Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

Before You Write: Part 3, Plotting with a Purpose

January 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on pre-writing, I’m talking today about different ways to plot your novel before sitting down to write. Figuring out your plot at the beginning of the writing process can help you:

  • distribute your writing– knowing in advance all the pieces that your story will need to include keeps you from getting bogged down/spending an inordinate number of words on minutiae or set-up
  • get a sense of your timeline– understanding the time frame of the events of your story helps you identify any out-of-place jumps or pauses
  • develop a plan B when writer’s block hits– if you get stuck in a certain scene or beat, you know what’s coming next and can move ahead and come back later instead of coming to a grinding halt while you beat your head against the wall (but maybe that’s just me)

There are as many ways to plot a novel as there are authors, and no one approach is the “perfect” one, but most authors use some variation of several common approaches to story planning. These approaches can be organized from least to most detailed, and knowing your writing process and the plot areas you most often struggle with can help you determine which level of detail will be most helpful to you– some authors enjoy the organic plot development that takes place when they’re writing toward a climax without a more rigid plan in place, while others get bogged down in the middle if they haven’t figured out all of the plot points that will take the story from beginning to climax. With that in mind, here are three common approaches to story planning and the common plot problems they can help prevent.

1. The Compass: The Story Arc or Line

At its most basic, a story arc charts the rise and fall of tension in a story. From the stasis, or the way things are at the beginning, all plots generally follow a path of increasing tension or increasing stakes to the high point or climax, after which the relieved tension leads to a new stasis or new normal where most elements of the plot have been resolved. If you chart a story arc on a line graph where the Y axis represents tension and the X axis represents the timeline of the story, the arc will be roughly hill-shaped, though will appear sharper the more quickly events escalate to the climax. If you google “story arc graph,” you’ll find thousands of variations on this type of plot organization strategy, and there isn’t one correct version of a story arc, but an effective arc graph usually includes at least the following landmarks:

  1. Stasis (the way things are)
  2. Inciting incident (the action or circumstance or revelation that gets sets the story into motion)
  3. Rising tension (a series of events or a state of being rather than an individual instance)
  4. Climax (the high point of the action where tension reaches the breaking point)
  5. Falling action (the fallout or consequences of whatever went down during the climax)
  6. Denouement (the resolution/introduction to the new normal)

Some authors don’t need to know any more detail about their plot at the beginning of the writing process than is provided by a simple story arc graph. By knowing the inciting incident, the climax, and the way things are going to end up, they have a sufficient road map to push the story in the right direction but still have the freedom to let it take shape/surprise them as they write. If you think about it in terms of an actual physical journey, a story arc as a means of plotting can be thought of as the equivalent of a compass as a navigational tool. If you know you want to get to the Pacific Ocean from Denver but don’t want to be tied down to a specific route, a compass will get you there by pointing you due west until you hit the Pacific Ocean. Everything you do and see along the way is up to you, but you’re able to keep moving in the right direction thanks to the compass (or, more accurately, thanks to knowing that the Pacific Ocean is where you want to go and that it’s due west). Identifying the major elements of your story using a story arc graph or outline can give you the same directed spontaneity in your writing.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You like to discover minor characters and subplots during the writing process
  • You struggle to stick to an outline once you’ve made it
  • You’ve been told that there isn’t enough build-up to your climax, or that your climax isn’t dramatic enough
  • You make frequent deviations from your original plot plans
  • Your characters tend to change/mutate significantly during the writing process (not to be confused with regular character growth)
  • Your story ideas tend to be more character driven than event-driven

2. Turn by Turn Directions: The Beat Sheet

Beats are the unit of storytelling used by screenwriters to organize the action events of a movie, and many authors have adopted their use into their own story planning. When you hear the term “action events,” you may jump immediately to high-octane scenes of gunfire and car chases, but in reality, the phrase simply refers to every action performed by the characters that moves the action of the story forward in a significant way. For example, a conversation your protagonist has with her best friend in which she first begins to doubt her boyfriend’s fidelity would be a beat. Sneaking a look at her boyfriend’s phone while he was in the bathroom would be another beat. Confronting him about all the texts from “Alicia” would be another. All these actions, though smaller than a big confrontation at her wedding in which she finally realizes that she’s about to marry a cheater and calls him out in front of all their friends and family (this would be more of a “climax” type of action, and also a beat) move the story forward in significant ways– her thinking is changed in the first one, she takes action in the second one, she changes the dynamic of her relationship in the third, etc.

