Tuesday, 29 April 2014 05:26

Making Lists As A Writer's Tool

 When I first joined a writing group, one of their favorite exercises was freewriting to a given topic. (Or timed writing, as Natalie Goldberg calls it in Writing Down The Bones.) Someone would say, ‘write about a childhood fear’ or ‘a recurring dream’ or whatever, then hit the timer for 10 minutes and off we’d all go. Everyone, that is, except me.

While everyone else was writing madly, I’d sit there with a dumb look on my face, struggling to think of a single thing to write about. By the time I finally did think of something, the ten minutes was nearly up. Yet the minute I walked out the door, dozens of ideas popped into my head!

To remedy this, I began slipping in a preliminary step of brainstorming a list of suitable topics before I began. Somehow this took the pressure off, as well as giving me a choice of memories to write about. But I’d always remember more and usually better topics after the writing session was over.

In the end I started saving my lists. Whenever I thought or heard of a freewriting topic I’d write it on a page in a notebook and add my thoughts and memories as they came to me. (For a list devotee this is sheer heaven. Imagine an entire A4 notebook filled with nothing but pages of lists!)

I found this exercise extremely interesting. It struck me that one person’s list of their loves, hates, fears, regrets, dreams, etc is totally different from anyone else’s. These traits and memories are what define us and make us who we are – the sum of all our experience. And because they provide such tremendous insight, I found inventing lists for my fictional characters a great way to get to know them.

Since I first started keeping lists, my original A4 notebook has grown to two, soon to be three. Keeping lists of my memories, traits and experiences means I always have something to write about. If ever I want to do timed writing practice, I just open my notebook to one of the pages and choose a topic.

Here are just some of the headings for the lists in my books:

Loves, Hates, Fears, Regrets, Successes, Failures, Strengths, Weaknesses, Quirks, Superstitions, Interests, Hobbies, Goals,
Treasured Possessions        Risks I’ve Taken
Recurring Dreams        Nightmares
Obsessions            Unforgettable Places
Unforgettable Sights        Coincidences
Childhood Toys        Dumb Things I Did As A Kid
Childhood Fears        Childhood Dreams
Childhood Illnesses        Labels I’ve Had
People Who Visited Our House When I Was Young
Expressions My Family Used         
Things I Value In Myself and Others
Things I Believe         Prejudices I Have
Things I Collect        Psychic Experiences
Times I Acted Heroically    ‘Me’ Things
Haunting Experiences        Firsts

Thursday, 22 May 2014 01:41

Another Great Use for Lists in Writing

When I first started writing fifteen years ago someone offered me the usual advice: write what you enjoy reading. I thought that was pretty obvious – who would write a book they wouldn’t want to read? So I didn’t give it very much thought.

Fast forward ten years (and 8 unpublished novels) later, and I again heard that phrase put a bit differently – write the book you would love to be reading. Maybe it was the pile of rejections I had by then collected, but the statement pulled me up this time and I sat down and gave it some serious thought.

I imagined myself walking into a book store and seeing my most recent creation there on the shelf beside the books of my favorite authors, and I asked myself, which one would I buy? I’m not talking voice or style here, just the story itself. Which would I enjoy reading most – the one I had written, or the one some total stranger had written?

The answer stunned me. I wasn’t sure.

The fact I even hesitated blew me away. I’m a writer. When I put a story together I’m in control of every aspect of it – the setting, the characters, what happens to them, how it all ends. With that much power, how could I fail to create a story I loved more than any other?

The answer that came to me seemed a bit crazy: maybe I didn’t know what I loved. I could obviously recognize it when I saw it in someone else’s work, but maybe I needed to clarify those elements before I could incorporate them into my own.

With this as my goal, I sat down and wrote out lists of ‘my favorites’ – novels, films, protagonists, villains, settings, dramatic situations, most moving scenes, etc. Anything and everything related to storytelling.

When I finished, I went through my lists and defined what I loved about each item. Then I looked for recurring elements, clues that might lead me to even deeper levels of personal meaning. In some cases I had to look closely. (Aliens and The Client might not seem to have much in common but I assure you, for me, they do.)

