Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Not Your Normal Thanksgiving Blog

by
Sandy Tritt


When Thanksgiving rolls around, we’re reminded to be grateful for all the joys in our lives. We list the things we’re grateful for, such as family, friends, health, career, home, and so forth. But then I got to thinking about the things I usually leave off my list—things that have happened over the years that have been painful. It’s hard to be grateful for a heart broken by young love. It’s hard to be grateful for losing a friend over a misunderstanding. It’s hard to be grateful for the death of a loved one, especially when that loved one is still young and vibrant. It’s hard to be grateful for seeing your child suffer. It’s hard to be grateful for tough times that force sacrifice and create fear.

And yet, it is usually the unpleasant items on our lists that forge us into the human beings we are and that make us better people—and better writers. It’s hard to understand the depth of love, anger, fear, shame, frustration, embarrassment, and desperation unless we’ve experienced it. It’s hard to create characters who experience strong emotions and go through difficult times unless we’ve been there ourselves. It’s hard to have empathy for others—both human and imaginary—unless we’ve felt the burn of shame, the ache of loss, the frustration of a bad break.

My father once stated that he was happy he’d been able to serve in World War II. Expecting a patriotic lecture, I asked him why. He said he’d never been out of our little Podunk town in West Virginia—never traveled, never seen any of the world. Being assigned to the Army Air Division (which later became the Air Force), he traveled to Florida and Indiana before being sent to Europe, where he saw much of France, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Philippines. He met many interesting people and witnessed history in the making. Even though he suffered horrific things that he was never able to speak about, and even though he lost his hearing from a too-close blast that should have killed him, he was grateful for the experience that allowed him to grow as a person.

So, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the tough times I’ve been through. No, I’m not courting more calamity and I don’t want to relive unpleasant experiences. There are many I’d definitely rather undo than still live with the consequences. Yet, these are the experiences that have formed me into the person I’ve become and that have set me free to breathe life and truth into my characters. 

I challenge writers this Thanksgiving season to make your own list of misadventures, heartbreaks, and calamities. What did you learn from each experience? How can they help you better understand your characters? How can you use what you’ve learned to shape your characters?

Be grateful for each day, whether good or bad.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

It's all about the Mindset

by
Charlotte Firbank-King


I watched a video about mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck, and it occurred to me that many writers, seasoned or new, have a mindset that holds them back from their full potential. This is also true concerning a lot of things we do. Think along the lines of the story “The Little Engine That Could.” The engine chugs up a hill saying, “I think I can, I think I can.” Then as it nears the summit, its chant becomes, “I know I can! I know I can!” That’s a positive mindset.

According Dr. Dweck, a high school in Chicago had a strange but effective grading system. If students didn’t pass a test, they got the grade “Not yet.” This meant they could achieve their goal; they just weren’t there yet.

She gave a test with problems slightly too difficult for the students. Some of the students flourished in the “not yet,” but some were stuck in the “now.”

Some loved the challenge and, according to Dr. Dweck, they had a “growth” mindset. The “not yet” mindset gave them a path to the future—they understood they were on a learning curve and that their capabilities could be developed.

Other students thought it was awful and their intelligence was being judged because they failed. Dr. Dweck said they came from a fixed mindset, a “now” mindset. Instead of luxuriating in the power of “not yet,” they were gripped in the tyranny of “now.”

So many times writers battle with the various skills needed to make their creative writing truly sing. As an editor, we see the struggles writers encounter with “show, don’t tell,” controlling viewpoint, writing effective dialogue, and all the other aspects of mastering the skill of creative writing—frankly, the list is exhaustive.

Often, when faced with this seemingly endless list, new writers become discouraged, trapped in the “now” mindset. But if they would only change their mindset to “not yet,” they will succeed.

See every word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and chapter as a challenge and never run from difficulty. Run to it, embrace it. Luxuriate in the power of “not yet” and push free from one’s comfort zone, free from the tyranny of “now” and failure.

The biggest thing in your favor is your passion to write. Even when your head is spinning and your eyes burning as you try to grasp the different rules and skills of creative writing, don’t forget your passion and don’t take your eye off “not yet” for a second.

Even when you grasp all the rules and skills to write well, don’t stop there. Keep your eye on the “not yet” mindset and strive to be better. Otherwise, it’s too easy to fall into another trap when success is achieved—complacency.

