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Writing Stream Recap: Dreaming about pregnant Harry Potter

Last writing stream certainly brought out some, uh, creative stories!

We started off with a writing exercise where we got a random word, and used it as our topic (our word was “contact”). Then we get five more random words and had to use them at some point in the story. Because nothing quite gets the creative juices flowing like having to connect seemingly-unrelated ideas.

After writing three different opening sentences and the chat picking the one they liked best, this is what I wrote (bolded words are the random words).

How to Make a Horcrux: Deducing the “Horrible” Act

I recently re-read all seven Harry Potter books to see if my opinion of them had changed in the past decade. I’d always loved the first four, but could never quite get into the last three. They felt like they were missing the magic (wop wop) that the first four had.

And this time around too, unfortunately I didn’t like Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, or Deathly Hallows much more than I had the first time I’d read them. Although there was one thing I did enjoy more about them this time: Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

They were certainly a lot more interesting
than the “mystery” of who the Half-Blood Prince was.

In my opinion, the Horcruxes are the best parts of the sixth and seventh books. Up until their reveal, we never knew how Voldemort survived being hit by the killing curse. Learning that he used actual, concrete magic to do it, rather than just ambiguous magic like “magical willpower” or “the impermanence of evil” gives the stories more depth and makes them feel more real.

But one thing struck me as odd. Even though we learn all about Horcruxes in books six and seven, we never learn one of the most obvious things about them: how do you make one? Yes, we know you need to commit a murder, thereby “splitting” your soul, and then put that “split” part into a container, but there’s more to it than that.

Masterpiece Monday: Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts (Adverbs)

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at a great example of not needing to spice up the word “said.” This week I’d like to start a series that I call Awesome Authors DO-ing Writing DON’Ts.

When we read articles about writing online or attend writing groups and such, we’re often told NEVER to do certain things. Never tell always show, never use the passive voice, never use ellipses, never use more than two adjectives at a time, etc. etc.

While many of those are usually good advice, they can be a real hindrance if stuck to all the time. I talked previously about how forcing myself to always show in my writing and never tell held me back.

Sometimes, you do need to tell. You do need to use the passive. And you do need to… wait for it… use an adverb.

I know, blasphemy right? Even just last week we talked about how using adverbs in dialogue (“he said happily” etc.) can turn your writing from snappy to slow as molasses in seconds.

But that’s just it – sometimes you do want to slow down your writing. Or sometimes you need to convey exactly how a character is saying something in order to get across the hidden meaning behind their words. And adverbs can be perfect for that.

One of the books that really showed me the power of adverbs is Harry Potter. Here’s an abbreviated version of one excellently-written scene that uses adverbs to convey the tense mood perfectly. It’s right at the beginning of the book, when Mr. Dursley attempts to ask his wife if all the crazy stuff he’s seen all day might in any way be connected to her sister (adverbs underlined):

He cleared his throat nervously. “Er – Petunia, dear – you haven’t heard from your sister lately, have you?

“No,” she said sharply. “Why?”

He said, as causally as he could, “Their son – he’d be about Dudley’s age now, wouldn’t he?”

“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Dursley stiffly.

“What’s his name again? Howard, isn’t he?”

“Harry. Nasty, common name, if you ask me.”

“Oh, yes” said Mr. Dursley, his heart sinking horribly. “Yes, I quite agree.”

That’s almost an adverb per sentence! If J.K. Rowling had brought her manuscript to a writer’s group, chances are all of them would’ve been crossed out in red ink and she would’ve gotten a lecture about how good writers NEVER use adverbs.

Except that’s not true. The dialogue here isn’t supposed to be quick and snappy, it’s supposed to be slow and painful, so we can feel the torture that Mr. Dursley is going through. Using adverbs to slow it down a bit, while adding some juicy description as well, is the perfect way to accomplish that.

When it comes to writing DON’Ts, it’s not about never using them, but knowing WHEN to use them. Just like we shouldn’t use adverbs in every single sentence, we shouldn’t eat chocolate cake for every single meal either. But sometimes a little bit of chocolate cake is awesome, even necessary – if you show up to an elementary birthday party with celery sticks instead of cake, then you’d better be prepared to be whacked like a pinata.

So, I guess that metaphor makes sense? I don’t know, but I suddenly having a incredibly unbelievable craving for some freshly-baked adverbs chocolate cake.

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Writing Action by Subtraction

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at a character with a sexy voice (even though we never actually hear her say a word). This week I’d like to show off a great example of something that I find difficult to pull off well: writing action scenes.

Writing an action scene is tough. You have to keep tension high and fast-paced, but at the same time you need to provide enough details so your reader can follow what’s going on. But if you provide too many details, it just falls flat. It’s the writing equivalent of walking a tightrope… on a unicycle… taped to each foot.

