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Should we read while we’re writing?

Posted by on Aug 16, 2011 in Tips and Tutorials | Comments Off on Should we read while we’re writing?

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”?- Walter Wellesley Smith

Some people warn you about is that if you’re reading while you’re writing then you can end up using the ideas or the styles of the authors whose work you’re reading. There is truth to this. We are influenced by all our experiences, so by reading the works of others authors, the writing could affect the content of our books. However, things that happen in our daily lives can affect the content of our books. TV shows and movies have their influence. Therefore, while novels may be a more relatable medium, they are not our only source of stimulus. Should we lock ourselves in a room and ignore all other influences until we’re done writing?

One of the reasons I chose to start writing is because I love to read. The books I grew up with inspired me to put my own ideas out. I’m sure many of you feel the same way. If someone told me to stop reading for the months it will take to knock out a novel, I’d look at them like they were crazy. That’s like asking me not to eat during that time too. It’s not going to happen.

Reading other novels has definitely had influences on my writing. I’ve been engrossed in many a novel and thought, “It would be so cool if my character went through something similar.” Is this good or bad? How many novels have you read where the characters are different, but many of the situations are similar. Sometimes I’d think, “My character would never act this way in this situation.” Then I’d start coming up with ways to get them in a similar situation to show that. Ideas we read can spark other ideas for our books. Sometimes reading a passage has given me an idea that has nothing to do with what I’m reading, but somehow the reading has been the catalyst. It’s amazing how ideas can come to us.

Don’t forget that topics go through popularity phases? For a while it’s high school angst, then it’s vampires, then it’s vampires going through high school angst. I hear angels are the next big thing. People read a great book which starts a copycat fad. While many of the new novels aren’t as good as the one that started the fad, some are great and a few may surpass it. While every book keeps with the theme, though, they each tell a unique story.

So, sometimes emulation is a good thing. The more you read, the more you learn, the more you have to draw from. We are the sum of our experiences, but every person processes these experiences differently, so every person ends up with their own style. As long as you aren’t directly stealing ideas from other works, your novel may end up being similar to some, but it will have its own personality. As long as you’re dedicated to telling a great story and not just cashing in on what you think people want to read, you’ll produce work you will be proud of. While you’re doing that … read!

“Read a lot. Write a lot. Have fun.” Daniel Pinkwater


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How NOT to start a novel

Posted by on Aug 6, 2011 in Personal, Tips and Tutorials | 1 comment

This is both humorous and educational. A friend emailed it to me and I had to share.


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest


The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest sponsored by San Jose State University to come up with the worst possible opening sentence to a fictitious novel.


An international literary parody contest, the competition honours the memory, if not the reputation, of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). The goal of the contest is childishly simple: entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Although best known for The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words that the “Peanuts” beagle Snoopy plagiarized for years, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (A much better writer, Madeleine L’Engle, also used it to open A Wrinkle in Time.) Having created a standard for bad openings with this line, and being an inspiration to generations of untalented writers, Bulwer-Lytton alone deserves to have such a contest named after him.


You may ask what’s so bad about “It was a dark and stormy night”?


Aside from being a little obvious and melodramatic, not too much, if Bulwer-Lytton had stopped there. Unfortunately, he went on:


“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1830)


Even by Victorian standards the opening sentence will not win any prizes for economy or subtlety.

The rest of the novel is written in the same manner, and sometimes it is even worse. In the very next sentence a character is “wending his solitary way.” Later in the novel a fellow lighting his pipe is described as “applying the Promethean spark to his tube,” a glass of beer is, “a nectarian beverage,” and a bedroom is “a somnambular accommodation.”


The contest began in 1982 as a quiet campus affair, attracting only three submissions. This response being a thunderous success by academic standards, the contest went public the following year and ever since has attracted thousands of annual entries from all over the world.



*** 2011 Results


** Grand Prize Winner

Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI [Note this is the briefest grand prize winner in the history of the contest]

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”



Rodney Reed, Ooltewah, TN

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.



** Adventure Winner

Jack Barry, Shelby, NC

“From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages — which are sometimes called boudin noir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place — but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.”



Mike Mayfield, Austin, TX

Sensing somehow a scudding lay in the offing, Skipper Bob tallied his tasks: reef the mains’l, mizzen, and jib, strike and brail the fores’l, mizzen stays’l and baggywrinkles, bowse the halyards, mainsheets, jacklines and vangs, turtle and belay fast the small cock, flemish the taffrail warps, batten the booby hatch, lay by his sou’wester, and find the bailing bucket.



** Crime Winner

Mark Wisnewski, Flanders, NJ

“Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler–who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne–or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.”



Andrew Baker, Highland Park, NJ

Five minutes before his scheduled execution, Kip found his thoughts turning to his childhood– all those years ago before he had become a contract killer whose secret weakness was a severe peanut allergy, even back before he lost half of a toe in a gardening accident while doing community service– but especially to Corinne, the pretty girl down the street whom he might have ended up marrying one day if she had only shown him a little more damn respect.