A twelfth century cleric in the court of Phillippe of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, coined the phrase in French: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour. Rome wasn’t built in a day. They never gave up their quest to rule the known world. Of course, after several centuries, they developed an attitude of, “We’re unbeatable, so we can rest on our laurels.” This is complacency. This is dangerous.

The definition of “resting on one’s laurels” is to be satisfied with distinction won by past achievements and cease to strive for further achievements. So, even if you’ve published a successful book, don’t think you’ve got this writing thing waxed. Never rest on your laurels—never decide a sentence, phrase, or even the whole manuscript is good enough. Always strive for that perfect set of words that will make a sentence or phrase pop until the story is packed with wonderfully crafted words.

Never stop the “not yet” mindset.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Imitation Game

by
Eric Fritzius
 
 
As writers, finding inspiration to write can be a problem.  Perhaps we have a piece we’ve been working on for some time and it’s hit a wall.  We find ourselves at a loss for how to climb over that wall.  The very act of sitting down and staring at the paper (or screen, as these things go) can feel like the last thing we would ever want to do—no matter how many writers in the past have advised us to do precisely that.  My usual tactic to punch through such “blocks” is to turn to other creative projects, to work on something else for a while and get the creative juices flowing.  This can help with the wall-breaching process for the first project.  And when it doesn’t, at least I’ve been productive on another project.  If you don’t have another project ready at hand (or even if you do) you might consider another technique: inspiration by imitation. 

This is the point where many of you will be put off if not horrified by the idea of imitating the work of another writer as inspiration for your own work; writers often bristle at the notion that they are anything less than completely original in all output.  This is, of course, the fecal byproduct of a horse.  We learn through imitation in all aspects of life, but particularly in writing.  Don’t believe me?  Go back and have a gander at your earliest output and you’ll likely find a pale version of Janet Evanovich staring back at you (or, for me, Douglas Adams).  As the writer Voltaire once said, though: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.  The most original writers borrowed from one another.  The instruction we find in books is like fire.  We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.” Even in the face of the words of a learned master, we resist the notion.  Plagiarism is, after all, a truly vulgar crime, and writing something that another person might point a finger at and say “that’s someone else’s idea” can fill us with dread.  Plagiarism is also not what I’m talking about.  I'm talking about imitation, not theft.

In the creative writing classes I regularly teach, imitation is part of the curriculum.  I direct my students to pieces of writing that contain, at their core, a universal concept that can be applied not only to the original author’s life, but to the lives of each and every person walking the planet.  The concept can be rewritten, customized to the life and experiences of a new writer and will produce an outcome that is completely different from the original, yet retain the basic format. 

For instance, there’s a wonderful prose piece called The Things I’ve Lost” by writer Brian Arundel.  It’s one that is included in the text book I use for my class, The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers.  (Full disclosure, Ms. Sellers is the one who hipped me to the Voltaire quote above.  Hers is an excellent text on writing.) 

Please go now and read “The Things I’ve Lost” online.

Back?

Pretty awesome, wasn’t it?  In fact, it’s the sort of piece that should make you mad that you didn’t think of it first, because it’s so simple and perfect in concept, yet easily lends itself to nuance.  Mr. Arundel does a fine job of listing off actual physical items he has misplaced throughout his life, alongside observations of beliefs, ideals, illusions, and opportunities he’s similarly “lost” or abandoned along the way.  It becomes an autobiographical sketch of major aspects of his life in six paragraphs.  And I found it to be the kind of piece that, when I first read it, I wanted to get to the end of it quickly so I could rush away and start my own version because it just seemed like it would be fun to do so.  My students almost always choose to write their own versions too.  And because I’m generally a positive person, I also invite them to try their hand at a similar topic called “The Things I’ve Found.”  Both produce impressive results. Each is completely original while at the same time using Arundel’s basic format as its basis.

There are thousands of other pieces of writing out there that this technique be applied to as well.  You may find you start to see such opportunities without even looking for them.  However, another that Heather Sellers specifically cites for this treatment is the poem “Genealogy” by Betsy Sholl.  It’s another concept that we can each plug our own details into, re-configuring the format as we see fit. 

Imitation is, if nothing else, a great technique for writing warm-ups. You may find it can help in breaking through your creative blocks as well.  And, if not, you have at least been productive.  

