Friday, July 17, 2015

Don’t Write, Bleed

Don’t Write, Bleed

I’ve been mulling over a pattern I’ve noticed: my work that has received the highest praise from readers is work in which I wrote about, if I may put it like this, the peculiar themes of my life. My hopes and fears, my hangups and triggers. My deep, dark, secrets.

Of course I didn’t just slap my traumas on the page and say: Here you go! No, I transformed them into the language of the story.

For example (and my apologies if I’ve mentioned this scene previously), in one of my scenes I had my protagonist sit down to coffee with her overbearing mother. To say that they didn’t get along is an understatement of staggering proportions. It’s like calling the Hindenburg disaster “unfortunate.” But the protagonist needed a favor, so she was trying to make nice. 

Well, as they sipped their coffees and chatted my protagonist came to an uncomfortable realization. She saw her mother not just as a parent but as a person, as a more-or-less ordinary human being. More than that, she realized her mother was suffering, that in fact she had been suffering for a while. She was being crushed by the weight of carrying, of safeguarding, her many secrets. Over the years these secrets had eaten away at the woman, at her sanity. My protagonist feels guilty and tries, in her stumbling inelegant way, to let her mother know she loved her and she didn’t need to be alone.

When I wrote this scene my own mother was in the hospital, slowly slipping away. In that scene ... I suppose it was a way for me to say things to my own mother that, due to her condition, she was beyond hearing.

Sorry for the melancholy post! My point is that readers were able to relate to my protagonist in that scene in a way that transcended the specific story I was telling and which, ultimately, helped bring it to life.

In connecting with my emotions concerning my mother, in channelling them into the scene, I made it better. Why? Because it brought to bear my specific experience of this universal human experience.

A Word of Warning


No doubt you’ve all heard the expression, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

The first time I read this quotation it resonated with me, but I didn’t realize that what I’ve been talking about – translating both the happiest and most painful experiences in life into one’s work – is how we bleed. 

At least, that’s my take on it. 

This kind of writing – writing with a kind of brutal emotional honesty – is uncomfortable because we feel a bit like we’re undressing in public. It’s a bit like living out one of those stress dreams we’ve all had where we walk into a crowded room, stark naked.

But, in a way, that’s what we’re doing. We’re revealing our essence, exposing our soul.

Yes, of course, we translate these experiences into the language of the story. Your dad coming home drunk and beating you becomes the protagonist’s betrayal by their best friend. It’s not the same thing, but that’s the point. We use the real emotions we have from the actual events of our lives but attach them to fictional events.

That’s how we bleed. 

That’s it! What do you think? Is this what the author of this quotation (“Writing is easy, just ...”) meant by opening a vein? Perhaps they were only trying to say that writing is a painful, exhausting experience.

Whatever the case, till next week, good writing!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

4 Tips For Finding Beta Readers Right For You


Lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of finding beta readers, readers who are right for you. 

For the most part I’ve had wonderful experiences with beta readers. They’ve been energizing to work with and have made my stories better: shorter, more interesting, twistier. Sure, I’ve had one or two bad experiences, but the good eclipses the bad.

For what it’s worth, here are four things I look for in beta readers:

1. They regularly read the genre you’ve written in.

I speak from experience, folks. Never, EVER, give a light, breezy paranormal romance to a fan of hard sci-fi. The conventions of the two genre are at odds (fact-based extrapolation versus flight of fanged fancy). Not only would the reader not know where to begin the critique, but they just might resent you personally for asking them to do it!

Let’s face it, many of us can tell when someone who disliked the book on a personal level tries to give a fair, even-handed critique. I’ve found it’s a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion – with me in one of the cars!

If I had one piece of advise I could pass off to new writers it would be this: Never ask for a critique from a person who doesn’t actively read the kind of book you’ve written. (Copy editing is different since the editor doesn’t comment on the content of the story. That said, if I knew my copy editor disliked the genre I’d written in, I wouldn’t want to inflict my story on her.)

2. They critique the work rather than the author of the work.

This may seem obvious, but saying, “It looks like a three year old wrote this,” or slightly less cutting, “I think this material may be too advanced for you,” is (generally speaking) not helpful. In my opinion, someone should never discourage anyone from writing. (Suggesting that a work isn’t ready to publish is another matter.) 

3. They are consistently consistent.

Everyone is biased. Which may be just another way of saying we each have our own taste, our own preferences. Sure, we try to be impartial but this is especially difficult when we don’t realize if or how we are biased.

