Turn Your ‘Ah Ha!’ Moments into Amazing Characters

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published June 27, 2011

When was the last time you had an “ah ha!” moment? Mine happened about two months ago, after I arrived home from work and found my house ransacked.

That Monday in April was the day I realized how much I appreciate my right to own a gun. You see, I’d called 9-1-1 (I was alone at the time) and frantically told the operator the burglar may still be inside my house. I was stuck outside–a young woman in the dark–with no protection.

The police took 40 minutes to finally show. And I realized, the only person who will protect me–is me. “Ah ha!”

For the first time in my life, I considered becoming a gun owner. If I were a character in your book or story, what would this moment reveal about me?

Use your revelations to reveal your characters’ truths

My blogging buddy, Leah Singer, wrote this great post back in May called, “My ‘Ah Ha!’ Moments.” Even though she didn’t refer to character development, she got me thinking: How can we use these revelatory moments to unearth greater truths about our fictional characters?

In her bestselling book, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” Anne Lamott said a death or a birth must occur in every story. Whether it’s the death of a dream, a physical death, or a realization (birth), you cannot have that dramatic conflict without either/or.

5 Personal “Ah Ha!” Moments to Consider

Yes, I’m going to take a leap of faith here, and reveal five of MY “ah ha!” moments. With each revelation, consider the story behind the statement, and what might have led to this conclusion:

  1. Just because I was thin through my 20’s, doesn’t mean I’ll be thin in my 30’s (unless I work at it).
  2. I may never work in journalism again.
  3. Sometimes, money is more important than dreams.
  4. I betrayed myself when I refused to accept my heritage.
  5. My family is more important than my career.

Notice, each one of these “ah ha!” moments reveals some sort of internal or societal conflict.

SO TELL ME: What have been significant “ah ha!” moments in YOUR life, and how could those experiences add depth to your characters?

Are we friends on Facebook or Twitter yet? If not, let’s connect!

4 Ways a Journalist Can Help Creative Writers

Reporter

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Feb. 15, 2011

A creative writer once referred to me as a “writing scientist.”

I laughed at the time. But the more I think of it, as a journalist, I am a writing scientist. My degree is a Bachelor of SCIENCE in Journalism. There is a science to being a reporter, but over the years, I’ve discovered there is more of a science to writing.

My career has revolved around journalism (I started as a newspaper reporter), and more recently, writing for marketing and social media. Yet my roots are engrained in creativity. I’ve returned to those roots lately and discovered how my “writing scientist” background actually improves my creative writing.

Here are five ways a journalist’s training can help any creative writer improve his or her work:

1. Intrigue the reader immediately in 30 words or less.

In journalism, we’re trained to write a “lede” (pronounced lead) to every story. That’s the first sentence–it’s also the first paragraph–and it must be 30 words or less. But most importantly, the lede must catch the reader’s curiosity. If not, we lose that person for good.

Creative writers have the same task, but for different reasons. They want people to read their stories. However, if people are not enticed at the beginning, will they keep reading? I can think of countless books I’ve brushed aside because the beginning bored, or dragged, or “eased me” into the story.

Creative writers should start their novels and/or short stories the way journalists begin their articles: intriguing, and in 30 words or less.

2. Keep the story moving–don’t linger too long.

The average reader loses interest in an article after 500 words. Therefore, journalists need to cram as much information into those few paragraphs as possible, while keeping the story interesting.

Creative writers have more leeway. However, still keep the story moving. Writers will lose the reader’s sense of excitement if they spend too long describing a setting, or the way a character looks. Get the information in, then keep the story moving along.

3. Is the story newsworthy (a.k.a. unusual)?

A reporter will not write an article about a firefighter who saves a cat stuck in a tree. It’s cliché, and it’s nothing new. Yet, a journalist will write a story about a dog that saves a cat from a tree.

Why? It’s unusual.

And the bottom line is this: people want to read stories that are out-of-the-ordinary. Whether it’s in a newspaper, or a novel, this rule applies. Creative writers need to really think about their story. Has this been done before, in this way?

4. Write in Layman’s terms.

The average American reads at a 4th-5th grade level. Now, I’d imagine those who choose to read literary works of genius read at higher levels (I’d hope). Yet, if a creative writer explores a subject not known to the general public, make sure to explain what all those odd words mean.

