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Posts tagged ‘fiction writing tips’

Weird Al “Word Crimes”

If you are a word nerd like I am, and you haven’t seen this by now, you’ve probably been stranded on an island somewhere. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, this video by “Weird Al” Yankovic makes me laugh every time. Enjoy and happy writing!

Prepping for NaNoWriMo 2014

A lot has happened since I started this blog back in 2011.  It was just about this time of year, and it was this post (Prepping for NaNoWriMo 2011) that launched it all. It seems that every 2-3 years is the magic number for me because I’m gearing up for a third NaNoWriMo this year.

Let me catch you up on my writing life before and after NaNo 2011. I “won” NaNoWriMo in 2009 with 51,000+ words and promptly threw the virtual manuscript in a virtual drawer.  Then in 2011, I tried again with a historical fiction novel.  I still love that novel’s concept, but it was a slog to make it to 8,589 words that year. Needless to say, the novel was abandoned and lies like Frankenstein hoping one day to be shocked back to life. In 2013, I began reworking the 2009 NaNo project–this time with first-person narration. Let’s call this project, Project A. The new point of view really worked for me, and I pitched the first page at a writers’ conference page reading session.  What happened?  The agent was enthusiastic about my writing and asked for 50 pages at our private pitch session the next day.  She also asked about any other projects I had in the works. I pitched another idea off the top of my head. Let’s call that Project B. The agent gave me her card and asked for 50 pages of Project B, also.

Here is the problem… the hide-my-face-in-the-sand problem that I am almost too embarrassed to admit.  Although Project A was going well, prior to pitching I had only rewritten approximately 25 pages of the book.  Project B was an idea… in my head!  No words on paper, no character names. Nothing more than an idea. But I pitched it anyway.  Don’t ask for what you can’t handle.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I couldn’t handle the pressure.  What was I thinking? I came home from the conference and frantically worked to rewrite 50 pages of Project A while frantically working to create 50 pages of Project B and an entire synopsis for this book.  What happened?  I never sent either to the agent.  Chalk it up to putting the cart before the horse and a hard lesson learned. I still have the agent’s card sitting in my office as a reminder to NEVER PITCH A PROJECT THAT ISN’T FINISHED.

There it is–my dirty little secret I’ve been stewing about for quite some time.  Meanwhile, fiction writing went on hold (yet again) as I took on even more writing projects for work, and I took on even more volunteer opportunities at my boys’ school. I did have one more foray into the fiction world in the fall of 2013. After the impromptu pitch, Project B, although it wasn’t close to finished, took flight in my head.  I wrote almost 100 pages, polished up the first 10 pages, and submitted them to a writing contest last fall.  Although I didn’t win the contest, I did have some very helpful comments back from the judges. I was pleased with the new experience (submitting to a contest) and lots of great advice from the judging responses. Another notch carved in my fiction writing bedpost.

Then out of the blue in April, I got an email from one the contest organizers. I will quote the email correspondences below because although they may not seem like much to most people, these are the emails that keep me going when I think about throwing in the fiction towel.

Email #1:

“Hello Sara,

Below is a message I wanted to pass along from one of your contest judges.”
The Message from the contest judge:

“I judged this submission, and would love to talk to the author about his or her work a little more. It’s a story that stuck with me. If he/she is open to that, can you pass on my information and have the writer email me?” [NOTE: She says his or her because the contest is blind judged so she didn’t know anything about me except the name of my manuscript.]
Am I open to that? Heck yeah! I did a little research and discovered that the judge is a published author whose name I actually knew. So, I emailed her. She was really nice and very encouraging.  Here’s a snippet of her note:

Author’s Note:

“I mostly just wanted to say that I looked for your manuscript on the winners’ list and hoped you’d place in the contest. Contests are so subjective and I know I felt crushed after a few, so I just wanted to tell you that your voice and writing were strong and that I like to think I know a little something about the biz. Is your manuscript complete? And have you started querying it? I wish you the best with it and any other writing you do! :)”

 

Let’s put this in perspective. I am fully aware that agents ask for sample pages more frequently at writers’ conferences than they do from the unsolicited slush pile.  Even though I was dancing a jig when the agent asked for pages from two projects, I know that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.  I am also aware that nice words and compliments from one judge do not get a manuscript finished, let alone published.  (No, it’s still not finished!) HOWEVER, it’s the little things that keep you going when you are new to fiction writing.  So, these little things are what keep me going. Thus the reason that I am using NaNoWriMo 2014 as an excuse to take the plunge back into fiction. During the hiatus, the characters and stories haven’t stopped pestering me, I just did a better job of keeping them locked in my brain.  November is the time to let them out again and FINALLY FINISH A DARN BOOK.