So it’s no surprise that one beta reader will say they loved (for example) your protagonist’s tearful goodbye to her mother at the end of chapter one while another will think it extraneous and overwrought.

Such is life. Different strokes and all that.

I’ve found after I receive several critiques from someone that I get a feel for what that person likes, what they look for in a story. Which is to say that I begin to get a peek at their literary biases.

And that’s great! If I know someone disliked my tearful scene because they are constitutionally averse to tearful scenes, then I know what to make of their comments.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – folks are less than consistent.

What I’m talking about here are people who, if I might put it like this, are consistently inconsistent.

Thankfully I’ve only had one reader who was like this, and it was years ago, back when I first started writing. I suspect she didn’t read any of the stories she critiqued, but feeling the need to come up with a criticism, she picked a random paragraph and took issue with it!

Which brings us to ...

4. They are someone you won’t lose as a friend if you only ask them to read for you once, and never again.

This is just my advice, take it or leave it: Before you ask someone to read your work, think about what might happen if you never again ask this person for another critique.

When I was a teen (so, YEARS ago) I asked a close friend to look over my work. It was my first year of college and I loved everything about the english class I was taking, especially the teacher. She was awesome. I would go to her office hours and we would talk about literature and ideas and, well, life-in-general for hours. 

So, no surprise, when it was time for me to write my first essay for her course I wanted it to be perfect. (Cue ominous music.) Because I was especially nervous about my essay I asked my best friend to read it and give me her feedback.

And she did! She put a lot of time into reading my scribbles and composing her feedback. I still remember her handing the paper back to me, her look of hesitancy, the uncertainty (fear?) in her eyes.

“I think I may have gone a bit overboard,” she said.

“Nonsense!” I said, and pried my paper from her fingers.

I swear to you I do not exaggerate when I say there was more red ink on the paper than black!

My excitement took a nosedive, but I managed to hold my smile in place and thank her for the time she’d taken to look over the paper.

My friend, though brilliant on many levels, was neither a reader (of fiction) nor a writer. Her edits would have stripped my voice from the piece. It would have been more hers than mine!

Anyway, I handed my paper in sans the changes she had suggested and didn’t ask my friend to look over any other papers. I wasn’t upset at her – sure I was a little sad that she hadn’t ‘gotten’ what I was trying to say, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal. I recognized that her heart had bene in the right place and was touched by the amount of work she’d spent on my essay.

What I didn’t anticipate was that, because I didn’t give her another paper to read, she felt as though she’d failed. She thought I was upset with her and didn’t believe my claims to the contrary. It got to the point that my refusal to use her as a reader affected our relationship. Thankfully, we found a way to leave the incident in the past, but it has made me consider what might happen if I only use a reader once. 

Let’s face it, there are many reasons to only use a reader once, none of them negative. Perhaps one of your regular readers was busy so you needed someone to fill in, but just this once. Perhaps you experimented with a new genre and don’t write in it again. Perhaps the reader has a preference for stories of a certain length and you don’t normally write to that length. Whatever the case, before asking someone if they would read for you take a moment to consider how it will effect your relationship if you never ask them to read for you again.

Before I close I would like to thank all the beta readers out there. You’re terrific! You folks volunteer to read unpolished prose and give honest, heartfelt feedback. You rock!

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real


As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing


This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”

[...]

“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”

[...]

“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”

[...]

“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Notes


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org). Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

Write That Story! Don’t Let Fear Win

It’s said that, at the end of life, what haunts us ISN’T the things we did but the things we didn’t do. 

We can’t do everything in the time allotted to us, but we can do the important things. We can pursue our passions.

I think this is something that we, as writers, need to take to heart. (And by “writer” I mean just that--people who write. One does not need to be published to be a writer.)

For the past while I have deeply regretted letting fear rule me and NOT writing a particular story.

But please don’t misunderstand. There are many reasons to NOT write a story. (Stephen King talks about a few of these in “On Writing.”) Perhaps you’ve only got hold of a part of the story so you need to wait for the rest, for a complete idea. After all, it took Stephen King a few decades to finish the story we now know as “Under The Dome.” And so on.

There are good reasons to delay setting pen to paper. Fear, though, is NEVER a good reason. (Remember: just because you write a story doesn’t mean you have to publish it!)

