Monday, August 31, 2015

NEVER INTERRUPT A WRITER: The Secrets of Survival for a Writer's Significant Other. by Janice M. Wilson

I CONFESS, I panicked this weekend knowing that I had to write a post for this blog and do it quick, yet I had nothing.  In fact, I went to the lake last week to be outdoors; all those picnics, hikes, and lakes put me in the best mood to write.  As I wrung out a few ideas one thing clearly kept me from finishing a first draft - a big fat fly that taunted me every few minutes as I tried to finish brainstorming and eating a picnic lunch.


Try to get my food, yeah - you get swatted away quick.  But interrupt my train of thought? BAM! You’re dead.    Finally, I got him and he met his maker. No more interruptions, I thought. The sunlight beamed through the tree branches, a fish jumped in the water, and the world was at peace again.


Let me put it to you this way, if you live with a writer – first, you have my support and some sympathy.  It takes a special person to keep loving and take the extra time interpreting their mood of the day and still make it through without needing serious therapy yourself.  Perhaps you have to endure one or probably all of these famous traits of writers:


1/         Lets get one thing perfectly clear – YOU WILL END UP IN A STORY OR BOOK AT SOME POINT.  Even if your beloved writer changes your name, town, vocation.  It doesn’t matter.  Somewhere in a tome they write you will see yourself described perfectly and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.  If you pack up and leave now – that act will also be in some ‘cad-who-left-me’ romance novel.  You’re doomed no matter which way. Your soul just becomes immortalized – that's all.   It’s okay. It’s just a story. They still really love you.  Just accept it and be you.

2/         Your writer might be ‘the quiet one’ in that bunch of friends.  It’s not that we are social recluses (well, never mind), it is just that they may have been in the middle of a pivotal chapter and reluctantly stopped it to come to the party, but they know that the rest of that great scene is sitting around their laptop and tapping fingers impatiently waiting for their return to finish it.  How dare they go to a party before it’s done!  Believe me; I’ve been accused of writing in my head at parties sometimes. ‘Uh…….there she goes……writing that book in her head.’ 


3.         If you’re talking to a writer and they suddenly seem to be peering into another world with greater interest, don’t take it too personally.  It’s not that you’re boring.  Actually the opposite, they probably got an idea for a great story or novel from something you said and were off writing it already in their heads. If you can look into their eyes and see her dancing in a fountain for an audience, pat yourself on the back for being an inspiration!


Or maybe, yes, you are boring and your writer is distracted like the recluse in #2.

4.         It could be the folks at the table next to you that gave your story-teller the spin.  Writers are super curious creatures and practice eavesdropping faithfully.


5.         Your shared living space becomes a library.  I lie not!   Show me one writer in this world who doesn’t come with book shelves that are already full and the rest of your furniture somehow artfully balances a new stack of books.  The true addict has stacks on the floor as well, and it’s their secret way of making an obstacle course to find them much later in the night as they pound away on the keys.


4.         They make strange bedfellows.   You could be minding your own business somewhere in the house and suddenly your writer slinks up to you, knocks you down, ravishes you, then kisses you, thanks you, and then goes back to writing.  THAT – my friend is one of the perks!  That means your writer just finished a successful love scene so much that they were consumed with passion and YOU were the lucky bastard nearby. Or sometimes the writer needs you as the guinea pig in a passionate scene act-out, needing to experience first-hand new twists in the tryst, watches your expression with interest, and they often suggest new romantic evening setups.  They need dirt and emotions to describe in their love scenes.  Don’t argue why. Just leave it alone and enjoy the occasional rewards for putting up with them.  You’ll read about it later anyway for a replay.


5.         Feeding your writer can be tricky business.  It’s one extreme or another.  Either your writer is superstitious enough to demand a sacred meal routine to inspire their thought process, and you have to comply or live with the dog in the shed.  Or – at the opposite side of the stick - Meal times may be erratic with some writers.  Writing makes them hungry, and if they were writing for hours, don’t be surprised if dinner time is at 1am.  I am famous for late night trips to the diner after a writing spree. 


