Friday, April 20, 2018

How to Identify and Correct Info Dumps

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

For a writer, beginning a new story is magical. You have all these ideas assaulting your imagination. Ideas about the storyworld and this fantastic new magic system you're designing. Ideas about your characters, their personalities, and the events that happened long ago that have shaped who they are now.

At the beginning of the process, your energy is high and the information you have to share with your reader is plentiful. These are good things, but be careful.

Readers want a story that will whisk them away to another time and place. A story that will challenge them and entertain. Characters who will inspire and enrage. Readers are trusting you to be a skilled conductor, introducing new melodies at the appropriate time and weaving in depth and history and context with restraint. Readers do not want a bunch of information dumped onto their laps.

So, let's talk about it.



An info dump is a hefty dose of information presented to the reader all at once. Info dumps can show up in both narration and dialogue and are super easy to spot. Here, I'll show you:

Narration


Maxwell isn't an ordinary boy. He's seven feet tall and instead of the standard buck teeth most children his age have, he has a pair of neon green fangs. His favorite movie is the Goonies, which would be perfectly normal if he didn't prefer to watch it in reverse order. He cuts the toes off the front of his boots so his toes have room to breathe. It's a trick he learned from his father who is just an inch or two taller than Max but has red hair and gray eyes.


Dialogue


"This is Maxwell," Dad said, tousling his red hair as his gray eyes sparkled. "He likes the Goonies too, but it's the darndest thing. He likes to watch the movie in reverse order. And watch out for his feet. He wouldn't thank you for stepping on those bare toes of his. He has to cut the toes off his shoes to give his little piggies room to breathe."

Now, in certain contexts this information might be entertaining. It might even work in a middle grade novel where younger readers need a bit more telling to set the scene, but as a way to share information with a reader, it falls into the category of DUMPY.

Info dumps aren't entirely bad and they can be a handy tool in your tool box if you use them sparingly. But most of the time, they signify lazy writing. In the example above, wouldn't it be much more interesting to show the reader a scene with Maxwell cutting the toes off his new shoes? Maybe bumping his head on a doorway as he goes in search of the movie Goonies? Wouldn't it accomplish more to paint a picture of Maxwell as a scene moves the story forward?

Of course it would!

Here are some tips for weaving important information into your story:


1. Less is more. If you're looking to slip a little info to your reader, stick with just a sentence or two. Any more and you're venturing close to dumpy. Any more and you risk boring your reader.

2. Voice matters. Certain voices can get away with info dumps, especially if the info dump serves more than one purpose. If it reveals traits about your character that the reader desperately wants, you might have some leeway, but so much comes down to the voice of your narrator. Consider the nasally voice of Ben Stein. It's hilarious in small doses, but if we had to listen to him explain the politics of a storyworld, we might just fall asleep. That is NOT what we want readers to be doing when they open our books.

3. Spread things out. Just because you, the author, came up with all this information at the beginning of the writing process, does not mean your reader needs all of it at the beginning of his reading experience. Info dumps are particularly dangerous early on in your story. The reader is not invested in the characters or the adventure. You risk losing them before they get to the fun stuff if you're not careful.

4. Consider relevance. Ask yourself, "Does this bit of info matter?" And then ask yourself, "Does it matter right now?" We have a tendency to dump everything about a certain topic into one big paragraph or section. Instead, give the reader only what they need in order to make sense of the action. Information should almost always be learned as a scene plays itself out.

5. Embrace your art. Your goal shouldn't be to simply inform the reader. You are creating a piece of art. So, do it well. Work at your craft. Important details should be woven into scenes, one thread at a time. Don't just chuck the ball of yarn at your readers. They won't have a clue which threads are important or how they fit together. YOU ARE THIS STORY'S CREATOR. If there are important details that the reader must know, take the time to sculpt a scene to show off those vital facets of your world or character. Do the work of a committed artist.

TIP: Oftentimes when I'm participating in word sprints or simply writing to discover what my story's about, I end up with some sizeable info dumps. When I return to these sections, if I like the concepts presented, I use these very TELLING paragraphs as writing prompts. In early drafts, certainly in your first draft of a novel, info dumps are perfectly acceptable ways to tell yourself the story. But, upon reflection, you must find a way to integrate the ideas you've developed into scenes that move the story forward. That's what a reader will expect.

