Why Do You Read?

Why do you read? For pleasure or for instruction?

I read for pleasure and instruction. Because I’m still writing, I read for instruction, books like John MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. I’m reading this because I’m writing another mystery and I haven’t read that many mysteries. I’m also reading for pleasure and it takes me to a place I’ve never been before.

Reading is important to me. It’s instructional to me as a writer. Without reading, how do I know how to write? Perhaps through watching TV? Never. Or reading books other than those I want to write? That is counter productive, at least for me.

Say a writer reads children’s stories, but the writer writes mysteries. A writer should read the type of story he/she wants to write. Although some writers don’t do this and yet they are successful writers. The reason they are successful writers is that whatever they read, the pattern of writing gets inside of them. And because reading is instructional, whether they know it or not. It may be instructional in an unconscious way, but it’s there, waiting for reader to write. Or not. Obviously, not all readers become writers or we would be inundated with writers and their books.

If I read a mystery, I learn how to write drama, suspense and sometimes humor. Or say the writer reads autobiographies and yet writes humor. Still the writer learns through reading autobiographies how to write successfully.

It’s like learning to read. Did you read cereal boxes? I bet you did. You want to learn things, you want to learn how to read and write. Eventually, reading becomes unconscious. You just sit down and read, forgetting that once you didn’t know how to.

When I teach creative writing I always bring a story to dissect. How does the writer achieve the effect he/she wants? By dissecting the story my students learn how the writer does this. Not that my students go home and write a good story. It takes practice to learn to how to write well.

For the reader, the story may keep the reader in suspense or the reader may laugh (or smile) at the humor in the story or the reader may sit back and think about the story. If the reader finishes the story and wants another: this is evidence of good writing.

Now that we’ve discussed reading, I’d like to know why YOU read? For pleasure? To be carried to a world you never thought about? To see the future? To entertain your child? Or for instruction for yourself?

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Sue Powers’ fictions have appeared in numerous publications. Some were published by Saturday Evening Post, New Millenniums Writings and Blue Earth Review and many others. She was a recipient of a fellowship and grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her mystery, She’s Not There, will be published soon. She’s now writing another mystery.

Writing Tips: 4 Mistakes To Avoid When Creating Your Protagonist

We writers have a habit of falling for our carefully crafted protagonists. I mean, after spending 70,000 odd words with them, what can we expect? It’s only natural we fall in love and/or lose the ability to be objective. It’s one of many reasons why editors are so important to our mysteries/sci-fi/novels or short stories.

So when writing, you need to know how to avoid mistakes when creating a protagonist. There are four common mistakes you can easily avoid when creating your protagonists.

The most common are:
1. A LACK OF OBJECTIVITY
2. NO DEPTH
3. NO GROWTH
4. FAILURE TO CONNECT

One of the biggest results of a lack of objectivity is a bloated manuscript. Those scenes spilling aeons of family history, or the minute details of your hero’s pug-puppy stamp collection, really aren’t necessary.

A LACK OF OBJECTIVITY

One of the biggest results of a lack of objectivity is a bloated manuscript.

DEPTH
Depth is somewhat subjective. What one reader finds beautiful, another may hate. But there are some easy wins you can implement to help you create depth.

Don’t give your hero an overwhelmingly positive personality – heroes who are overly positive make your reader feel like they’re being accosted by a perky cheerleader at the crack of dawn when they haven’t had caffeine. It’s a bit much, even for the most tolerant reader. We all have off days; it makes us human and gives us depth. Your hero needs the occasional off day too.

Your hero must make mistakes. Likewise, we all make mistakes. It’s how we grow. A hero that never makes a mistake can come across as annoying, patronizing and make the reader feel inadequate. LET YOUR HERO MESS UP AND LEARN LESSONS.

Your hero’s personality needs to be a consequence of his history – we are a product of our history. When a character isn’t, it can create an uneasy feeling in the reader.

The reason Indiana Jones is scared of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is because he fell into a pit of snakes as a kid. The audience knows this, so the fear makes sense. CONNECT THE DOTS. PLANT THINGS IN YOUR HERO’S PAST THAT BECOME RELEVANT IN YOUR STORY.

Actively drive the plot forward – your hero takes the risks and faces the greatest danger. It’s Harry that kills Voldemort. IT’S YOUR PROTAGONIST WHO MUST DRIVE THE ACTION FORWARD AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, MAKE THE FINAL BLOW DEFEATING YOUR VILLAIN.

FAILURE TO CONNECT
A failure to connect can happen on two levels: disconnecting with the audience, or the hero disconnecting with the other characters and the story. The cause and cure are one and the same.

The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.Your protagonist is the manifestation of your story; the web that pulls all the elements together: flaw, theme, supporting characters, plot, obstacles, change arc etc. should all be linked.

The entire story is connected, which is why it connected with readers.

Essentially, what you need to remember is this:

While your villain is the source of page-gripping tension, when the words are read and the dust has settled on your back cover, it’s the hero that your readers remember.

The hero should connect every element of your story. He should grow and change and drive the plot forward all the while representing our ‘flawed’ human nature.

