Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Writing Experiments 1 - Four simple exercises to build your skills

Most writers run across challenges in their work all the time. Characters who won't cooperate. Scenes that refuse to resolve. Ideas and situations that require research. Themes that cut too close to the bone.

Nonetheless, to reach your full potential, deliberate experimentation may be needed. It's common to play around with exercises earlier in your writing career, but this can be invaluable to writers at all levels. In fact, it may be more helpful to set aside time to break away from familiar work and take on an exercise after the basics of craft have been learned.

A good place to start, is simply to take a scene you've written and rewrite it from a different point of view. Consider, for instance, a first kiss scene in a romance. If it is written from the perspective of the heroine, redoing it from the hero's point of view will provide insights on the characters and their relationship even if the rewrite never makes its way into the final manuscript.

In addition, that specific example shifts from writing in a female point of view to a male point of view. That sort of experiment can push a writer into an uncomfortable place if he or she has never written from the perspective of the opposite sex. In writing experiments, the degree of difficulty is usually a good measure of how much might be learned.

Another experiment is to write with the voice of a published author. This is generally more difficult than changing points of view. In my case, I was introduced to this exercise while in high school. I had to write out three scenes from Tolkien in longhand. One was the original, and two were created by me in the voice of the author. The next step was to hand pages around and see which ones other students identified as being the original scenes. In my case, my fake pages fooled all the other students. (That's when I began to suspect I was a writer.)

Note: This exercise does not have to be a recasting of a published scene. It can be something of your own, just written in someone else's voice. And, unless it's parody, these pages are for your work notebook, not for publication.

When you write in the voice of another author, you learn techniques and skills and rhythms and you build a sensitivity to vocabulary that can shape your own writing.

Still harder for most people is to create variations. The way to do this is to come up with 3 to 5 approaches to a writing task. I often will move from the logline I've created for a work to distinct ways to begin it. I always discover something unexpected and find my way to a better approach by doing this.

Note: this does not have to be restricted to the beginning of a long work. It's possible to write the equivalent of a logline for a chapter or even the scene. From that, creating variations works the same way.

For instance, your protagonist might need to have a repair done to his or her car while traveling on a long trip. The purpose of a scene might be to prevent the protagonist from leaving right away. This could be accomplished by discovering parts aren't available or the mechanic is antagonistic or their credit card has been canceled. Writing out these scenes where the protagonist must learn about the obstacle and respond to it can push your creative abilities and build your knowledge of the work itself.

I'll end with one of the easier experiments. This is simply to write the next scene in your story either by only using dialogue or by only using description. Essentially, this means creating a radio version or a silent movie version. (I understand this is a standard exercise for some film school classes.) Either approach will force a reassessment of how the purpose of such a scene might be accomplished. These versions (if you choose to do both) will differ in interesting ways. Chances are, each will force the exercise of new writing muscles. And one is likely to be more difficult and provide a better learning experience.

Next time, I'll look at some more challenging experiments and discuss what value they might provide.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Story Excitement 3 -- Sharing the fun

If you want your stories to thrill readers, the first step is usually to thrill yourself. I provided some ideas on how to do that in the first entry of this series and how to sustain it in the second.

Acting provides some guidance in sharing emotions. Traditionally, an actor works from the outside, accumulating specific, authentic details. He or she may add a prosthetic nose or cultivate a tic or walk in a specific manner to project the feelings of the character to the point where they come across (and often infect the actor).

Similarly, a writer will use the specifics of a character that readers identify to carry the sense of excitement to them. If your protagonist's heart is beating fast, chances are, so is the reader's. But a writer can do more. Mood can be created by the setting. (Think of almost anything by Edgar Alan Poe.) The writer can also create conflicts and obstacles that can quicken the pulse.

Scene construction can have a huge impact. Comic relief can distract the reader away from building tension so the ultimate impact hits all the harder. Beyond careful timing of secrets and revelations, the writer can make readers feel what the protagonist is unaware of. Irony is a powerful tool, well expressed by Hitchcock, who spoke of the suspense created when the audience knows a bomb is ticking and the character does not. 

Method acting pulls directly from your feelings, as discussed in the previous entries, but you can enhance through finding personal ways to connect with your material. This may be through imagery or sequences within the story that touch you, but, like actors, you can also use sense memory to call up situations (not explicit in your story) where you had relevant emotions.

