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Finding Your Writing Voice

Microphone in Fist

My earliest memories of the written word are of voice in literature.  Before I knew what author’s “voice” was, my mother was giving actual voice to the works of A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl.  My brother and I would gather around the dining room table and my mom would read from “The House at Pooh Corner.”  We would beg her to continue for hours on end because she gave every character a distinct voice.  We couldn’t wait to hear what Rabbit or Kanga sounded like. Piglet was squeaky and nervous, talking extremely fast and in an almost stream-of-consciousness way.  Eeyore was sarcastic and sad with a grumpy, deep voice that was self-deprecating while also demanding the readers’ every last ounce of sympathy.  Pooh was careless—but not in a forgetful way—although he was forgetful and rather air-headed.  Pooh’s true carelessness was more of a carefree-ness—a blissful ignorance that allowed him to exist in a world where it didn’t matter what anyone thought of him—except Christopher Robin who so tirelessly showered him with unconditional love.

The beauty of my mom’s reading was the way in which she brought Milne’s words—Milne’s voice—to life.  Eeyore wasn’t pathetic and jaded simply because my mom wanted him to sound that way.  Milne’s careful choice of words gave Eeyore his forlorn personality.  Milne’s voice—pastoral and magical and hilarious and sweet—was what made the Winnie the Pooh stories so beloved and timeless.

Yesterday’s list of reasons for blogging included one that stood out above the rest—this blog has helped me find my fiction writing voice.  My journey to fiction writing has had huge ups and downs.  In first grade I wrote a story about the Three Billy Goats Gruff from the Troll’s perspective.  To an outsider, it was a mess of crayon scratches and misspelled words. But to me it was a masterpiece—not only for the amount of effort I put into it, but for the way in which it made me laugh.  In seventh grade, I wrote a story about an Inuit boy who caught the biggest whale in the world.  It was irreverent and surprising.  It was satiric and bordered on way too tongue-in-cheek.  But while it made me laugh until I almost wet my pants, it also contained serious emotion and serious topics.   I had managed to make myself snicker while still evoking emotions that made me cringe or tear up a little.

Then I got to high school.  I became very serious about writing.  I’d spent my middle school years falling in love with Jane Eyre and the works of Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy.  I believed I had to write like these people to be a real writer.  I wrote a story about a girl visiting the Vietnam Wall.  I wrote poems about dead trees.  In college, I wrote stories about bulimic girls putting coat hangers down their throats and towns ravaged by tornadoes.  I agonized over these assignments.  The disappointing part was that I hoped these would be my writing masterpieces.  On paper, they were all fairly successful pieces of literature, but they were flat.  They’d fulfilled the requirements of the assignment, but they felt cliché and lacked emotion—at least in my book.

At the same time, I wrote an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet about crayons and a long poem about Catalpa trees.  Did you know that Siddhartha is a great slant rhyme for “catalpa”?  When I was writing these pieces (and more like them) I was Pooh Bear—too ignorant to care what anyone thought of them.  Writing them for me and more importantly, writing them AS me.  These were the pieces that contained my voice.  But I was too terrified of their irreverent and cheeky qualities to recognize that they could be considered quality pieces of writing.  And no one had every told me that the pieces I had the most fun writing were the ones that often turned out the best.  Granted, they needed A LOT more editing than my serious pieces over whose every word I agonized, but my “careless” Pooh Bear pieces were more creative and inherently more interesting.

Fast forward several years.  I’m writing professionally.  I’m writing for scientific publications.  I’m writing for newspapers.  I’m writing press releases. I’m writing for publications that don’t have a cheeky sentence in their pages.  And people are paying me to do this.  I must be doing something right.  Right?

However, then I sat down to write fiction.  I spent the first four years of my fiction writing life trying to translate these well-honed non-fiction skills into my fiction world.  I also got so hung up on wanting to sound like Barbara Kingsolver or wanting to evoke emotions like Maya Angelou.  I ended up sounding like cardboard and evoking the emotions of sawdust.  I was frustrated and felt like maybe I wasn’t cut out to write fiction.  Maybe non-fiction was my niche.

Then I started blogging.  And it was really fun.  I could sit down and jot off some thoughts about life or the written word and have fun while I was doing it.  Images and characters started to emerge.   A one-eyed pageant winner who lost her eye in a tragic monkey attack while filming a commercial in Borneo.  Bob, who played his legendary round of Texas Hold ‘Em on a gambling boat in seas filled with 16-foot waves and mafia hit men.  And I was having fun.  Once again I had found my inner Pooh Bear.  It didn’t matter what anyone thought of me.  I was carefree and light-hearted.  And the same voice kept emerging again and again.

What it took me a year to realize is that this voice that kept inserting itself into my writing was constantly reappearing for a reason.  The wordy, frenetic voice that could talk about sometimes serious topics in oftentimes not-serious ways was MY voice.  It was the same voice that waxed rhapsodic about catalpa trees and the same voice that narrated the Troll’s defeat under the bridge.

I sat down one month ago to start work on my next novel.  (More to come in a future post on the origins of this book)  And I stopped fighting my voice.  I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t and I just wrote.  I wrote like I was telling a story to my best friend—not a newspaper editor or a Pulitzer committee.  It was messy and long-winded, but it just flowed like nothing ever has.  And words are continuing to flow.  I’ll admit, the story’s narrator is quirkier than I ever thought I would write.  I’m no Jane Austin or Barbara Kingsolver, that’s for sure.  But I’ve finally found my Pooh Bear and in the process MY VOICE.  And I owe it all to this blog and the many readers who have served as my Christopher Robin—offering up unconditional love and a “Silly Ol’ Bear” at just the right time.  So thanks, Blogosphere.  Thanks

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The Mind Map – Give your ideas a visual form: Novel Writing Prep Series

You have your ideaYou’ve done your research.  You know something about your main character.  Maybe you’ve even taken a crack at your first scene.  And now you’re stuck…  All those plot points we talked about in the 3 or 4-part narrative structure?  You’re having trouble coming up with plot points.  You just aren’t finding the ideas that you need to carry this project through to a finished novel.  This is when the Mind Map becomes a useful tool for writers.

