Endings can be difficult. Do they ever feel like they are just tacked on? I like to think of them as different types of curtains on stage. I’m not a scriptwriter or even an avid theatre-goer, but this visual helps me as I write my endings. Three that I come across regularly are the “Sudden-Death Curtain,” the “Preview Curtain,” and the “Curtain Call.” In the Sudden-Death Curtain ending, a story or article ends without warning. There used to be a column in our paper titled “Over the Hill” in which the writer shared humorous stories as she bent herself into new technology curves. Suddenly she would end her piece with no warning, no tie-back to the beginning, and no clue as to what might be in the next week’s column. Just when you were going full tilt, bam! It was over. No time to feel bored. It always made me laugh. She had said everything she wanted to, so why drag on? I think it worked for her because she consistently used this style and her readers came to connect her pieces with the Sudden-Death Curtain. Another way to end your piece is the Preview Curtain ending. Imagine near the end of a performance a new character is introduced and drops a hint as to what might happen in the next play. Many book and television series end this way. Though the major character’s problems may have been resolved, a minor character that we have admired throughout the story may be highlighted near the end, and with him comes a troubling discovery. We have had a preview, but now we will have to read the next book to see what happens. A preview ending can be used in nonfiction pieces as well by tying the topic of your piece to what is coming next. For example, if your piece is on how to protect your garden from frost, you might end by suggesting that there are recipes for green tomatoes coming up in next week’s blog or column. There are other ways to end, but the third ending I will refer to is the Curtain Call ending. Just like all the characters from the play make a repeat appearance at the end, this ending also pulls up some reference from the beginning and echoes it at the end. Phil Callaway is a master at this. He will often use a little anecdote about something from his life at the beginning, and then at the end he will make another humorous reference to it. The reader feels acknowledged for recognizing the repeat reference and enjoys how the piece resonates and connects all the way through from beginning to end. I believe everybody has an inborn style, or voice, which, if used consistently, becomes a trademark of their writing. I don’t think it does any good to stress over your voice, or style, of ending. Just like you have the physical voice you were born with, so you have the writer’s voice already in you. The best way to develop your ending voice is to practice, practice, practice, and also notice your favourite types of endings when you read. If you work on creating distinctive curtains at the end of every piece, your readers will come to recognize your style and will soon be back for a front seat.
A while back, I got to thinking about why I have such a tough time just sitting down to write. I have lots of ideas for books floating around my head. And because I work from home, I have the privilege of creating my own schedule. So, what’s the hold up? I’m an extrovert. Does that mean extroverts don’t write? Of course not. Some are very prolific. However, they must have more self-discipline than I do. Yes, introverts can get distracted too, but I'm sure they can avoid Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads more easily than I can. There are people there, people I can connect with, encourage, learn from. Is this a bad thing? No. Can it be a distraction? Absolutely! So I must buckle down, open a Word document, and get typing. I also find it helps if I set a goal (i.e.: five pages and then I can check Facebook). I also find it helpful to set self-imposed deadlines. So here is a brief, completely non-scientific questionnaire to help you decide when and where it would be best for you to write. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? If you’re not sure, think of it this way: When you are interacting in person with others, do you feel increasingly drained or increasingly energized? Although introverts may be at the top of their game when the evening begins, when it comes to a close, they will be glad for some alone time. Even if extroverts would rather curl up and have a nap before the festivities start, they will likely be among the last to leave, feeling more energized than ever. Are you more productive in a solitary environment or with people around? This can go either way for both introverts and extroverts. As an extrovert, if I stay away from social media, I am much more productive without others around. I love the stimulation of a coffee shop, but I would rather pay attention to the patrons’ comings and goings than to my work. Similarly, do you prefer an office with a door or a desk in the middle of the action? I was working on the main floor of our home, the TV in the next room. As you can imagine, I found it very distracting, especially when I could see said television from my chair. Because of better Internet connectivity, I am now doing my work from our second storey landing. It is actually a good compromise for me. I hear the traffic, the TV downstairs, and my daughter’s guinea pigs squeaking in the loft. These sounds remind me of the people and things I love without diverting too much of my attention. Speaking of auditory stimulation, do you prefer to work in silence, with coffee shop chatter surrounding you, or humming along to your favourite music? As I mentioned, I work best on my own. I do fine working in silence or with instrumental music. I find the lyrics distract me and I end up singing along rather than focusing on my writing. Do you like a clutter free work environment or one overflowing with personal items? A number of Christmases ago my amazing husband bought me several pieces from the Who Ville Department 52 collection and set it up on the shelf above my computer. I stood there, mouth agape. When I could finally speak, I repeated time and time again, “What did you do?” (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a big fan of the original The Grinch Who Stole Christmas—and many other things Seuss.) While I love a workspace that captures what I love and who I am, I enjoy a workspace that is clean and organized, though that is often not my reality. As an extrovert who loves to connect with people in person and on the Web, I must be careful to take times to be holed up and avoid the hold up. How about you? When and where are you most productive? Steph Beth Nickel is the coauthor of former Paralympian Deborah L. Willows' memoir, Living Beyond My Circumstances. She is also a freelance writer and editor and a labour doula. Steph is an active member of The Word Guild and InScribe Christian Writers' Fellowship. (Photo by Sarah Grace Photography)