The number of beats required to lay out an entire plot changes based on the type of story you’re writing, but will generally be between 15 (a category romance) and 30 (a complicated political thriller). If you’re confused about whether or not an event is actually a beat or not, ask yourself if anything is different after it happens– a scene in which your protagonist googles “how to know if he’s cheating” might be funny, but if it doesn’t change her thinking or incite her to action (the conversation with her friend is what really rocked her world/introduced her doubt), it’s not really a story beat. However, because story beats exist to get the actions/decisions of a story pinned down, they leave a moderate amount of space for periphery or filler scenes such as the Google one. Continuing our navigation analogy, a beat sheet is more like specific directions to the Pacific Ocean– “get on I-70 heading west, then take I-15 south, then follow the signs for Long Beach.” You know the specific landmarks and turns you need to make, but you still have the freedom to get off the highway and look around/buy some beef jerky if you want to.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You enjoy having a road map to follow when writing
  • You often struggle with writer’s block
  • Your plots have been criticized for escalating too slowly or too quickly
  • You begin with a clear sense of your major characters and their world/the settings you’ll be using
  • You enjoy (or at least aren’t bothered by) writing scenes out-of-order on occasion

3. The Guided Tour: The Outline

A full outline is the most detailed of story planning devices. Some authors love writing from an outline because a well-constructed outline can serve as a virtual blueprint for a novel, telling you exactly what scenes appear in which order, as well as the setting, the featured characters, and the point of view for each one. Not surprisingly, other authors HATE this kind of story planning, because of the lack of room for spontaneity it offers and the amount of premeditation it requires. If you like the idea of having an outline tell you exactly what you’ll be use your word count on each day, you may want to try this method of plotting. If your beat sheet laid out every action event or scene of significance to the story arc, an outline expands on that to include the trivial and expository content that round out a novel– an outline indicates where you’re going to put the protagonist’s backstory and description, which scenes are going to start out with a description of the setting, which scenes will be told from alternate points of view, where you’ll include “montage”-type scenes which establish a pattern or show the main character in her element (i.e., scenes showing a wedding planner meeting with a couple or chasing a flower girl or wrapping chairs in tulle which aren’t central to the plot but which bring the character’s daily life into focus and provide a backdrop for the action events of the plot), etc.

If story beats are turn-by-turn directions, an outline is a guided tour which takes you on a carefully scheduled and carefully routed excursion on which each rest stop, gas station, and side trip is planned in advance and the guide has a list of views he’ll direct your attention to along the way. Not everyone enjoys traveling this way, but it does ensure that you will get safely to your destination and will have seen everything you should have along the way.

HELPFUL IF:

  • You’re a control freak– in a good way
  • Your subplots have been criticized for being weak or underdeveloped
  • You’ve been told your plots are confusing
  • You have a short time frame for writing
  • You have trouble jumping back into your novel when you come back to it each day
  • You’re writing your first novel/you’ve had trouble completing a novel in the past

Obviously, there are dozens of variations on these three methods, and a quick Google search will yield a myriad of resources to help you use and adapt each one to suit your own needs, but hopefully you recognized an element of your own process or a problem you’ve struggled with and can walk away with a better idea of which story-planning method can best help you position your next novel for success! Where on the spectrum of compass/directions/guided tour does your plotting technique fall?

 

On Crime Fiction and Sales (a guest blog)

January 16th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Trends | 1 Comment

Analyzing sales trends is a tricky business. Predicting them is almost impossible. But when thinking of what type of crime novel sells, be it the cozy or the more violent thriller novel, there are a few clear issues that emerge. Are readers looking for reassurances that traditional narratives offer, or is violence the allure?

One model of analysis that is illuminating is the Nietzschean dialogue between Dionysian and Apollonian energies [1]. If Apollo represents law and Dionysus chaos, then crime fiction is built on a fundamental friction between the two. And proportionally, the largest part of any crime novel is the narrative showing the seductive uprising of forces that threaten to destroy society. There may be a certain voyeurism at play here, as the reader is allowed to witness things he would not ordinarily see, as he is given a peek into lives that are as exciting as they are flawed. But ultimately the narrative thrust is towards the vindication of law.

That is one thing that is a recurrent feature: most crime fiction is redemptive. The plot and story are often driven by criminal subversions and focus on the damage done to peoples’ lives by criminals, while the protagonist, often a detective, struggles to catch the culprit, but in the end order is restored and justice served, often lawlessly where revenge is part of the plot. Justice is a prevailing theme, but it is one that is interpreted in many ways. The police procedural traditionally relies on the investigation and the judicial system to restore order, while other novels mete out poetic justice to the wrong doers. These are some of the shared themes of crime novels, but the approaches are all different.

