Sunday, September 30, 2012

Refilling the Well with Ideas and Desire - 4+2 posts

Sometimes, you sit down to write and have nothing to say. Or you just avoid that uncomfortable situation by not sitting down at all. Here are a few posts on refilling the well so that the words come more easily.

I've also added two related posts for those who have been away from writing or who know what they want to work on, but need to reengage with the material. Enjoy!

The Curiosity of the Writer - Build, expand, and satisfy your need to know.
Escaping the Filter Bubble - Do you seek out diverse opinions? Or do you avoid people who disagree with you?
Developing Your Curiosity - Where do you get your ideas?
Curiouser and Curiouser - The curiosity work out program.

... and
Get Your Groove Back! - Back, after a long lay off from writing.
Picking Up the Thread - When you are driven out of the paradise of having words tumbling out one after another, there is a path back in.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bigger 12 -The Confidence Factor

I have confidence in confidence alone!
Besides Which you see I have confidence
In me!
-- Richard Rodgers

This morning, I woke up with a country song, complete wiht lyrics I never knew I'd memorized, running through my head. When I write speeches, quotes from Abe Lincoln, Hunter S. Thompson, or Seneca show up at just the right time to clarify a point. I never know what useful or instructive snippet will pop up in my mind, but I've learned to pay attention.

The lyrics above, about confidence, arrived as I was reading a self-published novel. While the back of my mind was pointing out formal errors in spelling, grammar, and structure, the rest of me was lost in the story. It isn't unusual for this to happen if the plot has me hooked. I'm often sucked in when the author has taken time to build a minimal amount of empathy for the character, the need is clear, and there are a few surprises.

None of this was really happening in the work I was reading (though, I'm sure from the author's other work that all will be well eventually). What kept me turning the pages was confidence alone. Absolutely nothing about the work was tentative. I could tell he knew he deserved my time.

My favorites works of art and the stories that entertain me most seem to glow with self confidence. The artists, whether they are writers, actors, directors, or contributors in less obvious ways, like lighting, are all in. They bet everything, knowing they'll win. And I can't help but go along.

Where does such confidence some from? I'm not sure. I've put together a tentative list, and I'd love to see additions from readers:
  • Mastery - With some writers, you can tell from the first sentences that they have taken the time and effort to learn the techniques and approaches of storytelling. In particular, they have an array of tools to choose from. They use the right one, and they execute flawlessly.
  • Warts and all - Does it seem to be a contradiction to say the confident writers have humility? I've found the best are willing to expose their weaknesses -- prejudice, bad judgment, ignorance -- on the page in a matter-of-fact way that grounds their strengths. You know that, like you, they are flawed, and that makes their hard-won wisdom all the more valuable.
  • Attitude - Confident writers seem to approach their work with a sense that they will succeed. That bleeds through on every page.
  • Bona fides - I love it when writers have done their homework and understand their subjects in detail. They don't need to bury me with facts to prove they know what they're talking about. They may only expose ten percent of what they learned, but it is the right ten percent.
  • Respect - I have confidence in the writer if the writer has confidence in me. Don't talk down or get overly explicit, or I'll walk away.
  • Voice - Confident writers don't sound like anyone else but themselves. It may even be that confidence is what we mean when we speak of the writer's voice.
  • Courage - When a writer goes someplace difficult -- when he or she takes a risk in the story, in exposing a sensitive issue, in sharing a dark moment, or in speaking truth to power -- don't you want to go along?
As a clarification, I'm not talking about charm. That is another way to lure people in. It may have confidence included, but charm relies mostly on sensual appeal, the ability to reflect back attitudes and emotion, and deception (such as telling us what we want to hear). Charm is to confidence what infatuation is to true love. A charming person's impact is likely to fade after they leave the room or when you discover your wallet is empty. Beware of Prince Charming.

Also, confident art may include less than confident characters, and usually does. I saw play Philip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. No one could imagine that Willy is confident, but the actor playing him inhabited the role without hesitation. He commanded the stage even as his character's weaknesses were exposed. "Attention must be paid?" No kidding.

I am coming to believe that you can't write a bigger story without confidence that shows through. Mastering the tools is a requirement, and writers should never stop working to perfect their craft. Some people also find pep talks useful. And I know people who keep a worthy adversary in mind when they sit down to write -- often with "Screw you, [editor or other worthy adversary]" scrawled on Post-It above their writing space.

Writing fast helps. It shuts down the inner critic. A "What the hell?" attitude enables confidence. I've seen the difference with my students who have jumped in and decided to have some fun. They may (usually) end up with horrifyingly crude pages, but the text is engaging in ways their more considered work isn't. Rewriting, not drafting, is the best time for doubts.

How does confidence affect your writing? Have you found ways to instill it? What are your favorite approaches?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rewrite 6 - Getting Descriptions Just Right

I struggle with descriptions in rewriting. It's feast or famine. Either I have an avalanche of details that buries a reader or a scene so spare it leaves readers wandering in a void. This is such a persistent problem for me that I've created lists to help me move quickly in cutting or reimagining descriptions.

