Saturday, October 27, 2007

Five Part Series: Writing Lessons From Stargate SG-1

It is interesting to watch television in the writer frame of mind. What would be, to the average viewer, an enjoyable and almost effortless opportunity to relax in the world’s of our fictional friends, becomes an intriguing weave of technique, language, structure, and seamless formula; a masterful journey through character development, plot, sub-plot, continuity, hooks and hangers.

I’ve been watching Stargate SG-1 for hours this week all in the name of research. (I wonder if I can write the DVDs off as a tax deduction.) Often the trusty t.v. is the portal through which our brains seep but I’ve found that there are also some incredible lessons we can learn. Stargate isn’t the only television series to offer these lessons. My other personal favorites are Dark Angel, House, Californication, Hero and Charmed.

What these six television series have in common is their complex meta-story and character development. I’m sure there are other series that have shared this asset. Each of these series starts from episode one, season one and tells a story, through every episode which ties to every thread from the beginning to end or the series as a whole.

Other shows, such as The Simpsons, Futurama, and NCIS each take a cut of life. Their episodes could be watched out of order, with zero continuity and still be as enjoyable but with my favorite six, if you miss an episode you’ll have a significant gap in events. Every episode is important because they are woven together, like a brilliantly structured series of novels.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore what I’ve learnt in a five part series.

  • Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and Sub-Plot
    We’ll explore the familiar curves of story arc over episodes, seasons and series then delve into the complex unity of plot and the careful techniques used to tie sub-plot into a cohesive story.

  • Part Two: Character Development
    We watch the growth of loved and loathed characters as they develop through a series. These characters share their pasts and present with us, we develop emotional connections that leave us intimately involved in their future.

  • Part Three: Action and Dialogue
    Why t.v. and movies are a fantastic way to encourage powerful writing. All ‘Show’ and no ‘Tell’. How can we incorporate this audio/visual experience and translate it for written media?

  • Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events
    How t.v. series writers have mastered the ‘Story Hook’. They grip us in the first few minutes pre opening credits and leave us hanging as the final credits roll across the screen. How does the sequence of events hold an audience? We’ll explore the finer points of when to push and when to pull your viewers/readers.

  • Part Five: Formula - Making A Success Key Mould
    The most successful t.v. series follow a very specific formula, so do many writers. What keeps this formula fresh and interesting? How can we make a mould of our own successes so we can replicate them in the future?

I hope you’re as intrigued by the idea as I am. If you’ve been looking for a legitimate excuse to spend a few hours watching old episodes of your favorite shows you now have one. Consider it homework if you like. Watch t.v. with your writer’s mind fully switched on and tuned in. What do you learn about writing from your favorite t.v. series?

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Writer And The Restless Mind

Writing requires a degree of focus. It’s the sort of job you can’t multi-task. You’re either writing, or you’re not.

I’ve been coming back and fourth to this blog today. It’s Thursday so I need to write an entry but I haven’t been able to calm my restless mind.

There are elements of writing that can be done on the fly or with distractions but I’ve found when it comes to putting the actual words on paper I need a sufficient pocket of time where writing is all I am doing. There are stages of research that can be mixed with editing or kids homework. There are elements of editing that can be slotted in around school lunches and phone calls from my sister. Planning, outlining and dreaming can all take place over coffee and while cooking dinner. The writing itself, however, has to be a single track project.

On days like today when my mind is running on multiple tracks all the time it’s hard to nail myself down to one line of thought, so I’ll end up with something that resembles one of my rambles rather than a well thought-out, focused article. Since it has a writing theme I’m going to forgive myself and I hope my readers do too.

Do you ever get this Restless Mind sensation? Are your thoughts scrambled and on multiple tracks at once? I often wonder if it’s just normal, human mental activity or if this is more directly tied to bipolar mania. Are there ever days when you struggle to pull two threads of thought together? It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle in the air rather than on a flat surface.

Over the years I’ve learnt a few ways to get by during these Restless Mind days:

Forgive and Forget - One is to forgive myself, put aside the work and give myself the day off. Forget whatever project was in the works and choose not to write, or freewrite instead of putting together something specific.

Music - Some days that just isn’t an option. On those occasions I might plug in my headset and slam amps of music directly into my brain. The music drowns out external distractions and helps focus my thoughts. Different music can help me with different tasks. I listen to various Enya songs when writing my current novel but lean towards Loreena McKennitt, or Classical Music (such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi) when I’m writing non-fiction.

Disconnect or Relocate - Occasionally I need to change my location. My desktop PC is often used for things other than writing so the distractions of those things can be, well, distracting. By disconnecting the internet, using pen and paper or switching to my laptop I can go into another room or even leave the house to write.