I use mind maps for everything.  In spite of the fact that I love fancy software and organization techniques, some days I feel trapped by the confines of my computer screen.  I need to break free – really give my right brain some room to move around.  Remember that group work that you did in junior high? When your English teacher forced you into a group with four other people and said, “On the count of three create a list a of all the things you could use this tongue depressor for.  And remember, there are no wrong answers!”

These old-school brainstorming sessions are the genesis for a mind map.  The difference is that rather than creating an outline or a simple list, you are going to create a visual representation of your ideas.  Here are a few examples:

 image via Mind Tools


image via Wikipedia


image via Mind Tools

When you are mind mapping for a novel, it’s just you and the page.  You don’t have four other pimple-faced middle schoolers offering up suggestions. Instead the different parts of your brain take the place of all five people in the group.  And it’s your job to let all those areas of your brain take over with ideas and to prevent your inner editor from censoring anything.  Let’s say you’re creating a mind map about a scene which takes place at 3 a.m. in a deserted pizza parlor.  The frontal lobes might throw out very logical descriptions like: benches, pizza ovens, cash register.  All very useful things to help you add detail later. Bracca’s area of the brain takes over and allows you to translate those thoughts to words on the page.  Then the Parietal lobes jump in and throw a bunch of sensory words at you: the cheese smells like burnt toast after your neighbor walked on it with his bare feet, the light shining on the water glass looks like sunlight reflecting in the glassy eye of a taxidermied trout.  You get the gist…  All of those things need to go down on your mind map.

Then the fun part begins.  I use the 5 W’s. Who, where, when, why and What if?  What if the MC character wasn’t alone in the pizza parlor? I create an idea bubble and put down emotions, actions… anything that comes to mind.  What if the mysterious person in the pizza parlor was the MC’s driver’s education teacher moonlighting as a pizza chef? Why does the teacher need to moonlight? What if he lost all of his wages because he has a gambling problem? Where did this gambling take place? What if he started an underground cock fighting club in the basement of the school? Who would attend? What if the other teachers were involved? What if the physics teacher lost her prize rooster in the last fight? What if the driving teacher was secretly in love with the physics teacher?

You get the idea.  By using a mind map, I’ve created lots of bubbles that make up a key scene in the story.  By looking at my lines I can see that the physics teacher bought her rooster from the rural route bus driver whose chickens have been inbred over time to create a race of super roosters.  I can see that our MC takes classes from three of the teachers involved in the ring.  How will these connections play into our MC’s goal of saving the school and making sure that the driver’s ed. teacher and the physics teacher find true love?

Or maybe you’ll find that everything you’ve written down is rubbish which won’t ultimately contribute to the good of your story.  Until… you glance over at that bubble in the left side of the page.  You’ve created another character in your mind map notes.  A teenage girl who comes in to clean the pizza ovens in the middle of the night.  Using the 5 Ws, you’ve speculated that maybe she comes in at 3 a.m. because she spends her days taking care of a sick mother.  Hmm… Now this could interesting.

The point is that after less than 10 minutes throwing some thoughts down on paper, I have several reasons that my main character could be in the pizza parlor at three o’clock in the morning.  I have the makings of several interesting characters, and I have some sensory items I can weave into my scene.

Next time you’re stuck in your writing, grab a blank sheet of paper.  Maybe even some markers or colored pencils if you want to get really fancy.  Start in the middle of a blank page, writing or drawing the idea you intend to develop. This could be a scene, a character or simply a theme you want to build upon.  Let your mind wander and see where it takes you.  You just might end up with a “map” that leads you in new directions.

**Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for the Scrivener for Microsoft Windows software.  I have three (3) licenses up for grabs.  Visit this post for more details.**

Happy writing!

The Research – Write what you know OR know what you write: Novel Writing Prep Series

I love research!  As a little girl, I used to dream of being locked in a library overnight surrounded by all of my favorite books – fiction and non-fiction.  The makings of a horror movie, I know.  But I was confident that as long as I had light and no scary spirits or monsters, I could indulge my love of reading and research all night. Along with hours spent at the swimming pool and playing “Smear the Queer” with my older brother, I spent my summers writing reports.  Nerdy! I know.  I prefer the term “Intellectual Badass” when referencing my self-admitted nerdiness.  The reports were handwritten pages filled with facts about unicorns or Armenia (not sure where that idea came from) or the humpbacked whale.  I got great satisfaction out of popping my dime into the Xerox copy machine and watching the green-glowing light glide slowly underneath the lid. I’d cut out my grainy black-and-white pictures of medieval triptychs depicting unicorns and paste them on my lined notebook paper.  The final step was gathering up my fact-filled pages and inserting them into the acetate report cover.  Ahhh… such satisfaction for a nerd intellectual badass.

My love of useless and useful facts has continued as an adult. It benefits me greatly in my non-fiction writing life.  Digging up remote facts about the mountain goat pictographs in the Sierra del Presidio area of Mexico, is often just what I need to bring interest to a magazine or newspaper article.

The realm of fiction is where research gets a little dicey.  Many writing teachers and writers will tell you to, “Write what you know.”  If I only wrote what I know, my stories would be populated with 30-something mothers who attend endless PTA meetings, shuttle their kids back and forth to ski lessons and have ongoing battles with their treadmills.  Oh… and maybe sneak in a few hours to write after everyone else is in bed.  Not the makings of a best-selling novel.

I’m a firm believer that knowing what you write is just as beneficial as writing what you know – and more interesting.  Research can give you a solid backdrop against which your novel unfolds.  However, knowing when to say when is the key.  You can spend months searching for just one more fact, but in the end all the facts in the world won’t get that novel written.