Additionally, sometimes writing in Layman’s terms makes a story more entertaining to read. Complicated vocabulary doesn’t necessarily translate into better literature (ever listen to a PR hack blab for some company or politician?). What does equal better writing, however, is sentence structure and word choice.

With that in mind, good luck!

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

The Best Dialogue Tip EVER

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Oct. 6, 2011

I can’t write a story without dialogue. I mean, dialogue brings a story alive. But have you ever read a book where the dialogue scenes just dragged and bored?

I have. And nine times out of 10, I never finish the book.

So what makes dialogue drag, and what makes it sing? I’ve been writing a long time–professionally for six years, but 22 years if you count my first story at age 7. And I’ve never been able to find that magic piece of advice that makes my dialogue unforgettable.

Until the other day. And finally, it clicked.

Every sentence must REVEAL SOMETHING about your character.

Out of every “craft” tip and professional development paragraph I’ve ever read, this one sentence drills down to the heart of the matter. Your dialogue should never be day-to-day chatter. Every line spoken needs to have a purpose—to reveal something—about the character (and sometimes, even the plot). If it doesn’t, don’t write it.

Whoa.

This got me to stop and really contemplate every line. And let me tell you, since I began thinking in these terms, my dialogue writing jumped so deep, I might as well have leaped off the Grand Canyon.

OK, now I cannot take credit for this. I actually read it on another writer’s blog (or perhaps it was a literary agent). I forgot who they are, but this advice was so good, I just had to share it with my followers.

So what’s an example? Check out The Help

I pulled a short section from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I’m currently reading and cannot put down. I think Kathryn mastered this dialogue technique incredibly well.

Please note, I cut out some of the narration to emphasize the dialogue between Hilly and her friend, Elizabeth. The scene takes place in Jackson, Miss. in the early 1960s. Hilly discovers one of her friends, Skeeter, supports integration and becomes upset when she finds a booklet of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s briefcase…

(Hilly speaking) “I’m not talking about pots. I am talking about the laws of this great state. Now, I want you to ask yourself, do you want Mae Mobley sitting next to a colored boy in English class? Do you want Nigra people living right here in this neighborhood? Touching your bottom when you pass on the street?”

(Hilly speaking) “William had a fit when he saw what she did to our house and I can’t soil my name hanging around her anymore, not with the election coming up. I’ve already asked Jeanie Caldwell to take Skeeter’s place in bridge club.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “You kicked her out of bridge club?”

(Hilly speaking) “I sure did. And I thought about kicking her out of the League, too.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “Can you even do that?”

(Hilly speaking) “Of course I can. But I’ve decided I want her to sit in that room and see what a fool she’s made of herself. She needs to learn that she can’t carry on this way. I mean, around us, it’s one thing. But around some other people, she’s going to get in big trouble.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “It’s true. There are some racists in this town.”

(Hilly speaking) “Oh, they’re out there.”

MY QUESTION TO YOU: What did you conclude about Hilly’s character from this dialogue scene? Do you see how Kathryn used the dialogue technique I described above? How else can YOU bring your characters to life, using dialogue?

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

Be the Chicken Nugget in a Bag of Vegetables

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

NOTE: This post was Freshly Pressed!

Originally published Jan. 5, 2011

My boyfriend found a chicken nugget in his bag of frozen vegetables the other day.

And just to make sure it was a chicken nugget, he popped the frozen mound into the microwave. Sure enough, it emerged crispy and delicious. Like McDonald’s.

Concerned that perhaps the workers at the packaging house were rebelling, and some poor vegetarian would end up with the same fate from another bag, my boyfriend called the company.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a carrot?” the manager asked him, after he explained his immaculate discovery.

“Of course I’m sure,” my boyfriend replied. “I think I’d know the difference between a chicken nugget and a carrot.”

Though laughing hysterically, this got me thinking. The odyssey of his chicken nugget was so outrageous, that it became contagious.

So here’s my question to you: When you write, are you being the chicken nugget in a bag of frozen vegetables?

Make Your Writing Stand Out

I struggle with breaking free of clichés, as does every writer. But whether you’re a journalist trying to engage the public, a creative writer encouraging people to buy your book, or a corporate writer building your company’s brand, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t stand out.

