7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn — Michael Noll

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1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed Fruit. The story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. Great sentences–and great lines of poetry–often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary Review. Notice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

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5 Secret Tips To Writing A Successful Short Story

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Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. But the secret to successfully getting a short story published is to add something special to your storytelling mix…something that captures the attention of editors and readers alike. While there are no hard and fast rules for creating a great short story, here are a few industry secrets that will help your writing stand out:

Identify The Heart Of Your Story. Explore your motivations, determine what you want your story to do, then stick to your core message. Considering that the most marketable short stories tend to be 3,500 words or less, you’ll need to make every sentence count. If you over-stuff your plot by including too many distractions, your story will feel overloaded and underdeveloped.

See Things Differently. Experiment with your short story’s POV. A unique, unexpected voice can provide the most compelling, focused experience of the central story. Just be careful that you don’t inadvertently give the story to a nonessential character. Narrating the story line through a character who’s not central to the action is a common mistake many new authors make, often with confusing or convoluted results.

Opposites Attract. Elements that work against your character’s central desire will keep the reader intrigued and prevent your story from getting stuck. You can also try approaching your core idea from an unusual direction. Dialogue, setting, and characterization are all areas that will benefit from an unexpected twist.

Craft A Strong Title. This can be one of the most difficult—but one of the most important—parts of writing your story. How do you find inspiration for a great title? Have friends read your story and note which words or phrases strike them or stand out. These excerpts from your text just might hold the perfect title. Try to stay away from one- or two-word titles, which can seem to editors as taking the easy way out.

Shorter Is Sweeter. Resist the urge to go on and on. With a shorter short story, you will have more markets available to you and thus a better chance of getting published. Here at Writer’s Relief, our submission strategists and clients have noticed that editors consistently prefer short stories that are under 3,500 words over longer ones.

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Use these simple tips to polish your prose and assess any potential short story shortcomings. With these insider guidelines, you can increase the odds of your short story being selected for the pages of a literary journal. That’s the best ending any author could devise—or even better, a great beginning to your future success!

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10 Books That Changed the Way I See the World

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1. John Adams, by David McCullough. This biography of Adams erases any fantasies we might have about our American Revolution being easy, short, or something to take for granted. It gives a deep insight into what it takes for a revolution to succeed, which is strong, intelligent, and dedicated leadership from within the country and having a higher purpose that one is willing to die for.
2. The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. Of all of Pollan’s books, this is my favorite. This “plant’s-eye-view of the world” enables you to see nature from the perspective of plants and animals, imagining that perhaps they use us just as much as we use them. It also offers great insight into classic stories like Johnny Appleseed.
3. America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, by Gail Collins. From the first non-native woman to see the shores of America (she committed suicide) to the truth about how long and hard it was for women to get the right to vote, this book will never let you take women’s freedom for granted ever again.
4. Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys. I found this book while researching Organic Manifesto and was stunned at how it outlines the creation of chemical weapons for WWII and how the companies involved with creating them became even stronger after the war, evolving into the aspirin maker Bayer, the imaging and IT corp Agfa, and the world’s leading chemical company BASF.
5. The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki. The first novel ever written was by a Japanese noblewoman, and while the story is more than a thousand years old, and its narrative long and rambling, it enabled me to connect to history in a much more personal and fascinating way than any history book. Fashions and philosophies may come and go, but emotions are the same throughout time.
6. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman. A former fundamentalist details his quest to get to the “truth” of the Bible by studying the original languages of Jesus, New Testament manuscripts, and the history of the times. Through his journey, Ehrman uncovers incredible truths about the fallibility of the Bible and what is truly attributed to Jesus versus what was added hundreds of years later.
7. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body–New Paths to Power and Love, by Riane Eisler. This was the first book that truly helped me understand where violence and genocide stem from, and how emphatically love and a balanced relationship between male and female values are the way to heal and evolve our civilization.
8. The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future, by Fawzia Koofi. A beautiful and horrible look at the inside of culture, war, and tradition in Afghanistan and a testament to the courage of one woman to do what it takes to change it from within (see book #1).
9. Massoud: An Intimate Portrait of the Legendary Afghan Leader, by Marcela Grad. Incredible stories of what it really takes to be a leader during war and just how complicated and challenging the different cultures of Afghanistan (and the Middle East as a whole) really are. These are not battles that will ever be won with weapons. Ever. Although Massoud tried and did win against the Soviet Union, he didn’t win the ultimate war between the tribes of Afghanistan.
10. Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. All those stereotypes about women and sex and men and sex that you read about every day, and that are “confirmed” by academia are wrong (and I suspected it all along). This book looks at our sexual history in a whole new light, and it’s a totally refreshing new view (for women, anyway!).

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