Mental Association - I find using the laptop helps focus on only writing because the battery life forces me to do all I can in two hours and the laptop is only ever used for writing. I don’t open it unless I’m going to write. This creates a kind of mental connection, laptop = writing.

Meditation - Another technique is to specifically call myself into being fully present. I actually have the most trouble with this. It does work but I know I don’t practice it often enough. Meditation concentrates breathing and physical awareness. Be here, now.

Time - The only other true method I know of to get something written when I’m in this frenzied state is time. In a way it is an effort of sheer will. I can dither all day long, procrastinating to my hearts content but at some point, as the hours till bedtime creep in I reach the point where I just have to begin. Time starts, now. My mind still wanders but because I’ve set this project in my ‘now’ mode I have to keep bringing my focus back here rather than letting it trail off. Sometimes an actual timer can help. I always have a digital clock view handy so I can track the passage of time.

This last technique is actually the hardest. I always end the session with a headache because it requires a lot of mental juggling to keep retraining my thoughts every time they wander. It takes energy to pull the threads of my mind together, to concentrate on creating legible sentences out of the jumble of pieces and to hold them all in the air while I fit the puzzle together.

When the puzzle is complete it looks kind of like this entry. A collection of haphazard threads, rambles that come together in a loosely structured blob. Some days writing just IS like that. Even on those days I’m a writer.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book Review: Sarah Quigley’s Write

If you’ve ever struggled to unveil your creativity or floundered in the search of something to write about then you could benefit from owning a copy of Sarah Quigley’s book, Write: A 30-day guide to creative writing. Sarah offers 30 days worth of inspirational topics and idea starters.

Each chapter begins with a mind-churning few pages that offer a unique perspective on some often overlook aspects of creative writing and includes some personal anecdotes that show readers Sarah knows just what you’re going through. At the end of these Sarah Quigley offers a few short prompts to get you writing that day.

Write can be used as a 30-day routine writing exercise or from time to time to starch flagging inspiration. Some of the prompts include:

  • Write in a style conveying that you’re becoming progressively drunker. (p25)

  • Write about a shark’s-tooth necklace or a rabbit’s foot. (p37)

  • Write about a boot hanging from a tree. (p48)

  • Think of a physical metaphor for writer’s block and describe it in words. (p56)

  • Imagine discovering a time capsule from last century. (p103)

With chapters such as, Borrowing a springboard, Hunter-gatherers, Conquering the cliché, And a side order of fear and Heroic villains, and villainous heroes, there are a whole slew of ideas and interesting snippets to inspire a writing frenzy or to warm up with each day.

The writing advice for professional writers is slim in this book. It is a ‘guide’ better suited to hobby writers or those looking to get into the habit of writing regularly. Each day offers a new collection of raw material but there is very little progressive information. This book is fantastic for opening your mind to daily writing but is perhaps too light for anyone who already commits a significant portion of their day to writing. Having said that, Write offers some great, thought-provoking prompts if you’re looking for a chance to kick back and enjoy writing something just for you.

Sarah Quigley is a New Zealand born award winning writer with a range of short stories, poetry, novels and non-fiction works. Her books include, Facing Fear, Finding Courage: Your Path to Peace of Mind (1996), After Robert (2000), The Little Book of Courage: A Three-Step Process to Overcoming Fear and Anxiety (with Dr. Marilyn Shroyer, 2002), Love in a Bookstore or Your Money Back (2003), Shot (2003), and Fifty Days (2004)

Find our more about Write: A 30-day guide to creative writing on Amazon

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Critiquing Your Critics

Critiques and reviews are an important part of every writer’s success. There are many helpful responses readers, writers, editors and agents will give you but along with these you’ll often find much of the feedback you receive will be of no use to you. Some suggestions, if followed, could actually prove problematic for your writing’s success. This occurs for many reasons, so what should you look for when you critique your critics?

1. Accuracy - Firstly of course it’s important to make sure your critic is accurate in his or her comments.

When it comes to suggestions on alternate spellings and grammar, various dialects and locations can differ in opinion. For example, some words when read by an English audience should be spelt differently then they would be if written for American readers. This is important to remember when you are writing for a specific audience but the real rule in this case is to be consistent. You are not incorrect if you use one spelling over the other since both are correct but it is important to maintain the same regional choices throughout your piece.

Some corrections and suggestions readers may make will simply be incorrect. If you’re not sure, always double check in a reliable dictionary or grammar guide. Check your resources and confirm your facts and your source. It’s better to be sure than to be mistaken.

