Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Power of Specificity

Let's face it: writing is an exceptionally time-consuming process, and we are in a world of little available time. There are countless methods of revision we can employ in our writing - and we should use a variety of techniques. But there is one technique I have found that gives me the most improvement with the least time (but not necessarily effort).

This technique is actually contradictory to what most novice writers believe. Most writers believe that the more adjectives and adverbs you add to your writing, the more sophisticated it becomes. Actually, the opposite is true.

The most effective technique is to focus on choosing strong, specific nouns and verbs.

That's it. That's all you've got to do for stellar writing. (Ha, if only it were really that easy.)

Let's look at some examples:

John went to the store.

Boring. There's no intrigue or emotional involvement. There's no interest in the sentence. So how can we fix it? Let's look at our verb first (I often find this the easiest place to start): went. What could we replace it with? Walked, certainly. John walked to the store. There's an improvement there, but walked is still a bit weak. How did he walk there? Remember, we want to avoid adverbs, so we don't want to say anything like walked slowly or walked quickly. So what other synonyms could we use?

How about strolled, raced, or trudged?  Compare these three revised sentences:

  • John strolled to the store.
  • John raced to the store.
  • John trudged to the store.

All much better versions of the original sentence because we've already learned so much more about the character by changing only one sentence.

  • The first one indicates that John is having a nice, relaxing time. There isn't anything rushing him, and he's enjoying his walk. 
  • The second one indicates he is in a hurry for some reason. Perhaps he's trying to beat someone. Or he's really excited. Or he's concerned an item won't be available any longer if he waits too long. Countless options, but all of them better than went.
  • The third one indicates that he is dreading going to the store. Again, we have multiple options. Maybe he hates shopping, or just this particular store.  Maybe he's afraid of something when he gets there. It doesn't really matter, and the rest of the paragraph or story can answer these possibilities. But what does matter is that now we care about John's experience, whereas when he just went to the store, we didn't.

Now let's look at our nouns. John is pretty specific. We probably don't need to do much there. But what about store? Wouldn't we learn so much more if the store were more specific as well? Look at the above examples and replace them with different kinds of stores:

  • John trudged (strolled/raced) to Walmart.
  • John trudged to Meier & Frank.
  • John trudged to the pet store.
  • John trudged to Walgreen's.
  • John trudged to the second-hand store.

Just by being more specific with the kind of store John is going to, we again add so much more to our character and story. The reader becomes an involved, caring member of your story.

All just from choosing specific nouns and verbs. Simple, right? Well...it gets simpler the more you practice. But it is definitely a quick technique to elevate your writing to the next level.

*Note on verbs* Keep an eye out for these particularly common, weak verbs: to be (be, been, being, am, is, are, was, were); would, could, should; walk; went, go; look.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Importance of Community

I was recently introduced to an article in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic entitled "How to Graduate from Starbucks." This article was very interesting as it described the partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University for Starbucks' employees to earn college degrees. It discussed all the different techniques these two businesses are using to encourage success. But the one thing that seemed to set this program apart from other programs was proactive mentoring. Students found the support, information, and encouragement they needed to continue their college educations.

So what does this have to do with writing? Actually, it has a lot to do with life. Try to think of one area of your life where you have been successful that you accomplished completely on your own. There was no support from parents, friends, spouse, siblings, teachers, no one except yourself. Hard to think of? Perhaps impossible?

Writing is no different. In many aspects, writing is a solitary venture. After all no one else can sit at the computer or paper and jot down the words you intend to express. It's something you have to do on your own with your own time and effort. But that doesn't mean you have to be alone.

In my own experience, I've found that my writing communities are crucial to my success. I have a critique group, a local writing organization, and various conferences that I all participate in. Any or all of these writing communities help me grow and develop as a writer. My husband is very supportive, but he's not a writer, so he doesn't "get it." Only other writers understand the effort, excitement, drudgery, hard work, passion, and bits of soul that go into your writing.

It's other writers who keep me writing. They give me the courage to keep trying, even when it's hard. They help me expand and express my ideas. And they give me a loose accountability that keeps me writing. My writing communities want to see my success, and that positive peer pressure keeps me striving for that success whatever my actual circumstances, capabilities, and outcomes.

You need other writers.

You need them to encourage you. You need them to help you. You need them to hold you accountable. You need them to celebrate with you. You need them to bounce ideas off of. You need them to teach you. You need them for camaraderie.

You need a community of writers if you intend to be successful.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Top Read Books of 2014

I read a lot of books this year, and I'm going to give you a sampling of my favorite ones. Many of these are full series.  (A lengthier post, so feel free to skip around a bit as needed.)

Alcatraz Series: Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (Book 1)
by Brandon Sanderson
MG Fantasy
This is perhaps my most-recommended series for a long time. It is written as a middle-grade novel, but younger and older can fully enjoy it. I listened to the audio book version with my 7-yr-old son, and he absolutely loved it. (The reader - Ramon de Ocampo is amazing.) I was entertained by the story as well as the allusions and writing advice Sanderson sprinkles in. The basic premise is that Alcatraz (yes, that is his name, which is explained in the book) is a foster child with a talent for breaking things -- literally. He receives a mysterious bag of sand from his father on his 13th birthday. What ensues is an magical/technological adventure against evil librarians intent on controlling information and keeping the "hush lands" (our world) in the dark about what our world is really like, including that Earth has three additional continents, dinosaurs are actually alive, and magical glass runs everything, among other surprises. A fun and completely clean read. My only complaint: a fifth book is alluded to several times throughout the series, but as of yet, it has not been written.

