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Posts tagged ‘writing’

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 –

Twitter – @VisualThesaurus

Facebook –

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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Have you been writing? I have.

Wow!  A break of 20 days feels like an eternity.  I should have warned you ahead of time, but it didn’t start out as an intentional break.  It started out as a long weekend in the mountains which led to several weeks filled with deadline sensitive work and then led to several days of complacency.  Writing is like anything else you do regularly – it takes discipline.  And once you’re out of the habit, it’s harder and harder to bring yourself back to it.

The good news is that I’ve been writing – a lot.  The writing has mostly been journalistic endeavors and non-fiction pieces, but that’s what pays the bills.  And I do love my bread-and-butter writing projects.  They are comfortable and easy and keep my fingers limber and my mind active.  I’ve also been plugging away on a business plan for a nonprofit organization in our area.  Business plans go hand in hand with the strategic planning arm of my consulting business, but I’ve never actually penned one start-to-finish.  What an in-depth project!  And time consuming.  It’s always exciting to watch a young organization transform from a small mom-and-pop organization to a fully staffed and sustainable nonprofit – at least on paper.  Once that part is finished, the work is in the hands of the capable volunteers (soon to be staff) of the organization.  I couldn’t be happier for them.

I’ve also taken a stab at reorganizing my schedule to include more time for fiction writing.  At the end of February, much to my chagrin, I realized that I was spending more time writing about fiction writing than actually writing fiction.  That needed to change.  So I got back to my fiction writing with a vengeance.  I’m attending a writer’s conference at the end of April, and knew that I needed to have some serious wordcount under my belt in order to feel legitimate in the fiction workshops.  I’m pleased to say the ideas have been flying onto the page.  The “map” has been a wonderful tool – and as it always goes with fiction writing, my characters have taken on personalities of their own and are leading me to places that aren’t even on the map.  Those magical places surfacing from the crevices of my subconscious are the best gifts you can receive as a fiction writer.  In spite of the fact that I feel fidgety when my characters veer from the safety of the map, I know that these adventures are the ones into which I need to dive the most deeply.

How have you all been? How’s the writing going?

Words of Inspiration for Writers

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. – ERNEST HEMINGWAY


Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. – NORMAN MAILER


Any man who can write a page of living prose adds something to our life, and the man who can, as I can, is surely the last to resent someone who can do it even better. An artist cannot deny art, nor would he want to. A lover cannot deny love.  – RAYMOND CHANDLER


I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork.  – PETER DE VRIES


You can never correct your work well until you have forgotten it. – VOLTAIRE


Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. – WALTER BENJAMIN

Tap into Life Changing Moments to Bring Your Fiction to Life

Life is complicated.  Within a given moment as human beings we can experience the sheer ecstasy of life’s most joyful experience and then plunge into the deepest well of sorrow or terror.  And sometimes, it’s not that extreme.  Sometimes we have a flickering moment during which good and evil intersect, where perhaps the right thing isn’t so clear, where love and hate intermingle. Moments where opposites co-exist. These are the moments – little or big – that change our lives.  These moments upend our existing paradigm – forcing us to look at the world in a new way, whether we like it or not.

Let’s go back to the old adage, “Write what you know.”  I firmly believe that in order to be an effective writer, one doesn’t necessarily need to write specifically about the experiences that she knows.  However, as a writer, one must tap into these life changing moments – the moments of emotional complexity that allow us to touch the essence of human experience.

Here’s an example:

In college, I set off on a trip to Bolivia during January.  It was with a school guided group, and we traveled to the altiplano of Bolivia’s highlands to build a community center and deliver medical assistance and public health guidance to the Aymara people.  While there, a lightning strike came down from cloudy skies and took the life of a dear friend of mine.  With impending storms sweeping across the horizon, my friend was holding a tarp to shield some townspeople from the coming rains.  With her arms raised to hold the tarp, my friend was the highest point on the plains.  The lightning struck her and traveled down to a young mother holding a baby on her lap beneath the tarp. The lives of the baby and my friend ceased instantly, but the young mother walked away from the strike physically unscathed.