What I ended up with in doing this exercise was a trove of treasures. These at last were my loves defined. These were the elements of theme, character, plot and setting that had deep personal meaning for me.

Looking back at my earlier novels, I could see I’d incorporated some of these elements into every one. But never had I combined them all into one story.

So that’s what I did. I took all my favorite elements – my favorite character types, my favorite theme, my favorite setting, etc – put them together and said, ‘Right, this is what I have to work with. Create a story using these elements.’

The result was Run To Me. And from the moment it began to take shape in my mind it was my favorite of any story I’d ever written.

The moral for me? Only by clearly defining what moves me can I communicate it to others.

Thursday, 05 December 2013 00:49

How I Outline

Before continuing on from last week's post, I'll just revamp the main reasons I prefer to outline my novels before writing them:

Like a spinner working with carded wool, having an outline means my story is far more likely to flow freely once I start writing it. Maintaining that flow is the number one reason I choose to outline. I know from experience what happens when I lose my momentum when writing a story. Having to stop and work out some element of the plot yanks me totally out of my creative zone. And once I’m stalled, the doubts creep in: Is this story really that great? Can I do it justice? Will my editor like it?

Another reason outlining works better for me is because my stories often have several plot threads going on at once involving separate groups of characters and I simply can’t remember what everyone’s doing! Outlining first allows me to plot each group’s journey through the story separately and then weave them together in a workable sequence of alternating scenes.

A third reason I prefer to outline is the simple fact I don’t get that many truly original ideas for my stories. More often than not I need to spend some extra time shaping my idea into something different. If I just sat down and wrote a story based on my first germ of an idea, I’d probably end up writing a story that’s already been told.

How I outline

I like to think that my stories have equally powerful plot and characters. But at the outlining stage I focus on plot and develop my characters as I go. I basically adhere to Hitchcock’s advice: ‘First decide what your characters must do, then provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they would do it.’

There are two questions I continually ask myself as I’m outlining my story:
   1. What character would be most challenged by the situation I’ve created?
   2. What situation would most challenge the character I have in mind?

Answering the question about character gives me ideas for the plot, and exploring the question about situation gives me ideas about my characters. In this way my plot and characters are like two seedlings planted side by side that continually intertwine as they grow.

Outlining RUN TO ME

When I was creating the plot for RUN TO ME, initially I knew only that my heroine was going to save the life of a runaway boy. That was the idea I started with.

Considering the danger the boy was in, (being chased by killers) that would have been a difficult enough task for my heroine. But by repeatedly asking myself, ‘What would make that situation even more challenging?’ I found new dimensions not only to my character but the plot as well.

In my heroine’s case I gave her a similar experience in her past – she’d once had to protect her own son and failed, leaving her crippled with guilt over her only child’s death. To then be faced with that situation again, even involving a total stranger, it would have a far greater impact on her.

Adding this element made the story more compelling to me. But by pushing even further and asking the question again – how can this situation be even worse for my character? – I came up with another plot element: not only does the heroine carry this dark secret from her past, she is still adversely affected by it in that she suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – to the point she can barely function in the world.

So by repeatedly asking these questions in the plotting stage, I moved from ‘a woman helping a boy in danger’, to ‘a damaged recluse, in hiding from the world, forced to relive the very experience that drove her to that state – the greatest challenge she could possibly face that will push her to the very brink of insanity.’

After going through this process with the heroine, I moved to my second main character, ten-year-old Zack, and asked that same question – bad enough he’s a child being chased by killers, what could make that situation even worse for him?

Answer: Zack is an orphan who’s been shunted from one foster home to the next. For years he’s been desperate for a mother’s love and now suddenly he’s presented with a ‘mother’ who seems to adore him and is prepared to give her life to protect him. The only catch is, she thinks he’s her dead son, Jesse; which means she doesn’t love him at all. To be given this taste of his deepest desire yet denied the reality, ups the emotional stakes for Zack.