2. Style and Voice – Some critics will comment on points that are purely personal choice.

Style and Voice are two things that are uniquely you. It’s important when revising the comments of your reviewers that anything relating to areas where opinions will differ greatly should remain true to your own opinion, or the opinion of your primary audience. There is nothing worse than a writer adhering to suggestions in bits and parts of a piece that alter his personal voice. A fluid line of language will quickly become a jumble of multiple personalities that confuse and frustrate readers.

It’s also important to remember that the ‘you’ factor is what makes your writing your own. There is no point listening to the comments of an acclaimed author if your story begins to sound more like their story than your own. Maintain your personal integrity and make changes with your own voice and not the authority of someone else.

3. Story, Plot and Character – It is important that any suggestions maintain the whole rather than destroy it.

You know your story, plot and characters better than any reader. If you’ve done your job you’ll have given your readers the information they need to fill in all the plot blanks and by the end of your piece you should have answered those pressing questions (and left a few hanging if there will be sequels).

Some critics will pick at points in your story, plot or characters. Much of the time these will be valid and you should pay particular attention to verifying their comments. Decide if you agree with their suggestions and if you make changes ensure they are rounded; follow through with every fact throughout the piece. Consistency is the key to keeping your readers enthralled. Any changes you make need to be maintained by every corroborative scene.

Give Thanks!

Regardless of the value of each critique and review it is important to thank your critic. They have taken the time to read and respond to your writing. Time is a valuable commodity. All feedback enriches your future work. Every review offers you significant insight into the minds of your readers and what they like or dislike. Even if their comments cannot be used with this particular piece you can carry the thoughts into your next story or article. It’s important to acknowledge the efforts of your critics. Besides, you may want them to offer their comments on your next piece.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thank You For Your Comments - October 2007

I wanted to detour today to share my appreciation for all the thought-filled comments and support The Writer's Round-About has been gathering. I'm so glad readers are enjoying this blog and always look forward to hearing your comments.

My sincere thanks go to everyone who has left a comment in the past few months. I make an effort to reply to all comments so be sure to check back for responses. I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge and send some link love to my multiple commenters. I'm planning to make this a monthly event. It's just a small contribution and a show of thanks to those who help make The Writer's Round-About a wonderful community effort. Thanks!

Michele L. Tune of Writing The CyberHighway must be my biggest fan. Thank you so very much for your support Michele. I always look forward to your comments and love reading your blog entries. You offer great insight and it often feels like you're a kindred spirit.

Anne Creed, it is so fun and inspiring to share the novel journey with you. Your blogs, Novel Struggles and Novel Goal have helped me get back on track with my current work in progress. Your support inspires me to keep on with the struggle. Writing regularly can be a true challenge but thanks to supportive friends like you it is an enjoyable path to continue on.

Natasha Judd, I've only just begun to explore your amazing blog, Web Stuff 4 Writers and I really love it there. It is always wonderful to see your comments and I really look forward to your insights. It is a joy to find others who share this passion for writing.

Emily Veinglory, thanks for your comments. I wish there was a book about juggling writing and a 'real' job. I'll keep an eye out. I wouldn't be surprised if there is one because so many writers face this challenge.

Kelley A. Swan, I've really love your comments. I also love the title of your blog, Will Write For Chocolate. Of course, it makes me hungry but there are days when I wish chocolate were a currency too.

Kathleen Frassrand, your visit was lovely and I loved your comments. Thank you so much for adding your thoughtful responses. You certainly share A Thoughtful Life over at your blog.

Elrena Evans, thanks so much for the meme tag and your wonderful comments. Your blog, As Yet Untitled, is wonderful and I wish I had more time to catch up on your entries.

Mary Evelyn Lewis, I really appreciate your comments. I searched up your book review of Writer Mama on Virtual Wordsmith and really enjoyed it.

Nancy, your Baby Names are always interesting and fun to check out. I'm so glad you enjoyed the quiz. I'm trying to think up some more fun quiz and non-quiz ideas. Thank you so much for your comments.

Thanks also to everyone else who has commented, Anyea, Sweets, HandH, Julia Ward, Sharon Hurley Hall, Deborah Wilson, Silvia Acevedo, Poom, Bill Barnett, Sam, Thursday, Terry Heath, Bill Fullerton, Virginia Lee, Talia Mana, Marilyn, Loquacious Me, Jerry Waxler, Jeff Draper, Steve M, Nita, and Sue. I really hope you’ve enjoyed The Writer’s Round-About and will be back to read (and comment) more soon.

If you're reading but haven't commented yet, please think about doing so. I promise we won't bite. I love to connect with others and it would be wonderful to share ideas and opinions with all of you. We each experience our writing journey differently and I would love to find out more about yours.

Thank you everyone, readers, commenters, and random browsers, this site has been energizing and inspirational to write and share with you all. I'm looking forward to many more interesting comments and insight. I promise to try and ensure my blog entries are full of helpful tips, tricks, and whatever else it is you love (let me know!).