A mental map of a writer’s mind

I have been to all of these places and will return to each a thousand times more.  I am currently headed to the Glade of Hopeful Aspirations after a bout in Crippling Insecurity-ville.  How about you?  Where have you been hanging out lately?
mapofawritersmind
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Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Your elusive creative genius

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, TED talks are delivered at a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates, to name a few.

I love this talk on nurturing creativity delivered by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in 2009.  Enjoy and happy writing with your elusive creative genius.

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Graze vs. Devour – What’s Your Writing Style?

Grazing

Over at Writer Unboxed, Carleen Brice wrote a post today about grazing.  Here is an excerpt:

I too am back at work full-time and find that I don’t have large blocks of time (when I’m not exhausted) to write or exercise or garden or read. However, I am figuring out I do have many small bits of time that I can use. As I written here before I lost weight over a year ago and in my efforts to keep it off, I am packing my lunch and grazing on it over a few hours rather than eating it all at once. It’s working.

I usually bus in and get off a few stops early so I can get in a 10-minute walk before work. Then I take a 10- or 20-minute walk (or yoga break) at lunch and a 10- or 20-minute walk on the way home and voila! Exercise is done.

Just this week, I started doing the same with writing. I’ve always been someone who thought I needed several hours at once to get any writing done, but now I’m finding that I can apply the same grazing philosophy (10 or 20 minutes in the morning and at lunch, etc.) and I can slowly but surely get some work done.

After reading this, I was jealous and frustrated.  In my head, I’m not a grazer.  I long for those large blocks of time during which I can delve into a project and really concentrate.  But I rarely get them, and then I find myself having produced nothing because my number one writer’s excuse is, “I don’t have time to write. I need languorous afternoons filled with undisturbed time.”  My husband is always telling me, “You are rarely going to have hours to yourself to write.  Why not use those 20 minutes here and there to work?”

There have never been truer words.  Next year, my youngest goes to first grade.  In theory, I will have seven hours every weekday while both kids are in school.  In reality, these hours will be filled with meetings, other work related tasks, errands, and life. In an effort to be prepared and hit the ground running in August, I’ve been analyzing my calendar.  It appears that dear husband is right. I will rarely have large blocks of time.

Efficiency experts tell you it’s about working smarter, not harder.  Working smarter for me means having a grasp on which tasks are grazing tasks and which tasks require devouring.  Here’s what I’ve found:

Grazing Tasks—For which I tap into my inner sheep and chomp away little by little

  • If I’m halfway through a scene and I’m loving it, (For a first draft “loving” is a relative term.  It might mean that I have one or two lines I think are decent and the action is moving in the right direction.) I can usually graze through the middle section.  I know the characters, I know the voice, I know the plan for the scene.  I can write the remainder in small chunks of 15 minutes here and 20 minutes there.
  • If I’m writing non-fiction, I can graze through the middle of a short article.  Openings and conclusions are too brain-intensive to be grazing tasks.
  • Outlining, research, planning are all grazing tasks.
  • Editing is a great grazing task.  Especially line editing for punctuation, grammar and spelling.  Word-by-word editing also fits the bill.  It’s exhausting to spend extended periods of time re-working sentence after sentence for stronger verbs and more precise description.  I usually take a few sentences for the road and mull them over while driving or exercising.

Devouring TasksFor which I tap into my inner wolf and sit down to devour a full carcass at once

  • Beginnings and endings.  Whether it is the beginning of an entire novel, the first sentence of a new scene or the opening paragraph of an article, openings and closings require more dedicated brain power. I find that I often have to ramble my way into an opening.  The first 3-4 paragraphs of new work (fiction or non-fiction) are usually thick and muddled (and end up in the outtakes file) but serve as a bridge to get me to the “true” opening.
  • Action scenes.  Drafting an action scene requires undivided attention for me.  I’m a wordy writer and an even wordier drafter.  Skimming the fat to produce a tight action scene is challenging for me.  For this reason, these scenes need devouring time – no grazing allowed.
  • Fleshing out a scene which stems from one great line.  I often have lines (particularly of dialogue) and images that come to me at inopportune times.  Doing dishes is a prime time for this.  I jot them in my notebook, transfer them to my “Must Have Lines” page in Microsoft OneNote, and let them simmer.  These lines are usually something around which I can build a scene.  But then I get performance anxiety.  I love the line or the dialogue exchange.  I don’t want to write a crappy scene that doesn’t do justice to the dishwashing gem.  This is when I need long blocks of time to dig and devour the scene instead of grazing through filler.

