Saturday, July 30, 2011

Therapeutic Writing

Each of us feels strong emotions from time to time, and thankfully we have an outlet. Writing.

There's something therapeutic about opening up a weathered journal, or a blank document, and pouring our hearts out. The words can be added to a manuscript, or they can be for our eyes only. Either way, writing through our strong emotions can act like warm stones on sore muscles.

When we're feeling happy
When we're feeling hopeful
When we're feeling nervous
When we're feeling confused
When we're feeling angry
When we're feeling sorrow
When we're feeling regret
When we're feeling thankful

Sometimes my mind resembles a kaleidoscope of jumbled thoughts and emotions. But when I sit down with a pen, or with my fingers hovered above the keyboard, my feelings become organized. Conflicting thoughts sort themselves out, and life becomes a wee bit clearer. Just the simple act of writing through a happy, confusing, or difficult time makes me feel lighter and more relaxed. Until the next time.

How about you? Has writing helped you through an emotional time? Did anyone else see your words, or did you keep them to yourself?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Speech Mannerisms & Body Language

I'm reading WRITING MAGIC by Gail Carson Levine, and I was reminded of two ways of communicating--speech mannerisms and body language. I think, I hope, I use body language in my writing, but I know for sure I don't use speech mannerisms as much as I could.

Speech Mannerisms

If the writer's done their job well with speech mannerisms, they sometimes don't need to identify the speaker. Levine tells of a judgmental character in her book, The Wish, who adds or takes away points. When the speaker said, "It's pretty weird, Wilma. Five points off for strange behavior," the reader automatically knew who was speaking. Pretty cool.

Levine's advice is to pay attention to what people say, and take note of how they say it. Here are some speech mannerisms I've noticed in others:
  • A man I know clears his throat each time he speaks
  • Young people often say "like" a lot when they're speaking (like, you know, the valley girls of the past. Like, not that I would know anything about that)
  • Some people start sentences with "you know" or "listen"
  • Parents might use the full name of a child when upset, and a nickname when they're pleased
Personally, I need to put much more thought into fun details like this. Can you think of any speech mannerisms you've noticed? Or any you've used in your characters?

Body Language

I'm much more comfortable adding this type of communication to my manuscripts. Characters, like real people, send strong messages without speaking. I wrote an article for kids about the subject here, and learned fun details through research.

Did you know that 93% of our communication is non-verbal? We don't have to tell the reader our character is embarrassed. We can write that his face is flushed, his feet are shuffling, or he's fiddling with his shirt sleeves. Showing, not telling.

If you're unsure which body language matches which emotions, The Bookshelf Muse is the best place to start. The thesaurus entries on the sidebar are valuable tools for writers.

Have you used speech mannerisms and body language in your writing? What other forms of communication can writers use?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Antidotes for Excuses

There are a couple of writing tasks I haven't completed yet. There's no excuse, but I'll offer some anyway:
  • It's summer and the kids are home from school
  • I can't write at a water park--my laptop will get wet
  • I can't write at the beach--the sand will damage my laptop, or the wind will rustle my paper
  • How can I concentrate on revisions with ten 14-year-olds in our pool?
  • How can I concentrate on plotting when I have two 11-year-olds playing Wii Sports?
  • Have I mentioned it's summer and the kids are home from school?
I realize that the work will not get done unless I sit down and do it. No one else can take the blame. And there's no reason I can't put my butt-in-chair and write for 15-30 minutes at the beginning or end of each day.

If you're like me, and writing has taken a back seat, here are some great quotes about making excuses. I'll call them antidotes for excuses:

"Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure." -- Don Wilder

"Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses." -- George W. Carver

"Don't make excuses, make something incredible happen in your life right now." -- Greg Hickman

"There aren't nearly enough crutches in the world for all the lame excuses." -- Marcus Stroup

"No one ever excused his way to success." -- Dave Del Dotto

"Success is a tale of obstacles overcome, and for every obstacle overcome, an excuse not used." -- Robert Brault

"I never knew a man who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else." -- Benjamin Franklin

Ouch! I think I'd better get to work.

Have you been diligent about writing this summer? And do you have a favorite excuse to use when you haven't been writing? Or am I the only one using lame excuses?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Find your writing treasure

We each have certain gifts we can share with others. And if we're not sure what those treasures are, we can enjoy hunting for them. Maybe it's a career path, maybe it's a hobby, or maybe it's a favorite sport.

