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Posts Tagged ‘writing advise’

Potters, painters and photographers all have tangibles to work with. Writers work in a sphere of the unseen. What an ethereal realm we are engaged in…weaving the fabric of our stories from little more than imagination and inspiration. Sometimes I feel like one of the weavers from ‘the emperor’s new clothes’, spinning my story from invisible thread and inviting my readers to believe in the fantasy I’ve created.  Or, perish the thought, am I the foolish king, unfit for this position?   

Click on the image. Which way is the dancer whirling?

What elements compose the substance of this elusive calling? Just what are the raw materials of our craft? Although it was difficult to pin down, here’s the start of my list:   

  • A writer is abnormally consumed by the desire of putting ideas into words. Subcategories can include the love of actually writing with pen on paper (even if you use a laptop most of the time), scribbling notes about the most inkling-est of ideas in the most unlikely of places (think showers); and a penchant for writing implements, which can often lead to pen fetishes and petty thievery.
  • A writer should have an overactive right brain that gets really cranky if it kept too long in the box of left brain constraints of making a living. (click on whirling dancer and see which side of your brain is engaged).
  • A writer should be overly mental — not able to shut the internal dialogue off. Writing creates an outlet to focus all that cerebral energy and direct it into something hopefully positive, entertaining and inspiring. 
  • A writer must have an overactive imagination which stops just short of getting hopelessly lost and going stark raving mad. A healthy dose of reality checks with the outside world is necessary to stay sane.
  • A writer’s greatest resource is simply Life. Living it, surviving it, questioning and observing it. 
  • A writer is not fit for most normal jobs because of they have never answered the question, ‘what will I be when I grow up?’
  • A writer will have something to add to this list.

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Writing has made me a more critical reader. My latest library book lost me as a reader because of technical issues. Besides some rather drab characters and a meandering plot, the POV shifted so often I was starting to feel the main action of the story was my ability to leap about between character’s heads. I won’t tell you what the book  is because I don’t want to bash another writer. I can tell you that the main reason I picked it up was author recognition.

Besides being irritating, it raised all kinds of questions.  How is a well known published writer allowed to commit these major editorial sins? Where is her editor? Does this bother anybody besides me?

Point of view is challenging. It was a difficult concept for me to grasp and flipping between character’s heads is easier than channel surfing. It’s so easy to do without being aware of it, but my handy dandy desktop Self-Editing for Fiction Writers helps guide me through these muddy waters.

I also find it useful to read books, like the annoying one mentioned, which ignore this important element because it makes me aware of how much I don’t want to inflict these mental gymnastics on my readers.

As a writer, it took me a while to understand which point of view I was even writing in, but once I did, it raised my POV consciousness. For me, writing a fantasy seen through the eyes of a cat, means I must ‘become the cat’.

As a reader, I don’t have the patience to stay with a book that forces me to guess who’s thinking what. I returned the book to the library. Now I need something good to read!

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I’ve been missing in action, but hardly inactive.

When I first started writing, my research lead me to use the model of archetypes to develop my characters. Any intrepid Googler can find enough online info to understand this mythic structure. My delicious bookmarks attest to that and considering I knew nothing when I started out, I think I’ve come a ‘fur piece’ as they say.

I love the archetype model and do not find it limiting in any way. It provides a solid foundation for characters with the freedom to let your imagination fly to create an infinite variety of characters. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. But like snowflakes and  real people, we all share basic elements. Understanding archetypes help me better understand human nature. That troublesome person in my life might just be a Threshold Guardian, testing me in ways that will make me smarter and stronger. This perspective allows for a ‘step back’ from the usual close-up camera lens in which we view events or people that tangle up our emotions.

Now that I’ve started on the second book , I decided it was time to grow up, so rather than clicking through my conglomeration of delicious bookmarks, I ordered The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Christopher Vogler has managed to translate Joseph Campbell, as one critic, said ‘for dummies’. This is no book for dummies, but reading it whetted my appetite for more and so I could hardly wait to get my hands on Campbell’s Hero. Campbell, however, is going to take some time to absorb. Excellent book, but slow reading, because it’s so packed. I have to be in the right mood for Campbell, and I appreciate Vogler’s  book all the more for his beautiful simplicity in gleaning the essence of Campbell, making it accessible and practical.

The book is laid out in two main sections. The first section presents the main archetypes (Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow and Trickster) with examples from film. The second section holds the signposts of the journey (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, etc.) It is very easy to read through as well as use it as a reference when editing.

So I woke the cats and we plowed through their story along with Mr. Vogler’s guidebook. I was able to identify all of the archetypes, although some of them held more than one position and two characters hold the post of Threshold Guardian for different reasons. Knowing exactly who they are and their relationship to the Hero makes it easier to strengthen their role.

I also found one major flaw in my Hero’s journey that will require a more serious revision but I’m holding a brainstorming session with my characters to get their take on how to proceed with the changes.

If I could only keep one writing reference book on my desk, it would be The Writer’s Journey. What writer’s reference books speak to you?