When there is a feast of description:
  • Setting - Here, the biggest problem is what I call throat clearing. When I want to get going on a scene but my brain doesn't, weather becomes very important (especially clouds). Every stick of furniture in the room needs a paragraph. I worry about linoleum scuffs and pet hair on the couch. Readers don't care. Cut, cut, cut. Instead, which words anchor me in space? What does the setting tell me about the characters? What do I need to know so the plot makes sense?
  • Characters - I often have something that could be used by the police to identify a suspect. This slows things down and leaves little to the imagination. I highlight telling and memorable details, the minimum needed to create interest, raise questions, and distinguish this character from the others. I also make sure that the number of words used are proportional to the character's role.
  • Something unique - I get carried away here, especially in something like science fiction. You probably don't care what the exact dimensions of the time machine are and what color the paint job is. If I force ranked the elements of description, which ones would be at the top?
  • Mood - Cutting to the bone can make description functional, so sometimes I need to go back and see if my trimming has destroyed the mood. Providing that mood is appropriate, I may give a reprieve to a sentence or two.
  • Overall - Length is important.  White space is important. Pages in a story cannot have too many big blocks of description. I love delectable prose, but it presents dangers. Unless it is done to make the passage memorable, too many language tricks (alliteration, metaphors) can distract and weigh down your work. Kill your darlings? This is what Faulkner was talking about.
By the way, detailed observation is your friend. In my first chemistry class, the teacher had us write down everything we could about the flame of a bunsen burner. Some people wrote down the colors they saw and the shape. I started there, but I went on to fill a couple of pages with temperature at different distances, changes over time, the heat distortions (schlieren effect), sounds, and smells. I collect observations, especially when I am in strange places or emotionally charged situations.

They are good to draw upon, but they are raw material. I would never cut and paste my observations from a visit to morgue into a detective story. Details on that level, according to Stephen King, are for instruction manuals, not stories. Writers need to be selective.

Cut, but don't erase. Save your trimmings to a notes file. They may be useful later on.

A fill-in-the-blanks approach to description will not work. I really need to put myself back into draft state with the internal editor turned off. But questions can get me going when I'm telling myself to let the reader figure it out.

When there is a famine:
  • Setting - I begin with a minimum of space, light and texture, something I learned from Script Guru Max Adams. I took her Visual Writing course (highly recommended). She has a short article here.
  • Characters - I make sure I have identified one distinctive feature (a suggestion from Kristan Higgins). His rough calloused hands. Her sleepy eyes. If one doesn't stand out in my mind, I choose one based on the inner state of the character. In "Chinatown," Evelyn has a flaw in the iris of her eye.
  • Something unique - When I write about strange worlds (SF, fantasy, or exotic locales), there may be objects or species that readers have no reference points for. I need to provide what they need 1) to get oriented and 2) fit it into the story.
  • Mood - This is always the toughest for me. It often emerges from building up the bits from scenes, characters, and objects. But sometimes I need to force myself to think about the emotional arc of the scene or to read a scene from another work and see what the mood is and how it is created.
  • Overall - I need to evaluate how the description contributes to the logic, pacing and emotion of the scene and the work as a whole.
Of course, after I have released these descriptions from my brain, they are often overdone. I'm forced to go back to the feast questions to bring them back down to size. (Both of these are really different sides of the same coins, so my shuffling back and forth is unsurprising.)

With all of these, attention to audience makes a difference. Kids need an approach to description that that offers more about things that are obvious to adults and less in total. SF and fantasy readers tolerate more description than thriller readers. So keep specific readers' needs in mind. Readers are the beginning and the end of the rewrite, and this includes description.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bite-Sized To-Dos for Writers

I'm obsessive about not wasting time. Whether on hold, in line or waiting for a bus, I always have something productive at hand to do. Before I became a writer, I was already creating two-column to-do lists. One column would have the traditional tasks and appointments of the day. The other would list what I call "interstitial" work -- things that can be done, or at least reach a stopping point, in 15 minutes or less.

Some people automatically fill those slivers of time with worthwhile activities. They sing or daydream or say a prayer or make observations or read a few pages of a book. I seem to need a longer list with activities that add up to help achieve my larger goals. Not surprisingly, most of what's on my list now is aimed at writing, and using such a list is one of the primary ways I boost my productivity. What's on my list?
  • Small business tasks - I can complete a simple invoice for freelance writing in less than 15 minutes, using older invoices as templates. I can research a new market or answer a client's question. (I keep questions that take a little thought in a queue rather than refer to email. For me, email and social media can be a time suck, and I prefer to schedule my interactions with them.)
  • Brainstorming - I like generating lists of ten (or twenty). Ten blog ideas. Ten ways my character can escape a prison cell. Ten things I love about my novel. Most of what's on such lists is useless, but pushing for more leads to pleasant surprises.
  • Outlining - For smaller work, like writing this blog, all I need is a blank index card. For building on the outline of a novel, I usually need to be carrying a card that lists the pivotal scenes so I can fill in ideas that fit in between.
  • Sorting - When ideas tumble out, they often are not it the most effective order. It only takes a few minutes to take a list of obstacles a character faces and organize them according to what is at risk. (This helps me ensure I am constantly raising the stakes so readers get hooked.) With essays, I organize the arguments so the second most compelling notion comes first and the most compelling concludes the piece.
  • Character interviews - The best way for me to get to know a character is to have a conversation. I carry lists of characters and questions with me to the garage or doctor's office and take advantage of those times to interrogate them.
  • Mechanical rewriting - This is the less creative work, such as getting rid of junk words and ferreting out all the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Re-conceiving scenes or polishing prose is likely to need more dedicated time.
Most of these activities are self-limiting and can be broken off without much damage. When I have something critical coming up -- a call with a client at an agreed to time -- I set a timer so I don't get lost in the activity. Also, I take care to file interstitial work properly. There is nothing worse than believing you have solved a plot problem and not being able to track down the slip of paper holds all the answers.