Lastly, I repeated the process with my hero, Chase. As he’s a doctor dedicated to helping people, I decided what would make things hardest for him would be to present him with an ethical dilemma – help the woman he’s falling in love with even though he can see she’s unstable, or do things ‘by the book’ and run the risk of her being killed.

To make this situation even worse for the hero, I gave him an experience in his past where he was faced with a similar choice – he’d once tried to help a victim of abuse through the ‘proper’ channels and in that instance the woman had died. This time, because it’s a woman he cares for on a personal level, his decision is all the more agonizing.

These were the questions I explored in creating my outline for RUN TO ME. I firmly believe this preliminary stage helped me get the most from my original idea. If I’d simply sat down and started writing, I doubt I would’ve come up with these extra dimensions to my plot and characters. Or, if I did, they would’ve occurred to me so far into my first draft, I’d have had to go back and rewrite a lot of earlier material.

So while it takes some extra time initially, for my money, outlining is well worth the effort. Spinning my yarns becomes so much easier with a bit of thoughtful preparation first.

Thursday, 09 January 2014 23:12

Notes To Self

I have pin-up boards all over my work room where I post what I call ‘Notes To Self’. Some are quotes from other writers or books I’ve read, but most are things I’ve discovered the hard way through trial and error. I change these notes from time to time as my needs vary and over the years have built up quite a collection. Here are a few from the file I’ve kept:

Write every day. Don’t wait to be inspired. Inspiration most often comes when you’re already writing, when the door to your creative mind is already open.

The conditions will never be perfect to write. Stop waiting till you have more time, or the kids leave home, or you quit your job, or the weather’s cooler, or whatever. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick to it.

Give yourself a place to write, someplace where you won’t be interrupted – a room, even just the end of a table where you can leave your papers and notes laid out in a way that will lure you back again. Make this place yours, your personal sanctuary. Fill it with things that inspire you. Go there the same time everyday and write.

If others in your life won’t allow you time to write, remind them that you’ll be a better partner, parent, relation, or friend if you have an outlet for your creativity. The first person who has to take your writing seriously is you.

Passion is contagious. So is apathy. If your goal is to write well, surround yourself with like-minded people. Hang out with people with low standards and before you know it those standards are yours. But being with others who are enthusiastic, willing to take risks and dedicated to improving their work, will inspire you to do the same.

Just a few thoughts to start the new year.

When I was a college student studying the violin I fell in love with Bach. To this day his set of Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas is my favorite music ever written for the instrument. My one regret – he only wrote six of them.

Back in the days I was learning these pieces I so wished there were more of them, I even tried composing some myself. What would Bach sound like if he were writing today, I asked myself and proceeded to have a go. With limited success I might add.

Fast forward thirty-odd years and here I am doing the same thing with novel writing. Only this time it’s Alfred Hitchcock I’m emulating.

I have every movie Hitch ever made and have lost count of the number of times I’ve watched his classics: Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, etc.

I so wish Hitch was alive today creating more masterpieces I realize I’ve been unconsciously attempting to satisfy my longing for his work by writing those stories myself.

Whether I succeed by others’ standards I can’t say. But imagining my latest work-in-progress as a Hitchcock movie has become the standard by which I judge its potential, its artistic litmus test.

I try to visualize how Hitch would present my story on screen, right down to the lighting and quirky camera angles. If I get to a scene I think Hitch would have cut, I know I need to change or delete it. But if I know I’d be happy watching the movie, I’m confident people will enjoy reading the story. (Hopefully I have more success at this than I did with Bach.)

Is it wrong to emulate the artists we love? I don’t believe so. Copy, yes; emulate, no. In fact I don’t believe any artist can help but be influenced by those they admire. Everything we take in all becomes part of the unconscious ‘compost heap’ from which our own work grows and flowers.

And for emerging artists testing their creative wings, the shoulders of former masters is a great place to leap from.