Agatha Christie wrote addictive cozies that centre on a period of English history when class dominated social interactions. Her core strengths are her plotting and protagonists. Poirot remains an undeniable force among detectives. Christie’s novels are addictive because she uses a familiar pattern when she constructs a plot, and the reader knows that while everyone may come under suspicion, by the end all questions will be answered and life will return to normal. And this is the main reason why I believe she sells. She tips a microcosm on its head, we see the small village torn apart by doubt and fear, then she puts it all back together again. Her reassurances are based on the innate sense her fictions contain that social order will prevail. And the backdrop to the events is the unshakeable class system that remains a constant.

By contrast, a writer like Thomas Harris straddles the line between crime and horror. The creation of a new monster is always popular, since the fear factor is a driving force in a good page turner. Hannibal Lecter is perhaps the last great monster to have been written, and he is chilling precisely because he appears so normal. His derangement involves no loss of control, he is a manic with no social signs of mania. His ability to reason his impulses and to analyse the pathology of others places him firmly on the rational side of pathological, and as such he epitomises the dialogue between criminality and normality that informs many great crime fictions. His appeal is violent and permissive. He embodies the Dionysian in crime fiction.

I think Harris gives a good insight into the mind of a psychopath in The Silence of the Lambs, and that is one reason his novels have sold so well. Readers want to be entertained, but I believe they also want to understand something about a subject that they feel is closed from them. If a writer shows the reader a glimpse into the world of say, the Colombian drug cartels, and gives a realistic portrait of that he has engaged the reader’s interest. That sense of realism is key.

When you read an Elmore Leonard novel his criminals feel real. Part of that is due to his brilliant dialogue. Leonard writes superb fast paced novels that are dialogue driven. He attributes this style to the influence of George V. Higgins and his seminal novel The Friends Of Eddy Coyle. Higgins showed you can structure a novel almost entirely out of dialogue and reading The Friends at times feels like listening in on a group of criminals talking. Leonard’s crims are street smart, dumb, flawed and you know they are going to mess it up. Therein lies the reassurance, these guys are not going to get away with it.

Violence may sell a novel, certainly, especially if it is part of a revenge plot, but not on its own. A writer whose novels contain a good degree of violence is James Lee Burke. Burke has written some of the greatest crime novels today. His characters have depth and his two detectives, Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, balance law and lawlessness well, with Robicheaux the voice of order when Purcel may want to take the law into his own hands. And this is their appeal: the criminals commit atrocities that make the reader want to see them punished and when the law fails to do so there is satisfaction in what is meted out by Burke’s protagonists. They act as a narrative focal point, taking the reader into the world of crime in order to stop the criminals.

While the cozy may lack the violence of many crime novels, it shares with them the narrative drive towards resolution of the things that threaten order. Ultimately, that is the appeal of a good crime novel: the reader is allowed a safe trip inside crime, one which he may learn from, and be entertained by. But at the end order is expected to be restored, unless you have to wait for the sequel and then surely you are selling. The reader has had the thrill of watching crime at work and ended with the pleasure of seeing it dealt with.

[1] Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy.

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Richard Godwin is the author of such critically acclaimed crime novels as Confessions of a Hit Man, Noir City, One Lost Summer, Mr. Glamour, and Meaningful Conversations. A published poet and playwright, he was educated at King’s College. He lives in London. 

Before You Write: Part 2, Developing Your Characters

January 14th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, I started a new series about some pre-writing strategies that can help you preemptively fix problem areas in your manuscripts. Since not every author is going to find every strategy helpful, however, I included a list of questions to ask yourself about your writing process to help you in figuring out which pre-writing exercises are worth your time. I’m talking today about some character development tools that you may find helpful if:

  • you struggle with writing multi-dimensional characters/relationships
  • you find yourself getting bored with your characters partway through a manuscript
  • you’ve struggled in writing dialogue for specific characters
  • you’ve ever been uncertain of a character’s motivation
  • you’ve received feedback about characters acting “out of character” or being inconsistent.

If any of those sound like you, some of these tools/exercises can help pave the way for a smoother, more informed relationship with your characters throughout the writing process.

Interview Your Characters

I’ve mentioned this approach to character development before, but it’s worth repeating. I often read decent, well-written manuscripts that start out with several pages/chapters of backstory and character introduction that I, as the reader don’t need to know right away (and sometimes, at all). What generally happens is that as an author begins writing about a character, that character continues to grow/take shape in the author’s mind and all of that new information ends up in the manuscript, slowing down the opening of the story and delaying the action. While it’s true that a lot of authors learn about their characters by writing about them, that material shouldn’t necessarily end up in the book, and definitely shouldn’t be dumped in a big chunk at the beginning of the narrative. Instead, consider filling out an interview questionnaire for each character that figures substantially in your story, taking some time to answer/invent the answers to a wide variety of questions that reveal the character– physical appearance, family, childhood, education, places he’s lived, significant relationships, hobbies, fears, religion, lifestyle– the more information you compile about a character, the more choices you have when writing about them.