Being a writer, my first instinct was to write about this experience.  The shock, the horror, the intermingling of relief at the saved life of one and the lost lives of others.  I wrote about the specifics of the event in an essay once I returned to the United States, and the piece was ultimately published in a book about the complexities of the grieving process. However, looking back, that essay should not have been published.  At the time of writing, I was too close to the subject.  The essay is littered with sappy emotion and cliche – it is raw and unpolished.  But then again, so was I – a recent college graduate who was raw and unpolished starting off in a writing career.

Today, as a more experienced writer, I would never use this specific event in my writing.  However, the unique emotions wrapped up in the event? That’s another story.  This experience created an unresolved tension in my life.  The tension between the sharp edges of a volatile world in conflict with the human need for grace and love.  It left an emotional scar that I can work to resolve or redeem in my writing.  I keep these scars carefully locked away in a special place in my heart.  Protecting them until it’s time to scratch them open and mine them for emotions.  When the time is right in a particular scene or chapter, I open up this safeguard of feelings: the fear, the anger, the sorrow, the relief, the joy, and tap into the emotional complexity that lingers from these events.

Of course, I create different experiences for my characters.  They aren’t recovering from unexpected lightning strikes or struggling through delivering a baby in the car, but they are having life defining moments in their own right.  These characters are experiencing similar emotional complexities to the ones stored up in my reserves.  Those emotions are complicated and real and universal.  When teachers tell you to “write what you know,” mine your life defining moments for emotion and they will bring your fiction to life.

Burnout: A Writer’s Dirty Little Secret

I had another post planned for today, but a comment from a blog reader yesterday got me thinking about that dirty little secret that we all face but no one likes to talk about – Writer’s Burnout. I am a professional writer.  I get paid to write.  I spend my days in front of the computer writing (when I’m not shuttling my kids back and forth to school and activities).  Articles, brochures, strategic plans, website content, books.  You name it, I’ve written it.  I even manage to sneak in some time for my fiction projects on a good day.

When I see friends, family (especially family), even my kids’ teachers at school, the first question I get is, “How’s the writing going? What are you working on?”  When I fill out the forms at my doctor’s office, they always ask for profession.  When you put “Writer” on that little line, it generates interest.  I know for a fact that when my husband writes “Sales Management” on his form, the doctor doesn’t pepper him with questions about the employees he’s managing and how the sales pipeline is looking for this quarter.  But put “Writer” on that line, and you’ll get questions.  I guarantee it.  And once people know that you’re a writer, they always have an easy opening question.

Part of me loves this. It makes me happy that I have a job that fulfills me and a job that is sometimes good for cocktail party conversation.  But it also pains me because…  sometimes I don’t write.  Sometimes I don’t WANT to write.  Sometimes I hate writing.  There I said it.  Sometimes I get burned out, and the last thing I want to do is plop down in front of the computer and write.  And then the guilt kicks in.

The guilt is two-fold for me.  First off, as much as I just admitted that some days I hate writing, that’s not entirely true.  We’re more like “frenemies.”  I love writing, I hate writing, I love to hate writing, I hate to love writing.  Writing is like my third grade pal who always knew just what to say to make me feel great about myself, but in the next breath could reduce me to tears.  Frenemies!  Yep, that’s me and writing when I’m burned out.  There is nothing better than a day when the words are flying onto the page and I make myself laugh or I write a sentence that I want to swirl around in my mouth a few times because it sounds just right.  But, when I’m not doing what I love/hate, I feel guilty.  I feel like I’m letting myself down.  I feel undisciplined.

Here’s the other kicker, I feel like I’m letting other people down when I’m in the midst of writer’s burnout.  Lots of people want to know about your job when you’re a writer, but many people don’t actually think it’s a REAL job.  I don’t go to an office.  I can sit around in my pajamas all day (although that might look a little strange at preschool drop-off). And I may or may not ever get paid for some of the stuff I write. So when people ask, “How’s the writing going?” am I really going to say, “Oh, I’m burned out.  I’ve been watching reality TV and trolling the aisles of Target. I need to refuel.”  Even I roll my eyes at myself when I hear the words, “I need to refuel,” almost come out of my mouth.  So, instead I smile and say, “Oh, I’m juggling a couple of projects right now,” and I try my best to change the subject.  I’m the person with the interesting (albeit, slightly fake) job, and I don’t have a good answer. What hope does that give people with “regular” jobs?