Note that these tasks are "writerly" activities. They don't contribute directly to adding pages to your manuscript. I never count these activities toward my daily writing goals, even though I am aware that they make an impact.

Do you have small tasks you get done during fragments of time? What would you put on your own "interstitial" list?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

More "Bigger" Posts

Back in June, I started using Saturdays to explore Bigger Stories as a way to help writers enlarge their audiences. The first five posts were listed in Bigger Posts, and it's time to list the ones I've written since then. Enjoy!

Bigger 11 - Sharp Contrasts -Differences matter
Bigger 10 - Find Out How Good You Need to Be - A reality check on the competition
Bigger 9 - Getting Crazy - Pushing the limits beyond reasonable so your work will stand out
Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene - Wowing by making every scene matter
Bigger 7 – Five Keys to Bigger Emotions - Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry
Bigger 6 - Crazy Bad Villains - How to create bad guys your readers will love

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Bigger 11 - Sharp Contrasts

I love "The Odd Couple." Nasty neat Felix and sloppy Oscar being forced to live together? Genius. You know that, for almost anything, they will make opposite choices. Felix will go for opera, while, Oscar will go for jazz.  Felix prefers a fine wine, while Oscar likes a cheap beer.

And so on. This contrast gives us someone to identify with and connects us with our own choices. On bigger issues related to life events (marriage, death, coming of age) and social concerns (poverty, freedom, loyalty), it sets up conflicts between the characters that draw us in. Differences put things that matter in high relief, so we see what otherwise is invisible. And sometimes contrasts can take us on a journey that makes us wiser.

The bigger the contrast, the bigger the story. Besides having characters with contrasting views, you can have characters in contrasting circumstances (rich and poor). You can give them different allegiances (as with countries at war). And you can find them in different stages of life (parent and child). A playwright once told me that the audience is immediately drawn in if the characters look different. Even having a man and a woman on stage sets up a contrast for an audience.

Fish out of water stories (like "Crocodile Dundee") provide a contrast in setting and character. One of the advantages of these stories is that they get the audience to see a familiar setting through unfamiliar eyes. Disaster films do much the same thing by taking the familiar and twisting it into a new shape -- often exploring the meaning and value of what we take for granted. Time travel stories usually take a protagonist from our time and put him or her into an era where our own knowledge and skills would need to be adapted, so we have a new appreciation of our own lives. In "Back to the Future," Marty can create a skateboard that allows him to escape bullies, but he doesn't know how to open a bottle of cola.

The contrasts need to be big contrasts, and, ultimately, they need to reveal important truths. Moving back in time a few years or having characters who went to different but equivalent high schools in the same town is not especially interesting or revealing (though good stories might be built in other ways). In Genesis, Cain and Abel may be siblings, alike in many ways, but one is a shepherd and the other is a farmer. One offers God a sacrifice of that is not acceptable, while the other offers one that is. And this leads to murder, and the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" The result is a memorable story that has resonated with millions of people over thousands of years.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Ethical Consequences of Fiction

Occasionally, I write stuff that is immoral, dangerous, blasphemous, and grossly inappropriate. I turn off my internal editor as fully as I can during the drafting stage. It is often appalled at what it finds when it is put back online.

This is appropriate. If you stay within the safe zone and never address anything that might cause trouble, you will never find the limits of what you can do in terms of entertainment, influence, and art.

However, what you write carries consequences and a measure of responsibility. Rod Serling wrote a thriller, "The Doomsday Flight," about an airplane that carried a bomb with an altitude-sensitive trigger, and I understand he felt pangs of guilt when, to his surprise, someone actually carried out a similar plot in real life. On the other hand, the morons who put together the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" seem to have intended for it to be provocative.

It is up to your inner editor to wake up and think about the implications of whatever work you produce before you set it free in the world. This should go beyond whether it is simply legal. (I still shudder when I think of a man I met who was making money with a product that helped drunks pass breath tests.) It is good to think ahead of time of what your limits are and what questions you might need to ask.
  • Will the work amplify or justify bigotry and hatred?
  • Have you encouraged people to act in ways you believe are immoral or socially destructive?
  • Have you just supplied detailed information on how to build a weapon or commit a crime?
  • Have you exposed someone you know to ridicule or unfairly maligned an institution?
  • Have you falsified history in a way that will lead to harmful actions or decisions?
  • Have you distorted scientific knowledge or advocated choices that harm nature?
With all this said, the writer must balance the responsibility as a truthsayer with potential results and should not be silenced by what the most malicious or reckless among us might do. I heard that Robert Heinlein was so eaten up by the possibility that mass murderer Charlie Manson was inspired by his novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" that he hired an investigator to interview Manson in jail. (The report came back negative.) Though it is not my favorite book, I think it would be tragic if, because a madman read the work though a distorted lens, Heinlein's novel would have been suppressed.

What limits do you put on yourself when you edit? What questions do you ask?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Using Real Experiences for Fiction

Life offers us the intriguing, the meaningful, and sometimes the extraordinary. Whether it is a conversation or a car crash, a writer will take these moments and commit them to paper. Recording them in a journal while they are still fresh is a good idea. Dumping them directly into your latest work of fiction probably isn't.