Tip:      Pancakes usually do the trick, a ‘safe-food’ peace offering to turn your ravenous and tired zombie back to the placated writer that you loved.


6.         Writers know their way around by navigating with coffee shops or book stores, knowing about every single one within 50 mile radius, maybe 100 miles.  Bet on it. Name a town and they will say ‘Oh! I know a great little bookstore on Main Street!”

New town to explore?  They will sniff one out and YOU WILL VISIT THAT PLACE!


7.         NEVER EVER RUN OUT OF COFFEE IN THE HOUSE!  I can’t even……….just don’t.


8.         They were truly born that way.  Always encourage your writer to keep going. They can’t help it.  REAL WRITERS CANNOT STOP WRITING, even if they suck at it.  Even if they take a break and swear writing to the tenth hell, the characters in their head will climb out of that dark pit and find them again. It could take an hour from then or a few years.  But your word-burner will be found and enslaved again to their journal or laptop.   They suffer strange fits of passionate highs and sea depth lows.  They really can’t help it.  If a scene isn’t going well, it could plague them for days.  And you will dwell in it with them to some extent. 


9.         Writers are better detectives than PI’s and the CIA.  They are deep into research, read novels for tips and most precise dialect changes, weave the slightest goriest details into their tale for effect and can pick up the same little tricks in other novels to often figure out the outcome of the book better than any other avid reader.  They can be nosy and often ask questions about something you may not have thought about.  Let them do it.  Just read their stuff later on to find out why they asked that strange question to the old lady at the gun shop. 


10.       For the same reasons as #9, many writers are good judges of people, probably more attuned than a lot of therapists or cops.  All are very curious, often nosy and watch for the slightest details in books, novels, peoples’ habits to use in novels to keep it real.  And they constantly people watch, studying body language so they can use it later on.  The ‘vibes’ they pick up on people are also found in their stories later.  You have already been analyzed so breath and relax now.


11.       Their minds are like having 100 tabs open on the internet at the same time.  In fact, they probably DO have that many tabs open right now.  Most are for research, and you may find some disturbing topics on them.  Don’t worry about finding some topics regarding cannibalism or gun cleaning 101.  Other tabs are blogs (either your writer’s or other peoples’), some are editing how to’s, and then there are the other 85% of them – those distracted writers’ time wasters while they suffer writers block.


12.       Never put too many expectations on your writer.  Just because they go to a writer’s conference or has lunch with an editor does NOT MEAN THEY WILL GET A BOOK DEAL.  Repeat after me: THAT DOES NOT MEAN THEY WILL WALK AWAY WITH A BOOK DEAL. They may want one.  But it just means that they are trying to perfect their craft, make some connections, have some fun, fume and cry with other writers, probably drink, and then come home inspired to write.  Keep your day job and just smile even if they say their new book idea will put you both in the sweet life.  Don’t believe them.  Learn the industry, encourage them to do their best and network, but never put them into the frying pan before it’s time. 


As wine needs to ‘mature’, so do writers.


13.       Speaking of alcohol, most do drink some.  Some drink a lot.  Some become drunks.  Most just write and cry. Then drink.  It’s either caffeine, booze or both. Truth. Next point.


14.       Most writers have cats.  Most. Or a dog.  I don’t.  I’m not normal but it’s not because I don’t want one.  But because my desk is often a picnic table.  Or my lap.  A café table.  I’m not home much.  But furry friends ALWAYS make it into the stories and novels – with you.


15.       They do often talk to themselves.  It could be to talk out some dialogue, telling themselves how brilliant they are, or telling themselves how pitiful they are and why did they continue to write, or the mumblings of someone insane.  Don’t call the army of white coats yet.  All of the above are normal for writers. 


16.       Chores and life sometimes get in the way of their writing time, or even quality time.  Learn a hobby.  You will spend some time alone.


