Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Don't Traumatize Your Reader

Sandy Tritt

Did you ever think about what happens to an unsuspecting reader when a scene changes? He’s been comfortable, hanging around and experiencing your story, aware of where he is, when he is, and through whose eyes he’s seeing/hearing/feeling things, when all of a sudden one scene ends and another begins. Your poor reader is snatched out of his comfort zone, zoomed through time and space, and is plunged into a new scene. God—er, um, YOU, only know where he is now. He may crash into the same physical space he’s just vacated—or he may end up across the globe or even in a new galaxy. Five seconds may have passed—or ten days or a dozen centuries. Even more jolting, he could now be seeing and hearing and smelling through a different body.

It’s an extremely unsettling experience. That is, unless you, the Creator of this world the reader is visiting, are experienced enough and thoughtful enough to guide him through the trauma. Oh, my! Did you even know you had this humongous responsibility? Well, you do now.

Within the first few sentences of a new scene, your reader needs to know several things, including:

  1. Whose eyes he’s now seeing things through (if you employ a single viewpoint character throughout the manuscript, this is not necessary)
  2. Who is present
  3. What our characters look like (this is something that we usually sprinkle throughout a story, receiving bits and pieces of information as we go and is more or less important depending upon genre).
  4. Where he is in general—such as the city, state, country. If this general location has not been visited previously, we may need more information, such as if it’s rural, big city, etc.
  5. Location, specific: if inside, where he is, such as in a living room or inside a diner. If outside, if he’s in a vehicle, hiking, etc.
  6. Time period: the decade he’s in. (If this does not change throughout the manuscript, you do not need to re-establish this).
  7. Time of year: spring, summer, fall, winter—or actual month
  8. General time of day: morning, afternoon, evening, night
  9. Weather, if it affects the story in any way (and it usually does)
Additionally, the reader may need to know the date or the day of week, as well as any historically relevant happenings on that day. For example, if this scene occurs on September 11, 2001, and no mention is made of the collapse of the twin towers, your reader is going to question your integrity. I call providing this information grounding your reader, as it allows your reader to simply relax and become a part of the story instead of floating around in space, desperately trying to figure out where and when he is and through whose eyes he’s seeing.

If it were not for the First Commandment of Writing—Thou Must Show, Not Tell, we’d just open each scene with a recitation of all the necessary facts. But, instead, we must be artistic about it. We must not just give all the information, but we must sprinkle it around and create amazing prose with conflict and suspense while doing so.  The goal is to create a picture the readers can imagine in their minds. They must be able to envision where the action is happening, who is present, and what is going on. This balancing act of feeding information to your reader while maintaining interest is not easy.

Here’s an example from one of my novels, The Mistress of Gambel Hill:

Ray maneuvered between a cocktail waitress balancing a tray of drinks and a couple entwined in each other’s arms.

“Think we can fit them all in?” Gary waited on the stage with a handful of neatly-stacked requests.

Ray grabbed his brother’s arm and used it as a boost to step up onto the stage. “Yeah. And I gotta add another one before I forget.” He took a pen from his pocket and scribbled the blonde’s request on one of the notes. “Let’s get going.” He went to his stool in the center front and tuned his guitar. A line of cocktails sent by happy customers waited on the table next to him. He looked into the crowd. The stage lights glared back at him. “Glad y’all stuck around,” his deep voice boomed into the microphone. “We’re gonna get to all your requests before—”

He hadn’t checked that his brothers had taken their places. He glanced over his shoulder to his left. Danny, his youngest brother, wasn’t behind the drum set. Instead, Joey’s long arms waited over the drums, his waist-length hair draped over his slender shoulders, a smile teasing his hair-covered lips.

            Ray scratched his goatee and looked behind him. Gary sat at Joey’s keyboard, his bass guitar leaning against his chair. Danny wasn’t on stage.

What do we learn from the opening paragraphs of this scene?

  1. Ray is our viewpoint character. We’re going to be seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and thinking through him.
  2. We are in a crowded bar.
  3. Ray and Gary are on a stage. They are brothers. They have a band.
  4. Ray sits on a stool center stage, plays guitar, and is the speaker for the group. He also drinks. A lot.
  5. Ray’s brothers Danny and Joey are also in the band.
  6. Joey is tall and slender with long hair and facial hair. He normally plays keyboard, but right now, he’s playing the drums.
  7. Ray has a goatee.
  8. Gary normally plays bass guitar, but he’s playing keyboard.
  9. We have a problem—in addition to all those drinks waiting to be swallowed. Danny is missing. Because his brothers have switched instruments and are smiling, we’re pretty sure everyone but Ray is in on what is about to happen. But something is about to happen.
We need to talk about item number one above. How does the reader know so quickly that Ray is our viewpoint character? This is important. He knows Ray is the viewpoint character because Ray is the first character mentioned by name. Your reader will subconsciously assume the first character mentioned will be the viewpoint character. So you must do your part and honor this agreement by mentioning your viewpoint character’s name before anyone else’s.