My Story


Back at the beginning of my journey as a writer, back before I published anything, I had this idea for a story: From the first person perspective, have each of three characters tell the reader about an event that happened to all of them at the end of grade seven. They had been camping in the woods, camping with a fourth person, a person who died that night. Each of the first person accounts would differ and, through those differences, the reader would come to know the characters.

By the three-quarter point I wanted the reader to have formed certain conclusions about what happened that night. 

The last quarter of the story would be written in objective third person (fly on the wall perspective) and would be a recounting of the event itself. Further, the ending would introduce a twist, something that would shatter one of the reader’s fundamental assumptions, but in a way that made sense. 

At least, that was the plan!

Now, I’m not saying this story would have been any good, but I would have enjoyed writing it and, at the very least, it would have been good writing practice.

What Happened


I ended up never writing the story. Here’s what happened: 

A friend asked what the story was about. These days I have a rule: Never EVER discuss a WIP before the first draft is complete. At that time my story was still in the idea stage. Anyway, I told her. 

She said, “Oh no! You can’t do that. You can’t switch the POV from first to third at the end and you absolutely can’t have three different first person accounts.” 

And then she gave me a look that seemed to question my sanity!

Please don’t misunderstand. I now think my friend was correct, having three different first person narrators would have been extremely off-putting for readers (to say the least!). But that was in the days before I knew about free indirect voice. If I had written the story and put it away in a drawer I could have gone back to it as a more experienced writer and turned the first person accounts into third person accounts but without losing the sense of intimacy the story required.

As it was, my fear made me rethink the entire story. Where before I was excited and eager to begin now I questioned the whole enterprise. I spent so much time rethinking the story that I decided I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to attempt the project and put it to the side.

Here’s my advice: Even if you’ve gotten hold of an idea for a story you think you’ll never be able to publish, if it’s in your heart to write it, if you’re passionate about it, then go for it! Write it. 

Nowhere is it written, there is no commandment scrawled on stone tablets, that you have to publish every story you write.

Granted, you might NOT want to take months, or even years, out of your life writing a book length work you don’t think will be publishable. Point taken. But I believe that every longform story--the main plot line at least--can be condensed into a shortish story. Or at least a novella. 

Changing POV


The other day Adam Savage interviewed Andy Weir, author of runaway bestseller “The Martian,” for his podcast. It’s fascinating and I urge you to listen. Anyway, Adam mentions the book has a POV shift from first to third person halfway through!

When I heard that I sat in stunned silence. Now, I’m not saying that just because Andy Weir was able to pull off switching from first person to third that I would have been able to pull it off. I’m only saying that I should have tried. I should have written the story and THEN made the judgement call: Did it work?

As Stephen King says: It’s all on the table. Everything. Try it out. If it doesn’t work then don’t send the story out into the world. That one will just be for you. I’ve got a few stories like that and, honestly, they’re some of my favorites!

In Conclusion


The lesson I’ve learnt (or at least I hope I have!) is: Don’t let fear stop you from writing the story that’s in your heart to write.

I’ve decided I AM going to write that story and, in tandem with writing this blog post, have completed a (very rough!) first draft. Even if the story never sees the light of day, I’m putting this in the win column because I conquered my fear. And fear can lead to writers block--or at least it can if you’re me. (grin)

Don’t let fear get the upper hand. Write the story!

Talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good (fearless) writing!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Getting Things Done: Reduce Your Stress Through Organization


Until recently I didn’t deal well with stress. Also, I wasn’t well-organized. (Stories, yes; life in general, no.)

Then I read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen and I realized there was a link between my lack of organization and my anxiety.

The following quotation (from the beginning of the book) nicely sums up Allen’s own view:

“Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.”
— David Kekich

I’m writing about this because, yesterday, I stumbled across the following in “Productivity 101: A Primer to the Getting Things Done (GTD) Philosophy”:

“At its core, GTD gives you a way to get everything you need to remember out of your head and into a system that can remember them for you, organize them, and break them down into pieces you can work with. That way, the next time you look at your to-do list, there should be no confusion over what you have time to tackle, or what's most important. You can spend less time thinking about what to do and how to work and more time actually working.” [2]

That’s a terrific summary. I wasn't going to write about GTD because it isn’t specifically about writing. Then I thought: Why not? If I’ve benefited from it, perhaps (if you aren't already using it) you will too. 

Besides, writing a book IS a project—and a pretty complex one at that. I've found Allen's principles of natural program design have helped me clarify my goals for my books. I'll talk more about that, below.