With that said, I believe some research is vital to any good fiction writer’s repertoire. In knowing what you write, you can write what you know. Here are a few of my favorite research methods:

1.  Interviews: Maybe it’s my background as a journalist, but whenever I need to know something, I go straight to the source.  Maybe you can’t always write what you know, but you can write what other people know intimately.  My historical fiction novel takes place in St. Louis in 1949.  A dear friend’s mother grew up in the late-30s and early-40s in St. Louis.  An hour spent on the phone with Mrs. W. gave me a notebook full of recollections that I couldn’t find online or in any books.  I spent hours poring over history books, but none had information about the horserace track which was two blocks from my character’s house in University City, Missouri.  Mrs. W. not only recalled the details of the racetrack, but she could describe the ice cream cones she used to buy at the corner drug store on her way to the races. Through interviews with others I was transported back to a time almost 25 years before I was born.

2.  Social Security and Census Records: Did you know that the Social Security Adminstration and the U.S. Census Bureau make their records available online? These are great resources for placing you squarely in a particular time or place.  Let’s say your story takes place in New Orleans.  Your protagonist’s father needs a job. You could guess at iron worker or musician.  OR, you could visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s records for 1932.  The records will give you population, nationality and employment statistics for each ward of the city.  You might stumble upon the one person, an Italian immigrant who was the city’s agricultural manager, supervising the shipments of soybeans and hogs that were exported out of New Orleans to Asia.  What a fascinating job! Just what you need to bring your story to life.

Maybe you need a name for a main character.  Your story takes place in 2012, but your antagonist was born in 1983.  Visit the Social Security Administration’s records and sort by birth year.  You’ll discover lists of the top 20 names for boys and girls in 1983.  Jennifer or Jessica might be just the name you need for your snooty retail clerk who is sucking up for the management position.

3. Newspapers: My favorite!  Newspapers chronicle the daily life of people, providing a glimpse into the everyday minutiae that make our world interesting.  If it were possible to preserve microfiche for millions of years, future anthropologists will have riotous fun studying our daily and weekly newspapers.  Head out to a library and dig in to some issues from the correct time or location.  My 2010 NaNoWriMo novel takes place in a small farm town in central Illinois.  In reading local newspapers, I discovered a pumpkin carving contest that was the perfect setting for my MC’s first paranormal experience.  Thanks to one photo published in the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, an entire scene took shape within minutes.

Newspapers are good for more than just the articles.  I needed products to populate the shelves of my corner drug store in my historical fiction novel.  Old copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided plenty of advertisements for Amident Toothpaste and the introduction of Cheer no-rinse washing detergent which helped bring my MC’s place of employment to life.

4.  Prospector: My inter-library loan uses Prospector. This program provides access to over 10 million titles from around the U.S.  Books that I can often have shipped right to my local library.  And true to its title, Prospector really is like digging for gold.  Searching by keyword might only produce 40 or 50 titles on a particular subject at my local library.  However, when I push that Prospector button, it’s like waiting for Christmas morning.  I have been rewarded with some of the most obscure titles – dusty, old books read by only a few and shelved away for years.  Those are the books that give me insight into particular time periods or cultures.

5.  Library Archives: Sometimes books and records are too precious (or flimsy) to survive the transport of inter-library or cross-country loan.  that’s when a trip might be in order. We’ll talk about that more in Part 12 of the Novel Writing Prep Series (“The Setting – To trip or not to trip?”).  There’s nothing more fun than squirreling yourself away in library stacks for a day and discovering hidden gems for your story.

For example, one of my characters, Ivy, was taking a train from St. Louis to New York City in 1949.  I could stick her on any old train, but what did I really know about trains and routes in the late 40s.  Instead I was lucky enough to visit the John W. Barringer III National Railroad Library within the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  I stumbled upon an old issue of a railroad magazine.  As a result I could put Ivy on the NY-STL Express (Train #11 which left St. Louis at 7:40 a.m.) or  I could put her on the STL-NY “National Limited” with air-conditioned carrier sleeper cars.  These facts might not be important to some, but I never would have assumed that sleeper cars had air-conditioning in 1949.  This fact turned out to be key to the scene.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t make the research trip just to determine which train Ivy should take.  Two days at the Merc Library gave me pages of facts and figures and the base of research I needed to launch Ivy’s story.  It is this type of research that helps me feel like I know what I’m writing so that I can write what I know.

What about you?  Do you research your subject matter or your characters before you sit down to write? How do you conduct your research? How do you know when enough is enough?

The Roots – Determining the structure of your novel: Novel Writing Prep-Series

Whether you are a planner or a pantser, you’re going to need a few key elements to make your novel successful.  Like it or not, every story has a structure.  It may take multiple drafts to find these elements, or it may take some careful planning up front. Either way, the elements of a good story establish the stakes (what your main character has to lose), build tension, force your main character to change in some way (character arc) and take your reader on the vicarious journey you’ve promised them.

Everyone calls this structure something different.  Some will talk about the 5-part narrative structure.

Rumor has it that this pyramid was created by German playwright Gustav Freytag in the late 1800s. Freytag identified a five act structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  This structure was in use long before Freytag formalized it in 1863.  In fact, Freytag’s analysis was created to explain the structure of the Greek tragedies and Shakespearean drama.

Here’s a brief explanation of the five parts of the pyramid:

  1. Exposition or Introduction: The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the problem in the beginning of the story.  This is where readers meet the main character and get a glimpse at the MC’s norm before the “storms” of the story’s main conflict sweep in.
  2. Rising Action: During the rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of the related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal.
  3. Climax:  The third act is the climax, or turning point, which marks a change, for the better or worse in the protagonist’s affairs.  If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn and things will begin to go well for him or her.  If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.  Simply put, this is where the most dramatic part of the story happens.
  4. Falling Action: During the falling action the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.  The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.  The falling action is the part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the resolution.
  5. Denouément or Resolution:  The dénouement comprsies the events between the falling action and the actual ending scene of the narrative and thus serves as the conclusion of the story.  Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

Screenwriters have become exceptionally adept at writing in the 3-act structure.  The 3-act structure is basically a simplification of the 5-part narrative – with the same components occuring within three acts.  Watch any movie, and you’re sure to recognize the point at which acts transition and rising action, climax and falling action occur.

