I hope everyone had a terrific Easter. I know I did. As I recover from my chocolate induced coma here are some fuzzy bunny pictures for you all to enjoy.
If I were to ever teach a writing class, heaven forbid, I would have everyone read at least two different writing books written by writers. It wouldn’t matter which ones either, because honestly they all say variations of the same thing. The biggest benefit in doing this is to gain insight and understanding about different writing processes and attitudes and writing styles. The more of these differences a writing student is exposed to, the more likely they are to run across one that will work wonders for them.
I recently finished Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and found it a joyride to read. It captures being a writer is like, including the ups and downs that come with being just the slightest bit insane. One of the lessons that hit home was that about crappy first drafts. Lamott is a firm believer in the rotten first draft. (She uses coarser language to emphasize this). When writing dreaded first drafts she allows everything to flow out unimpeded by reason. She doesn’t stop, she doesn’t look back, she doesn’t fix typos, until she feels that she has exhausted her brain and there is nothing left. Then after her stew of words has rested a day, she returns and picks out the great bits and throws out the garbage.
Then there is the lesson of the 1×1 inch picture frame. Sometimes it is overwhelming to think of describing a whole vista or a character and try to capture its essence. That’s when Lamott pulls out her tiny 1×1 inch picture frame and examines a tiny piece. She actually has one that she keeps at her desk to remind her of small details. When using the 1 inch picture frame the writer is only allowed to describe what’s in that frame. Instead of writing about all the parts of the local park, the playground, the walking paths, and so on; the writer uses the tiny frame and describes what they can see, a cherry blossom, the rust on the park bench, a toy car in the sand. This way the reader gets a crisp image of one or two significant things instead of a deluge of unspecific information.
Another point that Lamott hits home is that writing is to be used to bless the lives of others. A writer will never more passionate fuel and drive to write than when working on a project that has real personal significance. She wrote a book for her dying father who meant the world to her and another about a dear friend who had terminal cancer – she finished both in time to present them to be read and were the most precious gifts that she’s ever given.
One of the questions that she gets often from her students is, “What should I write about.” Her answer is to write about their childhood, their memories both fond and painful. Write down every last bizarre detail no matter how great or small. Things remembered have emotional power, they are living things and have importance. I tried this the other day, ironically for a blog post over at my other blog, about my memories of my grandpa. The exercise brought back such a torrent of ideas and emotions that it was all I could do to keep from letting it flow out over the page hour after hour. We all have enough fuel from our past to power several lifetimes of books and stories. This isn’t saying that we should all write memoirs, but there will be parts of our own personal story that make would make fascinating and enlightening stories and books.
Would I recommend Bird by Bird? Sure, especially if you are a writer who wants company and reassurance that the crazies in your head aren’t completely abnormal. Anne Lamott has a wonderful skill for drawing abstract parallels and using them to highlight what she is trying to say, making what could have been yet another mundane writing book a fascinating read. Will it make you a million dollar writer? Probably not, but it won’t hurt your chances.
As always -
Ever feel uninspired and stuck and the task of writing is no longer a pleasure but a chore? This exercise is just for you.
This is it:
That’s it. That’s all there is. We are creatures of habit and it is all too easy to sit down at the same desk in the same room and try to write the same thing. While having a regular writing habit is one of the best ways of ensuring that the work will continue to move forward, every once in a while it’s fun to shake things up a bit. Change makes our minds work in different ways and encourages new thoughts and connections. By writing in a new place we are providing change, which stimulates the mind.
Not all places are for all people. Some writers thrive on hustle and bustle, some on quiet. Some need music, some can’t think when it’s on. If anything, writing in a new place will help you figure out what kind of writer you are.
Ever imagine what it’s like to write in a cosy coffee shop or in the corner of a library? Now would be a perfect time to plan a special time to go. Some other great places to try are park pavilions (assuming your weather is better than mine), campgrounds, and even shopping malls.
Where will your writing take you today?
