Friday, August 31, 2012

Every Other Friday - Gerri Brousseau Interview

Gerri was born and raised in Connecticut. She attended Central Connecticut State University where she majored in English Literature. As a young girl growing up in Waterbury, Gerri spent her summers writing stories and often times, together with neighboring girls her age, would present original plays for an audience of their parents. When she took a job that required her to commute four hours a day by train to and from work. After about a year and a half of reading at least a book a week, she decided to make the time work for her, when one night after a strange dream about a dream catcher, she was inspired to write her first book. 

A Pirate’s Ransom is her debut novel and was released August 22, 2012.
According to Legend will be released in November, 2012. 

Tell me about A Pirate's Ransom.

It's about despair-filled Lady Catherine, and it begins as she boards the ship for England, and toward marriage to man she’s never met—the Duke of Devonshire. But the sea is no place for a lady.  She’s captured by the Pirate Captain, Edmund Drake and held for ransom; a ransom that has nothing to do with coin. When she’s stolen from him, she becomes the pawn in a dangerous rivalry between two pirates—the handsome pirate Captain Edmund Drake and his notorious and fearsome opponent, Blackbeard. Which pirate will decide her fate? And who will pay... A Pirate’s Ransom?
What drove you to write A Pirate’s Ransom?
When I first came up with the idea of writing a pirate story, I wanted to have a heroine who was strong willed. The story takes place in the 1700’s and back then, women had very little say in the way their lives went. I felt compelled to write about a woman who, despite the situations she finds herself in, takes charge of her life. I wanted her to be strong and independent, yet feminine and vulnerable. I hope I have succeeded in creating such a heroine in Lady Catherine.  
Who did you write it for?
I first write for myself, because I love to write.  I enjoy telling stories. and I am told I have a knack for it. Secondly, I write to entertain and will hopefully develop a large fan base. I will always write for myself, but then, I will also write for them.
What were your biggest obstacles?
My biggest obstacle is the doubt monster. He sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear, telling me what a horrible writer I am. But, what’s great about writing fast is that you don’t have time to doubt yourself. 
What are your productivity tips?
I write every day. A very wise friend (Peter) once told me you can’t edit a blank page. So, I write, and even if it’s crap, I can go back and fix it later. My advice is to keep writing and write FAST.  Don’t think – just write. Since taking Peter’s workshop, I have written A Pirate’s Ransom, which was released by Soul Mate Publishing in August, 2012 (, as well as a novella entitled, "To Kill a Monarch," which I have just submitted to them for publication. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Where Writers Can Find Productivity Ideas

I'm always on the lookout for inspiration and good advice on writing more productively. This has become even more important to me as I have attempted to regularly point my @howtowritefast followers toward articles they might find useful. There are dozens of useful sites out there (and I'd love the hear what your favorites are). Today, I'm sharing a few that I've tweeted about. I hope you enjoy them.

Writing Forward The writing doctor’s little black bag   (Courtesy Melissa Donovan) ‏@melissadonovan

The Write Practice  Good advice in bite-sized portions, and an exercise to bring it home (Courtesy Joe Bunting) @joebunting

Charlotte Rains Dixon She breaks it down and makes it clear, clear, clear (Courtesy Charlotte Rains Dixon) @Wordstrumpet

Storyfix  Tough love for people who aspire to a career in writing (Courtesy Larry Brooks) @storyfix

WORDPlay  Thoughtful and original advice (Courtesy K.M. Weiland) @KMWeiland

Mystery Writing Is Murder Reports from the trenches (Courtesy Elizabeth S. Craig) @elizabethscraig

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post Mortem for a Writing Project

What went right? What went wrong?

In the lab and later in consulting, I was taught the value of looking over a project when I completed it. Asking a series of specific questions after finishing a work of prose (novel, short story, article, script, speech) can also be valuable, and it is a great way to gain efficiencies that will help you be more productive.

When you do a post mortem presents interesting choices. I like to do them after I've sent a manuscript into the world, when there is potential for a check coming back. But you can do a post mortem just before you submit it to a critique group or when you decide to shelve it or when you decide it should be shredded.

A good post mortem starts with the question at the top of this post. Begin with the positive, so you don't fall into a guilt spiral. Even the most disastrous work has some successes, and it is easy to forget them unless you intentionally call them out. On the other hand, what went wrong may be driven by the actions of someone else, but you can always look to yourself for a deeper understanding of where you may have let the wrong person in too soon, pressed the wrong button, or signed up to work with the wrong people.