Sharing the excitement may, however, take more than "feeling it." Everything has to be conveyed through written material, without the expression of your voice and body, so exaggeration is encouraged. Don't be rigorously realistic or shy about going over the top. You can always moderate later.

Finally, sharing the excitement is the perfect reason to be professional about the writing itself. Passive voice? Adverbs? Junk words (like just, even, almost)? All of these distance the reader and muddy the feelings. As do unnecessary dialogue tags and joining dialogue (or scenes) before the last possible moment or leaving it later than as soon as possible. Anything sloppy or unneeded takes away from the excitement.

But it may not be carelessness that holds you back. It could be a reticence about sharing emotion. We often value being "cool" or "in control." Forget that when you're writing fiction (and much of nonfiction). If you don't let loose (at least with the draft), you're cheating your readers and yourself.

Get excited.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Story Excitement 2 — Holding onto the thrill

Excitement can fuel the enthusiasm you need to get your story done. The beginning of Romancing the Stone provides a pretty good depiction of what can happen when a novelist is finishing the work. The words may pour out. Along with laughter and tears. I've known some writers who have said that there were large sections of writing where they were so physically and emotionally involved that they had no memory of the actual creation of the scenes.

On the other hand… commitment can wane as the writing continues for weeks, months, or years. Almost every novelists I've asked has said that the work feels so rotten at the one half to three quarters completion point that they are tempted to abandon it. (In fact, ask around and you'll find out there are a lot of partially finished novels in drawers and on hard disks.)

So, excitement from beginning to end is not guaranteed. How can it be maintained?

The primary tool I use, which also has been useful for some of my students, is to write a list of 10 to 20 reasons why the manuscript must be completed. These are written in full sentences, intended to communicate convincingly to the future self who is discouraged. They can range from the very practical (I have a contract, there's a market for this, an agent is waiting) to the aesthetic (the concept here presents beauty or raises questions) to a sense of justice (this reveals corruption in our society).

Another way to keep the enthusiasm is to take a deep breath and delve more deeply into one of the characters in the story. Often this means seeing the dark side of a character you love – not easy, but irresistible. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to put one of the characters into an intolerable situation. The more excruciating, the more compelling the story will become. Note: this situation does not need to be included in the final work. Its value comes from what it's does to help the writer connect more profoundly with his or her creation.

Raymond Chandler wrote, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Certainly, if you can find a way to surprise yourself, if you can disrupt the story or depart from your outline, it's likely to engage you. Discomfort may be the first feeling, but if you stick it out, you're likely to feel the adrenaline. Taking a risk is always acceptable.

If you respond well to other stimuli – pictures, music, a cold shower, or a hot tub — go for it. I have a friend who picks up magazines when she gets stuck. As long as she sticks to the pictures, quirky, attention-grabbing photography will get her going again.

Connecting with an obsession in some way can also keep the fire going. Think of the elements that cause you to watch movies over and over again, games that you lose yourself in, even those thoughts that keep you up at night. Find a way – and it may involve more stream of consciousness than traditional writing – to feature something that obsesses you in your work in progress.

Finally, if you have a long-term relationship with someone, think about how you have been able to maintain that. Gifts? Finding common interests? Resisting temptations and distractions? Paying attention to needs and emotions? Each of these provides models for holding onto the thrill you feel for your work in progress. In other words, nothing beats persistence, imagination, and commitment for finding your way to a happy ending.

All this excitement is great for you as a writer working to get your manuscript finished. Often, what you feel as your writing is translated to readers without much effort. But sometimes, conveying that excitement is not automatic. And that's will talk about in the next entry in this series.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Story Excitement 1 - The joy of losing control

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with story ideas? Do you sit down to work and end up pacing? Do images bubble in your head  — too fast to keep them all — as you garden or shower or put on a load of laundry?

In my case, all of the above. Most days, it’s slogging away and finding the fun with effort -- only after a few sentences or paragraphs or pages begin to connect. But excitement is a part my experience, too. Neurons begin firing when a story idea hits or a character shares her mind or pictures flash in my head or I have nothing more than an uneasy feeling that edges toward panic attack (but in a good way).

Excitement. - To quote the Pointer Sisters, "I'm about to lose control and I think I like it."

Chances are, when you write, you have an expectation that people will be excited by your work. So excited they'll pay money for the experience. Where does that excitement come from? From you.

