They’re, Their, There

They're Their There

They’re, their, there!

Here we are for Tutorial Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

They’re Not Letting Me Play with Their Toys Over There!

As you can see I used them all in the sentence above in their proper sense. Let’s take a look at each one, shall we?

 

They’re, their, there quandary!

Let’s take a look at each one, shall we?

They’re

This is a contraction of ‘they are.’ If you think you need to use this in a sentence, you can test it out by replacing it with ‘they are’ to see if it still works.

They’re looking at me.

They are looking at me.

See? You should be able to interchange them easily and the sentence still makes sense.

Their

This is a possessive. The word tells you that whatever you’re talking about belongs to them. Their toys, their car, their vegetables… see?

Their tomatoes were ripe and juicy.

The tomatoes belonged to them, not me. I would certainly buy those tomatoes from them if they are really that good. :)

There

This word is used to describe placement.

They parked the car over there.

It can also be used with variations of the verb ‘to be’.

There are apples all over the ground.

See? It is paired with ‘are,’ which is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be.’

It really is very simple if you take a moment to think about it when you write. In these types of grammatical cases, it is best to rely on your brain than on spell checkers found in many programs. I often get flags on my writing with these three words in MS Word when I am using them correctly. The program wants me to change it to they’re in most cases, which would not be correct for the sentence I wrote. If ever in doubt, just do this quick little test and you’ll know you used the correct one

First Person Point of View

first person point of view

Ah, first person point of view. Many of the books that cross my desk are written in first person. The reader gets to experience the story inside a character’s head. I find that many first-time authors choose first person as their chosen point of view, at least in the books I edit.

I peered into the bassinet. There was a tiny person, wrapped in a fluffy pink blanket. She squirmed, threatening to wake. I squirmed. What would I do if she cried? I was afraid to touch her. I heaved a sigh of relief when she seemed to settle. How could they send her home with me? I had no clue what to do with her. How could I take care of her? What if I dropped her? What if I failed? It wasn’t like I could just find another home for her, like a puppy. She was supposed to be mine. I swallowed hard. My daughter. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real. 

One of the great things about first person point of view  is you really get into that person’s character. The narration is in that character’s speech pattern, we get the immediacy of their experience, and the reader feels as if they are feeling what the character feels. First person offers range that can be awkward in third person. You can wander through impressions, feelings, memory, opinion as they pass through the character’s head. This is one of the great strengths of this point of view. There are, however, equally strong weaknesses that you need to keep in mind if you choose to write in first person.

  • You can’t include a scene in which your character is not present. Likewise, you can’t include any information your character wouldn’t have access to. If you must include crucial information your character doesn’t have direct access to, you must be creative in finding ways to make it accessible, like letters, overheard conversations, and so on.
  • You must include any information you character does have. This is especially important if you’re writing a mystery. Suddenly springing a clue upon your readers that your character already knew about is bad form.
  • As the author, you’re limited to your character’s view of the world. If your character is a Pollyanna, then s/he must see the good in everyone, no matter how evil they are. Their evilness must be shown in other ways.
  • Don’t confuse yourself with your character. It is so easy to do. If you feel a certain way about something, make sure your character doesn’t feel that way just because you do. You need to remain objective. If your character has a strong political pull to the right or left, for example, and you’re the opposite, you can’t let your own leanings color your character in any way. You need to be able to become the reader enough to judge what you put on the page. This is why many authors consider first person to be extremely difficult. It is the also what many beginning authors forget when they choose to write in first person.

Point of View

point of view
Handcuffs and Key

When you write a story, you need to choose a point of view. Who will be telling the story? Will it be one of your characters? Will it be you, the author?

Who you choose can change the story. Let’s say you want to tell a story about a bank robbery. Major characters may include the robbers, the hostages inside the bank, and the police officers on the scene. If you choose one of the robbers, the story may consist of adventure, planning the heist, danger, a falling out between partners, and lack of trust.

If the story is told through the eyes of one of the hostages, it becomes one of bewilderment and fear. Do they hope to escape? Maybe several band together to stand up to the robbers or maybe they learn their lesson when one gets injured for doing something foolish and they await rescue.

If a detective on the case is the one who relates the story, it becomes a procedural… we get treated to the protocols of the case, talking down the robbers, negotiating for the release of the hostages, the stress when one is shot.

