Making Room for the Reader

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As children, we fall in love with books that take us along for the ride, stories where we can close our eyes and easily imagine ourselves into the adventure. Book lovers never really lose that urge to join the story, to fall into the romance between the pages or head out on the dangerous quest. The writer’s job is to craft their tale in such a way as to allow the reader this mental insertion. But how does that work? What makes a novel that accessible?

Writers of otherwise polished, well-paced stories often hear back from agents or editors that they could not “connect” with the protagonist. Or that they weren’t “feeling” the voice. In some instances this is a case of personal taste, but in others it can mean that the writer has held back from really delving into their main character, especially if they are writing a limited third-person narrative. The character might be portrayed in great detail — lots of showing and not too much telling — but what’s lacking is the why behind the actions. If the reader is going to be able to walk in the character’s shoes and feel that connection, the writer must walk there first, and showing the details of that character’s journey includes conveying their thoughts and motivations and making sure they have direct correlation to their actions.

A writer who puts themselves inside their character’s head and asks whywhy are they doing this, why are they saying that — will soon find their story changing. Filler actions, such as smiles and sighs and other character twitches that often serve no purpose, will get deleted. Dialogue might become more meaningful, or more sparse, or more snarky, depending on the character and the point in the story. Emotions such as fear and anxiety get ramped up. Characters might be less likely to faint or cry without true provocation. Complications could arise, making the text richer and more layered. All of these things help pull the reader into the story. The character will no longer be shuttered and closed off, keeping the reader at bay.

First-person narratives might seem like an easy fix to this issue, but the truth is that writers can fail to dig deeply into the character even when writing in first person. The danger with first person can be the temptation to ramble on inside the character’s head, creating overly long monologues that cover every nuance of their thoughts. As with real life dialogue, which features far too much chit-chat to include in character dialogue, a real person’s thoughts include more tangents and fluff than is interesting in a novel. A writer must still crawl quite consciously into their character’s head and sort the important details from the detritus. Again, it’s important to ask why the character thinks these things, how they connect to their actions in the story, and to make these things shine through in the writing so that the reader feels welcome in that character’s head as well.

Knowing the character, drilling down, strengthening motivations, taking it further — all ways of referring to this opening up the details of the story in order to make it accessible for the reader. The goal is to pull that reader in on an emotional level, make them wish they were part of the action on the page. A well-written novel is an invitation to fall in love, to catch the killer, to find the treasure, to slay the monster. A completed novel might be an accomplishment, but it only truly comes to life when someone opens its pages and dives into the world the writer has created.

Friday Links: Inspiration and Creative Risk-Taking

Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you’ve had a terrific week and that your weekend looks equally bright. Spring has truly sprung here in SoCal, and I have the twitchy nose to prove it. Suddenly everything is in bloom. But that’s fine with me, because I always think spring is a highly creative time. Something about all those new things growing and in bloom, plans formulating for summer vacation, stretching muscles that are stiff from curling up in a cozy spot all winter. It’s a great time to brush off your old, neglected ambitions and get moving. So if you’ve found yourself dragging when it comes to getting your writing done, I want you to shake off those cobwebs, flex your fingers, and get to work. Try something new, aim high, and tell that internal voice-of-doom to take a hike.

To inspire some creativity and perhaps a bit of risk-taking, I’ve got a bunch of fun links for you this week. Even if there’s still snow on the ground outside your window, or you’re in the other hemisphere facing down the start of autumn, take a few minutes over the weekend to dive into a different project or take a fresh look at an old one. You never know what kind of inspiration might take hold. Happy writing!

This Is How to Be Creatively Productive – Thoughts from writer and artist Danny Gregory.

Polygon Map Generation Demo – World-building a completely new land for your fantasy novel or story? Use this site to generate an all-new continent to go with your setting.

Readers are willing to follow writers into risky territory: Alexander Chee on Writing and The Queen of the Night – Some terrific observations about how and when it can pay off to write something truly different.

Wit and the Art of Conversation – Thoughts on what wit is, precisely, and observations on what makes it appealing. Great for writers working on improving their dialogue.

6 Ways to Track Down a Magazine Editor – Advice for anyone in the freelance trenches or looking to get into freelance writing. If you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, what are you waiting for? Go for it.

Second Cousins,” “Once Removed,” and More, Explained in Chart Form – Handy relative definitions, very useful for anyone sorting out a big family drama, on paper or in real life.