Admittedly, it will help you reach your daily wordcount (a HTWF Best Practice), but those words may be hard to reshape or extract during your rewrite. And, if you let them stand, they are likely to wound your story. Here's why:

  • You're too close. Shouts are still whispers and whispers are still shouts. Half your brain is having a riot fueled by the survival chemicals. Chances are, whatever seems to make perfect sense to you now will sound like ravings further into the future. This is obviously true in the immediate aftermath, but big experience tend to be relived days, months, and even years after a life event.
  • It's all about you. It is okay to write for yourself in your journal, but other writing is aimed at an audience. Ever notice how dreams that are vivid to you bore the heck out of people you tell them to? Until some time passes, it is difficult to put a real experience into a context that is complete and relevant to your readers.
  • The voice is wrong. Your fiction-writing voice is not likely to be the same one with which you relate the story of your own life. This is especially true if you are working on a first-person novel. 
  • The details aren't right. Just as you may struggle for the exact words in fiction, the details must be selected to serve the purpose of the story. Unfortunately, the details of a real-life event are not chosen. Unless you are very lucky, they will work against the narrative and weaken your story.
  • Facts aren't true. Anyone who has spent much time in a writers group knows what I mean. Invariably, there are times when someone writes something that is wildly unconvincing, and then defends it by saying that "it really happened." Sorry. That doesn't work for me. Real life is full of coincidences and unexplained phenomena. Fiction needs to offer something more.
  • You haven't had time to explore. For everything that really matters, our minds work in the background. This is why you often get the answers to story problems when you are not looking for them (all too often, in the shower where a pen and paper aren't near at hand). Events that shape us invariably shape our fiction. But not immediately. It takes time for the mysterious workings of the mind to rework them, highlight what matters, combine them with other experiences, and burn away the dross. And, once that is done and the experience return as story ideas, they need to be played with and rearticulated. Give the experiences time to ferment and age, and you'll end up with something fine, something that will thrill your readers. 
It may seem like a good shortcut to transcribe your life as you are living it. Without a doubt, people who have interesting experiences and who take the time to note them down do have a better chance of approaching their writing productively. But (unless you are a journalist or blogger) the advantage is in investments made for future work, not it cashing out immediately.

So save those moments. Capture them with all the authenticity you can and be sure to include context and your emotional responses. But be wary of introducing them directly into your fiction. If they really belong in your story, they'll force themselves in after your cooling down period.

How do you treat real-life events? What value do they bring? Have they ever led you astray? How long did it take for you to translate them into fiction that worked?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Good Endings 2 - Satisfaction testing

Last week, I wrote about the four essentials for good endings: clarity, resolution, logic and fairness, and timing. Without these, it is difficult to achieve a satisfying ending, much less a memorable one.

Some people give birth to wonderful endings in one burst. In fact, many writers only begin work on a story when they imagine a full and powerful ending. Others approach the ending incrementally as part of the general rewriting process. Both of these are fine, but I've found that taking the ending alone and going step by step before to make sure the essentials are there often saves me time. Here's what I do:

Clarity - The easiest way to assure that your ending is clear is to have someone else read it and tell you (without prompting) what happened. You can go through and dissect the elements of the ending and look for ambiguities in the language, but another pair of eyes is much more efficient. I like to have people who are likely to enjoy the work and who are unfamiliar with it take a look. I do have one caveat. I have seen many people in writers groups explain and defend an unclear ending. (They seem to imply that it's all there, and the reader is at fault.) There is no value to doing this. Just listen and fix it.

Resolution - Check for this by articulating the story question and its answer. This means actually writing out both. What is Rosebud (Citizen Kane)? A sled, but also a symbol of the loss that drove Kane. Will the rescue team save Private Ryan (Saving Private Ryan)? Yes, but only by sacrificing many men who also have hopes, dreams, and families.

Note that while your questions for these movies are probably the same, your answers might be different. Writing down more than one answer is fine. The point is that an answer can be given for the story question. And it should never be simply yes or no. You want "yes, but" or "yes, and" or "no, but" or "no, and."

Logic and fairness - This is less clear cut, but here are the questions I use to test my endings:
  • Have I followed cause and effect? Do events emerge as a natural consequence of what came before?
  • Have I been true to the "rules" of the story? Does what happened make sense (especially in fantasy) given the constraints of culture, science, history, and behavior?
  • Do my characters continue to act "in character," making choices that are consistent or changing with sufficient and clear motivation?
  • Did I provide the elements that come together for an ending early enough? Did I avoid introducing a deus ex machina (a rich relative, a gun hidden in drawer, a suicide note) that made the answer suddenly easy?
  • Does the ending come from the actions and decisions of the protagonist rather than from someone else?
  • Was the ending made possible by the changes to my character as he or she worked through obstacles? (If the character could have done what was necessary from page one, I have a story problem.)

Timing - This is the trickiest of all. Keeping a list of loose ends that matter for a reader and making sure these (and only these) are answered helps. Length matters, and a good rule of thumb is Act 3 is no more than 25% of the work. It is always good to see what happens if paragraphs and scenes are cut. I often find that I didn't want to finish, and cutting either works directly or points me toward more compact ways to present the ending.

I prefer abrupt endings, both in what I read and in the final versions of what I write. I hate codas and epilogues. I am irritated by a kiss that takes place after I already know the hero and heroine have found love. But most readers like to have a bow put on the story, to have what they discovered at the end confirmed. I recommended keeping it (or, in my case, adding it) and asking explicitly what readers and editors think. Just don't overdo it.

I work in this order, and I include all the ending (usually Act 3), not just the final scene. When I have gone through this process, I have some confidence that I have a good ending. It doesn't guarantee that the ending is great or even entertaining, but it should be satisfying.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

More Hidden Gems of How to Write Fast

In July, I presented the Hidden Gems of How to Write Fast. These were neglected entries from the previous weeks. A lot of people gave them a try, so here is a fresh set, offered for your consideration. I hope you find a tip here that helps you with your writing challenges.
The Disrupted Writer - Fast recovery  How to get back to work when life gets in the way.

Post Mortem for a Writing Project  The essential approach to learning what went wrong and what went right in a writing project – so you can be more productive next time.

The Eternal Now of Fiction Suggestions on how to make your work more immediate and engaging.

Writing Is Juggling  One reason it is hard to improve as a writer.

Collaboration Dos and Don'ts part 1  

Collaboration Dos and Don'ts part 2







Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bigger 10 - Find Out How Good You Need to Be

One of the best novels I've read in the last ten years is unpublished. This is an agented manuscript by a person who has had success in other media and had cultivated his own social media posse, and I can't understand why it's consigned to limbo.

It's not alone. I've read works-in-progress, indies, contest entries, and stories on the submission treadmill that range from worth fixing to polished and entertaining. I've read many more manuscripts that declared themselves to be typing exercises from page one, but that's not the point here. The point is, knowing the quality of what is not being sold is important for getting a realistic view of how good you need to be.

Yes. Yes. I can pull ten published novels at random off the shelf in a bookstore and find most, if not all, aren't very good. Novels like that probably lure many people into writing who know they can do better. In one way, that's good because having unrealistic expectations when you begin writing can help you to stay at it until you develop your craft. But, if you still think this way, it is holding you back.

No editor wants to champion a mediocre book, much less a bad book. The hope is ever present that the next manuscript they pick up will send tingles down their spines. Not that is will only be good enough to package and sell (unless you are a celebrity who happens to have a platform).

This is why it is good to gain the humility those good, unsold novels have to offer. And if you want to write bigger books, books that draw large audiences -- hey, look at where the bar is. Pretty high.

How do you get manuscripts into your hands?
  • Join a writers group. There are a lot of reasons you should be part of one already, but most have critique groups with lots of manuscripts to read. If you don't have a group nearby, there are online groups.
  • Get some writing buddies. And read what they are doing. They'll love you for it. And they will read your manuscript in return.
  • Get the word out. Almost everyone I know has someone who as written a manuscript or is working on one. They are almost always looking for readers.
  • Read slush. Slush is unsolicited manuscript, and the piles tend to build up quickly for those involved in publishing. Agents are always looking for interns, and often they'll let you work part-time and remotely.
  • Teach a writing class. And be wowed by what some of the students produce.
  • Judge a contest. This is probably the easiest. Some contests require minimal training, but there is always a need for more judges. Stephie Smith has a great site that lists contests. Volunteer.
For most manuscripts, you'll know immediately why they haven't sold. Often, just by reading the first page. Some will be amusing, but will have obvious flaws. A few will challenge you to find reasons why an agent or editor would pass on them (and the process of determining these reasons can help you to discover problems with your own work).

Then there are the others. The ones that are clearly better than most of what you find on the shelf. Manuscripts that send a tingle down your own spine. These, not the unholy messes or the fine but flawed stories, are the ones that tell you how good you need to be. They are the ones that demand you sharpen your premise, take another look at your structure, ask more of your characters, and polish your prose.

It is easy to imagine you can get away with being good enough when you read through this month's offerings at the bookstore. It is much harder to do that when you read a manuscript that impresses you, but has never been published.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Every Other Friday - R.C. Bonitz Interview

R.C. Bonitz  is a graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology. He also has a Masters in counseling from SCSU and has been an engineer, a manager, an independent contractor, a psychotherapist, and finally an author. A resident of a small Connecticut shoreline town, he spent many years sailing and racing, but now finds pleasure bass fishing from an ancient red canoe. He's a volunteer in his town's Friendly Visitor program, which aims to keep homebound folks active and in touch. He has two books in print (A Little Bit of Blackmail and A Blanket for Her Heart), with a third to be released in September 2012 (A Little Bit of Baby). He'd love to hear from readers at

Tell you about A Blanket for Her Heart
It's a love story, but more. My heroine, Anne, has lived a sequestered and for the most part contented life, but there are moments when she thinks about just how much she's missed. She's single and seldom goes anywhere at all. And, she has buried the dreams of her childhood.

One day a stranger comes to her door seeking help. When he returns to thank her everything turns upside down. He likes her and keeps coming back. She's faced with the hardest decision of her life, to hide and send him away, or embrace the changes he presents her with. Will she gives wings to her life? And if she does, will she succeed? That is the essence of the story -- that and a twist of fate with success in sight.

What drove you to write this book?

Many years ago I had a dream that stayed with me the next morning. That dream became the opening chapter of A Blanket for Her Heart. I played around with writing it for a brief period, then decided to take a writing class. Unlike a romance novel, I really didn't know where the story was going when I started.

I always wanted to be a writer, perhaps because I read so much when I was young and thought authors were quite the romantic heroes. So, having dreamt an opening for a book it just seemed I was fated to begin writing. At the start, I wrote two or three hours a week just trying to get going. But the more I wrote the clearer Anne became, and the words began to flow.

What obstacles did you encounter? 
Oh, just two minor ones - I didn't know how to write and didn't know how to sell to a publisher. No big deal! The writing class helped, and then I teamed up with Judy, one of my classmates, to keep writing and editing for each other. A Blanket for Her Heart was rewritten many times as I learned my craft. Then I put it on the shelf when I joined the Connecticut Romance writers and got excited about writing romances.

