Monday, August 1

The 5 Best Books on Writing. First Book: On Writing by Stephen King























If I could only recommend one book on writing I wouldn’t hesitate. It would be Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.”

Why “On Writing”?


Stephen King is, in my opinion, one of the best writers of our time. I know not everyone will agree with that, and, if you don’t, I’d ask you to hear me out.

Prose and Plot


There are more (many more!) than two dimensions to any piece of writing, but here I’m only going to talk about two: prose and plot.

I think that where Stephen King excels is his prose, not his plot—though, don’t misunderstand, I think his plots are riveting. But it is his prose that immerses readers in his characters. It is the unrelenting intimacy one feels with his characters that sucks me into his stories, his worlds, and makes me sad when I have to leave.

Here’s an example. What follows are the first three paragraphs of “The Shining” by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker. As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk—under the circumstances.

Let’s examine this. And, please, keep in mind these are just my thoughts as a reader and admirer of Stephen King’s work. I’m not speaking from any sort of privileged position. I’d love to read in the comments what you think of these passages. 

In the first paragraph we are shoved into the mind of one of the two main characters in this story, Jack Torrance. You can't get more intimate than that. Also, this is emotional. No one thinks, "officious little prick" of someone unless they're angry, and anger is very personal, very intense. We are not only eavesdropping on Jack’s thoughts, but Jack’s thoughts are (depending on what you're used to) a little bit shocking. I mean, the very first thing we learn about Jack Torrance is that he thinks someone is an officious little prick. It paints a picture of Jack. Right off the bat it seems that he might have anger issues, perhaps he is someone quick to take offense.

That first sentence of “The Shining” is, hands down, my favorite first sentence of any book, ever.

The second paragraph is written in the third person but it clearly reflects Jack’s point of view. King uses the phrases, “prissy speed,” “small plump men,” as well as a suggestion that Ullman looked cold and dour, to paint a picture not only of Ullmen, but of Jack. These are Jack’s emotions, Jack’s musings, Jack’s thoughts. It also tells us, or at least hints at, why Jack is with Ullman. Jack needs Ullman to hire him for a job that is (he feels) far beneath him and he hates Ullman for it.

In the third paragraph we learn that although Jack is angry he is also reflective. Thoughtful. He realizes that perhaps he isn't being fair to Ullman and is honest enough with himself to realize that, under the current circumstances, it doesn't matter what Ullman is like, Jack is going to despise him. And Jack seems okay with that.

Interwoven through it all is King's voice. It is like a living thing, thick with emotion. It thrusts and gouges, revealing character.

I was planning on writing more today but ... I'm moving! Lots to do, lots still to pack.

In my next post I’ll pick this topic up again and talk about what I think is Stephen King's number one best piece of advice for writers.

Friday, July 29

Weekend Reading: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins


I've been falling behind on my reading and thought I'd try something new. Weeks (months?!) ago I swore I would read "The Girl on the Train," by Paula Hawkins. From everything I've heard it's a delightful, provoking, read.

But, really, it was what Stephen King tweeted that sealed the deal for me:
So this weekend I'm going to do it, I'm going to read "The Girl on the Train," and by posting this here I'm making myself accountable to you!

What book are you reading this weekend? I would love to hear from you!

Talk to you again on Monday.

Thursday, July 28

Write Now: Finding Inspiration


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” —Robert Frost

Let’s get something out of the way: writers do not need to feel inspired before they sit down to write. Or perhaps I should say that professional writers are sufficiently afraid of not being able to pay rent that they’re able to conjure up inspiration. As Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Today, I would like to discuss what inspires me, what motivates me to write, and it turns out to be a long list. So, in no particular order:

Past Trauma


I think the best writing is emotionally evocative, causing the reader to feel fear, hate, loss, sadness, happiness, joy or regret.

What was a low time in your life? A dark hour? Think of it, concentrate on that memory. Slip into it. What were you feeling? Thinking? At the time, were you thinking clearly? How did your emotions change over time? Why did your emotions change? Did someone help you through your trauma or did you get through it in spite of those around you?