A Lifelong Lover of Books Breaks Ground Atop the Literary World – Q&A with Lisa Lucas, who recently became the first woman and first African American to head up the National Book Foundation. Proof that there’s always new ground to break.

Looking for a New Writing Challenge?

(c) Can Stock Photo/alexskopje
(c) Can Stock Photo/alexskopje

Long-time readers of this site might remember the March Writing Challenge I issued a few years back. It’s designed to help you work on different areas of your writing each week and is fully customizable based on your schedule and your personal goals. If you’re looking for a new challenge this month, I highly recommend you zip back in time and take a look at the challenge. The weeks won’t quite line up to a Monday start, obviously, but you can still adapt it easily enough for you to apply the challenge to 2016. Good luck, and happy writing!

Friday Links: An Assortment of Building Blocks for Writers

TGIF! I hope you’ve all had a terrific week, and have some equally terrific plans lined up for your weekend. It’s the final weekend in February, so it might be a good time to take a quick peek at your goals for the last month and for the year and see how you’re doing so far. Are you on target? Are there some areas where you might do a little better? Set aside an hour or so to check in with yourself so that you can steer the ship back in the right direction if need be, or by all means treat yourself to a mini celebration if you’re ahead of you’re ahead of the game. But regardless of where you are, it’s important to do these small reviews periodically throughout the year so you won’t be facing big surprises come December.

But of course it wouldn’t be Friday without Friday Links. I have a great assortment for you this week and I hope you’re inspired to do some new writing or work on your current project as a result. Enjoy, and happy writing!

Comma Queen: “Awesome” Is the New “Massive” – A quick, fun video from The New Yorker‘s grammar guru.

An Unparalleled Influence: The Man Who Invented Fiction – The role of Cervantes and Don Quixote in bringing about the modern novel.

Simon & Schuster Creates Imprint for Muslim-Themed Children’s Books – This week’s announcement of Salaam Reads, a new imprint to be headed up by Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery.

Ancient History Resources – A collection of links to some wonderful research material.

The Architecture of Fantasy: How Authors Use Real Places to Build Imaginary Ones – Some helpful tips for world building.

Notes on Record-Keeping – A look at journaling as a means of keeping track of all the bits and pieces of your life and memories.

Why I Became a Travel Writer – On delving into a career that calls to you, despite the risks.

Friday Links: Small Ways to Level Up Your Writing

It seems impossible to start off today without mention of the sad passing of Harper Lee. Last year was her year, no matter how you look at it, with the release of Go Set a Watchman and the controversy that accompanied it, and the number of people reading To Kill a Mockingbird either for the first time or as a refresher. She had an interesting life and career, and left us with her art to remember her by.

However this week’s links are not about Harper Lee’s writing, but about yours. How goes it? Need a little push? Some easy references to help you over the tough spots? A touch of inspiration? Something to aim for? Today’s Friday Links should help you along. There are few fun things thrown in to mix it up, but for the most part this week’s links are aimed at giving you a little boost on your writing journey. Enjoy, and happy writing!

The Grammar Rules Behind 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects – Did you know even dialects have grammar systems? A handy bit of info if you’re writing regional characters.

The Punctuation Guide – An online reference for all those pesky punctuation marks, plus some useful tips.

How I Changed My Submissions after Editing a Major Lit Mag – Suggestions of things to look out for from someone in the know.

Writing with the Mentors: Why Voice Is like a Piece of Very, Very Good Cake – A few basic pointers on how voice can make your writing stand out.

Famous Literary Locales, Visualized – Images from the NY Public Library collection to fit with various well-known books. Nice inspiration if you want to get some visuals for your own WIP.

Opportunities for Writers: March and April 2016 – Upcoming deadlines for writing contests, calls for work, etc.

One Man, One Obsession, 100 Typewriters – Collect something writing related? Love old typewriters? Check this out, especially the photos of these beautiful old machines.

Friday Links: Writing Inspiration Through Example

Happy Friday, all! Apologies for the late post, but I was at the main Knight Agency office for a team meeting this week. As a result, I spent most of today on an airplane headed home, and then stuck in good old Friday afternoon Los Angeles traffic. That said, I do have links for you, and I hope you find them a good kick off for this holiday weekend here in the U.S. (Monday is President’s Day.) and the regular weekend everywhere else. There should be plenty of writing inspiration to get your creativity flowing. Due to the late hour — and the fact that I’m nearly ready to fall into bed — I’m just going to jump right to it. Enjoy, and happy writing!

