now available!

In Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you’ll learn…
– the difference between internal dialogue and narration,
– best practices for formatting internal dialogue,
– ways to use internal dialogue to advance your story,
– how to balance internal dialogue with external action,
– clues to help you decide whether you’re overusing or underusing internal dialogue,
– tips for dealing with questions in your internal dialogue,
– and much more!

Each book in the Busy Writer’s Guide series is intended to give you enough theory so that you can understand why things work and why they don’t, but also enough examples to see how that theory looks in practice. In addition, they provide tips and exercises to help you take it to the pages of your own story, with an editor’s-eye view. Most importantly, they cut the fluff so that you have more time to write and to live your life.

You can grab a copy of Internal Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks. It’s on for $2.99 (at Amazon) only until the end of this week to celebrate the release!

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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.

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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Image Credit: Michael & Christa Richert

Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Competitive Analysis

Image Credit: Glenn Pebley

Image Credit: Glenn Pebley

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’re down to the final pieces of our author business plan. (If you missed the previous sections, you can start back at the beginning with setting our goals, choosing our stories, identifying our audience, running our business, and crafting our product plan.)

Today we’re tackling the competitive analysis.

Traditionally, the competitive analysis section in a business plan has been about learning as much as you can about the people or businesses that directly compete with you and figuring out a way to steal their customers.

I don’t know about you, but that view of a competitive analysis makes me shudder. I don’t want to hurt other authors. In fact, I believe that we can achieve more when we work together. When one author is successful, it brings new readers into the reader pool who might like our books as well.

Besides, books aren’t like cars or plumbers. You can own a whole bookshelf (or e-reader!) full of books.

Because of those factors, I like to look at this as a cooperative analysis. Some of the elements in a cooperative analysis will focus on how we can stand out and what we can learn from other authors, but we’re also looking for authors we might be able to partner with.

If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please join me for my regular monthly guest spot at Fiction University where I’ll be giving tips on how to write the competitive analysis section of our author business plan.

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.

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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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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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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6 Major Writing Problems with Avengers: Age of Ultron – Part 2

Avengers Age of Ultron

Image Credit: Svilen Milev

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series where I’m looking at what we, as writers, can learn from the mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you missed the first installment in this series, I recommend you read it first.

Mistake #3 – Too Many Easy Answers and Short Cuts

We need to briefly talk a bit of plot structure here. Early on in a story, the villain/antagonist should be much stronger than the hero. Reaching their goal wouldn’t be a challenge for the main character if the antagonist wasn’t stronger than them at the start. The main character (or characters) grow and learn over the course of the story until, at the end, they’re able to defeat the antagonist.

Your main character needs to defeat the antagonist/villain based on their own skills. You can’t bring in the cavalry to solve their problem for them, especially not at the last minute. The solution can’t magically arrive. The solution needs to come from inside the main character (or characters). This is what happened in The Avengers.

It didn’t happen in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Prior to the final battle, Ultron had kicked the Avengers’ butts, with the help of his allies. So what should have happened is that the Avengers should have grown and learned something to make them stronger as a team, enabling them to overcome Ultron. Instead, in comes the cavalry. Vision (who I’ll talk about more in a minute) comes to life, and Ultron’s former allies switch sides, without ever dealing with their personal problems with Tony Stark, which were what drove them to side with Ultron to begin with. Not only is that an outside solution where the main characters never need to grow or improve, but it’s a gaping plot hole. We hated you before, but now we’re okay working with you even though you haven’t changed at all (as proven by the creation of Vision).

The easy answers and solutions didn’t stop there though. I don’t have the time to go through them all, but I will mention another huge one–the creation of Vision.

Ultron wants to create a better body for himself. He takes the same material that made Captain America’s indestructible shield (Vibranium) and the infinity stone that powered Loki’s staff, and together with the help of a bio-engineer who can grow flesh, he puts it all together with the intent of downloading his consciousness into the finished product.

The Avengers highjack the body and get into a fight over whether or not to bring that body to “life” apart from Ultron, using Stark’s artificial intelligence program JARVIS. This is an absolutely fantastic moral dilemma. Should they or shouldn’t they create life? It should have been a major stepping stone in Stark’s character arc (the truncated one we talked about earlier).

But nope. Just as the other Avengers are fighting over what to do, Thor arrives and unilaterally brings Vision to life. “Why?” you might ask. Because he took a trip to the water spirits (which we’d never heard of before) and decided it was a good idea. And everyone is just supposed to go along with what these hitherto fore unheard of water spirits told him.

In my opinion, that was a pat and easy solution that stripped all the great moral conflict from the situation. Having Vision be able to lift Thor’s special hammer later didn’t fix the fact because he was already alive by that point. In other words, the hammer was an ad hoc justification (something added to a theory after the fact to save it). Oh, look, it’s okay they brought him to life because lifting Thor’s hammer proves he’s a good guy. (Sarcasm very much intended.)

