Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Writing for Yourself: The Value of Journaling

November 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the still-unnamed Tuesday blog in which I write about craft and mechanics! I just finished up a series on voice, and before I launch a new series, I wanted to take a week to talk about a writing tool that a lot of authors may not have thought much about and look at why you should think about adding it to your writing regimen.

When you think of “keeping a journal,” there are probably a number of scenarios that come to mind: Lewis and Clark recording  bear attacks and typhoid deaths,  Thoreau scribbling introspectively into a notebook on the shores of Walden Pond, or, in my case, your middle-school self in headgear and scrunch socks funneling all her angst into a locking Lisa Frank diary. *Shudder.*

If you WERE like me (hopefully minus the headgear) and you kept any kind of a personal journal/diary during your younger days, re-reading that journal is probably a fairly painful experience. Even if yours isn’t full of pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas,  it’s probably, like mine, full of spelling errors, incorrectly used apostrophes, and run-on sentences, for a start. (Hey, my long sentences now are a VOICE choice, okay?) Beyond that, there is probably a good amount of just straight-up obnoxious content: sentences you’re disgusted with, sentiments that make you cringe for having expressed the way you did, etc.  It’s easier to excuse those embarrassing entries from your really young self, but I journaled on and off through college, and there are things I’d slap my 20-year-old self for putting in print, if I could, just obnoxious, cheesy writing that I’m ashamed to be the author of.

Wow, Erin, you may be thinking. What a great idea. Journal now, with some of my already precious writing time, so that future-me can ridicule and loathe myself retroactively. Thank you for that great advice.

BUT. I have another journal from high school, a yellow spiral-bound Mead notebook with falling-out pages and doodles all over the cover that my 9th-grade English teacher, Miss Stinson, assigned us to write in all year. Sometimes she’d give us writing prompts, things like “make a list of your favorite things,” or “describe your dream house.” Sometimes she’d give us the beginning of a story and have us finish it in our journals, sometimes she’d put on a piece of music and tell us to write about whatever the music made us think of. Miss Stinson would collect the journals every couple weeks and read over our hand-written entries just to make sure we’d done them, and sometimes she’d make comments, but the only grade we received on them was participation credit. She made it very clear to us that these entries were for us, for our benefit, not for her to correct our grammar or  to criticize our organization.

The thing that stands out to me now, reading back over it, is the amazing restraint Miss Stinson showed in NOT making corrections or criticizing that writing in any way. We wrote lots of other papers that year, and she took plenty of points off those for extra apostrophes and misspelled words, but she recognized that, to get any kind of momentum in writing, we had to have a place to write where we weren’t worrying about a grade or a review or someone’s reaction. Miss Stinson’s only notes in that journal are smiley faces or underlined favorite sentences or “love this!”/”funny”/”great thoughts” comments in the margins. She made those journals a completely safe space to write in, and as our trust in that safety grew, our writing became adventurous and creative and unfettered in a way it never would have done in assignments turned in for a grade.

Now, please hear me when I say, the place for unfettered, unedited writing is not my inbox. Obviously, the projects you submit to agents and editors need to have been refined and edited and polished, but the point I’m making is that there IS  place for free writing, and having a space like a journal where there will literally never be another set of eyes on your writing lets you create in a way that you simply can’t replicate when writing blog entries or books or proposals or anything that you know will eventually be read by someone else. Even pages for a trusted writing partner or critique group are written with the knowledge at the back of your mind that someone will eventually be reading and assigning value to your words. You will never create the same content for someone else that you will create for yourself, and even if you never mine that personal writing for any material you can use for your public writing, the process of writing for yourself and the freedom and honesty you enjoy when doing so can’t help but prime the pump for more honest, more creative work in your other writing.

So what’s the “right way” to journal? “Psh, that’s a leading question, Erin, because obviously the point you’ve been beating us over the head with is that every way is the right way!” Very good. Every way is the right way! Buy yourself an awesome leather journal from Barnes and Noble, pick up a good ol’ spiral-bound Mead at the grocery store, open a new Word doc, however you want to do it. You can start by journaling your day-to-day experiences, but don’t settle for just a laundry list of, “today I did such-and-such;” describe what you saw, where you went, what made you mad, what you loved, what thoughts you had in line at Starbucks.

