- For the most common viewpoint (third person limited) the reader is in only one character's head at one time. Third person means the pronouns will be "he" or "she." If the writer wants to showcase a different POV in the same work, most novelists give the reader a clear signal, either by a blank space and then a new scene, or by chapters that are labeled in some way. The easiest way (I think) to stay in viewpoint is to "be" that character as you write it, rather than stand a distance away like a director.
- The first-person viewpoint was once frowned upon (did your teacher teach you to avoid using "I?") but now is accepted and even preferred by some readers. In the "I" voice, you walk around as if the camera was located in your belly, facing outward. Thus, the character witnesses the world, moves in that world and can think or feel about that world. The drawbacks: In this voice it's harder to "show" the character's physical features unless someone else is narrating or another character remarks on that POV character's looks. The other disadvantage to first-person VP is that the character cannot know things which happen when that character is off stage.
- Omniscient VP is seldom used these days--readers want immediacy and intimacy. This VP is the "eye in the sky" or God's eye view. The camera, in order to take in all the characters, must stay wide-angled and far away.
- Lots of novelists attempt to write their scenes in "omniscient VP with privileges." This turns into "head-hopping," which tends to confuse the reader (who am I and whom am I rooting for) and doesn't add as much as the writer hopes.
- To sum up, viewpoint works best when the writer stays in one character's head at a time. Give the reader a clear idea of where changes in VP occur, by a new scene or chapter. Remember: A reader wants to be in the head (and thus become) of the character who has the most to lose, whose story we sympathize with and root for and who has a clear story goal. Do you know which character should be your VP character? If you're still confused, a good rule is that when you are in a VP (either 1st or 3rd limited) only that VP character can have thoughts or feelings on the page.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
- MPOV takes more skill. If you are writing a first novel, you'll have enough work in mastering the kind of storytelling a good novel requires. Why bog it down with lots of viewpoint characters? I often recommend that first-novelists stick to a single viewpoint, to give that writer a chance to learn the shape of a novel.
- Answer this question: Why do I need more than one POV? If your answer is something like, "It's more interesting," you may not be using this technique for its best purpose. Some legitimate reasons exist: as stated above, to give the reader critical info the main character can't know. In a generational saga, the form itself dictates passing the story to descendants. If you are switching viewpoints just for the fun of it, think again. A skilled novelist writes MPOV that deepens and connects the story in ways a single POV can't.
- With every addition of viewpoint, you risk diluting the reader's sympathies. This is huge. If your reader is confused or torn about which character to "root for," that reader may end up not particularly engaged with anyone in the story. If you are going to write a MPOV story, you must decide whose story it is, and make that clear to the reader right away. Don't make your reader guess which character has most to lose.
- If you write a baddie's viewpoint, don't stay in that character's voice very long. Most first-time novelists don't yet have the skills that Thomas Harris uses in The Silence of the Lambs. Readers get creeped out if they have to be a murderer or nefarious character for long. Get in and get out.
- Finally, a MPOV novel can't be a series of scenes where each POV character rehashes the same scene. The next viewpoint might begin at the same time/place, but should pull the reader forward in the story by the end.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
- Creator. Writing must always remain job one. If you are still working on the same article for five years, you're not really writing, you're dabbling. A pro sets up an reasonable writing schedule and sticks to it. A pro keeps an idea file. A pro spends most of the writing time with BIC (butt in chair). And a pro is always honing writing skills, always learning new things. When you decide you've arrived, beware. There's always more to learn.
- Editor. As a pro you must learn to self-edit. It's been said that "writing is rewriting," and for the most part, it's true. Some writers love creating and hate rewriting, others have trouble getting started but adore the revisions. Get a few good references and practice. Learn how to use Track Changes in your Word program. Adopt high standards, so you don't submit anything less than your very best.
- Promoter. This is the part that scares a lot of writers. We panic, thinking we'll never be able to do this: we don't have thousands to sink into hiring a publicist or buying ads, we're shy, we're busy, we're Luddites and don't know all these new-fangled tech things and on and on. Stop right now. Take a deep cleansing breath. Word of mouth is still considered the best marketing tool. You have a mouth (I know I do--and how). Use it to help yourself. The social media stuff may look intimidating but there are simple ways to link all this together so that it isn't time-consuming. As a colleague said recently, "It's not the size of your audience that matters, but finding the right audience." Start promoting yourself (networking) by listing three types of people who might fit your audience to a tee. Maybe it's women 18-45 who are evangelical Christians and who love dogs. Or it could be women 18-45 who are parents of teenagers and live in the Southwest. Who's YOUR audience?
Monday, March 28, 2011
- Find Courage Online. If you're shy in public, then perhaps it's easier to toot your own horn on the Internet. You don't have to inundate your friends and followers with Buy! Buy! Buy! Readers want to find good stuff. All you are doing is helping connect a writer (you) with a reader (them). A simple announcement such as, "My new release, Title, hits stores today," doesn't smack of self-serving. While it's true that many other writers are saying the same thing about their books, the more people who hear about your book, the better your sales will be. And sales are readers, plain and simple.