William P. Coleman uses Stars Wars to explain the 3-act structure on his blog:

In a nutshell, screenwriters create three acts:

  1. Set Up: During the set-up, we meet the characters and recevie any key information that we need to process upcoming events.  There is often foreshadowing of events yet to come. The end of of Act One contains the Inciting Incident.  The Inciting Incident is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance.  This affects the protagonist’s status, plans and/or beliefs, focing him or her to take action in response.
  2. Confrontation: Act Two, or the Confrontation, sees the protagonist facing the conflict to resolve the situtation.  There are several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the conflicts.  Often there are moments of retreat when the main character fails to overcome the conflict and retreats to sulk, scowl and regroup.  The stakes get higher and higher as the protagonist’s inner demons and the intensity of the protagonist’s problems increases.
  3. Resolution:  In Act Three, the Resolution, the protagonist has learned from his/her failed attempts, has faced inner demons which have prevented him/her from overcoming the main conflict, and the Inciting Incident is resolved.  This resolution isn’t always pretty – oftentimes the resolution is a surprising solution which the audience/reader didn’t see coming. During Act Three, we also see other loose ends and sub-plot tied up.  This act is a combination of the Falling Action and Dénouement from Freytag’s pyramid.

(Credit is due to Bubblecow and wikipedia for help in some of the verbiage for these definitions.)

You can see that whether the story is comprised of five acts or three acts, the elements of dramatic tension and resolution are the same.  This structure allows a writer take her readers on a journey.  The journey is filled with Conflict.  I had a writing teacher who used to pace around the classroom, smacking his hand on his forehead, saying, “Conflict, conflict, conflict, my children!”  If you don’t have conflict (and ever more increasing conflict with each turn), you don’t have a story.  This conflict doesn’t have to include car chases and serial killers.  Some conflict is subtle and emotional and gets to the heart of the human experience.  Perhaps two days before her wedding, Jane decides she doesn’t want to get married.  Conflict!  Perhaps Joe loses his job and is forced to come up with another way to support his family. Conflict!  Perhaps John is secretly jealous of his roommate and decides to tamper with his grades to get him kicked out of school. Conflict!

With all of this conflict, the protagonist needs a chance to experiment, challenge the antagonist, fail and regroup for another “fight.” Along the way, the protagonist is changing.  His relationships with the story’s secondary characters develop and change, too.  At the end of it all, the conflict is resolved, for better or worse, and Jane or Joe or John are different in some way.

We’ve already established that I’m a planner.  I like a road map to follow before I start writing.  But, this doesn’t mean that I plan out every scene in painstaking detail.  I simply put together a blueprint that includes all of the key elements needed to keep my story on track and appropriately paced.  Then when I sit down to write, I can let my right brain take over and add all of the creative elements that make the story a novel rather than an outline.

My planning tends to follow a four-act structure.  It’s really three acts, but Act Two is broken into two parts to make the MC’s emotional journey more clear.  Two very good resources for learning more about this structure are Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering (in particular the section on structure). These books have great tidbits of advice for someone planning a novel.  I’ve adapted parts from each of their books and created a process that works for me. Here’s a look:

A novel of 80,000 – 100,000 words has approximately 60 scenes.  I divide the scenes up like this:

Some of the verbiage in the above diagram was adapted from Larry Brooks’ blog. Rebecca Berto also offers a great analysis of Brooks’ Story Engineering over at her blog.

Remember, this isn’t a paint-by-number approach to novel writing.  This approach may not work for everyone.  For me (a planner), this structure doesn’t result in a painstaking outline of each scene. There needs to be room for a lot of creative discovery along the way.  Rather than an outline, the result is more like a map.  A novel is a scary prospect, especially when you’re halfway done and you’re trapped in the murky middle.  With this approach I know what my two Plot Points and my Mid-Point scenes will be before I start writing.  I plug everything into Scrivener* (my choice for drafting software), and I have a map.  When I’m trapped in the middle of the forest, I know the next point to which I need to make it to find my way out.  I may not know what pitfalls and discoveries the route will hold for me, but I do know that I will have quite an adventure getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s rare that I know how the story will end when I set out to write it.  But, with Plot Point #2 pencilled in, I know how I’m going to get there.  By the time I get to the second Plot Point, the ending flows pretty organically.  At that point, the Main Character has taken over and is making choices of her own – organic choices which make sense within the confines of my map.

This approach may not work for everyone.  Some need to set out in the wilderness without a map – making all of the discoveries along way.  For me though, the safety of the map leads to success.  What is success?  In my mind it is finishing the novel.  Then I need a completely different map to guide me through the murky world of rewrites and revisions. But that’s another post, isn’t it?

*Tune in tomorrow. I’ll been pulling together some screenshots and samples from my Scrivener novel template.  They may be helpful if you use Scrivener for drafting.

What about you?  Do you create an outline? A map? Or do you set off wandering in the novel-writing wilderness armed with nothing more than your story idea and a keyboard?

The Music – Writing Playlists can set the mood and get you out of a rut

Music is very Pavlovian for me when I’m writing.  I can’t start a new work without creating a playlist.  Once created, that playlist drives my writing time.  I pop on the headphones, crank up the playlist and I’m immediately transported to the world I’ve created in my WIP. Months later I can hear a song from the playlist and my fingers get itchy to type.

