Writing 101: How To Write Setting

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A month and a half ago, my fiancee and I moved from Connecticut to Baltimore. The arty, weird, almost anarchic qualities of Baltimore City seemed to be a perfect fit for a quirky couple like us. The fact that Lauren’s a Baltimore native didn’t hurt either. We hired movers (a whole other ordeal) and hit the road, moving in to the Hampden neighborhood immortalized in countless John Waters films.

Through being co-founder and co-publisher of Beautiful Losers Magazine, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with two talented writers, Austin Wiggins and Dario Cannizzaro. Austin and Dario have both recently released new collections of short fiction (check them out in the links at the end of the post). Seeing Austin and Dario put out such quality works inspired me to write my first book. Without getting into too much detail, the novel is about an underground cabal of high-powered individuals clandestinely engaging in child abuse. This story, like any other, needs a setting. While the cabal operates out of New York (my hometown, a city I know like the back of my hand), the protagonist is a Baltimore native. Of course, being new to the city, depicting Baltimore authentically can be a challenge.

So, how did I tackle that challenge of writing Baltimore and not looking like an outsider or someone who had no idea what he was doing? Simple – I followed a few basic principles.

  1. Explore Your Location. If your setting is in a real place, or even if it’s a fictionalized version of a real location, visit the place! Talk to people from there, frequent restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other establishments. Get an idea of the culture. Even just walking around observing people (not in a creepy way!) and the location can do wonders towards understanding a place. If a location is too far away and/or not financially possible to visit, simply go to the Internet. YouTube has videos of virtually every location on the planet. Watch them!
  2. Ask Questions. Find a native from the place you intend to write about and ask them whatever questions you might have. If you don’t have any friends or family from that location, again, take to the Internet.
  3. Treat The Location As A Character. Many novice writers make the mistake of either writing too much or too little description in their novels. Hit the right balance by integrating the location whenever possible into your story, but don’t overdo it. You want your readers to feel as if the story is taking place in a specific location/s, not in some formless world. That said, your novel isn’t a Wikipedia article either.
  4. Modern Day, The Past, or The Future? If you’re writing about a setting from the past, do your research. If it’s the recent past, interview people who lived through the era. If you’re writing about a setting in the future, examine the location in its current state and make predictions about how it will differ in the near or distant future.
  5. Live There. Nothing’s better than total immersion if you want to authentically capture the feel of a place, but if that’s not feasible, the first four options should more than suffice.

Do you have any tips for writing setting that might help our readers? Share them with a comment!

If you’re having difficulty with writing the setting and need a ghostwriter or developmental editor, consider working with me by clicking here.

Read Austin Wiggins’ Bonds That Bind.

Read Dario Cannizzaro’s Of Life, Death, Aliens and Zombies.

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Your Protagonist Is The Alpha

In literature, when writing your protagonist make sure that they are “active.”

What do I mean by active? I mean that your protagonist, whatever situations s/he may be facing, must take action to attempt to solve them. Your main character cannot be a passive onlooker. Be they of heroic, antiheroic, or villainous qualities, the character who is the primary focus of your book needs to move things forward through aggressive actions.

I want to get into a bit of an aside…in April 2013, I quit my job as an educator at Monroe College. I loved working at Monroe. I had a great rapport with students and colleagues alike. The administration was quite high on me, wanting to promote me. I enjoyed the culture of the institution. However, I was determined to make it as a writer and when the initial catalyst arrived – my first publication in a literary journal – I set out on a new path, taking action to get my writing published and delving into the worlds of acting, filmmaking, and entrepreneurship. I have faced many challenges along the way, but regardless, I continue to push forward on my path until I have achieved everything I set out to do.

Now if someone someday might view me as an inspiration for the lead character in their book, I can work as a protagonist because I always have a bias towards action in my own life, working to move things forward through all obstacles. Your protagonist needs to do the same.

Of course, there are exceptions. You can choose to write a book about a character paralyzed by inaction; however, most writers write active protagonists and should remember to make sure that their lead character is always pushing the plot forward through their actions.

The takeaway: Make sure that your protagonist is a doer. S/he is not someone merely acted on by others, s/he is the one leading through their actions.

Six Different Ways To Write Your Conclusion

The beginning of your novel is easy. The ideas flow out and you’re writing at least 3,000 words a day.

The middle of your novel starts to become arduous, but you still know where you’re going with your story. Maybe you’re down to about 1,000 words a day.

Now you’re at the finish line and it has become a nightmare because you have no idea how to artfully end your book. Sound like a situation you’ve faced before? If so, read on for a few different ways to conclude your novel or short story.