Sellers' book includes other techniques for imitation games, such as using poems as scaffolding for producing new work.  I have not found this to be effective in my own writing, but your mileage may vary.

Now, if you still feel at odds with borrowing the format and ideas of another writer, you’re always welcome to credit them.  Poets and writers often include an (after…) parenthetical in their title to indicate the work they’re responding to, or by which they were inspired. 

I wish you impressive results.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

GUEST POST: Happy Little Trees by Michael Knost

by
Michael Knost



“How do you create such believable monsters?” A woman from the audience asked me this while I was on a panel at a convention last month. “And your characters…I feel as though I actually know them. They are real people!”

As a horror writer, I take great pride in creating lifelike monsters readers fret over. I also like to think my characters have tremendous depth and development.

My answer to the woman’s question was simple: “I’m not sure. I guess I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Well, I’ve given the question a lot of thought since, and I think the answer is in the trees.

          “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When it comes to developing characters and set pieces, I can’t help but think of the late Bob Ross on his PBS television program, The Joy of Painting, as he painted what he called “happy little trees.” With a soft voice and relaxed pace, he offered viewers insights into execution and theory as he effortlessly produced breathtaking scenery. The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I think I know why Ross’s little trees were so happy.

Ross used the wet-on-wet oil-painting technique. He would add fresh paint on top of still-wet paint rather than waiting for each layer to dry, which allowed him to paint trees, bodies of water, cloud formations, and mountains in a matter of minutes. And he didn’t simply paint each element in a single layer. Each began with simple strokes, little more than colorful smudges. Adding layer after layer, Ross transformed blotches of paint into intricate, lifelike formations; bit by bit, stroke by stroke, layer by layer, smudges of paint became trees, mountains, entire landscapes.

With the same patience, you must focus on every little detail for each individual tree (think, character or set piece) when writing your story, but your character is a collective entity—made up of hundreds (possibly thousands) of details. He or she is like an onion—shaped entirely from multiple layers. Individually, these layers are so thin you could literally read a newspaper through one. But with an adequate number of them, you have something powerful enough to not only spice up the mundane, but also bring tears to the eyes.

Let me introduce you to Billy Bob (layer). He lives in Harlan, Kentucky (layer). His favorite pastime is hunting and fishing (layer). He chews tobacco (layer) and loves flannel shirts with the sleeves ripped off (layer). Think you have this guy sized up? What if I told you Billy Bob is a neurosurgeon? The character you just had in your mind has changed completely. Adding a fresh layer of paint to another layer of fresh paint is important because the two elements mingle, adding realistic dimensions and depths. This is one type of what I call relational influence, which can be as simple as adding that one detail that turns a stereotype into a unique individual. Remember, every detail should contribute to the whole.

But even with complex, layered characters or set pieces, you can’t just focus on a single tree without considering its regional copse—just as you can’t focus solely on a single branch without imagining the entire tree. That doesn’t mean you can’t see the tree because you are focused on the forest, but that you need to notice, as you write, how each specific element blends with all the others.

Once each individual is fleshed out with appropriate layering, it is time to examine the forest. That’s when all your trees, clouds, and rivers work together to become the fascinating scenes you intended from the beginning. Relational influence also describes two (or more) individual entities sharing multiple layers.

Think of each scene as a single canvas in a series of paintings that, when placed next to one another, create a complete panoramic experience. It’s a good way to examine how the continuity of the forest depends on the intricate layering of the individual trees: wet paint on wet, in Bob Ross’s scenes; word on word and paragraph on paragraph in your writing. If you fail to properly flesh out characters and small details, you will more than likely fail to properly flesh out the story and its themes.

The last thing you want is a character standing out from the background like she’d obviously been Photoshopped into the scene. Good Photoshopping (as well as painting and writing) requires elements to reflect or affect one another.

When Bob Ross painted a mountain range behind a lake, you could be sure the mountain was mirrored in the water. And just as placement of the sun will affect shadows on everything else in the scene, each character (or story element) in your tale will affect all other characters and set pieces in some way.

Let’s take another look at Billy Bob. What if we learn his father took him hunting and fishing when he was younger? Gave him his first chaw of tobacco? And then we learn this was the only time he really connected with his dad. Billy Bob didn’t just develop a love for these things on his own; it is a direct result of specific influence from a relationship in his life.