Oh, and before I forget, if you have any particular writing topic you'd like to discuss or read more about just let me know. I'm always open to topic ideas; it might even spawn another series like one of Anne's comments did.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Book Review: Page After Page by Heather Sellers

If any book about writing will leap off the shelf this one will. The title, "Page After Page: Discover the confidence and passion you need to start writing and keep writing (no matter what!)" might be a mouthful but every writer I’ve ever met has struggled with these aspects of their career and many continue to face the daily grind caused by wending passion and lax confidence.

When it comes to inspirational guides that help you tap into your creativity Heather Sellers, "Page After Page" is a must-have for writers. Each chapter of this book ends with at least one exercise designed to get you writing, right away. I actually found this frustrating, because the chapters were captivating and the exercises enticing that I was torn between reading on or doing the exercise.

In the end, I did a number of exercises before putting aside my paper and finishing the book, cover to cover. It's the kind of book that is worth returning to regularly. Many of the exercises are worth repeating. Our thoughts and goals change as our careers progress so it is important to return to some of these exercises to see where you are now.

Heather Sellers, who lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband and sons, has a modern, easy-going voice that is rich with experience but light-hearted and full of enthusiasm for her topic. She covers experiences writers face every day in a matter-of-fact way, with explanations and techniques that work to conquer the writing demons and get your "butt in chair".

Chapters you'll love include:

Lover on the Side, Lover in the Center
"When you have a lover or a baby, you fall out of time, and into the beloved. Love is the only time in our lives when we are out of time. To create a writing life, you will need to fall in love - deeply, seductively, passionately - with your writing life. It will become not a habit or a job, but a lover." page 27-28

Sleeping With Books
"With books, I am promiscuous. You can't get too far off track as a writer if you are reading. In fact, I don't know any successful writers who don't read. Writers read." page 50

Butt in Chair
Button chair, Butt in Chair - regardless of how you spell it, the concept is an old one: You have to stay in your chair. You can't do the laundry. You can't clean things. You can't take a bath, a shower, a walk. You can't do any of the healthy necessary things you have been meaning to do: practice yoga, call your mother, write letters. All of those holy pure acts will seem appealing. You must resist bettering yourself in those ways. You sit in the chair. Whether or not you are writing." page 56-57

"Writers are people who are comfortable with intense contradictions. They are the people who live with a high degree of anxiety. Becoming a writer means learning how to write, every day, without missing a day. In order to do this, writers have to gently embrace ambivalence, anxiety, not-sure-ness. While unpleasant, this practice of writing while in a state of anxiety is key to making a writing life. It's way more important than learning plot or prosody or publication tips." page 77

Blank and Cranky
"The secret to getting more work done is a little bit tricky, because it feels completely counterintuitive. If you want to pay your bills or get caught up on six months of unbalanced checkbook or start a new writing routine or do yoga, for that matter, the first thing you must do when the inevitable cranky horror mood strikes is nap." page 103

"Finding your material is just like maintaining a compost pile. Slowly, over years, you take your best stuff out to a secret, hidden away place in the backyard, and you dump it there. You cover the pile. You can buy things to help digest it (therapy, self-help books, and art classes equal worms, enzymes, wood ash). But it will digest on its own, too. Without any intervention from you at all." page 118

Little Loops
"If you had unlimited talent, a five-hundred thousand dollar grant, and a cabin in Vermont, what would you write?" [...] "Do you seize up? Does your mind go a blank? After the rush of the first idea what do you think and feel?" page 159

"In each of us, there is a wise self. Whenever you ask yourself, your wise self, a question, she or he will always give you the right answer. You just have to ask. our mentor is right inside of you with fabulous advice, great contacts, and a deep enriched understanding of you and all your you-ness." page 184

and A Wave Suspended
"That's the kind of confidence you develop as you move from beginning writer to being a writer. You're never totally safe or sure. You're floating. You don't know if your writing is good or not that day, not yet. But you learn to trust that you will come up for air, able to tell later what went on down there." page 223

Earlier this year I did the first fifteen exercises in an older blog. Feel free to check those out (forgive the lazy language; these are unedited personal blog entries). I'd love to get my hands on a copy of Heather Sellers' other writing book, "Chapter After Chapter".

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Writer Strengths: What Are Your Top 8?

The lovely Elrena Evans, from As Yet Untitled, challenged me to a fantastic Meme this week. The task? To list my top writer strengths. It's a tough but wonderful challenge. So often we seem to focus our energy on our weaknesses. It is important to take the time to acknowledge and celebrate our strengths and accomplishments.

