Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Easy Writing Makes Hard Reading

Writing well is simply hard work. Earnest Hemingway said it best: “Easy writing makes hard reading.”

I will never forget one of my English professors whose daily habit was to open class in prayer. One of her requests was simply “to be clear.”

We as writers would do well to pray for clarity of writing. We should not write to impress. We should write with clarity of message and with simplicity of meaning that readers can relate to and appreciate.
Easier said than done. Writing in such a way that reading becomes effortless is in fact, hard.
Music presents an analogy that speaks to this reality. Having sung in choirs since I was thirteen, I can appreciate the importance that practice plays. Soloists and instrumentalists often puts hours of preparation into their music. During a well-polished performance, the audience simply listens and lets the music speak to them. Their focus is on the song, the melody, and the words. And that’s as it should be. However, the music can get lost in the performance when the musician makes a mistake – misses an entrance, forgets the words, or sings a flat note.  
The same is true with writing. When readers pick up a well-written book, they become so involved in the story that they hardly notice how the words sound on the page. On the other hand, the reader gets distracted when grammar isn’t right or the wording becomes clunky. In this case, the story becomes lost in the medium of the English language due to a sloppy presentation.
That said, we could shift the words around in Hemingway’s quote to say, “Hard writing makes easy reading.” The same is equally true.
Therein lies a challenge for every writer – the challenge to write well so that the story doesn’t get muddied by mechanics.
So go write hard.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Find Your Time to Write… And Stick to It.

Today, I had the inspired idea to wake up early (on my one day to sleep in), turn on my computer and write before having breakfast.
I quickly discovered that this scenario might have some problems after hitting snooze twice and reluctantly rolling out of bed thirty minutes after my planned writing rendezvous.
I wasn’t encouraged after staring at my computer screen for twenty minutes without having written anything I liked.
After 30 minutes, I started to warm up, but by then, I was getting distracted by the Publix blueberry muffins sitting on the table. I gave up.
Perhaps you are thinking: This writer is such a slacker.
Actually, I am a very task- and goal-driven person. Right now, there are at least three lists on my desk, and I’m happily scratching away at them as the day progresses.
I realize that writers can become guilty of making excuses and letting their writing schedules start to slip, but that’s not the point of this post. In fact, I decided to try this morning’s exercise because I had already met my weekly writing goal and wanted to experiment a little.
And what I learned is that I must clear away distractions before I can fully give myself to writing. The blueberry muffins were a distraction to my empty stomach. My unstarted lists were a distraction to my task-oriented mind. Before I could settle into my writing zone, I needed to tend to these distractions first.
Maybe some people actually work better with lots of things going on simultaneously. Everyone is different.
The moral of the story is in the title. It’s good to try new things – like a new writing schedule – but if you discover something doesn’t work, don’t waste your time. Just get back on your game, and stick to the writing routine that works for you.
For me, that means early mornings on Saturdays are probably out.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hungry for More: Sequels, Series & Suspense

You’re on the edge of your seat. You’re dying to know how the story ends. And then it ends. And you’re still so involved that the first thing you do is go on and search for the sequel.
This was just my experience. I recently finished the first book in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. I had heard good reviews about the series and saw the trailer for the movie coming out in March, so I decided to buy the first book.
From page one, I was hooked. First, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen first person used so effectively. Second… Well, let’s talk about what elements of The Hunger Games – and other well-scripted stories – leave readers scrambling to find the sequel.
Make us care
The author has to make us care about the characters. Collins starts on page one. Her heroine has to hunt food illegally just to keep her family alive – after her father was killed in a mine explosion. On top of that, the evil Capitol harvests two young adults each year to fight in the annual Hunger Games. Think of the Roman coliseum concept but on steroids, and you’ll get the idea. When her younger sister is selected to participate, Collins’ heroine Katniss volunteers herself to be tribute instead, knowing full well that fighting in the games means almost certain death.
Hands down, Collins has made us care.
Create a cause
Successful TV shows are much like good sequels in that they make you want to come back. One that had me hooked last season was Terra Nova, a sci-fi drama that follows a family who risks everything to stay together.
The saga starts in 2149 when having more than two children is considered a crime. Jim Shannon’s family manages to hide their third child for a time, but eventually, the authorities discover their secret and imprison Jim. Meanwhile, Shannon’s wife, a trauma surgeon, and their other two children have been selected to join a lottery of people and travel back to a prehistoric world through a “fracture” in time. She stages a daring plan to break Jim out of prison, smuggle their third child onto the 10th pilgrimage, keep the family together, and start a new life.
You want a cause? From episode one, you’ll find yourself rooting for this family to survive and help create a new world.
Leave unanswered questions
Readers expect plot resolution, so when something is left unsettled, they start asking questions. Perhaps the most basic and yet effective question to make the audience ask is, “What’s going to happen next?”  
Unanswered questions not only propel the story’s plotline, but also provide the driving force for a sequel.
For example, look at the Anne of Green Gables novels by L. M. Montgomery. There are eight books in the series, and the first book closes with Anne thinking about the future and beyond what she can see. The second to last sentence reads, “And there was always the bend in the road!”
What question does that raise? Naturally, what’s beyond the bend in the road?
Another great example is how C.S. Lewis ends his first book in The Chronicles of Narnia: “And that is the very end of the adventures of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right, it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”
Even if the last sentence doesn’t raise a question, an unfinished plot detail may demand further exploration. Maybe the villain gets away, or the love triangle remains unresolved.
I won’t tell you how book one of The Hunger Games ends, but I will say that I just received the two remaining books in the trilogy a few days ago. The second book kept me up most of Friday and part of Saturday night. And I’m not going to touch the third one until I get caught up on my sleep.
What good reads have kept you up at night? And what endings have left you unsatisfied and looking for more?