When I was involved in theater in high school and college, we completed a similar exercise for our characters in each play/musical, even for the insignificant characters (Woman #3 in Fiddler on the Roof, anyone?), the idea being that if every actor onstage had examined his character’s relationships with the others, with the setting, and what was going on in his private life before the events of the play, every interaction that took place on stage would be informed by that knowledge and would be more lifelike because of it. Even if the audience never had occasion to find out that my character hated Woman #4 because her husband had cheated mine in business, knowing that made it easier for me to decide how to interact with her character onstage and made for a more compelling interaction between us. In the same way, your characters’ scenes are going to have more life/more flavor for you having delved deeply into their histories and personalities, and your reader will notice the difference even without being privy to all of that information.

Visit Your Characters’ Pasts

Sometimes, simply knowing that a particular event took place in your character’s life isn’t enough to be able to understand how that event affects their motivations or reactions. For example, I read a manuscript a couple of years ago in which we find out early on that the protagonist’s love interest has some traumatic event in his past, but we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way through what it was (his brother was killed when the two of them came home late one night and surprised a burglar). The story was pretty good until the climactic revelation conversation, and then– flat as a pancake. The dialogue in that scene and the conflict that arose in their relationship supposedly related to his brother’s death just didn’t ring true. I didn’t care, and the conflict seemed contrived. Now, obviously, that event was tragic, and it certainly could affect his relationship, but the problem was that the character just didn’t seem connected to that event– I didn’t buy his motives for pulling back from his relationship, and I wasn’t moved by his revelation. It felt as if the author had simply plugged a tragic event into his backstory in order to create the necessary conflict in the relationship.

A strategy I’ve found extremely helpful is to write out pivotal scenes from your character’s past so you can witness them firsthand. Seeing these determining moments through their eyes gives you a whole new level of empathy/understanding for a character, and gives a ring of truth to their conversations when they talk about it, and their actions when they’re motivated by it. Even if a scene would have no place in your finished manuscript, writing it out can be invaluable in helping you understand your characters and write their words and actions convincingly. If your character was in an abusive relationship, write out a few of those moments, as painful as that may be. If your character had a bad relationship with her parents, write out a few of their biggest fights. If your character was engaged before, write out the scene where he proposed to his first fiancee. Having these scenes in your mind will inform your writing about these characters in surprising ways.

Role-Play with Your Characters

Your characters aren’t necessarily going to spring magically to your mind or to the page fully realized. I’ve read plenty of interviews with authors in which they talk about a certain character walking into their life one day with every detail intact, but I’ve had much more experience with authors who gradually patch their characters together from bits and pieces of inspiration, learning more about them the more they write. Consider taking your main characters through some sample scenes to learn more about them. Simple scenarios such as receiving bad service at a restaurant, someone cutting in front of him in line at the bank, or being seated next to a three-year-old on a flight can help you discover a lot about your character’s personality/reactions. Is he impatient? A pushover? Soft-spoken? Sarcastic? Is she uncomfortable around children? Does he avoid confrontation or relish it? Again, you may not have much luck with the whole “put your character in a situation and wait to see what they do” approach, but you can try several different options for each scenario and see which one feels the most natural– which response was the most fun to write? Which version of your character are you most interested in? Which character choice do you see providing you with the most options or the most conflict in light of your story? Writing some sample scenes like this can prevent you from picking a character trait at random and then struggling to make it stick for the rest of the story.

As I mentioned last week, the goal for these exercises isn’t to provide you with ways to procrastinate on writing the actual story, but to help you avoid writing yourself into a dead end or stalling out when you run out of information. If you’ve had character-related trouble in the past, try one or two of these strategies and see if doing a little homework sets you up for more success in the long-term.

Thursdays with Amanda: Winner Chosen! (2015 writing project challenge)

January 8th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft | 28 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. You can also check out her marketing skills on Fiverr. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

PLEASE READ THROUGH TO THE END… EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T WIN I HAVE SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR YOU…

Last week I invited you to share with me the various projects you’ll be working in 2015. I believe there is something inspiring about writers sharing ideas with others. There is something about making a public commitment to PURSUE a project that makes it so much more real (and we all know how working on a book alone, on your own, can many times feel like you’re pretending at this whole writer thing). So I’m very glad that we got a good response to my post. I’m glad for the thirty-some of you who took me up on my challenge and made your 2015 goal project public.