  1. A voracious appetite for knowledge. I have a yearning for experience and an interest in pretty much everything. I'm a sponge when it comes to information. I want to know everything and have an insatiable curiosity.

  2. A deep rooted love of written language and a desire to master it. English is beautiful and intricate. It's amazing the depth of communication words alone offer. Without body language or visual/audible cues we can create entire worlds and detailed characters though a connection to words.

  3. The ability to see ideas, opportunities and inspiration in everything. I never struggle for something to write. In fact, it tends to be the other way around. I'm so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of possible topics that it's often hard to narrow my focus and pick one thing to write about.

  4. A general optimism, faith and sense of universal purpose and unity. I think this is a fantastic trait for writers. It's important to feel like our part in the universal scheme, while slight could be far reaching and intended.

  5. A stubborn inability to ever imagine myself doing anything else with my life. I've tried. There are occasions when it is challenging to continue fighting for a voice or when I have so little confidence in my ability or when the novel just never seems to progress when I think there must be something else I could do. But, no matter how much I wrack my brain writing is the only thing I can ever imagine myself doing.

  6. A sensitive and compassionate heart that allows me to see, appreciate and connect with the depths of people. People are a vital element in everything we write. Readers are people and being able to connect with them on an intimate level as a fellow compassionate human gives us an edge to offer what readers want to read.

  7. A sense of existing out of time which fuels my passion for fantasy. I've always felt like I was born to the wrong era. I love history and the dark ages. I'm enchanted by Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend. This sense of connection with another age flames my interest in the high fantasy genre.

  8. Gritty computer skills, the ability to touch type, the knowledge of web programming languages. I’m tech-savvy and interested in developing technologies that keep me 'with-the-times' when it comes to writing techniques, online marketing and modern promotion.

Ah Ha! It's not so difficult after all. Of course, I noticed none of mine really relate to my writing at all. I lack confidence when it comes to my actual abilities but it is wonderful to know these eight traits that aid my successes as a freelance writer.

I think this exercise could be expanded and I figured five just weren’t enough to really feel the positive buzz. So, I’ve listed eight and I encourage you to list at least eight but you’re welcome to have even more if you can think of them. The more you can list the better.

I'm not going to specifically tag anyone but I'd love to know your own response. Feel free to answer in comments or follow up with an entry on your own blog.

What are YOUR writer strengths?

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Part Six: Mr. Random Messenger Meets Suspend-able Disbelief

One of the things planners often have less trouble dealing with is Mr. Random Messenger. Inexperienced (and sometimes experienced) “Seat of the Pants” writers occasionally feel like they’ve written themselves into a corner. The only perceivable way out is to introduce a twist to the story that solves the immediate problem. Sometimes, it’s the twist that ends up causing more trouble then the original dilemma.

Fiction depends upon your readers’ ability to absorb the world and the characters they are reading about. The most enjoyable fiction allows readers to step away from reality and feel like they can exist in this alternate world. They MUST believe that these characters could truly exist there. This requires an intimate balance called the willing suspension of disbelief.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.” Mark Twain
The suspension of disbelief is about creating extraordinary or fanciful elements in such a way that, despite being ‘out of this world’ or even ‘against the laws of Earth physics’, SEEM real in the reality you’ve created.

Who loved Doc’s Time Machine, the Delorean in Back to the Future? It was unbelievable. If your next door neighbor drove that pile of scrap into your driveway and said he was about to go into the future with it you’d probably laugh till you cry and tell him to stay away from the rum. It’s just NOT believable, in this reality. But, in Back to the Future we believed it. The story introduced this absurd idea and we WANTED to believe. Despite how absolutely crazy it was, viewers around the world suspended their disbelief because it made an incredible story.

When it comes to our novels it is important to ensure every element aids this feeling. However, Mr. Random Messenger can sometimes completely obliterate the suspension of disbelief. The truth is, as insane as the idea of a flying time machine car may be it was feasible in this alternate reality. If however, a freight jet fell out of the sky full of plutonian the minute Marty crashed into the barn after going through time it would have destroyed our ability to put our faith into that story. (Not to mention forcing an early close to the whole developing plot.)

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” Tom Clancy
If you find yourself glaring at a dead end and need to throw a twist into your story it HAS to fit with what you have, it has to be realistic, it has to be explainable. Fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense. You can have fantastical things but in that fantastical world they have to be reasonable. Readers are fickle; they read for pleasure and expect certain things from the books they read. Readers are not stupid however, the moment they feel duped or let down they may put your book aside in favor of something more believable, something more involving, and something they can disappear into to leave their mundane lies behind.