- Tell It To The World. You aren't going to trap a potential reader and harangue her/him or pressure to buy your book. You'll be more likely to chat with the grocery checker, who'll ask how you've been. You can reply, "I'm almost finished with my novel." That's a simple fact, not boasting. In my experience, once folks discover that you're a writer, it's hard to get them to quit asking excited questions. I don't shove my work down anyone's throat until asked. Then I keep it short and sweet.
- Do Unto Others. We've discussed cross-pollination before, but networking is so much more productive if you view other writers as compatriots rather than competition. I'm more than happy to cheer another writer's accomplishment, book release or writing course, even though it's going to directly compete with what I do. The reason is simple. If I contact Author X and propose, "I'll spread the word about your stuff on my network if you'll do the same for me on your network," then I've increased my name recognition potential usually at least by half or more. Our networks both automatically increase. Plus we gain the reputation for being generous, not stingy.
There is a lot more about networking , to be sure, but since I like my posts to stay short, we'll discuss more next post. Readers, please share your best networking tips. And thanks to all of you for following my little blog. Now go write something!
Sunday, March 27, 2011
- Keep it Short. I try not to go over a page or two, and as I'm sure you've noticed, I try to do bulleted lists that have titles. Short posts are a good way to invite the reader back--they know you aren't going to waste their time muddling through a long winded post.
- Keep it Focused. Decide what you want your blog to be predominantly about and what audience you're targeting. You may even decide to make separate blogs for books, reviews or other content. I stayed with teaching writing because that's what I do in life and also because when I was starting out, I would've loved to know some of this stuff.
- Keep it Fresh. Use the pre-posting feature if you need to, but post on a regular basis. On Blogger, you can set your post to publish at a specified time and date. Invite other bloggers to guest post and offer to guest post on other blogs. Set up your blog to automatically repost on Facebook and Twitter. Make a Google search for your blog's title. These are only a few hints on blogging regularly without creating a time-suck. We have to preserve our time for writing, after all.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Most writers (indeed most all artists) can relate to this type of discouragement. To outsiders who may not understand our anguish, it may appear that we're all having a giant pity party. But if you've been at this writing life for long, you know the particular hurt of rejection. You're familiar with the sound of your heart hitting the floor when readers don't connect with what you've written. You may even begin to believe those who urge you to take up a hobby less fraught with disappointment. Here are some things I do to pick myself up after a nasty fall:
- It's not a Hobby! You are a pro. Act like one. Writers struggle with their loved ones' views of them when we write. They patronize us (That's nice, dear), scold us (when are you going to get paid for this?), and pressure us (Couldn't you stop writing long enough to cook dinner?) into keeping writing at the very bottom of the priority list. Especially if we are writing but don't yet have any published credits, our labors feel futile to our families and friends. Politely correct those who would only validate your writing if you hit the bestseller list: "Sorry, I'm writing until ___." Writing is not our hobby, like knitting, as states the wonderful poem by Marge Piercy ("For The Young Who Want To").
- Resistance Is Death. According to Steven Pressfield in his wonderful little book, The War of Art, anything that keeps you from showing up, keeping BIC (butt in chair) and producing word count is resistance. This extends to your own attitudes and feelings about your work. When you feel lower than a slug in the basement, remind yourself that this is only a form of resistance. Or blame it on the devil. Whatever you do, don't let negative thoughts about your writing dominate your attitude.
- Writing Is a Roller Coaster. All creative pursuits tend to have mountaintop feelings, quickly replaced by that sinking feeling that your stuff will never be good enough, sell fast enough or whatever mean thing Resistance is serving. If you are still pre-published, you may think that if you can only get a book in print, you'll never again doubt yourself. It doesn't work that way. After about ten minutes of euphoric, "I am an author!" you start worrying about marketing, about the next book. It's the journey not the destination that matters.
- Supporters or Assassins? Are the other writers in your life supporting you by giving positive feedback and constructive critiques? Or are your colleagues more interested in seeing themselves on the mountaintop, and only getting there by tearing you down? Yes, you need a thick skin--our egos are sensitive--but we need feedback that helps us grow and learn and hone those skills. My sense is that a person who has harsh words to say about your stuff but who doesn't give you specific ways to improve, may be trying to feel better about their own writing by stomping on yours. If that sounds familiar, get different supporters.
- Get Back on the Horse. I've said before that I only give myself 24 hours to mope, feel sorry for me, throw a pity-party while eating a whole bag of chocolate. The next day, though, I'm back at it. Did you see that stuff above about Resistance? I may not ever make it big, but I'm determined not to allow my own attitude to scuttle whatever success I may have. The bigger the disappointment, the more important writing is. Specifically, I may write on a new project, do something for fun or explore a new form until the sting recedes.
- You Are a Pro Writer. Say this to yourself every time you doubt your abilities. If you are what you eat, then I think it's also true that you are what you write. When discouragement lands on you (and it will) tell yourself you're a professional even if you only half-way believe it. Act like one--don't allow Resistance to win. Produce more word count, submit to yet another agent, editor or publisher, keep honing your skills. The right way to survive discouragement is the write way. Have you hugged a writer today?