17.       Which brings me to the final point.  Don’t interrupt them when they have their nose over the laptop, saying or mouthing the words as they type or long-hand, steam coming out their ears and sweat on their brow, they’re crying, drinking or swearing as they write – in that order.  Just let them get that fit out of their system.  They will lose sleep, they will spend money on books and conferences and probably a few self-pubs crates to slowly sell or give away from the garage over their lifetime.  But for the sake of your life and those of loved ones – NEVER KEEP THEM FROM WRITING! 


They will come back to you – I promise.


It can be done – living with a writer.  It’s been sung about, used in clinical studies and statistics, sometimes became the basis of many therapy groups, and even written about. Oh that’s right! That WAS you - immortalized in a novel in some sort of way - believe it!


Now it’s 2am and I’m hungry after writing this. I need some pancakes and a carafe of coffee.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Restless, Irritable and Discontent: On Not Writing

As a maturing writer, I am learning my seasons of discontent, as well as those sizzling times when the juices are flowing, the story and characters are tantamount to my very existence and the words fly blithely onto screen and page.

Born a daughter to a woman whose significance was stripped away at an early age (her mother died and her father farmed the eight kids out to foster homes - then promptly remarried and raised his two new ones) my intellect and verbal abilities were rarely encouraged. Instead I grew up with the axiom “children are meant to be seen and not heard”.

It’s no wonder I moved away after high school, another insignificant waif thrust in to the cruel, uncaring world. Better to find my way alone than under the thumb of a woman bent on stifling any and all magnificence because she had no inkling of her own.

As writers and artistic souls, many of us share this (or something similar) in common. Unless you were fortunate enough to be born to parents who truly get you. And how many of us were?

It’s also little wonder that I followed in my parents’ footsteps, using alcohol to escape. This unconscious attempt to find significance in a bottle ultimately landed me in AA*, where I first heard the expression that cut through my layer-upon-layer of denial: restless, irritable and discontent. It described my malady to a tee.

Twenty-four years later I no longer fight the battle of the booze, but that old feeling can creep upon me, usually signifying a need to be still and know myself. This time it had been seventeen days since I wrote a lick (other than brief morning-scrawls in a journal) and six weeks since I opened a manuscript. Vacation kept the demons at bay, but no sooner was I home and settled (and caught up on sleep) than BAM! I’m squirmy. Annoyed. And vaguely unhappy, though I have no real reason to be. On pondering my condition, I recognize the symptoms: I'm restless, irritable and discontent.

When not writing I’m like an addict in need of a fix: jittery, jumpy, jones-ing. Fill me up, Homer, I’m dry. Only now my solution is to pound one out, not down. One thought. One sentence. One paragraph. One blog post. One anything. Because words are my conduit for connecting. With you. With others. With the world.

But more importantly, words connect me to my Higher Self and the ever-flowing well of Significance.

~ Olivia J. Herrell

*Alcoholics Anonymous

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

[DON'T] Write What You Know

by Charlotte Levine Gruber

Ten years ago I began my writing journey. Crime fiction is my genre of choice, so it was no surprise to me when my emerging story headed down the dark path. 

Hartwig HKD
The Self + The Path by Hartwig HKD

When I approached the soggy middle, I joined a local writers group. The speaker that day was a creative writing professor who said, “Write what you know.”

I thumbed through my pages (yes, a hard copy).
  • My protagonist was a single dad with two teenagers. 
  • Another POV character was a teenage thug. Also male.
  • I had no real clue how they fit together.

I went to the writers group a few more times and learned how to punctuate dialogue, but pretty much didn’t know how to fix my project. I began another story, and this time I followed the professor’s advice and wrote what I know. But of course, what I know isn’t really that interesting. I have an MBA and worked in bankruptcy. But I filled pages and pages of bankruptcy information. 

Good thing I have beta readers and critique partners making snarky comments. Even my sister confessed to skipping those blocks of text.

Now I’ve been writing long enough to question that first visiting professor. He may have been talking about beginning writers, or, gasp, perhaps I misunderstood. 

Because really?

