Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Productive Writing by Candlelight

I live in the NYC area, so I am without power, water, and connectivity. Thankfully, we have a good library which is now providing me with a way to log in, a charge, and a warm spot to sit. (Actually, I am kneeling so I can have access to a scarce outlet. Sitting isn't supposed to be healthy anyway, and the nuns readied me for marathon kneeling.)

So, with 20/20 hindsight, a few thoughts on how to be productive in primitive circumstances:

  1. Paper and pencil still work. I find them excellent for brainstorming and creating lists of ten reasons why I love my story (and you should, too). Since I have a planned scene to write, I can dig write in (albeit at a slower rate since my handwriting can become impenetrable).
  2. Make a list of questions to beat distractions. What do you need to know about your character? Which puzzles need to be solved? What have you promised in your premise? How will your antagonist react to your protagonists latest attempt at problem-solving? If you get questions down before a blackout, you have a good place to focus your energy.
  3. Rewriting was made for emergencies. (As long as you printed out your text beforehand.) Get your red pen out and attack your manuscript.
  4. Enjoy the adventure. Take notes. Something might be useful later.

Keep safe, folks!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

HTWF NaNoWriMo Series

NaNoWriMo starts this week. While a number of HTWF posts might be of some help (see especially the Fast Drafting series), here are the ones that I wrote specifically to help make your NaNoWriMo a success. I've included a guest post from NaNoWriMo guru Rochelle Melander. (I'll be guest posting on her blog on November 8 with my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Every Other Friday - Barry Crimmins Interview

Barry Crimmins is a former Air America Radio writer and correspondent, noted political satirist and author of the critically acclaimed Seven Stories Press book Never Shake Hands With A War Criminal. He helped bring the Boston Comedy scene into the modern age when he founded two of Boston's most fabled clubs: The Ding Ho and Stitches. Such acts as Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Meaney, Jimmy Tingle and many others cut their comedic teeth in the rooms Crimmins started and at shows he produced. In the interest of full disclosure, Barry is also my cousin.

Tell me about your latest work.
I’m not talking about my latest work because it is barely begun.

Or whatever you want to talk about.
I’ve had a book published. It’s a book of essays. So I’m sort of a cheater as an author because I just write things in chunks as they come to me. Although, if you read the whole book, it ties together a bit.

It’s called Never Shake Hands With a War Criminal, which is based on an incident at CNN when I was there to be interviewed and Henry Kissinger came in. A long story short, Kissinger offered me his hand. “I’m Henry Kissinger…” and he started bubbling like a Satanic water cooler, that idling Kissinger thing he does, “er, er, er,”… just waiting to make an arms deal or something.

And I just looked at him and said, “UGH” And I left, and they brought in a lot of security and all these people were all upset.

When I came back, Norma Quarles, CNN anchor at the time, said, “Why didn’t you want to shake hands with Dr. Kissinger?”

And I said, “Because I have a strict policy of never shaking hands with war criminals.”

And she said, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot.” Which I thought was the funniest part of the whole thing because she really was sucking up to him before then.

But anyway, that’s a bunch of essays from a while ago. And I continue to write essays, and maybe some more will get collected at some point. Maybe I’ll get collected enough to write an actual longer narrative of some sort. But I don’t know if I have that kind of discipline or if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. But I enjoy writing essays more than anything.

I also have enjoyed over the years writing my act to perform live. That’s what led people at the Boston Phoenix to ask me to write some political essays for them, going back twenty-five or so years. And I had the great good fortune of being edited by a true journalistic Renaissance man, Clif Garboden, who was there at the alternative press revolution in the 60’s. Tremendous photographer, tremendous writer, tremendous reporter, and just the best editor ever. He taught me to write by editing my work. Never was critical. I would tell him, “Look, you can tell me I’m awful. That’s fine. I’m a nightclub guy.” And he said, “No, this it great. It has something to it that we’re just not getting, but we did move this here…” And after a while (it didn’t take too long), I learned what he was looking for. And I agreed with what he was looking for, and I learned to write from that. So that’s a great advantage I had as a writer was to have a great editor. And Clif Garboden was great.

He passed away nearly two years ago. And that, I guess, is part of why I’m not talking about what I’m writing. Right now, what I’m thinking about and working on and taking some notes on (I don’t know if I’ll try to put it anywhere or not), but I’ve just been dealing with grief a lot because an awful lot of my friends have been passing away. And a lot of the people with whom I speak when I was working on something – people I could actually take into confidence and say I’m doing this or that have passed on. I don’t believe in talking to most people about what I’m working on because most stuff doesn’t end up happening (for me anyway). I don’t know about everybody else, but if one percent of all the books I ever hear people tell me they were writing happened, that would be a lot. So I figure I shouldn’t be wasting anybody else’s time with that stuff either. But there are people who are old and dear and artistic allies you can go to.

I’ve lost a couple -- Clif Garboden and Bill Morrissey, the folk singer/novelist was someone else I could speak with. We actually – he’s gone now; it’s never going to happen – but we were talking about both writing novels where we would call each other. My characters would call Bill’s characters in the middle of the novels, and not make anything more of it, but to see if anyone would ever notice. Three or four times in a novel, you’d get these phone calls from another novel. We never did it, but we laughed real hard about it, and that’s enough. Some of the stuff you just keep for yourself. You don’t put everything into the word zoo. You can’t be too miserly. Some of it has to be offered as incense.

What are your biggest obstacles?

I think with me, as with any writer, it’s me. It’s all about getting out of your own way. And then getting under way.