** Historical Fiction Winner

John Doble, New York City

“Napoleon’s ship tossed and turned as the emperor, listening while his generals squabbled as they always did, splashed the tepid waters in his bathtub.”



Andrea Rossi, Wilmington, NC

The executioner sneered as the young queen ascended the stairs to the guillotine; in the old days, he thought, at least there was some buildup, a little time on the rack or some disemboweling, but nowadays everyone wants instant gratification.



** Purple Prose Winner

Mike Pedersen, North Berwick, ME

“As his small boat scudded before a brisk breeze under a sapphire sky dappled with cerulean clouds with indigo bases, through cobalt seas that deepened to navy nearer the boat and faded to azure at the horizon, Ian was at a loss as to why he felt blue.”



Jack Barry, Shelby, NC

The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.



** Romance Winner

Ali Kawashima, Greensboro, NC

“As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would under- stand — who would take her away from all this — and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”



Meredith K. Gray, Ithaca, NY

Deanna waited for him in a deliberate pose on the sailor-striped chaise lounge of the newly-remodeled Ramada, her bustier revealing the tops of her white breasts like eggs–eggs of the slightly undercooked, hard-boiled variety, showing a nascent jiggle with her apprehensive breath, eggs that were then peeled ever-so-carefully so as not to pierce the jellied, opaque albumen and unleash the longing, viscous yolk within–yes, she lay there, oblong and waiting to be deviled.



** Sci Fi Winner

Greg Homer, Placerville, CA

“Morgan ‘Bamboo’ Barnes, Star Pilot of the Galaxia (flagship of the Solar Brigade), accepted an hors d’oeuvre from the triangular-shaped platter offered to him from the Princess Qwillia — lavender-skinned she was and busty, with two of her four eyes what Barnes called ‘bedroom eyes’ — and marveled at how on her planet, Chlamydia-5, these snacks were called ‘Hi-Dee-Hoes’ but on Earth they were simply called Ritz Crackers with Velveeta.”



Elizabeth Muenster, Columbia, PA

Sterben counted calcium bars in the storage chamber, wondering why women back on Earth paid him little attention, but up here they seem to adore him, in fact, six fraichemaidens had already shown him their blinka.



** Vile Puns Winner

Joe Wyatt, Amarillo, TX

“Detective Kodiak plucked a single hair from the bearskin rug and at once understood the grisly nature of the crime: it had been a ferocious act, a real honey, the sort of thing that could polarize a community, so he padded quietly out the back to avoid a cub reporter waiting in the den.”



Marvin Veto, Greensboro, NC

Monroe Mills’ innovative new fabric-dyeing technique was a huge improvement over stone-washing: denim apparel was soaked in color and cured in an 800-degree oven, and the company’s valued young dye department supervisor was as skilled as they came; yes, no one could say Marilyn was a normal jean baker.



** Western Winner

Graham Thomas, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, U.K.

“The laser-blue eyes of the lone horseman tracked the slowly lengthening lariat of a Laredo dawn as it snaked its way through Dead Man’s Pass into the valley below and snared the still sleeping town’s tiny church steeple in a noose of light with the oh-so-familiar glow of a Dodge City virgin’s last maiden blush.”



Lisa Kluber, San Francisco, CA

Sunburned and lost, Jake tightened the noose around Randys diaper-white neck and growled, Any last words, varmint? to which Randy replied, Dont be afraid to go out on a limb, Jake–thats where all the fruit is! which marked the first and last time Jake and the boys hired a life coach to lead one of their cattle drives.

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Characters count!

Posted by on Aug 2, 2011 in Tips and Tutorials | 1 comment

“Basically, fiction is people. You can’t write fiction about ideas.” ~ Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) Science Fiction Author

Not enough people seem to get this, and novice young adult writers aren’t alone it this either. If you take a look at the main plots of many novels, especially mainstream YA fiction, you’re reading the same story over and over. So, why do people read the same story repeatedly? It’s not because they’re so interested in what happens, as much as how people deal with what happens. People like to fall in love with the characters in a story. If they didn’t like them then they wouldn’t demand sequels. We don’t care what happens to our favourite main character (MC) as long as we’re along for the ride.

This brings up the question, “What makes a great main character?” The answer: “His or her flaws.” Some authors will create perfect characters which the masses have dubbed Gary Stu and Mary Sue. These characters are kind, compassionate, incredibly good-looking, loved by good, envied by evil, you get the idea. The problem with these types of characters is that they tend to be either boring, annoying, or just unbelievable. You certainly don’t want your readers feeling any of those things toward your protagonist. We all have flaws. We relate to characters that also have flaws. Characters need to grow during the course of a story. They need to learn. They can’t go through life making all the right decisions, helping everyone around them with ease, or beating bad guys after an epic yet obviously one-sided battle. Because, seriously, who does that?

So when you come up with a great plot for a story, the next thing you need to do is come up with great characters to deal with it, characters people will love or love to hate. Take a look at your favourite MCs and ask yourself, “What was wrong with them?” Learn from example and take it from there.

“The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Dont. This is your protagonist, not your kid.” ~ Janet Fitch

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