If you’re not that introspective while waiting for your coffee, make a list of writing prompts and use a different one as a jumping-off point each day– things like, “favorite memory,” “best vacation,” “how you’d spend a million dollars,” “celebrity you’d like to be best friends with,” etc. Google “creative writing prompts” or “dating show questions.” Even a trivial writing prompt can get you started on the path to some really good free writing if you just jump in and start scribbling.

Finally, make a rule for yourself that when you go back and re-read your free writing a year or two from now, you are NOT ALLOWED to edit it or make any comments to yourself. Yes, you’ll probably cringe a few times, but the point of this kind of writing is that it enriches your writing going forward. The value is in the process, not the product, so don’t waste any time looking back in judgment.

And thanks, Miss Stinson, for encouraging us to write for ourselves. And for probably trying to cure me of run-on sentences.

Voice Lessons: Part 5, The Need for Voice

November 4th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday is the last day of my series on author voice. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few weeks talking about what voice IS– how to define it, how to recognize it, how to develop it– but today, I want to talk about probably the most important factor in developing a strong personal voice as a writer, and that is understanding the need for great voice. I started the series by talking about some of the frustration associated with chasing strong voice, and the nebulous, elusive way we often talk about “great author voice,” and the reality is that the ability to identify or harness a strong writing voice doesn’t come naturally to a lot of writers. Like whatever subject just never made sense to you in school (just the word “chemistry” still prompts a panic response), voice for a lot of people is a frustrating area. You might think you see a glimmer of light when reading a blog post or a how-to article or listening to a lecture on it, but five minutes into trying to critique/improve your own voice in a piece of writing and you’re frustrated, depressed, and ready to forget it. It’s true that voice isn’t as easy to work on as mechanics, or characters, or dialogue, both because it’s less concrete and because there are fewer resources available, but understanding why voice is so important can help keep you motivated to continue working on yours, even if it feels like an uphill battle.

Think about some of your favorite books. If you’re like me, they probably come from one or two of the same genres– maybe your favorite books tend to be romances, or historical fiction, or mysteries. Even if your top five books come from five different genres, each one (most likely) can be categorized with THOUSANDS of other titles in the same genre or sub-genre. Take an easy example: say a couple of your favorite books are mystery novels. Now, you’ve probably read dozens, if not hundreds, of other titles in that genre– when we find a book or an author we like, we tend to look for books or authors with a similar feel to them. That’s the section we browse first at the library or bookstore, and those are the kinds of titles that Amazon recommends when we’re searching one of our favorites.

But not EVERY mystery novel you read ends up on your favorites list– not even close! For every one mystery on your list of books you would re-read and recommend to others and snatch up if you saw it at a used-book sale, you’ve probably read or skimmed ten or twenty “similar” books that were completely forgettable. If pressed to give an explanation for why those books didn’t end up on your favorites list, you’d probably cite a variety of reasons– mediocre writing in some cases, failure to connect with the characters, a plot that didn’t interest you– but at the end of the day, the books that DO end up on our list of favorites aren’t there solely because of their superior plots or excellent dialogue or particularly interesting characters, they’re there because our overall experience with them was special, because the world created therein was one we loved spending time in, because the stories were told in a way that made us want to listen, and THAT experience as a reader is the result of great voice on the part of a writer.

That’s what you’re chasing when you choose to spend another painful hour focusing on your voice, or when you ask your critique partner to give you voice feedback, or when you re-write your opening chapter yet again after getting yet another piece of “your voice isn’t very strong” criticism. Ultimately, your goal and hope as a writer is not simply for an agent or editor to say yes, but to make readers feel the same excitement for your story and characters that you do, to put yourself and your story on the page with such authenticity that no other mystery novel or historical romance or humorous memoir will satisfy those readers in the same way yours does. Voice is the reason readers are going to sign up to receive updates on when your next book is coming out, and the reason they think of your book when a friend asks for a recommendation, and the reason they’ll track down your blog or your facebook page to hear more from you– voice keeps readers coming to YOU, and if you’re one of those weird authors who actually wants people to read his book, that’s a really good thing.