It recently took me a year to get around to painting the upstairs bathroom. And while I was doing it, I realized that I know what to avoid. It’s hard work. It’s a small bathroom. It’s got a million angles in it. There’s wood next to everywhere you have to paint. It’s just a hassle. I know how to paint. That’s one thing I know how to do. I can fall back on it, if I had to. But this is like a trapezoid next to a triangle next to a parallelogram – it’s insane.

I think writing is like that bathroom. I think what I have to write soon is going to be complicated and hard because I’m getting to that point where –I’m 59 years old – if I put in this effort, if I take into account what Vonnegut and Twain said, and some others, you start losing it pretty soon. So I would like to do something that matters. So that’s both daunting and pretentious.

What I want to write about is grief and what to do with it.

And I also have no qualms about writing sentimental things. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage. Sentiment takes a bad rap in a lot of literary criticism. “Oh, that’s too sentimental.” Well, fine. I’m a sentimental person, and life, people, things, dogs, you name it, baseball teams – they’re very dear to me. And that’s what I know how to do. Be loyal and sometimes have enough guts to care about things, and writing about people who are like that – I think that’s okay. So I think I’m going to write a sentimental book about grief, if I get around to doing exactly what I want to do. And some of the grief is just grieving the loss of time. I spent so many years writing about and discussing American electoral politics. That was like a treadmill to nowhere. So I’m really trying to pick my spots. Right now I’m just taking notes, and who knows? Maybe just the notes will be found someday.

I know I’m no Twain, but I get as much out of reading his notebooks as anything. Just watching him put it together, and I get this little shot in the arm. I’m reading Twain… “I think I’m opposed to capital punishment.” That’s all. That’s all he writes down. And then, wow! You see him wrestling with some things and you think, “Wow, I’m wrestling with some things.” He was opposed to that then; you would have a hard time nowadays. He’s still ahead of us.

So, now that the bathroom’s painted, I guess I could start writing about grief.

Do you have any productivity tips?

If you can get deadlines, that’s really productive. If you want to be productive, become a working writer. I’m quite productive with a deadline. I don’t wait till the last minute. If I know a deadline’s coming up, I get it done before the deadline because I know what can happen near the deadline.

But, without the deadline, I can become less focused. And I’ve been less focused lately. So, you can try to find a real gig, at least for a while, where you have to deliver, that’s good.

For years, people would come to see my act, and, whatever happened in the news that day, people would expect me to have something about it. That’s an immediate deadline. Not only do I need to talk about what’s going on right now, but I have to be funny about it. I lived under that deadline year after year, and also -- Oh, I’m Seattle today, and the mayor said… -- and I’d have a little joke about that. That makes the audience know that I know where I am and who they are and what’s going on. So I had a life of those little deadlines, and it kept me quite productive for a long time.

I don’t know now if I’m not getting a little punched out. But I’ve gotten a lot of stuff down. There’s a big trail out there, and I hope it does some people some good. Whether or not I’m around to take any bows for it. But that’s probably better, if you’re not around, because all the crap’s out of the way.

My philosophy sort of came from my hero Twain – reading him and his notebooks and so on. And getting into that sort of source material of other people [tells you to] play to the ages, not the age. You never know who’s going to find whatever you do. If you do one thing that’s of value, and people know about it, there’s a good chance that a few people are going to come back and comb through everything.

I try to write stuff that won’t make me look like a jerk in a hundred years. And if you think about things that way you might notice current stupidity a little better.
Why that’s a productivity tip, I don’t know. (I actually had a thing in my head where I could have bridged it and made the ship stand up in the bottle, but it was a lie.) Anyway, good luck to anyone who is writing. If you do well, we could all benefit from it sooner or later, if only through our descendents. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NaNoWriMo Success 5 - Why So Serious?

With commitments being made and the expectations rising, I'm seeing grim looks on the faces of my fellow writers. Anything less than victory of NaNoWriMo would be a disaster.

There is a phenomenon in psychology known as “flow.” When we are in the flow state, that is when we are most creative, imaginative, and productive. We lose track of time and of ourselves. It's a good feeling.

I believe that remembering that writing is supposed to be fun is valuable. Cultivating that idea in the way we approach our work, in our responses to challenges, and in how we introduce changes to our perspectives on writing, is not just a “nice to have.” Fun and having a good attitude can help induce the flow state.

Much of our culture induces negative attitudes toward work, and writers in particular drench themselves in mythologies of suffering and hardship. A quick sampling of discussions on the loops shows complaints about contracts and editors and rejection and unsympathetic families and friends. People agonize over blocks and deadlines and manuscripts that refuse to be finished.

Such negative talk hides what a gift being able to write -- and particularly to tell stories -- is. One writer I know used to work construction. His reaction to complaining writers is laughter. Any job that doesn't force you to haul heavy objects across the mud field in the freezing rain isn't too bad, according to him. But anyone who has written an elegant phrase, or discovered a part of themselves in a character, or created a sequence of statements or events that produced strong emotion in a reader or audience knows that the absence of misery is not the main payoff from writing. Writing, at its best, humanizes the writer and the audience and adds a precious dimension to living.

This does not mean that all is well if a writer slaps a smile on his or her face. Writers never fully develop. They always have more to learn. A maxim among novelists is that the last novel does not do much to help you write the next one. We all need to discover and rediscover the elements of our craft. We need time to sharpen our tools as well as to use them.