Besides writing about the unexpected, consider these tips to transform yourself from a frozen carrot into that chicken nugget:

  • The Curse of Knowledge: A communications coach from my work once fed me this term. Are you so embroiled in your area of expertise, that you forgot what it’s like to be an outsider? Think: what would excite an 8-year-old to read your story?
  • Humor: Of course, this depends on what you’re writing, and for whom. But while making people cry takes talent, making people laugh takes true genius. Ask yourself: am I laughing as I’m writing this?
  • Your Personal Voice: Don’t you want to slap those teenagers who try on new identities as easily as they change outfits? With writing, you need to let your unique voice shine through. Don’t try to be anyone else, except you, even if you’re writing for a company (yes, I said it!).
  • OBSERVE: Admittedly, I’d forgotten this tip lately. My boyfriend had to remind me that the best writers observe the world around them. Are you stepping back and just looking? Seinfeld was insanely successful for a reason.
  • Realism: I don’t care whether you’re writing about a real person, or a character you developed. That person, and his or her story, better be realistic and believable. If people can’t relate, they won’t care. Which leads me to my next point . . .
  • Conflict: We’re all drama kings and queens at heart. Without conflict in a story, we’re bored! Build the tension of conflict, whether for a novel, article, or short story. In the corporate world, you can do this too. Established a new process? Interview an employee and learn how hard their job was before the new process kicked in.

Considering this is probably the longest blog I’ve ever written, I’ll stop here. But make yourself that chicken nugget in the bag of frozen vegetables—and surprise the world!

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

10 Reasons Every Writer Should Keep an Idea Box

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published June 1, 2011

How many times have I heard a (professional) writer tell me, “I really need an idea box?” Let me count the ways …

What is an idea box? Simply put: it’s a box you keep close to your favorite writing spot (for me, on my desk) where you stash all those great ideas scribbled on random pieces of paper. Personally, I carry a small notebook in my purse and jot down all kinds of phrases throughout the day.

Why do this?

Well, here are 10 reasons EVERY writer should keep an idea box:

1. It forces you to observe (hey, otherwise you can’t fill the box with ideas).

2. It solidifies the title of “writer” in your blood.

3. It keeps you looking at the world from different perspectives.

4. It kills Writer’s Block upon an attack (stuck? Just shuffle through your idea box).

5. It prevents the, “Oh crud, what was that great idea I thought of last night? It was classic, and now it’s gone!”

6. It helps you become more creative.

7. It prevents boredom.

8. It makes you feel important when your friends “oooo” and “ahhhh” over it.

9. It diversifies your stories and makes them better.

10. IT’S FUN! (well, at least for us writers)

So tell me …

Do YOU keep an idea box? Why or why not? And if so, how has the idea box helped you grow as a writer?

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

Are You Writing in Passive Voice? 3 Ways to Know

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Dec. 20, 2010

“Mistakes were made.” Perhaps my all-time favorite politician quote, made famous by good ol’ Richard Nixon.

Mistakes were made all right. Mistake number one, Nixon boy: DON’T COMMUNICATE IN PASSIVE VOICE.

Passive voice is boring. It’s what we reporters call “politician talk.” It can avoid responsibility, it will hypnotize readers to sleep, and it confuses people. The exact opposite is active voice. Thrilling! Stimulating! Electrifying! Active voice is what keeps your readers desperate for more.

So, how do you know if you’re writing in the dreaded passive voice? Here are three ways to decipher, and then switch it around to active excitement:

1.  Your reader doesn’t know who did the task.

“Mistakes were made.” By whom? Who made the mistakes?

Passive Voice: “Mistakes were made.”

Active Voice: “My administration made mistakes.”

2. Your verb is preceded by “was” or “were,” as examples.

When you write with this sentence structure, you lose the sense of immediate action in your description.

Passive voice: “He was driving through the brush.”

Active voice: “He drove through the brush.”

3. Your masterpiece sounds like a politician trying to get off the hook.

Just read the examples:

Passive voice:It has been an honor to serve in this role at Rock Star Media.* Employees should be recognized for the hard work they have accomplished.” (*I made up this company to use as an example)

Active voice:I am honored to serve in this role at Rock Star Media. Managers and leaders should recognize their employees for the hard work they accomplish every day.” 