And as promised, I’ve chosen a favorite! Here are some things that I considered when reading through the submissions:

  1. Does the project have a strong external plot? It’s easy to focus on the internal arc (what are their fears and how do the characters change on the inside?), but a pitch is all about the external. What happens TO these characters? That’s what I’m more concerned about at this stage in the game.
  2. Does the project sound different? I see a lot of pitches, a lot of story ideas, and so I’m alway on the lookout for a book that is unique. Something that either I haven’t heard before or something that is different enough from the status quo.
  3. Do I want to know more? This is probably the most important question. Because a book can lack an external plot and sound just like everything else, but if it gets me to want to turn the page…we’re golden.

FINALISTS

  • ALICIA TUBBS: DR. VIRGIL’S AFTERLIFE RECORDINGS – Dr. Santos Virgil has been entrusted with a device that records a person’s life review upon the moment of death. In the wrong hands, the secrets revealed in these life reviews could destroy the world. When a cold-blooded mobster holds Santos’ friends hostage in exchange for the device, Santos embarks upon a suicidal rescue mission. If his mission fails, his friends will die, and the device will fall into the mobster’s possession. No secret will be safe from the grave.
  • SCOTT KEDERSHA: The Best Seat in the Chapel: Lessons Learned From Over 2500 Premarried Couples – When you attend a wedding, most of the ceremony, all you see is the backside of the bride and groom. You see his face when the bridal party processes and you see her’s as she walks down the aisle. For most of the ceremony, however, you cannot see their faces, the excitement and anticipation of becoming one with each other. Only one person has the privilege of seeing in their faces most of the ceremony. The pastor has the Best Seat in the Chapel. In this book, I will share what God’s Word says about marriage and stories of real couples and the challenges they have walked through in preparing for marriage. The Best Seat in the Chapel is the culmination of what I have learned from over 2500 premarried couples as a marriage pastor over a thriving premarried church ministry.
  • KELLY COLLINS HOPKINS: Goode Music – Engaged to a controlling school superintendent, Kyra Goode is an ambitious, gifted music teacher in Pennsylvania until she loses her job to a budget cut. Packing up what’s left of her pride, Kyra heads for South Carolina and a spot in her brother’s tavern band. Playing in public again sounds like a great idea until she meets the band’s handsome lead singer—her former college flame, Mel Farr. The last thing Kyra wants is a new romantic entanglement, but she can’t resist the grip Mel still holds on her heart and sparks fly. While Kyra loses herself in her music and new love, her former fiancé fakes his own death to stalk her, plotting to destroy Kyra and everyone she loves.
  • KRISTEN JOY WILKS – Ten-year-old triplets finally escape their mother’s smothering to enjoy a week of summer camp. But every 100 years something impossible comes to Camp CastleSnag. An ancient castle appears for an hour at twilight. Its gate leads into The Wandering Wood, a primeval forest populated with extinct monsters from earth’s distant past. However, trouble soon follows their discovery. Someone is releasing creatures from the Wandering Wood. God may have provided a sanctuary for the animal wonders of long ago, but will He provide a way for the boys to avoid being trampled or accidentally devoured? Is guarding the Wandering Wood their destiny, or just a handy way for God to be rid of three pesky boys?

WINNER!!

The winner is Kristen Joy Wilks and her Jumani-esque story about triplets and extinct monsters! I chose this blurb because, for me, it nailed my three main questions (above). And after reading it, I didn’t come away with any hesitations or concerns. Just positive vibes! So congrats, Kristen! Sorry I don’t have a prize…but maybe bragging rights are enough?

Now, for everyone else who entered and are either wondering why you didn’t final or what I thought of your blurb, I’m happy to answer questions about those very blurbs (this is not an invitation for you to post your first chapter or your synopsis, etc). So if you want to know x or y about your blurb and what I thought, feel free to leave a comment! I’ll be responding over the next few days.

 

Before You Write: Part 1, Learn Your Process

January 6th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wHappy New Year! Maybe 2015 will be the year I finally come up with a name for this Tuesday blog on craft (suggestions are welcome).

In the spirit of new beginnings, I’m going to be spending several weeks talking about some of the pre-writing processes you may find helpful as you get started on your 2015 writing projects. The more manuscripts that come across my desk, the more I’m reminded that being a competent writer does not necessarily make someone a competent storyteller: I’ve read plenty of projects in which decent writing and a good story idea or concept were undermined by significant plot and character problems. And while the surest teacher in these areas is time/experience, there are many exercises and strategies you can employ at the front end of the writing process that can improve your story structure and character development.