  1. Open Ended – In this approach, readers determine what happened because the writer intentionally leaves the ending open to interpretation.
  2. Traditional – A clear cut ending with no ambiguity. Readers know exactly what happened and why.
  3. Back To The Beginning – The writer revisits the same/similar image or situation as at the beginning of the story.
  4. Thoughts – A character, usually the protagonist, sinks into reflection.
  5. Dialogue – Characters have a conversation.
  6. Symbolism – Details that allude to something important are presented.

Which approach have you used in your novel/s or short stories? Why did you choose that approach? 

 

Should A Writer Use Writing Prompts?

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There are many creative writing courses, instructive books on creative writing, and influential bloggers who are adamant about the benefits of using creative writing prompts.

I am not one of them.

At both Beloit College’s Bachelor’s program in creative writing, and also at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, I had a difficult time with the restrictions imposed by some instructors in asking me to write based on a prompt. I personally do not believe that writing prompts should be used by writers, except for when they are suffering through writer’s block.

Creative writers delve into their head to produce their stories. To write based on a prompt, in my experience, does not produce good writing. Rather, the writing that usually results from these prompts tends to be stale.

The primary reasons that I am generally against writers using creative writing prompts are:

  1. It produces a laziness in your creative imagination.  A dependency on creative writing prompts often leads to a lack of ideas brought forth from a writer’s own mind. As a vivid imagination is key to the world building inherent in fiction writing, this obviously has negative consequences.
  2. The topics are usually too general. The best authors have always written fiction that either deviates from the everyday experience, or if drawn from the ordinary, inverts it or provides a special insight into it that is often missed in the hectic nature of most people’s daily lives.Writing prompts, on the other hand, are often meant to have wide applicability. For new writers, this can easily lead to general writing that does not challenge the author to provide their best fiction.

The only times that I would recommend a writer use creative writing prompts are:

  1. For the first month or two of your writing career. Creative writing, like any other skill, needs to be developed. At first, many new writers may have a difficult time even bringing forth ideas, or understanding the parameters of fiction. In this case, using writing prompts to focus your writing can be helpful, rather than throwing yourself directly into the fire, and likely becoming frustrated with the whole notion of creative writing.
  2. When you have a bad case of writer’s block. Now, I believe that writer’s block rarely affects writers who make a consistent practice of creative writing. The literary imagination is like a muscle, and it does atrophy when you do not exercise it. However, every writer will probably have to deal with writer’s block at some point/s in their life. During these periods, utilizing writing prompts may be a method to consider to get your creative juices going once again.

Do you use writing prompts? How do you feel that they have helped or hindered your creative writing? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments. 

-Alfonso Colasuonno graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Beloit College. He is a published author of fiction and poetry. He provides publishing consultancy and editing services for writers who would like to make the process of jumpstarting their literary career simpler and quicker.

 

A Simple Trick to Markedly Improve Your Prose

I’ve been honored to have had my short fiction published in some truly impressive magazines. That said, I can guarantee that if I didn’t do one simple trick to improve my prose, I would not have been published in any of the literary journals that featured my short stories.

What is that trick? Analyze how your favorite authors construct sentences.

When I delve into my personal story on The Literary Game, I never sugarcoat any of my failings. The reason I believe in such complete transparency is because I know, given my experience, that anyone can pull themselves up and become a superb writer. I certainly wasn’t always a writer with a real shot at publishing my work anywhere that was an appropriate fit; I started quite a bit more humbly than that.

I didn’t start writing until I was 20, when I decided, on a whim, to become a Creative Writing major while enrolled at Beloit College in Wisconsin. I felt outmatched during my time there, and lost motivation to try, and my work was truly poor in quality. When I graduated, I moved back to New York City, landed a job as a teacher, and tried to forget all about the failed experiment that was my attempt to do creative writing.

My friend Russell Jaffe, a quite talented poet, moved to New York about 18 months after I graduated. We got back in touch through Facebook, and he mentioned that he was setting up a poetry reading in Williamsburg, a local arty neighborhood. Russell asked if I had written anything recently, and I told him that I had not. He mentioned that he liked my stuff from Beloit, and told me if I wrote some poems, he’d put me on the show. I gained a lot of confidence from Russell’s belief in my writing’s potential, and the successful show, and started writing poetry. I amassed a huge collection of poems over four years, and then decided to do something with it, and started publishing many in my collection and new ones, as well.

