The Power of “3”

by Pam Zollman

When you write a short story or picture book, think in terms of “3.”  This makes planning and writing your story so much easier. Your story will be divided into three parts: beginning, middle and end. Your hero will need three obstacles to overcome. Your story will be approximately three pages long double-spaced, which equals about 750 words, just right for most children’s magazines and picture books.

Page one is the beginning. This is where you introduce the main character, set the scene, state the goal, and set up the conflict.

Page two (or more, depending on story length) is the middle. Your main character is presented with three obstacles he must overcome to reach his goal.

Page three (or so depending on story length) is the end. The climax of the story makes the hero choose a resolution, which may be hard and self-sacrificing, but will ultimately be the best one. The hero reaches his goal and all loose ends are tied up.

Be creative with how your character solves his problem. Make it something that will cause the reader to think, something that the reader might be able to apply to his own life. No obvious morals or lessons are allowed. Fiction is read for pleasure; all lessons should be implied. The reader can figure it out. The happy ending can also be implied, that if things stay on course all will work out okay.

This is a very simplified way of writing a fiction story for a magazine. Use it as a guide, a suggestion only, not as a rule. It’s not the only way to write a story, but it’s one that has worked for me.

Pam Zollman has published over 40 books for children, as well as numerous magazine stories. She has also been an editor and contest judge for Highlights for Children magazine.

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What is “Voice” and How Do You Use it?

Using Voice Effectively
by Deborah Owen

What do writers mean by “voice”? The voice, or point of view (POV), is the angle from which a story is viewed; every story and article has one. There are three types of POV and, while some are more preferred, no particular one is right or wrong.

* First person POV pronouns are: I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, and ours. New authors usually write in first person because they feel focused and closer to the story. First person draws the reader in, but it’s a limiting POV and is not the editor’s favorite.

There are two problems with first person POV. First, the constant use of “I” becomes trite. Second, the story’s character only knows what the writer knows, and cannot see from a different POV.

For example, if John says, “Susan is going to meet me at seven o’clock,” and in the meantime, Susan falls, breaks a leg, and lies helplessly on the floor, John will not know what happened to her until someone tells him. First person POV is better reserved for memoirs, journal entries, and specific stories.

* Second person POV pronouns are: you, (singular), you (plural), your, and yours. Example: “You must come with me to the Christmas play. You and I will have popcorn and lots of fun. Did you know your hat is on backwards?” As you can see, this point of view is even more limiting and never used.

* Third person POV pronouns are: he, his, she, hers, it, its, they, their, and theirs. There are two kinds of third person writing, omniscient, and limited. In third person omniscient, the readers are like flies on the wall and they can see into characters’ minds. This POV limits the suspense since the reader is left with few unanswered questions – but it’s easy to write because authors don’t have to work at “showing” the scene.

* Third person limited doesn’t show internal dialogue (thoughts) so the characters can’t foreknow anything. Like first person, the readers can see through the character’s eyes, but unlike first person, they can also see through the eyes of others.

In third person limited, the suspense builds as the writer shows the scene instead of telling it. The reader lives the story as the character lives it. Here is an example from Deborah Owen’s The Perfect Crime:

“Harrison slumped against the car, collapsed, and rolled in agony as he clutched his chest. Vision blurred, and then his eyes rolled back until they relaxed in a wide, empty stare.”

The sample doesn’t say the man had a heart attack and died, but you know it, don’t you? As you can see, even showing may have a little ‘telling’ in it.

Editors buy more third person limited than first person. Let your readers feel your characters instead of seeing them. Play with the various points of view until you’re comfortable writing all of them.

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8 Editing Steps to Perfection

Mastering Editing

by Deborah Owen

Creative writers – don’t wait to edit your work until you know every word by heart – learn to edit the easy way. Do you know what to look for in editing? Have you wondered what should stay and what should go? By the time you read this article, you will know the answers to these questions.

