Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Fast Draft Challenge: Hurts and helps

Throwing words, sentences, and paragraphs onto a page in a rush is like running a race. If you're out of shape you may finish with a limp or even come up short. If you write regularly, you'll get to the end most days, but some will be easier than others.
Since fast drafting is one of the critical steps I mentioned in Productive Writing Stripped Down to the Essentials, I'll dig into it a bit more this time. (I've drilled down on Story Premise and Drafting Goals in previous posts.)
Lots of practices and attitudes can get in the way. Here are a few that may hold you back:
  • Perfectionism - Drafts are all about allowing yourself to make mistakes, but that isn't easy for some people. Putting down words and creating scenes that won't make the final draft can feel sloppy or like a waste of time. For most people, it's not. It's a great time saver that keeps you moving forward so the story can be exposed. Rewriting is where things get fixed. Getting that part of your mind to quiet down and let the words flow takes practice.
  • Looping - There can be an irresistible urge to fix what is written as you go along. This knocks you out of creative, composition mode, and slows things down -- often to a stop. It can be difficult to let it go when you see ways to make it better, but, for most people, the starts and stops get in the way of productivity.
  • The right word - Good writers make the best word choices for final copy, but stopping to search for the best word as you compose can trip you up. I've found, for my own work, it's best to just put something down if the third word I come up with still isn't quite right. Inevitably, the best word comes to me in rewriting. (Sometimes I put questionable words in italics or just add an asterisk at the end.) Similar to this is uncertainty about spelling (put it down phonetically) and reaching for a fact (see bagel below).
  • Lack of commitment - This is similar to dithering, but in real time. It is not unusual to have other scenes, other stories, and other work suggest themselves as you work on your draft. Somehow, you know the words will flow if you just change projects. This is usually an illusion. If you've set your goal for writing, consider it a promise to yourself. Keep your promise, and then feel free to go after the shiny objects.
  • Interruptions - The words are flowing and then you hear the familiar "bing" of new email. Or you have the desire for a cup of coffee. Or the cat jumps into your lap. Do what you can to eliminate interruptions and temptations. Track what happens anyway to see if it stops you too often. Take steps to give yourself the time and quiet you owe yourself.
There are certainly more problems with keeping the words flowing. Sometimes the juices don't flow for no apparent reason. All you can do is write down a noun, and then a verb, and keep building stuff that is horrible but keeps you moving forward. A process one of my mentors called (I'll paraphrase) "defecating masonry."
Usually, it doesn't come to that. To provide some help, here are a few things you can try:
  • Remind yourself it's not a watercolor - You want perfect? You can get it in a later draft. Everything can be fixed, and no one needs to see this version.
  • Use a timer - It's like a starting gun, and it puts a definite limit on the minutes you need to dedicate to composing.
  • Fill in with bagels - I just write the word bagel when the right word or fact refuses to come to mind. I clean up the bagels later on.
  • Be ready - That means having your premise and your goal for the day. Sometimes it also means getting research done and answering questions about the mood and the purpose of the scene.
  • Use a dictation program - This is especially valuable if you tend to loop. Rewriting as you work is very difficult when you are dictating.
  • Interview your character about the scene - When I'm lost, I turn to the character who has the most to lose in the scene I'm writing. I cut and paste questions onto the page and write his or her answers.
    • How do you feel about the other people in this scene?
    • What do you need or want?
    • What's in your way?
    • What happens if you succeed?
    • What happens if you fail?
    • What's at stake for you?
Are there days when I use everything in this toolbox and still have a blank page when the timer goes off? Yes. But it's rare, and I've seen days when I'm blocked become more rare over the years. When it happens, I shrug my shoulders and let it go. Usually, I forget about it. Sometimes, I change my writing goal for the next day. I don't chastise myself or brood about the "failure." Often, I've found, the best writing days follow a day when nothing worked. That's a helpful perspective to keep in mind.

Upcoming classes
January 5-30, 2015 How to Write FAST (online) http://www.yosemiteromancewriters.com/workshops
January 13-February 17 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) https://writerscenter.org/courses/science-fiction-and-fantasy-writing-workshop
February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online) http://ce.savvyauthors.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=2149
Februrary 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College http://www.sunywcc.edu/continuing-ed/ce/

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Persuading Yourself: Arguments to keep you writing

Almost every fiction writer working on a big project will hit a wall along the way. Usually, it comes at about one half to two thirds through the drafting, though it can also come during the revisions.

Often, unhappiness builds as incomplete and broken scenes accumulate. Sometimes, the muse goes on vacation and the words and ideas stop flowing. Plot problems seem intractable. Characters who were happily chatting away go silent. The whole idea of writing the book or script seems ill-conceived, or you conclude you are not the right person to be writing it.

I advise my students to create a list of arguments early on that will convince this frustrated self to keep writing. Ten to twenty single sentences can usually do the job, and they should be written as soon as is practicable. (Before drafting is good. No later than before you finish Act One, or 15-20% of the manuscript.)