A Blanket for Her Heart sat unattended until I suddenly had an idea for a new ending. With that written, I really only made one submission to an agent who liked the book, but wasn't sure she could sell it. Then, the day I got a contract for my romance novel, A Blanket for Her Heart, a new publisher I knew asked if I had anything to submit. Sure, I said, and sent off A Blanket for Her Heart. One day later, she came back to me very enthused and offered me a contract... I was thrilled. Two contracts in one week. Both books were edited and covers designed, and we were ready to go.

Except the new publisher made a policy decision - she would only publish inspirational books. My book no longer fit her guidelines. Since the book had been edited, and she gave me the cover art, I decided to put it out through Amazon.

Who did you write it for?
I think I wrote it for me.

Someone asked me why I write love stories and my answer was that I fall in love with my heroines. Maybe that is connected in some way to this first book. My romance novels are written towards a specific goal I've had ever since I thought there was a possibility of being an author. I want to sell a number of books and be successful with them so I can feel comfortable calling myself an author. Some of that feeling applies to A Blanket for Her Heart. And, of course, I like to hear people say they enjoyed Anne's story.

Do you have any productivity tips?
My major recommendation is to find a good critique partner who will tell you the truth, then write your first three chapters over and over again before you tackle an entire novel. Use those first three chapters to learn, to discover your mistakes, and polish your writing until you get absolutely glowing praise for what you've written. Then go on and write the rest of the novel.

My other major thought has to do with writer's block. My solution is to write something. Consider it a throwaway, but put words on the screen. My romance novel, A Little Bit of Blackmail, came directly from such an action. I was working on a novel and felt stuck, so I put that novel aside and tried my hand at a short story idea just for fun and relaxation. Voila, A Little Bit of Blackmail was born and became a novel in itself.

That's not what usually happens, but the act of writing draws out my doubts and clarifies my thinking. The other part of the story is to remain open to new ideas. One of them might just lead you to a best seller.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Good Endings 1 - The four essentials

Good endings are fundamental to successful fiction (and, often, nonfiction). In fact, it's not unusual for writers to hesitate to write a work until they have good ending in mind. In some cases, people have imagined a powerful ending before everything else and felt compelled to write the whole story leading up to it.

Endings are the last chance for the writer to connect with the reader, and they are the most potent opportunity to leave a memorable impression. I wrote about "bigger" endings before, but what are the basics of a successful ending?
  • Clarity - After a reader has invested time in reading the whole work, there is nothing more frustrating than an ending that is not clear. I am not talking about the kind of ambiguous ending that is found in Inception (although that DID irritate some people). I'm talking about endings that are opaque.
    Often, this happens because the writer writes poorly. Sometimes this happens because the writer does not want to commit. Usually, the writer is just trying to be arty or cute. I fell in love with the sound of the words for my story Peter's Shell, and I nearly lost the sale. But luckily the editor let me know I'd blown it and gave me a second chance. The best way to find out if your ending is unclear is to have people read the work and tell you what happened at the end.
  • Resolution - The story question should be answered. People want to know if the protagonist succeed, partially, succeeded, or failed. Most satisfying endings answer this question.
  • Logic and fairness - The ending must make sense within the context of the story and be a consequence of all that came before. And you have to play fair. A deus ex machina ending will drive readers away.
  • Timing - The story must end in the right place and have the space it earned. Some stories ramble on for chapters after the story question is answered. Often this is to set up another story, but it dilutes the good will of your reader and flattens out the experience.
    Just as bad is the narrative that ends so abruptly that the reader can't tie up the most interesting loose ends. (Although few endings have irritated me more than The Cold Moon, which seemed to agonizingly tie up every loose end, including many I didn't care about.) It is okay to leave the readers wanting more. It is unfair to cheat them out of the ending they deserve.
There are more advanced elements that contribute to a good ending. Tie back to theme, a great image, a wonderful last line, and balance and focus. I'll write about these next week, but, if you can achieve these four, you'll have the necessary elements for a good ending.

What do you look for in a good ending when you read? How do you achieve these when you write?


Sunday, September 9, 2012

How to Write Fast Top Ten Posts July/August

So what are people who want to write fast reading? Here are the top ten posts over the past month.

Only three remain from the last list (and these are in italics below), so there is more to explore here.  Hope you enjoy. And please feel free to comment on older posts. Since I monitor responses, you're likely to get an answer from me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bigger 9 - Getting Crazy

Algis Budrys once said that all interesting characters were certifiably mad. They are imprudent, action-oriented, and obsessed.

So are many writers. Some that I know terrify me with their stunts, extreme perspectives, and picaresque lives. The characters they meet in the real world compete with the best in fiction. It seems like a great advantage to a writer when they have friends who are available and ready to become memorable characters in their scripts and novels. If this is the kind of writer you are, congratulations. If you live long enough, you have the ingredients for bestselling fiction.

But maybe you're more like me. Not John Belushi. Not Hemingway. More Bob Newhart. Is there any hope for us? Can we create big characters?

Certainly, we can listen to our adventurous friends. When they introduce us to larger than life people,  we can bring all our powers of observation and storytelling to what we experience. It's not the same as being crazy, but it's a start.

