Category Archives: Writing Craft

A Word on Symbolism

I once had an English teacher in high school who told us that Hemingway himself had said there was no symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea. But then she turned to us and said, “He’s full of crap! It’s just filled with symbolism.”

English majors are notorious for pulling things out of their asses. (Sorry for those of you reading this who were English majors). Every English paper I ever wrote in high school and college was some bullshit symbolism that I pulled out of thin air and the teachers ate it up like hot cakes. If the author says, “There is no symbolism,” then there was no symbolism intended. However, anyone can make comparisons and call themselves an expert.

When it comes to putting symbolism in your book, don’t try and force it. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to put it in there at all. If it comes naturally in the process, go for it. But don’t fret over symbolism. Readers are going to draw their own conclusions regardless of what you say.

It’s all a matter of perception…

You could write something and say that it was meant to symbolize one thing, but if the reader thinks something else, then hey- opinions are like assholes, right? Everyone has one.

I have spoken to many aspiring and novice writers who talk about wanting to add symbolism to their story to make it more meaningful. Symbolism is not what makes the story meaningful. What makes it meaningful will be different to everyone who reads it.

This is as much of a piece of advice for you as it is for me. Just write the damn story. And don’t put too much weight on what others think otherwise, you’ll never get it done.

Happy writing and good luck!

-RB

Character Description: Use TMI

I once read somewhere that you should never write more than three lines of description when introducing a new character. While extra bits of description can be added amidst dialogue or thrown in throughout a scene. Keeping it to three lines is a general rule of thumb for when you first introduce someone new.

The reason for this is so you don’t overwhelm your reader. A big, wordy dump of information is difficult to absorb all at once. But the real question is- how do you go about picking the perfect three lines? How do you decide which character attributes to hone in on when you first introduce?

A great technique I learned to help you focus on the three perfect items or lines is to use too much information or TMI. Right before you introduce a new character, right down absolutely everything you can about them. Write a terrible description. Write everything you know. Be wordy. Once you get everything out on paper, you can start picking through your words to find the most important and identifying qualities.

Most likely you’ll focus on things that set this character apart from the rest. You want your readers to have a distinct view of who this person is. As human beings the first thing we notice about another person is their appearance. It’s human nature. It’s natural. Were not going to know about the lilt of their voice if we’re not talking to them yet. However, if we only see them from across the room, we might notice a bit more than the color of their skin or the color of their hair – those are obvious.

Help Define Your Character with Description

Other things that help define who a character is can be reflected in the way they walk. Perhaps they have a limp? Or maybe they have a scar above their upper lip? The way someone dresses can also reveal a lot about who they are, what they do, their income, their social class, even possibly their education.

In a way you almost have to think like a detective. Look for things that aren’t necessarily obvious, such as gender. It’s not very interesting to say, “Sally was a girl with blue eyes, red hair, and white skin.” Sometimes we can tell a character’s gender by their name. [I say “sometimes” here because science-fiction, fantasy and young adult dystopian novels make up a lot of names.] It’s almost an insult to your reader to spell things out for them. Also, most people with red hair have white skin and fair colored eyes. This doesn’t mean that there is a place for these obvious descriptions to be inserted somewhere in the story if you feel it should be in there. But someone’s hair color doesn’t tell you a lot about who they are as a person.

Another thing to consider is how you would want an author to describe you. Would you like them to describe you generically (i.e. He was a white man with a comb-over). That doesn’t tell us much. That doesn’t even really tell us his age because I know young men under the age of 30 with receding hairlines.

Again, you can pepper some of the more generic descriptions throughout the scenes. But when first introducing them, try to write down every possible thing you know about them and narrow it down from there. It will allow you to capture their distinct image in such a way that it entertains the reader with your language but also cements in their mind how this character stands out from the rest.

Utilize Real Life for Character Description (Things to Consider)

If you’re not sure where to start, start with someone you know. How about the biology teacher who wears a patch over his left eye? The man who pirates freshly released movies and walks around with an actual parrot on his shoulder? Does the character have smoker’s lines around their lips? Missing teeth? Gold teeth? A service dog? A tiny chihuahua in their purse? Are their shoes polished and shiny? How shiny? Is there a pep in their step? Any noticeable tattoos? Piercings? Do they wear a wedding ring? Which hand is it on? (Some religions and nationalities wear their rings on another hand or not at all).

You might also consider what they are doing when you first see them. Are they riding a horse? In a business meeting? Are they alone? In a group? An orchestra? A choir? The list goes on and on. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go ’round. Which kinds of people are you writing about?

Write Out of Order

In the spirit of the Camp NaNoWriMo that’s going on right now, I’d like to piggy-back onto my previous post with some short, sweet advice. If you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go next in your story, write out of order! Or maybe you do know what comes next but you just aren’t feeling that scene today, or this week… Write out of order!

Start in the middle of a scene. Write the ending first. Focus on a plot point that’s further along. Skip around. You can always come back to where you were. Maybe start a fresh page or a fresh document! One of the beautiful things about art is that there really aren’t any rules. Sure, there are guidelines. And obviously, you want a final draft to be polished and edited- you want to put your best foot forward but there it nothing that says you have to write a story in the order it should be read.

And don’t be afraid to mess up! After all, that’s what rough drafts are for. Throw it all out there onto the page so you can sift and sort the treasure from the trash in the future drafts. In a rough draft, you can’t make mistakes. They simply don’t exist at that time.

Now, go write something!