The Boy Who Lived by Beth

Is JK Rowling the boy who lived?
Stephanie Meyers in love with a vampire?
Or EL James… well…let’s not go there.

The Creative Writing Director at Harvard University, Bret Anthony Johnson, argues against writing what you know. He states; 

Read Johnston’s article—it’s enlightening. 

As a genre fiction junkie, I often feel that literary works put out by Iowa graduates are beautiful and memorable but I still prefer Janet Evanovich or Stephen King.

Even so, I happen to agree with Johnston. Writing what you know is not the same as knowing what you write. Research is key, as is transporting yourself to the page. Or more specifically, transferring your emotions to your character, or learning to see the world through their eyes.

Photo by Dawn Ellner

I shelved that first manuscript. In a rewrite of my second project, CODE OF SILENCE, Hank Phillippi Ryan told me, “It’s not enough to describe this scene. You have to BE Andrea.”

Of course, Hank is right. Seeing the world through your character’s eyes allows your reader to do the same. Engaged readers don’t want to put the book down. 

So write what you know how to feel

But the rest? Make it up. And have fun doing it. At a writers' convention Jonathan Mayberry bragged that he got to go to work everyday in his pretend world with his pretend friends. 

And what could be better than that?

Monday, August 24, 2015

News-worthy so Worth a Story

My parents have a Saturday morning routine that hasn't changed as long as I've been alive: wake up and have a cuppa; then go off to the village shop and get the papers; section by section, devour those papers by poring over every story from world news to economics and entertainment. Every article gets guzzled. I never understood it myself as I found most news tedious. I'd flip through and ignore a ton of stories and just read the odd one or two.

Now I love the news and reading about the world, excepting still the economics section which bores me to tedious fact-clobbering death. Some news moves me so much that I've even had to stop reading some news articles on the way to or from work in case they flood the bus in tears. The news is full of terrifying amazing and again terrifying stories of real humans and the world they inhabit, all designed to tug at our emotions. A journalist might work on the reader's worries or fears or indignation or empathy or nostalgia through their presentation of stories. If these real life stories can evoke these feelings in the news-reader, something inspired by them and capturing part of the real world feel of them too can maybe do the same for the fiction-reader.

The news is full of possible inspiration and a few of my story ideas were triggered by the reading of a true story in the paper. However, there are some dangers in this type of inspiration. Take for example this story:

Narendra Dabholkar: India's Maharashtra state bans black magic after killing

I found this story fascinating and it led me to read more and more on the idea of modern day black magic and superstitions and the various crimes that came hand in hand with them. Tiny bits and pieces of different stories ended up rolling around together and forming a tiny nugget of an entirely new story. In the end, the final story ended up being nothing like the original inspiration but the thought process of researching this story had led me to create a whole other one.

Despite the story having changed so much, I felt caution was needed when using any idea formed from a true life situation that had actually happened to an individual and a community and a country. I worried that if the story were too close to reality, it could somehow offend or hurt the people who lived it or be seen as theft of someone's own life story. These worries floated round my mind:

  • Any story inspired by news is more than just a story as it has actually happened to someone, so it must be dealt with sensitively. In this story, a man died and a family lost a family member. Also, a community struggled with this violence and the social implications of these changes. It would be horrid for them to feel like their personal tragedy had been abused or misrepresented or stolen. I decided then that any inspiration that came from the news would focus on the situation, never the person.
  • Also, this story was connected to people's religious beliefs; always a sensitive topic. Therefore, I felt that really in-depth study around the article and the background of the story and the society it was set in was essential even if that information or that story itself might not be used. To avoid causing offence, I felt that I needed to really understand as much about the real story as possible. This could hopefully help avoid giving accidental offence as well as help me write a more authentic situation.
  • And more than anything else, I tried to remind myself that this news story was only an INSPIRATION, a trigger to my own idea rather than a taking of someone else's idea. And that I had no right to take an entire story or an entire situation and transfer it to my story. The news item was the centre of my brainstorming but never the centre of my newly-created story. It was important to remember that I was still creating my own fiction, not stealing someone else's biography.