Now, if you have a fantastic voice, that doesn’t mean you should stop reading Thursdays with Amanda. Obviously, you can’t just write a great book, slap it up on Amazon, and then wait for your million dollars to show up in your bank account, but it IS true that your entire writing career is going to be more successful and gain momentum more quickly if you get an early handle on your voice. For published authors whose sales numbers haven’t been as strong as you might like, it might be worth working on your voice a bit before your next book– find out what readers loved about your last book, what they like about YOUR romances or mysteries or thrillers in particular, and see if you can offer that to them in even stronger ways in your next book.

Thanks for reading this series; I hope you found it helpful in understanding voice and that both the concept of “voice” and your understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses in that area are a lot less hazy. Not sure what’s next for these Tuesday blogs on craft, so if you have any suggestions or questions for future topics, I’d love to hear them!

The Lulu Tree Boutique (a guest post)

October 14th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

She walked for four hours just to meet me.

Her soles were red from Uganda’s earth and she didn’t break a sweat in the high heat. Her eyes shone but she lowered them, looked at her sandals, even as I reached out a hand to touch her shoulder, and I could feel the strength in this peasant farmer’s arm.

She’d lost her husband just weeks earlier to HIV/Aids, an illness people still talk about in hushed tones because of the shame associated with it.

She’d lost her children long before that to this children’s home I was visiting–because she had a sick husband to care for and a farm that wasn’t bringing in money and no way to feed her sons or daughters.

And here I was, able to pay for her kids’ clothes and education while she wasn’t. And not because I worked harder. No, she worked sun-up to sundown and had callouses across her hands and feet. No, it was because I came from a first class country overflowing with food and privilege while the rest of the world is forced to feed from our trash cans.

I smiled at her, but I felt sick.

I am a mother. Every night I walk into my boys’ room and ache for them lying there in their beds, because they’re tucked deep in my womb. I cannot imagine how humbling, or humiliating, it would be, to have to ask someone else to take care of my children. To not be able to give them food or water, to not be able to keep them under your own roof — and THEN, to walk four hours to meet the woman who can?

This woman (me) who flies over in her airplane with her suitcase full of clothes and her bag full of lipstick and her wallet full of money, and says it’s all in the name of Jesus–a God this farmer worships more reverently each day than I ever have in my life?

Our Father weeps. He anguishes over every single mother–because there are hundreds of thousands of them across Uganda in the same situation–who has to lose her child, who cannot take care of her children.

And He’s asking us to do something about it.

Sponsoring a child is good, don’t get me wrong. I sponsor as many children as I am able.

But standing there with this beautiful woman in her brown hat and her downcast gaze, her son’s eyes shining as he looked at me, I thought, No. Enough. There has to be more.

I want this son to look at his MOTHER with adoration, not me–a stranger.

I want him to look at HER to provide his needs, not me–an outsider who didn’t birth him without an epidural, who didn’t weep and pray over him every night of his childhood, who didn’t spend every minute of every day trying to earn enough money to buy him a bowl of Matoke (cooked banana) so he wouldn’t starve to death.

So, I went home and founded a non-profit called The Lulu Tree. I didn’t intend to found a non-profit. I didn’t–and still don’t–feel qualified to start one, I just wanted to partner with someone who was doing what I wanted to do. But no one was.

Our vision at The Lulu Tree is to work with HIV mothers in the slum of Katwe, Uganda (the worst of Kampala’s eight slums), equipping them to be care for their own kids. Our slogan is “Preventing tomorrow’s orphans by equipping today’s mothers.” Lofty, I know. But you have to dream big, right? Shoot for the moon and you’ll land somewhere among the stars?

So we’re shooting for the moon.