What if we learn the death of his father (who passed away from complications of a neurological disorder) was the impetus for him going into the medical field? It’s easy to see that the shadow of his father’s death (and life) still influences him. We may not always recognize it, but the people in our lives can have great influence on us…why would we not show this in the characters and set pieces in our fiction?

This means relational influence ensures the writer is showing rather than just telling. To be honest, I think Bob Ross nailed it when he said, “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is.”

Relational influence allows the reader to size up the characters and set pieces for herself, evaluate the clues (layers), and then form calculated perceptions. In other words, it allows her to appreciate the depth of the forest while examining every individual tree.



Bio:

Michael Knost is a Bram Stoker Award®-winning editor and author of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. He has written in various genres and helmed several anthologies. His Writers Workshop of Horror won the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® in England for superior achievement in non-fiction. His critically acclaimed Writers Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy is an Amazon #1 bestseller. His novel, Return of the Mothman was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® for superior achievement in first novel. His Author’s Guide to Marketing with Teeth was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® for superior achievement in non-fiction. Michael has taught writing classes and workshops at several colleges, conventions, and online, and currently resides in Chapmanville, West Virginia with his wife, daughter, and a zombie goldfish. To find out more, visit www.MichaelKnost.com.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blog Two: Dialogue Tags

by
Sandy Tritt



Last week, we discussed how to write effective dialogue. This week, we’ll discuss how to tag dialogue. A dialogue tag identifies who the speaker is and, sometimes, the manner in which he has spoken. “John said” is a dialogue tag. Let’s look at an example of how not to tag dialogue:

     “Just be like that,” she pouted.

     “Oh, come on,” he groaned. “Not this again.”

     “You don’t love me,” she replied.

     “Right,” he snarled. “That’s why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

     “Here,” she sobbed. “Just take it back. Take it.”

Okay, what’s wrong with our sample above—other than being melodramatic? It’s an ailment I like to call “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome”—the writer relies on creative tags such as pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed, and so forth so the reader will know how to interpret the dialogue. What’s wrong with this? Let me count the things:

  • The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
  • It’s telling the reader how the words are said instead of showing by action.
  • If the dialogue is well written and the accompanying action is well chosen, it’s redundant.
  • It’s annoying.
  • It is, in many cases, just downright wrong. If the verb used as part of the dialogue tag is not synonymous with “said,” “asked,” “whispered” or “exclaimed,” it should not be used as a tag. It’s physically impossible to “smile” a word. Therefore, “smile”—and other such verbs—should never be used as part of a dialogue tag. Instead, use it in a separate sentence: “I love Sundays.” She smiled.
 
Consider, instead:
 
      Shelly’s lower lip quivered. “Just be like that.”
 
     “Oh, come on.” Mike scowled. “Not this again.”
     “You don’t love me.”
 
     “Right,” he said. “That’s why I bought you an eight-hundred-dollar diamond.”
 
     “Here.” She jerked off the ring and shoved it under his nose. “Just take it back.” Her voice wavered. “Take it.
 
Okay, so nothing’s going to help our melodrama, but let’s examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:
  • No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who’s speaking, no law says we must use a tag. 
  • Action. “Shelly’s lower lip quivered” replaces “she pouted.” It’s more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it’s showing, not telling. This is preferable to using a tag.
  • Invisible tags. Use the prosaic “said.” Yes, “said” is boring. It’s overused. In fact, it’s so boring and overused that it’s invisible. Just like “the” and “a” and “his” and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, “said” slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what’s important—the action and the dialogue.
  • A combination of “said” and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the “after” example above.
Dialogue Punctuation
 
Let’s also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag (“he said”) is used, a comma separates the dialogue from the tag. If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it’s considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such.
 
Note: “I love you,” she smiled, is never correct. “Smiled” cannot be a tag; it’s an action. Therefore, it can be written one of two ways: “I love you,” she said and smiled. - or - “I love you.” She smiled.
 
Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Learn to use it effectively, and it will become the best friend you ever had.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
© 2016 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved. This blog article is an excerpt from The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook (LINK)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Blog One: Dialogue

by
Sandy Tritt
Have you ever read a court transcript? It accurately gives a word-by-word report of exactly what is said. But is it interesting? No way. If we wrote dialogue the way people actually talk, our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe earlier). So what do we do to create “natural” dialogue?