Friday, March 25, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Sometimes writers can be seduced by their own scenes. If a scene contains all the positive aspects listed above, but does not shoulder some of the overall story weight, propelling it forward, it may have fallen prey to these problems:
- Everything Must Count. Subplots, secondary characters or information that doesn't contribute to the larger story goal. If you are switching viewpoint to make the story richer yet this new viewpoint has little to nothing to do with the main character's problem or situation, you may confuse the reader at best, or at worst, dilute the reader's sympathies for the protagonist. Ask yourself, "Whose story is this?" and "What does this scene contribute to the overall story?"
- Emotions Need Time To Change. If you write one scene where the protagonist's mother dies, realize that traumatic emotions take time to process, even for make-believe characters. The next few scenes must either show the character dealing with those emotions or else you must clearly indicate that the timeline is skipping ahead. Remember the rule: always let your reader know where and when they are.
- Admit Your Agenda. Screen your scenes for indications you want to educate your reader about a cause or subject. Signs of writing with an agenda include: scenes where characters speak in speeches, information load or give encyclopedic responses; narrative summaries that are heavy with explanations (Resist the Urge to Explain). Look for the words "knew" or "because," "realized" or "noticed."
- Setting as Character, not Protagonist. If you are good at descriptions, you may be tempted to linger in them, waxing eloquent about the surrounding while the characters stand around or sip their tea. Get your characters moving through the landscape, and weave the setting into the action instead of clumping lengthy descriptions at the scene's beginning.
- Watch Those Flashbacks. The cold mashed potato rule means that your reader has been in the flashback for so long, she's forgotten what the character was doing in the real time of the scene.
- Act Out the Interesting Stuff. And ONLY the interesting stuff. Readers are willing to assume a lot if the correct details are supplied. For instance, if you write that the character saddled a horse and rode off, you can assume that the horse's bridle and all those other horsey things were properly fitted first. Leaving out boring details will tighten your scenes and make them more readable. And whatever you do, NEVER say a scene you're about to dramatize is boring. We want to give the reader the sense that something was boring, long or never ending without actually writing it that way.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Here's how I work my way through the week:
- Deadlines. Whatever is squeaking loudest, I work on first. This often involves a deadline, and for a lot of published authors, it's editing or galleys that must be turned in by a certain date. If you're pre-published, a contest deadline, call out for submissions or even a self-imposed deadline (I will submit my mss. by this date) can add to your productivity.
- WIP. Next on my list of to-dos is whatever Work-in-Progress I'm writing. For me it's usually a novel. Keep the WIP near the top of the priority list. If you're a pre-published novelist, you need a finished manuscript to break in. If you are writing nonfiction, your proposal and a solid first three chapters is a must.
- Teaching/Learning. I teach a lot of writing classes (my day job) so I must leave room for writing handouts, researching latest trends, or mentoring. You might consider devoting a slice of writing time to learning new writing techniques, enrolling in a class or workshop or practicing writing forms with which you are unfamiliar.
- Reading. No matter how busy I am, I try to leave room for reading. If you don't stay current with publishing trends, technological areas and reading for pleasure, your work could be less relevant.
- Dare to Dream. I also try to get in a "just for me" writing session now and then. I'm working on a novel that is "my baby" but so far is also an orphan--no publisher seems to want to contract it--yet. Occasionally write whatever you want to--be it a rant, a poem, or a short story. Spread your wings and turn off the editor, the money troll and its evil twin which sits on your shoulder telling you it's a waste of your time.
One Caveat: While most published writers have several projects at once, they ought to know their limits too. Don't have so many things started that you never finish any of them. At every creative writing session, remind yourself that you need to write as fast as you can, as much as you can. Later on, you'll edit with a steel gaze and a sharp red pencil. Good Luck!
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing about difficult issues?
- Ready, Aim. You're automatically on the firing line. Some readers are going to love your treatment of the issue, others will take you to task. It's hard to predict which readers will triumph. You must be firm in your conviction that the issue needed to be written about.
- Relevance Does Count. The readers who love your work are likely to say, "I'm so glad someone has brought this out in the open." Even in the general market, certain subjects have been considered taboo. These readers will applaud you for giving a voice to their hardships, struggles and fears.
- Book burning, Anyone? The readers who object are likely to be fueled by fear. If a writer dares to say aloud what others only think, that brings the feared thing one step closer to the reader. It's harder to then close one's eyes.
- To Thine Own Self Be True. Yet if you've respected the reader who may have related to your writing, written about the subject from a neutral or non judging place, and injected some hope in the work, chances are you'll be able to get across your point without being sentimental or advancing an agenda.
- Spread the Light. Readers want stories they relate to. Saying you can't publish books about "x" only causes those with heartbreaking situations to feel more marginalized. I have not experienced a child's death, thank goodness. But I have "lost" my son to drugs for many years. At first no one was daring to write about meth addiction--too depressing. Now some are shedding light on this very difficult issue.