This blog offers a number of techniques, tools, and approaches that can help increase productivity, which ultimately provides the opportunity to dedicate more time to writing:
  • Finding the fun
  • Using the timer
  • Working with a partner
  • Reading aloud
  • Keeping a journal 
  • Focusing on emotion
  • And more

One month is long enough to build a new habit, but it's not long enough to acquire several habits. Growing and developing always takes time. So the final lesson is to give yourself the time. Be patient with yourself and don't expect everything to immediately pay off or to be mastered in a day. Take a piece of what you learn and run with it. And then return to your notes and find something else that's appealing, and see if it will fit into your writing life.

Fun will help you find flow. The joy of writing, more than the (sometimes necessary) grim determination of meeting each deadline and achieving each goal will enrich your life and lead to long-term success. So, yes, take your craft to a higher level and rediscover your commitment during NaNoWriMo. But don't forget to have a great time while you're doing it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

NaNoWriMo Success 4 - Time to Stretch and Warm Up

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo, you are about to step into a writing marathon. It would be a good idea to take the remaining days to stretch your writing muscles and warm up. Here are a few exercises to get you going.

Word count warm up - Whatever your normal word count is, it needs to average 1,667 a day to meet NaNoWriMo goals. If you normally write 200 words a day, you need to edge your output upward by 166 words each day starting tomorrow to be up to speed. Your warm up does not need to be on a work that resembles your NaNoWriMo project (although that would be good). Writing letters to people you know can work. Even automatic writing can help here. What this warm up is about is getting the feel of putting 1,667 words onto the screen each day, along with a sense of how much time you'll need to dedicate to the task.

Idea prodding - Some writers overflow with ideas. Some struggle to get them to emerge. If you are among the latter, don't expect the tap to flow just because you've turned the calendar to November. The simplest thing to try is a brainstorm list. Come up with ten (or twenty) answers to a tangible question. Without searching the Web, what gifts under US$100 might you give to a specific loved one? How would you set a trap to catch someone who is stealing your newspaper from your doorstep? How would you get onto the roof of your bank without using stairs? The first answer may be easy. The last will require you to stretch.

If you want to push yourself, put together a series of actions connected by "therefore" or "but," the South Park advice for creating causation between beats. For example: I was hungry, therefore I went to my refrigerator to find food, but my spouse had eaten everything worth eating, therefore I drove to the deli to buy a sandwich, but I'd left my wallet at home. And so on. Again, try for 10-20 instances. (For 1,667 words, you will need about 8-12 connected things happening.)

Door closing - Practice using your fortress of solitude. Build up to the time you will need to be uninterrupted each day. Build patience. Dodge distractions. Learn how to defend your fortress from needy spouses, demanding children, and garrulous friends.

Practice your ritual - Before writing, I have already had my coffee. I turn on my music. I review my task for the day. I open the file to the right place. I set my timer, and jump in. (I also have an exit ritual that includes writing down my task for the next day.) There is utility to my ritual, but it is okay to include wearing a lucky hat, chanting a mantra, lighting a candle, spinning your swivel chair around three times, or whatever else cues you to get going. If it works, do it. If you don't have a ritual, consider developing one. Habits can be powerful things.

There are other exercises you can try, based on skills you want to build up before NaNoWriMo. Have difficulty with emotion? Try some acting techniques, such as using sense memory. Uncertain about characters? Interview them as if they were guests on your talk show. If they come off as stiff, get them drunk first. Trouble with distractions? Taper them off in the remaining days. (For instance, you might whittle away at time you spend watching TV or reading Twitter posts.)

Thanks to Jennifer Fusco, who asked for exercises in her interview in this blog. Let me know if you find these useful, or let me know if you have your own exercises that help.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Better Endings - Three Posts

You only have one chance to make a lasting impression. The ending of your story must be satisfying and fair (no deus ex machina) or everything that went before can be wasted. Here are three posts that provide tips on finishing what you started with grace, power, and clarity.



Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bigger 13 - The Right Structure for Nonfiction

A departure today - this entry is explicitly for nonfiction (though, I hope, most others benefit nonfiction writers). I've found that choosing the right structure makes the difference between doing a good job and doing a great job that attracts a large audience. But what are the structures of nonfiction?
Most people can readily call to mind a few ways to organize nonfiction, if asked. We all know some form the essay style, with introductions, topic sentences, and closings. Arguments begin with the second strongest point and end with the most powerful. Those who worked on a school newspaper know about the inverted pyramid.
There are dozens of others, and they can add punch to your work, or make it limp and unconvincing. Here are some to consider:
  • Chronology, journal, and narrative nonfiction – Tell what happened in sequence. Blogs often fit in with these. Note that narrative nonfiction often doesn’t fit strictly if the author uses flashbacks and other fiction techniques.
  • Dialogue, argument, and thesis – The first is at least as old as Plato. It resembles a discussion committed to paper, but, of course, it is carefully organized to make a point. Arguments do this more directly, without using characters. A thesis usually follows a required structure that makes it more abstract.
  • Epistolary style and interviews – A letter to the editor is the most obvious of these. They are purportedly written to someone other than the reader. We just get to look over the addressee's shoulder. Often, actual letters are collected and edited for broad circulation. The best interviews may resemble letters most closely when the interviewer provides comments and responds to answers. Some are more stark, with formula questions, and these may be appropriate if the interviewer does not bring special knowledge or perspectives.
  • Review or comment – The subject of the discussion, another work or event, is the distinguishing feature here. That subject may be familiar, or may need to be described in a summary fashion. These works provide informed opinion. The best reviews and comments use the reference to illuminate something important. Many depend upon the voice and personality of the author to attract the reader and hold his or her attention.
  • Recipe and how-to – Clear, straightforward, and step-by-step. While there may be some personality involved, it cannot distract from the purpose. Success is giving people the outcome they are looking for. If clever words lead to an inedible pie, you lose.
  • Contrast – Sometimes the whole picture – especially of a complex event -- emerges best when more than one perspective is offered. Contrast is often used in morality tales, where clear choices are made and we see the consequences.
  • Pyramid and hierarchy of interests – Put what is vital to know first, then the next, and so on. My investment as a reader gets diminishing returns -- by design.
  • Reference and FAQ – Just the facts, organized (often alphabetically) so I can most quickly get the information I need or want. It is important that I can get all that I need regarding a topic within a single section (or, at least, get everything but what is clearly pointed to in other sections). This means there is some redundancy in these texts. They are not meant to be read from beginning to end. A dictionary may be the most obvious example.
  • Theory and exercises – Think textbooks. The point is explained, and then the opportunity to check and deepen understanding is offered through questions and how-tos.
  • Memoir, apology and testimony – These tend to be mostly about the writer, written in the first person. Readers read to learn about them as persons.  Think of a conversation with a good friend about how life is going. The writer may, along with sharing experience, also have a point, wish to justify him or herself, or hope to inspire.
  • Observations – These should be objective and thorough. A police or post mortem report. A naturalist’s field observations.
  • Case history and cautionary tales – Much of this is like a chronology, but the focus is to tell what happened and bring out the lessons. The reader will want to get enough to emulate success and avoid failure.
  • Vision and sales pitch – This is forward-looking. It can be what might be for a society or a company, or simply the joys for a consumer of owning a vacuum cleaner. A premise must be stated, benefits must be detailed, and there must be a call to action.
  • Parable, fable and joke – Here the readers usually knows that the work is a composite or an allegory with a definite point. In other words, connection to facts is tenuous, but the reader is in on it. While not factual, a truth is expected. The story should be easily overlaid on the real world, and it should be convincing. Urban legends fit here, but they often are so compelling that they are taken to be factual.
Much of book-length nonfiction today does not fit cleanly into any of the above categories. Writers mix in quotes, artifacts, sidebars, and more to vary the tone and break up the text. Also the impact on readers can be dialed in by changing how formal the work is and/or adding humor (ironic, satirical, biting, or gentle).  Also, the medium makes a difference. Will this be a book? An ebook? A blog? A film? A speech?
Which structure do you choose, and how do you determine the tone? Start by articulating the purpose of the nonfiction work. (I do this for every speech I write.) What does success mean for you (or you client)? Do people need to take action? Advocate? Be able to do something? Avoid or embrace a behavior? Build empathy?
Next, determine who your main audience is. I like to get down to one person, and expand in rewrites as necessary. I find that the ideal reader often has strong opinions about which structures work best. Some people prefer works that are stark and abstract, like scientific papers. Others need to get cozy with the writer (think memoir). Your ideal reader will also guide you toward specific media and preferred tone.
Length makes a difference. Parables and fables are short. Textbooks are long, but broken up into sections. Narrative nonfiction can work at any length.
Completeness of information can dictate your choice. I wanted to write a narrative nonfiction book about a historical character, but primary sources were too scarce. Similarly, arguments feel weak if they have fewer than three points to support them.
Requirements matter. A friend of mine spent two years trying to get approval for a biochemistry dissertation written as narrative nonfiction before she submitted a more standard version.
Your comfort with the form can be decisive, especially when you are on deadline. While it is admirable to develop the ability to use all of the structures, you will probably have real facility in only a few of them.
When in doubt, try more than one approach and compare the results. You may be surprised by how dramatically the impact of your content rises or falls. Imagine a parable presented as a business speech, complete with PowerPoint charts.  Or a Hollywood star’s biography presented as a scientific paper.  Or a recipe book prepared as narrative nonfiction. Any of these would either be disasters or hilarious.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

NaNoWriMo Success 3 - What to do next

You have successfully prepared for NaNoWriMo, drafted your 50,000 words, and met your goals. Now what?
  • Celebrate and thank people - You have plenty of reason to feel good about yourself. You've done it (and, if you kept to NaNoWriMo's rules, at a blistering pace). Reward yourself so you remember how this feels. Also, take the time to thank all those who nudged you, answered a questions, calmed your nerves, drove the kids to soccer, or missed a party so this could happen. Your mentors, writing buddies, friends, and families deserve your gratitude and a share of your success. Just be sure not to give them the impression that you are now done with writing. They'll need to support you, one way or another, from now on.
  • Give it a rest - The work you just did is still humming in your head. Bad parts look good and good parts look bad. Even though you have a thousand ideas for revision (which you can jot down), don't go back and read your manuscript now. Wait a month (Stephen King says six weeks). Mark a date on your calendar to begin revisions.
  • But don't lose momentum - Put your manuscript aside, but don't put aside the habits and skills you have acquired. Start something new. Keep writing every day. You don't need to keep up the frenetic pace of NaNoWriMo, but please don't give yourself a vacation. You've invested too much to waste your commitment and development as a writer.
  • Consider a post mortem - Look at your experience as a project and consider what worked, what didn't, and what you might do differently in the future. As you do this, don't forget that NaNoWriMo is part stunt. Some of what you did may not become part of your day-in-day-out approach to writing.
  • Document your lessons - Since you probably tried new methods and pushed or altered old ones, it is a great time to update your process journal with revisions and additions.
  • Rewrite - After you have let your manuscript rest, you can start exploring and reshaping it. Don't be surprised or disappointed if it is different from what you remember. Just get on with the task of making it wonderful.
  • Submit - When you manuscript is just the way you want it, share it. This may mean handing it off to trusted readers or submitting it to agents and/or editors, or self publishing.
That's it. Congratulations on finishing your book. And welcome to the world of writers.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Guest Post - What I Learned from doing NaNoWriMo

It is my delight to welcome Rochelle Melander as the second HTWF Guest Blogger. Rochelle is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: WriteYour Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It). She is also a speaker, and certified professional coach.