We were driving in the car the other night and my iPod stumbled upon my Sliver of Souls playlist.  Commenting on my DJ’ing skills, my husband told me I was in a very Emo mood.  It made sense.  I didn’t create the playlist with those characteristics in mind, but Maggie (the MC of SoS) is kind of an emo chick.  She’s the best kind, though.  She has all of the melodramatic teen angst without the poser wardrobe and affected melancholy.  Rather an ironic Emo if you think about it.  The Emo sub-culture is ironic to begin with in their angsty posturing.  Maggie unintentionally embraces all things Emo, so doesn’t that make her an Ironic Emo?  Now we’ve coined two phrases for a new line of t-shirts.  “Sublime Fools Unite” and “Ironic Emos Unite.”  I’m ditching this writing thing and going into the t-shirt business.

Here’s a look at the Silver of Souls playlist.  I shoot for a play length of approximately 60 minutes because I write in one-hour bursts.

  • “Staplegunned” (Remix) by The Spill Canvas = 3:11
  • “Dismantle.Repair” (Acoustic) by Anberlin = 4:34
  • “Cross the Line” by Ruth = 3:40
  • “Tiffany Blews” by Fall Out Boy = 3:45
  • “Idlewild Blue (Don’t Chu Worry ‘Bout Me)” by Outkast = 3:24
  • “That Day” by Poe = 2:41
  • “T.V. Family” by The Rocket Summer = 4:13
  • “Swandive” by Ani DiFranco = 6:30
  • “My Junk” from the Spring Awakening Broadway recording = 2:28
  • “September Skyline” by Single File =  3:15
  • “As Lovers Go” (Ron Fair Remix) by Dashboard Confessional = 3:29
  • “Shooting Up in Vain” (T-Ray Remix) by Eagle Eye Cherry = 4:51
  • “Some Say” by Sum 41 = 3:26
  • “Typical” by Tickle Me Pink = 3:15

Today, I’m working on a playlist for my WIP.  No working title yet.  I don’t pick the songs based on lyrics or titles.  I just listen to my gut.  If they give me a certain feeling that fits with my MC, they make the list.  Funny enough, once I dig into the playlists for months at a time, I find hidden meaning in the lyrics which seem to fit certain scenes or certain writing days.  Here’s the latest list:

  • “Thief” by Our Lady Peace = 4:01
  • “25 to Life” by Eminem = 4:01
  • “Falling in Love” by Lisa Loeb = 4:07
  • “Not Coming Home” by Maroon 5 = 4:21
  • “Kids” by MGMT = 5:02
  • “The Only Difference Between Martrydom and Suicide is Press Coverage” by Panic! At the Disco = 2:57
  • “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam = 5:00
  • “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel = 4:44
  • “The Zephyr Song” by Red Hot Chili Peppers = 3:52
  • “Devil Boy” by Seven Mary Three = 4:24
  • “The Grocery Store” by Single File = 2:59
  • “Nightingale Song” by Toad the Wet Sprocket = 2:03
  • “Winter” by Tori Amos = 5:42
  • “Hands Held High” by Linkin Park = 3:55
  • “Let It Be” by The Beatles performed by Gospel Choir of the Cascades = 3:48
  • Bonus Song: “A Thousand Years” by Christina Perri = 4:45

Take a listen and let me know what you think about my new MC.  I’ll give you a hint… she’s a 16-year old girl.  What type of person do you think she is?  What is she going through right now?

Do you write to music? Or do you need it perfectly quiet?  Any good playlists or songs that have inspired your writing?

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The Plan: From notes to novel in 5 easy steps – Novel Writing Prep Series Part 4

In Part 1 of the novel writing prep series, we talked about inspiration and how ideas for novels spring to life.  Today, we’ll take a look at how to nurture that special idea into a workable format.  A format that is fleshed out just enough to allow you to sit down and start writing a first draft.  It’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different.  What works for me may not work for you.  But, just in case you’re curious, here’s a peek inside my brain and how it works:

1.  The Idea – You are driving in your car, humming along with Katy Perry (what?  I know I’m not the only one who busts out a little “California Gurls” chorus now and again!) and it hits you.  The lightbulb that has been buried under a stack of eight million other ideas turns on.  Your brain has been twirling it around for weeks – drawing connections, weighing the pros and cons of marrying this idea for the better part of a year (or however long it takes to write your novel), and doing its best to disuade you from taking on a project of this magnitude.  There’s no denying it any longer.  It’s time to take this baby for a test drive and see if it’s worthy of an 80,000-word manuscript.

2.  Pile of Post-It Notes – I don’t have stock in 3M, but I probably should with the amount of post-it notes I consume while working on a writing project.  Once the lightbulb is turned on the ideas start to come fast and furious.  Here are the top three reasons that Post-It Notes are the perfect way to capture these ideas:

  • They are easy to transport.  I can hide them in my purse, pull them out at a PTA meeting and jot down ten thoughts in the time it takes to explain the nutritional merits (or lack thereof) of the tater tots on the school lunch menu. 
  • They are just small enough that you don’t get bogged down in the details.  Post-It Notes are like the physical manifestation of Twitter.  120 characters is about all that will fit (unless your handwriting is miniscule).  120 characters is all that you need at this point.  The notes are just seeds for a whole slew of ideas – evil psychologist who intentionally loses patient files, grandfather hides whiskey bottle and audio cassettes in the attic of his barn, pumpkin carving contest in Illinois, MC meets teaching assistant at a dance club.  This is the time to jot down character ideas, locations, the first glimmer of key scenes, important plot points.
  • They stick together.  After my covert PTA meeting scribbling sessions, I can stick them all together and shove them in a folder.  When it comes time to organize, I can sort, stick and resort until they make sense.

This frenzy of Post-It Notes sometimes lasts for a week. Sometimes it can last for months depending on how many other projects I have in process.