We’ve hired a beautiful Ugandan social worker named Esther Natakunda Tendo (Esther–is there more anointed a name? She has been called to free her people from captivity). Esther is a 29-year-old married mother of two who has received education in Sex and Gender Based Violence, computer application and project planning and management from the African  Population Management. She has volunteered for years through the children’s home where she was raised, and has extensive work experience both in banking and in communications. Esther speaks several dialects, and is a strong believer in Jesus Christ. Her heart beats passionately for women and children suffering from AIDS,  and it is her heart’s desire to help those who are impoverished find hope. As her name suggests, Esther has responded to the call to set her people free from poverty and despair.

We’ve also hired a national coordinator named Carol Masaba. Carol is the national coordinator both for The Lulu Tree and for the African Evangelistic Enterprise in Uganda. She partners with churches across the country to bring hope to various parts of the nation. Carol has over 20 years experience in integrated community development work, during which she has worked with poor and marginalized communities to improve the well-being of children and youth. She is in charge of hiring and mentoring Lulu staff and volunteers and overseeing the ministry as a whole.

Both Carol and Esther will be working with the mothers in the slum of Katwe. Our goal is to equip them holistically–spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This involves connecting them with the local church, providing HIV treatment for the mothers and children, and teaching the mamas a trade–to how to sew, or cook, so that after two years of being sponsored, these mamas will be self-sufficient.

And … we’ve got some EXCITING NEWS! If you have Christmas shopping to do, and want to help people at the same time, look no further! We’re launching THE LULU TREE BOUTIQUE, with the ultimate goal of creating a market for these precious mamas to selling their beautiful work through, once they’ve been trained. SHIPPING IS INCLUDED IN THE PRICES. All proceeds go towards The Lulu Tree.

A friend of mine, dear Jodie Vanderzwaag, HAS GIVEN UP her very successful business a few months ago to run this boutique. Pretty amazing. We are also partnering with The House of Belonging, Funky Fish Designs, Krafty Kash, and Little Dragonfly Boutique, as well as a number of individual artisans who have donated their products to this shop. My dear sister Christy Stewart Halsell of Sandy Feet Media has volunteered long hours to set up this website and boutique (I HIGHLY recommend her web services!), and countless others including photographer Leanne Doell have donated time and energy to Lulu. To see a full list of everyone who’s helping us, please visit www.thelulutree.com.

So, let’s get shopping! We’ve got cozy slipper boots, slouchy beanies for kids and adults, little girl dresses, cowls and jackets, infinity scarves, dolls, darling Lulu headbands and artwork, jewelry, and more.

Emily and friends

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Emily Wierenga, author of Atlas Girl

Voice Lessons: Part 2, Finding Your Voice

October 1st, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.

In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.

“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”

Okay, so, just by dissecting this first paragraph, we can identify several characteristics of Wodehouse’s author voice. First, we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this writer’s tone is humorous. The hyperbolic “flies doing deep-breathing exercises” clues us in almost right away that this author’s treatment of a quiet country village is going to be a bit more colorful than average, and primes the reader to be on the lookout for more jokes.

In addition to identifying his writing as comic, the deep-breathing flies set up the type of humor he will be using in the future. Sown artfully among a nice, quiet descriptive passage, this joke informs the reader that the humor to come is at times subtle, less slapstick or situation-based than it is dependent on the author (by means of the narration), and again sets us up to appreciate the humor to come more readily and to look for more hyperbole.

Further scrutinizing of this passage might lead one to say that the author favors long sentences. (You and me both, Plum.) Two of the three sentences above are 50 or more words in length, with parenthetical clauses and a fairly complex syntax. By acquainting the reader’s “ear” with this sentence structure, he lets them know right away what to expect and sets the pace for the rest of the novel. The reader finds out from the start that this author is going to require them to pay a little closer attention than required by certain other authors.

So, after only three sentences, we have gleaned a lot of information about the voice of the author. His tone, his type of or approach to that tone, his sentence length, and his syntax all contribute to the sum of his voice, and it’s this sum that Wodehouse fans can recognize after reading only a few paragraphs, even if they don’t consciously break it down into all these elements every time they read him.

