Friday Fun – Creating Emphasis in Your Writing

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: We recently asked you what questions you’d like answered in our Friday Fun post. Today, we’re answering the following reader question:

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JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: Hello, Faye. There are probably dozens of ways to emphasize a particular statement or detail in your writing, and which ones work for you will be a matter of personal style as well as what makes sense in the context of your work. I’m a fan of white space and short, punchy sentences. I like setting important bits off visually by literally putting space around them. For instance, I might give a five-word sentence its own paragraph, leaving blank space above and below it. I also like paring my sentences down to the fewest possible words so that there’s nothing left to cloud my meaning. Simple is often better when you’re trying to make a point, so keeping it short and sweet is a good bet.

You can also use cinematic writing to draw the reader in so that they are able to understand exactly why you are so vehement about a particular point. In your example above, you mentioned that you detest cruelty to animals. Instead of just saying that, describe a scene of cruelty and use all the descriptive powers at your disposal to make the reader see the horror and by seeing it not only understand your passion, but come to adopt it for themselves.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin: This question goes directly to the heart of style, and each writer develops her own, so there is no “right” answer per se, just the best choices that suit the circumstances layered with your voice and personal preference.

Grammatically, “and” is one of seven coordinating conjunctions, used to link equal parts. It’s been said that “and” is one of the hardest words to use effectively. When joining two independent clauses or complicated items in a series, it can be replaced with a semi-colon; or, as Jamie suggests above, when used between two independent clauses, it can be eliminated with a period.

And white space, for emphasis.

As you can imagine, there are whole books about writing effective sentences. Coordinating conjunctions are just one tool; punctuation is another, and word order is a third – of many. You might look at The Harbrace College Handbook or similar manual of style for insights. There are also writers whose prose style can take your breath away, and there’s nothing like reading great prose to learn effective methods. A great example of tremendous writing is The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz, for which she just won a Pulitzer.

Good luck!

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I think Jamie and Deborah have great comments. All I can add is, I recently saw a statement  that said that when you use ‘but’ in a sentence, it negates everything that came before it.

So, “I like you, but you make me crazy.” is contradictory and it’s difficult to ascertain which part of the statement is true.

In your example, I’d keep the statements separate (maybe even different paragraphs as they are opposites) so that neither loses its importance.

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Hi Faye! I agree with all of the above advice. The only thing I can add is an element of style I’ve taken from the world of public speaking: Always put the most important part of the sentence at the end. I think, for your purposes, you could end with …”and I detest cruelty to animals.” Keep it clear and declarative. And use lots of white space, as already mentioned. Good luck!

 

Short and Sweet Advice for Writers – Break Your Story Down to Build It Up.

VW bug cutawayWhen we read a finished story, whether a thousand-word piece of flash fiction of a thousand-page novel, we perceive it as whole. It’s similar to the way we see each other. You don’t think of your friend as a collection of distinct elements. You don’t perceive her as a particular combination of skin and hair and eyes, scarf and jeans and shoes. You don’t see the individual bones, muscles, or cells that make up her body. You don’t consciously perceive all the discrete events and experiences that make up her personality and character. You just see Jane.

Stories are like that. We experience a story as the sum total of its parts. And, as with a person, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, those parts are there. Without them the person or the story would not exist, at least not in the form you perceive.

As a writer, you need to define each part of your story in order to create the whole. You need to break your story down in order to build it up. This will not only help you build a better story, it will make the process of writing even a long-form piece (like a novel) much less overwhelming. In her comment on last Saturday’s weekend edition, Jean Brown shared how studying the structure (the parts) of a particular piece had helped reduce the overwhelm she felt about writing a “A Whole Book:”

One of the major benefits of this exercise for me was imaging how the author had laid out the whole structure ahead of the writing, and how this structure basically chunked the book into 10 page sections. This made the idea of writing “A Whole Book” seem incredibly achievable, whereas before it loomed as nearly impossible in my mind.

I felt a similar sense of relief when I realized that writers I admire put a lot of thought and intention into creating and arranging all the separate elements that make up their stories. When you can think of a novel not as “A Whole Book,” as Jean put it, but as a series of much smaller pieces that all fit together (perfectly) to create that whole, it suddenly feels much more manageable.

Plus, I love a good puzzle and the idea of identifying and arranging all these pieces to create a particular experience is pretty intriguing to me.

I sketched this visual to help illustrate how I think about a story breakdown. I intentionally left off labels so that you can interpret it in the context of your own story. If, for instance, you are working on a novel, the top level would represent the finished book, the next level down might represent “beginning, middle, and end,” the circles might be chapters, the triangles might be scenes within chapters, and the dots might be individual elements within a scene – things like lines of dialog, setting details, reveals of character traits, etc.

story breakdown

As we drill deeper into the elements, breaking things down further and further, the gaps between the individual pieces close, creating that sense of wholeness and story continuity.