Some of the questions I listed last time in A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish can help you write these arguments. I always have a bit I'm passionate about and my hook to the market (or at least a key audience) on the list. But that still leaves a lot of list to go. So here are some prompts that might help:
  1. Passion - "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." You may just be head over heels in love with the story that's in your head. That's fine. How do you articulate it to the future you who has fallen out of love? I usually try to write a poetic line that expresses the core of the work. For one work of mine, it was "Three bullet holes in a wall plaster can't hide."
  2. Market - Can you get specific about what will create the buy decision? Usually, this is a fresh angle on something with a known audience. (Ironically, I'm working on a fresh angle with zombies.) If you can express this element in a logline that convinces other people now and will convince you in the future, you've got it.
  3. Career or brand - How will this work advance your career or establish/deepen your brand? If you are writing a book that is the second in a series, that's a good reason to finish the book.
  4. Challenge - What about this work stretches you as a person and/or as an artist? Can you articulate that? For instance, writing from an unfamiliar point of view (different gender, religion, culture) might be reason enough to write and finish a book or script.
  5. Explore a concept - Years ago, I wondered, after reading Philip K. Dick novels, about the impact of memory erasure and implantation on romance. This resulted in a long short story (which I sold) that led me to a deeper understanding of how we grow through failed relationships. (Yes, it sound like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I got there years before the movie. Maybe Charlie Kaufman is a Dick fan, too.)
  6. Explore a character - This is almost always on my list. I'll hear a distinctive sentence from a character and write down that quote. For me, it works like the poetry in the first prompt above, evoking a world that fascinates me.
  7. Do some good - Does your work expose and evil? Inspire philanthropy? Encourage and guide? Great. That's an excellent reason to finish. I have a story where a character throws his friend's life into chaos (loss of job, pursuit by police, being mugged). But the consequences to the friend are less than the danger of self-indulgent complaining -- which can be devastating spiritually.
  8. Honor a person - When I lose people in real life -- either because they die or because they move on -- I often use them as inspiration for a character so a part of them can still be cherished.
  9. Create art - The sentences written in answer to this one would vary widely. For me, it has to do with what might live on in the work, what delight it might bring aesthetically, and what I have to share.
  10. Pay off investment - The investment could be time, money, energy, reputation, or whatever you put at risk to take on this project. But don't just mention that in your argument. Mention the possible payoff (money, fame, reputation, etc.), too. Otherwise, this argument is just a bludgeon.
  11. Keep a promise - The most obvious one here? The work is under contract. But, even if it's speculative, chapters and scenes could be owed to a writing buddy or a reader.
Note: These are only useful if they can convince a future you, so use your best talents of persuasion. Also, the statements need to be specific. In teaching, I've found a lot of people default immediately to generic statements. Ideally, each sentence should be phrased in a way that is particular to the work in progress and can't be applied to any other works. If the statement can be applied to another work, be suspicious.

Recently I've taken a new view on my own lists. In addition to doing the basic work of keeping me going, I try to make some of the statements part of an Argument for Excellence. My aim is to take the work, especially in the revision phase, to a higher level of competence, making it more engaging, meaningful, and authentic. This is not easy, but keep it in mind once you've completed some works to your own satisfaction.

Your main goal is to get around, over, or through the wall you hit with a big project. A good set of statements should persuade that future you and lead to success.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Story Premise You Can Love and Cherish: 10 questions

Few things are more important to getting attention for and selling your story than the premise. But, as mentioned in the last post, your premise, whether it is a phrase or a paragraph, is a foundation for productive writing. I recommend taking two weeks to formulate a premise for a book or screenplay, and that's if you are someone who is tuned to noting down ideas and connecting key concepts in interesting ways.

Getting the premise right is essential, so I've put together ten questions you can use to test yours:
  1. Are you passionate about the premise? Is the concept one you want to delve into? Will it lead to answers that will matter to you?
  2. Do you know who you want to share your story, findings, or thesis with? Who is the audience for this and what compels you to bring this material to them? Do they share your passion or will they need to be lured in?
  3. Are you the right person to write this? Stretching and getting into areas that make you uncomfortable is fine (perhaps essential for the most valuable work), but can you gain the knowledge, perspectives, insights, and emotional connections that will make your version distinct, essential, and true?
  4. Is your premise clear? Does it include all the elements (e.g., for a logline), and are these specific, evocative, logical, and accessible? Is it complete enough?
  5. Is it the right time for you to write this? Has the idea fermented long enough? Have the ideas been pushed to the limit? Do you have enough information and understanding to start? Have you developed background and a few focus areas (theme, character, plot points, arguments, questions)?
  6. Do you have good reasons to write this? Have you put together a list of 10-20 arguments to present to yourself when you enthusiasm and confidence wane?
  7. Is the premise rich enough? Does it support a book-length investigation without padding or adding adjunct material?
  8. Have you investigated comparables? Are there similar books, movies, or other media around? Do you have something new or under-explored to add? Could one of these provide a good model for your work?
  9. Is it marketable? Does it fit a particular genre? Does it catch the zeitgeist? Does it have appeal? Does it exploit your platform?
  10. Have you chosen the best medium? Why a novel or a script or a nonfiction book or a play or graphic novel or a speech?
It may not be necessary to have good answers to all of these before you commit to your premise, but reviewing these questions may reveal holes or deepen your understanding of what you intend to undertake. For many writers, who have a long list of possible books, more than could be written in a lifetime, this list can help with prioritization. And the greatest value might be shortening the list. It is very easy to spend too much time on topics that are flashy or popular, but not high quality.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Productive Writing Stripped Down to the Essentials

I've been doing a lot of teaching, speaking and mentoring over the past few months (one reason I haven't been posting), and it has forced me to hone down my advice to four elements.
To finish a 50,000-word manuscript in one year, follow these steps:
  1. Take two weeks to formulate a premise, thesis, a goal statement, or logline that is distinct, rich, and inspiring. Write anything from a sentence to several pages that can be your touchstone for the rest of your one-year assignment.
  2.  On the day before you begin your draft, write down your drafting goal -- a sentence or two about what you will achieve the next day in your writing session.
  3. On the day you begin your draft, reread your drafting goal, set a timer for at least 15 minutes, and draft without editing. When the timer goes off (or later in the day, write a drafting goal for your next writing session.
  4. Repeat: Draft without editing at least 15 minutes a day and create your drafting goals no fewer than 5 days a week.
That's it, but the devil is in the details. Creating a premise that 1) is rich enough to support 50,000 words, 2) engages your heart and mind, and 3) will move your toward your writing goal (usually a sale) isn't easy. Similarly, expressing a writing goal that moves the work forward and provides clear guidance for the following day takes practice. It may be a few weeks before these don't frustrate you half the time. For many people, the only way to do this effectively is to create an outline or a detailed synopsis, and this must reflect an understanding of the structure of your work and audience expectations.

While, based on my teaching and mentoring virtually everyone can write at least 200 words in 15 minutes (200 words X 5 days/week X 50 weeks =50,000 words), there are two prerequisites that can be problematic day in and day out.

First, they need to know what to write (a good drafting goal), and that can fail in the face of "better" ideas. The goal is a promise to yourself that must be kept even if writing something else is more attractive. Finishing the Work In Progress (WIP) is non-negotiable, even when it feels like a disaster or a fool's errand.