Let your hero make mistakes. That way, when your hero has the ‘ah-ha’ moment, your readers will too. Much as it makes me weep, eventually, villains are defeated. But heroes are like puppies. They’re forever, not just Christmas.

Are you prone to some of these mistakes when writing your protagonists? Please leave your thoughts below.

My Success…What a Mess

I could have been writing

Blogger Fransi Weinstein (Three Hundred Sixty-Five) recently posted: “Yesterday’s Word Press Daily Prompt really caught my eye. The theme? “Success.” “Tell us about a time where everything you’d hoped would happen actually did.” And she did, quite eloquently.

So ok, let me begin by saying I know I’m lucky to have had success in my passion: writing short stories. Let me also say, unlike Fransi, my success has been sketchy, plus I have never made much money at it. In fact, just for fun, let’s do the math:

In-coming:

  • New Millennium Short-Story Story Contest: $1000
  • Illinois Arts Council Fellowship: $5000
  • Illinois Arts Council Grant: $500
  • Some literary mag, don’t remember which: $50 (I’m not counting the copies I received in lieu of payment, the typical literary mag ‘payment’)
  • Part-time teaching adult ed in creative writing: around $300 a semester – yes, 300 – not a typo. (I feel I need to count this, even though I am not a teacher at heart, nor a very good one, but it seemed to be part of my passion while I was doing it.)

Out-going:

  • B.A. (English & Psych) $$$$
  • M.A. (English) $$$$$$$$$$

The total, of course, is a total bust. But who’s counting?

I’m not. Honestly, who regrets getting an education? Especially when loans are finally paid off.  🙂

So, back to the subject at hand: my passion for writing short stories. Long story short, my love of short stories began with J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. One read, and I was hooked. Then when I was in college and majoring in Psychology, my love of literature drove me to accumulate hours in English. I just needed a few more hours and I’d have a double major.

Ah, but all that extra reading! Did I have energy and time for it? Then one day I discovered they offered a Creative Writing Workshop. Well, ever since I was a kid, stories seemed to pop into my head. I had written some stories, though none of them had really ‘gone’ anywhere. Still, why not? I thought. What did I have to lose but perhaps my pride? One or two semesters of this, and I’d have my double major.

Looking back, I see it was no accident that I ‘happened’ to choose a college that offered a writing course (in those days, college writing courses were few and far between). And there I met an amazing writing instructor, and ended up writing a story that was published in a fine literary magazine before I graduated.

And here’s where the tale twists. This first published story got a lot of praise. Success, right? Follow the momentum, follow the passion, keep on writing, right? Well before you can dedicate yourself to your passion, you have believe in it.

One part of me always knew I was a writer. Another part of me – well how to put it – was scattered. Not focused. Not sure what to do with this first success, which a large part of me did not really believe I could ever duplicate.

So I directed my energy elsewhere: raising my family, making money, etc. Oh sure, every once in a while, I couldn’t stop myself from writing a story. But despite my early success, these efforts rarely came to anything. And I guess I thought of these writing efforts as just a creative outlet, a pipe dream, or simply an anomaly.

So, that’s the short of it. Although I started making up stories from an early age, I allowed a lack of belief in myself to get in my way. In fact, I didn’t really start focusing on my passion until somewhere in my 40’s when, kids grown, husband removed from the scene, I remembered I had one.

But that’s another story…. 🙂

Ready, Set, Go…For the Jugular

Tell us your Secrets

For reasons unknown, I used to teach creative writing. The don’t-think/just-let-it-rip type of teaching, and depending on how willing/able people were to try it, I was mildly successful. I taught this way because it was the only way I knew – or know – how to write. Not suited to everyone, I found out.

But once, a student came back to class and said she let it rip for a half hour straight and apparently, she’d dug deep, pulled out something painful. Her eyes were huge, her voice shaky: “It scared the hell out of me!”

I was young, and as you might have guessed, not a great teacher.  Great teachers clarify, illuminate, impart useful information.  (What made me think I could do this???) So while I felt for her, I had no words to explain it.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I have those words.  I could have told her that yeah, writing can be scary. It can be painful. Because writing is a risky business. Because it’s about letting go and going for the jugular. Because fiction writers have to be prepared to go for their own jugular and dig up their darkest secrets — over and over again.  Agatha Christie put it succinctly: “writing is torture.”

While I’ve never been scared by what I’ve written, I can say, letting the story go where it’s wanted to go, I’ve been surprised by where it’s gone and what it’s revealed.

I’ve read that writer Doris Betts – who writes both novels and short stories – once said that the novel is prose growth, and the short story is prose revelation. This explains a lot to me! It explains why, when my short stories work well, they give me the chills. (I have one particular story that still gives me the chills!)

In any case, if I were ever to go back to teaching (not!), I‘d still use the let-it-rip type of teaching. It’s what I believe in, it’s worked for me and it’s worked for thousands of other writers.

So here’s what I know: I know what works for me, and I know teaching is not for me,  But I very much like certain writing prompts. So how about this one: Write a piece of fiction that reveals something you have never told anyone before.  Don’t think, don’t judge. Just go….

If you get something that scares you – or gives you a little chill – awesome! 

🙂