-RB

On Writer’s Block

I don’t think I’ve ever really understood the concept of writer’s block. I know there are times where we don’t know what to write next. I’ve always got ideas, but sometimes I’m uninspired. However, that’s the thing with writing- you’re not going to be inspired or motivated. In fact, most days you won’t be. There will be times where you get stuck and you’re not sure what to do next. You’re not blocked.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

That is a concept that amateur writers think exists because they think we all sit down, inspired to make magic happen every day. We don’t. I used to be one of those amateur writers. In fact, there are still days where I don’t write but for the most part I’ve developed a habit. That’s the important thing- develop the habit of writing every day. You don’t have to work on the same project every day. And that’s really what I’m here to talk to you about…

Get Yourself “Unstuck”

It’s really very simple. As mentioned in a previous post, Turn on the Faucet, words tend to flow once you sit your butt in a chair and start making things happen. Start typing about your day. Describe your surrounding in excruciating detail. If you start writing “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again, eventually your brain will find something else to write. Maybe you’ll start writing about the film, The Shining, or the book by Stephen King, or maybe you’ll start writing about how you feel overwhelmed at work and you don’t get enough free time. This can spiral into another idea. Need a place to do this? Check out my previous post on 750words.com.

The bottom line is, you could write anything. It may not be applicable to your current work in progress but it doesn’t matter because you’re still writing. You’re still honing your craft- a craft that none of us master, according to Ernest Hemingway.

“Nothing will work unless you do.” – Maya Angelou

Just because you didn’t work on your current WIP, doesn’t mean you can’t make progress in some way. Work on a blog, work on a short story, work on a different novel idea, brainstorm a new project, and when you’re not doing all of those things, read!

You should always be making progress towards your future self.

There’s a lot of inspirational quotes online- some of which say something like, “will the you five years from now look back and regret not taking those forward steps to get closer to your dream?”

Stop trying to skip the struggle. If writing were easy, everyone would do it. Instead, people romanticize the idea of being a writer. I’m still not sure why. There is something about it that people find alluring when really most of us have had times when we skipped showering, brushing our teeth and eating in order to down more coffee and churn out that next chapter. When you’re a writer, you’re essentially playing God. You are creating characters, moments, places, and events from nothing. It’s exhaustive work.

Understandably, sometimes you don’t feel like playing God but in order to hone the craft you need to work at it every day. It will be a struggle.

Write every day as though it were breathing.

I hope things are going well for those of you who are participating in Camp NaNo this month. We’re about to head into the doldrums of week two and the second week tends to be the toughest. If you find yourself running out of steam, it’s okay. It happens. If you feel stuck, don’t be afraid to skip around in your story or work on something else. You can always come back. Your work isn’t going anywhere without you.

Happy writing!

-RB

Sometimes I Fail at NaNoWriMo (And That’s OKAY)

April Camp NaNoWriMo 2019!? Is it that time of year again already? I suppose since NaNoWriMo technically happens three times a year now it comes upon us a lot faster than it used to and we’re not always ready. I don’t know how many times I’ve participated in the April and July camps, but I can say that I have participated in the November writing challenge for over 10 years. Does it get any easier? Not really. But that’s okay. That’s why it’s a challenge, right?

If you consistently participate in NaNoWriMo, there may be times where you don’t reach your goal for the month. And there may be different reasons for not reaching said goal. Work, family and health may be some of the reasons you don’t reach that goal. Don’t panic. It happens to all of us. There will be years where you make it and there will be years when you don’t. Don’t beat yourself up.

Failure is a key to success.

Sounds backwards doesn’t it? You can’t win all the time. And if you did win all the time and you knew you were going to win, it would defeat the purpose of the challenges that life presents. After all where is the fun in that?

NaNoWriMo is a challenge in that it’s a competition with yourself. It’s not a competition against other writers. You’re not competing against them, you’re competing alongside them.

Setting SMART Goals

The great thing about the April and July camps is that they allow you to set a different goal instead of sticking to the regular 50,000 words. Don’t be afraid to push yourself but if you feel like, “I just want to get this 20,000 word novella out this month,” or “I want to finish the last 10,000 words of the novel I started in November,” that’s fine too. Set a goal that challenges you but is realistic. I’ve seen people knock out over 150k words during these challenges. Personally, I’m not there yet.

I am guilty of setting goals for myself that are way too big for me to achieve. When I set them, I think, “I know I can do this. I know I’m fully capable.” However, some days I come from from work after staring at a computer screen all day and I don’t feel like staring at a computer screen anymore. Life happens. I’m not saying you should purposefully pad your schedule but the most successful goals are SMART goals. And by SMART I mean Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

I am severely guilty of setting goals for myself that are unattainable because they don’t take into account my daily mood and life schedule.

The real objective of the month is to get you writing daily. Whether that’s one word a day, two pages a day, or 2000 words a day, it’s progress on a daily basis. NaNoWriMo is about forming the habit of sitting down and putting words on paper every day, no matter what. So if you don’t reach that traditional end goal of 50,000 words in a month, don’t beat yourself up for it. Beating yourself up will only slow you down and hinder you even more. Trust me, I’ve been there. Sometimes I still go there.

If it’s your first time doing NaNoWriMo, you don’t know what to expect, you aim for those 50,000 words, and you find that you’re way behind halfway through the month- it’s okay. You’re not failing. The only way to fail at writing is to not write.

As we embark on this journey of the April writing challenge, I say to you, just keep pushing forward. I look forward to seeing you all out there in NaNoLand. I will be joining you in this camp. If you would like to see some motivational posts or memes, please follow me on Instagram here. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress. Good luck in the month ahead!

Happy Writing.

-RB

P.S. Don’t forget bug spray, rope, a knife, and a good sleeping bag.

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