A Caveat


I know from personal experience that anxiety has many different causes. I’m not saying that folks with anxiety are poorly organized or that if a person with anxiety becomes better organized their anxiety will go away. 

BUT to the extent that anxiety is caused by a feeling of loss of control over the disparate bits of one’s life, then ... yes. I think that becoming more organized could help to lessen one’s anxiety. But who knows. All I can say for sure is that it lessened mine.

The System: Five Simple Steps That Create Order From Chaos


Part of the beauty of Getting Things Done (GTD) is its simplicity. There are only five basic steps. (To read more about this head over to David Allen’s site and look at Getting Started.)

Step 1: Capture


David Allen advises us to use whatever method is most convenient for you (notepad, voice recorder, etc.) to “capture 100% of everything that has your attention.”

The Capture step is something I’ve been doing for a while and chances are you have been too—jotting down ideas or reminders on whatever is at hand, be that a piece of paper, a stray grocery receipt, a notebook or writing journal.

What you use to record your ideas/reminders doesn’t matter. Any of the above would do, the key thing is that you must be confident you won’t lose it. I keep a notepad in my purse and another on my office desk. While I’ve found it easy to lose loose pieces of paper it’s a bit more difficult to lose an entire notebook! 

(That said, I’ve succeeded in doing so on more than one occasion. One time I left my writing notebook behind at the library. When I went to pick it up a hard-eyed security guard inquired about some of my writing ideas (It’s for a murder mystery, Officer. Honest!). He grudgingly gave it back to me.)  

In any case, at the beginning of every day I go through my journal and sift through all the tasks, ideas and ToDo items from the day before.

Step 2: Clarify


For each item you’ve recorded ask, Is it actionable?

If yes --> Decide what action should be taken. If that action will take less than, say, two minutes do it right then. If the action would require more than two minutes then delegate it to someone else or put it on a list to do later.

If no --> Discard it, incubate it (look at it again at some later date) or file it for reference. 

Step 3: Organize


At this point you’ll have a list of tasks that require more than two minutes. If (which is unlikely) you only have 20 or 30 of them then you might want to skip this step. If not, organize the tasks into lists however makes most sense to you. 

For example, I’ve broken my tasks up into a general list (Reminders), a WIP list (To Write), a TBR list (To Read), a TBR wish list of books I want to read one day but know I won’t have time in the foreseeable future (To Read One Day). I also have a list of stories matched with projected publishing dates (To Publish). I’ve embedded a link into this list, a link that opens up a Google Doc that has a record of all my published works (the title, when I published them, under what name, etc). 

When I discovered how few movies I’ve watched lately I added a list for movies I haven’t seen but want to (movies 2014 & 2015). I also have one for TV Shows (I’m looking forward to season two of True Detective!).

And so on.

Step 4: Reflect


The key to this system is to review each task at regular intervals. David Allen suggests folks do “a weekly review to clean up, update your lists, and clear your mind.”

Since you’ll be reviewing all these lists once a week, only record tasks you really do want accomplished. Otherwise the system will become bloated and, eventually, break down.

Step 5: Engage


As the folks at Nike say: Just do it. Go through your lists and do what needs to be done.

Here’s a handy organizational chart:

[embed graphic]

GTD & Writing


You’ve probably seen lists like this before—likely on this very blog! But here are three questions, questions David Allen raises in his book, that I like to apply to my WIP, especially if I’m stuck.

a) What is the purpose of this project/book?


As it happens I’m having some trouble on my WIP so I asked myself this question yesterday and here’s the answer I came up with:

To show that, no matter the odds, no matter what is stacked against you, you can make it through. You can succeed. You are stronger than you think.

b) What would a successful project/book would look like?


Minimally: 
- It would be a manuscript of between 70,000 and 100,000 words with, among other things, one main overarching theme and goal. 
- It would be immediately recognizable from the first few paragraphs as urban fantasy.
- The protagonist would be introduced on the first page and in such a way that her essential personality, her strengths and weaknesses, are communicated clearly.

c) Potential steps.


If I’m having trouble with a manuscript I like to break it up into units made up of scenes and sequels. These units could be chapters or just elements of chapters.

For each unit I identify the protagonist’s goal, the final outcome and a sketch of how the main character influences the outcome. (But that’s only the beginning. To see more of this process see my article: Using Index Cards To Outline A Novel.)

Software


If you want to keep your lists in your computer there are many choices available. One of the wonderful things about this method is that you can use whatever software works for you. 

A lot of folks swear by Evernote. 