There are many different tools for doing story break downs, but so far I’m finding that Scrivener offers some helpful features. I love the cork board view which allows me to look at my whole collection of story elements along with more detailed notes about specific actions, etc. The “binder” in Scrivener allows me to organize different pieces of my story by section, chapter, scene, etc. There are also ways (which I haven’t yet fully explored) to filter my notes and draft so that I can isolate a particular thread (such as a character or a setting or a sub-story). This will allow me to focus on a single story element within the context of the whole.

Whatever tools and process you prefer, I encourage you to think about breaking your story down so that you can get “inside” it – really see how it’s put together. I promise that you will gain greater clarity and even, perhaps, some new inspiration.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: roger4336 via Compfight cc

Run, don’t walk, to listen to Inside Creative Writing

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If you’d like, you can listen to this post.

I am a writer, but I am not yet the writer I want to be.

I have had very little in the way of formal training. I do not have a college degree or an MFA. I have taken a few, scattered writing courses (most recently a class on writing fantasy at the wonderful Grub Street in Boston), but mostly I’ve cobbled together random bits and pieces – like a magpie collecting shiny things to adorn its nest.

Though my journey has followed a somewhat circuitous path, I believe that I have made progress. From a seven-year-old scribbling in a notebook that I pilfered from the supply closet at the bank where my dad was a VP, I have evolved into someone who makes her living with words – crafting content for my marketing clients, writing a column for my local paper, and even occasionally penning a feature piece for a regional magazine.

But, I am still not the writer I want to be.

I ache to write fiction, but as a single mama workin’ this gig, I can’t easily afford time to play in the speculative and financially unstable world of fiction. The writing that pays my bills takes precedence. Making time to practice and study the craft of fiction is a challenge for me, to say the least.

Enter the power of the podcast.

Those of you who’ve been hanging around here awhile already know that I am a huge and unabashed fan of audio books. If it weren’t for audio books, I’d probably only manage to read a handful of novels each year. But with Audible in my pocket, I am able to “read” while I walk, drive, do the dishes, run the vacuum, etc. It’s a beautiful thing.

Podcasts are another audio format that allow me to connect with content while I’m doing something else. I have been listening to several marketing podcasts for a while, but only recently decided to investigate writing podcasts. Long story short, I struck gold with a brand new podcast called Inside Creative Writing.

[Author Note: Sadly, Inside Creative Writing appears to be on hiatus. I’m not sure if Brad will return to podcasting, but am hopeful that he will manage to get back to the mic one of these days. In the meantime, his archive of existing recordings is still very much worth a listen … or, two.]

Brad Reed is the writer and educator behind this podcast. As a frequent podcast listener, I can be a bit of a critic, but this guy is doing a fabulous job. His shows are highly informative, entertaining, and actionable. I frequently pause in my walk to jot down a note so I don’t forget what he’s said about a particular technique or insight. He has put a lot of thought into his format – alternating one-man shows with interviews and always including a couple of closing elements – “Wise Words” (inspirational and thought-provoking quotes) and a writing assignment (not a prompt, but an assignment on applying the techniques discussed in the show). His production quality is great, his show notes are thorough, and he even has a way for listeners to participate in the show by leaving him a voicemail with a quote for the Wise Words segment, which he then edits into the actual show. (You can hear my debut appearance in Show #8.)

Can you tell I’m a bit of a fan?

The thing is, we’re only eight shows into this podcast, and I have already learned SO much. Reed covers topics in a way that is clear and non-threatening. He makes great use of examples to bring each of the concepts and techniques to life. He isn’t afraid to take deep dives on a topic, making sure you – as the listener – really have a chance to fully absorb and process the idea. Also (and this counts in my book), he’s a really nice guy. I emailed him a quick note of appreciation and wound up having a very pleasant email chat. I can tell that Reed is doing this with his community firmly in mind.

I really can’t recommend the show enough. I was talking to a group of writer friends earlier this week about our favorite writing resources – the go-to books, blogs, and magazines that help us get a handle on what the hell we’re doing. All the usual suspects came up, but then the conversation took a turn as one of the writers sputtered, “They’re all great, but I never have time to read them!” Too true.

I subscribe to Poets & Writers. It’s an excellent magazine (probably one of the very best on the topic of writing). I always learn something when I read an issue, but – like my friend – I can’t always find time to read them. As a matter of fact, I have four unread issues sitting in a pile next to my desk right now. I feel guilty and frustrated and a little defeated when I think about how long those magazines have been sitting there, waiting for me to find a few minutes to crack their crisp covers. Alas, I don’t see that happening in the near future. However, the Inside Creative Writing podcast is filling that gap in my education quite nicely. I can honestly say that I am learning as much (if not more) about good story writing by listening to Reed as I would poring over the pages of Poets & Writers. (And, that’s saying something!)