Tell me, do you struggle with info dumps? What kind of information to you have a tendency to dump on the reader? Have you come up with any fixes for this problem? Share them with us!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How Do You Define Your Reader?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at www.StoryworldFirst.com. You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Part of putting together a pitch for a story means knowing who that story is for. You can narrow this down by genre, age group, and sometimes even by gender. I'd like to recommend that you get even more specific.

When I write a book, there is usually at least one real person I'm writing it for--whether or not that person ever reads it. This is a person who might have inspired the story in some way or someone I think would really like it. Here is a Storyworld Short video I made to talk more about this topic.




The imaginary readers I talked about I also blogged about on Go Teen Writers several years ago in a post titled "Who is Your Target Reader?" Here is a link to that post if you want to take a closer look.

How about you? How do you define your target reader? Do you have a broad idea of who you are writing for or someone particular in mind?

Share in the comments.



Monday, April 16, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes for Your Stories (Part One)



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


Two pieces of exciting news! The first is that Go Teen Writers was included in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers! 


This is the second year that we've made this list, and we are so delighted by that honor. We also know it's really YOU GUYS and the community that you've worked to build here and on Facebook that have made Go Teen Writers what it is. So, thank you!





The other exciting news is that in about a month (May 15th) we're going to hold another 100-for-100 writing challenge! Many of you have been asking for us to host another of these, and I wanted you to have time to put it on your calendar. If you're not familiar with it, the 100-for-100 is a challenge to write 100 words a day for 100 days. More details will be coming!

Let's get going on our topic of the day, which is scenes! (I'll try to stop speaking in exclamation marks now.)

When you write a novel, scenes are your building blocks. There is no one-size-fits-all for scenes. Some might be 500 words and others 2,500. You might have three scenes within a chapter. You might have one in a chapter.

Some writers like to start a scene in the present, jump back to the past for a bit to catch up the reader, and then return to the present. Sarah Dessen does this quite masterfully. Some start with dialogue, and others with description, almost like an establishing shot in a movie. You'll hear writing teachers say that all scenes need a beginning, middle, and ending, or that every scene needs a hook.

All these different styles and suggestions can make the question, "How do I write great scenes?" a bit confusing. 



I will go ahead and say now then I often write my scenes by instinct rather than planning out the structure ahead of time. Even so, I still make a lot of decisions about my scenes, whether I'm actively thinking about them or not. I bet you are too.

Let's examine what some of those decisions are. If you're the charting, outliney sort of writer, you can use this list to brainstorm scenes before you write them. Sometimes that's what I do. But you can also use this as a checklist of sorts when you are editing, which is what I more often do. A way to kick the tires and make sure everything is as it should be.

Often the misguided question we asked as writers is, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" 

Writing a story using this question will likely give you a book that feels more like a list of things that happen than an actual, cohesive story. Another symptom of asking this question is your characters decisions might feel "off" or mismatched from their motivations.

The question that I think is better is, "Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?"

If we want our characters to come across as thinking, feeling, logically motivated people, then this is the much better question. The story's progression will feel more organic when you use the, "Because of this, now that," approach to your scenes.

There is also an implied question here, of, "Whose point of view should this scene be told in?"

If you are writing a single point of view story, then this is an easy one! But if you are writing a story from multiple points of view, then this is a good one to ask.

Typically, we want to write our scenes from the perspective of the character who has the most at stake. Who is the most vulnerable in this scene? Who could lose the most? Who could gain the most? These are the kinds of questions you want to ask if you are trying to figure out who gets to tell this scene.

Going back to our, "Because of this, now that" question, in a multiple perspective book we may not be speaking literally about the last scene. If this point of view character knows nothing of what just happened, then we need to think from the perspective of the last scene this character was in.

The next question I think we should ask is, "What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene? What are they trying to make happen?"

It's possible they have a goal completely unrelated to what happens in the actual scene. Maybe their goal is to take their dog for a quick walk around the block, but then on the walk they are robbed at gunpoint.

But most of your scenes should have your point of view character who has something they want, and they are actively trying to obtain it, but then something gets in the way.

Let's look at an example from my World War II era historical, Within These Lines.

Early in the book, Evalina goes to the farmer's market to see Taichi. That is her goal in this scene, only when she arrives, he's not there.