As you can see, each angle tells a different tale, although the main story remains the same. If you have a large cast of characters in your book, use as few points of view as possible to tell the story. Figure out the least amount you need to adequately cover the story and any internal dialogues you need in your story. Having too many can get confusing, not only for the reader, but for you. Now you must decide between first person, third person, omniscient, or those rarely used second person, plural first, plural third, and epistolary forms.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be covering some of these various forms of point of view, including the pros and cons of choosing them, as well as what pitfalls to watch out for when you use them.

The Setup

Welcome to the first part of our little series on story structure. Remember those four boxes we mentioned last Friday? Today we’re going to fill up the first one. Box One. Knowing what goes in this box will make your writing easier, it will satisfy your readers, and it will make your work far more marketable.

The first quarter of your story is the setup. This is where we learn the stakes, the backstory, we empathize with your characters, we get a taste of what’s to come. This is where we meet Billie Jean and find out her neat, tidy corner of the world is going to implode. While I fully encourage you to begin the story as late as you can, the first plot point doesn’t arrive until the end of Part One. You can have an inciting incident that sweeps her along for the ride, but don’t confuse it with the first plot point. More on that later. Right now, we want the reader to care about Billie Jean and what happens to her. The more we care about Billie Jean, the better. We need to empathize with what she has at stake. What does she need or want in her life? What does she face before the main conflict arrives? This is what will affect how much we care about her when the caca hits the fan. And why should you care how much we care? Because the more we care, the more effective your story is.

Now that we’re falling all over ourselves with caring, our dashing heroine gets hit in the face with the first plot point, and the reader gets rewarded with meaning. Ta da! Cue the angelic spotlight from the ceiling. The antagonistic force has come into play and either the main character, the reader, or both are hit straight in the eyes with what’s happening. Before this, we don’t know what it all means, even if we’re scared out of our wits or if we find it arousing.

So, what’s the difference between an inciting incident and the first plot point? An inciting incident is definitely something big that happens. It’s huge and dramatic. It can be a game changer. It can also be part of the set up. While a plot point can be all those things, it also defines the changes and the path the character takes. An inciting incident creates an obstacle, but the plot point gives meaning and implications to the hero’s journey.

So, the setup has to bring your character to the transition point. We do that using scenes. This part ends when Billie Jean realizes she needs to step up. Part one has revealed something new… a decision, an action, an obstacle that has created a situation that must be addressed. It may be challenging or scary. She has to accomplish something. If she was already working towards this accomplishment in Part One, the plot point alters it somehow or clarifies what is at stake or the nature of her challenge. Alternatively, the first plot point can be completely unexpected; a moment in which everything changes.

At the very end of Part One, the first plot point, the reader gets the first full look at the antagonist. That doesn’t mean everything is explained about the antagonist, but now the reader gets to understand what his or her desire is and how he or she opposes our hero. Conflict. This is where the story really gets interesting.

Show and Tell

Remember in kindergarten when you got to bring an item for show and tell? You got to show your possession and tell your classmates all about it. Well, in writing, it’s a bit different.

When we show something to the reader, we’re trusting them to fill in some of the blanks. We’re letting them use their imagination. We don’t have to say George walked across the room to the front door, reached for the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open, and peeked outside. We can say George opened the door slightly and peeked outside. Our brain fills in the rest. We only need to put in the important, interesting details.

When we’re telling something (and it is necessary sometimes), we’re explaining. Use this only when needed. For instance, if the scene takes place in a shipyard, it may be necessary to explain what the main character is seeing to a certain extent to understand what’s going on. Most people today don’t understand that rivets were put into the steel while they were red hot and that young boys were there to catch them. How would you like your son doing that job today? Sure, times were different then, but that’s one of the reasons why you’d put in some narrative here to explain the scene. It pulls the reader into the setting.

When we read, we’re dealing with the inner ear and the inner eye. Our inner ear deals with the narration of the story. Our inner eye is our imagination that pulls out the imagery the words written on the page bring forth in our heads as we read. Knowing how the brain works in this way is important when you write the story. Why? Because too much telling to that inner ear tends to lull the reader to sleep. Unless you’re writing a book intended to cure insomnia, that’s probably not your intent.