- Keep Trying. Overall, I've been disappointed that no publisher has taken a chance on my story about the boy who died. Yet I'm glad I wrote about what is called the "worst tragedy a parent can know."
If you'd like to read Deb's essay, go here. I think there is an excerpt of my novel Hiding From Floyd on Createspace, and I'll let you know the link when I find it.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Beginning, intermediate and advanced writers share a common need: to be recognized in some way. Whether it's a published anecdote that snagged a writer's first credit or a book that hits a bestseller list, the feeling that someone validates our blood, sweat and tears means much to all writers. We're supposed to be altruistic, only we aren't. Instead, writers are human. And we can validate other writers as much as we ourselves find recognition. Here are a few thoughts on encouragement:
- If you read something that touches your life, take time to write a short note to the author. I have a curious habit of writing to authors with whom I connect on a deep level. I have a tidy collection of letters from the famous (Erma Bombeck, Jackie Mitchard and Janet Finch, White Oleander) to the semi-famous (Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister; Susan Shreve, the past president of the PEN Center and author of a dozen novels). These days, with social media, expressing your thoughts to an author is even easier.
- If someone in your crit group seems particularly down, reach out with a funny e-card, take that writer to lunch (keep the wine intake reasonable!) or phone the writer. Another way I like to encourage writers is to tweet, FB or blog about that person's work--hey there's no such thing as bad ink. Offer to write a favorable review.
- When you're the one considering throwing in the towel, have writer friends handy with a box of tissues. Your family will NEVER understand the writing life. Go through past published pieces, awards, or even nice critiques you've received. Remind yourself that you were successful before and you will be again.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: I also remember getting a detailed crit from a mentor. I went home thinking, "Ah, now I know what to do." The next time the mentor looked at the story, he had another long list of things to fix. I was surprised, but have since learned that critiques are part rule, part art and part opinion. How can you know when your work is ready to submit?
- When the critiques are getting "nitsy" it may be time to stop dithering and get it out there.
- If you belong to a group with no published writer, you may need expert help to diagnose structural problems. Hire an editor, take a class or seek out a more experienced writer.
- If you feel the critiques fly against your intended purpose, you may have to ignore advice.
- If you absolutely can't stand to look at it one more time, put it aside or start submitting it.
- If you have a list of potential publishers with wide differences, you may have to alter your work to tailor for each. By making a list in advance (of agents, editors or contests) when you are rejected by one, you already know where to send it next. If you're lucky, the rejectors will begin leaving little notes to encourage you.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: You listen politely as the members of your group take turns commenting on your pages. You thank everyone and take home the scribbled-on hard copies or the "track changes" versions. Now what?
- Let the Crits Rest. Unless you're on a deadline, let the critiques rest for a while, say a day. This is especially important if the critique was difficult in some way--your emotions need a chance to settle down. If a member suggests sweeping changes, if something you thought was the bomb really did bomb, or if you're not sure if you agree with the critique, a day to digest all the opinions (remember, they're all opinions) may help you be more objective as you rewrite.
- Read and Decide. When the rest period is over, read through everyone's comments as well as any notes you made to yourself. Make decisions about the critiques you received. The advice, "Take what you can use and lose the rest," is sound.
- List Your Fixes Together. Take a look at the copy you read from, or your notes from all the online crits. I like to read through all the comments and then transfer the suggestions for fixes that I like on this copy or on a separate note. The advantage is that you don't have to keep looking through the copies looking for the suggestion you want to use.
- Open a working copy. Open on screen or print out a copy of the document you read for critique . If you will be using Track Changes, first save a copy of the doc so the original remains safe. Keep your notes or list of suggested revisions close at hand. If you know how to use a split screen, you can open both your original and your track changes docs for side-by-side comparisons.
- Start with Easy Stuff. If you're a new writer, I suggest you fix the easy stuff, even though deleting the section is a possibility. You need to be able to gain confidence as a self-editor. Delete "ly" and excess modifiers, change your dialogue tags to "said" or a beat of action, or use concrete sensory detail to "show, don't tell." Substitute action verbs for passive voice and get rid of a lot of the "ings." These simple self-edits will tighten your writing and leave you (I hope) believing you can do this.
- For "Big Picture" suggestions, use this copy to play around. Add in deeper character work, shuffle your scenes or paragraphs to create tension or strengthen theme on this copy. You can save as "Experimental" or some other file name to keep from confusion. Ask yourself how the critique group interpreted your piece compared to how you wrote it. Did your colleagues understand the way you intended?
- Sort out the Suggestions from the Rewrites. Some crit partners cross a line where instead of giving you suggestions to take or leave, they want to rewrite your story. I don't think it's healthy to do too much rewriting for another writer. If you get back your copy and it's too far from what you envisioned because of excessive revisions, go back to your original and look for ways to say or dramatize with more CSD, more clarity or a stronger thesis.