This is the obstacle, which is your next question, "What obstacle stands in my character's way?" Or another helpful way to think of it can be, "How is my character's expectation foiled? What surprises them along the way?"

So now that Evalina has seen Taichi is not where she expected him to be, she gets to make a decision, which is my favorite question to answer. "What decision does my character make as a result?"

They can act, or they can choose to not act, but them making a decision is critical to your scene working. (For more on this, read my post 2 Ways To Be Sure Your Scene Really Matters)

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina could have chosen to not act in several ways. She could have just gone home. She could have complained to a friend. She could have decided that she would ask Taichi about it the next time they saw each other.

Likewise, there were many options for how she could act. She could find a phone booth and call him, or ask around the market to see if any mutual friends knew where he was.

But because Evalina is a bold sort, and because she is very afraid for Taichi, I felt she needed to make a big, showy decision. I decided that she would get on a ferry and go to his house. Not only does it fit her, which is important, but it feels interesting. Which is rather critical in writing a compelling story.

While there are no official rules for what kind of decision your character should make, having them make an interesting decision will go a long way toward crafting an interesting scene. The decision should still be logical, and it should make sense for who the character is and the circumstances around them, but it needs to be interesting.

Lastly (for today, anyway) we need to ask, "What is the outcome of my character's decision?"

Sometimes we don't fully explore the outcome until the following scene, so it might be that you close your scene by hinting at the outcome or resulting disaster, but with just a sentence or two. With the scene from Within These Lines, I ended the scene with Evalina's decision after she has talked to several others at the market and found they don't know where Taichi's family is:

Mrs. Ling holds out a beautiful naval orange, round and bold. “Share this with your friend. May it bring you both good luck.”
The market doesn’t officially open for a few more minutes, but San Franciscans already mill about the rows of tables, haggling over prices of the first spring vegetables. The men who stole the Hamasakis’ spot chat with customers, and the sight makes my chest burn.
I put the orange in my basket and pedal along the street. The fog has thinned, but my thoughts are hazy with anger. 
At the ferry ticket booth, I pull coins from my handbag and place them on the counter. “When does the boat leave for Alameda?”

I cut the scene off there, which makes for a very easy way for me to know what scene should come next. The question becomes, "Because of Evalina impulsively deciding to take a ferry to Taichi's hometown, what will she choose next?"

If you are looking for ways to surprise readers or add plot twists, try examining the way your characters expectations are foiled and the resulting decisions that they make. If your character is making logical but surprising decisions, and they are having logical but surprising outcomes, then your reader will be surprised ... but not in a way that makes them doubt the plausibility..

Next Monday, I'm going to talk about slowing down the action for moment's of reaction, and the questions we need to ask when writing those scenes.

Take a look at an active scene you've written recently, and apply the questions raised today:

Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation foiled?
What decision does my character make as a result?
What is the outcome of my character's decision?

Did your scene naturally have all those elements? What, if any, changes will you make?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Lost Girl of Astor Street ebook is just .99 today!

If you love books AND bargains, then today is a great day! My 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, is just .99! These flash sales never last long, so make sure to get your copy today.






and wherever else you can buy ebooks!

About The Lost Girl of Astor Street:

Lydia has vanished.

Lydia, who’s never broken any rules, except falling in love with the wrong boy. Lydia, who’s been Piper’s best friend since they were children. Lydia, who never even said good-bye.

Convinced the police are looking in all the wrong places, eighteen-year-old Piper Sail begins her own investigation in an attempt to solve the mystery of Lydia’s disappearance. With the reluctant help of a handsome young detective, Piper goes searching for answers in the dark underbelly of 1924 Chicago, determined to find Lydia at any cost.

When Piper discovers those answers might stem from the corruption strangling the city—and quite possibly lead back to the doors of her affluent neighborhood—she must decide how deep she’s willing to dig, how much she should reveal, and if she’s willing to risk her life of privilege for the sake of the truth.


From the glitzy homes of the elite to the mob-run streets of 1920s Chicago, Stephanie Morrill’s jazz-age mystery shows just how far a girl will go to save her friend.

Friday, April 13, 2018

How to Craft the Perfect Opening Scene

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Story openings are crucial! First chapters determine whether or not a reader will stick around for the meat of your stories. It's vital we get this first scene right, isn't it?