Second, the 15 minutes of drafting must involve putting words down recklessly. No editing, no research, no searching for the exact word. This is a sprint.

Repeating can be a problem, too. Life gets in the way. People get sick. Families have emergencies. Bosses require overtime. But the bar here is purposely low. Not writing everyday. Not dedicating an hour or demanding 10,000 words a week. Are you and your book and your writing aspirations worth 15 minutes a day for 5 days a week? Isn't this a gift you owe yourself? Do it for a month, and it will probably become a habit. You'll come up with strategies to fit it in. And the words will add up.

Based on hundreds of students, this process will work for better than 90% of the people reading this blog. (There are some writers who cannot start writing when the timer/starting gun goes off. There are some who can't adapt to 15-minute intervals. There are some who cannot put drafting high enough on a priority list even to meet the low-bar commitment. And, of course, there are some people not meant to be writers.) This is not to say that this process is easy. Some key capabilities need to be built. Bad habits may need to be broken. There are inevitable setbacks (such as the "this book is crap" moment that comes at the halfway to three quarters point). And I haven't even mentioned revision here.

All of us will need to keep reading and developing craft and handling criticism and observing life. This isn't exactly a royal road. (And an ambitious writer will soon find him or herself adding to these steps and dedicating more time.) But I've found it is the simplest way to turn a non-writer into a writer and to turn an amateur into a professional.

Note on why I dropped out of social media. I've neglected you all for months, but not because I don't love you. I've had an avalanche of opportunities, including interest in novels and short stories by editors, rewrites on novels, a chance to contribute to a nonfiction book, new classes, a Hollywood option, and more. Many of these should be one-offs, driven by interest in a backlog of materials that I put out there for the first time. So, I've had lots of good news, but I expect it will come in more manageable bits going forward. That means I'll be back to weekly blogging.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Standing Out: Writing that breaks the rules

When clarity is at a premium, dull writing has it's place. I do not want instructions on how to use a parachute to be a great read. I want them to help me survive the drop from an airplane.

But, in a world full of distractions, fiction, opinion pieces, speeches, and manuscript queries, need to hook readers and keep them engaged. Take, for instance, the cover letter for a job. The Web is full of templates with logical structures. The advice to make your letter stand out centers on using keywords, focusing on capabilities, mentioning contacts, and being specific to the opportunity (rather than taking a generic approach).

Here's the opening of the last job letter I wrote:

Tuning phrases with an IBM VP while federal agents pulled the corporate jet apart for an hour was just part of 24 hours of no food, no sleep and no breaks. A major speech in front of skeptical clients dictated my flying to Toronto for a polish, then editing and reworking material on the flight down to Miami and finally rehearsal and revamping of charts into the morning. But the speech sold the idea of e-business and got good press.

It doesn't fit a template, but it's relevant -- providing a sense of my experience and how I work. It's not crazy. I did not provide a resume marked off to be folded into an origami swan. Within the body off the letter, I had the keywords for the job and explained why the job and the organization interested me. But I designed my letter to be intriguing and to stand apart from those of other applicants. I got the interview and the job.

Fiction writers know how important hooks and voice are to catching a reader's attention, but they can forget. The amateur manuscripts I read (and some in print, too) often seem to be manufactured from a model aimed at delivering required information within the first pages. In some cases, you could map the chapter of one book onto the chapter of another point by point. In the effort to get it right, the story is forgotten. The elements -- including the hook -- can feel contrived.

How do you write work that stands out?
  • Relax -- Reliance on the tried and true is based on anxiety. Ironically, the more you want the writing to achieve your aims, the more you are likely to fall back on formulas, formats, and rules that promise success. Take a deep breath and put that all aside, at least at the beginning.
  • Have fun -- Telemarketers are encouraged to smile as they make their pitches. Supposedly, you can hear a smile over the phone. Likewise, the emotions you have as you write usually come through.
  • Be bad -- In both senses. Be willing to write poorly as you compose, and to risk revealing your dark side. The former can be fixed. The latter may be what the reader is looking for.
  • Tell a secret -- Truth or dare, baby. Write what you don't want the reader to know. If they'd lean in to hear it, you might have something worth keeping.
  • Cut -- The most common thing I see in manuscripts is the true voice emerging around page 15. It's almost always worth listening to.  But after all those pages of throat clearing, prettied up language, and "what the reader needs to know," how many readers are still around?
  • Play -- Mess with the order. Run a scene past the ending. Slip in some poetry. Write from a different point of view. Do things that delight you even though they may be cut. Even if the experimentation doesn't make the final copy, it influences everything else for the better.
  • Trust your reader -- Don't explain everything. Imply. Hint. Wink. Do something you know you won't get away with. Yes, some readers won't get it. Those aren't your readers.
  • Make it different -- If it reads like everything else, change it up. You make it stand out by making it yours.
  • Check for clarity after it's done -- When you are happy with your work, let someone else read it and ask them if anything confused them. You might also ask if they wanted to put it down at some point.
  • Review -- Now you might want to pull out your formats and templates and rules. Chances are, you'll find your writing does the job. It may even include, in its own way, everything that's "required."
Obviously, fiction, which must provide an emotional experience, can take advantage of this advice to stand out. So can memoir. And queries. So should the bio you include with queries. Electrify, defy, annoy, disgust, charm, and arouse. Don't bore.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Writing Fast - The Jungle Red Writers discussion

Hi, all
I'm guest posting this week on Jungle Red Writers, entering into the discussion of the benefits and pitfalls related to writing faster.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