One book that does action scenes very well is (unsurprisingly!) Harry Potter. Let’s take a look at one particularly great passage. It’s during Harry’s first broomstick-flying lesson, when Malfoy steals Neville’s Rememberall and is taunts Harry up in the air with it. Suddenly he throws it as far as he can, and we get this scene:

“Harry saw, as though in slow motion, the ball rise up in the air and then start to fall. He leaned forward and pointed his broom handle down – next second he was gathering speed in a steep dive, racing the ball – wind whistled in his ears, mingled with the screams of people watching – he stretched out his hand – a foot from the ground her caught hit, just in time to pull his broom straight, and he toppled gently onto the grass with the Rememberall clutched safely in his fist.”

This passage has a couple of great things going for it. First, it’s only two sentences long. The first sentence sets up Harry’s broomstick dive, and the second one carries us from his initial descent down to the very end.

Even though it’s a long sentence, it doesn’t feel long. The dashes break it up into easily readable pieces, and the lack of any full-stop periods makes us not slow down until the very end – just like Harry.

PROHARRYTIP #1: To keep the pace up in an action scene,
try subtracting the number of sentences.

Of course not every action scene can be just one long sentence; readers would get tired of it pretty quickly. However this passage does one other thing very well: verb usage.

Just a few excess words here and there can add up, quickly turning an intense scene into a molasses-y mess. But I love the snappy one-word verbs used in the above passage: pointed his broom handle, racing the ball, wind whistled, toppled gently, clutched safely, and more.

Imagine if the beginning were written like this instead:

“Harry saw, as though in slow motion, the ball rise up in the air and then start to fall. He shifted his body weight forward abruptly and gripped the point of his broom tightly to steer it downward – next second he was building up lots of increasing speed in a steep dive, at first following right behind the ball but then getting closer and closer until finally he was next to it….”

Yikes, that’s almost twice as long as the original. It’s more words, but it’s not any clearer for having used them. Condensing the long phrases into single verbs make for much faster reading, bringing us readers into the fast-moving scene more easily and effectively.

PROHARRYTIP #2: To keep the pace up in an action scene,
try subtracting long phrases/adverbs and replacing with single verbs.

Writing good action is tough. I know I struggle with it, but hopefully by looking at some good examples we can all try to imagine what doing exciting things must be like!

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)

Masterpiece Monday: Harry Potter Show and Tell

Last week on Masterpiece Monday we looked at the magic of one really well-written line, but this week we’re back to the actual magic with Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Showing vs. telling. Ah, the term we all love to use. As writers we’re supposed to show show show and never tell. Just like a good documentary, we’re supposed to give the reader all of the information visually and let them decide for themselves what it all means.

Except that’s not entirely true. Unlike a video documentary, writing relies on the reader following along with the writer pulling words out of their imagination. If there’s a confusing sentence or section, then we have to go back and reread – or even worse just stay confused – taking us out of the story.

That’s why “telling” can be a powerful tool. Sometimes the reader just needs a little push in the right direction to ensure they don’t get lost or confused. Showing vs. telling shouldn’t be thought of as “always show and never tell,” rather it should be more like “showing is fries and telling is ketchup.” A little bit goes a long way and can make the final product even better.

Here’s an example from Harry Potter of how “telling” can help make a scene even better:

Masterpiece Monday: Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express

Of all the things I miss about living in the U.S., it’s not having libraries around that hurts the most.

Don’t get me wrong – Japan has plenty of libraries, but their English book selection is pretty limited. It’s not like I blame them though; the foreign language sections in American libraries usually aren’t a huge priority either.

But I’ve got to work with what I have, and my local library has copies of all the Harry Potter books in English, so that’s what I’m currently reading. It’s been a lot of fun re-reading The Sorcerer’s Stone for the, uh, three-hundredth time.

Now I’m reading them through more of a writer’s lens, and each week I’d like to share some passages that I think were extremely well-written, so that  we can all try to get one step closer to god-tier J.K. Rowling. Here’s a single paragraph from when Harry passes through the barrier at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters:

Smoke from the engine drifted over the heads of the chattering crowd, while cats of every color wound here and there between their legs. Owls hooted to one another in a disgruntled sort of way over the babble and scraping of heavy trunks.

What I like about this short passage is that every word is chock full of meaning, helping to paint the scene of a idling train engine with just a hint of magic. Cats weaving through legs, owls hooting “in a disgruntled” way, and then the “scraping of heavy trunks” that is probably either great nostalgia or horrible PTSD for anyone who has traveled with lots of luggage before.

One thing that I struggle with is writing too generically. If I’d written the above scene, it probably would’ve just been Harry making his way through a crowd of people, and that’s it. I would’ve missed out on all the little details that help bring it to life.

When I do my writing today (and hopefully tomorrow too, and the day after – if I remember!) I’ll try to crack open my scenes a little bit more and let the juicy details spill out. How about you?

(Featured image via GAHAG, edited by me)