Because not every writer needs help in every area, and because each writer’s writing process is different, the first step in creating your pre-writing strategy is to evaluate what kind of writer you are and what pre-writing exercises will be the most helpful to you, personally. The goal of pre-writing is not to give you a dozen hoops  to jump through or a list of ways to help you procrastinate, but to help you make the most efficient use of your writing time by identifying your successes and preemptively shoring up your weaknesses. If your high school experience was anything like mine, you remember the frustration of being required to turn in junk like an outline, research notes, and a rough draft before you could turn in your final draft, just to prove that you went through the “correct” process for turning out a solid paper. (Well, Mrs. Jennings, I wrote my paper first and then created all that other stuff, so there!)

Pre-writing doesn’t have to be like that; you’re an adult, and one of the perks is that you can pick and choose whatever dang pieces of the process YOU actually find helpful. So, to prepare for the next few weeks’ worth of posts, spend some time considering the following questions and forming a picture in your head of the kind of writer you are/what your process looks like, so that you can create a personalized pre-writing plan from the exercises and strategies I’ll be talking about.

  • What are your strong points as a writer? What comes easily to you? Dialogue? Characters? Sub-plots? Settings?
  • What are your weaknesses? Where do you get the most criticism? Where do you find yourself stalling/frustrated?
  • How much content do you create at one time? I.e., do you write in scenes? Chapters? Do you set a word goal for yourself? A time limit?
  • How often do you write? Daily? Weekly?
  • Do you start your writing time by re-reading your latest content, or do you just jump right in?
  • Do you write sequentially, or do you jump around in a story?
  • Do you like to plan out your stories in advance, or just see where the characters take you?
  • Do you develop your characters before writing, or do you discover them as you’re writing?
  • Do you prefer to talk through story problems with another person, or figure them out on your own?

The better you know yourself and your processes, the more effective your pre-writing strategies will be and the more efficient your writing time.

Have Tea with your Characters (a guest blog)

January 2nd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 10 Comments

Sometimes life gets in the way of our writing and we reach a slump. We’re not lazy or without a plot for our story, rather, we’re exhausted from that other life, i.e., the one we’re not writing. There are many things tugging for our attention. You know them: jobs, finances, relationships, family, kids, kids who make poor choices, parents, parents who are ill, pets, pets that bark at Jehovah Witnesses and bust out windows, lost library books, and even cobwebs and dust bunnies. Escaping into our world of characters and plot might work for a day, but then reality knocks at our office door. (In my case, I no longer have an office; I’m at the end of the dining room table, making me visible to all I live with, sort of like being at Grand Central Station. I’ve invested in a cheap pair of headphones and they seem to block out the activity around me.)

But sometimes I just have to leave the feisty pets, the dust bunnies and the others I live with, and get out of the house. If life has made me too discouraged to do what I love—-to write, then I need time to think things through. I call it “having tea with my characters”. As I walk on a favorite park trail, I think about how each one of my characters would react if I invited them to a party with those finger sandwiches and my favorite Earl Grey. I take mental notes. If I had one of those smart phones, I could record my notes, but instead I rely on memory and the minute I get back to my car, I write down everything. Bits of conversations as tea was served, a new phrase Aunt Kazuko coined when she sat at the dinette table, the color of the sky when Nathan confessed that he missed Lucy, the brokenness Papa held when carted off to an internment camp.

Going on a long walk when you’re overwhelmed by life is therapeutic. Often it’s my characters that help me get back on track. They struggle, I struggle. They remind me that nothing great is ever achieved through giving up. All together, we fight for me to finish my novel.

This is how my newest release was written; when that other life made me feel downhearted, I pressed on with a little help from moving away from the dining room table, heading outdoors, and having tea with my characters.

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~ Alice J. Wisler (represented by MacGregor Literary) is an award-winning author of five novels, including the newest that was just released, Under the Silk Hibiscus, a story set in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Visit her website: http://www.alicewisler.com

Thursdays with Amanda: Share Your 2015 Writing Project

January 1st, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft | 38 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Instead of doing a list of resolutions or predictions or blah blah blah, we’re going to do something fun…

Let’s face it, if we’re serious about writing, we should be able to finish a book this year, right? So, let’s focus on THAT.

What book will you finish in 2015? It can be a novel. A nonfiction book. One you’ve been working on for years or one you’re starting today. Whatever it is, tell us about it! Give us a one-paragraph blurb. Really sell the thing. Make it shine. I’ll be reading the comments and will pick my personal favorite NEXT THURSDAY. Spread the word!

Flip Your Creative Switch (a guest post)

December 19th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

Any writer who has ever stared at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to come up with a story idea, knows the feeling of being creatively comatose. Try as you may, nothing comes to mind.