If a scene takes place in the same location or shortly after the previous scene, it isn’t necessary to give this information, as the reader will assume it. However, you must always let the reader know who is present in the scene. Few things are more unsettling than having a character suddenly pop into a conversation without knowing the character was even present.

One thing I do to help me remember everything I need to remember is to type all the information—the date, day of the week, location, weather, historical facts, and anything else pertinent—right into my manuscript, at the beginning of the scene. I keep it there until I’m ready to submit. And, then, of course, I save a copy with all that important information in it. That way, if I need to change the sequence of the scenes or make other changes, I’ll know to also change the pertinent facts within a scene.

Another way to do this is to create a scene overview document.  We have such a worksheet in our Tips and Techniques Workbook. How you track it yourself is far less important than that you get it right in your manuscript.

Writing is not easy. There is so much information that must reach the reader, but it must be done without an “info dump.” Study good fiction and the works of accomplished writers. Pay attention to the first few paragraphs of each scene. Notice how the writer feeds information to the reader without seeming as if that’s the goal. In fact, as an exercise, write down the information that is gleaned from a scene, as we did in our example above. It could be an eye opener for when you’re wondering how you can possibly provide so much information and still be entertaining.

If you need help with this—or with any of the elements of fiction or nonfiction—please just shoot us off an email at We’re here, and we’re always happy to help.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How a No-Good Normal Person Became a Writer

Sandy Tritt

I thought I was a good writer. All through school and college, I got A’s in English and Creative Writing and the dozens of literature classes that filled my schedule. My friends all said I was a good writer. People I didn’t know made positive comments about my stories, and I even got a few of them published in local and state journals. 

And then, in the early nineties, I entered the West Virginia Writers Annual Competition for Novels. I won second place, which came with a nice certificate and a check for $150. And it came with a bonus—Mr. D, the judge of the event that year, critiqued the winning entries. Excited, I jumped to the back page to see his overview comments. He said, “You write well—for a normal person. The problem is, you don’t want to be a normal person. You want to be a writer. And you have a lot to learn before you can be a writer.” 

Say what? Even though tears had already started stinging my eyes, I had to re-read his comment to make sure I hadn’t misread. And that was exactly what he’d said. Your writing sucks.

It was late—probably eleven p.m.—the awards program had followed a too-long banquet with a mouthy keynote speaker—and I had to drive home, about fifty minutes away. “You have a lot to learn before you can be a writer” hit me at every milepost, at every traffic light, at every pothole. The words burned not only my eyes, but my heart. I would never write again. Never. I was an imposter, a no-good normal person who could never cross the realm to live in the world of real writers. 

The girls were already in bed when I got home, but my husband was waiting up. He met me with, “What’s wrong?” I tearfully showed him the indictment. You have a lot to learn before you can be a writer. 

Butch just shrugged. “What don’t you write him and ask him what he means by that?” He kissed me and went to bed. 

Do what? There was no question what he meant. You are not a writer

By Monday, I had gone through my manuscript. There were many places where he’d made comments such as, “Stop right here. Go get a dictionary and look up the word ‘melodrama.’ That’s what this is. Melodrama. And it doesn’t make the reader feel anything—except the need to vomit” or “What makes you think putting an exclamation mark here makes your story more exciting? If your reader can’t feel the urgency by the words you’ve written, you’re not going to make them feel it by using a whole row of exclamation marks.” But there were other places where he wrote things like, “Now this is fine writing.” Or “This is the way to write it! Good job!”

On Tuesday, I typed a letter out to Mr. D. I thanked him for the critique of my manuscript, and I asked him if he’d be willing to look at a rewrite of the scene he’d chastised as being a melodramatic mess. Surprisingly, a week or so later, I received a letter back (no email back then). He graciously invited me to send him the scene. And a mentorship was born.

For the next two years, I sent scene after scene to Mr. D, and he returned them promptly with comments and encouragements. He gave me reading assignments. He suggested craft books. I coveted every word he said, and I worked hard to understand concepts I’d never given a lot of thought to before. Narrative Voice. Point of View. Denouement. But, more than anything, I learned how to control character emotion. I learned how to make the reader supply the emotion instead of exhausting it all with melodrama. I learned how to write. 

I left the sphere of normal people (which, to be truthful, I never quite fit in anyway) and entered the world of writers. For, you see, you’re not born with the title writer. It isn’t like eye color or skin tone or ancestry. It isn’t a gift. It’s something you learn, something you earn.