HTWF #200! Best Advice on Productive Writing

In just over two years, I’ve posted 200 entries to this blog. To mark this milestone, I’d like to celebrate some of the advice I’ve gotten that has helped me become a more productive writer:
Write, Don’t ThinkIsaac Asimov spoke at my university back when I was about twenty years old. He said that aspiring writers should rush the pages through the typewriter as quickly as they dared. It took the deadlines of radio, almost a decade later, for me to get a good understanding of what he meant. It didn’t mean composing in stream of consciousness mode or getting sloppy. It meant writing without long pauses, without searching too long for a word, without questioning myself too much, and without ducking away for research.
Don’t Confuse Writing with Writerly ThingsKristan Higgins offered a key insight on a time waster. When you write regularly, it should be actual work on the manuscript. This is especially important in a world where promotion, networking, and other career-oriented activities can fill writing time. But it also applies to other activities (such as research) that can eat up writing time.
Screw ThemHarlan Ellison said this less politely, but blowing off the naysayers or even using anger toward them as a prompt to write more and better can be helpful. It might even be worthwhile to post a note in big block letters in your writing area or someplace else (refrigerator?) you’re likely to see it often.
Take Notes in Full Sentences – I never met Ray Bradbury, but this suggestion of his has been an amazing timesaver for me. I no longer waste hours trying to figure out I meant by short phrases and individual words marked down on the back of receipts.
Voice Shows Up When You Write Fast – This might not be the exact phrasing, but Liz Pelletier said something akin to this when I attended a workshop with her this summer. I think it’s true. Too often, labored prose reads like someone other than yourself or comes out in a bland anonymous voice. (Perhaps one that would please your high school English teacher.) Going full throttle releases something new, and that is a (sometimes disturbing) expression of the inner you, unfiltered. It accepts risks.
I wish I could give credit to some of my other productivity standbys – using a timer, writing a goal sentence the day before, replacing a word that won’t come with “bagel,” and many more included in these pages. With each of these, I’ve either forgotten the source or come up with them myself (probably reinventing the wheel). 
... I've also gotten terrific advice that's less directly involved with productivity, such as guidance on character development and structure and choosing topics and refining ideas. Not to mention much needed encouragement. Writing is truly a community activity, with many generous hands contributing.
But I’m glad I can take advantage of this post to credit a few people and thank them for advice I’ve both benefited from and been able to share with readers and students.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fish Out of Water: Worldbuilding contemporary stories

Hi, all. I did an entry (associated with my upcoming course) for the Savvy Authors blog. Here's how it begins...

Science fiction and fantasy writers have no excuse for not making every page compelling and original. They have a universe (or multiverse) of possibilities. If you’re writing a contemporary story, it can be a lot harder to find ways to discover points of interest in setting that are filled with the commonplace and familiar. But you can borrow techniques from speculative writers to make even the most humdrum locale imaginative and enticing.

For more, go to the Savvy Authors site.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Notes to Yourself: Collecting treasures for your writing

I like the quirky. The unexpected. The anomalies. Fun facts were made for me, and they spice up any novel I read. Often that means that I spend long hours hunting down details online, and chasing down the truth and its context.

I suspect many readers love to stumble across oddities, corrections to misperceptions, and bits of overlooked reality. Putting them into your writing can add spice and build trust with readers.

Many people run across the peculiar without any effort, just as some people naturally see life differently and are born humorists. For other people, it's an occupational hazard. Visual artists look for details and reframe reality. Scientists observe the world around them with an array of tools and techniques. Historians visit strange worlds on a daily basis.

If you don't have these advantages, don't despair. You can still collect a treasure chest of gems for later use. Develop your own approach, or try these:

Find surprises -- Build your powers of observation intentionally. One exercise is to look around you, right now, and find something you never noticed or you can't explain. If you are sitting in a familiar space, this might be difficult, but it's not impossible. It doesn't need to be a thing, it can be the shape of a shadow, the pattern of dust on a tabletop, or the sound of a motor.

Or, you can make it easy on yourself by sitting in a natural setting or a park. I have a bird feeder, and I've gone from identifying its visitors to discovering new things about the behavior of the different species that stop by. Sitting in a train station, the food court at a mall, or the stands of a sporting event can provide surprises, too. People will amaze you, if you actively pay attention.

And don't hesitate to use all your senses. Close your eyes from time to time and see what you discover. The important thing is to find one notable observation each day.

Collect details -- In addition to writing down surprises (in full sentences), don't forget to makes notes on things that catch your interest that you overhear, find in Web searches, or come in your wanderings. Write down questions, insights, and whatever engages your sense of wonder.

These may have nothing to do with current projects. You may never use them in a story. But they will be a treasure chest to draw upon (often years later) as you write. And you'll discover odd connections that will inspire you. To make these even more effective, develop a way to sort these so you can find them easily. As a start, try animal, vegetable, mineral, behavior, history, patterns, and behaviors.

Pursue questions and ideas -- If you want to enrich your collection, learn a little more about a nugget that fascinates you. Find an article or an opinion you can attach to it. Even better, mention it to other people and see how they react. If you tell friends Napoleon was average height, some will be delighted to learn this, and others will declare war. For a few, this will trigger an idea that surprised them. Add this to your collection.

Reflect on what it means -- Everything you collect has something to say about you and what matters to you in the world. Otherwise, why would you have selected it? See if you can figure out why it appealed to you. As an advanced exercise, try to connect the dots of several observations.

Apply judiciously -- Okay, here's the tough part. Don't take a shovel full of fun facts and dump them into your manuscript. This will drive your readers crazy and kill your story. (I've seen this happen most often in historical novels and science fiction. These writers just can't bear not to share. Too much information -- indeed.) Be selective. Make sure any added facts fit the story. My preference is to only add them in an organic way, when they occur to me in the draft stage.

Of course, keen observation, research skills, generating questions, and keeping organized notes are excellent capabilities across the spectrum of writing activities. By filling your treasure chest with gems, you become a better writer. Not a bad side effect.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reading to Write: Mining the best for ideas and approaches

Stephen King wrote, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Many of us write because reading opened up a vital dimension in our lives. Some of us took up storytelling after reading less than successful efforts and deciding we could do better.

I enjoy being sucked into a new tale, just one more fan. But, as a writer, there's more. Reading regularly keeps me tuned in to the form, inspires me, and challenges me. It provides different perspectives on content, style, and language. My normal practice is to alternate between classic and contemporary works and to sample unfamiliar genres and new writers, which allows me to explore my own limits.

A lot of what I learn seeps in automatically. My brain seems to grab nuggets and classify them without my being conscious of them. Later (and it can be decades later), I'll hit a problem in my writing, a light will go on, and I'll wander over to a bookshelf. Barely knowing why, I'll snatch a book off, open it to a specific page and find a terrific example of a writer solving my problem. I don't have definitive advice on how to make this happen for you if it's not, but I suspect reading a lot and reading attentively are part of the process.