Takeaway:

The solution that allows your hero to defeat the villain that they weren’t previously strong enough to defeat should come from within themselves and from things they’ve learned, not from outside sources. And the solution should never be easy.

We also need to watch out for taking the easy way out. This can come in two forms. We write ourselves into a corner, putting our characters into a situation that we can’t now find a way to get them out. So we save the day with a solution we haven’t laid the foundation for earlier or we bring in the cavalry. I’ve talked about this before in my post on “Four Fiction Felonies that Make Your Story Unbelievable” so please check that out for more. The other form is when we’re tired and our creative and emotional juices are dry. In this case, we don’t write a scene to its full potential, wringing every ounce of conflict from it, simply because we’re burnt out. The solution to that is to move on and come back to the scene during editing.

Mistake #4 – Too Many Rabbit Trails and a General Lack of Focus

Somewhere along the line, the powers-that-be forgot that this movie is supposed to be about telling the story in this movie rather than setting up for other movies or other Marvel franchises.

If you’ve never heard the term “rabbit trail” before, it refers to a digression in a story that doesn’t contribute anything to the main storyline or to any subplot of that story. It might be kind of fun in and of itself, but it makes the story feel slow or scattered because it doesn’t matter to that story. It steals time away from the real story.

One major example of this is the hallucinations the Avengers experience when they encounter the Scarlett Witch. Large chunks of time were given to showing Black Widow as a child learning ballet, Captain America dancing with Agent Peggy Carter, and Thor at some weird party. Captain America’s flashback felt very much like it was intended to drum up interest for Marvel’s TV series Agent Carter.

These scenes did not need to be there. They’d already shown the dark hallucination Scarlett Witch gave to Tony Stark. That one was necessary. It kicked off his (never completed) character arc, served as the inciting incident for the creation of Ultron, and showed her powers. But then all they needed for the other characters was to show her shooting her red mist at their heads and them dropping to their knees looking tormented. We would have figured out that she’d given them horrible visions too. Because the only plot purpose of those hallucinations was to show that Ultron and his allies could bring the Avengers to their knees. (In other words, to show that the villains were stronger than the heroes at that point.)

A second example–what was the point of Ultron kidnapping Black Widow? What purpose did it serve for Ultron–why not just kill her? What larger purpose did it serve in the plot? None, none, and none. Rabbit trail.

Here’s another example. Midway into the movie, Thor decides he needs to take a side trip to meet up with his professor friend (the one Loki enslaved in the first Avengers movie) so they could go to a cave where Thor would talk to water spirits. Thor makes a point of telling us this will be dangerous (probably because they wouldn’t show any of that danger and they were trying to trick the audience into worrying–it didn’t work because they were TELLING rather than SHOWING). Thor’s trip didn’t need to be in this movie. It’s whole purpose was to set up the Infinity War movies that Marvel plans to release in a few years. (I read somewhere that Joss Whedon fought to have this scene cut, and he lost the battle.)

And let’s not forget the brief introduction of Ulysses Klaw, the arms dealer with the special Vibranium metal that Ultron wanted to use to build his body. Not only did Tony Stark conveniently know about this illegal arms dealer, but he also knew that Klaw had Vibranium even though all the Vibranium in the world had supposedly been used to build Captain America’s shield. No real explanation is given except that Stark met Klaw at a conference. Am I the only one who doubts a grimly-looking illegal arms dealer goes to legitimate conferences? But introducing Klaw and his collection of Vibraium sets up the Black Panther movie Marvel is planning. Though they don’t show it in any current Marvel movie, Klaw killed Black Panther’s father to get the Vibranium.

So much of the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron was focused on preparing for or pitching other series and movies that it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to develop the plot or characters for this movie itself.

Takeaway:

Everything we put into our stories needs to matter for that story by itself. This is true even if we’re setting up for future elements in a series. We need to find ways to introduce those elements that still work within the present story. We also need to be careful that we don’t include a character in our main series just to “introduce” them to our readers so we can try to convince them to read about that character in a different series. If a character or plot event doesn’t serve a purpose in this story, it doesn’t belong there.

Do you have full-blown flashbacks in your book? If so, you need to ask yourself what they contribute to the story. Do you really need them?

Check your book for rabbit trails. They might be great writing in and of themselves, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they need to go.

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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Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Product Plan

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

We’ve now reached a milestone in writing our author business plan. Last month, we finished our author business plan summary and our Business Operation section. In other words, we’re officially into the body of our author business plan where we need to start laying out practical steps to reach our goals. (If you missed the earlier posts, it’s important to start from the beginning because we’ve already talked about setting our goals, choosing our stories, and identifying our audience.)

Everything we’ve written down in our author business plan prior to this point will remain fairly stable. In the upcoming sections, we’ll need to be much more flexible, adjusting as we go. What we write down is our starting point.

In the coming posts, I’ll be talking about our competitive analysis section, our marketing plan section, and our professional development section, but before we can do that, we need to complete our Product Plan.

Please join me at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for the rest of this post on Creating An Author Business Plan: Our Product Plan.

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.

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: