Monday, January 25, 2010

 

It's time for some exercises!

While interviewing an author recently, she mentioned she had enjoyed Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott so much that she tries to read it each year. That sounded like a wonderful suggestion so, I went to work to find my copy of Lamott's book. Along the way, I found a couple interesting writing books I thought I'd recommend:
One of my favorite books for fiction writing prompts is "What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers" by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Published in 1990, they released a revised edition in 2009. I like the book mainly because it was one of my first fiction writing exercise books, which I then recommended to my writing students. I've continued to enjoy it because of the approach of the authors as they lead the reader through 83 different exercises ranging from beginnings to mechanics to plot. The book sets out the objective of the exercise and uses examples from either a published writer or from a student. If you are a beginning or an advanced writer, there are element that will keep you busy. Often these exercises seem to serve the author who is writing a story.
Another book that I've started relying on when I feel the need for a fiction exercise is "The 3 A.M. Epiphany" by Brian Kiteley (2005). In Kitely's introduction, he explains that when he uses exercises in his workshops "to derange student stories, find new possibilities, and foster strangeness, irregularity, and non-linearity as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself." Kitely's 201 exercises guide his students and readers to have a better understanding of why you're writing what you are writing. These exercises--or pairing them up--can be used in the service of a story or not.
Sometimes doing an exercise without having a goal in mind is the best way to release your creativity.

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and creativity coach, who is still looking for her copy of Bird-by-Bird. Besides contributing to AOL's ParentDish, she blogs at The Write Elizabeth, delving into creativity in everyday places.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

 

Your (Christmas tree) fiction process

As many writers have pointed out, sticking to a routine and writing every day at a set time and letting yourself just write makes you more apt to come into contact with your inner self, your unconscious self.
In the spirit of the holidays, is your self--as it is set out on the page--a spare, seemingly unloved, basic Christmas tree with a few lights and fewer ornaments? Or are you one of those Christmas tree loaded with colorful blinking lights and enough ornaments to have sent Charlie Brown's petite Christmas tree into a state of shock? Or do you find yourself to be a cross-section of both, depending on the day or time of day?
For me, I find that I tend to edit as I write, ending up with a basic tree with a few ornaments. Fortunately, I think my inner editor replaces my inner critic. Generally, I spend time formulating in my head and then getting the idea on the page, but often I hesitate over the keys, contemplating the word before I press each letter. Thinking twice as I begin a sentence, visualizing where it will take me.
I had a professor who, if I remember correctly, characterized fiction writers in two groups based on drafts' needs: putter-inners and taker-outers. I'm a putter-inner. I write the bare bones and need to put-in more, decorating each bough with more ornaments or tinsel as I review each draft. Frequently, when I end up with a spare tree of a fiction piece, I sometimes envy the taker-outers. Although they need to take out, their tree is lushly decorated.
So, are you a putter-inner or a taker-outer?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and creativity coach. Besides contributing to AOL's ParentDish, she blogs at The Write Elizabeth, delving into creativity in everyday places. She is looking forward to sharing the Peanuts' Christmas special with her kids, as well as the Heat Miser song.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

 

Results of my local writing mini-retreat

Let's face it. As I drove to my secret writing location, I was skeptical about what I was trying to accomplish. I was setting forth to write as much as possible, without outside distractions (including the Internet!) for as many hours as my fingers could be chained to the keyboard.
I didn't think I would accomplish anything and that maybe I had just been looking for a day to duck out to the mall without my band of ever-present accomplices.
Last weekend, this mom of three, accustomed to pouring milk over cereal, changing a diaper, making lunches, wiping a nose and taking a shower (but only on an odd-numbered day that starts with the letter 'M') with one wide swoop, found taking time for my own personal, creative writing more daunting than the daily juggles of parenting.
How many of you can relate to this statement (even if you might not be willing to say it aloud)?
I'm always ready to drop my creative project for the good/needs/wants/desires/strange requests of someone else.

But for part of one day, I understood and lived what it meant to block out that sentiment.
So, while I sat on a sunny deck and breathed in fresh air far from the charming screams of "MOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM," I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
I stopped for a few pauses and to plug in my computer or to stretch my legs or to eat a bit. And it was glorious. For several hours, I crafted a character or two, I set up scenes, I plotted the twists and turns of my novel. I actually made progress that had been creeping along in my head for weeks.
During the week, I was able to refer back to chunks of text and sketch more of the plot. For once, in a long, long while, I felt like a fiction writer again.
And it felt good.

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a certified Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach and freelance writer. She also blogs at www.TheWriteElizabeth.com, delving into creativity in everyday places. She is already planning her next writing escape...and shower.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

 

Hop, skip and jump to your desk!

For the most part, I make my money writing non-fiction for newspapers, magazines, television, and blogs. But when my kids head back to school (and in between the paying jobs), I'm dusting off my fiction writing, sweeping away some cobwebs and getting back into creating fictional worlds.
It's been too long, but in a way it feels natural to have let the stories germinate for a while. But Thursday morning, as the kids head out the door, I'll revel in the silence (for 5 minutes) and then hop, skip and jump for my pen and paper.
Recently I read that to keep your writing fluid and fresh it helps to dive into a variety of writing styles, genres and projects. Always admired poetry? Dip into during a quiet lunchtime. Interested in short stories? Pull out a pen and pad while waiting for your laundry to dry or for a friend to come visit.
For me, I've been dabbling in non-fiction writing by chance. I was writing fiction--short stories and a couple novels--when I started picking up non-fiction writing assignments. Because of my journalism background, it was a natural fit. But I've now strayed so far that I am aching to finish a novel I've started, a young adult novel my daughter is begging me for, and to stitch together the threads of a story I have been sketching since spring.
With the kids returning to school in a couple days, I am anxious to start creating and crafting fiction again.
Is there anything you've been wanting to get back into creating? What has been stopping you? What is one small step--or one small hop, skip or jump--you can take to start getting back on the path to your project?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a certified Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach and freelance writer. She also blogs at www.CoastalCarolinaMoms.com and www.TheWriteElizabeth.com, delving into creativity in everyday places. For different reasons, she--and her children--will be counting the hours until school starts.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

 

Friday Speakout: Will the Truth Really Set You Free?, Guest Post by Michelle Dwyer

Will the Truth Really Set You Free?

by Michelle Dwyer

I’ve wiped out many a box of tissues because of rejection. Rejection. Those emails with the subject line that reads: Re: Submission. Like most writers, I open the file with a sliver of hope, in the off-chance, that it is a yes. Who am I kidding? Before long, my mind starts telling me that I suck.

But now I know: That is simply not the case. Through critique groups and personal connections with other authors, I realize that the rejections are coming from my nonfiction work. Why? My niche rests in writing for a casual audience, not the starched suits that want to know about the latest in anti-virus technology or stock options.

For some reason, I felt the need to submit work to the business world, as if its approval made me good. However, after receiving feedback, I did some self-analysis (Maslow would be proud), and discovered that when I write my nonfiction pieces, I’m simply not passionate about them. They don’t evoke the emotions that my fiction stories have always done.

I love romance, chance happenings, personal growth, and sex. The stories, characters, and climaxes (pardon the pun), that come from my heart bring me to life, and allow me to create the wonder that is fiction.

So how did I end up writing about investing in the manufacturing industry and not about two people making love on the kitchen table? Answer: A warped sense of success. I saw others excel with their nonfiction work, and by golly, I was determined to be like them. How come their works were selected and not mine? For a brief time, I thought they were better than me.

It took some validation from peers for me to understand that I shine at fiction, and that I need to ease up on nonfiction. “But I’m an MBA,” I used to tell myself. “I must write articles that tell the truth.”

No. My MBA will come in handy with the business side of publishing, but my knack for creating a good story will always give me peace.

Don’t get me wrong, aspiring writers (and I am still very much aspiring) need to keep trying and never give up. I just think that all of us have a forte. Mine is creative writing. And now that I know my own truth, I will submit nonfiction pieces every now and then, while trying to hone the craft. But I won’t cry a river when I get rejected.

And now I can go back to working on my novels and other short stories. The ones I’ve neglected due to my misplaced effort at finding validity through real-life.

Who knows? I might just get an offer.


Michelle studied writing in high school and longed to become an author. But circumstances arose, causing her to join the military instead. However, she never gave up. She enrolled in writing school, finished her first crime novel, and will achieve her MBA this fall. She writes as Krymzen Hall at http://www.helium.com/users/421563/show_articles


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Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

 

Challenge Yourself With a Short Story Today!

Some writers dream of Oprah announcing their novel as her next book club selection. Others fantasize the day they accept the Pulitzer Prize. Few authors daydream about receiving two contributor copies after having a short story published. Yet, writing short stories can improve your writing skills and increase your marketability.

The following is a section of an article I wrote about short stories that appeared on the Tickled by Thunder website a few years ago. Here are three reasons why writing a short story might help you become a better writer.

SENSE OF COMPLETION
Writing short stories gives you a sense of completion. Writers often complain, “It took me years and years to get my novel just right.” Novels are like spaghetti sauce, simmering for days; whereas short stories are like the noodles—boiling and ready in twenty minutes.

One of the benefits of writing a short story is the amount of time it takes to complete. You might sketch out a rough draft after three sessions at your computer. Then you set the story aside for a few days before revising and editing. Next, you present the story to a friend or critique group to get other opinions. You again revise and edit, add those finishing touches, and—Voila! You have a completed story. This process takes weeks instead of years.

PUBLICATION CREDITS
Getting anything published is hard work. You must be dedicated to rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting. You have to research the market, learn proper manuscript format, and write a brilliant cover letter. Getting a short story published is like playing a good game of miniature golf—it’s not as easy as it looks, but with knowledge, skill, and practice, you can do it. Getting a novel published is like playing professional golf —it’s much more difficult and fewer people do it.

Let’s look at Writer A and Writer B. Writer A has never published anything and has worked on his fantasy novel for three years. He is finished and looking for an agent. In his cover letter, he writes an exciting summary and a convincing argument of why his work is different from other fantasies. In his closing paragraph, he has nothing to write for previous publications. The agent is not impressed.

Writer B has also completed her first fantasy novel, which she entered into a contest and won first prize. She has written several short stories and had a few published. In her cover letter, she lists her previous writing successes. Remember an agent or editor needs to make money off your book. If no one has read your work or published it, why should someone take an economic risk on you?

Speaking of money, sometimes you get paid for shorter pieces. A lot of magazines pay in copies, but some do give you a check. And the best news about submitting a short story is you don’t need an agent. Editors deal directly with you.

WORK ON THE CRAFT
You can use short stories to strengthen your writing skills. Maybe you need to work on writing realistic dialogue or fitting all five senses into your descriptions. Perhaps you want to use flashbacks but can’t seem to make smooth transitions. Or a friend, who critiqued your opening chapters, said your main character was typical and boring.

Try working out these problems in a short story, focusing on improving those particular weaknesses. For example, if you are having trouble with dialogue tags, write a short story where two characters discuss their daughter’s murder. Practice putting action before or after your dialogue instead of using the word “said.” To solve your typical characters problem, create a new character, listing his unique qualities, and then write a short story about him. See if this method works for you before you change your entire novel.

Write in different points of view or in first person instead of third. If you admire someone’s writing style, you could try a similar story. If you take risks, attempt various styles or voices, and focus on your weaknesses, you will grow as a writer.

Happy Writing!
Margo Dill
www.margodill.com

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

 

What He Said/She Said About Attributive Clauses

By Annette Fix

I'll be the first to admit that when I was a newbie writer, I was guilty of using (read: overusing) busy attributives, and I had a bad case of the wrylies. When I look back at some of my early prose, it's completely embarrassing.

You know your dialogue is infected with wrylies if your novel has attributives like these:

The handcuffs clicked around his meaty wrists. "I am not a criminal!" he shouted loudly.

Sara ran around the room waving the lotto ticket. "I won! I'm rich! I'm rich!" she shrieked excitedly.

"Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom," the toddler jabbered incessantly.

"I got fired on Friday, so I guess that means I'm not busy on Monday," she commented wryly.

Focus on the "wrylies" in the sentences above--the use of adverbs explains how the dialogue should be interpreted or how it was uttered.

And there are attributives that use a variety of verbs to convey the speaker's emotion or physical action:

"Your place or mine?" he chuckled.
"You wish," she snorted.
"No one will find out," he smiled.
"I'll tell your wife," she warned.
"You're cute when you're angry," he winked.

Busy attributes try to pack too much into a sentence:

"He broke up with me. And now I'm falling apart," sniffed the attractive blonde as she wiped tears from her clear blue eyes, knowing she would never find another man like the rich doctor she married two years after leaving the leper colony where she grew up.

Take all the dialogue samples above as examples of how NOT to write your character's attributives. "Keep it simple," she said.