I also have deliberate approaches to reading for better writing. Here are five suggestions:

Analyze your genre - Find several books (preferably brief) you've already read and enjoyed in your chosen genre. Reread them one after another, and take notes. As you find interesting elements record them and note the page numbers. What are the turning points? What are the payoffs? Describe key characters. And, as you go along, keep looking for commonalities. What you want to do is distill out guidance on what readers of the genre (you audience) will expect in terms of elements, characters, and pacing.

Learn how emotion is evoked - Whenever you read to learn about writing, it is critical to keep track of your emotions. It can be valuable to note what you are feeling page by page, but, as a minimum, mark down surprises and big emotional turns. And go back again and see if you can determine how the writer did that. Write down what you learned, along with a specific reference.

Explore pacing - One of the best compliments you can get as a writer is for a reader to say it's a page-turner. Take a novel that carries you along and mark it up. Look for hooks and changing stakes (which tug you along) and backstory and narrative (which slow things down). It is helpful to actually highlight these in different colors so you get a visual sense of the structure.  Look at them in detail to see what lessons the author is offering. It's also useful just to note how the lengths of scenes and chapters change as the book progresses.

Learn from mistakes - Many works I read (yes, classics, too) include failures. Why does a good writer go bad? How would you redo it? Do you make the same mistake?

Write like your favorite author - Here's a useful exercise that will take some time. In longhand, copy out an especially effective part of a book, preferably a whole scene you wish you'd written. Take the gist of that scene and, without referring back to it, rewrite it using the same voice and pacing, but different words. Compare the two. Finally, take a comparable scene in your own work and rewrite it using your favorite author's voice and pacing.

For all the analysis I do, I still get lost in wonderful works. It would break my heart if I couldn't disappear into novels, and I think I'd lose something as a writer. Don't spend all your reading time looking for the man behind the curtain. Experience the joy and wonder. But, as a writer, dedicate part of your reading to learning from master storytellers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Narration and Backstory Blues, Part 2

Commercial fiction needs to be overwhelmingly moment-to-moment, with just enough narration and backstory to add texture and to maintain clarity. The temptation is always to provide too much, which creates a great excuse for readers to put the story down.

For some, pacing comes naturally. I've noticed that people who gossip and tell jokes seem to just know when to drop in information that becomes more important, to slip in asides that put people off guard, and to add commentary and reflection that directs or redirects the audience.

Of course naturally here doesn't necessarily mean genetics. Culture plays a part. One of the most magical occurrences in my life was when a roommate woke me up in the middle of the night and spirited me off to the backwoods of Virginia for storytelling and moonshine. Many (U.S.) Southerners are brought up in an environment of storytelling, and they seem to weave tales effortlessly.

For the rest of us, it may be work. One effective method is to mark all the digressions, descriptions, explanations, and reminiscences in your text and eliminate them all. If the story still makes sense without them, you may be done. Or you may add back in a few to season the mix.

More likely, you will find that some of them are essential to understanding the story. Add these back in. Ideally, a reader tells you this. (It is far too easy for the writers to see every bit of backstory and narration as vital.) When these pieces are resurrected consider two things:

First, do you need every word? Less is more here. Cut any backstory you need to the absolute minimum needed for clarity and texture. Avoid the temptation to keep it all.

Second, does this piece occur as late as possible in the text? The longer the readers wait for revelations and explanations, the more likely they'll seize on them. Put the material in late enough in the work, and there will be no sense of it slowing the story at all. The words will be snapped up and gobbled down.

I'll add one more proviso: The need for, and tolerance of, these relatively static elements depends upon the genre. Some readers look for more sensual elements and a more stately pace. Rushing them along is a mistake. So read widely in the genre you're writing in. And, when in doubt, make your story slightly more spare in narration and backstory than your favorite works.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Narration and Backstory Blues, Part 1

When you are composing your story, you can add as much narration and backstory  as you want. Feel free to cram in everything you see, hear, imagine, know, and wonder about.

You can do that because you are writing for yourself. Capturing lots of details and getting down the history can build a wonderful base for a convincing, layered, and rich story. The only danger you face in the drafting stage is slowing things down so much you miss the action and harm the pacing. Unless you fall in love with what you put down.

That's a real danger, and the most common flaw I see in manuscripts. You should never force any readers (including contest judges) to wade through big blocks of worldbuilding, flashbacks, memories, reflections, and descriptions. They may like all of these, but they come for the story and most commercial fiction proceeds at a brisk pace, moment to moment.

Why does slowing things down matter? Why does commercial fiction need to consist overwhelmingly of action and dialogue in the present? Because we like to identify with the characters. Since we live moment to moment, any deviation from that in the world of the story is distracting and distancing. It takes us out of the story. 

Now, some narration and backstory needs to be there. A cardinal sin in writing is being unclear. Except in cases where you are deliberately raising questions (which happens a lot in some genres, science fiction probably leading the way), your readers should know what's going on. But they don't need to know as much as you do. I had the pleasure of hearing Candace Havens speak recently, and she referenced icebergs. The story your reader gets is the visible tip, while most remains hidden. Now, you don't have a full iceberg unless the portion below the waterline exists. (Meaning, the writer needs to know a lot more that is expressed in the story or doesn't work.)

For most writers, the hidden part of the story finds expression in exercises (like character building) and what pours out in the first draft. So the problem comes with a failure to deal with all the extras -- the parts that need to be out of sight -- in rewriting.

How to do that, to get the balance right, and to keep the story from being hobbled, is what I'll cover in the next post.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Writing Process - Answers to four questions

I've been tagged by Nancy Bilyeau, scriptwriter and the brilliant author of The Crown and The Chalice to participate in a blog hop on the writing process. I have four questions to answer, and then I have to tag two authors to do the same.

Here goes.

1. What are you working on? 
I always work on two fiction pieces at once. In the morning, I add to a work in progress. Ingenious Daughter is a historical YA romance based on the life of the first female scientist in North America. With no formal training, she outdid her male colleagues and earned the admiration of Ben Franklin. All the while, she had to evade her father's attempts to marry her off to wealthy landowners. I have the story, but my word count is low, so I'm adding fresh chapters.