What else can we do?
  • Research - No matter how cautious you are, you can read about the range of human behavior. A book like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat will extend your knowledge of what is possible at the limits of the bell-shaped curve. If you are more daring, go where extreme people are. A friend of mine directs a drama group at a federal prison.
  • Imagine - What would you do if your life (or a loved one’s) were threatened? Or if there were no social constraints? Or consequences?
  • Notice blind spots - It is hard to recognize what you don't see, but it is easy to notice when others around you use circular logic, ignore the facts, and interpret reality in unexpected ways. Here's a tip: if you irritated, perplexed, or surprised by an opinion or justification, step away from your emotion and inhabit that peculiar mindframe. You may discover something valuable.
  • Explore - Take an assumption or longheld belief and abandon it for a day. Take the opposite view of what you believe. Give the mad idea the benefit of a doubt and see where it takes you.
  • Get to know people better - That mundane person at work? What is she hiding.
  • Be prepared - When you happen upon an eccentric or bizarre person, don't waste the opportunity. Be ready with questions.
  • Recognize context - Behaviors that are perfectly fine in one situation are nonsensical in others. Dancing at a party is fine. At a funeral Mass, not so much. Transpose what is normal and easy for you to relate to in one arena into another where it is uncomfortable, and then explore why a person might feel their behavior is necessary.
None of this may make you as crazy as your most adventurous friends, but maybe it will nudge your character toward certifiable, toward being authentic and unpredictable. And that will make your story bigger and more likely to reach larger audiences.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Be a Character Collector

I used to take my notebook everywhere so I could jot down ideas as they popped into my head. Once, when I was in a bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rather large man came over to me and put his finger, firmly, on my pencil.

"Mister," he said, his voice drawling, "I would appreciate it if you would put this away."

I told him I was just working on a short story.

"That may be," he said, "but my buddies and I don't get into town much. We want to have some fun, and..."

I put my notebook away, and he smiled and gave me a nod.

One of my friends said he was "one of the hill people." I suppose he thought I was a government agent of some sort. He clearly wanted his privacy. How ironic that our conversation is now on the Internet. And that he found his way into my short story.

How could I leave him out? He was a character. Different. Complex. Surprising. The very thing readers look for.

If you want to be a productive writer in fiction, you need to become a character collector. Sometimes they'll come to you in a bar, but most of the time you'll have to stalk them. Here's what you are looking for:
  • People who are different - Weirdoes are always easy to spot and always welcome. But look for subtle differences, too. The person dressed impeccably, with an untied shoe. The homeless guy reading Tolstoy. The more closely you look, the more you will discover.
  • People who are emotional - Strong emotion is always captivating. And we often expose ourselves in moments when our heart or hormones take over.
  • People who want something - To me, this is the best of all. Hang around where a manager works in a retail establishment and hear the complaints and requests. One of my most interesting experiences was a long wait at the Social Security office when I needed my card renewed. One desperate person after another made his or her case with everything they had in terms of documents, arguments, and intimidation.
You can find characters anywhere, but I actively seek them where diverse groups gather and act. Weddings and funerals are obvious. Bars are good. Sports events bring together people from very different backgrounds, family units, and action. And there is more going on than what you see on the field. Food, souvenirs, and beer mix with misbehaving kids, couples on dates, and business people making deals.

Pay attention to what other people are up to. Even provoke them, if you dare. But watch yourself, too. How are you reacting to what is happening around you? Who catches your interest? Who raises your blood pressure?

Then capture the moment in full sentences, as soon as possible, in a way that doesn't excite someone from the hills. If you do, you'll have exactly the right characters available for your next story.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Disrupted Writer - Fast recovery

Your planning is perfect. You've mastered distractions. You're writing every day. Then life gets in the way.

Writers are not immune to financial concerns, the ache of romance gone wrong, the agony of a child with serious illness, or the shock and grief of a death in the family. If they were, they would not have the experiences they need to move readers.

Disruptions happen. They are beyond your control. But how do you deal with them? I have already written about Reentering the Interrupted Story and how listing Ten Reasons to Love Your Story can reignite your passion for your manuscript. Either of these might suggest strategies you can use to get back into writing when you are disrupted. But there are other approaches (and perhaps you have a few to share?).

Let's take the bad effects of disruption one by one and look at what you might do:
  • You're delayed - Here there is a difference between a five-minute phone call and a three-hour stay in the emergency room. The more severe the delay, the more a challenge it will be to your discipline. Go back to your plan, even if you do not have time to complete it. Add some words to your manuscript as soon as it is possible.
  • Echoes distract you - Even after a disruption is over, the situation may continue to run through your mind, or you may be overcome by the emotions. Acknowledge that the disruption is not necessarily over when you return to your writing desk, and it may need more time that you suspect. But replaying the situation may not be useful. In those cases, try doing something to transition yourself. You might, for instance, write a letter to one of your characters about what you just went through (and then write their response).
  • Your idea falls apart - Is there anything more frustrating? Sometimes the structures your minds produce are exquisitely delicate and they evaporate with a knock on the door. Taking a deep breath to dispel the natural distress is the best first step. The next is to begin reconstructing immediately, even if you can only snatch at fragments. Like dreams, these concepts get harder to bring back with time. If it still feels like a complete loss, forget reconstruction and get to work immediately on something different.
  •  You lose your enthusiasm or confidence - I sometimes thing being a writer or taking on a challenging work is a spell cast upon me, and an interruption can break that spell. Sometimes, coming back from this is just a matter of using the Reentering or Ten Reasons approaches noted above, but sometimes I need a pep talk or "proof" or a new attitude that gives me permission to work on a "lousy" project or do a lousy job. Okay. Tomorrow, things will be better.
Of course, a disruption may be so big it becomes the new normal. If you lose your job, it will take time to secure a new one. If your house burns down, you can't move back in a day later. In many cases, getting back to work will mean recommitting in the face of what your life is, as opposed to what you still believe it should be. (Which is not to say that you should "get on with it" immediately. Major life events are owed their time. You can't rush through the equivalent of K├╝bler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief without paying a price.)