Beyond these general questions, here are the specific ones I use when I do a post mortem.
  • Was this project worth my time? Did I make the right choice in taking it on? I have at times become enamored with a second rate idea. At other times, I've accepted an assignment that was a drudgery. Bad choices in both cases (except the time I did a tedious assignment at ten times my normal rate).
  • Did I succeed in what I intended to do? Did I explain something, illustrate a theme, create an emotion, or bring a fascinating character to life?
  • Did I succeed in bringing the ten things I love most to my audience? (I always list the things that make me passionate about a project before I begin it, and often as a step along the way. I'll write more about this in a future post.)
  • Did I find a practice I should adopt or did I vary a current practice in an interesting way? This is often where my process book gets a new entry or a reliable process gets retuned so it becomes more effective. It was a post mortem that added text to speech as a part of my regular proofing process.
  • Did I learn a new skill? Did I try something new? You don't get better if you don't put into practice what you learn and find opportunities to stretch. One of the hardest things I did was write a novel from a single point of view. All the energy I got from switching between different characters and leaving them in cliffhanger situation was gone and I had to find new ways to build tension -- ways that have served me well since.
  • Did I go off course? Sometimes a yes here means I wasted time -- time I might save in the future. Sometimes going off course is a good thing.
  • Did I leave something undone or underdone? No poem is finished, it's abandoned, right? If I had more time, what would I work on and why?
  • Was I the right person to do this project? A tough but necessary question. There are many works I admire that I would make a hash of.
  • Is there an aspect that I'm not ready to do yet? On the other hand, if I keep at this writing thing, I may be able to write scenes and arguments that are currently beyond my grasp. I met a writer who, every year or so, wrote from the point of view of a black man. (He is white.) These attempts ended up in a drawer. Then I read a story where he pulled it off brilliantly. He had developed empathy and knowledge because of many years of trying.
  • Did I improve as a writer? I hope the answer is always yes. Truthfully, it isn't. But I keep asking.
These questions represent a mix that leads to positive and negative answers, and answers that probe the art, the craft, and the professional processes. Together, they encourage me to grow and learn. I write the answers, and I take a hard look at what I've written. This work doesn't count as my writing for the day, but it is essential to my productivity.

Have you ever done a post mortem of a writing project? Has it helped? Do you use different questions?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Deadlines and Commitments

Most of us are trained from an early age to work toward delivery deadlines. In early grades, there is homework due the next day. In later grades, term papers are added.

Now, rushing to meet a deadline and working under pressure is a bad idea for most of us, but we can use deadlines and commitments to maintain (or even raise) our productivity. They can help by:
  • Encouraging us to plan out our work, with specific task toward delivery done each day.
  • Putting a line under a project so we stop tweaking beyond what is reasonable.
  • Providing a sense of the arc of our careers, with measured milestones.
  • Providing a point for reflection -- we can schedule a real post mortem of a project only when it is done. (More on project post mortems tomorrow.)
  • Giving us a date at which we can share a project without dissipating our interest. (Too often, people use up their enthusiasm before a work is finished because they get the elicit praise prematurely.)
Other than spec work, my nonfiction work always has deadlines. For fiction, I've had to find ways to set my own. Here's some of what I've done:
  • Estimate the hours left based on my history and individual tasks (rewrite a scene, not write a novel), add 50%, and mark the date on a calendar.
  • Work toward a contest deadline. (There are lots of contests out there. Check out Stephie Smith's matrix for examples.)
  • Join an online writers group with a regular page requirement.
Of course, you can achieve something similar with commitments. Many writers have time or word requirements for each day. Aimee Bender suggests a contract with a friend. And I've suggested making a commitment to yourself each day for the next day's work.

What transforms these commitments into finished works is getting them working toward an overall goal and making sure that they include all the steps toward creating a final work. I know diligent writers who create nothing but first drafts (often incomplete) or who have been rewriting the same book for years.

Most of us have been pushed by the education apparatus to make deadlines and commitments part of our work process. I have mixed feelings about what that does to us. Do we lose some of our creativity? Does it cause us to spend less time in the moment? Do we miss experiences and mute our responses? Probably all of the above. But, since we have internalized deadlines and commitments, why shouldn't put them to work to make us more productive writers?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Five HTWF Posts with Advice on Rewriting

Rewriting is the secret to writing productively. You can't draft at the speed of thought if you don't have confidence that you can turn that raw material into a finished manuscript. But, even though rewriting demands your full attention, your approaches to rewriting can be made more efficient.

Here are five posts that provide help in getting the most out of your rewriting sessions.
  • Rewrite 1 - Talk to yourself  You owe it to yourself, no matter what kind of writing you do, to read your work out loud at least once. It exposes errors, awkward phrasings, convoluted logic, and ambiguities.
  • Rewrite 2 - Give It a Rest  The writer has a head full of knowledge about the scenes in the story -- none of which is of value to the audience. So breaks are essential to editing a book and getting the story told in a way that best serves the audience.
  • Rewrite 3 - Structure, Structure, Structure  The right structure has a huge impact on the pacing of the story, and that allows the reader's engagement to rise with fewer distractions. Get the structure right, and the readers will turn the pages.
  • Rewrite 4 - Using Theme to Trim Your Story Understanding the theme can  reignite your interest in your story and help you to cut it down to the required page length.
  • Rewrite 5 - Cutting scenes and filling holes  A mixed bag of challenges and rewards.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene

All the riveting, memorable, captivating, and emotionally involving bits of fiction happen as scenes play out. While it is possible to have an image that, in isolation, hits you in the gut (think of the eye being cut in The Andalusian Dog), scenes are what really stick.

The best scenes are stories in and of themselves, with beginnings, middles, and ends. We are likely to replay them for ourselves and can take them out of the whole and tell them to our friends. In fact, if someone were to ask you what you liked best about a book, a movie, or a play, chances are good that you would relate a complete scene to them.

Writers depend on scenes to deliver plot turns and emotional payoffs. Big stories -- the ones that become popular -- have scenes that people love to tell their friends about. Look up your favorite movies on YouTube, and you will probably find your favorite scenes, carefully selected from the whole.

I got thinking about scenes and how to make them bigger when I read a wonderful blog post, "Making Every Scene Special," by Hal Croasmun. His main point is that every special scene has an essence. The example he offers is from Notting Hill, and it has as its essence humiliation. Croasmun rightly rejects a weaker description of the scene, "discovering she has a boyfriend." To get to the essence requires a single, emotionally charged word. Which of us cannot taste a past humiliation, based just on hearing that one word?

Other words have this same power: Triumph, sacrifice, revelation, and all seven of the deadly sins (lust, pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and envy). 

You can play the game with memorable scenes, and develop a sense for essence. 
  • "Luke, I am your father." (revelation, betrayal)
  • "Are you looking at me?" (wrath, madness)
  • "Frankly, I don't give a damn. (rejection)
  • "As you wish." (revelation, true love)
Then you can look at your own scenes -- especially those that are pivotal to the story you are telling. Is it easy to determine the essence? Can you carve away everything that is not contributing and enrich the scene with more that reflects the essence?

If you get the essence right in all you major scenes, people will be dying to share those scenes with others. And, chances are, your story will connect with a larger audience. 

What are your favorite scenes and how to they express essence, and how do they impact the work as a whole? 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Draft 7 - Writing with Intent

It may seem that writers create something out of nothing. Often when I sit down to write, I have no more going on in my head than a hankering for English Breakfast tea. Luckily, somewhere beyond my conscious mind, the elves are at work putting together words and images and ideas.
Those elves are sloppy. Whatever they do comes through as a mishmash that may touch my heart, but is sure to insult my inner critic: 
  •  What’s with all those adverbs? 
  • Could dialogue be more wooden?
  • Are you trying to gross me out?
  • That’s a cliché!

Peace, my little friend. I know you will make it all right during revisions.
It helps to keep the inner critic calm if I the prose has something to do with my current project and if I have an occasional thrill along the way. That doesn’t always happen. (You have those days, too, right?) The trick I use to have more writing sessions that are full of words I can use and positive moments is writing with intent.
With nonfiction, writing with intent is pretty straightforward. I have already defined the purpose of the work and the audience beforehand. I know what tune I want the audience humming when they are through.
I’ve done my research, so there is plenty of content to draw from. And, though the ultimate choice on structure will determine how successful the piece will be, I can always fall back to using a conventional structure, like the inverted pyramid, for my first draft.
You plotters probably have many of the these answers at hand – research done, audience in focus, protagonist’s goal and motivation for the scene defined and the disaster at the end of the scene specified. A hardcore plotter knows a lot when he or she sits down – which is why plotters don’t get stuck as often.
But… Is there hope for pantsers (like me)? Yes. Usually, a pantser sits down with something that can be turned into intent.
  • If the character is speaking (or you hear dialogue) or you have a clear idea, the intent is to capture it faithfully, wherever it goes. 
  • If the scene’s ending is in mind, the intent is to bridge from the last scene to that ending. It may be clear how that could be done (if so, good). If it’s not, brainstorming ten or more ways to link the two endings and choosing one can provide intent. But do this the day before, so the elves have something to work with. 
  • You may sit down with a strong emotion (or develop one through prompts or actor’s exercises), and the intent here would be to convey that emotion. I often find that beginning with words and phrases that reflect my mood, rather than with sentences, gets me off to a good start. 
  • For lack of a better word, you may sit down with an orientation toward the scene. This is a sense of possibility that, for me, is a recognition that I am in the story space. It feels roughly equivalent to my taking myself to my grandfather’s farm or my first grade classroom via imagination. When I find myself oriented within the story, I allow myself to be present. This is the only pantser circumstance I know of where intent might be counterproductive. Any attempt to focus, can move me out of this space, so I wait and allow the story possibilities to overwhelm me. And then I come back to the real world and convey as much of that experience as I can.

But what if you have nothing? Ideally, you have something available from the day before. I never finish a writing day without writing a full sentence about what the next day’s task will be.
Otherwise, your intent becomes very basic – putting down nouns and verbs. This is what Damon Knight called (with more explicit language) defecating masonry. Every professional I know has had to do this. The most useful preparation for this is an appeal to your commitment to being a writer. Whatever mantra reminds you of your promise to yourself, your dedication to your vocation, your obligation to your audience, and your conviction in your identity as a writer – now is the time to pull it out and start chanting.
What about you? Does your intent when you sit down make your writing session more productive? How do you make sure you begin with intent?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rewrite 5 - Cutting scenes and filling holes

Surgery is painful, and editing away scenes that you have struggle through is surgery without anesthesia. Here are a few thoughts that might be useful:
  • Time is your friend. For all the other advantages of giving your manuscript a rest, one of them is it reduces your emotional attachment to the prose.
  • Your instincts are right. Your logical brain will argue for many of the bits that must go, and it will make a convincing case: 
    • This scene reveals character.
    • The reader needs this backstory.
    • Dumping this will wreck your pacing.
    • The next scene makes no sense without this scene
    • Every book has departures like this, so it's okay.
    • Oh, what clever brains we have. And how they deceive us. Trust your gut and cut away.
  • You can fix it (and it's worth it). Yes. Your logical brain is often right about the havoc created by cutting material. But you can always repair it. After all, you know what needs to be fixed. And guess what. The book will be much better because of the sacrifices you've made.
  • You can always undo. If you feel stress when you cut, save the copy first as a previous version or create a file of cuttings that you can use just in case. I tend to do this, and there are a few times a year when I go back and grab one of the cuttings. I've even used cuttings for entirely different stories.
Because of the cuts you make as you rewrite and the vagaries of the drafting process, you'll have holes to fill. There are risks here of being less imaginative, creating variations in the tone, and blocks. What's up?
  • Filling holes puts you back into draft mode. You need to be patient, forgiving, and uncritical. Shut up that inner critic, catch a daydream, and write away. 
  • Filled holes suffer by comparison. They stand out as ugly siblings of the prose around them.
  • Filled holes need to be rewritten.  This may entail waiting for perspective. It certainly means reading the words aloud and bringing the full force of your rewriting process to bear on the words.
  • Filled holes may need to be cut. They may not solve the problem. They may even reveal that there is no problem to solve.
  • Filled holes should not stand out. That means they need to be in context before your job is done. Reading the scene that comes before, the filled hole and the scene that comes after helps to ensure that things are smooth.
One more tip - you might want to write yourself a note about how you feel after you have gone through these two steps in the writing process. In particular, document your thoughts on how much better it makes the manuscript. When you find yourself in the same position with the next manuscript, this will provide a good reminder that it is all worthwhile.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Eternal Now of Fiction

The currency of our age is immediacy. If you want to grab a reader's attention, you need to attack their senses, desires, anxieties, and hopes. You need to climb into bed with them and have skin to skin contact.

This is not a recipe for pornography. In fact, the reason why pornography (as opposed to erotica) is dull is because it objectifies other people (including the reader). Truly intimate writing reaches our whole selves, just as true love connects on multiple levels. It exists in the eternal now -- past, present, future without limits. How can you achieve this in writing?

The first step is to avoid distancing. Much of the advice given to writers is aimed at this:
  • Avoid passive voice. Who did it? Don't make me guess.
  • Clear out the junk words. Wading though extra verbiage -- just, very, some, a bit -- dilutes the impact.
  • Get to the point. No one likes to read the instructions. Readers want to jump right in. Occasionally, we need explanations so readers don't get lost. But preambles, prologues, and backstory delay real connections with the audience.
  • Don't distract. Bad grammar and misspellings turn readers into editors. So do words that send them to the dictionary (though I actually like it when this happens once in a whild, and it is exactly the right word).
This list could go on, and I would love to hear what pulls you, as a reader,  away from the experience.

What practices make the reading more immediate?
  • A protagonist I can connect with. (Even if I don't like him or her.)
  • A clear, stated purpose for the scene. This orients me and raises questions about whether the protagonist will succeed or fail.
  • A sense of urgency. Nothing can be put off. All decisions are irreversible.
  • Stakes. It matters to the protagonist, so it matters to me.
  • A fresh, compelling voice. I can hear an individual coming through the language on the page.
  • A sensual experience. I have the prompts I need to be completely within the scene.
  • Dialogue I would eavesdrop on. (And I wouldn't want to miss a word.)
  • Specificity. The details are there, and they ring true.
  • A sense of recognition. This is an experience I know on some level, so I believe what I'm reading.
Again, this is not exhaustive. I'll add one more -- dangerous truths. I want to have the sense that the writer is revealing something that is important and difficult to share. This isn't just because sharing secrets reveals the writer trusts me -- although that automatically puts it into the category of being more intimate. It's because such revelations are apart from the day-to-day, and they usually matter. And even if the thesis is conventional, a writer paying a price in risk is more likely to express it in a way that resonates with me.

Cold, distant analysis, complete with charts and numbers, has it's place. I wish more of our political discourse were fact-based. But readers today, especially those giving their time to fiction, want a more immediate experience.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Five HTWF Posts That Are Jumping into the Lead

After almost three full months, HTWF continues to attract new readers, with 3,000 total views from 50 countries. The top ten posts continue to be popular, but a new batch is working its way up the list. Here are five that have gotten the most attention.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bigger 7 – Five Keys to Bigger Emotions

Emotion is what you're selling. This may sound crude. Aren’t writers with high aspirations working toward delivering truth? Revelations? Insights?
Well, yes. But you can have life changing concepts of deep import and never reach a popular audience. (I’m still waiting for the musical based on the Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.) So, go for the heart first, and go as if your life depends on it.
  • Start by caring. If you do not weep, laugh, ache, or rage, neither will your readers. (I have more on this in a previous post .)
  • Create empathy. Make the situation itself one that deeply touches a reader’s values. Family, love of country, and hunger for justice are some of these. Larry Brooks had an amazing blog entry on this recently. Highly recommended.
  • Set things up. Strong emotions do not appear in an instant. They come as a result of a careful journey from the pedestrian to the extraordinary. This means the pacing must be right, without empty phrases and extra words. (I just judge a fiction entry that demonstrated this. I felt the scene had all the right content, but it left me cold. I went in, pulled out extra words, redundant phrases and a few paragraphs that distracted. When I reread the scene, I had tears in my eyes.) Also, it is important to move from one emotion to the other in a natural way. Plutchik provides guidance on this that is particularly valuable.
  • Take a sharp turn. As long as it is justified, surprise is your friend. Life teaches us to guard our emotions. When we see a strong one coming either because of the context or because of a steady deepening of a single emotion, we protect ourselves by using distancing and other coping techniques. Creating contrasts in setting and circumstances catches readers off balance. Laughter at a funeral has more impact than tears because it goes against expectations. Similarly, letting a reader catch his or her breath before an emotional punch will maximize impact. This is why comic relief is so effective.
  • Be poetic. Fresh simile and metaphors make our concepts concrete. They engage our imaginations and bring along connotations that connect the scenes with our emotional lives. The sound of the language can help, too. Music touches us in ways that are difficult to explain, and words that are lyrical or harsh, flowing or colliding, provide the soundtracks for fiction.
This does not exhaust the ways you can create emotion with your writing. What are your approaches? How do you bring tears, chills, chuckles, dread, and anguish to your readers?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Every Other Friday - T.L. Costa Interview

T.L. Costa graduated from Bryn Mawr College, got her Masters of Teaching from Quinnipiac University, and taught high school for five years before becoming a full-time mom and writer.
She has lived in Texas, New York, New Jersey and Spain. Currently, she lives in Connecticut.
T. L. can be found online at her Facebook page ( and on Twitter (@TLCosta1).

Her novel PLAYING TYLER will be released in October of 2013 by STRANGE CHEMISTRY BOOKS.

Tell me about Playing Tyler.
 My book, PLAYING TYLER, basically starts by asking when is a game more than a game?It is about a boy named Tyler MacCandless, who can’t focus, even when he takes his medication. He can’t focus on school, on his future, on a book, on much of anything other than taking care of his older brother, Brandon, who’s in rehab for heroin abuse… again.

Tyler’s dad is dead and his mom has mentally checked out. The only person he can really count on is his Civilian Air Patrol Mentor, Rick. The one thing in life it seems he doesn’t suck at is playing video games, and, well, that’s probably not going to get him into college.Just when it seems like his future is on a collision course with a life sentence at McDonald’s, Rick asks him to test a video game. If his score’s high enough, it could earn him a place in flight school and win him the future he was certain that he could never have. And when he falls in love with the game’s designer, the legendary gamer Ani, Tyler thinks his life might finally be turning around. That is, until Brandon goes MIA from rehab and Tyler and Ani discover that the game is more than it seems. Now Tyler will have to figure out what’s really going on in time to save his brother… and prevent his own future from going down in flames. 

Who did you write it for? For PLAYING TYLER, as well as for the book I am writing now, my target audience is typically the teen boys that usually wouldn’t read because they find no one in books with whom they can relate. There are very few books about boys like Tyler, and I wanted to present a kid that really wants nothing more than to be a hero, to save the people he loves, even though the world would classify him as a kid who “falls through the cracks.” Also, I see an audience with teen girls, the nerdy girls who get very little representation in books, even though they tend to be big readers. (I totally include myself in this category.) 

What are your productivity tips?  
Productivity tips? I have very few of them. When I first started writing I was not productive at all. It took me two years to write a book that will forever live in the ghostly netherworld of this laptop. It was only after I met you and started taking your advice about being productive that I wrote with any kind of speed. I wrote a rough draft of PLAYING TYLER in seven months, and recently I just completed a rough draft of a new novel in four.

Which advice of yours do I take as writer-ly gospel? For one, I have at least a rough outline of plot before I begin, and I know my characters inside and out. Secondly, I now journal in full sentences. Nothing big, just a notebook by the computer where I write out a few sentences about what I am going to write tomorrow. Also, I force myself to disconnect from wifi before I start to write for the day and I hold myself at the computer for a certain period of time (usually an hour with a goal of a thousand words a day.) I use BAGEL for words I don’t know or facts I have to look up later so I don’t lose the flow of the text. Also, for specific plot problems that I am having trouble solving, I write them out on another notebook before I go to bed, and after I’m done reading for the night, I pull out the notebook and look at the questions, so they are the last thing I think about before falling asleep. I don’t always wake up with the answers, but when I do, I feel like a badass.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rewriting 4 - Using Theme to Trim Your Story

Usually, I write short. But for my script, Warriors, I came up with over 160 pages. This meant that I had some serious cutting in front of me to get to a more reasonable length of 110 pages. One of the best tools I used during my rewrite process was identifying the theme of the work.

