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Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 9:17 am

[I’m posting this a day early, since we’re going to be gone all weekend.]

An exchange with Leah on another lesson in this forum has prompted me to write this lesson that’s a bit different from the usual. I’ll admit that this one isn’t much work for me—it’s been a particularly busy few months with a few pressing part-time jobs, some out-of-town travel, and some family issues that have needed my attention.

Nevertheless, if several of you will participate, this has the potential of being a very helpful lesson.

It starts with a simple question:

1. What are you reading?

The follow-up question:

2. What is it about this book that says to you, This is good writing?

OR…

3. What is it about this book that says to you, This is not good writing?

In your answer, you could mention any of several things, and I’ll list just a few. Please feel free to mention things that are not on this list, however:

The writer’s unique voice—maybe some specific way that he or she uses words, sentences, punctuation, or something else to create a recognizable and distinct style.

Compelling characters

Unique and unpredictable plot

Handling of subject matter in an interesting or fresh way


***
Please be very specific in your answer—not just “I really like this book, because I enjoy reading it and I didn’t want to put it down” or something like that.

It would be very helpful if you’d include a short passage that illustrates what you said in #2 or #3.

Be sure to include the title and the author.

If we get several participants, we may end up with a great summer reading list—and I’ll be happy to start out the list.

***
I’m reading (for the umpteenth time) Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. I love it because of its easy narrative style—it’s told in the voice of a young (12-ish) boy, but it’s not a child’s book. Ruben, the narrator, has a unique family, including Swede, the best little girl in a novel since Scout Finch, and a father who occasionally performs miracles. Here’s a short passage that breaks almost every rule in the book, but the writing is so good that it makes me despair:

…[the goose] shuddered, went graceless, and made a controlled fall to the ground some eighty yards away. “You did it,” Davy said. “Good shot—you took him the hard way, buddy. Better go finish him.”

But as I handed him the gun, almost sobbing with relief, Swede streaked past in her corduroy coat yelling, “I’ll get ‘im, I’ll get ‘im!” and Davy said, “Aw, let her chase the old bird down,” so I watched her go, yellow hair bouncing behind her stocking cap.

Downfield, though, the goose seemed to have recovered its wits. It stood upright, taking stock, its head so high and perky I feared it might take off and fly after all. When it saw Swede coming it turned and sprinted away.

I’m telling you that goose could run.

Seeing this Swede lowered her head and went full steam, mud and chaff raining off her bootsoles. Dad started laughing, whipping off his cap and whacking it on his leg, while the goose stretched out its neck and bolted across the barley. Reaching the end of the field it encountered a barbwire fence. It stopped and turned as Swede closed in.

***

That passage has at least six things “wrong” with it—but it works, beautifully, especially in starting to establish the character of Swede, who is the most important one in the novel (this is from the first chapter).

So…who’ll go next? What are you reading? Why do you like it? Tell us about it!
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Fri Jun 06, 2014 1:18 pm

I haven't yet formulated an actual reply, about what I am reading, but I do have a question. You said "Here’s a short passage that breaks almost every rule in the book, but the writing is so good that it makes me despair". Could you point out to me what the things are in the passage that break the rules? Thanks!! :)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 6:48 pm

glorybee wrote:I’m reading (for the umpteenth time) Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. I love it because of its easy narrative style—it’s told in the voice of a young (12-ish) boy, but it’s not a child’s book. Ruben, the narrator, has a unique family, including Swede, the best little girl in a novel since Scout Finch, and a father who occasionally performs miracles. Here’s a short passage that breaks almost every rule in the book, but the writing is so good that it makes me despair:

…[the goose] shuddered, went graceless, and made a controlled fall to the ground some eighty yards away. “You did it,” Davy said. “Good shot—you took him the hard way, buddy. Better go finish him.”

But as I handed him the gun, almost sobbing with relief, Swede streaked past in her corduroy coat yelling, “I’ll get ‘im, I’ll get ‘im!” and Davy said, “Aw, let her chase the old bird down,” so I watched her go, yellow hair bouncing behind her stocking cap.

Downfield, though, the goose seemed to have recovered its wits. It stood upright, taking stock, its head so high and perky I feared it might take off and fly after all. When it saw Swede coming it turned and sprinted away.

I’m telling you that goose could run.

Seeing this Swede lowered her head and went full steam, mud and chaff raining off her bootsoles. Dad started laughing, whipping off his cap and whacking it on his leg, while the goose stretched out its neck and bolted across the barley. Reaching the end of the field it encountered a barbwire fence. It stopped and turned as Swede closed in.


***
Here are the things that a scrupulous editor might call “wrong”:
1. A sentence beginning with “But”
2. That same sentence contains the dialogue of two different characters in one sentence
3. Missing a comma after “When it saw Swede coming”
4. Slipping into 2nd person and addressing the reader (I’m telling you…)
5. In that same sentence, there should be a comma after “I’m telling you”
6. Should be a comma after “Seeing this”
7. Should be a comma after “Reaching the end of the field”
8. “Barbwire” should be “barbed wire”
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Fri Jun 06, 2014 8:47 pm

Huh...very interesting.