Once you recommit to your writing, you need to reassess the work in terms of who you are now. Life events have a way of changing priorities. Finally, you need to rework your plans to reflect time available, opportunities, new options, and changing processes.

Overall, your response to disruptions is within your control. You only become derailed for a long period of time if you allow yourself to be. Sometimes, your recovery will be slow and begin with small things. Sometimes, you'll find a way to jump back in with more energy and commitment than ever before. I think of Ray Bradbury, who said that a day without writing was a little death. He lived this sentiment, when, after a disastrous stroke that left him unable to type, he began dictating stories as soon as he was physically able to.  If you are determined to write, nothing can stop you.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Creating a Writing Process Diary

Last time, I wrote about how you can become more productive through the use of documented processes. Many writers simply follow processes they find in books and courses–and there is nothing wrong with that. A book like Save the Cat has pushed many a writer toward success.

However you may find that you want to have a reference that
  • includes your own ideas,
  • provides the potential for grabbing and adapting insights from a variety of courses and articles, and
  • provides the impetus for regularly improving your craft.

For this, I recommend creating your own reference in the form of a writing process diary.

Many people create such diaries in electronic form. I like to use a blank notebook section off into different stages of writing (pre-work, drafting, rewriting, etc.). I make my entries in pencil and leave extra space so that it is easy to read new steps or to make corrections. I put the processes in the order that I normally use them. And, in each case, I make sure that everything is clear by writing in full sentences and including specific references. In addition, this diary is where I include comments and measurements of success. My specific entries may include:
  • The name of the process
  • A brief description
  • The date it was added
  • Its source with a complete reference
  • My current assessment of its value
  • An estimate of the “cost” to me (which may be in terms of how much time it takes for me to execute this process and how much preparation and energy might be required)
  • My level of mastery of the process
  • What I call the “fun index”
Once I have these elements documented, I find that I almost always end up breaking up the process into smaller steps. This is one of the biggest values since a major process, like using backward logic, may seem overwhelming. The smaller bits I settle on usually seem doable, even the most challenging days. Besides becoming bite-size, the smaller steps are more easily adapted and tuned for my needs.

Of course, many of the processes I find elsewhere already have step-by-step instructions, which helps me to adopt and adapt the more quickly. But I never see these as complete and final until I have both tried them out on a real manuscript and practiced them to the point where I have a level of comfort and confidence. In fact, my first step toward mastering any process is to put it in my own words. Somehow translating it helps me to integrate new process into my practices.

So there you have it—a process for documenting processes. This may seem fussy and overdone. Certainly, I don't take every process and break it down and documented to the extent defined here. The point is to make things easier and not harder. There is no right way to do this. There just is the way that provides the most benefits for you. So, adopt, or discard as you please.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Process Shall Set Your Writing Free

Process sounds antithetical to the creative process. What  could be more bruising to creativity than rules and required steps? And yet, most professional writers have developed detailed, regular routines, and, chances are, your favorite stories were created within an organized framework. (To see an example for process, take a look at Rewrite 3 - Structure, Structure, Structure.) Some of the rewards of using established processes provides are:
  • Commitment to regular practice - A fundamental aspect of writing routines is putting the time in, day after day. Not only do these minutes and hours add up, but they keep your tools sharpened. No one would expect a musician to take a week off from practicing and return immediately to concert quality. Writers are just as vulnerable to getting out of shape if they skip their sessions.
  • Bite-sized chunks - When you have a process, you can break it down into pieces that are small enough to avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Paths to mastery - You can only master a writing approach if you 1) specify it and 2) evaluate it.
  •  Reference points for experimentation - You can only break up your routine if you have one. And you can only get future value from trying something new if the new approach can be evaluated against a standard and then integrated into your routine.
  • Freedom from dithering - In July I wrote about how dithering wrecks productivity (and its solutions, such as choosing your task the day before and understanding why you dither). Established process point toward the exact work you should be doing the next day, so they help you move from dithering to deciding.
Now, I am the first to admit that you don't mess with what's working. If your muse sits down next to you and begins dictating an extraordinary story, it is not the time to say, "Excuse me, I'm doing the grammar check on chapter five today. Could you come back tomorrow?" (Although, I probably would get to that grammar check as soon as the muse slipped away.) But structure, once all the grumbling and resistance is over with, usually enhances a creative endeavor.

I'll go further and say documented processes, which obviously can help productivity, provided permission and direction for creative work by distracting and satisfying the critic in your head. In my next post, I'll provide some suggestions on how to document your approaches in a way that provides focus, while helping you to innovate and improve.

What are your go-to processes for writing?

Does structure inhibit or free your imagination?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Interviews and Guest Posts

I was fortunate to have NY Times bestseller Kristan Higgins as my first How to Write Fast interview. That post has been succeeded now by four other interviews, and these have made Every Other Friday the most popular feature on this blog.

The most popular post of all (by far) has been the guest post by Gwen Hernandez.

Write Faster with Scrivener

And, in the nearly three months of blogging, I've guest posted twice myself.