  • One of the first things to look for is prepositional phrases. You can identify       prepositions easily. The most common ones are: in, on, at, to, for, under, before.  Prepositional phrases usually tell when or where, such as: “I will meet you in the after life,” or “He told his daughter to go into the house.” You should never have more than three prepositional phrases to a sentence, and preferably only two.
  •  Watch for wordiness, also known as verbiage. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines verbiage as “profusion of words, usually of little or obscure content.” In other words, excess words that say nothing. Cut your sentences until they bleed. Chop your descriptions down to that which relates directly to the scene, and leave nothing but the most necessary meat.
  • It should be unnecessary to mention using the spellchecker, but you would be surprised how many writers fail to use this most valuable tool. However, don’t totally rely on it. If you use the word “right” instead of “write”, or “blew” instead of “blue”, it will not catch the error. To be safe, scan for errors after you use the spellchecker.
  • Look for inappropriate punctuation. Be sure your quotations are closed. Use hyphens and colons properly. Don’t use a semi-colon when a comma will do. Be sure to use commas properly, i.e., to separate two clauses in a compound sentence, between city and state, etc.
  • Check that your order of events is stated properly. Unless you are doing a flashback, you will only confuse the reader if you switch back and forth within a given time frame.
  • Watch for tense changes. If you begin in the past tense, the entire story must be written in the past tense, with one possible exception. The only time you can properly change tenses is in dialogue, and that is because people normally speak in present, past and future tenses.
  • One of the most important parts of editing is dousing all forms of the verb “to be”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being and been. These are “dead” verbs that say nothing. According to Wikipedia, allowed forms are: become, has, have, had, I’ve, you’ve, do, does, doing, did, can, could, will, would, shall, should, ought, may, might and must. The fact that they are allowed, however, does not make them desirable. Get rid of as many of these as possible. They weaken your work.
  • Check every verb in every sentence and see if you can replace it with a jazzy verb. This is the finishing touch that will make your work glow.

So when you edit, watch for these eight things. The end result will be crisp, easy-to-understand writing that is stuffed with meat. What reader can resist that?

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How to Build 2D and 3D Characters

When do you need 2D characters? How do you develop 3D characters?

by Deborah Owen

Every main character must be three-dimensional, and every supporting character should be two-dimensional, but what exactly does that mean? It means your 3D characters should be like real people with nuances, nervous gestures, attitudes, good and bad habits, a past history, future dreams, and unpredictability, just like a real person.

Supporting characters (2D) don’t need to show in-depth characteristics. The reader doesn’t need to know what makes a 2D character tick – but you should know – just in case you dip your pen a little deep in the inkwell some story-writing night and you need extra detail.

If you will do the following characterization exercise just twice, you will never have to do it again. It will come automatically from then on. Every story will have a protagonist (white hat guy) and an antagonist (villain). For these two characters, create a long and detailed background of 50 questions that will describe what the character is like. For example:

  1. What are their attitudes?
  2. How do they talk?
  3. What flaws do they have?
  4. What emotional problems do they have?
  5. Where are they from?
  6. What was their childhood like?
  7. What is their occupation?
  8. What are their actions like?
  9. Do they walk fast or slow?
  10. What is their mood, most of the time? Somber? Dramatic? Joking? Angry?
  11. How do they get along with their family?
  12. Describe their past life.
  13. What is their Holiday season like?

What type of “warts” do your characters have? (Warts are bits of information that distinguish one character from another.) For example, a wart can be a limp, a bald head, heavy make-up, strange clothing, a nervous tic, pimples, stuttering, or anything else you choose.

For instance, your story features a woman whose son is getting married. She goes to the store and deliberately orders her dress for the wedding two sizes too small. What does that tell you about her? Answer: a lot!

  1. She’s determined to lose weight before the wedding.
  2. She’s proud.
  3. She’s stubborn.
  4. She’s the kind of person who sets goals and reaches them.
  5. She will fit into that dress by the time the wedding rolls around.