This week I’ve experimented with efficiency and making yet another desperate attempt to do more stuff with less time. The lie that I keep telling myself is that I don’t have time to all the things that I would like and therefore shouldn’t bother trying because I’m just going to fail and get frustrated. When I’m frustrated I’m not happy which rubs off on the kids which in turn makes everyone grumpy.
The truth is I do have plenty of time, but it rarely comes in chunks large enough to feel useful. On a good day there is one two-hour chunk when the kids are at school and baby is napping. However, that’s also the time I use for scheduling anything else I need to do when the older kids aren’t around. I might get this time for actually working on my writing two and maybe three times a week. If I want to do more than that it must be shoehorned between all the other stuff.
The rest of my time is broken into crumbs and bites, some are less than five minutes, some can be as long as fifteen. This is where having a written to do list helps me. If I know I have about five minutes before I have to wake up the kids I can look at the list and see that I need to get a load of laundry started, and hey – I have time for that! The day is peppered with these tiny windows of time where the kids are happy and I can check another item off the list and before I know it I’ve actually accomplished something.
I have to set limits however. With some things on the list, like researching different subjects, I tend to get lost while looking through all the different websites. If I’m not careful an hour will slip away before I know it. That is, if the kids don’t find me first. That’s where a timer is my friend. After ten minutes I need to be done and move on. It’s not that I don’t love learning about new things, but I have lots of other things that I also need to be doing.
Then there are those things that I really don’t like doing because they are daunting and I feel like I’m going to mess it up. One of the biggest of these is meal planning for my family. There are too many variables and the task is overwhelming. The meals must be healthy and appealing so the kids will want to eat them, they can’t take too long to make, and the ingredients should be in season when possible. Just thinking about it makes me want to go surf Facebook and forget that little bodies insist on being fed. Again, the timer is my friend. For 10 minutes a day I can search for a few ideas and recipes and chances are by the time shopping day rolls around I’ll have found a few that I want to try.
I’ve only been at this for a week, but I can already see a change in my attitude and my home. I’m happier that things are getting done and that all those little things that have bothered me are finally being addressed. I’ve had more time for the things I’ve wanted to do and that’s always a good thing!
At this year’s “Time out for Writers” conference there was a panel discussion where we writers got to pick the brains of a group of agents about anything and everything. Here are some of the notes from that panel.
Question: Just how important is it for authors to grow a social media presence before publishing?
Answer: Social media is important but not a deal breaker. If we find a book that has a terrific potential it doesn’t matter if the author has a social media presence or not, we are going to pursue publishing that book. That said, if authors are willing to do it, it can only help them in the long run and we encourage writers to start sooner than later.
Q: When it comes to grammar, what is the preferred style guide?
A: As authors trying to get published, it is imperative that they can prove that they can create quality work. The work should be polished and have as few errors as possible, but don’t sweat every comma. Each publisher will have a slightly different style and they will do a final line edit.
Q: Different genres have different standard word counts. How strict are they?
A: As long as the story is good and trimmed of all unnecessary parts; that is, parts that drag the story down or don’t further the plot, don’t worry too much about word count. After reading, an editor will decide if the book is too long or needs some extra beefing up.
Q: Is it helpful for writers to seek out more schooling or pursue an MFA?
A: It is a personal choice for the writer. Many enjoy the contact and companionship of like-minded people. When agents look for clients they look for good stories that are well written, not how schooled the author is.
Q: What do you look for in Children’s books?
A: There is no specific one thing, it has to have that certain something that makes us want to read.
Q: Do you ever get tired of reading?
A: Yes. There are times that we need to take reading vacations where we take time to read the books and authors we love and remember just how good reading can be.
Q: What books do you recommend authors to read?
A: Orson Scott Card “Viewpoints and Character” and “Self editing for fiction writers” by Renni Browne
Like posts like this? Be sure to check out my other posts from this year’s “Time out for Writers” conference -
Help spread the word! Posts and great ideas can’t help anyone if they aren’t shared. There are super easy sharing buttons at the bottom of this post, help spread the word!
Also, your comments and questions are always appreciated!
As always – Happy Writing!
The great thing about attending a conference is being able to sit and listen to different lectures about all sorts of different topics. Even better, I get to use my notes to share what I learned with you, my dear readers.