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I’ve never entered a writing contest before but I’m planning to participate in the second ‘Dear Lucky Agent’ Contest being held over at GLA. This one is for middle grade and YA fiction. Maybe it’s the ‘lucky break’ my cats have been waiting for.

The  judging agent is Jennifer Laughran with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, one of the top agencies for juvenile literature.  Jennifer also happens to be one of the agents on my query list.

The prize? There’s no money, but the first place winner gets a critique of 25 pages of their work by the judging agent; second place winner gets a ten page critique.

That’s worth a lot to me and I needed a boost to get moving again with the publishing end of things. I’ve been having so much fun developing my newest project that the Guardian Cats have been neglected. I’m sure they are a bit grumpy and would like a chance to get out and about.

Have you ever entered a writing contest? What was your experience?

Do you think it helped your writing career?

Know any other good contests for middle grade fiction?

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“The work was like peeling an onion. The outer skin came off with difficulty… but in no time you’d be down to its innards, tears streaming from your eyes as more and more beautiful reductions became possible.” ~Edward Blishen

My SCBWI writers’ group had its monthly ‘schmooze’ Saturday morning at Kaffe Latte.  A relatively new group, we’re still exploring how we can best meet each other’s needs, but no matter in what genre each of  us writes, we all love new writing tips and tools. This month we decided to focus on editing and here was my contribution–stuff I keep in my writer’s toolbox.

  • In the book category, an excellent tool is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Professional editors themselves, Renni and Dave teach writers how to apply techniques as an expert editor would. Many examples from the real world illustrate their points about issues such as dialogue, exposition, point of view, interior monologue, passive vs. active writing and more.

If you have reached the point where your story is ready for a good thorough edit, this book will help take your writing up to the next level. By next month’s meeting we all hope to have a copy where we can tackle the formidable task of slicing and dicing our beloved words.

  • The next item in my toolbox is simply listening to the story. Reading it aloud. This is a powerful tool. So many things show up with an oral reading. Not just missed words, but the flow and voice. Besides reading to yourself, there those loveable automatons Microsoft Sam and Michelle, who lurk inside MS Word. Think of them as your own personal robots. They read your ms exactly as it’s written, not as you think you see it. (Find them on the Menu bar>’Tools>Speech)

There are other text-to-speech programs like Natural Readers. Their free version comes only with Sam and Michelle, but you may purchase  individual natural sounding voices with various accents, something to consider if you use it a lot. Some of them sound pretty darn good. I’m a sucker for a British accent, so I especially like Peter (that’s Peet-uh) the male,  British English speaker. Imagine, ‘Peet-uh’ could be the voice for your next audio book.

The major advantage of downloading the free version of Natural Readers is the mini-toolbar that will read web pages for you. I let Microsoft Michelle read my blog post before publishing and she found a number of  mistakes because I could hear them.

  • My next favorite tool is Autocrit. This online editing tool is the only software I’ve found worth the money. It’s simple and does just what it says. When you copy and paste your text into the Autocrit box, your overused words, repeated phrases, and sentence length variations are highlighted. That’s the free version. For $47 (annually) your cut and paste yields additional highlights of repeated words, dialogue tags, first word repeats, names and pronouns, and repeated phrases summary.

I cannot tell you how many times I had what I thought was a really clean edit until I popped it into Autocrit and saw how many times I started a sentence with the same word, or repeated a word three or four times in one paragraph. There are two higher grades versions, which I have not used but include cliche, redundancy, homonym, readability and pacing reports.

  • The next item is not one usually included in the editing process, but one I find invaluable, no matter what stage of writing I might be in. That is to feast on great books, especially in my preferred genre at the moment. I like to think that I absorb some of the flavor of the masters and that they will altruistically sprinkle some of their fairy dust over me as I write.
  • Another trick that works for me is reading my text in a different format. For some reason, I catch more mistakes when viewing my words in a published-looking format, like the “preview” in this blog, or reading it on Autocrit. Changing fonts within your word processing program might also help.  And don’t forget to increase the font to extra large before sending your work out to the world. Those double periods and hidden punctuation marks stand right out in Arial, size 26.
  • Finally, a tool I’ve recently employed and come to love is my storyboard. I love it’s view-a-bility and flexibility. With plot points on sticky notes, I can move them to a different part of the story or destroy them altogether if they are no longer relevant. It’s much easier to move or delete ideas on a sticky note on the wall than it is when they are buried in my manuscript. Once I have a really solid storyline, I plan to put them on index cards.

With the storyboard I can have all the plot points visible at once with the added bonus that it gets me out of my chair and away from the computer.  As it is, I spend too much time hunched over my computer, flipping back and forth between files anyway. The storyboard achieves more than than the writing structure software I tested, there’s no learning curve and it’s virtually free. Having the major plot points laid out, in scroll fashion, creates visual signposts and I can step back and see the whole story in one fell swoop.

That’s all for now. So tell me, what’s in your writer’s toolbox?