We learned all of that by a tiny wart. Let’s try another. A woman is insanely stressed over varicose veins in her legs, yet she eventually changes to wearing shorts and bathing suits in public. Why? We could make lots of guesses at this one. Maybe she had the varicose veins removed. Maybe she just learned to accept her plight in life and not let it hold her back.

This could turn into a classic demonstration of a character change, based on the man vs. man conflict (which can mean child vs. child, woman vs. woman, etc.) This can be one of the strongest conflicts, but it’s also the most difficult to write. This technique showcases a person’s inner battle and their ultimate change.

To finish your characterization study, search a catalog or the Internet until you find a picture that reminds you of your two leading characters, and then tape those pictures where you’ll see them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

You won’t use all of the information you create, but you’ll know your character inside out and building a 3D character will be easy.

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Use Inference to Say More by Saying Less

Do you know how to use inference?

by Deborah Owen

All creative writers use inference, whether by choice or by accident. So, you may be thinking, “If I can use it by accident, why should I study it?” You should study it because you can use the technique more effectively if you understand all the ramifications involved.

This is inference: Mary went into labor. She had a monkey. These are the types of headlines you see in the Enquirer and other such magazines. On the surface, one might assume the following:

  1. A woman had mated with a monkey and she got pregnant.
  2. The lady went to the hospital to give birth.
  3. Her baby wasn’t a child, it was a monkey.
  4. It was a historical event.
  5. This event would open new doors to the medical and scientific community.
  6. The news media would hound the monkey child throughout its life.
  7. Documentaries would undoubtedly be created.
  8. A movie would be in the making.

Thoughts would flood the reader’s mind. Was the woman on a safari? Did an ape molest her? Where were the other members of the safari? Was the woman married? How would her family accept the monkey baby? Would the monkey baby have human characteristics?

Or, you could read it the way I was thinking when I wrote it: Mary was in labor, and she owned a monkey. Do you see what inference can do?

Mystery writers often mislead their readers by dropping clues that can be interpreted in more than one way. Inference can also be used in riddles, jokes, and games.

Inference creates a mental puzzle for the reader to solve. The reader’s mind will always jump past the immediate and form its own conclusions based on the information it has been fed. If the writer so desires, he can change the mental image in the next sentence.

Another example:

The bride collapsed in tears and could not be consoled.

You might think:

  1. The groom didn’t show up for the wedding.
  2. Someone dropped the wedding cake.
  3. The organist or preacher could not be present.
  4. She stained or ripped her wedding gown.

We could imagine all sorts of things, but what I’m actually thinking is that her father died of a heart attack during the wedding. From what I said, however, it is unlikely that anyone would grasp that meaning. Readers will infer their own meaning from the given evidence and render their own conclusions. In other words, they will replace the lack of information with their own definition of what would cause a bride to collapse in tears.

Inference is a great tool. You can infer that a man is in love with his best friend’s wife without ever saying it. You can further infer that they are having a love affair and the husband knows nothing about it. If you introduce a gun into the equation, you can infer someone is going to die. Try your hand at inference. It’s fun.

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Learning How to Deal with Rejection

You’re Not Alone

by Deborah Owen

Creative writers have a hard time dealing with criticism – constructive or otherwise. After all, our written words are our babies, and how dare anyone criticize or edit them! Right? Wrong. That is a beginner’s belief (and, of course, you may be a beginner). When you can ask for, receive, and apply constructive feedback, you have made the first huge leap to successful writing.

One of the best ways to do this is to join a writing club. There are dozens of them, but two of the best are writing.com (larger) and mywritersgroup.com (smaller). You can publish your stories on the site and let other writers read and rate them. Then it’s your turn to visit their port, read, and rate their articles.

Will anyone hurt your feelings? Probably. But what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. And if anyone gets downright nasty with you, report him or her to the site’s headmaster. Rude critiques are never welcome on either of these sites, but once in a while it happens.