As I started amassing many publishing credits for my poetry, a spontaneous rush of ideas for short fiction came into my head. Circumstances had aligned so that my friend Rairigh was able to give me a free room in rural Pennsylvania, and I had a bit of a savings from my job in academia. I quit my position and set out to be not only a poet, but also a fiction writer.

During my first few days in Clarion, Pennsylvania, I had a firm intent to write fiction, but didn’t know where to start. My sentences seemed clunky. I have always been a voracious reader, but for me, unlike many other English majors, I always saw great books as pleasure, not as something to firmly dissect and get into intellectual debates over. That being so, I rarely paid much conscious attention to the way writers constructed their sentences.

The brilliant idea that changed everything for me as a fiction writer came to me after a few frustrating days of trying, and failing, to write. I decided to head to the Clarion Public Library and study some of my favorite authors. I pulled from the shelves works by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, William Faulkner, and a few other authors whose work I admire. I studied exactly how they constructed sentences, how they did dialogue, how they transitioned between paragraphs, how they integrated description, how they paced their works, and every other feature that these impressive authors did regarding their prose.

When I came back to my apartment, I started writing my first short story and it was EASY. I didn’t steal the style from any of these authors, but I had learned exactly how good writers write, and adapted that to my own vision.  My summer in Clarion, and fall in the nearby town of DuBois, led to an impressive assortment of short fiction, and my first few publications as a fiction writer.

So, in short, if you want to improve your writing, study how your favorite writers construct their prose. It will definitely help you write better.

-Alfonso

 

p.s. I strive to present all the tools necessary for writers to dramatically improve their craft and chances of publishing through my blog posts, free Q&A service, and free fiction writing 101 course. However, if you require more personal attention, please consider my editing and/or publishing consultancy services.

 

The Foundations of Successful Writing

I’d like to share with my readers The Foundations of Successful Writing. This a set of PowerPoint slides that I created to assist novice writers with the technical aspects of fiction writing. Much of what I post in The Literary Game is about the importance and successful navigation of marketing, publishing, and editing for writers. I also choose to focus a great deal on the psychology necessary for advancement as a writer. Advice on craft is not a main priority of this blog; however, it is of paramount importance for any aspiring writer to know how to write well.

I invite you to download The Foundations of Successful Writing. I hope these slides can serve as an excellent tool to help aspiring writers learn the basics of craft.

If you find these slides helpful, please feel free to share this post on your blog or on your social media feeds, and help other writers improve their work. Thanks!

Warmly,
Alfonso Colasuonno
Founder, The Literary Game

Six Ways to Write Creatively

If you’re an aspiring writer, you may find yourself drawn to one specific type of creative writing. This post intends to be a quick guide to different types of writing. Feel free to play around, and see what may happen if you try a different direction.

Poetry

If you have a background as a musician, write lyrics, or in rapping, you may want to try poetry. Contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t have to rhyme, in fact, rhyming poetry is pretty much passe. If you can make your writing have a musicality to it, give poetry a try!

Short Fiction

Have you tried to write a novel and got stuck somewhere along the line? Are you a part of the ADHD generation? Try short fiction! Just keep in mind that short fiction requires a different approach from a novel. In short fiction, you aren’t telling a whole narrative, but merely presenting a snapshot. If brevity is a strong point, give short fiction a try!

Novels

Do you have patience? If your answer isn’t an unequivocal yes, beware of the novel. The novel is often seen as the only “real” type of writing by many aspiring writers, but that’s simply not true; all creative writing has merit. While practically all writers love reading novels, please note that this is an ambitious goal. If you have the patience, desire and the organizational skills to tackle a novel, then go for it!

Creative Nonfiction

Is your life so interesting that you don’t need to even make things up? Why not try writing creative nonfiction? In creative nonfiction, you take the same approach as you would to a novel or short fiction, but the difference is you draw from your own real experiences. Remember this though, just because it happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Make sure to write in the same way you would approaching something fictional!

Screenplays

Be honest, do you prefer watching a good movie to reading a good book? If so, you might want to try writing a screenplay. Remember that writing a screenplay is different from a novel or short fiction, as you are writing with a focus on the visuals. If you’re less a “pure” writer and more of an all-around creative, you may want to give writing a screenplay a try!

Plays

Do you have a flare for the dramatic? Are you an actor? Do you find writing dialogue to be remarkably easy, but description and introspection to be harder to execute? Try writing a play! Just remember to keep focused on the fact that this will take place on a stage, and write accordingly.

I hope this post has helped you. If you already have started on a literary project, and need copy editing, intensive editing, or publishing assistance, simply email me. I’d love to help you reach your literary potential!