Today, I will be sharing tips from Gregg Luke‘s presentation on writing white-knuckle suspense. All books will have elements of suspense in them, not just suspense/thrillers. That means that any writer can use these tips to make their work better.
First and foremost there has to be good characterization. The main character must be compelling and interesting or readers won’t empathize with them. If no one cares about the character then it won’t matter what happens to them and the reader won’t feel anything. A well created character should have both external and internal conflicts and traits that readers can identify with.
Then there must be good pacing. From the beginning there should be conflict and situations that cause angst within the character and the reader. The beginning scene should give the reader enough momentum to pull them through the next 30-50 pages, they’ll want to keep reading to see what happens next. As that momentum wears off there has to be a plot point, or major event that introduces something crucial to the arc of the story, to give another boost of momentum. For scenes that are meant to be more intense use classic pacing devices like shorter sentences, choppy dialogue, and short paragraphs.
Part of writing good suspense is understanding the nature of suspense. Suspense is anticipatory where action is the thrill of the moment. Don’t make the mistake in thinking action equals suspense. By giving more time to dread the action you build more suspense than witnessing the action itself. This dread can be emphasized by exploring the unknown, which is one of man’s greatest fears. It’s one thing to know something bad is going to happen, it’s quite another when you know there’s no way to avoid it.
Other things that should be considered
So let’s sum up. In order to create good suspense there must be six elements, these are: good characterization, good pacing, understanding anticipation vs. thrills, careful handling of techno elements, a good resolution, and lean writing. Once you get a good handle on these you will be well on your way to create a page turning suspense novel.
This last weekend I attended a writer’s conference and listened to all sorts of excellent classes talking about the craft. One of the classes that influenced me and my writing the most was a class on descriptive prose presented by the delightful Donna Hatch, Regency romance author extraordinaire.
All scenes need a setting, characters, and action; and each of those need some form of description. If the scene is fast paced, the descriptive language will be sparse and concise. If the scene is slower, the descriptive language will be more lush and complete. The description does not only serve to paint a picture of what is happening, it can also be used to set the tone and reflect the emotional state of the point of view character.
This is where I had my “Well Duh!” moment. In my mind, describing the setting was something that happened between the other things that needed to happen in the story. It always felt like something separate and different and I knew I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. The idea of using the character’s mood to flavor descriptions opens up a whole new world of possibility. And more importantly, it makes everything flow together better.
Let’s look at an example:
A vanilla description:
The flagstone stone path led to the guest house that sat on the edge of the estate. It was older than the main house, with wood siding and grey asphalt shingles. At this time of year it was surrounded by green gardens and grass. Great trees grew beyond, providing shade in the evenings.
A hopeful description:
Visiting the guest house always brought a sense of warmth and homecoming. The sun sparkled on the white trimmed windows and across a lawn that begged for bare feet. Birds whistled from the great lilac bush leading to the front door as we passed. In the evenings the tall cottonwoods promised shade and a pleasant breeze.
A fearful description:
Blinding harsh light ricocheted off the stark white paint of the window trim and made the guest house look like it had two great eyes in an otherwise dark wooden face. Birds screamed their warnings from the overgrown hedge as we passed and dark shadows darted beneath the tall looming cottonwoods.
All three scenes are roughly the same length but each express a very different feeling. We get a much clearer feel for character’s emotional state without writing a single word about them.
Another way of describing a scene is to have the characters interact with items within the scene. Let’s say a college student has returned home between semesters only to find that her room has been re-purposed by the family.
We could describe it like this:
Samantha’s jaw dropped when she entered her room. A sensible bookcase and desk had replaced her giant bean bag and her fluffy purple rug had changed to a square of charcoal and red pattered Berber. Her posters were gone and the walls were now painted a boring grey.
Or, we could describe it having her interact with the items:
Samantha tossed her book bag onto the leather sofa where her bed used to be and glared at the grey walls and precisely arranged framed art prints. She fought the urge to kick up the edge of the new Berber rug that had replaced her fluffy purple one.