“It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain
Never give your characters and easy out. If it’s too easy, it’s not believable.
Never have a random event that doesn’t tie into the overall plot. If it isn’t related to the rest of your story it isn’t believable.
Never give your main characters a problem they can’t solve themselves. Your stars should do all the work. If a third grade Girl Scout, delivering cookies, gets them out of a situation it’s just not believable.

Having said all of this there are some genres that are built on Mr. Random Messenger. Comedy for example is rife with extreme odds and unexplainable happenings. Mystery on the other hand is all about the tightly woven threads of plot. Thrillers are best when we’re terrified of the axe murderer because he ‘feels’ real. Fantasy gives you a lot of leeway when it comes to imagination but ultimately readers want to exist in the alternate world we create for them.

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Watch out for Mr. Random Messenger. He can be a wonderful tool to get you out of a tight situation but he should be carefully monitored. Often he needs to be woven into the rest of the story. You may not need to worry about it so much in the first draft but he is something you should keep a sharp eye for in a second.

Take your readers on a journey. Give them a reality that is more real than real life. Truth is truer. Life is livelier. Everything makes sense and happens for a reason. That’s how fiction works.

Related Articles:

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Book Review: Writer Mama by Christina Katz

"Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids" by Christina Katz

Have you ever felt the stress of trying to fit your career as a writer and your family life side by side without having to sacrifice the vital elements of success for either?

Writer Mama is a fantastic way to find the confidence in yourself to choose a writer's path. If you're struggling to discover a niche or don't know where to start when it comes to finding a suitable market for your freelance work then this book is gold. This book is about how motherhood can be an incredible beginning to the expertise needed for certain markets. Writer Mama really does show you how you can create a business from your lifestyle and turn a profit from ideas you originally went into as a hobby.

Christina Katz shows us how to write query letters, give interviews, pitch a non-fiction book, negotiate your pay, collect clips and turn your life into interesting pieces for readers (and editors). From initial niche ideas to becoming a household name in your chosen department and from a single expertise to a broader knowledge base, Writer Mama shows you how to develop a freelance writing career from scratch, no experience needed.

This book is designed with easy snippet reading in mind and is a fantastic resource to return to for ideas. There are inspirational quotes from powerful women who blend a career and family successfully. There are some wonderful ideas specifically for mothers that offer ideas for how to continue to be productive during non-writing moments. These are valuable tips for all mothers but also for all writers.

I really enjoyed reading Writer Mama and I return to it from time to time when I need a boost in confidence or am involved in a specific task (like writing a query) and need some guidance. Christina Katz breaks these tasks down into easy to manage routines that are wonderful for relieving the pressure of larger tasks. Her matter of fact voice also helps take away the edge of fear when approaching new markets. The truth is, its business, and her attitude comes through, helping readers focus on this aspect.

If you're interested in a non-fiction freelance writing career then this book will make a fantastic addition to your writing shelf.

The Writer Mama Blog
MoneyPants Interview Christina Katz
Seattle WriterGrrls Member Snapshot of Christina Katz

Check out more about Writer Mama on Amazon

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Part Five: Plot Humps For Planners

While planners tend to know intimate details about their plots and characters this omnipotent knowledge can often prove more troublesome then the blind faith of ‘seat of the pants’ writers. Many writers find their story and characters seem to take on a life of their own. Sometimes, that life simply won’t be boxed into pre-arranged plans. Like raising a two-year-old you have to be prepared for plot tantrums and the stubborn mind-of-its-own your story may develop.

Character Dark Holes
Characters, just like living creatures, grow and change with time and experience. Sometimes, these changes are controlled by you, the writer. They’ve been written into the story and each of the conflict elements of the plot have been designed to bring about these changes.

No matter how much time you spend ‘getting to know’ your character, however, you’ll continue to discover new and remarkable aspects as you write. These new details can lead your character down roads you never considered. Characters can come alive for you on the page and you’ll find aspects, even those you already set into your notes, will change to suit the altering image of the characters as they become more concrete in your mind.

The Missing Element
Human fallacy is normal. Regardless of the intricate and intense detail you added to your plot before you began there are occasions when you will miss vital elements that impact your novel and its characters. These may be points you never considered or that come about because of other changes that occur during the writing process. They could be related to your inexperience with a subject that arises in your novel or be connected to research you never uncovered.

An Unexpected Plot Detour
With changing characters come changing roads. While you might have planned a grand action scene in the fourth chapter you may discover as you write that you spend more time in other scenes. An opportunity for interesting character development may arise earlier that would be worth exploring or a character who had originally been invented to perform a small role becomes larger than life and deserves a greater portion of your book.

Devastating Consequences
These sorts of black holes, missing elements and unexpected detours cannot always be planned before you begin writing. You could ignore them and write on, strictly adhering to your original plot but forcing strictures on your plot or character can lead to devastating consequences.