To me, theme means understanding what you're trying to say. Developing the theme is something I do before I begin writing a speech or other nonfiction. In those instances, understanding what I want to say provides one of the fundamental building blocks for the writing. 

Not so with fiction. I am highly suspicious of beginning an artistic effort with a message. To me it smacks too much of propaganda and the kind of didactic stories I hated when I was a child. Besides, I can't imagine that writing in such a way would be fun.

So I don't even think about the theme on a conscious level for fiction until I have completed a draft. Once I have the words in front of me, I know that my imagination has buried a concept, sometimes a surprising concept, somewhere in the story. It is my job—one of the more pleasant jobs of rewriting—to discover what that is.

For Warriors, this began with my looking at the dialogue. When my characters get talking, they often will state the theme explicitly. As I worked through my manuscript, I came up with several candidates for theme. Sometimes, they were formulated as advice offered by character. More often, they were statements of point of view–here's how the world really works.

Actions can also be clues to the theme, especially if you look at their consequences. When someone robs a convenience store and gets arrested, the obvious theme is, “Crime doesn't pay.” (Unfortunately, most themes, once articulated, seem simple and obvious. This is disappointing, but it isn't a problem for the writer. In fact, the simple formulations are easy to holding your head as you work through your rewrite.) Looking at the key action scenes in my work and the impact they have upon the characters usually provides a lesson of some sort.

In Warriors, where all the hackers hid behind their secret identities, a theme about taking responsibility for your actions emerged. The good news on this for me was that it provided plenty of opportunities for cutting scenes that did not relate to the theme. The bad news was that it left holes in the plot—one of which was the ending. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but that work paid off with a streamlined story that had much more emotional impact. Understanding the theme reignited my interest in the script and, with no strain, helped me to cut it down to the required page length.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rewrite 3 - Structure, Structure, Structure

A hook or a clever phrase can pull a reader into a story, but it is structure that keeps him or her reading.

Many of us learned about structure in school -- topic sentences, inverted pyramids, and the like. Most of these are aimed at clarity more than persuasion or keeping the reader interested (which is why school themes are usually dull and why most people learn to hate writing).

In fact, nonfiction structure, when done well, can go beyond clarity to create interest, action, and enjoyment. For speeches, in particular, the writer may use literary techniques. Nancy Duarte provide a wonderful analysis of speech structure in her TED talk.

I often begin with structure when I write nonfiction. With fiction, however, I tend to be a pantser. I allow myself to meander and explore, and I put off structure until I get to rewriting. I'll provide some insights on the rewriting process in a later blog entry, but here I'll share five ways that I look at my draft to improve its structure:
  1. Story logic - My best ally on doing this is screenwriter Jeff Kitchen, who has provided a method of using logic to analyze scenes in terms of cause-and-effect. He works backward from the ending to the beginning. When you do this with your novel, the scenes that are part of the main plot stand out vividly.
  2. Stakes - The stakes should rise throughout the piece. Do they? Listing them and ranking them according to jeopardy opportunity can expose structural weaknesses.
  3. Story turns - The ends of Acts, the Black Moment, etc. Do they happen at the right times in the story? Are they irreversible? Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff provides a series of articles that spell out what is needed.
  4. Scene beats - Beats within a scene turn the conversation or action in a new direction. In drama, you look for 3-5 beats in a scene, and that's not a bad rule for novels.
  5. White space - Often, just looking at the pages tells me if there is too much narration or too much dialogue crammed into a set of pages. What's "right" varies by story, but it is always worthwhile to make this part of the analysis of story structure.
I go through these in this order. I also do other work that is related to structure (theme and character analysis), but I find these five steps are the most critical. Surprisingly, the payoff for this analysis is emotional more than it is logical.  The right structure has a huge impact on the pacing, which allows engagement to rise without distraction. Get the structure right, and the readers will turn the pages.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bigger 6 - Crazy Bad Villains

I think it was Lee Marvin who was asked how he developed a knack for playing villains. His response was he had never played one.

Of course, villains are the heroes of their own stories. The best comic characters have skewed points of view that they believe in without question. I believe the same is true for villains. If your villain has honor, integrity, intelligence, humor, talent, and a flaw as wide as the Grand Canyon, you have a character who can drive your protagonist to the limit - and drive your story to new heights.

The best villains horrify us because, even if they are aliens, they seem real and personally threatening. In fact, I believe we connect them on a deep level. They expose the potential for evil within us, and that gives them their power.