Until recently I used two apps that came with my iMac: Reminders and Calendar. Now I use Fantastical 2 and absolutely love it.

I’m curious. What do you use to help organize your life? Are you old school and eschew everything but pen and paper or do you use one (or more) software programs? 

Notes:


1. “David Allen on How to Fix Your Life,” by James Fallows in The Atlantic.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Popular Writing Themes: The Secrets We Keep


Secret Keeping And Patricia Highsmith


Last week I binged on Patricia Highsmith’s work. Specifically, “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” As I read, I recognized (or thought I did) a theme running through the two stories. If I had to put it into words, I would describe it like this: the secrets we keep destroy us by alienating us from the people we care about most. The-things-we-cannot-tell eventually transform us into dark twisted creatures our initial selves would have loathed.

Excellent books. (And excellent movies as well. Alfred Hitchcock adapted Strangers to the big screen in 1951 and The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted by Anthony Minghella in 1999.)

Secret Keeping In Supernatural


After reading Highsmith’s work I watched season nine of the TV show Supernatural. What do you think I saw? The writers were using the same theme: the destructive nature of secrets. But I guess that’s the way of things, once you notice something in one place you notice it everywhere.

Sure, there were differences. Highsmith uses the crime of murder as the secret which must be kept, but the secret itself could be anything. In Supernatural the secret was (spoiler alert) that Dean had tricked Sam into letting an angel possess him. Sure Dean’s motives were pure (he wanted to save Sam’s life) but he knew that wouldn’t matter to Sam. If Sam found out he would demand the angel leave and, since the angel was the only thing keeping him alive, Sam would die. 

It’s the same dynamic as in Highsmith’s work. 

Supernatural: If Dean doesn’t keep his secret he will lose the person closest to him. 
Strangers on a Train: Guy Haines is convinced that if he doesn’t keep his secret that his fiancee will leave him. (The secret was that a stranger he met on a train killed his wife and is threatening to frame him for the murder unless he kills that person’s stepfather.) And Guy is probably right, she would leave him if she knew.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (the movie): Ripley is a con artist who drifts into a career as a murderer. What sends him over the edge is the secret he is forced to keep. 

In all these stories, the secret-that-must-be-kept severs the protagonist from society; it sets him off as ‘other,’ as beyond the pale. It is their wound, the thing the protagonist must fix yet can’t.

The writers of Supernatural used a secret-that-must-be-kept to create distance between Sam and Dean, the two protagonists, to sow suspicion in Sam’s heart. Sam knew something was off, he knew that his brother wasn’t being honest with him. This created tension between the brothers, tension which built until the next crisis hit and shattered their already damaged relationship (of course they’ll patch things up, this is Sam and Dean!)

Writing Practice


Joe Bunting (The Write Practice) has a practice exercise at the end of his posts; I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m going to adopt that idea. I’m not sure I’ll have a writing practice section at the end of all my posts, but I’ll do it today and see where it goes.

Chuck Wendig publishes a writing exercise every Friday, sort of a mad lib exercise that injects a bit of randomness, of uniqueness, into a writing prompt. Here’s a suggestion, something I’ve done:

1. Head over to Chuck Wendig’s site and generate your own writing prompt (this week the story will be inspired by a randomly generated title). Here’s the link: The Random Title Jamboree. The title I came up with was: The Executioner’s Brains. Sounds like it’ll be a horror story. 

2. Write a story, inspired by the title generated in (1), that explores the destructive nature of secret keeping. (Or not! Pick your own theme.)

3. I encourage you to post your story on your web space and then leave a link in the comments on Chuck Wendig’s post (I’ve given the link, above). If you like, leave the link in the comments, here, as well. I’d love to read what you come up with. :-)

A Change In My Blogging Schedule


I’ve decided to focus more on writing fiction than writing about fiction, and on encouraging others to join me. I’m not suggesting you need my encouragement—I’m sure I need yours more than you need mine!—this is just where my muse is leading me. I’ll be cutting back my blog posts to once a week (on Wednesday) but I hope to begin publishing writing prompts again. Perhaps I’ll emulate Chuck Wendig and post a writing prompt every week, but perhaps on Monday rather than Friday.

That’s the plan at least. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. ;)

Until next time, good writing!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Writing And The Movies


Years ago I watched a reality TV show that chronicled Jamie Oliver’s (at times desperate) attempts to teach a group of unambitious youth the art and craft of cooking, the idea being that they would go on to culinary school and, in due course, become chefs themselves.