DC 1: Shallow Worlds
A novel has a world all of its own. It’s an alternate reality that requires a writer to ooze a sense of existence into it. If your story is based in London then you need to echo London as you write but you haven’t really created London, you’ve created a fictional mirror of a physical place. The setting is enriched by the elements that get built into this fictional mirror and bring it to life, a world of its own.

DC 2: 2D Character
Adhering strictly to your original character details can leave your character without the integrity and depth needed for a fully realized character. 2D characters lack the elements that allow readers to connect and feel compassion for them. Readers have to care about your characters or they will not care what happens to them. Your original plan can create a sketch of your character but it never contains the multiple facets and depths your character develops as it takes on a life of its own.

DC 3: Ragged Plot
Forcing yourself to write the scenes planned without flexing to allow changes will leave you with a ragged plot. Even if every element was planned and laid in a perfect form, the mood of your scenes will feel disjointed and lack the continuity that a novel needs. Allowing yourself to flow with your story will help your scenes connect and tie to each other. Planning can strengthen your conviction to write but remaining in the rut of your plan when called to detour will tear the fluid consistency of your plot into ragged shreds.

DC 4: Writer’s Block
Finally, there is one significant sign that a writer is stubbornly refusing to bend to the will of their story or characters. It’s often named "writer's block" and while it has many causes, planners suffer it greatest when they’re trying to force their story into the mould they originally created for it. The longer you try to write a scene that just doesn’t belong there the harder it will be to write anything at all. The more often you mention you characters dead father, when your character is firmly insistent that the father will appear in a later scene, the harder you’ll find it to keep writing.

The Solution
Ultimately, the only way to avoid these plot humps is to allow for change. True planners must learn to relax the stricture of their habits. Take on some of the easy-going tendencies of ‘seat of the pants’ writers. The best writers find a balance in the two degrees that work best for them. There will always be challenges as you write your novel’s first draft; it is these challenges that strengthen our resolve and give our novels the depth and passion that readers (and publishers) are looking for.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Part Four: When Wrong Turns Go Right

For 'seat-of-the-pants' writers, the map-less journey to your novel's ending is filled with exciting turns and suspense-filled late night driving. For many, the way is lit by an inner inspiration and the beckoning call of our characters. Wonders unfold in unique and interesting ways. The journey is full of discovery and enthusiasm.

Sometimes however, we'll find ourselves completely off course, down a wrong turn, experiencing bumpy terrain (cluttered with potholes and speed humps). Fear rises and it's tempting to slam on the breaks to get your bearings or turn around in search of an easier road. These fears are, from time to time, well founded. If all your instincts are screaming, "You are going the wrong way!", chances are, 'you are'.

This is not 'always' the case however. On occasion, these wrong turns are actually going very, VERY right. So how do you tell if you're on the road to your novel's swift and gruesome death, or creating the path to a brilliant book?

The truth is, in the beginning you simply CAN'T tell. As a novice writer, what you think is a brilliant idea may be average or even dismal. Thankfully, every moment we spend writing, and reading, gives us the experience to know when we have something worth writing about.

Despite these early fumbles the best thing any writer can do when they feel like they have something worth saying, is to write it! If you're mid-story and you feel yourself taking a detour, take it. You may not know where that path will lead or what you will end up with, but first drafts are not set in concrete. You can rewrite scenes, characters, even whole chapters, if it just doesn't work for you. As you write, you develop the experience needed to make every future journey easier.

"One of the great joys to writing fiction is that the characters decide which actions they will take and they always surprise, anger, fascinate, disturb, delight me." – Benita Porter, author of Outlaw Cravings, Colorstruck, and Skindeep.

Alternatively, you could track the concept in your mind. Rather than following the path with your pen, close your eyes and follow it with your imagination. This technique can be done in minutes rather than the days it may take to write these scenes. You can play the story out in your mind's eye as if you were watching a movie. This may not be a particularly 'seat-of-the-pants' type approach but the advantage of 'Mind Play' is that you can play various scenarios through the hi-definition plasma of your mind's eye and discover which you like best.

"I think this is what is so powerful about fiction. The writer enters a world to record the story, the action of that world, and it is full of twists and turns and revelations that surprise even the writer. A lot of times I don't [have control of the story]. I have control of how I'm telling it, but not why. If I have an idea that I want to use, sometimes it feels like I'm shoe horning it into the book, so I step back and let the world of the imagination take over and guide me. And that place, inside all of us, where creativity is the engine and where ideas are born, never lets you down." – Adriana Trigiani, author of bestselling and critically acclaimed, Big Stone Gap and more.