I will still always dream of a cabin in the woods with an endless supply of coffee, firewood and peaceful time to write.  But I’m a mom, a wife, and a writernot a hermit. The list above certainly isn’t going to solve the not-enough-hours-in-the-day dilemma, but it might help me use those hours more effectively.  And who knows, maybe I’m really a sheep in wolf’s clothing and can successfully graze my way through a manuscript after all.

What about you?  Are you a successful grazer?  What tasks work the best for you as grazing tasks?  Or do you need space to devour your writing?

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Writing a novel is like driving a car at night…

el doctorow

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Visual Thesaurus for the Right-Brained Writer

Stick around for any period of time, and you’ll learn that I’m a visual person.  I buy books based on their cover. I buy cereal based on the box design (this sometimes leads to disgusting forays into cardboard-like spheres floating in my milk.)  I forgo the use of a Favorites folder in Internet Explorer or Firefox because I’m so in love with the slick design and visual kaleidoscope of Pinterest.

As much as I have my left-brained tendencies (anal about work organization, a perfectionist when it comes to household projects), my juices really get going when the right brain kicks into gear.  If I’m stuck on a problem, there is nothing better than a blank sheet of paper and 20 minutes of free flow writing or mind mapping.  Imagine how delighted I was when I stumbled upon a thesaurus that gives me a visual representation of my synonyms and antonyms.

I give you the Visual Thesaurus:

This program is a word playground.  You can see above, I typed in “bold” and it returned a full map of words.  The colored dots at the end of a branch indicate whether the word is a noun, adjective, verb or adverb.  To the right you can see definitions for the word.  Click on the megaphone symbol and you can hear the word pronounced.  Visual Thesaurus will even define and provide adjectives for proper nouns.

On the left, the program provides a word history so that while you are playing with the word “sausage blimp” you can always go back to your search for “reverberance.”  You can even create favorite word lists and name them.  See a word that looks interesting on the map? Just drag and drop it to your word list so that you don’t forget it.

Visual Thesaurus has myriad uses in a writer’s life.  The obvious? Find just the right word for the sentence.  Warning: don’t use this to overcomplicate things!  You’ve decided that your character is “bold.”  Bold doesn’t feel right because she’s not “fearless and daring.”  But don’t look at the list and throw in “temerarious” just because it sounds cool.  Maybe “bold” doesn’t have quite the right shade to fully describe your character.  Maybe it’s her careless unconcern that makes her “reckless” not “bold.” Or maybe she’s not “bold,” but “emboldened” because she recently became “fearless” but hasn’t always been that way. Writing is all about the subtle shades of language and words.  The Visual Thesaurus can help you pinpoint those shades.

The more “temerarious” use? (Did you see how I did that there?) Use the Visual Thesaurus to build layers in your scene.  After you’ve written a scene, pinpoint the key emotion swirling around the action.

Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction:

“To deliver a strong effect to your readers, you’ve first got to give yourself permission to go big. Big feelings aren’t bad; they’re just big. We all have them.  They’re dramatic. They connect. The only time they don’t is when they’re false: rote, hackneyed, pasted on or unearned. Think of them as primary emotions that take on unique hues in the heart of your main character. Love? Sure, but different this time. Rage? Never before like this one. Sorrow? Yes, but now utterly specific.”

Make a list of other words that can add subtle layers to increase the tension in the scene.  Here’s an example.  Maybe your character is “angry.”  Let’s type in “angry” and make a list:

  • Sore – “Causing misery or pain; hurting; an open skin infection”
  • Tempestuous (i.e., tempest) – “A violent commotion or disturbance”
  • Smoldering – “Showing scarcely suppressed anger”
  • Indignant – “Angered at something unjust or wrong”
  • Wrathful – “Condemnatory”

You can see from the list above that “angry” has many hues.  What type of anger is your character experiencing?  If you find just the right word to define the type of anger, you can build the scene around those hues and make your character’s anger uniquely her own.