Now think of a character. It could be one that you have created; for instance, it could be the protagonist from your work in progress. It could also be a character from your favorite movie or TV show. Make that character an actor in your traumatic situation. Perhaps they can take on the role of one of the other people in your memory. Maybe they become you.

Now ask yourself, how would this have changed the situation? What would this character do differently? What would the new ending be, or would everything have turned out the same, regardless?

This is one way to take your raw emotions and weave them into a fictionalized environment, merging the unique, the painfully personal, and the general archetypal kinds of life events we’ve all suffered through. (For example, finding out that someone you love more than life doesn’t feel the same way about you.)

Past Triumph


Repeat the exercise we just did (Past Trauma) but now do it with a wonderful memory rather than a traumatic one. Think of a wonderful time of your life. Think of an event at which you were giddily, all-consumingly, happy. Close your eyes and slip into the memory.

How did your body feel? Were you outside or inside? Was it sunny out? Rainy? Who was with you? Why were you so happy? How did the people you were with (if any) respond to your happiness? Were they happy you were happy or were they jealous? How did the event end?

If you could go back in time and relive the event again, would you do anything differently? How would the character from your WIP react if put in exactly the same situation?

Writing Prompts


I love writing prompts! A good prompt—or perhaps just one suited to my particular creative temperament—can conjure up a strange new world.

I used to publish a new writing prompt every day. Just today I began corralling those into a Google+ collection imaginatively entitled, “Writing Prompts.” ;-) I plan to, one day, have all my writing prompts there. I find they’re a great way to kick-start my day.

I don’t have space to go into all of these in depth, but here is a list of possible sources of inspiration:

Friends and Family
Quotations
Religion
A Writing Journal
Pinterest
Google Maps, Street View
Poems
Novels
Music
Daydreams
Dreams
Blog Posts
People-Watching
Movies and TV
Forums
Free Writing

These are just a few of the ways I get inspiration. I would be really interested to hear how you find inspiration to write. What sort of things do you think about, what kind of things feed your soul?

Thanks it for today! Good writing and talk to you again on Monday.

Monday, July 25

Write Now: Let Go of Perfectionism


We want certain people to be perfectionists. We want them not to rest until their work is exactly right. Brain surgeons, chemists, geneticists, movie projectionists and, of course, accountants.

Writers, though, not so much. For a writer, perfectionism leads to missed deadlines and ulcers. Which isn’t to say that we don’t want our prose to sparkle. But perfectionism leads to second-guessing oneself and that’s poison to a writer’s muse.


Perfectionism Can Kill A Writing Career


Professional writers can’t miss deadlines. (Well, I’m pretty sure that writers like Stephen King or George R.R. Martin could miss a deadline or three, but most of us are light years away from being anywhere even remotely close to that particular ballpark.) 

If I contracted to write an article of a certain length by a certain date and then didn’t turn my work in on time or if it wasn’t to spec, then not only am I not getting paid, but I’m probably not getting another job from that person. If that happens enough times, it can kill a career.


Accept That You See Your Writing Differently Than Anyone Else


I’m often surprised by readers’ comments on my work. Especially on the first draft, what a reader will say they read and what I thought I wrote can be very different things.

But of course that’s the case! These are my thoughts and ideas. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, this thing we do is really an odd sort of telepathy. Let me demonstrate:

There is a cat on a mat.

Simply by virtue of you reading, “There is a cat on a mat,” you thought of a cat on a mat. (Here’s my favorite: Don’t think of a white bear. But I can’t help it! To read and understand the sentence I inevitably think of a white bear.) So just by virtue of you reading those words I’ve transmitted my thought, my idea, to you.

Of course the idea of a cat on a mat is a general idea. Many of the details, the specifics, are going to differ between my cat and yours. As it happens, my cat is a tabby cat and it’s laying on an oblong, white, braided mat. Your cat might be a Siamese, or Persian, or perhaps a sleek Russian Blue.