As I say, that was the idea. I’m not sure how it turned out, but one scene from the program has remained with me through the years. Let me try to set this up.

One thing I learnt from Food TV, and from Jamie Oliver’s shows in particular, is what I call the number one rule of cooking: One must taste the food one prepares. Does it need more seasoning? Is it undercooked? Overcooked? And so on. All these questions can only be answered by tasting the food

Obvious, right? But I hadn’t been doing it! This simple rule radically improved my cooking. 

Back to Jamie Oliver’s reality show. This dictum I’ve just shared, what I’ve called the number one rule of cooking, is of course something Jamie Oliver shared with his proteges. So you can imagine how surprised he was when one of the aspiring chefs categorically refused to taste seafood. She wasn’t allergic to shellfish and she wasn’t a vegetarian. Shrimp, she said, were “icky.”

How, he asked her, can you expect to prepare seafood if you’ve never tasted it? How could you hope to prepare a dish—and prepare it well—if you have no idea how you want the dish to taste? (There’s a difference between liking something, and knowing how it should taste.)

Perhaps you can see where this is going. Just as a cook must be familiar with how a certain dish should taste (how else could she be sure she'd gotten it right?), so a writer must read within her genre and so be familiar with the kind of stories she writes/tells. This goes back to the (often repeated) first rule of writing: To write, you must read.

Back to the movies ...

When I was a teenager, my friends and I would head down to the local theater every weekend. Every weekend. Sometimes we would even go on a weekday, though our parents (“You need to do your homework!”) tried to discourage this.

We ended up watching about 80% of the movies available in our area, and that includes art house pictures, though our little town didn’t have many of those.

Some movies we liked, a few we loved and there were what we called “the groaners,” movies so terrible we considered it our duty to warn others against them.

But, honestly, the true joy of going to see a movie had more to do with what happened after the movie. The group of us would head off to a restaurant to eat and discuss. It didn’t so much matter whether the movie was bad or good, what mattered was what we thought of it and why.

*  *  *

The members of our amorphous little group melted away over the years, drawn away by the demands of work or family.

And that was fine. In fact, I think we barely noticed as the group shrank and, eventually, died. Our lives had changed, we had drifted into adulthood, and the slow dissolving of the group seemed inevitable.

It’s only now, after a span of more years than I care to count, that I look back and feel it as the loss it was; and not just in terms of the strange, unconscious, camaraderie we shared, but in terms of ... well, in terms of the shared experience of story.

Until recently I had almost given up watching movies. After The Group had faded into memory I all but stopped going to movie theaters. I didn’t even watch many movies at home, though I hadn't realized this until the other day when I looked at a list of one hundred of the top rated movies of 2014 and realized I had watched four on the list. Four out of one hundred!

My mind plays the most devilish tricks on me. The moment I realized how few movies I’ve seen lately I remembered Jamie Oliver’s student, the one who refused to eat seafood. 

Then I had an epiphany: That was me! 

Yes, of course, I read, but story comes in many forms. I find that reading and watching a movie—even when both tell the same story—are different experiences. The point about the number one rule of writing—To write, you must read—is for writers to immerse themselves in story, which can only happen through a steady diet of all sorts of different stories by all sorts of different writers.

As I say, reading is essential for a writer, but I think it would be a mistake to neglect (as I have) movies.

First, there are practical considerations. Even a short book takes about three times as long to read as the longest movie takes to watch. Also, book clubs aside, I generally don’t read the same book at exactly the same time as my friends and there is something to be said for experiencing a story together. 

And, finally, there’s something magical about sitting in the dark, having one’s senses assaulted with sound and light, having one’s mind teased and entertained with new ideas, vicariously experiencing (as much as we are able) how it might be for someone else, learning to walk in the shoes of another.

So. The point—one of them at least—of this rambling and somewhat ramshackle post is that I have resolved to watch more movies. My goal is to watch at least 50 of the movies in the top 100 list for each year, beginning with 2014.

I don’t know if watching more movies will make me a better writer, but it certainly couldn’t hurt!

What about you? How many movies did you watch last year? What about this year? What were your favorites? Did you watch what I’ve called a ‘groaner,’ a movie so bad you feel obligated to warn others away from it? If so, do tell!

Till next time, happy writing (and watching)! 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Getting Motivated To Write


Let’s talk about getting motivated to write. That’s something I’m having trouble with at present.