Do you want to be a writer? We’d love to be your bridge between the world of normal people and the world of writers. All you have to do is shoot us an email at Chat soon!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ins and Outs of the Oxford Comma

Jessica Nelson

If any of you quirked an eyebrow when you read this title and asked yourself, “What is an ‘Oxford comma’?” don’t worry. The first time someone mentioned the Oxford comma to me, I had to ask for an explanation, because I had never heard of it before.

The Oxford comma is what most non-grammar-nerds know as the serial comma. That’s the comma that comes before the “and” in a list. (FUN FACT: I recently learned it is called the Oxford comma because it was primarily used by the printers, editors, and readers at the Oxford University Press. Its use is first mentioned—as far as my research has shown me—in the 1905 edition of the OUP Style Guide). Here’s an example of the Oxford comma:

My favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, and Mary Shelley.

(Not really, but you get the idea.)

Now, I could omit the Oxford comma and say:

My favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Mary Shelley.

The advantage of the Oxford comma is its ability to clear up ambiguous sentences. I know when I read a sentence that contains a list and there isn’t an Oxford comma, I tend to pair the last two items together, the same way most people pair “peanut butter and jelly.” We don’t always think of them as two separate items, but as things that go together. Then, I always expect there to be another item to the list, because, for me, the list isn’t over until I’ve seen “, and.”

Let me give you an example.

For lunch, Mrs. Jones put out a veggie platter, milk and peanut butter sandwiches.

The way I read that, without the Oxford comma, the sandwiches are made of bread, peanut butter, and milk. That just sounds gross—and soggy.

By adding the Oxford comma, it becomes clear that milk is a separate item offered (hopefully, served in some kind of cup). For that reason, I am a proponent of the Oxford comma.

Some style guides mandate the use of the Oxford comma and others prohibit it. This Wikipedia page has a section of “Recommendations by Style Guides” (Section Four, if you’re using the hotlinks in the Contents at the top page) that might be helpful if you aren’t sure if you need to use it. Here’s a quick hint: the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Chicago Manual of Style—the preferred style for fiction writing—and The Elements of Style all support the use of the Oxford comma.

If you don’t know if the style guide you are using encourages or discourages the use of the Oxford comma, or—if you are like me—you don’t know which style guide you are using, make a decision about whether or not you want to use the Oxford comma, then do so consistently. However, if you have chosen not to use the Oxford comma, be sure to read all your list-containing sentences carefully. If the clarity of the sentence is ever in doubt, add the Oxford comma. It can’t hurt.

What is your stance in this heated debate? We’re curious to know. Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Top Ten Writing Tips

Sandy Tritt
1. Get it on paper. Once you’ve written it, you can edit it. But until your story is on paper, in black and white, you have nothing. 

2. Focus. Write one sentence—yes, one sentence—that states what this manuscript is about. Once you have that, you can refer to it to know if a scene belongs in this manuscript. If a scene doesn’t support the focus statement in some way, it doesn’t belong. 

3. Ground your reader at the beginning of each scene. Make sure your reader knows where the scene takes place, when the scene takes place, and who is present in the scene. If you’re using a controlled third person point of view, the first character mentioned should be the viewpoint character for that scene.

4. Know who your narrator is. If you are using the omniscient point of view, your narrator will be an invisible character who is present in every scene, but will not be any one character (although your narrator will have the ability to pop into any character’s head). If you are using a first person point of view, your narrator will be the “I” character. If you are using a controlled third person point of view, your narrator will be standing right next to your viewpoint character and will only be able to see, hear, smell, etc. what that character sees, hears, smells, etc.   

5. Act it out. Yes, it’s been said over and over, but it’s still the first rule of writing. Don’t tell your reader what is happening—allow your reader to experience it through action and dialogue.

6. Use active voice. Don’t start a sentence with “there is” or “there are” or “there were” or “there was.” Doing so automatically puts you in passive voice. Instead of saying “there were seven cheerleaders at the mall,” say “Seven cheerleaders shopped at the mall.” Likewise, try to avoid words like “when” or “while.” “When John looked to his left, he saw the army advancing” is passive and has a gawking character. Instead, say: “John looked to his left. The army advanced.”

7. Use the strongest verbs possible. Replace “was” with “moved.” Replace “moved” with “walked.” Replace “walked” with “strolled.” Constantly search for stronger and stronger verbs. For truly, it is verbs that give a manuscript its power. Avoid adverbs—instead of saying “He walked slowly,” say “He strolled.” 

8. Use an action or body language instead of dialogue tags. Challenge yourself to replace EVERY dialogue tag with an action by the character speaking. You’ll be surprised at how your story comes to life. 

9. Never name an emotion. If you say, “He was angry,” you’re telling, not showing. Let us see him slam his fist on the counter. Let us feel the breeze as he storms by. 

10. When in doubt, leave it out. If a sentence makes sense without “that” or “of,” leave it out. Leave out any word or phrase or paragraph or scene or chapter that is optional.