Even though those things are technically wrong grammatically or in other ways, don't they sometimes trump the rules in favor of the writing style? That is to say, in a story that is narrated like that, isn't it okay sometimes, if the story is written in a certain way? (I mean, I guess it is, because otherwise that book wouldn't have been published like that, but I was just asking for the purposes of discussion. :? )

I was also wondering about the "I'm telling you" part. I didn't know that was technically wrong, since it's in the first person. :? What is it that makes it wrong?

When I come across that sort of thing in first person stories, I actually kind of enjoy it. It makes the story feel more conversational to me. That could just be me though.

This is a good review for me though. I think I tend to break some of those rules sometimes. I'm usually good with commas and such, but I sometimes do the barbwire/barbed wire colloquialism thing (but only in a story where it fits the ambiance. If it's a more normal story I don't). It will be good for me to reread my stuff and see what I have done.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 9:12 pm

Rcthebanditqueen, have you read through the last two lessons on this forum on "Breaking the Rules?" What you've said here is pretty much exactly what I said in those two lessons: many, many times good writers will break the rules in order to establish voice or style.

I'm so glad you've stopped by to give your input--looking forward to reading what you have to say about what you're currently reading.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby Allison » Fri Jun 06, 2014 9:20 pm

I am reading "North! or be Eaten" by Andrew Peterson, who also happens to be my favorite Christian singer/songwriter. He is a man of many talents! It's a young adult book, but I love it. The characters are really compelling and draw you in. You feel like you really know them. He also sprinkles humor throughout. I'll post a couple of passage. One I shared on Facebook the other day with Jan in mind, because it touched on the lesson about breaking rules. The author himself even commented on my FB post! :D

It's the second in a series. The first book in the series is "On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness." So I would NOT recommend reading "North! Or be Eaten" without reading the first book in the series.

Andrew Peterson in "North! Or be Eaten" wrote: Morbrick approached a rusty portcullis in the center of an immense brick building. With a great racket, the iron gate slowly rose. The vertical bars of the gate ended in points, which made the building look like a monster opening its mouth to swallow the horse and carriage whole. Above the gate, a big metal sign bore the inscription, in bold, rusty letters, FORK! FACTORY!

Janner was as unsettled by the overuse of exclamation points as he was by the dreary countenance of the place.


I like how he inserts humor in a serious part, and it made me laugh, because when I saw the end of that first paragraph, I thought about the exclamation points.

I found another part that's I actually really like, but it gives something away about the first book, which I don't want to do in case any of you actually want to read it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 10:04 pm

Thanks for sharing that excerpt, Allison.

What's your feeling about books in series? I have an opinion, but I'll save it until I hear from you (and maybe a few others).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby WriterFearNot » Fri Jun 06, 2014 10:16 pm

I'm currently reading a nonfiction book, does that count? I'll comment on it anyway, just in case, because I'm enjoying this book: Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors, by Brandilyn Collins.

The methods taught in this book are based on what Brandilyn Collins (a bestselling novelist) learned when she was a student in drama, including Stanislavsky's writings on Method acting.

Why should a novelist care about method acting? Brandilyn answers with this quote: "[The artist's] job is not to present merely the external life of his character. he must fit his own human qualities to the life of this other person, and pour into it all of his own soul. The fundamental aim of our art is the creation of this inner life of a human spirit, and its expression in an artistic form." ~Constantin Stanislavsky

I just love that!

I've finished reading through the first "secret," which is about "Personalizing" your character, and which is about a lot more than hair and eye color. Brandilyn encourages writers to observe human behavior and then try to discover the meaning behind the behavior and mannerisms observed. And she encourages the writer to do the same for her characters. So your character has an eye tick. Why? When did it start? Does it have anything to do with that time he spent in jail? Or maybe he should never have agreed to participate in that drug study. Or maybe that's not the right mannerism for him. Maybe he has a habit of making a fist and tightening his right arm whenever he faces confrontation. Why? Maybe we decide that he has arthritic pain in that arm from an injury back when he was 17 and he finally stood up to his dad. Etcetera.

Anyway, the book gets even deeper than that, but I don't think everyone has time for me to go on an on about it, but I will say that 33 pages in, Brandilyn's already got me excited about observing people and analyzing my characters and their motives. And tonight, I'm going to psychoanalyze myself. That should be interesting!

Theresa

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby Allison » Fri Jun 06, 2014 10:32 pm

glorybee wrote:Thanks for sharing that excerpt, Allison.

What's your feeling about books in series? I have an opinion, but I'll save it until I hear from you (and maybe a few others).


It really depends, I think. Generally speaking, I like them. I think it does take some of the suspense out of the first few books, though, because you know the main characters (most of them, at least) will survive, since there are more books in the series. :lol: But you don't know HOW they will survive, so that's still some suspense. But I like the anticipation of the next book, especially if you are reading the book as they are released. For me, it also gives me a chance to re-read the earlier books in the series as they new ones come out, and I'll catch things I never caught before as I re-read them.