Remember, it's your work. You bear ultimate responsibility for what you write or rewrite. When you receive a critique, take what you can use. The rest you can lose.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: If you recognize yourself or any writer you critique with, take steps to remedy. In my little opinion, most writers need to improve their ability to play well with others, especially around the critique table. Know any crit partners who resemble these blatant stereotypes?
- The All-Knowing. This sort of writer critiques as if he/she is Moses, handing down commandments on stone tablets. Anyone who disagrees gets the tablets thrown at his/her head. Remedy: If you get this critique, remember what many agents say when they reject your work: "Writing is a highly subjective business." NO one knows everything about writing--not even me, tee-hee. If you tend to --ahem!--give this sort of feedback, remember the above subjective axiom and couch your words with, "here's one way to do things."
- The Nit-Picker. No matter how many times this critiquer is asked to "skip the nits," this writer simply must line edit out loud. We all gleefully pounce on the writer's dangling participles for laughs but a verbal critique shouldn't allow time for line-by-line feedback. The writer whose piece gets the "nit treatment" may very well delete the entire section, so it seems pointless to correct. That is, unless you just can't help yourself. In that case, a good moderator can announce, "Moving along!"
- The Philosopher. This critique-giver or getter would rather debate themes, archetypes and story structure than help a writer improve. While it's fun to talk shop (I do!), in a critique setting, time spent discussing general subjects takes away from a writer's particular piece.
- The Rambler. This critiquer starts out well enough, but gets lost along the critique road. The cause is often a writer's natural bent toward talking about himself rather than the writing that's up for critique. Relate to the writing, but resist the urge to use it as a springboard to tell your own (very long) story.
- The Walking Ego. Seems like many groups have one person who considers him/herself above criticism and has an extremely thin skin. May run crying from the room when given feedback, or vow to never return. A writer's ego isn't always manifested by boastful arrogance. Sometimes, it's an unwillingness to change (revise) the writing. Other times it can be a sensitivity that prevents the writer from listening to constructive feedback. I've even known writers who claim their words are direct from God and therefore don't need and shouldn't be revised. This type of critique group member can benefit from the gentle advice that editors and agents aren't apt to consider a writer's feelings or mission when they reject work.
Anyone who participates in a crit group will at some point get hurt feelings, be angry with a suggestion or leave group with tail tucked. It's the nature of our work. Yet all groups function at a higher level when the members remember that a critique group should be a safe place to try out ideas, experiment with styles and gain encouragement to keep writing. Whether you give or get a crit, smile, don't argue or cross-talk and be thankful. Ultimately, a writer must choose which suggestions to embrace and which to lose.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: How can a writer know the crits received are good, as in helpful and constructive?
- The critique is specific. Remember your seventh grade book report? The teacher wouldn't tolerate a general, "I liked it a lot." It isn't helpful to give a vague analysis, such as "I didn't like it," or "It was fine." Be specific. And if you receive a vague crit, ask questions--but only after all crits are in. Don't interrupt. You might want to jot down your questions so you don't forget to ask.
- The critique smacks of encouragement. If someone gives specific advice but laces the crit with, "I don't know why you bother," or "This is terrible!" you may be peeling your ego off the basement floor. In the facilitated groups I run, I always want the writer to leave a session champing at the bit, eager to get home and work on the manuscript. Writing is a difficult sport, and we all need support and encouragement in order to make our writing shine.
- The critique is about you and your work, not the critiquer's prowess with the English language. Some writers feel threatened and must show off their skills. If you receive a crit that points out flaws but doesn't offer any remedy, the crit may be more about the critiquer than the critiqued.
- The critique is delivered without malice. Similar to show-offs, some writers make everything a competition. "I can critique better than you," is not only not helpful, it erodes the trust level of the group. We're all different and we're at different stages of the writing journey. A good crit respects this.
- A good critique doesn't sacrifice the big picture while pointing out the nits. In my groups, I ask members to mark "nits," small things such as grammar, spelling or "ly" words on the copy and not waste the group's time pointing them out. If you have 5-6 members, it will take far too long to line edit every piece. Organize your comments by referring first to "big picture" elements such as theme, plot character or scene writing, then as time permits, less pressing issues.
I'm sure there are more signs of a good critique, as well as other details. Should members of a crit group be friends outside the group? Is it necessary to meet once a week or does once a month suffice? Where do you stand on the issue of reading aloud vs. distributing copies in advance? Feel free to comment and bring these things up.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: My in-class guidelines are simple and easy to incorporate into an independent group. We focus first on what we loved or thought worked, then we mention places where there's confusion, too much or not enough info and end with some sort of positive. It's called "The Sandwich Approach," and it works. Here are some other guidelines that will help your group be healthy, happy and productive:
- Just Write! All members commit to regular production and work shopping their work. If only a few writers read each time, the group may not be functioning at its best. Remember, you join a group not only to get feedback, but also to give it.
- Da Rules. A good group has some basic rules, such as being on time, keeping chit-chat to a minimum and not cross talking during another's crit.