Too many villains are easy to dismiss. They have cliche backstories; they are sadistic for no reason; they are malformed and ugly. This makes them forgettable, mere plot devices.

Even worse, some writers make the villain an entity instead of an individual. Society may be at fault, but a criminal organization or a corrupt government or a merciless alien species isn't personal enough to really engage an audience. This strategy never works. A villain must have a face.

When villains are fully formed, they can be the most memorable part of the story. They also do the dirty work for you. A real villain will come up with ways to make your protagonist miserable that will shock you. Since they are in a battle for existence and identity, they will do almost anything to win. I've also found that they are uncannily articulate about the reasons for their actions.

Since I am reluctant to be cruel to my protagonist, the villain becomes my best ally in a story. I'm not the one torturing the hero/heroine I love. It's the villain's fault.

A great way to create bigger villains is to make a list of you favorite and most memorable ones. Study these and dig into why you connect with them. And don't forget to find the piece that is just like you.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Those Voices in Your Head

No, you are not crazy. Hearing voices is completely normal for a writer. It also can be a source of amazing productivity to the point where it becomes difficult to capture all the words as they burst forth.

Capture There have been times when I have had words streaming through my head until I sat at the keyboard. Then nothing. I have no idea why this is, but a quick switch to pencil and paper usually saves the day. (Sometimes, when the words are all over the place, I need one of my flip chart pages so I can put words on a page in relation to space. Very odd things result, with big, bold script and tiny cribbed notes to myself. Also, arrows, circles, and pen scribbles with different colored inks.)

Dictation can also work here. Whatever the voice wants, I do. In addition, I make a point of taking the time to honor the voice, even when it is inconvenient (say, the middle of the night).

Cultivation Voices often come with no prompting. When they don't, I have a number of techniques:
  • I interview the voice.
  • I do automatic writing.
  • I write exactly what feels worst and most inappropriate so the voice will fight back.
  • I use acting techniques to tap into an emotion that seems likely to attract the voice.
  • I do something physical and stop thinking about the story entirely.
  • I avoid books, movies, and songs that have strong voices that are NOT mine.
Kinds The voice may be the one used for first-person narration or is my principle for a speech. This is pretty straightforward.

For third-person works, it could be any of the characters. If it is a main character, this is almost always useful. I got a tip at a conference to cultivate the villain's voice first. This is sometimes disturbing, but I have to admit that it comes more easily and with more force than the voice of the protagonist.

If the voice is that of a secondary character, it can be a problem. Pushy secondary characters can take over and try to tell their stories. Occasionally, this is the story that should be told, but more often (in my experience), it is a distraction.

Finally, there is the voice of the muse. My muse has come in loud and clear during plotting, especially when there is a turning point. She also shows up when I am facing a blank screen that calls for a new story. She is always right, even when she's wrong.

Which voices do you hear? How do you handle them? Which make you more productive? Which get in the way of productivity?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Picking up the Thread - Reentering the Interrupted Story

When you are in the middle of writing a story, working at full speed with the next scene in plain sight, coming up the with the next words is (usually) easy. When you have been away from a story, you're apt to be lost, disoriented, and stalled.

You can end up in this situation if your commitment fails, you are working from a collection of notes that came together while you were dedicated to another work, or life gets in the way. For me, it usually happens when I am forced to redirect because of a deadline on another work. But whatever has taken you away from a work in progress and allowed it to grow cold, there are things you can do.
  • Read it aloud to get the sound of the story in your head again. (It is best to do this the day before.)
  • Write a list of ten things you love about your story. These can be about any element that appeals to you, but the ones that get your pulse going (twist endings, witty characters, heartbreaks) are more likely to help you reenter the story world than the practical ones (high concepts, saleability, editorial interest).
  • Interview your villain. (You can interview your protagonist, too, but the villain is more likely to be chatty and engaging at the draft stage.) Be sure to ask rude questions.
  • Write a pastiche of a scene in your story. It can be one that is already written. I once did this for a story of mine, recreating a favorite scene in the styles of Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. It got my engines going again, and it started a flood of ideas for new scenes.
Please note that all of these are "writerly activity." It's not a good idea to count such work against your day's goals. Nonetheless, you may find these exercises valuable as you work to pick up the thread of your story and get back to the fast draft.

What do you do to get back into a story that has gone cold?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to Write Fast – Bigger Posts

I often classify HTWF posts to make it easier for you to explore specific elements of their writing to collect tips easily. Thus, I have collections of Draft posts, Prep posts, Rewriting posts, etc. One series is aimed at getting bigger audiences for your work, and here they are. Enjoy!
Bigger 5 – Using Urban Legends

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bigger 5 – Using Urban Legends