If that is ever you, don’t blow your brains out in frustration. Instead, feed in new ideas and have some laughs along the way. Here is an idea from childhood that will help you put the creativity back into creative writing.

As a youngster, you may have had a fold-over book that was divided into three sections. For example, the first scene shows a normal-looking man. Then you flip over a new top third section, and the man is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch and has a parrot on his shoulder. You then flip over a new bottom third; and the man is dressed in policeman’s trousers with handcuffs, a billy club, and a pistol hanging from his belt.

Creative writers can play a mental version of this game. Imagine a business executive in a suit and holding a briefcase. Now, flip a new bottom section on him, and suddenly he’s wearing jogging shorts. Why? Well, maybe it’s because he’s actually a model on his way to a photo shoot for men’s sports gear. Or he’s an avid jogger who runs every day during lunch hour. Or he’s a bachelor and is so far behind on his laundry, he wore jogging shorts under his suit. Jot down all those ideas.

Now flip over the top section. Suddenly he’s wearing the upturned collar of a clergyman, has a neatly trimmed gray beard, and is wearing conservative wire-rimmed glasses. Why? Well, maybe he’s a reservist with the Army and serves part-time as a chaplain, or he’s a seminary professor who teaches ancient languages. Or perhaps he’s a con artist who travels from city to city posing as an evangelist. Write down all those ideas.

Now flip the middle section. Whoa! Look! Now he has on a brightly colored vest with a watch chain extended from one side pocket to the other. Why? Maybe he’s a riverboat gambler or a circus sideshow barker. Or perhaps he sings in a barbershop quartet. Add these new options to your list of notes.

Pause a moment; and in your mind’s eye, look at this silly person your mental flip-book has created. How could one person ever combine such diverse appearances and occupations? Ridiculous! Funny! Silly! Unbelievable! Or is it?

Start to play detective. How might all these elements be combined to form a dossier on this man? Hmmm. Perhaps he’s a youth minister (upturned collar) who works at a church camp (jogging shorts) and whose hobby is singing in an old-fashioned gospel music group (vest). Or perhaps he’s a hospital chaplain (upturned collar) who assists disabled children with their physical therapy regimens (gym shorts) but who is also ready to help raise funds for the new hospital wing by being part of a vaudeville night benefit show (fancy vest).

Let your imagination run wild. Have fun. Come up with several different profiles for this character. (Note: If it is hard for you to do this exercise in your imagination, create a real flip-book. Open magazines and catalogs, and use the photos of chefs, pilots, mechanics, parachutists, barbers, cowboys, and firefighters to stimulate your thinking.)

Once you’ve developed one set of profiles for your lead character, run through the process two or three more times—for a villain, a sweetheart, and maybe even a sidekick. Then start imaging how the various characters might come head to head in a conflict strong enough to evolve into a plot.

For example, could the aforementioned chaplain face an ethical challenge when, in privileged communication, the director of the hospital fundraiser tells him he has stolen some of the show’s earnings? Uh-oh, what does the chaplain do now?

All sorts of mix-‘n’-match scenarios are possible. Keep on “playing” with the flip-book until you’ve matched the right characters with the right plot conflict.

When that happens . . . you’ll just “flip”!

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Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University (Upland, IN). He is a columnist for Christian Communicator and a board member of the Midwest Writers Workshop. He was featured in a cover story profile in Havok magazine in January, 2015, along with one of his newest new short stories. He is represented by MacGregor Literary.

 

Favorite Books, Christmas Edition: “A Christmas Carol”

December 17th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

brick green no smile b:wLast week, in between hurriedly throwing a few Christmas decorations at my walls and attending “The Nutcracker” for approximately the 1,247th time, I managed to keep my yearly date with A Christmas Carol. I always caution myself that it cannot possibly be as good as I remember, but every year it’s better. With each successive reading, the charm and earnestness and pure skill of the writing is more apparent, and if you doubt this book’s place in a blog on the writing craft, you probably haven’t read it in awhile. This book was a labor of love for Dickens rather than a serial written to pay the bills, and it shows. Free from the need to sustain a story for months/years on end in order to keep the paychecks coming, Dickens demonstrates a previously unsuspected ability to tell a story taking place over a time span of less than twenty years (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield), and he lets himself go on description and characterization in way he was unable to do in a serial installment expected to advance the plot each week. We see him revel in this independence in the gleeful abandon with which he describes the riches of London shop windows at Christmas time, the passionate cries of the narrator which interrupt the story from time to time, and the flights of whimsy he indulges in in a book not expressly written for children.