In the afternoon/evening, I do revisions on a completed draft. Knocked Off Balance is a contemporary YA about a circus arts fanatic who transfers into a school that's had a shooting. I'm sprucing it up in response to an agent's request to see the full manuscript.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre? 
One thing I bring to Ingenious Daughter is a deep knowledge of the joy of experimentation and exploration. I've worked as a chemist and interviewed dozens of scientists about their approaches, so this adds a dimension that's unusual in a romance. I know what drives the heroine to persist even though everyone pressures her to stop research and return to more feminine pursuits.

In Knocked Off Balance, the main character has a weird talent that allows an exploration of what happens to students after the news crews are long gone but the rupture of violence is still fresh.

3.) Why do you write what you do? 
I resisted writing YA because I did not want to revisit my teenage years. It took a mentor to point out that much of what I was doing in novels included YA themes and many of the short stories I'd sold were YA stories. So, despite myself, I've found these tales, whether historical or contemporary or SF/F, evoke the emotions that hook me and carry me through to the final words of the project. In the end, it's all about powerful, sometimes overwhelming, emotions.

4.) How does your writing process work? 
Not surprising, I work at top speed. For new works, the day before, I decide what scenes I'll compose, usually writing complete sentences. This is as close as I come to outlining nowadays, but I'm not a pure pantser. Years of plotting have worked structure into my bones, so I tend to move toward story beats without planning. I dictate the scenes the next morning (using Dragon Dictate) in 40-minute bursts, breaking for coffee and stretching in between sessions. I keep at it until the scenes I wrote sentences for are all done.

When I work on revisions in the afternoon or evening, these are done with a timer set and I am very specific about what work must be done -- a pass for missing scenes or checking story logic or reading aloud for the sound value of words. I never just sit down to "rewrite." I focus in on one task at a time.

Of course, this blog (How To Write Fast) is filled with details on every aspect of the writing process, and I apply most of these to my own work. Feel free to explore. 

I'm passing the baton to two writer friends whose fiction I admire.

Melanie Meadors

A writer of speculative fiction and lover of geeky things, Melanie R. Meadors lives in central Massachusetts, in a one hundred-year-old house full of quirks and surprises. She's been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on on more than one occasion.

Her short fiction has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and has consistently received honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest. One of her short stories was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction contest. She’s a publicist with Market or Die Author Services and Publicity Coordinator at Ragnarok Publications.
Her blog address is www.melaniermeadors.wordpress.com

Alison McMahan

Alison McMahan writes historicals romances and mysteries for YA and NA audiences. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her short story, "Monsters on the Border," won an honorable mention from Writers of the Future. Her YA historical mystery- romance, "The Saffron Crocus" won third prize in the Joyce Henderson Contest, second prize (historical category) in the Melody of Love contest, second prize (historical category) in the Utah RWA Great Beginning's contest, and finaled in Daphne and Rosemary contests. She reviews books for Entangled and the Historical Novel Society. Member of RWA, FRWA, AWP, the Historical Novel Society, MWA and ITW.  

McMahan is an award-winning screenwriter and author. Published books: The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Hollywood (Continuum 2005), and Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Continuum 2002), which won two awards, was translated into Spanish, adapted into a play, and optioned for a film. She has written hundreds of articles; complete list on her website. Her blog address is www.AlisonMcMahan.com/blog 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Give Positive Criticism - Clues for other writers

One of my earliest experiences with writing criticism was of an editor flinging my pages at me and shouting "This is an insult!" Some contest crits are just as harsh. I'm coordinating for two contests at the moment and the spirit of that editor is alive and well.

Here's my radical statement: Every writer is good at something.

It is the job of the contest judge, mentor, crit partner, and writing buddy to find that good thing and articulate it. Not only will this make what needs to be fixed easier to hear and absorb, but it will provide real knowledge.

Many critics assume writers know what they are doing right, but that's not necessarily the case. Those editors in their heads may focus on what's totally messed up, awful, inept -- an insult. They don't have time to worry about the "good" stuff. And maybe that's true for the critics (who usually are writers, too). It makes me wonder what they tell themselves about their own writing.

When I teach a face-to-face class, the simple solution is to ask people to lead with "what worked." In fact, I usually write it in big letters on a whiteboard. When someone gets his or her turn and begins with a screed I hold my hand up, wait for silence, smile, and point to the board. People may stumble a bit with the positive words, but they find them.

Since I can't stand in front of contest judges or online students or most of you who are criticizing manuscripts, here are some things you might consider saying first:
  • The beginning really hooked me.
  • I love the main character.
  • The voice is fresh.
  • I wanted to read parts of it out loud.
  • I never got confused.
  • I didn't see the twist coming.
  • I could see the images.
  • I felt like I was in the setting.
  • Great premise.
This list can keep going, complimenting the author on having the courage to test the hero, pointing toward new perspectives, and clever lines of dialogue, etc. One sentence, of course, is rarely enough. Explanations -- I like the hero because he saved the cat -- can make it a real learning experience.

The follow-on words come much easier once the one positive sentence is spoken or written. I think we all want to tell people what they did right and a help them to keep doing it. Having a starting point releases the good words and pushes the harsh editor into the background.

Now, I am not averse to telling people what needs fixing. We all need that (in consumable doses, not laundry lists). But "catching them doing something right" (advice I heard in the context of parenting) reenforces the talents and capabilities of writers. It is just as important to their growth as eliminating problems.

As an added bonus, when you learn to provide positive criticism for others, you can provide it for yourself. And that will help with your own growth as a writer.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Audience Again - Fast writing gold

I was chatting with my niece this weekend. She is an award-winning backyard pond designer and builder. This time of year is a tour of past accomplishments for her. Many people "improve" or neglect their ponds, and she has to bring them back to life.

She wants to write a book of dos and don'ts for them. The basic maintenance and the big mistakes to avoid. Just 30-40 pages she can put together to leave behind with clients and make available online for others who live outside her region.

Her audience is very clear in her mind -- people with the love of nature that makes them invest in ponds, but limited knowledge of how to keep these pocket ecosystems healthy.