I guess the most telling thing I can say about how much I like the show is this: I’m willing to pay for it.

In the most recent episode, Reed invited listeners to become supporters by making a voluntary donation to help offset show costs. He called it the “public broadcasting model.” I immediately went to www.insidecreativewriting.com and clicked the “Donate” button. I plunked down $36 – what I might pay for a year’s subscription to a quality, writing magazine – and was happy to do it.

After all, I can certainly forego a few lattes in the name of becoming the writer I want to be.

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Children do not want nice stories

Many adults who want to write for children make the mistake of assuming that children want nice stories. Our mature perspective distorts our memories and deceives us into believing that only unicorns, fluffy bunnies, and fairy godmothers populated our childhood fantasies. We have forgotten our own dark natures. We assume that because, as adults, we find children to be “cute” and endearing, they must see themselves that way, too.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Little girls are cute and small only to adults.  To one another they are not cute.  They are life-sized.  ~Margaret Atwood

Earlier this year, I attended Grub Street Writers’ annual Muse conference. Author Tayari Jones expanded on Atwood’s observation, “Kids are not cute,” she told us, “They are not cruel, innocent, the future, or closer to nature. To each other, they are life-sized. They convey and inhabit the full range of their experience and emotions – which are as complicated as yours and mine.”

Try to remember what it felt like to be a kid.

Did you ever feel “cute?” Did you feel like your feelings were less intense or less important because you were a kid? I bet you thought your feelings were more intense and more important because you were a kid. Children, from the first spark of self-knowledge through the tumultuous teen years, experience the world in a much more visceral way than most adults. Their perception has not been dulled by deeply ingrained assumptions or painted by the opinions of others. Children live more fully in the “real” world than we do. They trust their senses and their instincts.

“I’d felt something move. I’d felt the knocker twist under my hand as I’d banged that grinning imp down on the door. I was not so old that I would deny my own senses.” – Neil Gaiman from the short story Closing Time

But children also have the advantage of living simultaneously and fully in a world of their own making. In his fascinating book, The Storytelling Animal – How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall dedicates a lengthy section to the nature of children’s make believe:

“Grownups have a tendency to remember the land of make-believe as a heavenly, sun-kissed, bunny land. But the land of make-believe is less like heaven and more like hell. Children’s play is not escapist. It confronts the problems of the human condition head-on.”

He goes on to call pretend play “deadly serious fun.”

Gottschall’s words, along with the examples of stories made up by children, reminded me of just how frightening and often violent my own childhood dreams and fantasies were. My nighttime visions were full of ghosts and monsters, being lost, being chased, falling, and other nightmarish things. My games were full of adventure, crisis, and trouble. I played at being an Amazon warrior, a dragon tamer, and a magical priestess of the forest. I enacted the invasion of Earth by alien species. I handed down death sentences to traitors and slew my enemies on the battlefield.

This isn’t to say I didn’t also search for unicorns and admire bluebirds. I did.

I invented an entire subgenus called White Deer. They were wise and noble creatures with a complex hierarchy, jeweled antlers, and a traveling court that disappeared into the mist at sunrise. My point is, most of my preferred play – my most memorable play – revolved around things that weren’t nice – kidnappings and war and beasts of every description.

Think about the stories that captivated you as a child.

Were they nothing but rainbows and lullabies, or were they inhabited by trolls, evil queens, and haunted houses? Think about the stories that have taken young minds by storm in recent years. A few that come to mind immediately for me are Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Hunger Games (which, technically is young adult), and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Each involves its fair share of tragedy, violence, and death. Even seemingly tame stories like Roald Dahl’s Matilda include their share of bad people and terrible happenings. Enduring classics like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are built around great conflicts, wars, and a deep, unflinching look into the eyes of evil.

There are plenty of favorites on my shelf that are “nicer” than these fantasy and adventure stories – The Wind in the Willows, Winne-the-Pooh, and Tales of Brambley Hedge , just to name a few. But I find that the books my daughter wants to read are either rife with danger or full of gut-busting belly laughs. She does not find “nice” appealing and is easily bored by sweet tales of idyllic childhoods. She is, of course, only a focus group of one, but I’d be willing to bet – based on bestseller charts – that she’s not alone in her tastes.

When writing for children, do not rein in the full range of human experience and emotion. Do not soften the blows or dilute the nature of evil. Children use stories to learn about themselves, each other, and the world. They are naturally drawn to stories that give them a deep, truthful picture of these things. It does not matter if the story takes place on familiar city streets, in a fantasy land full of dragons, or out in darkest space. What matters is the veracity of the human element …

… and we grownups know that human nature is not always nice.

Do you write for children or young adults? What kinds of themes do your stories explore? Have you ever found yourself holding back in a subconscious effort to protect your reader? What inspires you to write for these age groups?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Wesley Fryer