Rochelle teaches professionals how to write good books fast, use writing to transform their lives, navigate the publishing world, and get published. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon, visit her online at

What I Learned from doing NaNoWriMo: Five Tools to Help You Write Faster
By Rochelle Melander

Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month in 1999 to give himself and other would-be novelists the one thing he believed stood between them and a finished novel: a deadline. In 2011, more than 250,000 people took the challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November, and more than 35,000 people accomplished that feat. Wow.

Before I’d ever heard of National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing books fast. My husband and I completed our first book in less than six weeks. In 2004, tempted by a sweet paycheck, a friend and I wrote a book together in just 9 days. The whole process—researching, writing and editing—took just two weeks and happened over the Thanksgiving holiday. In 2009, I wrote Write-A-Thon, a book about how to write books fast, in 26 days during National Novel Writing Month.

Over the years (and because of challenges like National Novel Writing Month), I’ve learned a few tricks for writing fast. Here are five of my favorite tools:

1. Write during your peak writing time. According to scientific research, our bodies peak for physical, social, and intellectual tasks at specific times of day. Researchers offer broad suggestions about when we do best at various activities. For example , many of us do well at intellectual tasks during the late morning while we excel at creativity in the evening when we are a bit more tired and open to new ideas. (See "A Peak Time for Everything.") But even scientists admit that peak working times are different for each of us. Track your energy levels for a few weeks and find your optimal writing time. Once you know when you write best, schedule your writing in those time slots and do your other work (yeah, your day job) at other times of the day.

2. Write More. When my children were babies, I used to worry that if they napped in the afternoon, they wouldn’t sleep at night. Not so! The more they slept, the more they slept. It’s the same with writing. The more you write, the more you will be able to write. During National Novel Writing Month and other big projects, I often add a three-page journaling time to my schedule. It gives me a place to dump all of my fears and concerns about writing and life. And, it strengthens my writing muscles so that when I get to my project, I’m already warmed up. And, as you’ll see from the next tip (#3): this journaling time can also help you with your big important project.

3. Never face a blank page. I’ve been working as a professional writer for fifteen years, and still panic at the site of a blank page. When I trained with the National Writing Project, I learned that teachers support fearful students by giving them prewriting exercises—charts and tools to help them sketch out their ideas before they write. At the end of a writing session, decide what you will write about during your next writing session. (If you appreciate having a choice, list more than one topic to choose from.) Create a short list of ideas for the topic. I’ve done this using both computer documents and a regular notebook. Both work just fine. Often, I’ll also use my daily journaling time (see #2 above) to write about what I will write about next. When I arrive at the computer for my next session, I am calm. Between the notes I jotted in the document and my scribbles in my journal, I have plenty to write about!

4. Find a structure that works. Early in my writing career, I heard author Anne Lamott talk about how much she loved writing short essays. For her, that structure fit her writing style and energy level. Over the years, I’ve learned that a clear structure helps me write faster. When I design a book or brainstorm an article, I spend some time thinking about a structure that will help me convey my ideas. For this article I chose to offer five tools. For another article, I might simply present a problem, a story that illustrates the solution, and a final paragraph about what I’ve learned. Spend some time checking out the structures of chapters in your favorite books or how your favorite bloggers structure their posts. Then decide what structures work best for you and your topic. I’m betting you’ll write faster.

5. Boost Your Energy. Most of us depend on coffee or a bit of sugar to boost our energy when we struggle to write. But while coffee and sugar do increase our energy for a short time, they both lead to energy crashes. Thankfully, there are better ways. Researchers have just discovered that looking at photos of cute baby animals can increase our focus and help us to get more writing done. (See "I Can Haz Productivity?") If you’re not into baby animals, try taking a ten-minute walk, eating a healthy snack, or doing something repetitive like washing the dishes or folding clothes. The time away from your computer will give your brain a much-needed break, and you’ll return to the page ready to write!

Your turn: What tools have you used to write faster?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Every Other Friday - Jennifer Fusco Interview

Jennifer Fusco is the Creative and Brand Manager for the General Electric Company, North America, and the author of the bestselling series, Market or Die, marketing books for writers. 

A three-time winner of the Advertising Excellence Award, Jennifer has launched successful national print and digital ad campaigns. 

In her writing life, Ms. Fusco is a member of RWA’s PRO network and serves as the President of the Connecticut Romance Writers. She has completed two urban fantasy romance manuscripts and is a monthly contributor to the Romance Writers of America’s RWR Report.

Tell me about Market or Die. 
Market or Die is a series of books designed for Authors to learn how to market their work. There are three books in the series: Sensible Brand Building Advice for Writers, How to Use the Power of Your Brand, and Integrated Marketing Plans.

What drove you to write Market or Die? Who did you write it for? 

 Initially, it was suggested to me to write a marketing book by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She attended my marketing presentation at the Connecticut Fiction Fest writer’s conference and said I had to share my knowledge with others. Market or Die took about a week to write. I wrote it fast because I knew my subject matter. I’d been giving marketing presentations on brand for quite some time.

What were your biggest obstacles? The self-publishing process as a whole. I would have loved to turn over the content to someone else and let them do the formatting, proofreading, cover design, etc. Self-publishing, to me, is a time-suck. And, I’m time constrained as it is. I don’t have any plans to self-publish anything for a while, unless I have to.