Not someone else. Many, many times, I've had writers talk about, work on, and even complete stories they felt were high concept or likely to pay off... but they were not THEIR stories. Not because the situations, worlds, or characters were strange to them. (Heck, I write SF and fantasy. Reality is very plastic for me.) They were not their stories because they did not have an emotional connection to what those stories.

Understand, I'm fine with experimentation and taking on challenges. Stephen King tossed Carrie in the trash because, on the surface, it was way beyond his experience. But it was at the core of what his writing was all about, so we can all be grateful his wife rescued the manuscript.

Life is sneaky. It can deliver you someone else's story. The aether is filled with great ideas. I've frequently pulled down many that I could not connect with in my gut or in my heart. Good ideas that worked and had commercial success. I have no regrets about leaving those alone. I only regret those that I took on and shouldn't have.

Because my experience in writing those stories, even when it was pleasant, never thrilled me. Or readers. Here are my indicators of true excitement:

Questions, questions, and more questions. Sometimes it starts slowly, but ideas that hang on to suggest a few questions, to send me to the Internet or the library for research, and then lead to cascading curiosity -- those are guaranteed to excite me.

Surprises. I've heard the best thing you can hear from a scientist looking at data is, "That can't be true." The insight, fact, or possibility that upends what I think is right may disturb me. It may agitate or frustrate me. But, on closer examination, it is almost surely going to get my juices flowing. I just have to let go. Lose control.

Movement. As I indicated above, there are times I can't stand still and I go marching around the house. The muse is upon me. It's not always pleasant. It is likely to mean hours of meandering until whatever that formless thing is starts to reveal itself enough so I can make a note, sketch a chart or picture, or blurt out dialogue. At that point, I'm all in.

Strange pieces come together in alarming ways. Probably most writers capture images and concepts every day. (If they're smart, they follow Bradbury's advice and jot them down in full sentences.) For me, most of these bits of flotsam and jetsam are never revisited. Some bubble up and go away. Some make amusing connections, entertaining me for an instant. A very few snap together in weird ways to create full-fledged monsters that demand my attention.

Can any of this be nurtured? For me, curiosity, getting out of my comfort zone, and just paying attention ensure exciting starting points for stories. I also keep track of what I respond to emotionally -- in life and in art. (If you don't know your twenty favorite movies, books, TV shows, etc., why not?)

Interviewing characters can get me traction, too. Especially when some of the zip of the story concept diminishes.  Telling a friend about the story can provide a focus that ups the excitement (but it can also provide a payoff for your exciting idea and make it lose its zest, so beware).

Overall, the easiest path to excitement in stories is being excited by life. This does not necessitate skydiving or running with the bulls. It does mean fully engaging and knowing your own heart. Because, ultimately, what is compelling to you is what connects with your true self.

Next time, I'll talk about maintaining excitement through the creation of stories that take time to create, like novels and feature scripts. And I'll conclude this series with ideas on how best to share excitement.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Revise for Readers 2 - Tough but vital fixes

Last time, I offered suggestions on possible story fixes based on audience needs and expectations. My aim was to provide a toolbox for easy repairs to stories that were, essentially, in good working order. "Almost there" stories may be the result of careful preparation or blind luck. I've had it turn out both ways.

In most cases, upon the completion of the first draft, there are likely to be bigger problems that can't be fixed quickly. Note: This is not the result of the story being bad. Some of the absolute best stories emerge from the first draft process as shambling monsters. So, love your baby, however it turns out – and get to work.

Returning to a reader-centered guide…

Diversion. That great premise you started with? You may have recognized a concept that had something more promising within it than came out in the telling. A fresh look might show that the full value of the concept didn't come through because of laziness (settling for clich├ęs) or the terrifying nature of the full expression of your connection with the concept.

In the former case, it's a matter of raising the bar for yourself and finding fresher ideas and challenges for your characters. In the latter case, it may mean a full (but amazing and delightful) page one rewrite. What can push you into taking on such an enormous task? Knowing it's worth it. Having the couraged to take the risk. And sharing the astonishment of a high-wire act with your audience.

Knowledge/perspective/humor. Stale information is usually the results of someone thinking they know the answers (because they've seen that world in news reports and movies) or chasing a topic that has people excited but doesn't have the writer engaged and committed.

On a fundamental level, that means digging in and doing enough research to unearth surprising facts. (I even do this for worlds that are familiar to me.) Beyond interviews, library research, visiting locales, and such, knowledge enters a new space when received wisdom falls away and new pictures emerge. If you can, for instance, imagine a compelling alternate history without changing any established facts, that's intrinsically valuable.