The first book has to be strong, though. If I don't like the first book, why bother reading the rest? I also think shorter (2, 3, or 4 books) series are better, because it doesn't drag things out too much. Harry Potter would be a notable exception to that rule, though, for me.

Oh, I should add that while I'm wiling to try a single book when I'm not familiar with the author and haven't had recommendations, I'm very hesitant to start a series unless I'm familiar with the author or it has come with recommendations from more than one person. I don't want to "invest" myself in a whole series if I'm not pretty sure I'm going to like it. Because what if I don't like it, but I feel like I have to keep reading anyway?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Fri Jun 06, 2014 11:07 pm

glorybee wrote:Rcthebanditqueen, have you read through the last two lessons on this forum on "Breaking the Rules?" What you've said here is pretty much exactly what I said in those two lessons: many, many times good writers will break the rules in order to establish voice or style.

I'm so glad you've stopped by to give your input--looking forward to reading what you have to say about what you're currently reading.


Oh nice!!! I will go find those. Thank you! And I think I am going to have to go read that Getting Into Character book that WriterFearNot mentioned.

A book review is simmering in my head, soon to be written... :)

So nonfiction books are okay too?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 11:35 pm

Theresa, that book sounds great! (Let us know how that self-psychoanalyzing goes...)

Thanks for putting this on our list.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby glorybee » Fri Jun 06, 2014 11:37 pm

rcthebanditqueen wrote:
So nonfiction books are okay too?


Nonfiction books are fine.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby WriterFearNot » Sat Jun 07, 2014 8:08 pm

The results of my self-psychoanalysis were fascinating. Here’s a glimpse of it, showing how 1) an interview question led to an inner value, which in turn led to a particular mannerism, and 2) I traced a mannerism back to an inner value and its roots:

1. “Theresa, tell me about your parents.”

They were raised Catholic, but later became disappointed by the church and when I was two, they fled the church, family, and hometown. And though they later reconciled with their families, they have kept their backs turned to the church since. Now, my mother’s an Atheist, and my father practices Buddhism, but insists he’s not a Buddhist.

"How has this affected you?"

(Inner Value) Because of my parents’ strong opinions of the church, I have a strong aversion to speaking about Christ to nonbelievers. It’s an equal mix of empathy for the feelings of insecurity of the listening nonbeliever, and my own fear of offending the listener.

(Mannerism) If God or religion comes up in a conversation among nonbelievers, I’m quick to change the subject or water it down.

2. (Mannerism) “I notice you like to rub your cross pendant, even now, as we talk, you keep grabbing it with one hand and rubbing it with your thumb, up and down, then across.”

Yeah. Several years ago, my husband bought me an expensive necklace. It was fancy, but not my style, so I never wore it. So on our 20th anniversary, my husband took me to the jewelry store and said, “We’re turning the necklace in. In exchange, you can choose the necklace YOU want.” I chose this one. I love it because it reminds me of The Cross, and what that means to me.

“What does The Cross mean to you?”

(Inner Value) I spent 42 years as a nonbeliever. Finding Christ was the most beautiful thing that happened in my life. The Cross means everything to me.


Wow. So here we’ve got this Theresa character who’s got mannerisms tied to two opposing inner values. Can you see how this can create very interesting plot points?

Brandilyn Collins says that giving a character a list of mannerisms without associating any meaning to them is like dressing a mannequin. By finding the meaning behind the mannerisms, you bring the character to life.

So yeah, still loving this book: Getting Into Character, by Brandilyn Collins. I must warn, though, this is not a book to be skimmed. You have to take the time to do the work, or it won’t be worth the read.

Theresa

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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby Shann » Sun Jun 08, 2014 12:31 pm

I'm reading a book from the free read for review list. Right now I'm part way through If Good Men Do Nothing by J. E. Parker. I've read several books from this list and this one has really stood out because it's written in one of two of my favorite genres.

This is a suspense /mystery book (my other favorite is children's books), and it is suspenseful. I've only stopped because I needed to sleep. It has a definite Christian message, but it isn't too preachy or too in your face. The MC isn't a perfect man by any means. Often Christian characters can come off as sanctimonious, and he is anything but. It's not a difficult read (though I have struggled a bit because the characters are called by too many names, sometimes full names, first name, last name or nickname and some have more than one nickname), but other than that, it's a compelling read.

There was one line that gave me goosebumps. I can't remember it exactly, but if I can find it, I'll come back and leave the quote. It's great to read suspenseful books that were likely self published yet is still a great read. This, so far, is one of my favorite books and us up there with one of my favorite authors James Patterson, but unlike Patterson's books, this shows what God can do even when you mess up.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--LEARNING FROM THE PROS

Postby WriterFearNot » Sun Jun 08, 2014 4:46 pm

Sounds like a good book, Shann!

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