So...keep your eyes open and your news-brain well informed. 
Other than the economics pages, the news might just inspire you.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stranger than Fiction?

I think we can all agree that fiction and reality are two totally different pair of shoes - as in, Manolo-Blahnik-I-will-break-my-ankle-and-say-thank-you versus those ratty woolly slippers you've been meaning to throw out for the past eon or two.

*** Interlude: Be honest now, which of those two immediately made you think of reality? ***

Putting aside true-story documentary-style writing and the realm of academia, fiction is what people writing books deal with, day in, day out (and I'm not including memoirs in that list, because I'm rather sure some or even most of those involve a judicious bit of fiction, too)(Am I being too cynical there? If yes, sorry)(no offence to those of you writing memoirs, of course). 

Writers get their cues, their inspiration, from all over the place, be it flights of fancy or, yes, reality. But no work of fiction is ever the same as reality, because let's face it, reality is either too strange or absurd to believe (I'll get back to that in a bit) or too boring to be worth putting down on paper. A good writer will know or at least learn how to pare down reality to those crucial bits that make up the backbone of a story, and then work from there - because quite frankly, the minutiae of daily life are not (in general) what people want to read about. A story has, as my primary school teacher drummed into us, a beginning, a middle and an end, and anything that does not belong to one of those or lead from one to the other is very likely superfluous to the whole thing. Dialogue is only good if it furthers either plot or character development/understanding, scenes should only be included if they have a point to make. 

That's not how it happens in real life. 

*** And no, before you ask, beginning, middle and end don't absolutely have to be in order. We're talking fiction here, remember? ***

On the other hand, life is sometimes stranger (or, like I said, more absurd) than fiction. The holiday I've just come back from is a good example - I went to Bali with a group of friends, or at least that was the plan. We ended up on something of an odyssey thanks to a volcanic ash cloud courtesy of some Sumatran volcano. First our flight was cancelled (right about at the time we were at the airport to get checked in), then there were no flights except one to Jakarta, so we went there (flights were leaving from Jakarta to Bali, which seems weird given the ash cloud thing but whatever) and spent the hours waiting for our flight there finding one from Jakarta to Bali. We spent the night at an airport hotel in Jakarta (Google maps time: 10 mins from airport to hotel; Jakarta time: 1 hr from airport to hotel, right through some rather scary favela-type housing areas). The plane we managed to get booked on to Bali was supposed to leave at 8am-ish, but actually left at about 3pm (thank you again, ash cloud). I think we spent about 9 hrs at Jakarta domestic airport, during which we had to treck up and down a set of stairs again and again because the only board with flight info was downstairs and all the waiting area-type places were upstairs. They also managed to call out our flight but actually meant to call out a different flight number, so we rushed to the gate only to be told that the airport system (!!!) had the wrong flight number recorded and no, no matter what the airport website said, our flight had not just left.... and don't even get me started on the boat trip from Bali to one of the Gili islands!! 

*** Am I ranting? Probably...sorry....***

Long story short, our trip (and don't worry, we did manage to have a great time in spite of the series of unfortunate events) was one for the books. HOWEVER...that doesn't mean that writing down what happened makes a good story for anything other than a dinner conversation. It was merely a series of events, however annoying, and not a story in a fiction writing kind of way. Writing it down as is might be therapeutic - and rather amusing in retrospect - but even in terms of travel writing it lacks something - wait for it - namely a storyline. Things were happening, but they were happening TO us (the main characters, in this case). A story is not (only) made of things happening TO the main character, they are about what the main character does or feels or whatever whilst things are happening. 

Reality may throw fiction-esque situation at us, but that just makes us part of the population of planet earth. Things happen. Turning real situations into fiction, now there's something writers can do (some better than others). Find the backbones of what makes reality interesting, put some flesh to that, make sure it all fits together in a coherent way and voilà, a story! None of that reality mumbo jumbo. 