A short book makes sense for her, and, with independent publishing and access to online book markets, creating one has become feasible. But how do you write a book if you haven't written one before? She already has the answer: audience.

She knows what they don't know and want to know. She knows the bad ideas they fall for that ruin their ponds. She hears their questions and comments every day. For a practical book, all she needs is to write down the questions and comments she hears, and then put down her answers and responses. And, since she naturally adds in specific examples of disasters, she can illustrate her information in a way that will make it come alive.

So here's the four-step formula for this kind of nonfiction book:
1 - Think of a specific client.
2 - Write down his or her questions and comments about the subject.
3 - Respond directly to these with helpful answers and suggestions using language they would understand, as if you were speaking face-to-face.
4 - If you haven't already done this, add examples that bring the points home.

That's it. The work, for someone who regularly has conversations with clients, is basically recording memories of past discussions. There's no need for prose pyrotechnics -- in fact, they are likely to get in the way.

Of course, it helps that this is a simple example with straightforward information to convey. The more demanding storytelling process is limited to the examples. But having an audience in mind provides a powerful focus for writing and discourages the kind of self-hypnosis that can bubble up as the music of the words and memories of college literature teachers takes over. You don't bring overwrought prose to people who ask you a question. You keep it simple.

Storytellers can take a lesson here. Write to one person first and keep it simple. It's harder to do this than it seems. Many writers do have an audience--themselves. For some, that's fine, but I've seen too many who forget it's about communication, who turn storytelling into exercises in impressing themselves. That never works.

Or they worry that if they pick out one person to write a story to, especially if it's a long story like a novel, they'll have to do a lot of rewriting and may even find it impossible to bring it out to a larger audience. Essentially, this is an attempt to avoid rewriting entirely. Too many writers think they can dodge all those drafts by getting it right the first time. I suspect there are rare exceptions who can do this (what an artist friend calls "freaks of nature"), but I think these writers already know they have that capability. Trying to write the salable draft in the first composition phase is a false economy.

Finally, there are those who can't find or stick to the audience. I saw this recently in a course where students were supposed to write about the experience of the story from an audience's point of view. It was a real struggle, filled with essays on the writer's intent or the main character's experiences and reactions. And even reworked attempts at doing the lesson fell away from the audience's point of view from time to time.

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is essential to good writing. For some people, it is difficult, but, whether you write fiction or nonfiction, it is a skill worth mastering.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Irreversible Choices

As discussed last time, lots of interesting characters can be passive victims, but the hero/heroine cannot be. Your main character needs to take an active role within the story (at least in commercial fiction - with, occasionally, comedy being the exception).

The typical structure of a novel or a screenplay includes turning points. These moments need to be created by your characters through irreversible decisions.

Let's take this in two parts. First, the decision. All sorts of big and wild things can happen to your character. She can win a big lottery. Or be kidnapped. Or be elected President. Or have Mr. Right walk into her shop.

Any of these may be important to the story, but they are not, strictly, turning points. They may be catalyzing events, but none are choices by an active character. They all happen to the character.

Now, they may be the result of active choices, an accumulation of choices, and a lot of work. On the lottery, "you gotta play to win." So our heroine needs to choose buy a ticket (or accept one as a gift). Being kidnapped may be random, or it may reflect risks taken or poor security choices. If random, your character is just a victim. If lack of attention to security or active risk taking (a shortcut through a dark alley), that's a decision, with action. Being elected President involved filing the proper papers, campaigning (with numerous choices on funding, advisors, positions, etc.), and accepting a nomination.

I think a writer would need to be very creative to come up with a decision that drew Mr. Right into the shop. A Mr. Right Wanted sign in the window?

For all of these, however, the circumstances demand decision and action. Win the lottery, and you need to do something with the money and the choices (often tied to family relations) can be life-changing. Once you're kidnapped, there may be a series of life or death decisions involving cooperating, getting information out, trying to escape, and more. Even deciding to eat could be a critical decision once you're a captive.

The Presidency is all about tough decisions. The character is active and her actions have consequence. And Mr. Right? Learning about him, responding to his overtures, working through differences, choosing what to share, and answering the big question -- these are all active.

Now we come to the tougher part. The decisions at the turning points need to be irreversible. There can be no going back. If the main character can cancel the engagement or resign the Presidency and return to her old life (and these were turning point decisions), there really isn't a story.

Reversible choices with major consequences show up all the time in manuscripts I read. Someone takes a job that is horrible and doesn't move to an equivalent job, without the terrible aspects, that is available. Why? The person who entered the haunted house doesn't leave when there is nothing stopping him. The guy keeps loaning money to a friend who never pays him back so he loses his house.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, he leaves home, spends all his money, ends up in miserable circumstances, and has the smarts to go back home. Spending his fortune is an irreversible decision. His leaving home is not. The redemption is not around returning, it's around his recognizing his foolishness. I really have high hopes for the kid. He may even reconcile with his brother.

If you step in quicksand, you may be stuck and need to do something drastic to get out. If you step in a mud puddle, you step out and clean off your shoes. Make your characters choose to step into the quicksand (to escape the lion).

And keep this in mind. Readers always know if a decision is reversible. And, as a writer, you'll lose their trust if a turning point decision leads to stress and anxiety (as it should), but is easily dodged by stepping back to the earlier situation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

50 Shades of Passive - Give your protagonist a FATAL flaw

A simple victim makes a lousy hero/heroine for a commercial work of fiction. It is okay for horrible things to happen to your protagonist. In fact, they should. But the character must have the ability to fight back and must do so.

I'm teaching a course right now, and we are hitting this as a real limit for the stories. being naive, biddable, or gullible can certainly be flaws in a character, but they don't work well as the fatal flaw. Ignorance can kill you, but, if that is all the protagonist needs to overcome to success, you don't have much of a story. The story problem can be solved with a clear conversation (something that actually wrecks the logic of some romance stories that could be better) or the person doesn't have the intellectual capabilities to absorb and understand the critical knowledge. In real life, the latter can be a cause for compassion and care. In a novel, this make for a protagonist who is Too Stupid To Live (TSTL).