I have, on occasion, totally transformed stories by changing the point-of-view character. Often, this involves a deeper understanding of the risks each character faces. But it also can be a simple recognition that one of the characters has a truly distinct perspective on life and on the events that transpire in the tale.

On humor, I had the good fortune of taking a course with Danny Simon, who worked on a lot of television programs and with golden age luminaries. One point advice he had was to get rid of the "joke jokes." These were the funny bits that did not fit the characters or the story.

The best humor — which comes out of who the characters are – is undercut by these jokes. Humor is tied to insights, quirky perspectives, and obsessions (especially blind obsessions). It's also frequently daring and antisocial. So, looking toward truth, authentic characters, and a recognition of human frailty will naturally improve the humor in your writing – provided you're funny.

Lessons/rehearsal for life. I think what gums up this part more than anything is not having anything to say. My assumption is that any story worth telling touches the writer in some way. It includes specifics that add dimensions to themes about life. It illustrates, often through candid disclosures, the struggle for wisdom. It respects the structure and tone of the myths that live in our bones. And it strips away those elements, no matter how entertaining, that obscure meaningful models for making difficult choices.

Understanding what you have to say often only emerges with a full draft and a discovery of the theme. And it's a big deal for revisions because, minimally, cutting, reordering of scenes and reconceiving situations in the story will be necessary. Just going through bit by bit looking for alignment is a major task -- but the payoff is a story that works on a higher level. 

Promises. One thing I try to do is keep genre commitments to readers in unexpected ways. Nothing is staler than a first kiss you seeing 20 times before. Sex scenes? Most writers hate committing them to paper and mocking the failed attempts of well-considered authors has become an annual sport.

Those scenes that the genre promises require special attention because it's so easy to fall back on the familiar or to slip when trying something new. Of course, the answer is to look at each one closely, respond honestly to what is written, and rework the whole thing (including scenes that lead in or follow) when necessary. How do you know you need to do this? If you didn't tell the truth. If you didn't find what makes you connect with the scene. If you fail to find something that's valid and that you never saw in a genre scene before.

It's demanding, but it should be. You have promises to keep.

What all this comes down to is having a level of openness to major revisions – to the attention they require, the exploration they demand, the daring and management of fear with which they must be approached, and the work. Sometimes, when your head is full of other stories to tell, that last – the work, the page one rewrite – can overwhelm you. Think of the time. Think of the possibility of putting in all those hours and still failing. Then forget about all that.

I probably can't prove this, but my strong suspicion is that most great works challenged writers to go into places that went beyond uncomfortable to the limits of intolerable. I certainly have found that with some of the things I written about which I'm proudest this was the case. So keep this in mind:

If you pull off facing the toughest challenges that come up in writing, you have a good chance of creating the best work you can do. If you do not succeed and end up creating something that doesn't quite come together, you will certainly become a stronger, more insightful, more interesting, and more competent writer than you ever imagined you could.

I see that as a win-win, and I think it's a good argument for taking on the biggest challenges.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Revise for Readers 1 - Quick fixes for your story

I've long advocated Kurt Vonnegut's technique of writing a first draft for a specific reader. This immediately provides focus, pacing, and diction for your piece. Do this, and you are automatically well-positioned for revision.

Now, once you begin rewriting, it's good to think beyond telling the story to just one person. Now is the time to remember why people read stories (and watch movies). So, without pretending that I'm presenting an exhaustive list, I'll review some of the reasons people hunger for stories and suggests some quick fixes that might elevate your work. (Next week, I'll dig into repairs that take more time and effort.)

First, people don't come to your stories with the idea of engaging in labor. Yes, someone reading mystery will be trying to work out whodunit along the way, and an SF reader may put an effort into imagining your strange new world. But in general, you are responsible for doing the work. This means that if you don't make things clear, readers will stop reading. Beta readers with red pens are your best allies in making sure that whatever you wrote comes through. Naturally, you also have an obligation to choose appropriate vocabulary and pay attention to the rules of grammar and spelling.