We're writers. We recognize that our skills are constantly improving, but still, many people wish they could do what we do. How can we share this treasure? Here are some suggestions:
  1. Write for no pay/low pay markets. Whether or not you have publishing credits, writing for these markets is a great way to hone our skills while helping others. Children who can't afford a subscription to Highlights magazine could enjoy your stories or articles for free. Some children's markets which are seeking manuscripts are Imagination Cafe, Stories for Children, and Viatouch.
  2. Volunteer. Maybe a church needs someone to write their bulletins, or a local community group has trouble putting together legible newsletters. Busy teachers are always looking for classroom volunteers to read to children or help strengthen writing methods. These tasks take time, yet it's a win/win situation. We can practice our skills while lending a hand.
  3. Consider fictionalizing an issue that's close to your heart. Domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, coping with an illness or death. These issues make powerful stories, and authors have a unique opportunity to shed light and inform readers. Many times we've read stories and thought, wow, I'm not alone after all. Someone else out there understands.
Our writing skills could be clutched to our chest and used only for our own good, or we could share those skills, practicing and improving our techniques along the way. Who knows where our treasure hunt could lead?

What's your opinion on this subject? Can you think of other ways to share our writing treasure?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

When readers trust an author

I'm halfway through reading HOUSE RULES by Jodi Picoult. She's one of my favorite authors--one I can trust. Here's why I have faith in her work, and what writers can learn from her books:

Open with a scene that instantly connects readers to the main character
Open with a scene that is active and shows a quick, sympathetic glimpse into the MC's regular life "before."

Breadcrumbs should be dropped in small bits at a time
The author drops in subtle hints that will come to fruition later. We don't know where the story will lead, but we're confident the author will tell us what we need to know when we need to know it.

Distinctive character voices
The book I'm reading has many points of view...five so far. But each one has a clear voice and their own, sometimes conflicting, objectives. The story's taking shape, and I'm confident the author will bring these characters together when the time is right.

Each character, scene, and bit of backstory should matter
I don't know exactly how and why all these details are important, but I know they are. This author does not waste the reader's time.

Be fair to both sides of a controversial subject
Picoult is fearless with subject matter, but is always fair to both sides. After each of her stories, I'm reminded to search deep within issues, understanding why both sides are passionate about their positions.

Each of Picoult's books not only entertains, but holds a special place in my heart. Great authors give their readers precious gifts: a unique reading experience, and something to strive for.

Do you have a favorite author whom you trust? Who is it, and what keeps you coming back for more?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Performing Plot CPR

I recently finished another round of revisions. I had loosely plotted this story, but knew it was bloated and needed plenty of medical intervention. The thought of evaluating every scene overwhelmed me to the point of procrastination.

How can we revive a plot? Each writer has their own unique solutions, but for the sake of this post, imagine yourself wearing scrubs, holding electric paddles, and shouting, "Clear!"

Using combined advice from many sources, including my critique partner, Leslie Rose, and tips from Revision & Self Editing, I created a plot spreadsheet. I know, I know, I usually read spreadsheet and flee. But stay with me. These were my column headers:
  • Chapter number
  • Scene summary--just a couple of quick lines about the scene
  • Setting
  • Characters--which main players were involved in the scene?
  • Conflict--I've learned each scene should have conflict. If there wasn't any, that gave me the green light to add friction or delete the scene.
  • Goal of scene--what was my MC's goal? Again, if there wasn't any, that was a red flag.
  • Antagonist/Opposition--in each scene, who or what stood in my MC's way of reaching her goal?
  • Outcome--after each conflict, what were the consequences? If there were none, more red flags.
  • Day/Time--this helped me make sure I wasn't goofing up on time sequence (unless that's your objective!)
  • First line of the chapter
  • Last line of the chapter--these two columns helped me judge the quality of my beginning and ending lines.
  • Notes/Ideas--eventually this column moved next to my scene summary for easy reference. As I evaluated each scene, this is where I wrote my overall thoughts of the scene, how it could improve, or whether or not it could be deleted.
Does this mean I'm finished with revisions? No way. The book is now with trusted beta readers, and I know there will be heavy editing in the future. But spending time evaluating each scene provided me with clarity and focus.

Have you ever done anything like this, or does a spreadsheet make you run for the hills? What's your secret for administering plot CPR?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Aaaaand, Action! How to write it well

Lisa Green, my talented writing buddy and critique partner, recently had her awesome short story, IDENTITY CRISIS, published in the cool anthology GODS OF JUSTICE. Woo hoo, Lisa!

One of Lisa's many writing talents is squeezing lots of heart-pumping action into her stories, even if they're small. She's kind enough to share her secrets with us.

Take it away, Lisa!

How do you pack a lot of action into a small word count? You’ll have to pardon the pun, but you have to make every word count. Short stories are an art unto themselves. Not only do you need a clear-cut goal, motivation, and character arc, you also need to entertain, which in some cases means action.