Thursday, 10 April 2014 05:38

Surviving Rejection

Before my first novel, Run To Me, was accepted by Random House, I acquired nearly 100 rejections for eight prior novels. Here are some thoughts that helped me keep going through those difficult times:

The best way to survive rejection is to enjoy writing for its own sake. Love the process, not the payoff.

To get anywhere at anything in life you have to take risks. Submit your work. Rejections are the writer’s badges of honor. Wear them with pride.

The ones who never fail are the ones who never try. View each rejection as proof you are actively pursuing your goal.

One way to ease the sting of rejection is to always have something ‘out there’. When one piece gets knocked back your hopes for the others will help keep you going.

Believe it or not there is an upside to not being published. The minute you sign a contract you have deadlines, revisions, promotion obligations, and reader expectations to live up to. When you haven’t been published you can write what you want, when you want and take as long as you like to do it.

Write through everything. No matter what mood you’re in or whatever else is happening in your life. If you continue to do what you love, you give rejection less power over you.

These days many publishers like their authors to produce a book a year. If you write slowly this can be a problem. But if you have a few older manuscripts stockpiled, you may be able to reach your quota by revising instead of starting from scratch. So think of those rejected manuscripts not as failures, but as planes on the runway ready to take off once you do get a publishing deal.

Don’t give up. Believe those agents and editors who tell you this is a subjective business. They aren’t just saying that to soften the blow of rejection. The book one agent vowed was unpublishable has more than once been snapped up by another and become a best seller.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014 14:09

Critiquing Groups, part 1: What To Consider

I’ve been part of an active critiquing group for the last 14 years. I can’t tell you how much my partners have helped me. Here are just some of the many benefits my group provides me:

Fresh pairs of eyes to catch the mistakes I will always miss no matter how many times I check my work!

Feedback on whether what I’m trying to say is actually coming across on the page

Ideas and inspiration regarding my plots

Brainstorming and problem solving when I hit a snag

Encouragement when I’m feeling down

A kick in the butt when I’m being lazy

A passion shared to make writing less lonely

Crit groups can definitely have a downside and I consider myself lucky to have found a good one. The longer I do it, the more I realize that critiquing is an art and even with the best intentions feedback can do more harm than good.

The following are points to consider if you’re thinking of joining or forming a crit group:

#1 Be Ready

If you’re just starting out with writing don’t be in a hurry to join a crit group. Give yourself time to gain confidence and solidify your author voice. Experiment with all types of writing – journaling, short story, essay, blogging, poetry, etc. The good news is if you’re an avid reader you’ll have already picked up a lot about the craft of writing that will naturally find its way into your own work.

When you do feel ready to take the plunge…

#2 Choose your critiquing partners carefully.

Like any important relationship you need to be able to trust your partners. Creativity is a fragile thing and your confidence as a writer can be damaged by thoughtless or harsh criticism.

Wherever possible ‘test drive’ a group before committing to it. Even better, form your own by hand picking writers you trust and respect and who seem on the same wavelength as you.

Start by approaching some fellow writers and asking if they’ll look at a few pages of your work. Once you’ve gotten a bit of feedback identify the people who make you feel good about your writing and the ones who make you want to give up.

This doesn’t mean to seek out only people who tell you your work is great. Just find the ones who give you feedback in a way that will keep you fired up about writing. Like great teachers, good crit partners are hard to find but well worth searching for.

#3: Choose partners who write in the same genre you do. (Or not.)

Some fiction genres – mystery, fantasy, and romance in particular – have specific reader expectations. People who write and/or read these genres will be most familiar with their unique requirements and best able to tell you if you’re fulfilling them. On the other hand having partners who write in different genres means you’ll be getting a variety of perspectives on your work.

#4: Keep It Small

Because my crit group only has 4 members, I’m not overwhelmed by masses of conflicting feedback on my work. It also means I can devote more time and thought to my partners’ work without cutting into my own writing time. Another big plus of a small group is it reduces the risk of meetings turning into talk-fests.

#5 Choose partners with the same level of commitment you have.