BUT HOW?

How do you create the perfect opening scene?

As part of our Grow An Author series, I've explained that once I've created a list of possible story elements, I simply choose one that might work as an opening and I begin my drafting from there. At some point though, a decision must be made about whether or not the scene is a good one. I usually make that call while writing my working synopsis. For me this document will act as my outline.

Because there are so many different plot types out there, you won't hear me say there's only one way to make an opening scene successful, but I'd like to take you through the things I look for when deciding if I've chosen the correct moment in which to start my story.



Ask yourself these questions:

Does this scene introduce my storyworld as compelling?

When selecting an opening scene, you're looking for a moment that will give the reader a compelling glimpse into your storyworld. Even if your storyworld is the contemporary world we inhabit, you need to find the perfect corner of it to share with the reader. It doesn't need to be the most important setting in the story or the most idyllic, but it should be a location that gives the reader an idea of what it is to live and breathe and move in this place.

Does this scene introduce a protagonist worth getting to know?

Openings are all about the protagonist. The first scene doesn't have to showcase your protagonist's finest moment, but it does need to introduce you to him or her in a way that has the reader excited or at least intensely curious about this character. Readers are not going to flip page after page to follow a flat protagonist. If your first scene leaves readers with that impression of him or her, you've likely lost them.

Does this scene give readers a hint of what's to come?

In the best openings, there is an almost prophetic quality to the words. In the first scene of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse, we're introduced to the female protagonist, Kestrel. She's the daughter of the General and part of the wealthy ruling class. We see her gambling at cards with a group of sailors and then we watch as her emotions get the best of her and she purchases a slave against her better judgment. She's won the auction, but lost in some way that she can't quite define. As readers, we are keen to wonder what the consequences of this action will be. Once you've read the book through to completion, you realize just how perfectly chosen this first moment was.

Does this scene have its own arc?

Like every other scene in your story, there should be a rise and fall to this introductory scene. It should, in a pace appropriate to your story, climb to a high point. This high point is the purpose of the entire scene. For example, if my scene is going to be about Bob having his phone stolen, that moment, that action, is the high point. If it's about him realizing his phone is stolen, the realization is the high point. So, you really need to know WHY this scene exists. It can't just be a fun, throwaway scene; it must advance the plot. The scene itself needs to climb to its purpose and then end with something to keep the reader coming back: perhaps a revelation, reversal or turning point.


Once you've decided that yes, this scene is THE PERFECT WAY to open your story, you have one more thing to ensure:


Does this scene start with a hook?

Your first sentence is one of the most important sentences of the entire story, if not THE most important sentence. It must hook the reader. Here are some fantastic ways to do that:

1. Make your readers curious. Prompt them with a question:

The first sentence of Nadine Brandes's A Time To Die
There was a time when only God knew the day you'd die.

This sentence makes me extremely curious! It makes me want to ask, "Well, who knows now?"

2. Show off the unique voice of your narrator.

The first sentence of Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs aint got nothing much to say.

The first narrator in this book is an uneducated boy named Todd. His voice is strikingly different from the voice of Violet, the story's second narrator and this first sentence introduces him in a starkly compelling way.

3. Establish a tone.

The first two sentences of Janet Fitch's White Oleander
The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders survived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.

Sometimes your opening hook isn't a single sentence. Sometimes it takes two or three to accomplish what you intend and that's okay. These two sentences do a lot of heavy lifting, which is another sign of a great opening. Here we learn the narrator's location and the time of year. We are also drawn in immediately by the tone of the storyteller's voice. There's something dangerous about this story. We've only read a handful of words, but we can already tell.

4. Drop your readers into the middle of a scene.

The first two sentences of Marie Rutkostki's The Winner's Curse
 She shouldn't have been tempted. This is what Kestrel thought as she swept the sailors' silver off the impromptu gaming table set up in the corner of the market. 

Starting right in the middle of a character's thoughts and action is a great way to pull readers along with you. There's no lead-up; we're just there. We're involved. And while you don't need to start with a fight scene, even small actions beg to be watched. 

I've given you a lot to think about today and now I'm wondering your thoughts on story openings. Is there an opening scene that has stuck with you long after you closed the book? An opening scene that hooked you and had you dying to know what happened next?