Fight scenes are physical. It can be difficult to put down on paper the details you see in your mind. My

recommendation is to use the highlights. Look at The Date by Ty Wilson:

See how the artist lets you fill in the blanks? That’s what we have to do only with words. Did you know that in

Hitchcock’s Psycho, you never actually see the victim get stabbed in the shower scene?

But what DO you put in? Here are the steps to a good action sequence:

  • Set the stage: We have to have a good idea what the space is we’re working with. In IDENTITY CRISIS I use the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. I mention the sights and sounds, the smells even, but I don’t have to say too much because we all have a general idea what a Ferris wheel is like. The description I do use reflects my character’s feelings and the tension of the moment.
  • Make ‘em wring their hands with anticipation: Good horror movies withhold the monster until the last minute. Tension is the key. If you’re writing a western, and the whole thing culminates in a shootout, you better build up to it properly. I want to feel the nerves of the MC as the clock in the town square chimes twelve.
  • Show the audience the big moves: Does the MC get a punch in the gut when he fails to move out of the way? What does the force feel like? How does his body react? If it’s a big moment, slow it down. Show us a bit of internal dialogue. The MC’s reaction if it’s more than “Ow.”
  • Keep your sentences clear and concise: If it’s action, too many words can slow it down. Watch your sentence structure. Use strong verbs and clear actions so we know what’s happening.
Awesome advice. Thanks, Lisa!

Writers, what do you think? Have you ever written an action story with a limited word count, or created action-packed scenes in your books? Please share your secrets!

And if you're a fan of super hero stories, be sure to let me know you'd like to win a copy of GODS OF JUSTICE. To celebrate the book release, I'm giving away one copy!
(Please comment by midnight on July 16th. US residents only for print copy, international for Kindle version)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Writing lessons learned from THE PULL OF GRAVITY

I just finished THE PULL OF GRAVITY by Gae Polisner, and absolutely loved it. Here's a quick blurb:

When their friend Scooter dies of a rare disease, teenagers Nick Gardner and Jaycee Amato set out on a secret journey to find the father who abandoned "The Scoot" when he was an infant, and give him a signed first edition of "Of Mice and Men."

As with all books I read, I learned a great deal about writing from this one. Here goes:

Add interest by threading in old favorites.
Bits of Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN were woven through the narrative. If teens haven't read the classic yet, hopefully they'll grab a copy after reading GRAVITY. And the Scoot was a huge Star Wars fan and quoted Yoda, which was a fun story element.

Send your characters on a worthy quest.
Nick and Jaycee weren't on their journey for selfish reasons. They were fulfilling a dying wish of their best friend. Who can resist that?

Create likable characters.
I know, I know, we hear this all the time. But still. When I read great characters it reminds me to give my own characters memorable quirks, identifiable faults, and admirable qualities.

Don't forget to add interesting, supporting characters.
Nick's dad was obese and set out on his own journey of self discovery, walking hundreds of miles--Forrest Gump style. The Scoot suffered from a terminal disease, and his dying wishes lingered on every page. The supporting cast stayed with me after I finished the book.

Between-chapter goodies can add depth.
I love it when extras are slipped between chapters, like the poetry added to THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. In GRAVITY it was emails from Nick's dad, chronicling his trek to New York. It added dimension to the story.

Clean YA stories are great.
*puts on mommy hat*
This is a clean, well-told story that I'd be comfortable with my 14-year-old son reading.

What's your opinion of these lessons learned? And have you experienced something similar in the books you've read?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What can Lady Gaga teach us about writing?

It's a stretch, I know, but stick with me. Although I've heard Gaga does write some of her own music, for the sake of this post we'll stick with what she can teach us about book writing. Strap on your shiny black leather seatbelt--here goes:
  1. Talent matters. Say what you will about her, but Lady Gaga sings great whether it's live or recorded. For writers these days, there seems to be more publishing opportunities than ever. But quality writing matters. Word of mouth matters. And talent matters.
  2. People want to be entertained. I've never been to a Gaga concert, but I know it wouldn't be boring. When readers open a book, they want to be transported to another time and place. Gaining readers and keeping them entertained should be a top priority.
  3. Outrageous actions gain attention. The dress made of steaks, wobbly skyscraper heels, and scanty outfits ensure Gaga is noticed. Plenty of writers have written "out there" books. Perhaps the authors were ridiculed, but their stories gained attention.
  4. Outrageous actions can work against us. Gaga does grab attention, but too often it's the negative kind. If writers want to be taken seriously we must ditch the glittery queries, stalker behavior at conferences, and questionable online behavior. We're a walking, talking, writing business.
  5. Stay current. Like Madonna has over the past 20 years, I wonder if Gaga will evolve with time. We writers are in a business where news and trends change faster than we can tweet a blog post. Thankfully we all work together to stay current.
Care to add something to the list? Are you a fan of Lady Gaga, and if so, what's your favorite song?