- Leaders Lead. If you feel that the group needs a leader, one way to do this is to appoint a different moderator each session. The moderator can decide in what order pieces are read, (I favor shortest to longest), be the time keeper (limit crits to say 3 minutes each) and if necessary, intervene when mayhem breaks out. If members are shouting, it's time to intervene.
- Start Where You Are. If you're a novice, start where you are. You're already a reader, so if nothing else you can talk about what "worked for you" (kept your interest) and what didn't. Later, you'll learn the fancier tricks--rearranging, addressing structural problems, or raising the stakes.
- Decide on Format and Word Count. Some groups prefer to hand out the selections in advance and then meet only to talk about the work, instead of actually hearing the work. This is OK, but consider that our best intentions to "go over" a piece in advance of group may fall short. And reading aloud does seem to showcase errors betters than silent reading. Whatever you decide, set word count limits. You won't get very far if members insist on presenting 10,000 words each session. A good goal might be 5-10 double-spaced pages, depending on time constraints.
- Encourage one Another. This goes without saying, but unfortunately some groups are more like competitions, where writers "perform" and then expect applause. While jealousy is natural, try to remember that one writer's good fortune is good for us all. It means someone is still publishing. And if we use the Sandwich Approach, our egos may remain intact too.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: What was the last "fun" thing you did? A trip to the beach, kayaking or a walk in the forest are all ways people relax and rejuvenate. How can you use moments from these leisure times to enrich your writing?
- Journal your experience. Most vacations have down time, so why not bring along a journal? Especially helpful if your spouse frowns on your bringing real writing along on that Hawaiian getaway.
- Gather Souvenirs. I've been to many writing retreats where a workshop leader has sent students on a treasure hunt to bring back a small piece of Nature. Seek out a twig, stone or other bit of the landscape (make sure it's nonperishable if you're far from home) and write about it upon your return.
- People Watch. For me, this is fun, fun, fun. Someone said that a writer must always be in a "state of perpetual noticing." But don't just watch. Listen, because your dialogue-writing skills will improve the more you listen and take note of how people talk.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: The class itself is located in Eugene, Oregon but since I love to blog about the topics I'm teaching, you'll see quite a bit of the content here. Among the things we'll be covering:
- Get up to Speed. If you're following this blog, chances are you're no Luddite. But sometimes it's nice to have a real person walk you through steps for an application, such as linking your blog to social media, scheduling posts or using Facebook Like Pages.
- Identify Your Audience. Targeting your audience before publication is a must. If you're able to demonstrate that you not only know where on the shelf your book belongs, but the typical reader who'll love your book, you're ahead of the game.
- Boil it Down. Can you state your book's theme in a pithy sentence? If not, try using a formula approach. I'm partial to one former agent Nate Bransford put out on his blog. There are others, but basically you identify the character, setting and character's problem/goal, how something(one)is trying to foil the character and hint at the "battle" that your character will engage in to recover the goal. TV Guide movie summaries are a great place to get ideas for this sentence, as are book cover blurbs.
- Ramp it Up. As you get a firmer handle on that "one sentence test," it should inspire you to write that first draft as quickly as you can. Don't stop to agonize over whether it's any good. That will come later, as you revise that draft. Junk it Through.
- Brand it. It's never too early or too late to start building your brand. Sounds very commercial because it is. But think of authors you know and love: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer. With each you think horror, wizard fantasy and vampires. That's the point: to make your reader associate you with a certain type of book or message. Happy platform-building!
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: The last thing writers need is for friends or family members to gently suggest we get a better hobby, like knitting. "Writing is not my hobby!" We howl. What can we do to keep our heads up and our butts in the chair?
- Get a Writer Buddy. Get at least one person in your life who likes you and who is encouraging about your writing. Don't let that person be your mom or your spouse unless you like complicated drama. That one person is there to pick you up when you've melted into a blob of gelatinous goo, there to gently point out that a fire-breathing crit partner has some solid suggestions, there to listen to you gnash your teeth and tear your clothes after the book your editor loved doesn't make it through committee.
- Let it Rest. When you get upsetting or depressing news from your agent, your crit group or your editor, try to put the manuscript aside at least for a day. Chances are, you won't write your best if you are an emotional wreck. Go write mean, nasty limericks about whoever has made your life awful, then burn them. The limericks, I mean.
- Write Something New. I always have several projects going. If I'm upset about one project, I can put it away and start on another. This doesn't mean you want many unfinished works lying around, but have at least one other book idea, essay or story in the pipeline all the time.
- Look Again. After a while, your emotions will recede and then you'll have more objectivity. Take another look and decide if the crit partner was right about that blasting assessment. Could you improve your skills? If the answer's yes, then you've had a valuable lesson. Pursue excellence. Always seek to be the best writer you can be.
- Twenty-four Hours. Keifer Sutherland had it right--24 hours is long enough for almost anything. It's my personal rule when it comes to bad writing news. For one day, I can mope, think bad thoughts or throw darts at the photo of whoever is behind the news. Only one day. Then it's back in the saddle time.