As much as I hate to admit it (and I cringe at the words “need to refuel”), writer’s burnout is very real.  Let’s not confuse this with writer’s block.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  Even if you are a pro at avoidance mechanisms (which I am), you can always put words on the page.  Unless someone chops off your hands, you can always pound out a few sentences.  (Even then, you could dictate a few words.) They might be uninspired drivel, but they are words nonetheless.  And once your brain is working, more words will come.  You might have to edit and rewrite 20 times instead of five times, but you can always complete a writing session.

Writer’s burnout is different.  Burnout is when you are making the conscious choice to NOT write.  You recognize that you could and should write, but you choose not to.  Why?  Because you are tired, drained, uninspired, unmotivated, lazy – or my personal favorite – passive-aggressively trying to ignore writing because what has writing ever done for you?  (Side note: When writing becomes an animate object against which you are protesting, you’ll know you are in the throws of writer’s burnout.)  And believe me I’ve been there.  But there is hope.  Here are some ways to combat it:

1.  Admit it.  This is the hardest step for me.  Sometimes you have to admit that you’re burned out.  For me this usually begins with a plea to my husband.  “I will pay you one million dollars if you write this article for me.”  This is followed by a lot of pacing and staring at a blank computer screen.  And then finally, after much prodding from my level-headed husband, I am forced to admit that I’m burned out.

2.  Give in to the whims – but set a time limit.  It’s okay to give in to the whims of burnout.  Get your brain to a place where you can admit that watching reruns of House Hunters International for an entire evening doesn’t make you any less of a writer.  Go shopping, eat soft pretzels, prune your rose bush.  BUT… set limits.  The danger of giving in to the whims of burnout is that it’s hard to get back on the work wagon.  After the final sentence on a short project is polished, I give myself two evenings off.  Most of my quality writing takes place before my family gets up or after my kids are in bed.  After that short project is complete I sleep until 7 a.m. for two decadent mornings and I watch television or movies for two decadent evenings.  I still work during the day, but two days off from my workhorse writing sessions seem to recharge me.  After a big project is signed, sealed and the check is received, I usually give myself two full days of whimsy.  Sometimes even a week. No writing is allowed.  I read all the novels that are stacked by my nightstand.  I take myself out to lunch.  I clean my house.  Somehow, a self-imposed hiatus from writing seems to prevent writer’s burnout from creeping up on me.

3.  Writer’s groups.  Writer’s groups or even just writer friends are the AA of a writer’s world.  A group with fellow writers is a safe place where you can admit, “I’m Sara. And I’m suffering from writer’s burnout.  It’s been six days since I’ve written anything.”  Your fellow writers can commiserate, relieve some of that guilt you’re experiencing and even spark new ideas that will get you excited to jump back into your writing.

4.  Read. Reading always recharges me.  When I’m burned out, I literally drink up the words of other writers.  Remember, we were all readers long before we were writers.  Pull out that stack of books that’s been calling to you from under the bed and dive in.  Reading great books makes me want to be a better writer.  And then the little slave driver inside my head makes the valid point that I can’t be a better writer until I start writing again.  The whip is officially cracked and I’m back on the wagon.

Until the next time burnout rears it’s ugly head!

What about you? How do you combat writer’s burnout?

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!

Words of Inspiration for Writers

Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer. – RAY BRADBURY


The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home. – JOHN CAMPBELL


Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. – ORSON SCOTT CARD


Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… – MICHAEL CRICHTON


One of my standard — and fairly true — responses to the question as to how story ideas come to me is that story ideas only come to me for short stories. With longer fiction, it is a character (or characters) coming to visit, and I am then obliged to collaborate with him/her/it/them in creating the story. – ROGER ZELAZNY

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?

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