You can use this same method of examination to figure out what characterizes your own writing. Take a passage of your writing– probably more than one paragraph, so you have plenty to go on– and look for the answers to these questions:

  • What is my tone? Humorous? Irreverent? Chilling? Gritty? Flowery? Melancholy? Dark? Zany?
  • How do I approach my tone, or where on the scale does it fall? I.e., if your writing tone is humorous, what kind of humor are you using? If your tone is dark, is it horror-movie dark or Lifetime-original-movie dark? If it’s chilling, is it rated PG-13 or R? If it’s irreverent, is it only mildly offensive or are people going to burn your book?
  • What is my rhythm/sentence length? Is the majority of your story written in short, punchy sentences, or in long, flowery sentences? Or are they of average length?
  • What is my syntax? Are my sentences simple and straightforward? Are they complex?

If you have trouble answering these questions for your own writing, farm out the chore to a competent reader. Ask a good writer and reader to look at your writing and pass her observations on to you; see how they match up with your own observations. The better you know your tendencies as a writer, the more successfully you will be able to recognize writing of yours that detracts from or weakens your voice, or that stands out by being substantially different.

I’m going to use this same method again next week to expand the discussion to some additional characteristics of voice, such as word choice and descriptive style, so if you have any favorite authors whose voices are especially distinctive because of their word choice or descriptive style, let me know in the comments and I might use them for examples next week. Thanks for reading!

 

How to End Up on a Facebook List

September 16th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIf you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.

Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.

  • Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice was completed, Margaret Mitchell wrote at least three (unpublished) novels before beginning Gone with the Wind, and Suzanne Collins wrote and published an entire separate series before finding insane fame as the author of The Hunger Games. The takeaway here is, if you’ve worked and slaved over your first manuscript for years and still haven’t found huge publishing or sales success, don’t give up on that first work entirely, but for heaven’s sake, start writing something else! Novel-writing is like any other art; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
  • Write the story you want to write. If C. S. Lewis were writing today, he’d probably be told that his Christian themes were too strong for a general market children’s series. Tolkien might have been discouraged from writing fantasy because it’s not currently “trending.” Harper Lee might have been advised to use an adult protagonist if she wanted adults to read her book. If you have a story you want to write, write THAT story without worrying about which box it might or might not fit into. You can let an agent/editor worry about that down the road, but you’ll write a better book if you let the story and not the market drive your writing.
  • Write for children. Of the top 20, seven of the titles that were most often cited as staying with the reader are books which are classified as children’s or young adult. The books a person reads when he is young shape his view of reading, his taste, his worldview, his beliefs, and the likelihood that he will continue to read as an adult. As evidenced by this not-so-scientific list, a book that connects to a young readership will be remembered long after the flavor-of-the-week erotica-disguised-as-romance or suspense thriller on the “adult” bestseller list.
  • Write books that are just fun to read, period. Two words: Harry Potter.

As always, these elements should be taken as more descriptive of influential writing than prescriptive– obviously, if your story is a depression-era family saga, you shouldn’t re-work it to make it “fun to read” (see: “write the story you want to write”), but it’s interesting to look at these titles and see what elements they have in common that you may be able to harness in your own writing.

Have you posted your list of “10 books that have stayed with you?” What titles were on yours that were missed from the “top 100?” Were any of your titles books for children/young adults?

Copying the Masters: Learning from great writers past and present

September 9th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve always been fascinated with the way artists have learned their various crafts throughout history. In the 1400s, if you wanted to be a sculptor, your family apprenticed you to an artist’s workshop in which you’d learn the skills of that medium as you assisted your master in producing his work– the master’s name was on the end product, but as many as a dozen apprentices and assistants may have helped with/worked on a piece. In the 1600s, artists’ guilds were the training ground of choice for future artists, highly regulated and exclusive organizations which existed to protect the interests and promote the work of their members. In the 1800s, if you wanted to be a painter, the way to get started was to move to Paris, stop eating, and spend your days in the Louvre, copying the works of the old masters as meticulously as possible.

 

Fast-forward to today, where the Internet age has made it much easier for artists of all kinds to access training. Graphic designers can take online classes, musicians can learn to play instruments from YouTube videos, and writers can complete entire MFA programs without ever setting foot in a classroom. While none of this instruction is necessarily less valuable for being accessed remotely, there is something lost when artists learn in a vacuum instead of in community and in close collaboration with (or via exposure to the work of) a “master” of their craft.