I’m not saying that either of those examples are the “perfect” way to do description. If you learn anything while studying the craft of writing, is that there is no perfect way to do anything. However, having alternatives ways to approach a scene is always a good idea.
There’s a meme floating around the writing world that shows a picture of an iceberg. It labels the top part, “The Movie” and the bottom part, “The Book.”
Icebergs, and indeed all ice, share the phenomenon where most of their mass is under water. Next time you pour yourself a glass of ice water you can see it for yourself, only the tiniest bit of the ice peeks out above the water line.
How does this apply to writing?
When we watch a movie, we get to see and hear everything the main character sees and hears. While this can make for fantastic storytelling, it’s missing three of the senses – taste, smell, and touch. I would add emotion as well to the mix as well. While a great actor can express volumes in his use of expression and body language, we still cannot actually hear his thoughts. A huge chunk of the experience that you can get in the pages of a great book are missing from the watching experience.
This is why the book is almost always better than the movie.
There are exceptions to the rule. Some books are harder to enjoy than others, they are set in a complicated universe or have dozens of story lines that are hard to keep straight. It doesn’t matter how masterfully written a story is when the reader can’t understand what is happening, can’t visualize the scene, or is put off by other factors. This is where a movie, and a great art director, can help the audience by doing the hard work of interpreting the text for the viewer.
However, movie storytelling isn’t the same as book storytelling and many writers can get into trouble if they don’t know the difference.
With movie storytelling, emotions are limited to being shown through facial expressions and actions. While it’s fine to use these in books, and I’m not saying that you can’t, they aren’t the only way of helping the reader experience what the character is feeling. Using the written word we can explore more of what is going on internally. We can hear the character’s inner dialogue, feel their physical and emotional reactions, and come to a greater understanding of the personal significance of a scene.
For a great example of the difference I’d urge you all to read, or reread, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and then watch the movie. While the movie does capture much more of the internal conflict going on with Ender than I thought it would, there is still a lot missing that would be too hard to capture in film.
Here’s your writing challenge!
Take a favorite movie scene and write it out as it happens on the screen – THEN – write the scene again, but this time focus on the main character and what they are experiencing. Take time to figure out what they might be thinking and feeling. Compare the two and see which you think is better.
These last few weeks I’ve buckled down and been working through a draft of my novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal. I’ve finally reached the phase where the story has taken its final shape and now it’s a matter of making all the scenes agree. I’ve changed so many things that the current story looks and feels nothing like the original, and that’s a good thing. When I started writing I didn’t know anything about how to write a book, I only knew that I wanted to. The more I learned about the craft resulted in more things that needed to be fixed and improved. Awkward story ideas were explored and straightened out to be clearer. Cryptic characters were forced to reveal their secrets. I’ve taken this strange blob of ideas and turned it into a compelling tale of love and loss, and a little magic to make things interesting.
Looking back, I was unduly optimistic. I was convinced that I’d be finished in about a year and the book would be a runaway success. That was nearly five years ago. I’m a different person now than I was then.
I’m now working on a series of new scenes in the beginning of the book that will help support the middle and end of the book. A few months ago I didn’t realize that by switching the role of one of the characters I’d be creating a whole new story line that would need to be woven into the existing story. It took weeks to figure out how I could make it work without destroying the integrity of the earlier story. It was such a relief to finally find a way to blend the new idea in with the old that I feel like I have a complete story once again, instead of a broken one.
The shift also solved several different problems that had bothered me. The way the story was originally engineered it required a prologue, and prologues are generally frowned upon for new writers – mainly because they are boring and unnecessary. When I shifted the story around to accommodate the new ideas, I also shifted the viewpoint character which turned the prologue into chapter one.
The new viewpoint character also made the story more accessible to readers. The original viewpoint characters were all immortal magic users and I worried that my readers would have a hard time making emotional connections to them. The new story is now seen in part through the eyes of a teenage boy who still has a lot to learn about the world around him.
In short, I’m excited to be making significant progress on the book and can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is a real possibility that I can start approaching agents/publishers this year and finally be able to get my story out into the world. I hope that readers like it as much as I do!