3.  Mind Mapping – Notice at this point, I haven’t touched my computer at all.  It took me a long time to realize that my best thinking happens when I have blank sheets of paper and a pen at the ready.  Something about typing words on the screen makes me feel constricted when I’m planning a novel.  I need wide open spaces and room to get messy in the planning stages.  Even when I’m typing a scene, if I feel stuck, I close the computer, pull out a sheet of paper and start doddling notes.  The process of throwing my thoughts onto a blank page and using arrows, line and circles to indicate flow and connections often helps me see a problem in a new way.  Mind mapping is a great tools for this. I grab my clipboard and pad of graph paper and carry them with me everywhere.  Why graph paper?  I’ll admit that my right brain loves some wide open space, but my left brain gets agitated if I don’t have straight lines on which to write. Something about graph paper transcends both worlds for me. 

If you need some advice on mind mapping there is a good series over at Teaching Village.  I don’t let myself get bogged down in complex flowcharts with colors and lots of shapes.  It’s easy to get side tracked if your mind maps have too many bells and whistles. Three hours later, you have something that looks pretty, but you’ve only scratched the surface of those good ideas. 

Mind mapping is the time when all of those Post-It Notes comes together.  Why is the psychologist losing patient files?  How do the tapes hidden in the attic relate?  What does the whiskey bottle have to do with anything? Does the teaching assistant have a family? What are they like and how do they influence his decisions about pumpkin carving and dance clubs?  You’ll start to see trends – themes that you didn’t know were buried in your original idea which are beginning to surface.  Then it’s time to move on to…

4. Building the Skeleton with a Yellow Note Pad:  It doesn’t need to be yellow, but a notepad of any color is my best friend when I’m building my novel’s skeleton.  This is when all of those interconnected ideas coalesce into a plan.  My yellow notepads go everywhere with me during this stage. 

They are filled with:

  • Detailed character sketches (what color is the teaching assistant’s hair? how does the psychologist turn up his lip when he talks?)
  • Timelines (when was the grandfather born?  when does the grandfather meet the psychologist?)
  • Plot points (what are crises #1, 2 and 3?  at what point in the story do they occur?)
  • Location descriptions (what does the barn look like?  what does this imaginary – or not so imaginary – town that I’m building like?)
  • Beginnings and Endings: How, when and where does the story begin – complete with 300 variations of an opening line; do I know yet how it’s all going to end? If so, I take notes about this scene.  Otherwise, I leave it alone and hope that I’ll discover the ending along the way.
  • Scene outlines: I never put together a full scene-by-scene outline because I frequently don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle, but I do create an outline with approximately the right number of scenes.  Then when the bike race scene in which grandpa throws his whiskey bottle at the teaching assistant comse to me, I can add it to a logical place on the outline.  This outline also helps weave in subplots down the line.  A visual representation of the story is helpful for keeping track of what the psychologist was doing in the basement when we last left him five scenes ago.

Why don’t you type all of this detail on your computer, you ask?  Some days, as I’m transcibing these pages of notes from my yellow notepad, I ask myself the same question.  The reality is, I’m juggling several lives – aren’t we all?  I’m a mother to two young boys, I’m a volunteer at their schools, I’m a journalist, I’m a novelist.  The amount of time that I actually spend with my laptop is 1/100th the amount of time I spend thinking about my novel.  Carrying around that yellow notepad allows me to take notes during the 99/100ths of my time when I’m not in front of the laptop. 

5.  3 Ring-Binder: When I’m finally bursting with ideas, I put everything in a three-ring binder.  The tabs are something like this:

  • Character and Location Sketches
  • Research
  • Scenes and Character Arc
  • Timelines
  • Bibliography and Thank Yous
  • Notes
  • Other Projects

Having this binder to tote around makes you realize that you’ve put meat on the bones of that novel skeleton.  The binder goes everywhere with me while I’m drafting, and any new notes go straight into it.  A new bit of research. A scrap of dialogue. An idea for a title. 

One of the most important tabs is Other Projects.  When I’m in the thick of a first draft, I am easily distracted by shiny new things.  Inevitably ideas for new projects come streaming in just when I need to concentrate the most on the current project.  I used to lie awake turning the new ideas over in my head and admiring their shiny qualities.  Now I jot them down in the binder so that I won’t lose them, and then I get straight back to work on the work-in-progress.

6.  Time to Write:  I’m brimming with ideas.  I’ve lived with the characters for so long, they are practically talking louder than the real life people around me.  It’s time to start writing.  I sit down at the computer and start with Page 1.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about Page 1 and how eerily similar it is to a first date.

What about you?  What does your prep process look like?  Do you have a favorite pen or notepad that you can’t live without?  Or do you just skip note taking and get straight to telling the story?

Giving Thanks: Novel Writing Prep Series Part 2

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.

Have you ever done that?  Thankfully, I’ve never done it with a present, but I’ve purchased plenty of cards that have gone unsent because they get lost in the jumble of mail and bills and life.  The cards pile up in a stack and months later, I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember the intended recipient. 

In life we rely on people every day.  Some give us simple things like delivering our mail to driving our children to school on buses. Others give us so much more by offering a late night phone call or a shoulder to lean on.  For all of these things, little and big, I try my best to offer up thanks. 

As writers we rely on hundreds of people to get us from “Once upon a time” to “The End.”  Most of the time we don’t even realize the breadth of people who have helped until we start ticking them off on our mental thank you list.  We work for months on a manuscript and finally crack open the champagne after typing “The End.”  It’s only then that we begin to reminisce about all of the people who helped along the way.  Or do we?  Can you even remember the list of people who buoyed your spirits or gave you that little-known fact that changed the entire course of Chapter 12?

This summer I finished the final edits on a non-fiction book.  After finishing the text, I sat down to compile my bibliography and a list of acknowledgements.  It was a disaster.  I was completely fried after months of writing, and the last thing I wanted to do was reach into the far crevices of my brain to remember every source and then make sure I spelled all of their names correctly. 

Today’s tip sounds self-explanatory – and perhaps like putting the cart before the horse – but there is nothing more important in the life of a writer than giving thanks to those who have carried us along.  It’s not that I didn’t want to thank all of those people who spent countless hours allowing me into their homes to interview them.  I wanted to thank them more than anything, but it took a while as I pieced together the last 18 months of my writing life.