Using the "simple said" is the best way to make your attributives invisible to your readers. It won't distract them from the flow of your story. And if you craft your narrative and dialogue well, you won't need to be showy in your attributives.

Trust your readers to pick up on the nuances and tone in the interaction and dialogue between your characters. Don't hit them over the head with overwritten attributives.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

 

Bucking the Trends

It never fails. Once a Harry Potter-like phenomenon hits, dozens of YA books about wizards and magic follow. Some are successful, while others fall into literary oblivion. A huge chick lit book is made into a major motion picture with Hollywood's hottest stars slated to star in it? Expect chick lit to fill the bookshelves in the next year. This is what happens when trends hit the publishing industry. A lot of new writers will get excited and want to jump on the latest bandwagon, prompting scores of them to blindly send out queries and/or manuscripts, explaining why their book is better than the current bestseller.

This is not always the best approach and here's why:

1. Publishing is a slow business: By the time a writer gets a final draft of a manuscript finished, it could be at least six months to a year after the hot new trend debuts. (If it only takes one month to churn out a "polished" manuscript, there's small chance it's really polished.) Once you start on the querying road, it could be another six months to a year before you get a "yes" from an agent or publisher and then another year or two until the book is actually published. Guess what? The trend is probably dead by then.

2. The trend is not really your style: Say the trend is romance with a quirky heroine; she swears like a sailor and chain smokes, but is really kind to puppies and elderly ladies. If this is right up your alley, it'll show with each enthusiastic word you put on paper. If you're more the crime scene analyst type who's trying to catch the latest serial killer and you force yourself to write about the quirky heroine, chances are she won't ring true and you'll hate every word you have to write about her.

3. Many agents aren't interested in the latest trends: While some agents leap onto the latest bandwagon, some are more concerned with writing that will last the test of time, writing that will become the next generation's classics. The last thing they want to see is the next Narnia chronicle; they want a hero who readers remember long after they close the book.

Instead of spending the next year or two of your life hoping to publish a book whose premise will be outdated and tired by the time readers get their hands on it, spend it crafting a book whose characters you love, whose story is true and whose trend is timelessness.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

 

Don't Cheat the Reader

I recently read a couple of books and one stuck with me, while the other annoyed me. Both used a disease-of-the-week plot device, but in the book I liked, it didn't feel like a device; it simply felt like something that could logically happen. Plus, what was more important is how the affected character reacted to having the disease.

Imagine a man who's spent his entire life not quite doing the right thing because he's incapable of it. He's not a bad person, just not the most caring, compassionate guy around. He gets cancer and instead of some miraculous change overcoming him, he deals with the disease the same way he's dealt with life. No pages-long soliloquies follow and I have to admit, it was refreshing to read this realistic portrayal of a dying man.

In the other book, the reader is given hints that one character is ill, but when it comes down to who gets sick, it's another character. This book was like a romantic comedy in book form, so when the main character becomes ill, you just know she's going to recover, right? Wrong. She dies and I felt incredibly cheated by the book as a whole. It was like watching While You Were Sleeping and in the last scene, having Michael Myers from the Halloween movies come in and butcher everyone. It was like death was added to the plot to make the book heavier than it was supposed to be.

One thing that's vital to creating believable fiction is having your characters behave in believable ways. I know, it's fiction, it's all made up, so what's to believe? But readers deserve better than writers acting like literary gods who create whole worlds full of characters who do only what the writers want. You have to listen to your characters and find out what they would do.

If you've created a woman who finds out her husband is cheating, how is she going to react to this news? If you've done a skillful job of outlining her character and adding relevant details, you won't have to wonder about this for long. If she's a fiery, action-oriented woman, readers won't be surprised if she tosses all of his belongings outside a bedroom window before driving to the other woman's house to confront her. But what if she's a quiet, introverted type? Would this behavior be as believable? It can be, but only if you've provided subtle clues beforehand that make the reader think, wow, I didn't see that coming, but I can see how that could happen. For instance, she may be quiet, but what if events shown in flashback reveal a lot of pent-up anger? What if this is only the latest in a string of affairs for the husband and she's finally had enough? However you create her, you're not creating her in a bubble. If you want her to be believable, she has to have prior life experiences that make her behave the way she does right now.

If you want your readers to think and ultimately be satisfied by what you've written, don't cheat them or yourself by making your characters do what they know they would never do.

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