The Five Love Languages 
by Gary D. Chapman
Nonfiction
This book would probably fall under the self-help type of genre, but it doesn't feel inflated like I feel many others do. The book discusses how true love lasts by speaking your loved one's primary love language, which can be any of the following: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; or, physical touch. My husband and I found this after we had been married for 13 years; I wish we had it after three months of marriage. It explained so many of our frustrations over the years -- we weren't speaking each other's love languages. Instead I was trying to show my love in my language, which my husband didn't recognize and vice versa. This is a great book to help understand how to improve all relationships. The original book is geared toward married couples, but there are spin-off versions for singles, children, teens, and several other types of relationships in our lives. No complaints.

Partials series: Partials (Book 1)
by Dan Wells
Sci Fi
This is another dystopian novel, but it has a twist. This story is actually after the apocolypse and picks up as the few (40,000) human survivors try to continue living. It combines modern/futuristic technology with past technology. It follows Kira as she tries to find a cure for a disease, RM, killing all babies since the Break. It is 11 years after the Break where the Partials (genetically modified super humans) killed off most humans in a war, and then released RM to kill the rest. No baby has survived more than three days since the Break. Kira works with a partial POW to find answers. But the answers lead to more questions. The entire series follows Kira and her friends as they seek answers to try to save all life left on earth. My only complaint with this series is the ending of the series. It felt like a bit of a let-down after all the build-up and hype of the rest of the series. It wasn't bad or unbelievable, but I think it was a bit rushed. It felt like Wells realized his books were long, and he just wrapped up the story in as neat a package as possible. The length of his books wasn't a detriment at all, so instead his ending just didn't meet the same standards as the rest of his series.

John Cleaver series: I Am Not a Serial Killer (Book 1)
by Dan Wells
Horror-Realistic Fiction
This story follows John Cleaver, a teenage sociopath (not the same as a psychopath) who tries to solve a series of murders in his small town. This is a fascinating study of how sociopaths really think and interact with other human beings. (Yes, there are sociopaths around you all the time; that doesn't mean you need to be terrified of them.) Throughout the story, John sees a few of the murders, and his mother owns the mortuary in town.  As a result the descriptions are a bit gory at times, so the book is not for the faint of heart. I was captivated by the first chapter that described the entire embalming process in all its gruesome detail. But a note -- when he says "demons" in the book, he really means "demons."  It took me several chapters to realize this was literal, not figurative. This is an entire series, although I have only currently read the first book.  Only complaint: again, gory and a sensitive topic, which doesn't particularly bother me, but it may some readers.

Confessions series: Confessions of a Murder Suspect (Book 1)
by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Mystery
This series follows Tandy, a teenage genius, who solves multiple mysteries. The first book begins with the murder of Tandy's parents. Tandy and her superhuman siblings are the only ones in the house, therefore the only suspects. As she works to solve their murder, she discovers they were not the people she thought they were. Many of the subsequent books try to answer the questions she discovers in the first book. The voice is the most fascinating aspect of this series because Tandy is talking directly to the reader. It breaks all those rules about the narrator remaining hidden from the reader. Tandy actually addresses her "Dear Reader" and lets the reader in on her deepest thoughts and feelings that she keeps hidden from the rest of the characters in the story. Complaint: the third book is not up to the same standards as the previous two. The mysteries she is trying to solve are relatively minor after her previous adventures, and her story begins to become far-fetched. From Book 1 through Book 3, it is a matter of less than 6 months, and yet at least six or seven life-changing mysteries have suddenly come into her life and been solved by her, and only her. Book 3 feels a bit like a placeholder in anticipation of a Book 4. I'll probably still give it one more chance on Book 4 when it's available, but most of Book 3 could have been condensed into a few chapters at the beginning of the next book.

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Historical Fiction
I am fascinated by WWII, so this was a must-read for me. It is about a young girl of socialists in Nazi Germany named Liesel. She is sent to a foster family, who she comes to consider her parents. Her foster father upholds a promise from years earlier, and as a result this family hides a Jewish man in their basement while trying to maintain an image of support for Hitler. The story is narrated by Death as he encounters Liesel at different times while he performs his duties of collecting souls. Always a different book defines the period of time when he encounters her. An honest look at the non-evil German (which there were many of) during WWII, and some of the challenges one had to face. Complaint: Because the style is so different, it was really difficult to get into the book. It had aspects of it that were literary because Death is very philosophical. But it took about a quarter of the book until I realized it was written as a series of scenes, not a novel. And those scenes were frequently out of order because it followed a little bit more of a stream-of-consciousness style as though you were sitting at the fire with Death and he was recounting the story. You are always given dates to help orient yourself to where in the overall story this scene fit, so at least you aren't left in the dark. It was actually probably written a lot like a novel without the connecting events leading from one scene to the next. Instead there were simple page breaks to indicate a shift. Once I figured out that style, I could settle in and enjoy the book.

Perhaps you have some ideas now of new books to try this year. Whether you pick from this list or another, happy reading in 2015.