So, before you even type “Once upon a time,” before you even hit Save As on the first paragraph of your new work, start a list.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  I use an Excel spreadsheet (because I love nerdy things like spreadsheets).  The list consists of first and last name (spelled correctly because I asked while I had the source on the phone), way in which that person helped me (provided a fact about mental health records for adolescents), phone number and email address (in case my notes don’t make any sense when I get around to using them) and date of contact.  I know this sounds incredibly Type-A (especially for a work of fiction), but trust me when I say you’ll thank me later.

When you finish the manuscript and set out to write the Author’s Note, you’ll be glad that you have this simple document at your fingertips.  “But what if my book doesn’t have an author’s note or what if it never gets published?” you ask. It doesn’t matter.  Unless you live the life of a hermit in the middle of the Serengeti, at least one other person is bound to know that you’ve spent the last year of your  life on a book.  Maybe that person is your nosy neighbor who flags you down every day to ask, “Have you sold your book yet?”  And why would you want to thank that person who reminds you every day that your list of rejection letters is growing? You have to admit, that even though your neighbor’s questions drove you crazy, they made you feel the tiniest bit more accountable about getting that manuscript finished and continuing your quest to sell your book.

Maybe you’ll never get to write that page that thanks your undyingly dedicated editor and your ridiculously handsome husband.  Maybe you’ll never send a bottle of Dom Perignon to your agent celebrating the closing of your four-book deal. But you can send a quick thank you note to that nosy neighbor and all those others who helped along the way.  Writing is a lonely enough vocation/avocation.  Why not take the time to express some gratitude to the community who supported your efforts.  And who knows, that nosy neighbor might make the perfect victim in your next thriller.

How do you thank the people who help you complete your writing?  Homemade cookies?  Hand drawn thank you notes? Characters named after them?

Planner or Pantser? A novel writing prep series that might help…

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a planner not a pantser.  I’m eternally jealous of all those pantsers out there who can sit down and create a novel without a roadmap.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t outline every twist and turn up front – that would ruin the fun of discovering surprises along the way.  But I do break out into metaphorical hives if I’m sitting in the muck of the middle without a plan.  With the eve of NaNoWriMo almost here, the plan for my novel is shaping up nicely, and I thought I’d break it down into parts to perhaps offer up some inspiration if you find yourself sitting in the muck during November.

This 16-part novel writing prep series will unfold over the course of the month and will offer up ideas and suggestions for different parts of the novel writing experience.  Here’s a glimpse at some of the upcoming topics if you’d like to follow the series or join the discussion:

  1. The Seed – Where do ideas for novels come from and how do we find them?
  2. The Thanks – Sounds silly, but plan ahead for acknowledgements and giving thanks.
  3. The Motivation – 5 Tips for Finding the Right Writing Buddy
  4. The Plan – From notes to novel in 5 easy steps
  5. The Roots – Determining the structure of your novel
  6. The Research – Write what you know OR know what you write?
  7. The Mind Map – Give your ideas a visual form to see connections and threads.
  8. The Characters – Create a visual library to get to know your characters
  9. The Characters Part 2 – Is it backstory or does it bring your story back to life?
  10. The Characters Part 3 – Are your secondary characters squelching your main character?
  11. The Characters Part 4 – What’s an arc and why does my character need one?
  12. The Setting – To trip or not to trip?
  13. The Problem – Does your main character have a main problem?
  14. The Theme – That elusive concept
  15. The Plot Points – Building blocks for success
  16. The First Draft – Ugh! I can’t stand my own words!
  17. The Sub-Plots – Do you need them? Do you have them?
  18. The Music – Playlists can set the mood and get you out of a rut

Oops, that’s eighteen.  See I’m already veering from the plan.  I told you I can find a little pantser in me when I try.

How about you?  Are you a pantser, a planner or something in between?

Silencing Your Internal Editor

Search the blogosphere and you’ll find lots of posts about befriending your internal editor – that voice (or voices) inside your head that never shuts up.  I’d like to go on record as saying I DO NOT support this ‘befriending’ theory.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a friendly and very accommodating person.  You have two items and I have ten items at the grocery store?  I usually say, “You go first.  You have less.”  However, when it comes to my internal editor, I have no intention of letting her cut in front of me in line.  And I certainly don’t intend to add her to my holiday card list or “like” her comments on Facebook.

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, it’s time that we reveal the truth about internal editors.  They suck!  May I introduce you to mine?  She doesn’t have a name, but she does have a face.  My internal editor is a snarky eighth grader who rears her flowing blond hair, annoyingly snippy voice and size 2 jeans every chance she gets. 

She’s been with me since I went to college, and in the eternal pursuit of published work, I’ve discovered a few ways to silence her.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Back in the days of my pre-college schooling, I was blissfully ignorant about my internal editor.  Maybe I was too worried about the real life girls with flowing blond hair and size 2 jeans to notice the one that lived in the right side of my brain.  Regardless, I wrote those Shakespearean knock-offs starring purple crayons and melodramatic (albeit, heartfelt) essays about a visit to the Vietnam wall, with nary a thought about what others might think of my writing.  

In my junior year of high school, I was trained to be a tutor in our school’s writing center.  I spent hours helping others rework, reword and rewrite papers about Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” and the history of professional wrestling.  I suppose it was all that time carefully guiding others toward genius (or simply toward a halfway readable essay) that I realized the importance of editing.  And that’s when it all went terribly wrong.  That’s when the little twit took up residence in my mind.