First, we must listen to the way people talk—both the choice of words and the rhythm of those words. People rarely speak in long sentences or without pausing (except for my mother), so we must write dialogue in fragmented sentences and in short bursts.

Second, we must decide which of these spoken words are worthy of writing. For example, in real life, when we greet someone we generally say, “Hello,” then ask how he is, maybe how his family is, and so forth. But this is boring stuff to a reader, who is smart enough to realize small talk occurs and impatient enough to want to get immediately to the meat of the conversation. Therefore, we need to eliminate the “niceties” and get on to what the reader wants to read.

And third, we need to add body language and action to dialogue to convey its true meaning. For example, a character says, “You jerk.” Without body language, we don’t know what the emotional value of this statement is. Consider the following statements:
  • “You jerk.” His eyebrow cocked just enough so I’d know he was challenging me, that he was checking to see if I would back down.
  • “You jerk.” The twinkle in his eye told me I’d finally earned his respect.
  • “You jerk!” Carl slapped his knee and laughed from his belly until I feared he’d fall down.
As you can see, the action and body language allow us to interpret the meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot see the character talking, it’s our job to describe all the information the reader needs. Adding action and body language to our prose also accomplishes another task—it controls the pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire dialogue is necessary, such as at high drama points when things are moving quickly, or after a long descriptive section to pick up the pace. Monologues usually do not need interrupted by tags or action, as the story being told is the story holding (we hope!) the reader’s attention and to suspend it would be distracting.

There are no precise rules for writing dialogue, but an ear for it is developed by reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need action. Do you forget who’s talking? You need a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly? You need a break—narrative or action—to even out the pacing.

Here are some quick tips for writing dialogue:
  • Read your scenes aloud, listening for the rhythm of your dialogue.
  • Don’t use sound effects (called “onomatopoeia”). This is annoying. Simply state, “The gun shot echoed through the chapel,” instead of “Bang! Bang! Bang!” An exception to this, of course, is children’s literature, in which the sounding out of noises is part of the fun.
  • Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out words becomes distracting and time-consuming, and most readers tire of it quickly. Instead, use the grammar, word choice, and rhythm of the character’s voice to insinuate the dialect or tag it with an explanation. Instead of writing: “I vill dough zit meself,” write: “I will do it myself,” she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick. Likewise, instead of writing, “It doune make no differen’ ta me. I’m goin’ eenyway,” write: “It don’t make no difference to me. I’m going anyway.” 
  • Don’t include “well,” “uh,” and other such nonsense unless it serves a purpose, such as a character whose only word is “uh,” or a character whose main distinction is prefacing every statement with “well.”
  • Keep your tags either interspersed with action and description or at the end of the quote. A tag at the beginning (although occasionally okay) tends to make the writing more passive. Consider which of the following carries the most power: 
    • He said, “Help me. I need help.”
    • “Help me. I need help,” he said.
    • “Help me,” he said. “I need help.”
    • “Help me!” His arms flailed as his head disappeared under the water. He resurfaced again, fighting surf. “I need help.”
Next week, we’ll discuss how to use dialogue tags and how to avoid “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome.”









© 2016 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved. This blog article is an excerpt from The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook (LINK)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Keeping Characters in Line

by
Charlotte Firbank-King


I was asked to write about how characters in novels change as they face adversity—how some will rise to the occasion and others will crumble. Easy, right? I mean, it’s your novel. You call the shots and decide your character’s personality. You say who does what. You say when, you say how. Right?

Well, maybe not so much.

At least, not for me. Almost every character I’ve created refuses to behave the way I intended. Why?

BECAUSE THE CHARACTERS JUST WON’T LISTEN!

I like strong heroines. Ergo, my latest historical story has a woman who is a feisty and determined photographer. By the fourth chapter, she’s seriously irritating me. Determined is one thing, but downright daft is another. I go back and try to change the parts where she gets stupid and pig-headed. But does she listen? No! She gets worse. She hies off into Africa with a servant girl and no idea of how to do anything, let alone cook or fire a gun. The hero sort of toes the line, but he crumples when it comes to dealing with the heroine. I can’t believe this nice guy actually falls for, then marries, this harridan before she takes off in a huff to do what she wants, going against his experienced advice.