Basically, Dickens wrote the story he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it, regardless of how well it fit the mold he’d found most of his success with, and 160 years later, it’s still his most popular work. The longevity of the book (it’s never been out of print) should serve as a lesson to those authors who are navigating the tricky issue of how to balance profitability and passion–  writing to pay the bills is all well and good, but the books that are going to resonate the most with readers are going to be the ones that you were most personally invested in, in which your skill set and your fervor for a story intersect and hone each other to a finer edge than either could achieve on its own.

William Makepeace Thackeray was right when he said that the Carol was, “to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.” Even if you’ve seen every movie version ever made and you think you’re sick of the story, you’re cheating yourself if you haven’t read the book. It thaws out the little places where your feelings about Christmas have become frosted over by the annoying Christmas music remixes playing in the mall and the sniping over the political correctness of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” It’s not preachy, it doesn’t have any kind of “presents and food and parties aren’t important” nonsense, but rather, it reminds us why our celebrations are important, that things like compassion and hospitality are graces that we should revel in being able to employ during our time on earth, that it is okay to occasionally warm ourselves from the winter. A few passages to begin the thaw~

  • Scrooge’s nephew Fred defending the profitability of Christmas: 
”But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
  • Jacob Marley, lamenting his wasted opportunities for compassion: 
”Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed…not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!…Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed star which led the wise men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”
  • And on the changed Scrooge, post-spirit-visits: 
”Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It’s quite as well that we should wrinkle up our eyes in grins, and gain weight from food eaten in good company, and go broke buying gifts to delight the people we love, as have these maladies in less attractive forms. Merry Christmas!

Choose Your Own Final Draft: Applying Reader Feedback

December 9th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught the last couple of Tuesday posts, you’ll know I’ve been talking about the final stages of manuscript preparation– knowing when to stop polishing a manuscript, finding beta readers, etc. I pointed out that finding beta readers who are a good fit for your skill level and your genre is an important step in ensuring that the feedback you get from them is worthwhile and relevant so you don’t go crazy trying to apply conflicting or uninformed advice. Even when you’ve selected your beta readers wisely, however, it can still be overwhelming to revisit your manuscript with three or four different sets of feedback from three or four unique readers– even if all your readers are published sci-fi authors, each one is going to have a slightly different reaction to your book, and deciding which advice to apply and which to ignore can feel like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which every decision you make will result in a different outcome. (The good news here is that the editing decisions you make are highly unlikely to result in being thrown into a volcano or trampled by elephants, unlike CYOA.)

So, how do you decide what feedback, and how much, to apply? Here are a few guidelines to help you as you CYOFD– Choose Your Own Final Draft!

  • Decide in advance how much rewriting you’re willing to do. If you don’t have the time and the fortitude to make major plot changes, or to rewrite the entire book from a different character’s perspective, you can cross off suggestions on this scale right away. Don’t waste time agonizing over whether or not a large-scale change would be a good idea if you know realistically that you’re not in a place to make a change like that. Turn your attention to smaller-scale suggestions and don’t drive yourself crazy with “but what it…?”.
  • Create a plan for whose feedback you’ll apply in which area. For example, if you gave your manuscript to three readers and you know one of them in particular has a gift for dialogue, look at what that reader had to say about your dialogue before you look at anyone else’s dialogue notes, . Obviously, you can get good advice from more than one source, but if you don’t want to spend your life in re-writes, starting with the “expert” advice in a specific category can be a good strategy for making the most of your editing time.
  • When readers give conflicting advice, go with your instincts (within reason). It’s one thing to have had twelve different readers tell you a scene isn’t working, or that your dialogue is unnatural, or that a plot point is unclear, but if one or two readers have an opinion that isn’t shared by another, you probably don’t have to agonize over who’s “right.” Which feedback makes the most sense to you? Which reader seems to know you better as a writer/really “gets” your book? Let your instincts drive editing decisions and be okay with having made the “right for you” decision instead of the “objectively, mathematically right” decision.
  • If a piece of feedback doesn’t make sense to you, and you’ve only gotten it from one source, throw it out. Like I’ve said before, actual problems with your manuscript will probably be caught by more than one quality reader, so feedback you get multiple times probably merits consideration, but even from an intelligent, articulate critique partner, you will occasionally hear a suggestion or a piece of criticism that just doesn’t make sense to you or that you strongly disagree with, and that’s okay. Don’t stress out over it; it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re blind to some major flaw in your work or that you’re an arrogant jerk (though you should probably double-check with someone, just to be sure), it just means that something that makes perfect sense to you doesn’t to one individual reader. Guess what? That’s going to happen as many times as the number of people who read your book. Either learn how to be okay with the fact that not everyone will perfectly understand every artistic choice you make, or prepare yourself for an exhausting career.

What strategies have you adopted for deciding when to apply reader feedback? Let me know in the comments!