- Be Persistent. Quitters are rarely successful writers. If you develop your skills, keep writing and submitting, go to conferences, and all the rest, your chances are one hundred percent better than if you give up. If it's true that you must write a million words to be able to master your skills, you're going to need a lot of BIC (Butt in Chair) time. Start today.
- Believe in Your Success. Chances are, you've had some successes, even if they're small. While your hurting self whines that you'll never get anywhere, the truth is that you've been successful in the past and you'll probably be successful again. Really. I'm rooting for you. And if you knit, let THAT be your hobby.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Just for fun, try this formula method of creating a story:
- Think of a male or female character and give that character an occupation, activity or goal. This character is the viewpoint and protagonist. EX: A woman teacher who's burned out.
- Think of the person most likely to be opposing that first character and give this character an opposing job, activity or goal. EX: A student who has great potential but who is homeless.
- Assign a setting and a time period. EX: Contemporary, USA.
- Here's the fun part. Now imagine these two opposing forces meeting and clashing. Kind of like plate tectonics, one force (we hope the protagonist) must override the other eventually. What happens when push comes to shove (otherwise known as the climax scene)? EX: A burned out teacher reignites her passion for education after a homeless student challenges authority.
- Now all you have to do is write in the direction of that climax, by letting your protag lose a lot, gradually gaining strength and resolve. It's not exactly easy, but it will create a classic story arc. Have fun with it--you may come up with a great idea!
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Many first-time novelists say they want everyone to read their book. Why is this not helpful? It's too general. The more you know your typical reader, the better you can write to that reader and court that reader's attention.
- Get a Fit. Know where your book fits on the bookshelf. Take a tour of a bookstore (if your town still has one!) and go to the section where you think your book would be. Spend time browsing the other books there. Is your book's subject matter, tone and focus on the same general level as the books you find?
- Read widely. Stay abreast of trends and what's published. Subscribe to Publisher's Weekly (they have a free e-newsletter) or other pubs which report on the business.
- Get Social Media Savvy. By now you've no doubt hear the clarion call of platform for authors. It's true. But participating in Facebook, Twitter, etc. doesn't have to be a time drain. Learn to link your blog to your most-used social sites so you don't duplicate actions. Some writers are now ditching the blog altogether and corresponding with their readers mainly through Facebook Fan Pages. If you aren't blogging about a particular subject (like writing tips) Facebook might be a good solution for you.
- Scope out Readers. To get started, think about your novel's subject, protagonist and theme. Let's say your story's about a woman who loves dogs. Right away you can identify potential readers--women and dog lovers. Consider joining some online groups that cater to dog lovers. Become a part of the group (you aren't there merely to sell them something) and when you have a book out, you'll be able to tell these folks about it. The book will sell itself.
- Switch Things Up. You (and I) can't afford to design a page, blog or other interface and then let it grow stale. When you participate in social media, now and then change your background, hold a contest, give away a product. A static place to greet your reader is going to be a boring place. Be willing to offer something new. I know of a writer whose audience is mainly country-western and rodeo enthusiasts. She updates her blog, web site and Facebook often with pics of recent Rodeo Queens. Another offers info on real-life crime investigations to pair with her murder mysteries. Be creative and your readers will thank you.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: The character's inner/outer lives are both evident to the reader, which in my opinion, gives fiction an advantage over cinema/theater. Yet the writer must carefully balance these elements. Think of your character, sitting alone on stage. She's thinking over her awful life. Fair enough. Yet if that same character does little except sit and think, the story feels stagnant. The reader craves movement. Watch for:
- Beware of scenes with only the viewpoint character present. Right away, this type of scene limits interaction with the surroundings. If your character is shipwrecked, at least give that person a soccer ball "Wilson" to talk to.
- Avoid writing a lot of scenes with the players sitting around a table talking. Not much movement beyond lifting one's teacup to one's lips. Get people doing tasks which require moving around.
- Beware the passive-aggressive character. In real life we do tend to stew about things and we avoid conflict. In fiction, you must force your character out of the mind and into the world, where he/she will have to do something, have to want something.
- Avoid the back story trap. Many times a story heavy on inner problems is living in the past. Resist the urge to allow your character to pull the reader into flashback too often.
- If it helps, look for threes. My good old "rule of three" may help you balance the inner and outer lives of your character. Got 3 sentences of thinking? The next 3 sentences should contain outward movement. And remember, this is a guideline, not a real "rule."
Monday, March 7, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: When any character steps on stage, it's important for the reader to understand the qualities you as writer need that reader to get right away.
- Sketch out quick. In a novel you must present the key personality traits as soon as possible. This goes far beyond a physical description. In fact your protagonist is looking out at the world and may never train the camera upon herself, so the reader may never get a physical description. Hint: The character's main motivation for being in the story (EX: a character who believes in saving all animals) must be apparent from the first pages.
- Skim the Details. When you see someone on the street, you take note of descriptors which stand out: a man walks with a limp, a woman's perfume reeks, a child's mouth is ringed by chocolate ice cream. If you go over every detail from head to toe, the story stalls.