That’s the bad news. The good news is I discovered an article that maybe—just maybe—will help me get back into gear. It’s called: This Fun Creative Writing Exercise Will Change Your Life.

With a title like that, I thought it was setting itself up for failure. But it is a wonderfully inspiring exercise.

I encourage you to read Joe Bunting’s article in its entirety, it’s great stuff, but for the tl;dr-ers among us, here are the essentials.

a. Write down the first thing that comes to mind.


The first thing that came to my mind was “boy.” Go figure. ;)

b. Think of something as different as possible from the thing you wrote down. 


I wrote: girl.

c. Repeat step (b) until you come to the end of the sentence.


Boy girl high fast slow will mow a bow to slowwww. 

That’s it! My example doesn’t mean anything, it’s gibberish, but it got me putting one word in front of the other and, after all, that is the essence of writing.

Joe Bunting advises:

“When you do this exercise, write with the sounds of words in mind, not their meaning. Try out movie/historical/song/literary references, mashing them up with gibberish rhymes (e.g. “Twain’s hammersaw is bringing me low slow like a long bow“). Make up new words. Pay attention to the sounds of words. Try to come up with the most random noun you can. Then, put it next to a list of five verbs. DON’T use punctation (unless that sounds fun to you, of course).”

So, play the writing game and have fun.

And if that doesn’t work (or even if it does!) think about giving your writing space a makeover (see: Create a Warm, Low Light Workspace to Boost Creativity).

Good writing!

Photo: Licensed as Public Domain. Tulips Isolated.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Video Games & Storytelling

Video Games & Storytelling

After The Accident I needed to get my mind off my (extremely minor) physical maladies so I re-subscribed to World of Warcraft (WoW) after an absence of about a year and a half.

BIG mistake. Games can be addictive.

Like stories.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a suspenseful book I honestly can’t put it down. Yes, it’s a figure of speech in that no one has a cocked gun to my temple saying, “Read if you know what’s good for you. Read.” I keep saying to myself, “Just one more page” or “I’ll just finish this chapter.”

Uh huh. I read till the story is complete and fall asleep as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Games—certain games—are every bit as compelling as a suspenseful tale. Baldur’s Gate repeatedly kept me up way past anything resembling a normal bedtime and, lately, World of Warcraft has done the same.

But this isn’t a post about gaming addiction. No. It’s a post about how certain games—the games that have the ability to captivate me—have a similar structure to certain kinds of stories. And thus, perhaps, their appeal.

Gaming Structure vs Story Structure


Just as in a story we have the Initial Problem, in a video game (or video game segment) we have the Initial Plight. 

The Initial Plight


A stranger (and future hero) wanders into an isolated farming community that has a problem. 

This problem could be anything from cattle rustling to zombies, but lets say that the town is overrun with gigantic ladybugs. They’ve eaten all the farmers crops and now brazenly wander the aisles of the supermarket.

The Mayor fears that after finishing off all the Pringles (you can’t eat just one) that the gargantuan ladybugs will begin chowing down on the townspeople. The town expects him to fix things, and if he doesn’t he’s never going to be reelected—the town will be gone!

The Story Goal


The Mayor gives the stranger some weapons, asks him to please take care of things, and the hero walks into the supermarket to kick some Coccinellidae butt.

I’ve found that the first few quests of a game are pretty easy. This is similar to a story. In the beginning, despite what the hero might think, things are not so bad for him or her. They have it relatively easy—at least, compared to what’s in store for them! 

This is where we set up the world—in a game we’re also letting the user get familiar with how to move around in it. In both a story and a game the hero wanders around doing minor tasks, making both friends and enemies.

This is the beginning, the ‘getting to know the world’ phase. Pretty soon, though, we come across ...

The Real Problem


Our hero rids the supermarket of ladybugs but the next day they’re back. And now it’s not just ladybugs, now worms the size of a Buick wiggle down the street pursued by and a chicken so big it could feed a family for a year.

The mayor calls the hero over. “This is no good!” the mayor says, gesticulating wildly. “We keep killing the monsters but they just come back! We need to get to the bottom of things, see what’s causing this. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’!”

At this point the hero will talk to various townspeople, gather clues, be ambushed a couple of times, get into innumerable fights, until he/she  develops ...

The Plan


The hero decides they know what’s going on and devise a plan to end things. Often, the plan goes horribly wrong. The reasons for this vary. It could be that someone the hero trusts has sold her out. It could be just that she guessed wrong. Whatever it is, the hero is led into one last, final, battle with the odds stacked against her.