The bottom line is, characters take on a life of their own. So I can’t tell anyone how a character will behave in the face of adversity, because my characters constantly surprise me. I think they may behave one way, but when it gets right down to it, they may do the opposite. Or something else unexpected.

HOWEVER, it’s also important to make sure your character fits the role for the story you need to tell. Otherwise, you may need to “fire” that character and start over with another one. Or change the story to fit the character—it’s up to you. Writers often impose their personal reactions on their characters. Don’t do it! If you create a character who is, say, a warrior or seasoned cop, chances are he or she won’t cry easily, throw up at the sight of blood, or be fazed by the sight of a dead person. Even though we’re told it’s better to weave a novel around what we know, we often have other stories in our heads. So, go with it—just be prepared to put in a lot of research.

We no longer live in the Stone Age where every day was a fight for survival. Not many modern, normal folks have seen a dead body or a person bleeding to death, or have run into a burning building, so it’s hard to bring to life what you haven’t experienced. This is not to say you need to go out and off some poor sod or go to the morgue to see a dead person—although this last one would help. Nor do you need to cut your arm to shreds to see what blood feels or smells like. But you can interview people who’ve experienced things like this. You can read “true life” stories about such people. And you can think what they had to go through to become who they are—and then make sure your character fits that role. I’ve edited cop novels with not a single swear word—and I know from personal experience that cops can turn the air blue with foul language. You don’t have to make the character cuss every second word, but it does need to capture the essence of how they would speak. Get inventive—and not by having “#@&*** this.”

You could have a gentle character who has lived a soft life. Then he’s thrust into a traumatic situation. It is here that you can make or break the character. If the character wilts and does nothing, then you’ve just killed the story—unless you bring in another character willing to do what the wimp can’t do. But then the wimp isn’t the hero—which can cause serious problems in plotting. Remember, for a story to be satisfying, characters must rise up to the occasion. If you need examples of that, all you have to do is watch the news to see what ordinary people are capable of in dire situations.

About two years ago, I wrote a medieval story where the antagonist was a cruel woman with horrible sexual preferences. I found the character extremely difficult to write—mostly because I’d never experienced the things she did, although I had read and heard about it. In addition to a lot of research, writers need to be brave when writing about something they haven’t experienced. Characters, like real people, will expose themselves during traumatic situations. The important thing is to make sure the characters are true to who they are.

Which, unfortunately, means you have to let them take on a life of their own and tell YOU who they are—even if this means you must change the plot to accommodate them. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cheese for Writers

by
Charlotte Firbank-King


There are hundreds of varieties of cheese, each made in different ways, just like stories are written in various ways. Then, within each “genre” of a particular cheese, there are even more differences. For example, one could have cream cheese with chives, garlic, or chili. In addition, cheeses require different conditions or times in which to mature to the point of being delicious.

All “real” cheeses are made from milk—just like all stories are made from words. Some cheeses, like ricotta or cream cheese, are easy and quick to make with milk and whatever you have in the kitchen—yet they still need sterile conditions. Ricotta also needs just the right temperature and length of heating time and the addition of lemon juice in order for curds to form. It also needs a dash of salt and then has to drain for the right amount of time with the correct type of cheese cloth to be perfect.

A short story or poem is like ricotta cheese. It also needs sterile conditions (a clear mind), the right temperature (creativity) to form the curd (idea). Then it requires the correct cheese cloth (editing) to drain out all the whey (typos, adjectives, etc.) until it tastes (story flows and sounds) delicious.

Hard cheeses like cheddar or parmesan, or softer ones like blue cheese or brie, are like full-length novels. They need more time, care, and attention to mature. They need special cultures (research). Airborne cultures (incorrect research info) must be kept out by means of perfect, protected conditions (researching the researched source). Every step in making these cheeses is meticulously executed (attention to every word and sentence). Temperature, humidity, and turning are all undertaken diligently (edited and re-edited—many times). The cheeses are monitored to avoid contamination (too much contradictory advice or negative feedback). When the cheese is mature, a cheese expert, an affineur (editor), tastes and tests the cheese (story) to check if it’s perfect. Sometimes the cheese must mature longer (needs additional edits).

Throughout the ages, caves were used to ripen cheese. The temperature and humidity in a cave is constant and therefore perfect for specific cheeses.

What conditions do writers need for their brand of cheese (story)? Well, they need a cheese cave then, don’t they? A place set aside for them in which to write. Roald Dahl used a shed at the bottom of his garden for peace and quiet. What caves do other writers like?