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I’ve been researching and testing fiction writing software for the last week or so.  The kind you need when your notes overtake your life and your dining table. Like so.

My new script is in the plot and character development stage and every time I get a brilliant flash I grab a sticky note, a scratch pad or any handy notebook, unless I’m actually sitting at my laptop. The story is starting to get unwieldy with subplots and characters and it was time to come up with a plan.

I used up all my giant yellow index cards on my last book and I thought my new project deserved an upgrade to software. So I ‘googled’ and found that Power Structure had the best reviews. All kinds of published writers swore by it and they couldn’t be wrong, could they?

So I clicked on ‘Buy Now’ ($129.00) praying that it will be worth my money. Here’s my review so far. You have to read the entire pdf manual. It is not very intuitive. I tried that first, but I couldn’t figure it out. So I read the whole manual and tested the Jack and Jill script at the back.

PS is definitely a learning curve. (But then I find QuickBooks too much of a learning curve.) Still, I hung in there. After all, this wasn’t freeware, so I played around with it until….Wouldn’t you know just when I was beginning to get the hang of it, it started getting buggy. I got ‘error notices’, ‘access violations’ and  ‘unable to send’ messages. ‘Terminate program’ had the truly fatal results that the message heralded.

When I lost three hours of work, I gave up. PS tech support is supposed to get back to me, but it hasn’t happened yet. Even if I get the bugs exterminated, I don’t know if I can depend on it…. wondering  if they are going to eat all my beautiful ideas.

So it was back to the index cards.  They were starting to look better all the time.

However, while researching ‘how to use index cards to structure your story (I’m a habitual ‘googler’) I found an interesting piece of organizational software and this was free. FREE! I It’s called Text Block Writer which is a virtual index card program for writers. You can organize any kind of writing the same way you’d use index cards. Rearrange them to your heart’s content. And they can also be exported as a WordDoc RTF which means you can print them out and tape them on cards if you like. It’s easy to use and easy to customize.

But even this wasn’t working for me and I think I know what it is.

Working at the computer doesn’t allow me to see the Big Picture. It keeps me hunched over, peering at the details, when I really needed to see where this story was going and where the plot holes were.

So in full circle I came back to index cards. But my bulletin board was too small. Too square. I wanted something to stretch out on. Give me room to spare so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic.

I love my storyboard!

I thought about this a lot because I wanted something I could easily move if I’m not ready to share my right brain ideas with dinner company. Another requirement was that it wouldn’t leave holes in the wall or be too unsightly. Third and fourth requirements: it had to be cheap and easy.

Voila, this storyboard meets all my standards. Three foam boards and push pins. The push pins are just long enough to go into the wall.The 3 boards are roughly designated as the beginning, the middle and the end of the plot. I love it!

So I’m thinking it’s not a matter of writing software vs. index cards. I think there’s a need for both and I’m hoping to integrate the two tools so I can work out the details on one and have the Big Picture spread out before me on the other.

What do you think?

Let me know how you organize your work. If you use writing structure software, what do you think of your program of choice?

If you use index cards, how do you use them?

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This post is for everyone over 50 who thinks it’s too late to take up writing. I didn’t take it seriously until I saw my 60th  looming on the horizon and I knew if I was going to do anything interesting with this part of my life, I’d better get busy. Fast.

I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. After I got a few chapters into a children’s story I realized I had no idea where I was going and how to get there. So I spent the next year researching, trying to understand the structure of a plot and how to create characters. I studied archetypes and astrological signs; what makes a good protagonist and worthy antagonist.

Since my book, Guardian Cats, is seen through the eyes of cats, I did extensive research into cat behavior, including cat body language, cat whisperers and a whole host of YouTube cat videos. My collage of delicious bookmarks ranges from such diverse studies as The World Egg Throwing Federation, pirates and bullies, raccoons, talking parrots and pet psychics.

My computer, driven to its limits, crashed and burned. I lost all my research, photos and and half my files. I slogged on, determined that I wouldn’t drop the ball. There was no turning back, especially after a year of sleep deprivation that it took to study this fascinating craft.

The more I studied, the more I was hooked. Whenever thoughts crept into my mind like– ‘You’re too late! Too old. You should have kept up your writing when you started years ago. Then you’d be somewhere now…’–I slammed the door in their faces. Threw rotten tomatoes, eggs, anything handy, at those whiny, demonic little beings.

The thing is, my previous attempts at writing were childish and immature…when I was a mere 20, 30, 40 years old.  I like to think that all my living counts for something and that being over the hill a late bloomer might actually help.

Here are a few tips for other late blooming writers.

  • Read like crazy. Haunt libraries, bookstores, Amazon and GoodReads.
  • Study the craft of writing like you are attending a university.  Take it seriously, but keep it fun, if that makes any sense.
  • Throw rotten eggs at your demons.
  • Patience and determination will be your best companions.
  • Write without expectations. Write because you love it.  Like my mentor, Ray Bradbury, says:
“Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

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