And let’s not forget about the place in which the cat lies indolently upon the mat. I pictured my tabby curled lazily in front of a lit fireplace in a rustic cabin out in the woods. Where is your cat? In a building? Outdoors? Is it grooming itself, sleeping, or perhaps it’s looking intently at something you can’t quite make out just to the right of you, a space which seemed empty a moment ago. (mmmmmwwwwahahahahahaha)

In any case, I hope I have convinced you that, although there are differences in the specifics of the thought I wrote down (“There is a cat on the mat”) and the thought that you had after reading what I wrote, I successfully transmitted my thought to you.

How cool is that!

Anyway, my point is that no matter how obsessively you craft your writing—words that go together to create a sentence, a unit, a thought—you will never have full control of how your reader fills out the thought, how they complete it. 

I try to write with an awareness that I don’t have anything like complete control over how my thoughts fit into the teeming ecosystem of a reader’s mind, of the nuances that they bring to any text, nuances that subtly—or not so subtly—shade the meanings of my words.


How To Beat Perfectionism AND Defeat Writer’s Block



1. The Trial By Fire Method


I’ve done this. Write a blog post a day for a month, giving yourself a strict time limit. Say, two hours. After two hours, publish what you’ve written, even if it is incomplete. (Though if it is incomplete I would add an explanatory note about the 31 day challenge you’re on so your readers understand what’s going on.)

Toward the end of the month, you’ll get a feeling for where you are in the creation of a blog post. You’ll have a sense for how much more time it will take you to finish and so will be able to judge whether you need to narrow the scope (or perhaps expand the scope) of the article. Also, you will have to—you will be forced to—let go of any thought of being perfect and focus on whether what you have written accomplishes what you set out to do. If it does, and it’s spell checked and there are no grammatical mistakes, then click the publish button!


2. Freewriting


I don’t do this exercise often, but the times I have it has been very effective. Set a timer for five minutes (it can be any fairly short period of time) and begin writing. When the timer goes off you don’t have to stop that very second. Finish your thought and then read what you have. Chances are it’s a decent (though very short) rough draft.


You Have To Write A Rough Draft Before You Can Write the Finished Product


For myself, writer’s block comes from wanting to skip all the rough drafts and just write the finished perfect draft the first time through. While I’m sure there are writers who can do that, the overwhelming majority of professional writers can’t. Most writers need to vomit out a rough draft—several rough drafts—first. 

When I have a rough draft, even one that makes me cringe, I have something I can make better.

That’s it! I hope you’ve found something here that inspired you or helped you in some way. I’d love to hear your thoughts on perfectionism. Have you ever had writer’s block? What happened? How did you get over it? Please take a moment to share your tips and experiences, I’d love to read about them.

Until Thursday, good writing!

(What follows is an affiliate link. Every time someone buys something after clicking an affiliate link, Amazon gives my site a small percentage of the sale price. This is one of the ways I’m keeping the lights on at karenwoodward.org. I promise I will never post an affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in.)

I love all things audio: podcasts, radio, audiobooks. Especially audiobooks. I’ve used Audible and can recommend it without hesitation. Try it for one month, free!

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Friday, July 22

Never Give Up Your Dreams



Our dreams define us. They make us who we are.

Maybe your dreams are quirky—square blocks that can’t fit in the world’s round holes. That’s okay. They are you. Maybe you’ll use your dreams to create something unique. Or not. Perhaps your dreams aren’t that sort. Even unfulfilled dreams have the power to sustain us.

What Are Your Dreams?

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be a writer … or the President of the United States. Whichever. (In my 4-year-old brain, it didn’t matter in the slightest that I was Canadian!)

When you were a kid, what did you love?

Don’t laugh, but my very favorite thing when I was a kid was the big/towering/huge maple tree in our backyard. I think I spent half my childhood climbing all over it. In my memories it is a massive thing, with boughs the size of a child’s waist.

Well.

I went back and visited my old home and—yep, you guessed it—the tree was still there but it was not at all big or towering or huge. But that’s okay, I still got all teared up and hugged it.

Dreams That Can Be Achieved


Some dreams—like my becoming President—are doomed. Sure, I could have changed my dream to becoming Prime Minister of Canada, but it’s just not the same.