Unless... a deeper flaw is blinding the main character to the evidence that is right in front of his or her face. Pride makes it impossible for the protagonist to believe he or she needs help in slaying the monster. Or Lust causes the main character to behave badly with the person who is potentially the true love of his/her life. Or Sloth makes the whole process of putting together the facts and formulating an effective plan too hard. It's easier to do what the leader demands.

Obsessions and blindness can make a simple victim into a complex one, with the real potential for success. Working on the sin (try one of the Seven Deadly Sins) is a good active stand-in for working directly on a problem that could be solved easily with insight. ("Now those magic slippers will take you home in two seconds.")

So, look for a fatal flaw in your hero or heroine, and dare to make it a big one. Like one of the Deadly Sins. That will lead to all sorts of wonderful troubles without making your protagonist into a doormat.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fast Selling: Online opportunities

As a writer, I date back to the age of ink, paper, and stamps. That time isn't quite done. I've had a request from an agent for a query sitting around, unattended to for weeks, because her's is an agency that requires hard copy.

But the primary way to submit queries and partial or full manuscripts to agents (and those publishers providing access without agents) is through email. They do have their own guidelines as far as what they expect. Some want samples in the body of the note. Others will accept attached files. A growing number use online applications for submissions. But everything can be done from your laptop. No trips to the Post Office.

And when can you expect a response? Maybe never. One thing that hasn't changed is these people are so overwhelmed. So, today, many reject writers en passant. Typically, this means you, as the writer, are expected to mark your calendar for a date six of eight weeks after submission. My calendar is crowded with little boxes that say things like, "Angela B., Last Chance Agency, The Olive Orangutan, NO." When that date comes up, my submissions spreadsheet collects another negative (-). Well and good. I can handle it. I'm a big boy.

Some add insult to injury by insisting -- with waits that can extend far beyond a couple of months to most of a year -- that they, and only they, see your manuscript. This seems pretty one-way to me. A successful author said recently, "My advice is, ignore it."

Face-to-face is another option for the stout of heart. At conferences, you can make an appointment to sit down (for five minutes) with one of these gatekeepers and breathlessly make your case. Most ask for partials or full manuscripts, plus queries. In fact, it's rather rare that a writer is told, straight out, "No thanks." (In one case, an agent had "I am eager to reject you" written all over her face before I even sat down. And she followed through.) I've heard more than one agent admit that these were "pity" requests. Safer for them, but, perhaps, crueler in the long run to the writers.

A new option for connecting with agents and editors has emerged, and, to a "fast" guy like me, it's wonderful. At the end of last year, I stumbled upon online pitching. These occur mostly in blogs and tweets.

For blogs, you usually need a few hundred words of your "finished and polished" manuscript, but the key is a very brief pitch. Somehow, you need to provide a sense of your premise, your character, and your voice in 35 words. Your copy must be impeccable, sensitive to the audience you intend to reach, and fresh. It's a bit like writing poetry.

Oh, one more requirement: above your pitch and query, you need to list your audience (YA, Adult, MG, NA), your genre (SF, Rom, UF, etc.), and your word count. The last can kill you. Too few or too many words for the audience/genre you select can get you rejected out of hand.

If you think that sounds difficult, try tweeting your pitch. You have 140 characters to garner a gatekeeper's interest. And these editors and agents flash in and out of the "pitch party" and may miss you in the feed, so be prepared to pitch (slightly different) tweets twice an hour for 12 to 24 hours. It is marketing haiku or a full-contact sport, depending on your point of view.

Actually, you don't have 140 characters. You need to use some up identifying the party - something like #PitchBlack - and the audience/genre -- e.g.,  #YA #SF.  Oops, now we're down to 120, including the blank spaces.

Here's an actual pitch I've had success with: It's Bud or the cats as he fights chaos to bring peace to a wounded household coping w/their dying aunt 

Not as good as it might be, but it worked. As have my 35 word pitches. I've had over twenty requests for queries, partials, and fulls working this way. I've found five contracts from publishers in my in-box in the past 60 days. None of these came to me because of pity. They came to me because these folks are interested in my work. Cloaked by online anonymity the editors and agents self-selected with no social pressure to be nice.

I'll add that I've gotten access to "closed" agencies and publishers through these online opportunities. And everything is happening very quickly.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Are You a Productive Writer?

Productivity is more than words written per hour. In reality, it is tied to your goals and dreams. For example, many years ago, I was working on a speech for an executive. I finished and it was accepted, but I'd found a whole world of possibilities in the last few pages. When I handed it in (early), I asked the exec if I could redo the whole thing with these new ideas in mind, and he said yes.

Naturally, this took time. And my direct boss was not happy that I was going back to work on a job that was "done" when I could be working on something else. (He always felt good enough was just fine.) I didn't let his reaction distract me. I dug in, wrote the new speech, and it was a hit at the conference. It went on to be published and widely distributed. I have a copy of a letter Michael Crichton sent my principal congratulating him. (The two ended up having a breakfast together. No, I wasn't invited.)

So, productivity is intimately tied to what you intend to achieve and where your dreams take you. I'm all for getting more words on paper per hour, and I do track that as part of my productivity measurements. But I also look to see if the work is getting sold and getting attention. I look at how happy I am with the final output and what I've learned along the way. I measure things that are in my reach, like works completed and submitted. And often I raise the bar on what I consider productive writing for me.

One thing I've begun doing is using the time I save on composition to explore new approaches to rewriting and refining the work. For any of these -- conflict analysis, discovery of theme, story logic -- I look for wasted time. (There's always some.) I tinker with the process it see how I can get it to be more efficient. But my primary goal is to improve the quality in the limited time I have to create manuscripts.

One more thing -- I pay close attention to my experience of writing. Any new technique or approach that, after experimentation, takes the joy out of writing is abandoned. I'm happy to sacrifice efficiency to keep things fun.


By the way, Lowcountry Romance Writers of America is once again hosting my popular online workshop, Bigger Stories. It provides personalized help in getting the most out of your premise, your plot, and the characters you've created. Any questions? Just ask.

Bigger Stories
Presented by Peter Andrews
Dates: May 5-30, 2014

Course Description:
Fire up your readers with twists, turns, shock, and awe. Learn how to demand more from your characters and to create endings that buzz. Don’t hold back. Find out how to take you stories from good to great.