For example, many years ago I had one story that consistently drew a five star rating, but one day a woman rated it one star and wrote this message: “If you really want to be a good writer, you need to read good authors so you’ll know what good writing is. I rated your story one star only because I couldn’t rate it one-half star, but I admit I only read the first paragraph.”

I felt like a wooly worm, squished by a dump truck full of manure. I didn’t know I should have turned her in, so I licked my wounds and stayed quiet, but a supervisor happened by my site and saw the message. She told the headmaster, who wrote to the woman and banned her from ever reviewing anyone again. As for me, the damage was done. I didn’t accept another critique for a year, but I learned two things.

1 – Pay no attention to rude people with swollen heads.

2 – Write snappy first paragraphs!

A year later I received another critique which read, “I hope you’ll receive this critique in the spirit in which it is given as I only want to help you.” My defenses dropped like a rock. The point is – criticism can seriously wound a new writer – and genuine help can heal a wounded writer. To this day, I accept 95% of all critiques. At first I did it as an experiment, but when my ratings soared, I did it because I knew I was learning.

Dealing with rejection is a part of every writer’s life. Learn who to share your work with. Don’t let family members or friends (who are not published writers) read your work. They don’t know what they’re talking about and they’ll run over you rough shod. It’s much easier to learn from strangers.

When you try to sell your work, you’ll receive rejection slips. Keep them. I know one woman who made a collage out of hers and saved the middle space on her wall for her first acceptance slip.

Rejection is a continual learning process. Ultimately, you will either grow a thick hide or get out of the writing business.

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How to Find Work as a Reporter

Reporting is Tough Business

by Deborah Owen

Do you want to be a reporter? It’s a great way to break into print, and jobs aren’t that hard to find.

Writers seem to think finding a job as a reporter is hard. Granted, that may be true in some parts of the country, but such jobs are more abundant than you realize. If you live in the city or suburbs, chances are good that there is an opportunity less than 20 miles from home.

Getting work as a reporter is all about understanding the kinds of stories local newspapers print. When people hear the word “reporter”, they picture someone trotting in and out of a major news conglomerate, spilling the beans on an adulterous President, unveiling “Watergate”, or changing into Superman in a phone booth. Unfortunately, reporting is not always a glorious job. A reporter is defined as “a person who investigates and reports or edits news stories”, and more often than not, this is very hard work.

Reporting Opportunities

Fortunately, almost every local newspaper is hard up to find a sports reporter, and/or someone to cover PTA or political meetings, as they pertain to local government. If, by chance, there are no openings in these areas, there is also the possibility of covering traffic accidents or reporting odd news.

For example, I once saw a man skiing in the middle of a western town. What made this a newsworthy event was that his skis had wheels on them – and he was skiing on dry pavement. On another occasion I saw a broken fence, bulldozer tracks across a yard, and road equipment sitting in front of someone’s bedroom window. It turned out to be a theft of the government’s road equipment. On a third occasion, I watched a sheriff’s car flip upside down as it tried to round a corner too fast. Stories are all around you.

Apart from odd news, another great source for local newspaper articles is unusual hobbies and crafts. While on vacation in the Rocky Mountains, I saw awesome statues that were made out of iron and wood. I was fascinated by the idea of a sculptor living in the boonies selling intricate merchandise to tourists in his spare time. I knew readers would be interested, too.

Always Be Prepared

As these examples show, one important point to keep in mind is that most reporting opportunities are unexpected. Always keep a notepad, pen, camera, and tape recorder with you in case you encounter a great story. Many stories are time sensitive and you will be required to write and submit your article by early the next morning.

If you are looking to have your stories printed on the front page, increase your chances by submitting a picture with your article. Call the newspaper ahead of time and ask them how they want pictures submitted. Digital pictures taken on a 35 mm camera are usually acceptable and the newspaper should pay you at least $5 per picture. An article usually pays about $10. No, you won’t get rich, but it’s a good way to break into print.

While finding a reporter’s job isn’t that hard, remember that the key to success lies in good research and timely reporting.

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