***Manolos all the way, baby!***

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ten Steps to an Emotionally Engaging Character

Literary agents pass on submissions for all sorts of reasons. For me, it usually comes down to the writing, more specifically, the characters themselves and how well I am able to connect with them. Having that emotional engagement with the characters makes me care what happens to them and keeps me turning pages.

The most common reason why I cannot connect with a protagonist is because the character does not seem “real” enough for me to relate to him or her. In other words, the character must have a certain degree of complexity, and a deeper or more layered way of thinking and acting to comes off as authentic and unique. Otherwise, the character will appear shallow and one-dimensional. He or she will seem more like a stock character pulled out of a TV show or movie, or worse, a caricature of a person.

The key to creating a more complex and convincing protagonist is to understand your character on an intimate level. Below is a 10-step writing exercise designed to help you dive deeper into the inner workings of your character’s personality:

Step 1: Create a tagline for the character. This is similar to what you would see in a personal profile of someone on social media. Just like a social media profile, it should be relatively short, reveal a main aspect of the character and her interests or what she desires most or aspires to become. 

Step 2: Write up a personal history of the character. Start with the basics and leave room to add more as more about the character comes to you. A good place to begin is with the character’s family history, including cultural and social roots. Then expand further. Are there any family issues or secrets? What about significant or pivotal childhood events? Think of what events or relationships might’ve influenced or shaped the character’s decisions in the story – perhaps an alcoholic or abusive parent, or a sibling that drowned or was murdered.

Step 3: Identify in general terms, your character’s type. Think in categories, archetypes, and even in stereotypes. Commercial fiction will often require a character to fill a role that fits a category – like the nosy mother-in-law or the funny, buddy sidekick or the recovering alcoholic detective. Once you have a generalized aspect of your character, make him or her more interesting and unique by adding traits and behaviors that might emphasize, stretch, bend or go against type.

Step 4: Describe the character’s morality make-up. Is the character principled or is he untrustworthy?  Is she thoughtful and logical about her decisions or impulsive and irrational? Is he empathetic and kind or indifferent and cruel to others? Is he honest to fault? Or perhaps ruthless and ambitious? Or maybe ethical and heroic?

Step 5: List what your character’s dreams and aspirations are.  Include not just career or life goals. Also include personal goals. For example, you might have a character who wants to stop a terrorist plot but he also wants to some day make amends with his estranged brother.

Step 6: Describe difficulties in the character’s life. What inner demons are making him or her struggle to get though the day, or deal with others? These difficulties might manifest themselves in the character’s life by making him drink too much or make her unable to commit to a relationship or contribute to his depression.  

Step 7: List the strengths and weaknesses of the character. What skills does she utilize the best or what traits help her the most?  What are the weaknesses or deficiencies in skills or behavior that come out most often or at the worst moments?

Step 8:Write about an incident, relationship or anything from the character’s upbringing that either directly or indirectly creates a behavioral or personality issue for him or her now, such as a debilitating shyness as a result of being shamed or dismissed as a child, or an underlying anger because of being abandoned by a father.

Step 9: Identify the cultural or environmental elements that might influence your character.  What ethnic or cultural traditions does he practice? What kind of sports does she play or watch? What television shows are on his DVR? Does she prefer to be in nature or the city? Is he conservative or liberal? Does she go to ballets and symphonies or rock concerts and baseball games? 

Step 10:After you have completed the nine steps, take stock of what you’ve written down. You should now have a better, more nuanced vision of your character. Continue to add to what you have written about your character, as you work on your story. Your notes will help you make decisions in what your character will do or think when situations arise in the story, identify the character’s personal stakes and bring out your character’s arc.

By the end of this exercise, you will know your character on a more meaningful level.  He will have a broader range of actions and reactions, because you will have a better understanding of his beliefs and morality, and his personality flaws and strengths. Your character will have a compelling inner life with tangible fears and real aspirations. He’ll have interesting quirks and eccentricities. Most of all, you’ll have a more emotionally engaging story that will keep readers invested in seeing your character’s journey to the end.