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Monday, August 26, 2013

Manage Your Curves

Picture Credit: http://www.aansneurosurgeon.org
Have you ever started a book that made you feel completely lost for the first 5 chapters until the author caught you up on what was going on? Or have you read a book that introduces you to so many characters that after meeting what feels like the 100th one you realize you don't know who any of them are? What about a book that opened with nothing going on because the author was too busy explaining every minute detail of the main character's past life?

These are incidences of not managing a learning curve well.

Fantasies are known for having learning curves because they frequently are trying to introduce new worlds, customs, and creatures. But any book has a learning curve. At the very least, the reader must learn who different characters are along with information about their lives.

A steep learning curve will require extra concentration. To a certain extent this can be a good thing. It can help suck readers into the story when they are trying to figure out what is going on. But a learning curve that is too steep will lose readers' interest because it requires a higher level of concentration than they want to give.

So what does this mean when writing?

Look at the the learning curve you are using, especially at the beginning of the book. Readers want to feel like they are jumping right into the story. They don't want pages or even paragraphs that feel like they are only setting up the scene. They want to see some sort of tension from the beginning.

BUT they only want to feel like they are jumping into the middle of the story. Be careful of opening your book by sticking the reader in the middle of a situation that they don't understand because they missed out on the beginning. Then you will find that you lose tension by continually reverting back to the past to try catching the reader up.

Balance at the beginning is best accomplished by asking yourself what the true beginning of your story problem is. For an example, let's look at the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood because most people are familiar with it.

Little Red Riding Hood Example

If you were turning Little Red Riding Hood into a novel, you would want to look at the beginning of the problem, which is going to create the tension for us. I would start it with Little Red Riding Hood finding out that her grandmother is sick. At that moment you have a little girl who is worried about her sick grandmother. And you have a mother who has to weigh the need to send her daughter to the grandmother against the fear that her daughter may run into a wolf on the way. At that point it is not difficult to throw in the fact that the girl's nickname came from the red cape that she always wears, which she received for her birthday. It will come naturally to introduce the wolf because he is on the mother's mind.

A tendency to keep the learning curve too gradual at the beginning of a story will begin with the history of why Little Red Riding Hood has the nickname that she does. Then it will go on to explain the fact that a wolf is in the area. After all the work setting the stage, you will make it to the point that Little Red Riding Hood is going to visit her grandmother. All of this explanation before the problem begins (sick grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood's trip) will make it very difficult to keep a feeling of tension in your writing.

A learning curve that is too steep will start in the woods when the wolf is talking to Little Red Riding Hood. Or a very steep curve may even start the story when the wolf shows up at the grandmother's door to eat her. Suddenly you have to do flashbacks or constantly interject extra information to catch the reader up on what is going on.

This same concept is true through the entire book. The learning curve will not be static, but as you are editing pay attention to how much is being thrown at the reader in any one spot. Also, pay attention to the feedback you get from the people who review your manuscript. Ask them if there were any parts that were confusing or that dragged. The learning curve may be one reason for either confusing or dragging parts of the book.

Monday, August 19, 2013

That's Old News

Picture Credit: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/newswire/2009/
When you are writing historical fiction or nonfiction, one huge way to get your facts straight is to look at the newspapers of the time.

Before you say that you don't need to because you already know what was happening at the time, stop and ask yourself how recent your source was written. Basically, if you are looking in a history book to find out what life was like in a certain place 150 years ago then you need to do more homework.

Daily life and the information the average person had is not portrayed well in a history book that is chronicling major events in a country or group of countries. What did the average person know about what was going on? What did he or she think about what was going on?

Newspapers are obviously not the only source to be evaluated, but they are an important source. The good news is that it is not hard to look back at old newspapers. They have been digitized and they are fascinating to read.

For digitized newspapers from the United States, try looking at The Library of Congress website: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. You can see newspapers as old as 1836. Also try using a search engine to search the web for sites specific to the state you are interested in (or country if you are looking outside the US). As a couple examples, you can find Utah historical newspapers at: www.digitalnewspapers.org. Or you can find Pennsylvania newspapers at: http://accesspadr.org/cdm4/search.php?CISOROOT=/sstlp-newsp.

Unless you are looking for very old dates, you will be surprised at what you'll find.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Meet the Frightening, Scary, Ugly, Hideous, Ruthless Adjective Monster

Picture Credit: http://www.search-best-cartoon.com/
This is one of the many hiccups I had when I started writing. Adjectives and adverbs make your writing descriptive, right? The answer is: not unless you use them correctly. For an exaggerated example, I'm guessing you got bored before you made it through the row of adjectives in the blog title. :)

Don't get me wrong, adjectives and adverbs have an important place in writing. But if you don't keep them under control they will eat up your pages and bury the good stuff.

Before I go on for too much longer, I'd better give a couple definitions.

Adjectives describe nouns (a person, place, thing, or idea).

Adverbs describe verbs (action words).

One excellent way to decide if you have a habit of using adjectives/adverbs too much is to print out a chapter and cross them out. Read the chapter without them. Does it make sense? Does the reader loose anything important? If the manuscript makes sense without some of the adjectives/adverbs and the reader doesn't loose any important understanding, you should seriously consider whether they should be there.

The important adjectives/adverbs should also be scrutinized to decide whether they could be removed by strengthening the word they are describing. For example, you can say that, "Carlos bolted out of the room" instead of using, "Carlos ran out of the room fast." Instead of saying that, "The day was hot," think about how your character reacts to the hot day and write his or her reactions. Then the reader will know that it is hot and they will learn it in a story-building way.

If you ever have multiple adjectives/adverbs in a row so that you need a comma to separate them, I would HIGHLY suggest you look at removing all but one.

To recap, adjectives/adverbs are NOT a sign of poor quality work. Every author uses them. But they can be easy to overuse if you're not careful.