Diversion is probably the main reason why people sit down with the novel. They are looking for a break, a bit of fun, and some entertainment. Much of this depends upon your initial concepts and character development (not easy to fix). Let me suggest three fixes to a complete draft that might take a story that is intrinsically interesting and make it better.
  1. Include hooks and cliffhangers. Anything that will raise questions, engage, and keep readers interested will make your story more compelling and entertaining.
  2. Look closely at where and how you revealed important information. Aristotle talks about the value of astonishment in storytelling. To me, this means riddling the work with (appropriate and fair) surprises. Withhold choice bits of information as long as possible without cheating. And frame these in ways that set them off.
  3. Get rid of the boring parts (as Elmore Leonard advised). One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to highlight the sections of your manuscript that are back story and narration. Especially at the beginning of a story, these can drag and may be important only to the writer. Getting them into the draft is good and necessary work. Leaving them there can be tedious for your reader.
The use of adverbs, adjectives, and "junk" words like "that," can also rob your story of energy and make it drag.

Knowledge/perspective/humor – Lots of people come to stories to learn and to see their worlds differently. Research can be a good route to providing intriguing details that people will want to remember (as long as you don't overdo it). Both the perspectives of people who are different from the readers and your perspectives, if you see the world in a skewed way as most humorists do, can be the reason why the work attracts readers in the first place. Add something to the sound of the language (which may be more than a quick fix) and you have most of the components of voice. Why do editors and agents always talk about how important voices to them? Because it's important to readers.

Lessons/rehearsal for life — In a first draft, it's quite likely that there will be elements to a story that provides a good model for dealing with situations we all face, but these may occur in order that is random. It may also be that there are events that distract from the model, diminishing its value. Here, provided you have a good handle on the lessons embedded in your work and you have the courage to reshape it, the solution is to take out the parts that, although interesting, are not essential. Then, with the remainder, reorder so the stakes escalate for the protagonist.

Promises – The most obvious thing to check for here is making sure all the expected genre events are included. (A showdown in a Western, for instance. Or a first kiss and a romance.) This means you have to know your genre well, understand how to present these incidents in a fresh way, and take the time to inspect your work to be sure you didn't leave them out or otherwise shortchange the reader.

I could add to this list. Sometimes it doesn't take much to create more empathy for characters or take something unexpected out of the premise or refine the language so it's more lyrical. But the point is that it is worthwhile to keep in mind reader expectations and check to see that they are fulfilled before you finish revising your manuscript.

Now, sometimes more than a quick fix is needed. And that's what I'll cover in my next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It's All About the Stories - Five years of boosting productivity

I've met so many people with talent. With stories to tell. With insights and perspectives that need to be shared. Caught in productivity traps.

That has been the driving force for this blog. Now, five years later, I’ve had the chance to publish over 300 posts on the techniques and practices that can set imaginations free, open doors, and make writing fun. I’ve been delighted to see writers break bad habits and get stalled manuscripts moving. For me, this has created opportunities to teach and speak, but the real joy is seeing people live the lives they have dreamed of (or, at least, get a little closer).

So, after 140,000 page views (about 75 a day on average), I’m hoping some of you feel this is a milestone worth celebrating. And what better way to observe this occasion than by pointing you to the most popular posts and series of these five years? So, here they are…

Most Popular Posts

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks


Most Popular Series (other than those that include one of the "Most Popular Posts")

Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

Stories Off the Leash (7 posts, beginning with this one)

Write Who You Are (6 posts, beginning with this one)

Fast Reads = Better Stories (5 posts, beginning with this one)

A Pantser's Guide to Revision (5 posts, beginning with this one)


Now, those are just my writings. I have had the help of many a writer in the form of interviews and guest posts. In fact, the most popular post of any kind by far is one by Scrivener maven Gwen Hernandez. It has been viewed over 8,000 times, more than the next two posts combined.

What’s next? A lot more posts. I haven’t come close to running out of material (probably because I’m writing all the time and facing the same challenges you are). I’ll continue to teach the old courses and to develop new ones.

I am well along in writing How to Write Fast: Productive story drafting. It should be available in September. I’ve outlined two follow-up books on revision and leveraging your story premise. To support my move into publishing, I’ll make a newsletter available. This will have announcements of my ventures, but the heart of it will be the kind of exercises, templates, and checklists that have been valuable to my students. I’ll also include some giveaways (Want me to be your productivity nag for a month?) and the opportunity for some subscribers to become beta readers for the books. I haven't started building a mailing list yet, but, if you're interested in the newsletter, send me a note at howtowritefast@gmail.com Put newsletter in the subject line.

Finally, thanks to all my readers, followers, commenters, retweeters, sharers, and contributors for all the joy this blog has brought me over the years.