That’s not the only dream I’ve had to let go of over the years. Being an astronaut is forever beyond my reach due to, among other things, my propensity to become motion sick if I walk too fast. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

My point is that, while impossible dreams like this are wonderful and lend themselves to the richly textured background of our imaginative lives, they demonstrate that there are two kinds of dreams: those that are physically, actually, possible and those that … well, not so much. And that’s fine. But if your dream IS possible, then what are you waiting for?

Why Our Dreams Fade And Die


There are all sorts of reasons why folks don’t try to fulfill their dreams but I think the most common is fear. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, fear is the dream killer.[1]

Fear of Failure


I think that the number one reason dreams fade and die is the fear of failure. We fear that we’ll start off on some wonderful adventure—we’ll try to write a book, or a short story a week, or we’ll start to save for an epic around-the-world trip—but when all the work is done, when the vacation is finished, all that will be left behind is emptiness. Regret.

The fear is that the book will be panned by critics, or that the short story collection would never sell, or that the around-the-world-trip would cost an inordinate amount of money and all you’d discover about yourself is that you’re a stay-at-home kinda person. Or worse, you could lose all your money and be stranded.

I’m not saying that every single dream you have will come true. I can’t see the future. But one thing I do know is that if one never tries to fulfill one’s dreams then that guarantees none of them will come to be.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure, but it’s true: nothing risked, nothing gained.

Also—at least this is what I tell myself these days—if one lets fear control them then they will be forever swerving away from things, trying to avoid the bad rather than actively seeking the good. The former is existing, the latter is living.

Fear of the Unknown


Closely behind fear of failure is fear of what we don’t know, of what we can’t predict.

Personally, I hate uncertainty, but if there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of it’s that life is essentially uncertain. Just as you (and by ‘you’ I mean ‘me’) begin to think you’ve got a handle on this whole life thing, right then is when something completely unexpected happens and thoroughly bashes your world to pieces. Welcome to the unknown, please debark in an orderly fashion.

Errr, anyway. Getting back on track …

The key, here, is to take a deep breath and attempt to rationally assess the situation. A friend of mine—he’s a manager in a local high tech firm—once shared the following with me and, believe it or not, it has helped.

3. Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the best that could happen?
Ask yourself: If I do this, what is the worst that could happen?
Ask yourself: How likely is it that the worst will happen?
- Is there anything you can do before-the-fact to prevent the worst from happening?
- If the worst happens, could you repair the situation? If so, how?

(By the way, I know this way of assessing and mitigating risk didn’t originate with my friend, but that’s where I first heard about it.)

If the worst thing that could happen is complete and total devastation—the life-equivalent of a thermonuclear explosion—then maybe back away from that possible dream. Let it go on its way, but release it slowly and hope it doesn’t become startled.

On the other hand, if the worst thing that could happen isn’t very bad at all, or if it is easily prevented, or if you could mitigate the damage if it occurred, then why not try and live your dream?

Fear of Rejection


This is one of my personal boogeymen. What if people read my work and think I’m terrible?!

My rational mind has a reply ready: of course some people will hate your work. That’s inevitable. But, hopefully, some people will love it.

Whenever I see NO one star reviews on an otherwise popular book (say, over 100 reviews), I expect one of two things: first, the book is a classic that everyone agrees is awesome. Second, something is off. It could be that the writer’s friends and extended family have read the book and dutifully left nothing but glowing praise, but those aren’t the reviews I’m looking for. So don’t fear one star reviews! Look at them as weird kind of badge of honor.

Also, a book written for a niche market can easily acquire a lot of one star reviews if read by folks outside the niche. There’s nothing wrong with these people’s taste, the book just isn’t for them. And that’s fine. If your niche readers are as passionate about your work as you are, then you have a real chance of making a go of it.

Persistence can help to drive out our fears. Don’t lose sight of the folks who 'get' your work, who understand you. If your work is selling, then obviously it’s reaching people who appreciate it. Let the haters hate.

* * *

Okay! This article is longer than I thought it would be. I had wanted to chat about tips and tools writers can use to shape their dreams into reality. Perhaps another time.

Question: When you were a kid what did you dream about? What did you want to become when you grew up? Do you have a tip for how to defeat fear and follow your dreams? Please share!