Are you beginning to see the difference?

Now, here’s where you can really get your teeth grinding. Use stronger verbs, after switching from passive to active. Take my “driving” example from above:

Passive: “He was driving through the brush.”

Active: “He drove through the brush.”

Active with a better verb: “He sliced through the brush, the car his almighty sword.”

Now, aren’t your toes beginning to tingle? I know we’re not all writing thrilling action movies or novels. I work in a corporate environment. I get it. But, you can still make your stories more interesting by using active voice.

Ask yourself, are you ALWAYS pushing to write in this form? Are your words jumping off the page? They should be. And if they’re not, challenge yourself. You have more work to do.

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Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!

Exciting Announcement! In Preparation For …

excited-woman

I’m stoked. I’m seriously stoked. And I want to share my excitement with you.

I’ve decided to expand my business, Shari’s Ink, into a new arm which will help other WRITERS! This new business arm is a serious passion of mine, and I cannot wait to share it with you.

I’ll be making the announcement in a few weeks, so in preparation, I’m going to start re-publishing my top blog posts on writing tips from the past four years!

Whether it was my Freshly Pressed post on “Be the Chicken Nugget in a Bag of Vegetables,” or “The Best Dialogue Tip EVER,” you won’t want to miss these! I’ll ramp up my posting to twice per week during the countdown.

[If you sign up for my Readers Club, I’ll make sure to send you summaries of everything posted each month, so you don’t miss a beat.] 

So to start, here is a post from Nov. 13, 2012:

Become a Better Writer with this Tip

I can’t take credit for this; I saw it in a PR Daily article, “The 7 traits of great writers.” But what I read was absolutely ingenious.

Specifically, number two on the list:

2. You collect words.

Great writers collect words with the intent of using them later. I keep a running list of my favorite words in the notes feature on my cell phone.

In essence, make your own thesaurus.

Like seriously, how brilliant is that? Think about this for a moment. How many times have you read an article or short story, or heard a newscast, or listened to a friend … when you thought, “Wow, that’s a really great word.”

However, by the time you sit down to type your next masterpiece, the word has slipped from your mind.

Yet, developing a running list of these words—I can only imagine how much more lively, more engaging, this would make our writing.

Why don’t YOU help get this started? Comment and list your favorite 2-3 words. Let’s start a list right here!

5 Tips for Engaging Content–Captivate Your Audience!

I might be no Dan Brown, but I do work for a big company as a corporate communications writer, and have been published regionally as well as nationally. I’m also a former newspaper reporter who’s won two Associated Press awards. Therefore, here are my top 5 writing tips when drafting content for the general public. They’ve NEVER failed me!

1. Keep all article leads less than 30 words (and aim for 25). Trivia question: How many words does the average person read in a sentence before they might begin losing comprehension? Fourteen. . . 14 words! And the average American reads at a 4th-5th grade level. Case in point? The shorter and more engaging your first sentence, the better chance you’ll keep your reader reading your content.

2. Keep your paragraphs short and choppy, and use bullet points and/or subheads. I know, I know, we all love getting creative with our alliteration and descriptive genius. However, we are living in an age of “scanners.” People want to scan for the facts, and they can’t do that while swimming through endless paragraphs upon paragraphs. Break it up, and give your reader the luxury to scan for topics. Otherwise, you’ll lose them.

3. Keep your articles less than 500 words. I learned this neat little tip while writing for the paper. Studies have actually shown that the average reader will begin losing interest in a story after 500 words. Personally, I suggest aiming for 400. It will get your message across while helping it stick in your reader’s mind.

4. Put a face to your message, story, or content. The bottom line is this: People love a good story. Whatever you’re writing about, people will relate much better if you have a human interest angle. Interview someone. Quote them in your content. Relate their personal story to your facts and stats. Then begin your article/blog with their greatest struggles. Trust me, people will cling for more.

5. STAY AWAY FROM JARGON! This is one of my biggest pet peeves. So often, especially in business or corporate communications writing, people get caught up in their profession’s “jargon.” However, the average reader won’t know what they’re talking about, and they’ll cease to care. They’ll simply go elsewhere for the information. While writing your content, ask yourself if you’re explaining your message in a way that a 5th grader can understand. If not, go back, revise, and SIMPLIFY.