At my age, a title like this makes me take notice. I sit up straighter, pull my shoulders back and suck in my middle. Adapted from http://goo.gl/nNe6vj That’s what we want to do with the middles of our stories: Be aware of their presentation and do what’s required to improve them. We’ve talked about Beguiling Beginnings with more than enough zip to catch the readers’ attention and pull them into the story. We may have a good idea where the story is going and how it ends, and often the ending is intense enough that we can hardly wait to get there. Perhaps we write it early on, to be adapted later. But now we must focus on what comes between an exciting beginning and an intense ending. If you look back at Fiction 101: Part 8, the one about outlining or structuring a novel, you’ll see that we talked about various methods of structuring. One idea was the Plot Skeleton (from Angela Hunt). When we use the Plot Skeleton method, we start with the head (the protagonist), then the neck (the incident that starts things rolling), and then the ribs (the complications). Let’s talk about the ribs. They run up and down both sides of the chest. Convert that image to a two-column page and put + on one column and – on the other. Something good happens then something bad, back and forth, balanced but with ever-increasing importance and tension as we go along until we reach the crisis. If we use the rib scenario / two-column page, we can fill in any number of events that will sustain interest and increase tension as we move forward with our stories. Another way to hold up the middle is with subplots. Wikipedia defines a subplot as a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. These subplots connect with the main plot in some way through one of the characters, either a major or, more often, a supporting character. Subplots are less important than the main plot, so they get less time in the scheme of the story, but they add interest and tension, as well as helping to fill out characters. So, instead of getting bogged down with our main plot, trying to keep up the interest, we can employ subplots to switch up the focus to include other events, journeys and characters. It’s also absolutely necessary to remember that character development is happening throughout the novel. Every scene should either move the plot along or show character development. Every scene should be based on a goal and include conflict and tension. It only all works out in the end! The plot thickens, as they say, getting more involved. The characters meet more obstacles, face more discouragements. The goal of the main character as set out at the beginning of our story seems consistently more unattainable . . . right until the end. All these elements make the reader sit up and take notice. What’s happening here? How are the characters ever going to come out of this in one piece? We must make the reader guess, frantically turn the pages, forget about dinner and bedtime. So let’s exercise our writing expertise, work out with subplots and character development, and make that middle firm.
How to confound your family in one easy step . . . Curl up on the couch reading Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves and laugh uproariously while your family is trying to watch television in the same room. “Only a writer,” you say. And you’d be right. Or an editor, agent, or publisher. That scenario actually happened, by the way. Truss’s book is still one of my favourites. And who else would read The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style cover to cover and get excited when he or she came across the wonderful reference tool by Kathy Ide titled Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors? Would you consider an online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style one of your best professional investments? Those of us in the writing industry think differently than others, but you already knew that. Two years ago, I sat in on literary agent Steve Laube’s continuing class at Write Canada. It was a great class, overflowing with so much insight. After all, he has been in the industry over three decades and has learned a lot over the years. One of the best takeaways was a list of books Steve considers must-reads for authors. I have been building my reference library based on his suggestions. When I saw Steve at The Word Awards in June, I suggested he add Don McNair’s book Editor-Proof Your Writing to his list. I would encourage all fiction writers to get a copy of McNair’s book. It is well worth reading and referring to often. In it he shares 21 ways to almost instantly make your writing better. I have quite a backlog of Web posts I would love to read by industry professionals like Jane Friedman, Jeff Goins, and Kristen Lamb. And I know there are countless others, many of which are tucked away in folders connected to my email accounts. Stacks of books. Piles of back copies of Writer’s Digest. Websites galore. It can all be very overwhelming. But I have to keep learning, and so should you. Life is all about maintaining tension (some say balance) and we must be careful not to spend so much time learning that we neglect doing. Writers must write. Editors must edit. Publishers must publish. (I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work for agents.) Whatever our pursuit in the writing industry – and elsewhere – we must continue to do what we do to the best of our ability while continuing to learn at every opportunity. Here are six tips on how to expand your knowledge: 1. Each day look up at least one word you come across that you can’t readily define. Keep a list of words and their definitions and review it often. 2. Pull one of your favourite reference books off the shelf and re-read it. 3. Purchase one new reference book and commit to reading it before the end of the year. I would suggest Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors or Editor-Proof Your Writing. 4. Search the Internet for webinars or blogs directed at writers. Read at least one post and/or “attend” one webinar per week – or one per month, if that’s more doable for you. 5. Be humble. If you think something is right but aren’t 100 percent sure, look it up in a reference work like The Chicago Manual of Style. (As I mentioned, the online version is extremely handy.) 6. Attend the InScribe conference in the fall. What is your favourite skills development book or website? Steph Beth Nickel is a freelance writer and editor and the coauthor of former Paralympian Deborah L. Willows’ memoir, Living Beyond My Circumstances. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steph invites you to visit her website – http://stephbethnickel.com – her blog Steph Nickel’s Eclectic Interests – and her Facebook page. (photo thanks to Sarah Grace Photography)
I’m told that I write funny. People laugh at my comments all the time, but I can’t say that I always understand why. Anyway, there is no point trying to dissect the why of a joke because then the joke is no longer funny. Some of the world’s funniest people had no sense of humour at all, but their work is hilarious. Think Lucille Ball. You don’t need a sense of humour to be funny because funny is in your mind. (more…)