(What follows is an affiliate link. Every time someone buys something after clicking an affiliate link, Amazon gives my site a small percentage of the sale price. This is one of the ways I’m keeping the lights on at karenwoodward.org. I promise I will never post an affiliate link to a product I don’t believe in.)

I love all things audio: podcasts, radio, audiobooks. Especially audiobooks. I’ve used Audible and can recommend it without hesitation. Try it for one month, free!

Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Notes:


1. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Frank Herbert, Dune. The Litany Against Fear.

Tuesday, July 19

How To Write A Product Review


I’ve talked before (see Links, below) about how I write a critique, but I’ve never written about how I do a general review. Time to change that!

Essentially, I see a review as a persuasive argument. Your review of the product gives, first, your opinion of the product and then why you feel/think the way you do.

So far so good. But a great review goes beyond this and uses the writer’s own experiences to shape a persuasive argument: “I think this product is lousy/great  … and so should you!” The stronger the reasons for your opinion, the stronger your argument.

For instance, let’s say that the Kitchen-Gadgetinator 2000 is, hands down, the best apple corer I’ve ever used. That would become my thesis, my claim. I’d back up this claim by listing its positive features. (For example, “The Kitchen Gadgetinator 2000 is fast! Most gadgets take two full minutes to core an apple but this dohickey takes under a minute.”)

Like any good argument, though, if there are negatives about the product they need to be discussed. If you love the product, why do you love it despite these defects? Conversely, if the product has many positive points, but you hate it anyway, why do you?

Be Personal


Talk about your experiences with the product. After all, your experiences are the reason you’re writing the review!

Even though the number one reason anyone reads a review is that they want to know the answer to the question, Would I like this, if you can get the customer to smile, if you can reach beyond the page and change your reader's emotion, then—no matter what kind of writing you’re doing—it’s good writing.

Who Is Your Audience?


Taylor your review to your intended audience.

If you love the product you’re reviewing, then chances are you won’t have to do much audience research. I love role-playing games. I watch game trailers as they come out and have more-or-less strong ideas about what makes a game great. And, of course, I have my own list of “the greatest games ever made,” a list which is pretty much guaranteed to be different from everyone else’s list!

But no matter how I feel about the product I try to talk to as many people as I can who have used it. It could be that my reactions to the product are idiosyncratic, or I just don’t ‘get’ it. If this is the case still write the review, but mention that you realize your opinion is in the minority.

Compare The Product To Similar Products


Say you’re reviewing a camera. You might think the camera is terrific, but talking about, say, two close runner ups will give your readers perspective. This is where a comparison chart of key features might come in useful.

Be Focused


You probably can’t—and wouldn’t want to—talk equally about all the product’s features.

- Does the product have a killer feature? If it’s a camera, is it smaller than all other cameras? Lighter? Etc.
- What are, in your opinion, the product’s most important features?
- Do these features work as advertized?
- What did you like about each feature? Dislike?

Also:

- What was your first impression of the product?
- What things are easier to do if you use the product?
- Was there anything you had a bit of trouble figuring out?
- Is there something you thought the product or service would do for you, but it didn’t? Or, alternatively, anything that came as a pleasant surprise?
- Did the product meet your expectations?
- Is there anything that surprised you about the product? Was the surprise good? Bad?

Credentials


Generally, the only credentials one needs to write a review is your experience with the product. That said, readers would appreciate knowing a bit about you if the details are relevant to the product under review. For instance, if you’re reviewing a RPG game, your readers might be interested in which other RPG games you’ve played, which RPG game was your favorite, and so on. This information helps the reader understand your likes and dislikes and, I think, can help them get more out of your review.

Also, I think it’s much more fun to read a review that’s a bit personal and chatty. Don’t misunderstand, I want the facts, but I like it when they’re delivered in an entertaining and memorable way.

First Paragraph 


I try to (“try” being the operative word!) make the first line snappy, something to grab the reader's attention and showcase my writing style. I want to let the reader know this will be an informal, breesy, post—perhaps even a humorous post—and that they’ll learn something about the product in question that could be valuable to them.