If you’re serious about writing and improving your skills, seek out people who feel the same. People committed to showing up to meetings, thoughtfully reading the work of others, encouraging them, helping them stay focused on their goals and who are equally keen to improve their own skills, both as a writer and a critic. Passion is contagious but so is apathy. Surround yourself with passionate people and ride the wave of your group’s collective enthusiasm.

# 6 Choose partners with similar writing goals

If you’re just after feedback on your writing this issue isn’t a must. But if your aim is to be published, you’ll be doing other things in addition writing. Having partners who share your dream of publication means you can help each other keep an eye out for publishers, write query letters, practice pitches, compose synopsis, and even attend conferences together.

# 7 Protect Your Muse

Once you’ve joined a critiquing group continually monitor if you’re getting what you need from its members. A good crit group should be the wind beneath your creative wings, encouraging you to believe in yourself, take creative risks and move past rejections. If you constantly come away from meetings feeling discouraged and depressed it’s time to look elsewhere for support. Avoid like the plague:

people who give only negative feedback and never say what’s good about your work

people who try to rewrite your work in their own words

people who criticize just to show how much they know or make themselves look superior

anyone with low standards who thinks ‘close enough is good enough’

Next post: Critiquing Groups, part 2: Giving and Receiving Feedback



Monday, 25 November 2013 01:05

Why I Outline Before I Write

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried ‘pantsing’ - writing a novel 'by the seat of your pants' without plotting first. It sounds so wonderfully free and creative the concept sucked me in time after time. But after writing myself into countless dead ends, I’ve finally accepted that it isn’t my process. To get where I’m going when writing a novel, I need a map.

To me, the best comparison for outlining a novel before you write it is carding wool before you spin it. Anyone who has ever hand spun wool knows what a mess most raw fleeces are when you get them. Straight off the sheep’s back they’re full of dirt, seeds, knots, grease and all manner of foreign objects. Carding the wool first opens up the fibres and gets rid of most of that unwanted debris.

I’m not saying it isn’t frustrating sometimes. I’ve got this fabulous project in mind that I’m dying to get to and I have to hold off and do all this extra preparation first. But here’s the thing: if I do take the time to prepare the wool first, when I finally sit down to spin the yarn, the spinning just flows. There are no knots to untangle, no grit to pick out, nothing unwanted to jam up the works. It all just pours out in one steady stream.

Well, my story ideas are often just like a raw fleece – so tangled and full of needless material I have to do some preliminary work before I can even see what I’ve got. Sure it takes time. But, for me, the pay-offs are more than worth it. Because, just like carding that filthy fleece, outlining my story ‘opens things up’ and gets rid of all the rubbish that shouldn’t be there.

A difference in mind-set

For me, plotting a story and writing it are two very different functions. The first is a logical linear process, the second an immersion in creative flow. I seem to work best if I can keep these two actions totally separate.

When plotting, I’m constantly going back and forth, asking questions; creating, changing and deleting scenes; moving things around, determining where my turning points belong. But when all that’s done and I actually start to write the story, my goal is to remain fully absorbed in the world of my characters. I can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to think about plot.

In the plotting stage, I explore and develop my initial idea. I determine who my characters are, what motivates them, the obstacles they face, and decide how this will play out in the story – the all-important sequence of events.

What I end up with is a detailed scene-by-scene outline, a road map I know will get me from A to B. I know my story now contains all the required elements of structure because I can see them in this mini overview. From this point on I don’t have to think about the plot any more. All I have to do is sit down and write it.

While this may sound as though I leave nothing to chance, that isn’t the case. I rarely get through my first outline without changing things. Once I actually start writing the story, new ideas always present themselves which requires me to redraft my outline.

That’s perfectly okay. The purpose of my outline isn’t to keep me rigidly bound to a pre-set plot but merely to give me a path to follow. The bottom line is, when I get up in the morning I have to be able to go to my desk knowing what I’ll be writing that day. If I don’t, I just end up wasting too much time.

Next week I'll continue the outlining theme with a post on How I Outline.