In a game this is going to be the toughest fight, one that a gamer (at least, if they’re me!) will have to re-load and take several runs at. (In an online game like WoW this would mean failing the quest, abandoning it and picking it up again from the quest-giver.) 

For instance, lets say that our hero discovers that the real danger to the ladybug infested town is Division X, a super secret branch of the government whose mission is to develop a cure for a particularly insidious disease. As a result, though, Dr. Iam Squicky stumbles onto the secret of everlasting life.

Unfortunately, there were a few accidents at the lab. The lab’s containment was breeched and, somehow, a unsuccessful batch of the formula had been released into the towns water supply. The ladybugs (worms, etc) were the first effected because of their size. Eventually, unless something is done, the same thing will happen to the human population!

When the hero informs the mayor of the fate that awaits every eligible voter in the town the small man nearly has a meltdown. “You have to do something!” he yells. “Name your price. Whatever it takes.” And then the hero goes off and handles things, defeating the Big Bad. At the end, the townspeople apologize for initially misjudging the hero and decide the town needs a new mayor. The End.

Of course that’s oversimplified. Normally the hero would have at least two allies, one of whom would be a bit shady. And there would be at least one enemy other than the Big Bad. And all these secondary characters would have their own, overlapping, story arcs.

So ...

- Initial problem.
- Initial problem is solved. 
- Hero rewarded.
- Deeper problem revealed, hero asked to help out again. Perhaps the hero needs persuasion this time.
- Hero investigates, talks to people, makes friends and enemies.
- Hero takes an initial run at the problem but only makes things worse.
- Dark night  of the soul. The townspeople blame him for their troubles, etc.
- Hero solves the problem, figures things out. He knows how to set things right, he just needs a couple of gadgets/spells/etc. 
- Final fight/showdown.
- Aftermath/cashing out the stakes.

Or something like that. :-)

If you’re a gamer and would like to share your impressions of your favorite game, what made it addictive for you, please do!

Till next time, happy writing (and gaming). 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Killing Your Darlings

Killing Your Darlings

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. — Stephen King, On Writing

Let’s talk about murder: killing your darlings.

I’m editing my WIP. The first draft is written—it feels as though I’ve scrawled it in blood—and now I've started on the first, painful, edit.

 What do you think I’ve found right smack dab at the beginning of the second chapter? Yep, a darling.

Darlings are pieces of prose you’re inordinately fond of. Often, you think they constitute your best writing.  (And perhaps they do.) You just love them. But there’s a problem: they don’t further the story. To keep them you’d have to bend the story out of shape. (Or, as I like to think of it, “pretzelize it.”)

And that’s bad. That’s when I’ve got to go sharpen my knives.

To work me up to the task of cutting out this particular bit of prose, I went back to my writing bible. I think all writers have a writing bible. It’s not an actual bible of course, but it is a book that has helped me more than I could ever adequately express, it is a book that makes me glad I was (insane) lucky enough to want to be a writer.

I’m talking about Stephen King’s, “On Writing.” The book changed my life. Reading it, I felt as though some kindly master of the craft had taken time out of his day to sit down with me and pass along a few tips.

The Criterion


King believes that a writer “should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.” 

That’s the criterion: Does it work? That is, does the story or technique please “at least some of the readers some of the time.”

King writes: 

“If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.”

As is so often the case, it is good advice that is agonizing to apply. 

I guess I better trudge along now and do what needs to be done. Now, where did I put that scalpel ...

Happy writing!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Getting Back Into The Groove

Hi folks! It’s been a while since my last post. Sorry about that. Turns out that I’m having a bit of trouble getting back into the old groove. 

Tomorrow I want to chat about killing your darlings, because I’ve been having trouble doing just that. 


Till then, good writing! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Bicycle, A Recycling Bin And A Tree: Oh my!

Just a quick note: Yesterday I was involved in a MINOR accident involving a bicycle, a recycling bin and an amazingly sturdy tree. I picked myself up and walked away. No broken bones, nothing sprained, no property damage to speak of; in fact, the only injury was to a tooth. 

* Sigh *

I’ll omit the gory details, but I spent yesterday afternoon getting emergency dental surgery. Thanks to modern pharmacology I am in no pain but the mental fog is ... well, the phrase “could cut it with a knife” comes to mind.


SO. I’m going to take it easy for the next few days, but I’ll be back on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Till then, good writing!