Alternatively, you could listen. Read aloud your work and hear the cadence of your words. Stories that work have a pattern and melody that helps create the motion of your story. Scenes that don't blend well into the existing pattern are often signs of a detour gone wrong. When the music of your writing hums with life, you've got something worth keeping.

It takes practice to hear the language in your stories. Practice by reading, reread your favorite authors, read your favorite genres, read non-fiction, read the newspaper, read the cereal box. Learn to recognize unique voices and unique language structure. Listen to the unique composition of literature melodies and learn to develop (and listen to) your own.

Brian Evenson, author of The Wavering Knife, said, "The writing that I like best is a writing that gives the sense simultaneously of great authority with the language – of control – and the sense that the writer is as surprised by the direction he's going as the reader is, that he suddenly feels he's leaving everything behind but is willing to keep on going and see what happens because the language demands that of him. I think that's achieved by an intense focus on the mechanics of the story, an attention to individual sentence, to rhythm and sound patterns carried out to such a degree that the dynamics of individual sentences occupy the writer's mind and allows what's subconsciously present to rise, unpredictably and appallingly, to the surface."

The journey of your story is an adventure that will often keep you on the edge of your seat. It's a wild ride. It's scary and unpredictable. Even those who spend time preparing long before they begin writing often find the story takes them where they never expected if we leave ourselves open to these deviations.

Ultimately, it is openness and a willingness to 'go with the flow' that allows us to explore these alternate pathways through our stories. Strict planners can find themselves stymied when the story wants to go where they hadn't planned. This is one of the reasons combining planner and pantser techniques are the most effective way to write.

Vicki Pettersson, author of The Scent of Shadows and The Taste Of Night, also describes this remarkable experience: "I _am_ sometimes surprised by the direction of the story, and have to rewrite my outline, or realign my thoughts accordingly. If it's coming alive on the page, that's what needs to be there. As for some sort of fickle muse, I don't believe in the muse. "She" is too often used as a crutch. I believe in the work. And I believe in the individual writer. There are things out there that only _you_ can write – not me, not some nonexistent muse – and it's your experience and imagination that breathes life onto the page."

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bruce Holland Rogers and Word Work

I originally read Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer” two years ago and I still remember the invigorating courage it filled me with. I went away from this book energized and confident. I spent the next six weeks writing a complete first draft.

Rereading Word Work this weekend has reminded me why I love this book so much. Bruce is honest and open. Through the chapters of this book he shows the reality of a writer’s life. There is no special dressing up that makes it seem glamorous or easy. He connects with writers by sharing his own struggles that continue, every day, despite having been a successful author for many years.

Rather than providing a how-to write guide for writers Bruce Holland Rogers created a how-to live guide. It focuses on the emotional impact of writing and the mental struggle all writers face to create a life full of words. Bruce uses anecdotes from his own life and connects to readers with truth and experience.

"You won’t find anything in these pages about marketing your work. The only chapters about technique address not what you put on the page but how you get anything onto the page at all. There’s very little here that will show you how to write better. Instead, this is a book about how you can more thoroughly, more happily, more productively be a writer.

Word Work is not, in the end, a book about the work you produce. It’s a book about you. It’s a book about how you can be more of what you want to be." - Bruce Holland Rogers, Word Work, p3

Word Work offers a fresh outlook on the writing life and the difficulties writers face. Bruce considers the various styles of writing. In fact, his first chapter reminded me of the difference between Planners and Pantsers like we’ve been talking about in my Six Part Series this week. He compares Hunters and Farmers.

Hunters are distractible, and maintain a broad focus able to accommodate the changes of life as they happen. Farmers are steady, plodding along with firm ideas about what should be done when. This chapter shows writers why it is important to be able to find a mixture of the two degrees that works for them. Without some solid Farmer tendencies writers will never focus enough to complete any goal but steadfast Farmers will struggle to follow their instincts and find the depth in their work that will keep it interesting.

Other chapters focus on procrastination, dreams, time, criticism, moods, rituals, friendships, success and so much more. This is a book that offers sincere guidance for writers. I think all writers would benefit from reading it regularly. For those of us with added barricades to our aspirations (such a Bipolar in my case and ADD in Bruce Holland Rogers') the reassuring tips and encouragement in this book can restore our fading faith in our ability to walk this path.

Bruce Holland Rogers has written far more than this book however. His voice and passion carry into the multitude of short stories he’s written and continues to write. He is also a motivational speaker, a teacher, and writing for Speculations Magazine. Despite having such a broad range of interests he continues to produce new stories and strives to help writers from all genres survive the gruelling challenges every writer faces.

A great interview with Bruce by Carl O Roach at Infinity Plus
And an interview with Bruce by John C. Snider at SciFi Dimensions

These books are by Bruce Holland Rogers:

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