Anytime, I put pen to paper (and later fingers to clunky word processor keyboard), I froze.  Masterpiece Barbie wouldn’t even let me get a full sentence out before I could hear her voice.  With a flippant hair toss and a curl of the lip that only Elvis or my best gay friends can pull off, she would say, “This is blather.  Do you really think that anyone will read this stuff?  Did you actually just write that?”  In the days of pen on paper, it wasn’t so bad.  I would simply cross out what I wrote and try something new.  And if you’ve ever seen an original Hemingway or Woolf manuscript, you know that even cross-outs can be deciphered if there’s genius to be found in those tossed-off phrases.  However, once the Brother 5000 word processor came into my life, the DELETE key became a deadly weapon of war.  Even so much as a sigh from Barbie would send me into a backspacing frenzy.

Once I graduated and began a life in corporate America, the internal editor hibernated for a while.  The only writing I was doing was brochure copy, press releases and radio ads.  When you’re writing about fly fishing rods or corn seeds, there’s only so much the internal editor can criticize.  A fast-action saltwater fly rod is what it is.  Barbie didn’t have much purple prose to criticize.

However, when I dove back into the world of subjective writing – things like theater and art that required a creative turn of phrase – the voices came back.  We all know that an internal editor is nothing more than the insecure psyche of a writer expressing self-doubt.  If I’m honest, that self-doubt can lead to some great self-soothing.  “If I never finish this, I won’t have to worry if it’s terrible.  If it never sees the light of day, no one can tell me it isn’t good.”  We’ve all been there.

But producing weekly columns is a tough job when Masterpiece Barbie is screaming in your ear.  I had to devise some coping mechanisms.  I don’t know about you, but I actually consider and respect the opinions of my friends. Consequently, befriending wasn’t working for me. All that did was give merit to the doubts swimming through my head. Barbie wasn’t a friend.  She was an insecure, jealous teenager who loved nothing more than sabotaging my writing.  This was no time for friends, it was time for enemies.

I tried everything.  I timed my writing – cranking out as many words as possible in a short amount of time.  Write or Die is a great program for this.  I shut off the internet.  Distractions like nail trimming, floor polishing and the latest post on Pink is the New Blog were so much more tempting when Barbie put doubt in my head.  I created playlists.  It’s been proven that the human brain can only focus on a finite amount of things at one time.  A cranked up iPod made it difficult to hear my internal editor when I could barely hear the words I was putting on the page.

Finally, I discovered the secret – an unwavering belief in the power of a first draft.  For many new writers, ‘first draft’ is a scary term.  “It takes enough effort to get the words down on paper.  Do I really need a second draft?  Not just a revision for typos, but an actual second draft?”  The short answer is, yes.  The longer answer is that a first draft gives you power over your internal editor.  When she says, “That’s awful.” You say, “I know, but there’s always the second draft.”  When she says, “You’ll never make it.”  You keep typing and say, “I just did.” Now instead of shivering at the thought that Masterpiece Barbie might speak up while I’m typing, I start each writing session with the equivalent of the writer’s serenity prayer.  I take a deep breath, utter these words:

Grant me the sanity
to know that my first draft will suck;
the courage to continue writing even when I cringe at my own words;
and wisdom to know that I’m not making magic – I’m just writing from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.”
The magic will come in the second (or tenth) draft. So screw you, internal editor!

And then I start typing.  Happy writing!

Prepping for NaNoWriMo 2011

I’m in the midst of prepping for NaNoWriMo 2011.  I first took on the challenge in 2009, and that’s what led me to the completion of the “never to see the light of day” manuscript which sits in the virtual drawer on my computer.  Although that effort was abandoned upon completion (that’s another topic for another day – knowing when to hide your manuscript away from the world rather than pursue publication), I think that NaNoWriMo itself has true merits.  After all, Sara Gruen started “Water for Elephants” as a NaNoWriMo manuscript, and look where that led.

My new book (the 2011 NaNoWriMo project) has been hibernating for over seven years.  The seed was planted back in 2004 when we lived in St. Louis.  (More to come in the next post on the germination of literary seeds).  The book has been floating around in my head ever since.  In June of this year, the story finally started boiling over, and I knew that it was time to write it.  Given that I’m constantly juggling the world of writing that pays me money (i.e. non-fiction and journalism) and writing that keeps me awake at night (i.e. this darn novel), finding time to put words on the page is tough.  Combine that with two little boys who have homework, sports practice and playdates and a husband who likes a little attention now and then, and it’s not the ideal life for writing a novel.  This is the reason I love National Novel Writing Month.

There is something about putting an important acronym title and a deadline on the activity that makes it all the more real.  November of 2009 (my first NaNoWriMo) was the most productive period of my fiction career.  I’ve always been a sucker for accountability.  And even if the accountability is nothing more than the progress bar that inches across my NaNoWriMo homepage, it’s enough to keep me going for a full month. 

My goal this year is 2,000 words a day.  My latest novel clocks in at approximately 100,000 words, so I’ll be pressing on for two to three more weeks after November 30 in the hopes of finishing the first draft before my kids are out of school for the holiday break.  And no, I don’t plan on querying agents immediately after finishing.  NaNoWriMo is the mandatory diarrhea-of-the-brain exercise (pardon the expression) that I need to get the first draft out of my brain and onto the paper.  My first drafts are often VERY dialogue heavy with minimal redeeming description.  And the descriptions that do slip in are ridiculous and frankly, laughable. However, moving the story along from opening scene to climax and denouement is such an important part of writing.  If you don’t get it down (in all of its painful and ugly glory), you can’t edit and edit AND edit to something wonderful.

And that, my friends, is why I will be spending every evening of November pounding out draft #1 of the The Spaces Between Us (working title). How about you? How’s your writing going these days? Are any of you taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge this year?  If you need a writing buddy, you’ll know where to find me.

Since I just admitted that I’m the most productive when I have a quantifiable goal, here’s my NaNoWriMo desktop calendar for 2011.  I love having a word count to keep me going, and I was inspired by a Van Gogh painting of cherry blossoms.  Must be the seven inches of new snow we have on the ground right now that inspired me to think of spring.  Click on the image to open in a new window and right click to download at full size.

Good luck with NaNoWriMo and Happy Writing!

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