Pretty amazing that you can do all this with a simple online program that costs $19.95/year.  Or $2.95/month.  Sure, you could open up your 15 lb. Roget’s Thesaurus, but for me seeing the visual connections between words and the ease with which I can click on a new word and follow it down a separate rabbit hole is priceless.

You can check out the details of Visual Thesaurus here:

Online – http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Twitter – @VisualThesaurus

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/visualthesaurus

Nope.  I wasn’t paid or perked for this write-up.  I plunked down my own $19.95 to gain access to Visual Thesaurus. When I love a program, I simply want to share the love with others.

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Writer’s Notebook: An Idea Gold Mine

Take any writing class or read any writing book, and the first thing you will learn is, “Keep a writer’s notebook.”  It sounds elementary, but so many writers today don’t keep that notebook tucked away for capturing random thoughts before they are lost.

I started keeping a diary at the age of nine or ten.  At the time, I was obsessed with unicorns, so receiving this diary was a dream for me:

Unfortunately, this isn’t the original diary. (I found the picture on Ebay.)  I haven’t seen mine in years, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in my parents’ garage along with that popcorn tin that holds all of my carefully folded, hand-written notes from middle school.  Back then the idea of a diary was romantic.  I had very little real drama in my life, but it was fun to pretend that my boy crushes and straight-versus-curly haired days were traumatic and secretive.  I went in phases during which I wrote every day and other times where six months passed between entries.  But writing in that diary was always like coming back to an old friend.  Turning the wheel on the combination lock never lost its appeal because I knew that my secret thoughts waited inside.

In middle school and high school, I spent many years diary free, but I did write poetry.  Some were tormented poems about the boy who was in love with my best friend.  (They ended up getting married.  So I guess it wasn’t meant to be between us.)  Others were more esoteric poems about imagination, the industrial revolution or gargoyles in Paris. I just found a box of these in my own garage last weekend.  They are a treasure trove of embarrassment and a time capsule of my life.  I love the way these poems instantly transport me back to the 80s and 90s.  I can often picture the exact place I wrote the words.

In college, I continued with my writing, but it was more class-driven. Somewhere on that Brother word processor, which I so proudly carried to my freshman dorm room, live files filled with comparative literary papers and poems about Mott the Hoople, sunflower seeds and a sunset from a mosquito-filled dock.  These images became a diary of my life at a college in the middle of rural Indiana.

But many of these words and images are locked away in the bowels of technology.  Yes, I did refer to my antiquated Brother word processor and box filled with floppy disks as the bowels of technology.  And my thoughts are trapped in these bowels. Sure I can fire up the Brother, but I can’t open a dusty box, pull out a stack of notebooks and immediately connect with my most treasured images.

Today, it’s even easier for our fleeting thoughts to get lost in “the cloud.”  I’ll admit, I’m a technology junkie.  I record my thoughts in Evernote, Pinterest, Scrivener, Word documents, and the Notes app on my iPhone.  In spite of the convenience of technology, there are times when we need to simplify these recording mechanisms.  That’s why a few years ago, I finally wised up and decided to go old-school again.

The notebook!

This little gem is a Moleskine knock-off I found at Target.  At 5.5″ x 3.75″ it slides right into my purse and goes everywhere with me.  And at $5.99, you can’t beat the price.  This notebook is my savior.

When I was young and had few responsibilities, I could afford to linger for hours on a mosquito-filled dock and wax philosophical about beautiful images and life.  But as a writer, mom, wife and chronic over-committer, I rarely get to linger over anything.  Consequently, inspiration strikes at the most inopportune times.  Usually when I’m washing dishes or driving in the car.  Enter: The Notebook.

This little baby is filled with thoughts and images.  Here are some examples from a randomly-selected page.

  • A quote from an interview I heard with Anthony Hopkins: “As a child I wrote to escape the desert of my mental emptiness.”
  • A description of the woman accepting my donations at Goodwill. She appeared to have been badly burned at some point.  The smooth texture of the scar tissue on the side of her head was beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time.
  • Notes about the tattoo a friend’s brother just got – an Illinois license plate.  Why would someone want “the Land of Lincoln” tattooed on their arm?  Fascinating!
  • A quote from an interview on NPR about the new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.  “You can take parts away, but Chitty is still Chitty.”  Something about the gestalt-ness of Chitty (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) makes me love this childhood icon even more.  AND…
  • An entire conversation between my MC and her love interest about fish scales which came to me all at once while I was elbow-high in dishwashing suds.