Saturday, 14 November 2015 05:04

Self Talk - On Choosing A New Writing Project

Sometimes in my journal I talk to myself. I give myself pep-talks when I’m down, friendly reminders of lessons learned, guidance as though from an outside party when I’m facing a difficult decision or problem.

The following is an entry I wrote back in September 2014 when I was searching for my next novel to write.

You have to know what moves you. What frightens, horrifies, delights and angers you? Put that in your story. What is the worst thing you can imagine living through? Make it happen to one of your characters.

Don’t just assemble plots that ‘work’ with high points here and conflict there. With everything arranged as it should be according to some bestseller formula. Dig deep. Find out what affects you as a person. Those are the things that will affect your readers.

When I wrote Run To Me I explored some of my deepest fears. What would it be like to lose a child? To lose my sanity? To not be believed by anyone? To not even know myself if what I thought was true actually was?

I realize the hold I have on my sanity only exists because life has been kind. What if it hadn’t been? If I’d lived what I put my characters through would I still be here? Would I have found the strength they did? The courage to sacrifice? Would I have had their resilience?

That’s what authors write to find out. And why readers read the stories they’ve written.

When I first started writing I kept calling the chapters of my novels ‘movements’ and the pacing ‘tempo’. I didn’t do this intentionally, those words just slipped out. But I guess it’s easy to see the connection.

What’s perhaps not as easy to see are some of the other parallels I’ve found between writing and playing an instrument:

#1 Practice something and you’ll get better at it.

This was possibly the greatest gift music ever taught me. That if I work on something every day my skill will improve. It’s something I’ve carried over to every other aspect of my life.

The results of practicing are easy to see when you’re learning an instrument. There’s a passage in the piece you’re working on that’s currently beyond you but after days of focused practice it starts to improve. You know you’ve progressed because today you can play that passage and yesterday you couldn’t.

It’s not as easy to see how your writing is getting better. Sometimes the only way is to pull out something you wrote months or years ago and compare it to your current work, but even then it’s all subjective. Still, the one thing that can be guaranteed is you won’t improve if you don’t keep at it.

#2 Patience and determination

When I first got to college (Eastman School of Music) I wasn’t a very good violinist. In fact I was one of the worst ones there. The first week of classes the head of the string department, Millard Taylor, came up to me in the hall and told me (in front of all my new friends) that the only reason I’d been accepted was because the school hadn’t filled its quota of violinists for that year.

My friends were appalled on my behalf. But I eventually came to understand that Taylor did me a tremendous favor. He made me angry. I thought I was pretty hot just getting into a place like Eastman and possibly I would’ve cruised along without really applying myself. Maybe he saw that and said what he did deliberately to help me. In any case he snapped me out it. I started to work like I never had before.

The payoffs didn’t come in the first year. Or the second. And there were many times I was reduced to tears at the sheer frustration of being overlooked and discounted as someone who would never excel. (Another similarity to writing!) But ultimately my efforts paid off.

#3 Talent is over-rated

I didn’t just learn this one at Eastman but from my more than twenty years of teaching violin. So many times I’ve seen kids with little ‘natural’ ability progress well beyond ‘gifted’ ones simply because they practiced harder.

When someone has to struggle and work for every advancement, they end up taking obstacles in their stride. Students to whom things have always come easily, often give up when the going gets tough.

#4 Bouncing back

I remember once getting really depressed about my playing. I thought to myself, ‘No matter how much I practice, no matter how good I get, there will always be someone better than me.’

In the end I found an answer to that one: ‘Just because we can all speak, doesn’t mean we all have the same thing to say.’

I learned it’s not about being ‘the best’, it’s about acquiring the skills to communicate what’s inside you. What you learn when you practice your scales and exercises is the technique of your instrument. You’re learning how to speak the language of music. But once you’ve learned it, you alone decide what you will say.

So it doesn’t matter if someone has a better technique than you. (Or more style than you as a writer.) As long as you are proficient enough to communicate, you can and will say things no-one else can.

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