Do you believe in hooks caught in car doors, stolen kidneys, and killer spiders hiding in hairdos? If you do, you have been tricked by an urban legend, and you’re not alone. Reporters, police, and probably your friends have also been fooled and have faithfully passed on these stories.
As a writer who wants to reach a large audience, urban legends like these provide models for tales that will go viral. I collected these stories even before I knew what they were called, and I have every book by legend collector Jan Harold Brunvand. I have used the elements of urban legends to connect with readers and audiences.
I recommend that you study them yourself to get a visceral sense of the structure and tone. It’s fun and it will help your writing. But here are a few bits you can apply right away.
·      The protagonists are easy to identify with, often reasonably identified as a friend of a friend.
·      The protagonists are often careless or actively involved in a “sin.”
·      They either take a chance or come in contact with someone who is truly evil.
·      The consequences (sometimes narrowly escaped) are always big and frequently surprising.
·      The story as a whole is plausible, although it often goes to the limit of plausibility (and can even fall apart in the face of serious analysis).
·      Most have strong lessons, even warnings (though some are more humorous).
Most urban legends confirm the status quo and many take advantage of underlying racism and prejudice, unfairly targeting minorities, corporations, and government agencies. Obviously, you won’t want to reinforce such attitudes in your own work, and it is good to be aware of how your story might be reshaped to do harm. But these can be flipped in a story by a talented writer, and positive lessons and fresh insights can take advantage of the power of urban legends, too.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Every Other Friday - Carter Phipps interview

Carter Phipps is an author, award-winning journalist, and leading voice in the emerging fields of evolutionary philosophy and spirituality. For the past decade, as executive editor of "EnlightenNext" magazine, he has been at the forefront of contemporary discourse on science and spirit, and his writings have played a key role in making important new thinking accessible to a wider audience.

 Tell me about Evolutionaries.

The book makes the case that there is a new type of vision and visionary emerging in the world today based around the idea of evolution. In the book, I introduce a movement of visionary scientists, philosophers, and spiritual thinkers who are quietly forging a new understanding of evolution that honors science, reframes culture, and radically updates spirituality.

Their contribution, I suggest, may one day be seen as equaling the Western Enlightenment in its dramatic, culture-changing power. I call them “Evolutionaries,” and this book provides the first popular guide to these exciting minds who are illuminating the secrets of our past and expanding the vistas of our future.

What drove you to write your book? Who did you write it for?

I was aware that no one had written a popular book describing this new movement and that it was an important cultural movement that needed to be seen and heard by a much larger cross-section of people. I felt this book would facilitate that. I hoped it would reach everyone from social activists to spiritual seekers to open-minded intellectuals to curious thought leaders and introduce a powerful new way of contextualizing and understanding human life and the journey of human civilization.

What were your biggest obstacles?

I lead a full and active life with lots of projects and distracting concerns. Finding the time to write and to research was my biggest challenge as well as learning (or perhaps teaching myself is a better way to say it) how to actually write a book as this was my first.

What are your productivity tips?

I wrote a significant percentage of my book in probably 10% of the time I worked on the book. The reason? Several book retreats were critical to the process. Focused writing retreats provided a deeper immersion in which much of the book took shape. I could spend many hours day to day and not be nearly as productive as I was in those dedicated retreats. In truth, I found both disciplined writing for several hours most days of the week combined with occasional focused retreats were crucial. And never underestimate the power of real deadlines to focus the mind. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser - Refilling the Well 4

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
   - Albert Einstein

Last time, I wrote about the value of curiosity to writers. But do you actively develop your curiosity? Do you know how to do it?

We all know how curious children can be, so it’s not surprising that developing child-like virtues can support developing curiosity. Humility, tenacity, wonder and play all provide elements needed to explore an odd or unexpected fact. But some traits that might not be considered virtuous (though they are certainly child-like) can come in handy, too. Obsession, rudeness and unreasonableness may be just as important to develop… within bounds.

At the same time, some more adult characteristics are important. Doubt is chief among these, especially as training or the voices of those less curious provide explanations that may be almost right. In addition to a healthy skepticism, innovators who want to be more curious should take the view that things are unfinished and that there is room for improvement. Sometimes demanding a higher standard and imagining that it is achievable goes hand in hand with a curious nature.

Here are a few suggestions on things to do to help you develop your own curiosity:
  • Put yourself into new situations that challenge your worldview (and imagine they are true)
  • Actively observe, rigorously recording the input to all your senses
  • Come up with your own list of great questions
  • Question the status quo
  • Give yourself permission to look at things differently
  • Build your skills at investigating
  • Have a perspective
  • Make time for curiosity
  • Be persistent
  • Keep notes on your observations, insights and conclusions
  • Solve puzzles
  • Get other perspectives

In addition, you can create an environment that stimulates curiosity. Make sure it includes:
  • Adequate resources for basic needs
  • Enough free or available time
  • Exposure to variety of inputs
  • A limit to distractions, especially when you are likely to be in a curious state
  • Forgiveness for wrong roads taken and work not done
  • Proper training and tools for investigation and analysis

Unbridled curiosity is probably bad for a career and bad for relationships.  But most writers are well aware that creating something new is a risk endeavor.  Curiosity can be chancy, but the right dose of curiosity can make writing more fun and lead to unexpected benefits. 

This entry is derived in part from an article I wrote while at IBM, Need to Know: How curiosity drives innovation.