What are your productivity tips? As I said, I’m time constrained. I may only have 8 hours to write per week. THAT’S in a seven-day period. But, when I’m not writing I’m constantly thinking about what I will write when I get to the PC. I plan the scene in my head. I know all the major points I want the chapter or scene to hit. I don’t plan it out too rigidly so that I can’t be creative and not be able to go on a “roll” if one strikes. Because I have limited amounts of time, I know how important it is and I’m certain not to waste it.
P.S. – I’m also quite fond of the “bagel” word placement technique.

Do you have any questions for me?
Can you give me some good writing exercises to speed up my time at the computer?

Exercises to build your speed? Sounds like a topic for a future post!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

Write for the moment. In the case  of NaNoWriMo, that means recognizing that 50,000 words in a month is a stunt, not a normal practice for most novelists (probably including fulltime novelists). That’s why, as I wrote in my NaNoWriMo prep post, you need to understand ahead of time what your goals are.
Certainly one goal should be to have fun. Yes, the serious, beautiful, and successful novel Water for Elephants came out of NaNoWriMo, and I would love for one of you to have a similar achievement. The odds of that happening, however, are not great. And if you are not used to marathon writing, don’t pressure yourself to create a bestseller. Don’t expect to have a deliverable manuscript on December 1, either. Rewriting happens (and should). I'll share some thoughts for the days after NaNoWriMO in my next post.
Here are eight things to keep in mind when you hear the virtual staring gun go off on November 1:
  • Set a timer - This will help to put you on task. And it will tell you when you are "finished" for the day. (Feel free to keep writing.)
  • Break the ice - Get a few words down as soon as your session begins. Those blank pages are deadly.
  • Work forward - Do not rewrite as you go. Rewriting is for later. Add words, build pages, create scenes, and finish chapters.
  • Give yourself permission -
    • To write nonsense (don't judge)
    • To write poorly (it can be fixed)
    • To write sideways (meaning going away from an outline, letting a character take you where she wants you to go)
  • Consider experimenting - Feel free to write in ways you've never written before. Play around with the possibilities. Make notes after a session about how it feels and what you've learned.
  • Don’t hurt yourself - Be willing to push yourself, but don't press to the point of pain. Give yourself more latitude, but don't get sloppy.
  • Celebrate success - Every day.
  • Shrug off failure - Didn't make you word count? It's one day out of thirty. See if you can understand what went wrong. And do a little more tomorrow.
You can find more suggestion on drafting your novel in past HTWF posts. Let me know if you choose to use any of them for NaNoWriMo. Among your many goals, I hope becoming a productive writer is one of them. That will come when you use the time to build good habits, master new techniques, and build your confidence.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

NaNoWriMo Success 1 - Preparation

Since 1999, November has been National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Not surprisingly, I'm an enthusiast. Many of the things that are dear to my heart happen for thousands - most recently, hundreds of thousands -- of eager participants. As they strive to complete a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days writers:
  • Build the habit of writing regularly - Practice makes perfect.
  • Write forward - Avoiding looping, and getting words on paper. As Nora Roberts said, "You can fix anything but a blank page."
  • Build confidence - Getting a book written counters all the voices that say you can't do it, including the one in your own head.
  • Clarify their commitment to writing - It is possible to start this task on a whim, but difficult to grit it out without a deeper understanding of why you must write.
  • Build relationships with other writers - Writing can be a lonely business. NaNoWriMo creates the perfect opportunity to connect with other writers who will acknowledge, encourage, and support you.
  • Discover or rediscover the joy of writing - You may have days you struggle, but, over a thirty-day period, it is highly unlikely that you won't have crazy wonderful experiences when the words flow and something new comes to life.
The demands of NaNoWriMo are crazy for most people. Getting almost 2,000 words on paper each day is double the commitment Stephen King asks of writers in his terrific book, On Writing. Even for a professional writer, NaNoWriMo is an Ironman Triathalon. With a few weeks to go before the starting gun goes off, it's time to go into training. I'll present a few suggestions on preparation here. In future articles, I'll write about drafting practices during NaNoWriMo, and what to do when December 1 rolls around, and its over for another year.
  • The heart has its reasons - Answer the question of why you write (or intend to write). Multiple answers are great. Saying "for the money" will only get me laughing.
  • Place, time, goals - Where will you write? Will you be able to close the door? Can you set aside the minutes or hours you need each day to get this done? Are they marked off on your calendar? Do you have word count goals? Chapter goals? Personal goals for this event?
  • Tools - Will you use any special software, like Scrivener? Will the Emotional Thesaurus be ready in your browser? Will you use an application to make the Web inaccessible? Have you set up a way to track your word count? Will you use dictation? Are you fluent with using the tools you intend to use?
  • Distractions - Do family members know they need to give you the time? Are you sacrificing FaceBook for the month of November? Have you thought about what can come off your to-do list for the month?
  • Rituals and prompts - Have you picked out your lucky socks? Will you chant and burn incense? Play music? Do you have maps of the city where the story will take place? Have you cut a picture of your heroine out of People Magazine?
  • Buddies - Do you have a fellow writer at hand to talk with, bounce ideas off of, complain to, and share good news with during the thirty days? Do you know how to find one? Do you know what your criteria are?
  • Finger exercises - Are you doing a little bit more actual writing (not planning or character studies) each day, working yourself up to the daily word count you'll need? Are you practicing brainstorming, doing research, and making observations?
  • Celebrations - Do you know how you'll celebrate daily success? Do you have confetti ready for the day you write "The End"?
If you get all of these just right, you will be well prepared to take on this challenge. You'll have the process in place, means, opportunity, and motivation. Do one more thing: set your expectations.