Let’s try an example. Let’s look at a fairy tale… Cinderella. The prince is going through the town, trying to find the girl who fits the glass slipper. He shows up at the home of Cinderella and her stepsisters.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She thought about the time she’d spent with the prince. It had been wonderful. She remembered those moments at the ball, when she’d felt so special. Then she thought of her stepmother, and the tongue-lashing that would surely follow if she asked to try on the slipper. Her thoughts drifted to her life spent waiting on her stepsisters hand and foot, wearing their cast off rags.

So is she going to step forward and try on the shoe or not? I see a lot of manuscripts like this. The writing’s not bad, but you get so stuck in the internal monologue that nothing happens. Cut to the chase, my dear.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She glanced at the prince, then at her stepmother. She took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders back, and stepped into the room.

“Excuse me. May I try on the slipper?” she asked.

Isn’t that better? You get the idea she’s tossing around what she should do because she looks at the prince, then her stepmother. That’s enough right there to show she’s weighing her options. Then she pulls her act together and steps forward. Action! Of course, it always blows my mind that she has to actually try on the dang shoe. Doesn’t the prince recognize her face when he sees her? Or did he spend the entire ball looking at her foot?

The First Line

How important is the first line of your story? Will it keep readers on the page long enough to read the second? The third? Is it trite or cliche? Is it memorable?

There are only a few beginning lines that really stand out in my memory as making me want to keep reading. In fact, one of them got me to actually buy the book at a garage sale.

Death drove a green Lexus.

Isn’t that a fabulous opening line? I had to buy the book and find out why Death was driving a green Lexus. I mean, who wouldn’t? This one belongs to veteran author, Dean Koontz, in the book Winter Moon, I believe.

Another that I came across not too long ago is from The Harrowing, by Alexandra Sokoloff: It had been raining since possibly the beginning of time.

While not as stunning as Koontz’s line, it created an indelible impression in my mind of how one feels after endless days of rain. It made me want to read more.

You know right away that sarcastic humor will accompany you through Jim Butcher’s Small Favor with this line: Winter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.

How do your first lines compare?

 

Snow Talk

It’s mid-March, and they’ve been talking snow. Woke up this morning and they were announcing the Oregon coast is pretty much snowed in. This is a rare event. Not much fell here in the valley, but we’re surrounded by the white stuff if you drive out of town. The hills are covered. So how does this relate to writing?

Snow may be rare where you live, or you may get inundated with the stuff every winter. Either way, it transforms the landscape. Plants and cars become white lumps that could be hiding anything your mind can cook up. The lighting is different as it reflects off the snow, giving a clarity during the day that often isn’t there. At night, it seems to glow, making the world seen more magical. Or dangerous, depending on your perspective. It sparkles as light reflects off the surfaces of lots of tiny ice crystals.

Writing can get to be the same old grind. It can be a challenge to make it new again. When you need to boost it up a bit, think of the snow. How can you change the lighting on your writing to bring clarity? Can you make it sparkle and glint in the light? Maybe you need to hide some everyday things under a big blanket of imaginary snow to make them more mysterious. Partially reveal something instead of going all the way. Don’t be afraid to leave something for discovery later in the story.

Literary snow can change your world, even if it is only for a little while. Use it to change your style, to bring a different look to your story.

Map Your Course

When you write a story, there are certain things readers expect. They want the story to grow. The main character should be challenged by something to make it interesting, after all, who wants to read about everyday life? We’re already living it. They want the main character to take charge and meet the challenge. Perhaps they solve a murder, or take down a group of terrorists. Or maybe they fall in love. No matter what your story is about, your main character should follow a map that directs the story.

You don’t necessarily need that map already diagrammed out in your head or on paper before you write, but if you don’t, you need to hold your story up to close scrutiny to see where it falls short.

What is the challenge that faces your character? Can they face it alone? Do they need help? Do they doubt themselves? How do they react when this challenge hits them in the face? Is it realistic or does your character solve every new problem by the end of the chapter? Does your pacing match the growing issue in the story?

Do you give your readers a break with something calming between heart-pounding scenes? Sometimes it’s nice to have a little breather so you’re ready to let the suspense build again. Does your character grow and learn? Do they come into their own and take charge? Or do you have someone coming in to rescue them at the last minute?

Going through your story either before or after you’ve written your first draft and mapping out the arc of the story, the characters, the chapters, and so on will give your readers a more satisfying journey.