The Perfect Notepads for Traveling Writers – Fun pads based  on literary/filmic hotels.

From ‘The Remains of the Day’ to ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ Bestselling Books Written in Six Weeks or Less – A bit of writerly inspiration.

The Speculative Fiction of UB Faculty Member Nnedi Okorafor – A look at the writer’s work and inspirations.

Writers to Watch Spring 2016: Anticipated Debut Fiction – A peek at some fabulous sounding new titles on the horizon.

Is it Worth Writing? – Thoughts on completing projects that might not sell, from author Jami Attenberg.

Shakespeare Solos – Video clips of some fantastic performances from a number of Shakespeare’s plays.

Ian McDonald Explores What it Takes to Develop a Society on the Moon – For sff fans, or anyone curious about the concept of inhabiting another planet.

Steal Like an Artist with Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon encourages you to steal in the name of art. Not plagiarize — nothing so mundane (or illegal), but steal and remake, to borrow from the greats who’ve gone before, to take their ideas and make them your own. In his TED Talk below, he explains precisely how he steals like an artist, and how you can too. Wonderfully inspiring stuff, especially for anyone facing a bit of writer’s block — the circumstance that first led Kleon to steal like an artist himself. Enjoy!

Friday Links: The Visual Side of Book Publishing

Happy Friday! I hope you’ve all had a wonderful week and are ready for a weekend of reading and writing, or perhaps some creative time to spark your imagination and refill that well. A good chunk of the northeastern U.S. seems to be battening down for the first snow storm of the winter, and all I can say to that is it’s perfect weather for a cup of hot chocolate and a good book. Stay warm, or cool, wherever you are, and take a little time for yourself and your goals.

All of that said, I have a bit of an art theme going on this week for Friday Links. It wasn’t intentional, but sometimes these things just develop over the course of the week. Not all the links are art-related, of course, but I think you’ll see what I mean. It’s a bit of a different look at the world of publishing, so I hope you enjoy.

By the Cover: Meet Will Staehle, Freelance Designer – A look at the work of a freelance book designer, formerly the Art Director at HarperCollins.

A Brief History of Book Illustration – Pretty much what it says.

R.I.P: Select Literary Obituaries from 2015 – A good round-up, and for reference if you’re looking to see whose work you might have missed reading.

Whom Do You Write For? ‘Pandering’ Essay Sparks a Conversation – NPR conversation between Clare Vaye Watkins and Marlon James that follows up on Watkins’s somewhat controversial essay for Tin House. A very interesting look at the writing process, and the audience a writer considers inside their head while they work.

Meet Jill Weber, artist and book illustrator/designer. In this short video (intended as a promo for a recent class at Sketchbook Skool), she shares a tiny handmade book she created to tell the story of her garden. A charming look at one of the amazing, creative forms books can take.

Neil Gaiman in Conversation with Junot Díaz

Last November, Neil Gaiman sat down and had a long chat with author Junot Díaz, one of his final appearances before he takes 2016 off to be just a writer and a father to his new baby with wife Amanda Palmer. This interview kicks off with a great rundown of the history of Sandman, which is well worth watching whether you’re familiar with the comics series or not. If you prefer to just get right to Neil, you can jump to about the 6:30 mark, where the video moves to the interview venue. This is a longish interview — nearly an hour and a half — so be sure to carve out a bit of time to watch.

Recapturing Momentum: Don’t Let Your New Year Slip Away

Remember that list of writing goals you made at the end of 2015? Is it already starting to feel like a long time ago? In reality, it was probably about two weeks, but time flies when you’re facing the realities of a new year. Your shiny goals tend to get put on the back burner when they come up against your boss’s goals for the new year, or your kid’s flu, or the realization that you have no idea where to put all those books you got with your Christmas gift cards. Whether it’s real life or procrastination or a little bit of both, old habits die hard, and the most stubborn is likely your own inclination to put other things before your own ambitions. But only you can make your writing a priority.

So, I’m here to poke you. Check out that list of goals. Choose something. And do a little bit of work on it today. Whether that means making a point of actually writing, researching an agent, finding a short story contest to enter, or submitting your work to an online magazine. Go for it. One thing, one little step. I dare you to make this year different.