Realize that when it gets rolling, you may need to improvise. If your buddy bails on you, resolve now that you won't give up. You'll find someone else to work with (and keep writing in the meantime). Expect that life will get in the way and you'll miss a day. Be ready to shrug it off, and get back on task. Thirty days is a long period of time. Not everything you set up will go as planned, but if you expect hiccups, you'll be better able to have NaNoWriMo success.

Success doesn't necessarily mean finishing the 50,000 words and getting the certificate. It might mean coming out of the month with more capabilities and good writing habits.

Will you participate in NaNoWriMo? Are you getting ready? 
What do you expect to get out of it?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rewrite 7 - Fixing Dialogue, Step by Step

Most of the time, I love my dialogue as it goes onto the page. The characters come alive for me, and I can barely keep up with their chattering, and drafting is a pleasure. Occasionally, the characters get sullen, and I have to put words in their mouths. I struggle to meet my word count. Whether inspired or workmanlike, the pages never look wonderful when, after a cooling off period, I return to them for the rewrite.

I could get discouraged, but process saves me. I know from past experience that going through, step by step, I'll end up with pages that do the storytelling job. My process has changed over the years (and it continues to change). While I used to treat rewriting like an immersion experience, taking on whatever displeased me in each go-through, now I tend to isolate one concern at a time.

That discipline
  • reduces confusion, 
  • keeps me from missing things, and 
  • helps to prevent the problem of having one repair knock everything else out of whack.
Here are the steps I use, in this order:
  • Make sure something happens - Sounds simple, right? For scenes with little dialogue, this tends to occur naturally, but it is amazing how often dialogue does not move a story forward. And this is especially true if your characters are clever and charming. I do two things as a test. First, I title the scene. This forces me to think about it holistically as opposed to as a series of exchanges. Next, I add a subtitle that begins, "In which..." Anyone who has read a lot of older novels is familiar with these subtitles. "In which our heroine Beatrice steals Alexandra's locket." Beware of subtitles where a character "finds out" something or "insults" another character. Ask what finding out leads to. If she finds out her best friend has betrayed her, is she forced to flee Coventry? Ask about the results of that insult. Does Harold challenge Christopher to a duel at dawn?
  • Make sure the scene fits - A great scene can be in the wrong place or in the wrong book. Look at the scene in context. If you've titled your scenes, line them up and see if the order makes sense and moves the story forward.
  • Make the characters distinct 1 - Can you hear your characters voices? Is there contrast? Would you know who was who just by their perspective and choice of words?
  • Check the narrative - I often short change the action, description, and reflection in the draft, so this is vital to my rewrite. It often puts me back into draft mode, forcing me to visualize the scene anew and to feel along with the characters. Once the narration is added, the pacing becomes evident and may need adjustment.
  • Check the point of view - The scene looks much more complete now. Is the point of view consistent, or is there head hopping? Even more important, is the point of view character the one who has the most to lose as the scene proceeds?
  • Trim the start and the stop - Most draft scenes start too early and end too late. I chop from the top first, removing any lines that are not essential. "Hellos" are deadly. When it is impossible to start the scene any later, I look at the ending. Sometimes the ending doesn't truly resolve and more must be added. But more often it dribbles on longer than necessary. Last line - cut! Next to last line - cut! Continue until the scene can't end any sooner.
  • Eliminate on-the-nose - I need to write a whole piece on this. Basically, people are more interesting and reveal more character when they talk indirectly. Check out this nice ScreenwritingU article. Also, avoid at all costs and line that could be preceded by "As you know." Do not use your characters as shills to avoid your job of clear, well-placed narration.
  • Check for clarity - Lots of words now. Lots of changes. Lot of opportunity for confusion.
  • Make the characters distinct 2 - This is so important. Readers love to hear characters. Make sure they still are talking in their own voices.
  • Clear out the throat clearing - "Um, err, well" People do talk like this. A little goes a long way. Fiction is not reality. It is enhanced. Clear out the dull stuff. Beware also of "real" dialect. I'm not gonna tell ya twice 'bout this.
  • Eliminate the repeats - Yes, people repeat themselves. Yes, they echo back what the other person has said to ensure they heard properly or to change emphasis. No, you shouldn't do this (most of the time).
  • Add the attributions - Make sure we know who is talking. "Said" is usually the best word.
  • Read the dialogue aloud - Your ears will pick out the problems.
I'll note that this is not a recipe. I am not concerned if I drift away from the process or change the order. Since I often end up drafting new sentences, paragraphs, and scenes during rewriting, things can get crazy. But this process provides a fallback position when (as often happens) I get uncertain about what to do next. And it provides an excellent checklist to ensure that I've done the full job.

What about you? How do you approach rewriting dialogue and rewriting in general?


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Draft 8 - Ten Tips for Getting Dialogue onto the Page

The characters we love and remember, with few exceptions, become real to us through dialogue. For many readers listening to the characters is the best part of the book -- so much so that they scan or even skip narration to get to the dialogue. The most effective dialogue moves the story forward, reveals character, and sounds distinct. It is compact, rich in subtext, and, like poetry, begs to be read out loud.

This can put a lot of pressure on the writer. How can you do all these things at once? What if the voices in your head refuse to be lyrical, on task, and engaging? What if the voices don't even show up?