If you take a look at ancient stories, they still follow the same arc. Story begins. Something happens. Main character reacts. Something else happens. Main character must decide to take charge because they’re the only one who can do it. Main character pursues the murderer, kills the monster, defeats evil, finds true love, etc. Everyone lives happily ever after, or at least, as happy as they can according to their circumstances. The reader finally puts the book down, happy with the journey they’ve just taken.

Subplots can fill any gaps and help tie major scenes together. Mapping out your story will show you where you need to strengthen those weak points or add a key element you forgot.

Mapping out can be done on the computer with a spreadsheet program, on a white board with markers, on a pad of paper or with post-its. Use what works for you. Jot down brief scene descriptions and place them in order. Use colored markers or change colors on the computer if it helps you track various story lines or characters. This will show you if you’ve leaned too heavily on your main character’s best friend or if you made a giant leap from one scene to another and dropped the plot ball.

Post-its or writing on white boards can work wonders for some writers, because it is easy to move scenes around if necessary. The end result is you get a map that leads you through your story so you can tighten it up and make it shine.

What is Your Story Built Upon?

Every story needs structure to be successful. Does your story have it?

Consider a house. To stand, it needs a basic structure. Those 2x4s support the walls, and the trusses support the roof. Your story is no different. It needs structure to stand up. Few stories can succeed when written in an offbeat sequence, just like few houses can stand if the underlying structure is weakened or compromised. Think of all the different housing styles you’ve seen, yet they all have the same underlying structure. Those 2x4s are still there.

Your story needs its structure to do the same thing. Most stories are based upon a four part structure. This structure has been implemented since man started storytelling. Before you complain that using a structure hinders your creativity, think of all those houses that look so different. Think of all the dogs on the planet; they all have the same bone structure, the same digestive systems, the same function, yet they can look as different as a Chihuahua does from a German Shepherd.

Likewise, readers expect a story to progress in a certain way. Let’s take a look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone. In the first part of the book, we are introduced to Harry, our hero. We find out about his circumstances, and we empathize with him. We see that he does have abilities that he isn’t familiar with, and we eagerly go along with him as he goes off to Hogwarts to begin his new life. Then Harry hits some complications. He makes enemies. He must fit in all his schoolwork along with Quidditch practice. He finds out about the stone. Next, he has to find a way to prevent Voldemort from getting the stone, while the stakes get higher. Finally, he confronts Quirrel and Voldemort, prevents them from getting the stone, and life returns to some semblance of normal again.

Along with Harry Potter, other bestsellers follow this basic structure. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Jim Butcher’s Changes, and Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer all follow the same basic structure. All of them sold well, and two have been made into movies. They wouldn’t have been half as successful if the authors decided to mess with the basic structure.

So, does your story have structure?

Every story needs structure. If you’re not sure about yours, your editor can help pinpoint it for you so you can plug up holes, rearrange portions if necessary, and make it strong. Please check out our services if you don’t already have an editor.

Improving Your Writing

How do you hone your craft? You write. It doesn’t matter if it stinks and you can’t spell. What matters is you keep writing. Some people find that picking a specific time every day works well for their writing. Others do better if they just let it flow when the mood strikes. Either way, keep writing.

Another thing that makes you a better writer is reading. Read as much as you can. Yes, there are some excellent books on writing… feel free to check some of our recommendations. Besides that, just reading your favorite fiction can help you be a better writer. As you read and write more, you’ll find that you can’t help analyzing a particularly effective sentence or scene.

Combine what you learn from your reading with your writing sessions. Can you describe a setting as well as you read in that last story? Pick a different setting and see if you can’t do just as well. Try it with an action scene, or with internal thoughts of one of your characters. Be honest with yourself. Was your scene as effective as the scenes you are trying to emulate? This takes practice. Obviously you don’t want to just rewrite the original scene. This is why I recommend changing the setting, action or thoughts.

Above all, write.

Don’t publish until you’re ready. Sure, put something on your blog and ask for feedback, but don’t publish a book until you are sure your writing is up to the task. When you do feel you’re ready, get the book edited. This probably won’t be after the first or second draft; it may take you several drafts before you’re ready to hand your baby off to another’s hands. Even I get nervous about handing my writing off to someone else, but I know it is necessary to hone and polish my message.

Sometimes I need to take my own advice and write. It takes time, it’s true. But unless you make the time, it won’t happen, and writing will remain one of those unfulfilled dreams.

So, write. Write some more. Revise it. When you’re happy with it, we’re happy to help you from there with editing, book design and formatting.