Let’s have some fun and see if you recognize what cheese/genre your stories fall under.

Blue cheese writer: horror stories. If horror is all one writes, then this writer must stay away from other cheeses (genres) because the culture used for blue cheese is very powerful and attacks other cheeses. Don’t get me wrong—I love blue cheese. But what sort of cave (environment) does the blue-cheese writer prefer? Maybe they need to surround themselves with dark creepy forests or a place covered in cobwebs. Perhaps they fill their “cave” with eerie music.

The brie writer: romance stories. This cheese (genre) can be oozy and even cheesy (pun intended). Generally, brie (romance) can be made (written) fairly quickly and doesn’t need long to mature, but conditions must be perfect. What cave does this writer need? Maybe a romantic setting with plenty of roses and jasmine, along with romantic lyrics permeating the air.

The ricotta cheese writer: short stories and poems as mentioned above. So what sort of cave do they need? A coffee shop or any busy place with plenty of material moving about, or perhaps peace and quiet.

Mature cheddar cheese writer: historical, mystery, or suspense novels. Like cheddar, there are many pitfalls and mistakes that can be made in the complexity of this cheese (genre). The culture (research) has to be meticulous. The maturation period takes longer (more editing) to ensure the tastes (plot sequences) are correct and flow.

But in the end, all writers, despite their genre, have different needs. Some like a no-people, peace and quiet environment. Others combine the no-people thing with music or even a television—they don’t require conversation. There are those who can work in the living room surrounded by noisy dogs, kids, and a chatty spouse, plus the television and music. Hats off to them.

The point is, a writer’s refuge has to be like a cheese cave. We need a spot where the conditions are just right. The important thing is to find the right cave for your cheese (genre) to mature (write) in.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reviewing a How-To: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

by
Jessica Nelson

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a creative writing major at a liberal arts college. This is my third year, and I’m just now getting around to my fiction writing class, but so far things have been fun.

To get us started, our professor has been giving us exercises out of Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. This craft book takes you through the basic elements of good fiction writing using short chapters that include examples of the element and a prompt to help you begin.

From the back cover:

“Here is a book about the craft of writing fiction that is thoroughly useful whether for beginners, seasoned writers, or teachers of writing. You will see how a work takes form and shape once you grasp the principles of momentum, tension, and immediacy. ‘Tension,’ Stern says, ‘is the mother of fiction. When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.’

“Dialogue and action, beginnings and endings, the true meaning of ‘write what you know,’ and memorable listing of don’ts for fiction writers are all covered. A special section features an Alphabet for Writers: entries range from Accuracy to Zigzag, with enlightening comments about such matters as Cliffhangers, Point of View, Irony, and Transitions.”

As someone who is working their way through the book, I can say his prompts are great jumping off points if your inspiration is lagging. The chapters and Alphabet for Writers are helpful if you don’t quite understand a concept.

I recently did the “Juggling” exercise (second chapter). “Juggling” makes you think about the way you take your reader through a character’s physical action, into their thoughts/background, and back into action. The idea is to weave action and internal thoughts seamlessly. Here’s a snippet from my attempt at “Juggling” to give you an idea:

Suzanne swerved around a dump truck. 8:52. If she glided through the next few stop signs and accelerated through a few yellow lights, she could make it to the meeting by the skin of her teeth. She could see it now: rushing into the conference room, breathless, all of her stuff still hanging from her arms. But she could do it. They always spent the first five minutes summarizing what happened at last week’s staff meeting. And she was actually at last week’s meeting, so it wasn’t like she needed to be there for the summary.

She zoomed up a turning lane. The green light twenty feet away turned yellow. She could make this. Pressing down on the accelerator, Suzanne whipped around the turn, centrifugal force throwing her against the driver’s side door.



I recommend Making Shapely Fiction because it’s a fun, useful guide that can spark your creativity and/or help you understand elements of fiction writing that maybe no one formally taught you. Often, writers write on instinct. We follow blindly where the Muse drags us and we thank her for the trip.