Many of these images will never leave this notebook.  I’ll page through it now and then and find myself transported to a stuffy backroom at Goodwill, but that kind woman accepting my donations may never make it into the pages of a novel.  However, this notebook is my gold mine.  It is the place I go when I’m stuck.

Just yesterday, I discovered a note about the song “Danny, Dakota & The Wishing Well” by A Silent Film.  This song wafted through my car while I was waiting in line to drop my kids off at school.  I’m not sure why I wrote down a snippet of lyrics, but at the time the words struck a chord with me (no pun intended!) Reading over this note yesterday, it suddenly dawned on me how a climactic scene between my MC and her love interest can work.  That’s the magic of the writer’s notebook.  Disparate thoughts have a chance to stew together.  In the end that stew of thoughts becomes the Stone Soup of your writing.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you keep a writer’s notebook?  Scan the pages for a minute and tell me your favorite (or most random) snippet from the past week.

Here’s a great post on the pocket notebooks from 20 famous writers including Hemingway, Twain and Beethoven.

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Please loosen the corset

I’m smack in the middle of a rewrite.  When I say rewrite, I don’t mean simple revisions.  I mean ripping out the guts, adding in another 1/3 of the story and changing the narrative from third person to first person.  This is the type of revision that terrifies me.  Give me a full-length line edit and I’m in heaven.  Armed with my red Uniball pen and my Post-it notes, I can whip through a manuscript in a couple of days.  But this ripping out the innards, twisting them around and placing them back in the same body can cause any writer a severe case of anxiety.

Here’s how the week has gone:

Day 1: After weeks of scheming and planning, I was hesitant but happy to drag myself back to the computer. I even got a few new words down on paper.  The first person voice was bland, but Anna, my main character, is tricky.  (At least that’s what I’m telling myself.) And phew, it feels good to have 2,091 words under my belt.

(The truth: 1,800 of the 2,091 words weren’t new at all.  I copied and pasted scenes from my old manuscript, cleaned up the verbiage and changed the tense.  A few new dialogue tags and we’re ready to move on.  Right?)

Day 2: Coffee.  Computer.  Quiet house.  Ready to write. BUT nothing is happening.  I’m internally flogging myself for being a cop out.  Cut-and-paste was not the intention of the second draft.  So instead of setting off on the yellow brick road in search of my courage (and my MC’s voice), I’ll just draft a few blog posts and find out what’s happening with Hurricane Isaac instead.

Day 3: Run from meeting to meeting – all the while distracted because I’m the Cowardly Lion of writing hiding in a PTA mom’s body.

Day 3: (8:14 p.m.)  All’s quiet on the Miller front. Kids are in bed and hubby is checking the baseball scores.  The first line of my revised manuscript just floated through my head.  It’s odd and a little edgy, but it works.  I sit down and manage to spit out 379 polished words in 21 minutes.  And boy are they a complete departure from the original manuscript!  Anna has suddenly taken on a life of her own.  She’s opinionated and shy and bold all at the same time.  And she’s talking about condoms.  Whoa!  Where did that one come from?  You know what?  It felt great – condoms and all.

Here’s the beauty of it.  I was playing.  Playing with words and playing with ideas.  We get ourselves all wrapped up in the seriousness of our craft.  (At least I do.) Thoughts of deadlines and ditching the dangling participles can paralyze us.  I, for one, get very Victorian when I’m writing — trussed up tight and worried about how my words will be perceived.  On Day 3, however, I threw caution to the Victorian winds and loosened up the whale-bone corset.  And once those strings were free I felt like I could play.  My MC’s voice came to life.  She was throwing off the lace tablecloths that covered her dining table legs, she was using the word “leg” instead of “limb.”  She was even talking about… condoms.  I was blushing (and she was blushing). Our collective Victorian chasteness was threatening to tighten that corset back up with every keystroke.  But I filled my lungs with air, exhaled and tore those laces to shreds.

Here’s hoping that playtime will continue with every writing session.  It’s so much more rewarding to write when you’re having fun doing it, and it secretly feels a little bit exciting to throw off those Victorian shackles along the way.

What about you?  Have you (or your characters) done anything surprising this week?

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Words of Wisdom for Writers – Thanks to Pixar

Pixar didn’t get to be Pixar, the biggest name in animated movies today, by stocking up on schlocky storytellers.  Take heed, my friends. The people behind that cute hopping lamp know what they are talking about:

Numbers 13 and 22 are my favorites.  Which Pixar rule do you try to live by?

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