 

That’s why writer’s groups, critique partners, and conferences are so important to a developing writer, specifically those in which you have the opportunity to learn from/work alongside with highly skilled and experienced writers in your genre. Just as the Renaissance painters flourished working alongside and under more experienced artists who offered immediate feedback and instruction and correction, so modern writers who seek out partnership or “apprenticeship” with stronger writers tend to become aware of their weaknesses sooner and hone their craft more quickly than a writer whose only feedback comes from a rejection letter when he finally send out the manuscript he worked on in isolation for two years.

 

A question I’m often asked in response to the advice to get involved in a writer’s group/find a writing mentor/etc. is, “What if I can’t find a mentor/group/critique partner,” or “What if I’m the strongest writer in my critique group? Who do I learn from then?” The good news is, there IS a way to learn from the “masters” even if you’re not able to join a writer’s group full of them, and that is to read their work.

 

Seriously. I maintain that the majority of what I learned about writing and storytelling came not from a classroom or a textbook (though I had some great teachers in those areas), but from reading as many books as I could get my hands on from the time I learned how to read. Pacing, climax, subplots, humor, suspense– these are nearly all better learned intuitively from constant exposure to the kinds of authors you aspire to write like than via some formula posted by some agent in her Tuesday blog.

 

Read the works of some of the best writers in your genre as if you were their apprentice; pay attention to their trademarks, to what they do exceptionally well and how they do it, and even try re-writing pages of your manuscript while copying their style/voice as closely as you can, just as an exercise. You might be surprised at what you notice about your own manuscript after spending some time with the “masters” in your genre.

 

What relationships with other writers have been the most helpful to you in honing your craft? Comments are always welcome, and thanks for reading!

Quotations in Writing, or: Unashamedly Exploiting Readers’ Emotional Reactions to Other Books

September 2nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI went to the movies over the long weekend (twice, actually) and found myself tearing up over a TRAILER, for goodness sake. Now, it’s fairly easy to make me cry in a movie– I’m a sucker for a good montage underscored by emotive music– but I never cry over a trailer. Well, almost never. One out of four, at the most. Anyway, the guilty trailer this time was for “Interstellar,” and for the first 3/4 of it, I wasn’t really even sure what the movie was about other than a bleak future and Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, and I definitely didn’t think I was emotionally involved, but THEN Michael Caine started reading Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in a rich British voice over dramatic shots of peril and an emotive soundtrack and all bets were off. The manipulative folks who put that trailer together were able to tap into the existing emotional ties I have to that piece of poetry and suddenly, I saw their story as ten times more compelling and profound. Well played, trailer-makers.

In the same way, authors who effectively quote or reference other works of literature in their stories are able to draw on my existing set of emotions towards that work and manipulate me (in a good way) into a heightened feeling of connection with a story or camaraderie with the author. Obviously, quoting or referencing a superior piece of work is not going to trick a reader into thinking that a crappy story is actually brilliant or profound (I probably wouldn’t have cried had the Michael Caine voiceover accompanied a compilation of funny cat videos), but when used naturally in an already-strong story, it can be an effective device for creating a deeper bond between your reader and a story/character, or even between your reader and you as the author.

As a reader, I’ve encountered this many times– a rom-com protagonist constantly references Jane Austen, a novelist prefaces his book with a line from Shakespeare, a heroine is inspired to rebel against her ultra-controlling society after being inspired by a line of poetry from a forgotten age, etc. In cases where the writing/story is otherwise bland or forgettable, these literary references or quoted lines merely illuminate the inferiority of the original material by comparison, and though I greet these references fondly in the moment, they don’t draw me into the story any further or make me care any more about the characters. When, however, a reference or quote is paired with excellent writing, or factors largely in the plot or framing of the book, the author reaps the benefit of having all my existing feelings on the referenced work carry over (to some extent) to his writing. The following examples are just off the top of my head, and some aren’t too well known, but the fact that I can remember these and many more from my personal reading speaks volumes on the way a well-placed reference or quote can create a stronger connection with your story or characters on the part of the reader.

  • Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. This middle-grade novel opens with the “What thou seest when thou dost wake, do it for thy true love take” line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this sets the scene for the achingly lovely and funny coming-of-age stories connecting the various characters in the book.
  • Matched, by Ally Condie. This dystopian YA title takes place in a future in which society has whittled all the creative content in the world down to 100 carefully chosen songs, poems, and stories preserved for people to experience, the idea being that when people have too much content around them, they fail to appreciate any of it– all other stories, poems, and songs have been destroyed and are illegal. When the protagonist’s dying grandfather gives her two illegal poems, the strange new words excite in her both passion and a curiosity about what other beauty has been lost to civilization as a result of the sameness imposed upon it. The two poems, “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the above-mentioned “Do Not Go Gentle,” fuel her growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and give her the courage to stand against her society, and their repeated use serves to link the reader with the unfamiliar environment of the story.
  • Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke. The whole Inkheart series is a valentine to book lovers, taking place in a universe where books quite literally come to life and people actually enter into the world found between the pages of a book. As such, each chapter is prefaced by a themed-to-the-chapter quote from popular books and poetry. Each chapter heading that comes from a familiar book not only serves to set the tone for the chapter to come, but incites in the reader the excitement we feel when we discover that we have a favorite book in common with an acquaintance; a feeling of camaraderie and connection and of being understood which causes the reader to connect even more deeply to the story and the author going forward.

Though by no means a device which fits all books or should be forced in a story in an attempt to forge a connection with a reader, quotations and references to other works can help a reader “make friends” with a story and its author in a lasting way. If you have a poem or book or author you’re particularly passionate about, or which you found yourself drawing on for inspiration while writing a story, consider whether there might be a natural place to let your reader in on that connection through a preface quote or an allusion on the part of a character.

Is Writing Lonely? Nah… (a guest blog)

August 29th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Writing has the potential to be a lonely endeavor.

Writing well is never, not one time, about going it alone. Writers need people. We have friends who help us brainstorm, listen to our rants about characters with lives of their own, or shake their heads when a plot twist is the most cockamamie idea ever considered. We have family members who endure weird facial expressions and odd body gestures as we attempt to describe the actions of our characters. Many of us have agents, who have assistants, who seek out opportunities, all the while challenging us to dig deeper in our storytelling. If we’re published, we have editors and cover designers and marketers and publishers and… well, you get the point.

Writing is not a solo profession. If you are trying to fly the story-conjuring plane alone, you’re gonna crash and burn. As a Christian writer, I liken this journey to Paul’s analogy of the church as a body. Some are hands, eyes, mouths, feet. He gives every one of his children a talent or job. Ephesians tells us some are apostles or prophets or evangelists. In Romans, we find some have the gift of service or teaching or exhorting. Every book you read, or write, has a body of people who have fashioned its design.

Without my friends to help me brainstorm, my readers might miss out on a terrific idea to improve the plot. Without my family, I might lose hope when the middle muddles together. Without my agent, I might miss a terrific opportunity. Without my editor, my scene might not be clearly written.

You get the point.

If your heart is tugged with the desire to tap fingers to a keyboard but you’re trying to go it alone, stop right now. This very minute. Join a writing group. Go to a conference. Talk to family and friends. Seek out people who will encourage your journey. We’re told in Hebrews to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. You need others.

Writing has the potential to encourage bonds of friendship you’d never dreamt possible.

Jen

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Jennifer Collins Johnson has written nineteen Heartsong Presents novels, plus another novel, a novella, and multiple short stories for various publishers. Her most recent novel, Arizona Cowboy, releases September 1. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, and together they’ve raised three of the coolest daughters on the planet. Even added a pretty nifty son-in-law to the crew. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and has the best group of brainstorming buddies ever. Check out her website at www.jennifercollinsjohnson.com. You can reach her at jenwrites4god@bellsouth.net.

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 6, Accents and Dialect

August 20th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-or-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time.

 

The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

 

Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

 

  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin'” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.

 

If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”

 

I think this will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know– I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice

August 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.

Character Interview Reference Sheet

Name?
Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Economic status?
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?

There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).