Sometimes there’s something happening in our story that’s not quite right but we’re not sure what, because it’s one of those things no high school English teacher taught us. Have no fear. Jerome Stern is going to teach you. And if you need more help, we at Inspiration for Writers are at your service!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Editors’ Accoutrements of War

by
Charlotte Firbank-King
 

Editors are there to guide and help writers hone their skills and write the best story they can. But is there such a thing as over-editing or bad editing? I think there might be. It’s possible to buckle under the weight of rules and lose heart. This is often how it goes:
First shot fired across the bows—show, don’t tell.

Really? How are newbies supposed to know that and then still grasp the concept? This is followed by a barrage of cannon fire that leaves the newbie’s sweat and blood, ah manuscript, littered with bullet holes—ah, comments and deletions, much like this list:

      These are misplaced modifiers.

      Hey! Put the comma in a compound sentence.

      Use emotions, actions, be creative—don’t constantly use, he said/she said.

      Slow the pace.

      Keep the pace going.

      No shopping lists.

      Watch that POV breach.

      This is a gawking narrator.

      Add more atmosphere.

      Stop with telling the reader every last detail from the sand on a pair of shoes to each painting on
a wall.

      Too many adjectives and adverbs, cut ‘em out or at least down to one, maybe two.

      The scenes aren’t rich enough—Flesh them out.

      No passive sentences allowed.

      Stop with all the gerunds.

      Enough already with the clichés.

      Oi! Watch those intensifiers.

      Stop with the redundancies.


The list is long and daunting. It’s like putting running shoes on a baby after their first step, then shoving them on a track and hollering, “Now show me what ya got!” Or a kid writes their first word at school. Time to throw the thesaurus at them. “Right, now sharpen up your prose!”

And the broadside shot, most loved by some editors—toe the line if you want to be published or be a bestseller, usually couched in polite, but veiled threatening terms. It may be a terse: fine, if that’s how you want to write. I’m only here to guide you. But it really means—you will never succeed if you don’t follow the rules!
None of this is bad advice—well, except this last salvo. In fact, rules need to be pointed out (not fired like a volley of bullets) or it wouldn’t be editing.

After the battle, the newbie is a crippled, gibbering wreck, ready to wave the white flag, and their characters are collateral damage in this war to forge a newbie into a James Patterson. The newbie is ready to give up dreams of becoming a writer, never mind the next NY Times bestseller. Has the editor crushed the newbie's fresh, albeit naïve prose? Maybe. But hell, the editor is pleased to see nice crisp writing with not an error in sight and every word, every sentence perfect—or soulless? Maybe even a clone of the editor’s style.

It would behoove editors to remember when they first started writing. I know I was lousy. But like all newbies, my eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and my fingers itched to write one of the million stories churning about in my creative head. The only thing I had was a love of words, but I went forth to conquer with blind gusto.

Then I crashed and burned. Maybe I was delusional and couldn’t write at all. My manuscript was littered with red and comments and deletions crawled over themselves like worms in a can.

Copious tears and rants later—the dog, cat, and parrot have all fled to safety—I pick myself up, dust myself off, wipe my bloodied nose, and forge ahead with grit and determination—I will learn—I will succeed! Despite the editor beating up on me.

First rejection letter. Second and on to the twentieth and then some more rejection letters.

Crash and burn again. This writing gig really hurts.

I think editors often edit their own work into a blubber heap of perfect writing without a pulse.

My own personal rule: write as it comes—usually badly, then cut out the glaring tumors and breathe life into it. I know many editors approach their work like this. They should look at newbies in the same way, and avoid killing the newbie's naïve approach to their story. I mean, it will need major surgery and a full face lift or ten for sure, but take care the story doesn’t morph into the cat-lady with excessive surgery—ah, editing.

On the flipside, I understand the frustrations and obsessive desire to whip a newbie into shape, but stop!

The art of writing well doesn’t happen in a day or even a year—it takes thousand and tens of thousands of words and years, and editors know this.

Maybe it’s time to cut ourselves and the newbies some slack.

Does this mean one shouldn't hire an editor? No! It means a writer should hire a good editor who is sensitive to the writer's voice and doesn't trample on it, and who doesn't overwhelm a new writer with a barrage of rules without giving examples. A good editor will build a relationship with writers, new and seasoned, and they’ll encourage when one is too despondent to continue.

Think Mount Everest and the Sherpas that guide one to the summit. That is what you need in an editor—a Sherpa. Inspiration for Writers will help you find your Sherpa to get you to the top of your Mount Everest. Just give us a call.