Last time, I talked about preparing to write dialogue. Do that work ahead of time (and I always advocate setting things up the day before so the muse has time to get his/her act together), and your chances of having the words flow will increase. But what if they don't? Here are ten suggestions to get you going and keep you going when you have a dialogue-filled scene:
  1. Depend on the rewrite - Give yourself permission to do a second rate job. All the magic of dialogue? It rarely comes through in the first draft. The good news is that it doesn't have to. You have as many chances to get it right as you want. Don't make life impossible for yourself. Have some fun.
  2. Get the voices in your head - Sometimes you can't shut them up, but try to summon the voices if you don't hear them. Picture the characters. Ask a few questions out loud and have them respond out loud. Be rude to them and get under their skins.  Or lure them in. If they still don't show up, fake it. They are likely to join you after a few painful exchanges on the page that make them sound wrong.
  3. Find the heart of the scene - Ideally, you already know what the characters want (or, better yet, desperately need) before you start writing, and you have some sense of why this scene is part of the overall story. If not, go ahead and work yourself into the scene with as much "Hi. How are you" and such as you need to, but watch for where a character get involved and emotional. This is the real start and gives you what you want. Then make sure the other character responds to this. As in improv, your characters need to accept what comes their way. Don't let them change the subject (or succeed in changing the subject).
  4. Lean on the contrasts - The bigger the differences are between your characters, the easier it is for them to be interested in each other and come into conflict
  5. Look for beats - The best dialogue changes in direction. Important information is revealed. Goals are redirected. Stakes change. A good scene has three to five of the beats. If everything is the scene is working out as expected, have a character throw a monkey wrench into it.
  6. Bring it to a clear ending - Make sure, even if you have to note it down in an explicit way that won't survive rewrite, that the scene arrives somewhere. Good scenes generally answer the scene question (with the character get what she needs) with "no" or "yes, but." And, when you're drafting, don't cheat by interrupting the conversation with someone coming through the door with a gun. Finish the scene. You can always restructure it to be cut off in the rewrite.
  7. Try dialogue only - Good scenes are broken up with action, body language, thoughts, and description. But these can slow you down in the drafting stage. If you suspect you can go faster by ignoring or only briefly noting these, do it. Leave the "he saids" for later.
  8. Act - No part of writing is more like acting that dialogue. Do what actors do. Stand up so your body is freed. Use prompts and props to bring out the character.
  9. Change your tools - If the keyboard isn't working, shift to longhand. Or dictation (my preference for dialogue).
  10. Remember who's there - It is difficult to shift back and forth between different heads. But your scene may require three or more characters. That makes it all too easy for the writer to unintentionally put a character to the side for an extended period of time. He or she gets forgotten, often even in rewrites. While most scenes feature two characters, the other characters can play a vital role. They can screw things up for one or the other of the featured characters by asking a question or throwing in a fact at just the wrong time. This needs to happen "in character," of course, but make them essential to the scene.
Use these suggestions only as you need to. They are helps, not step-by-step instructions. And, though they may help you create a better first draft, the goal here is to get the words on paper. Perfecting those words is what the dialogue is about.

If any of this helps, please let me know. And, if you have your own tricks for drafting dialogue, please share them here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Writing Prep 8 - Getting Ready to Write Dialogue

Writers are sly. You have no secrets from them. They snoop and eavesdrop with no shame. I think of Henry Higgins transcribing Eliza's conversations while unobtrusively leaning against a column in Covent Gardens. She only knows he's there when someone uninvolved warns her.

Damon Knight once said that the best dialogue was like a conversation you'd strain to overhear on a subway. The operative word there is "like." Most literally transcribed conversations are tedious, lacking context and full of false starts and meanders. But the sounds of good dialogue are all around you. Regularly paying attention and noting what you've heard (and why it is interesting) will naturally feed your stories and make them authentic. As long as you don't get to literal.

A word about eavesdropping.  Don't get caught. Don't cheat, either. Most man-on-the-street interviews are deadly. Too many people scramble to sound reasonable on camera and grab the tired phrases they've heard on the news over and over again. And the creative editors in the news room seem to gravitate toward these, avoiding colorful language that might create risk. Stick with the familiar.

Even worse is what comes across in reality shows. That dialogue seems to be processed with malice aforethought. Talk shows? Blather. The attempts at conversation are grabs attention, not true communication.

So go to the mall. Go to a courthouse. Go to a ballgame. Go where people are relaxed and with friends. Or adversaries. One reason to hang around a long line of people trying to get a great price, get the best tickets, or be in position for festival seating is to hear them talk, especially when someone tries to jump the line.

Of course, if you know what your are writing and need to hear how teens or professors or cops talk, to do research, go where they are. If you don't fit in, don't draw attention to yourself and stay long enough so the people become acclimated to you. Seek out opportunities. Most communities have ride-along programs where you can sit in the back of a police car as the officers do their jobs.

When you interview people, pay as much attention to how they say things, the words they choose, as you do to the content of their answers. (It's a good idea to pay attention to body language, too. And I like to interview people while they are doing their normal work.)

It is helpful to listen with a purpose from time to time.  Isolate cadence, vocabulary, logic, emphasis, and accent. Look for patterns in evasion, going silent, or interrupting.

Acting lessons can help you to uses of dialogue, to sharpen your observational skills, and to learn the power of a pause. Improv training can get you to listen and respond quickly. It gives you chances to surprise yourself.

Tape voices and get them into your head. Then create new things for your subjects to say.

A lot of dialogue in stories is facile and cliche. You would never want to overhear it. If you want authentic dialogue that causes people to lean in to catch every work, you need to put in the time and effort preparing to write it.