Somewhere in the remainder of the first paragraph I’ll give the name of the product, I’ll also describe the product, what it does, how it can make a person’s life better, and so on.

At the end of the first paragraph I’ll inform my readers if I received a complimentary copy of the product for the purposes of review. Some folks do this at the beginning, in the first sentence, and that’s absolutely fine. Myself, since often the first sentence is what tells someone whether they want to read the review, I try and make my first sentence stand out from the crowd. I think as long as a writer is up front early in the review on about how they came by the product or service, that’s fine.

Ultimately, There Are No Rules


The only rule for writing well is that there are no rules. One hears this in connection with narrative fiction, but I think it’s just as true for review pieces. Which isn’t to say that certain ways of organizing your content don’t lend themselves more to being read and positively commented on.

How do you write a review? Please share your tips and tricks!


The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1
Writing A Critique: Reading Critically
How To Write A Critique: The Sandwich Method

Thursday, July 14

How to write a blog post

How to write a blog post


I’ve been away from blogging for a while so I sat down and, feeling rusty, thought about the characteristics of a good blog post. What do I look for as a reader? In the past, what advice has worked for me?

Of course, everyone’s different. The advice that works for me may not work for you; different strokes and all that. My hope is only that what I’ve written will help you discover something useful.

Perhaps you’ve heard this advice before:

First, tell the reader what you are going to say.
Second, say it.
Third, tell the reader what you said.

Simple, yes, but it can help one craft short, clear and engaging pieces of prose.

Part One: Tell the reader what you’re going to say


When I write, the first thing that comes to me is usually the post’s title. At the moment, a post about podcasting is rattling around my head, begging to be written. I’m going to call it something like:  Why Every Blogger Should Have a Podcast. One thing I love about the title is that it contains the subject of the post.

In this imaginary blog post I’d probably say something like this in the first paragraph:

I think every blogger should also be a podcaster because having a podcast can, first, introduce one’s work to more readers, second, introduce one’s work to different readers and, perhaps most importantly, earn money.  Maybe, in the beginning, it would only earn enough to cover the cost of the podcast, but plenty of podcasters who stuck with it earn their livings from podcasting.

There we have a statement of the subject of the post and, what’s more, the hook is clear: Podcasting can help you put your work in front of more readers and earn you some money while you’re at it.

Part Two: Say it


In some sense -- even though this is where the bulk of the work is done -- this is the easiest bit. You know what you want to say; now all you have to do is say it.

In my example, I have three points:

Every blogger should be a podcaster because …
A. It can introduce your work to more people, (expand your audience)
B. It can introduce your work to different kinds of people, (expand into a different audience)
C. It can help you become profitable.

All I have to do is expand these points. I could give examples from my own experience, talk about the experiences of others, talk a bit about strategies (successful and otherwise) others have used, and so on.

Part Three: Summarize


Summaries can feel stilted. After all, you’ve told people what you were going to tell them, and then you told them … do you really need to tell them (again!) what you just told them?

The short answer: No. Especially if the post is short, an explicit summary can be redundant.

In a longer post try making the summary short and breezy. A conclusion that focuses on one strong point – or an action item – can help bring the entire article into focus.

A Tip: Be Informal


Imagine you’re chatting with someone over a cup of joe at your favorite watering hole. If you wouldn’t use formal phrases like, “In relation to …” or “please be advised that …” in conversation then don’t use them in the article. That’s what seems to work for me, at least.

An Apology


You have my deepest apologies for letting this blog lay inactive so long. There's a story behind it (isn't there always?). For now let me just say: Life happened. Life happened in the same way it happens to a melon when dropped off the 52nd story of a skyscraper.  That’s an exaggeration, of course! I’m fine now, duct tape does wonders. 

My new blogging schedule: I will post something every Monday and Thursday.

Are there any topics that especially interest you? If so, let me know! Leave a comment, email me (KarenWoodward (at) gmail (dot) com), or drop me a note on Twitter (https://twitter.com/woodwardkaren).

Talk to you Thursday, and good writing!





Friday, July 17

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

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

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.”