- Make it memorable. Remember how Donald Maass writes about larger-than-life characters? When you give your characters traits, be original. You certainly don't want all your players to sound and act just like you do. When you show the reader a character, go off-road: try blending great qualities of honesty, loyalty and forgiveness with quirky traits such as change-jingling, wearing a hat backwards or other odd but endearing traits. It worked for Columbo, works for Dr. House and could work for your character too.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Here are some ways you might bring your character's true self out of the shadows:
- Write a letter from your character to you. Ask that character what he/she wants, and why.
- Journal as the character. This is similar to the first idea, but you could sustain it over days or weeks and just allow the character to say whatever comes through.
- Watch movies, identify a similar character(s). I remember the old advice to cut out magazine pix of what you think your character looks like. How about taking that idea a step further and come up with a movie character or meld of characters which closely resemble your character?
- Pick a star. I love this one--I've decided Sandra Bullock should play the lead when my novel is made into a movie.
- Keep notebooks full of info on the character, such as background, family dynamics, education, etc. This info is mostly for your eyes only. Don't try to squeeze every factoid into the story.
Ultimately the better you know your character, the better your story will be.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: I've stressed that novelists must know what they want, what stands in the way and what the character will do to overcome the obstacles and meet the goal. All great stuff. But I loved what Jennie said about the character's wound. Why?
- Knowing how your character has been hurt in the past helps a novelist know and build on inner conflict. If as a child your character was slapped for speaking her mind, she may still flinch when another person raises a hand.
- A character's wound is key to that character's motivation. In life we often don't really even know why we do things. In fiction, the character's wounds make the character's main motivations believable.
- A character's wound and determination to overcome or put to rest that wound makes for a sympathetic character. Thanks, Jennie! Her bestselling novels include Riding with the Queen and her latest, When She Flew.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: To a lot of readers, flow probably means that as one is reading along, nothing jumps out to slow or stop the reader. For pros, flow points more to one of three areas: transitions, logic and conflict.
- Transitions: As I'm always reminding, a writer's first job is almost always to orient the reader in time and space. As time moves (flows!) along in the story, the writer must erect signposts so the reader doesn't get lost or confused. By using simple transitions (one day) and presenting them right away in a scene, the reader is able to move onto the scene's business, sure of where and when the scene takes place. This is especially true if the story jumps back and forth in time (flashback or back story). The moment you confuse your reader, you're in danger of losing that reader.
- Logic: As you revise a story, you are likely to need to move parts of the story forward, backward or change important details to improve character motivation and make the stakes higher. Sometimes by cutting and pasting, the logical progression of events gets scrambled and/or the reason why a character would do or say something is lost upon the reader. Let's say, for instance, that you write a scene where one character has come in from a rainstorm and is toweling off her hair. Later, you move the scene to a week after it originally occurred. You must answer the question: Is it still raining a week later? My advice? Read your story out loud, preferably to another writer. You'll be using more of that logic-oriented side of the brain and errors will be easier to spot. And although it's tough, sometimes you must "kill some darlings" because they no longer make sense.
- Conflict: Anytime a scene does not build tension, flow is interrupted. A reader might not be able to say exactly why, but if you protect your character by shielding him/her from catastrophe, the reader will lose interest. When you write conflict, things don't need to explode or catch fire. But the two principal characters in the scene must be at cross-purposes in some way and there must be an outcome of the character wins, loses or it's a draw (not recommended). For every scene you write, ask yourself what each character wants from the other as a starting point.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Writing Tip for Today: Even seasoned writers (like me!) get complacent, forgetting some of these basic self-editing techniques. No matter where you're at on the writing journey the following five self-editing tools can be a quick way to take your writing to that "next level."
- Work on your verbs. While I don't recommend self-conscious writing, strengthening your verbs in general helps the reader see a more particular picture. Seek out and employ verbs which help you as writer manage your reader. A sure sign of weak verbs is the use of many "to be" forms, and passive constructions. EX: The minutes were read by Nancy.
- Work on the use of was "ing" words. Gerund constructions (ing words) slow the prose. While you may sometimes use an "ing" to denote a continual motion, most of the time you're better off use a simple past tense verb. EX: He was hanging around. He hung around.
- Work on your modifiers. I know, your elementary school teacher encouraged you to write "descriptively." But take a look at your work. Are you using a lot of modifiers when you could find a concrete noun? Try taking out every modifier (adjectives and adverbs) and reread the work.
- Work on your prepositions. Do you begin sentences with prepositions such as "as?" This is often a sign of weak writing. Readers can process only one action at a time, so you gain little by trying to make the reader see more. Also, be sure you aren't stringing together prepositional phrases that go around, over, under and through. The reader will get lost.
- Work on your transitions. A transition signals the reader that we are in a different time and/or place than the scene or passage which came before. Any time readers aren't sure when and where they are in a story, they tend to lose interest. Keep your transitions simple, such as "one day," or "by that fall." I like to place my time and place nearest the beginning of a sentence to orient my reader immediately.