Monday, September 29, 2008

Do you use outlines?

James Patterson creates such a detailed plot synopsis that someone else can write his first draft. Dostoyevsky was big on outlines too.  But what about normal people? There are upsides and downsides. If you have a great outline, you'll know what parts of your plot don't work before you've already written 200+ pages. You'll also be able to quickly manage multiple plot lines without your head exploding. (Always a plus.) The bad part? Oh, you can spend years perfecting a plot and never get around to writing.  (Perfect is pathological, by the way.)

How to outline? Glad you asked. You can use index cards. Pleasingly tactile and fun to stack. Use different colors for different plot lines.  If you like tools, try Keynote, a small free app that lets you organize notes into outlines. 
My personal favorite is yWriter--another free bit of software that makes you pity those who buy software. You can organize by scene or by chapter. You can write inside your outline. Best of all, you can print your outline on...little cards! ( Maybe this is Patterson's secret weapon.)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Writing with a gem-like flame

My apologies to Walter Pater. His hard gem-like flame was much more aesthetic and lovely than mine. Mine is more of a welder's flame-- a practical torch.
Let us judge our writing as we would a diamond , a gem both beautiful and useful, as the stone embodies the qualities we want in our writing:

1. Clarity. Ask yourself if your purpose is clear to the reader. Does each sentence make sense grammatically?Is it clear what is happening at each stage of the plot?

2. Color. How's that style? Are your words vivid and sparkling? Have you considered who is reading your work? Does your style suit your audience?

3. Cut. Every subject has potential facets. Have you brought our the most important points and made them stand out? Or have you buried the reader in details that detract from your point?

4. Carat. Larger isn't always better. The most perfect length for a piece of writing is dependent on its purpose. (A novel usually fits comfortably around 200 pages, while a op-ed may only be 500 words.) If you have no unnecessary words, each theme has been explored to a satisfying depth, and there is no repetition, the length is probably correct for the material. If the genre requires a different size, then you may need to adjust the material.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Do you need a magazine to write a book?

No, but it certainly can help to have some glossy photos of successful writers arriving in your mailbox periodically to boost your motivation. Is it worth the cost? I'd say yes, having just resubscribed to two writing magazines: Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers. Both have author interviews; both cover a wide range of writing; and both have lots of information about workshops, contests and other inducements to the writing life. So, which one is the best bet for you? Pick up a few back issues of each and examine the covers. Do notice anything? On the cover of Writer's Digest, the author is smiling. Poets and Writers cover subjects favor a more austere expression. The same can be said for interior articles. If you are a rather academic stylist, jaded by workshops and modern fiction in general, grab up Poets and Writers. If you are excited, hopeful and determined to write for the most current market, go for Writer's Digest. Better yet, shell out a few more dollars and get both. Then practice your expressions in a mirror in case you are asked to be on the cover of either of them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Truth is Scarier than Stephen King

I just finished Duma Key, King's latest. Now, I love Stephen King with that stubborn loyalty that all his Maine fans have. He's one of us; he's never sold out. Nonetheless, I was utterly puzzled by his latest offering. It wasn't scary. Oh, it had the usual dead creatures, supernatural forces and tragic deaths of sympathetic characters--this time centering around a man, who having lost his arm in an accident moves to Florida and starts painting seriously creepy paintings. (I did a pencil sketch of one of the descriptions for this blog.) But Duma Key didn't scare me.
What kept me reading was the sensitivity with which he described some of the key relationships. One between an elderly woman and her caretaker was particularly resonant. The gestures were spot on. I began to wonder if King wanted to scare me. Maybe he wanted to write about people instead. Maybe that was the truth lurking under the surface. Let me quote a passage where the main character describes painting--it's true for writing as well.

"Be brave. Don't be afraid to draw the secret things. No one said art was a zephyr; sometimes its a hurricane. Even then you shouldn't hesitate or change course. Because if you tell yourself the great lie of bad art--that you are in charge--your chance at truth will be lost. The truth isn't always pretty. Sometimes truth is the big boy."

Stephen King, Duma Key.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Is Your Worst Audience in Your Head?

Why is some writing so effortless and others so fraught with doubt and anxiety? Of course, if I'm writing for publication, the stakes are high, but what about when I'm working on my book? Why should I hesitate to put words on paper? Until it's finished, I'm my own audience.
Evidently that's the problem! I was rereading Peter Elbow's book, Writing with Power when I hit the chapter on audience. We're used to thinking of audience as the expectations of a genre. Elbow takes it farther. According to Elbow, we can put ourselves through literary scrutiny to rival college entrance exams before we put a single word on paper. Here's my breakdown of his finer points:
Audiences can be either external or internal. (Or non-existent). Each type can be either safe or dangerous to the writer. A "safe" audience is respectful, serious and supportive and the writer responds by writing in an authentic voice with depth and power. A "dangerous" audience is critical, demeaning or judgmental, which often causes the writer to write in a false or overly academic style, write only superficially, or not write at all.

We can't change external audiences: writing classes, publishers and family will be safe or dangerous regardless of our desires. We know who they are. But do you really know your internal audience? Not only does our internal audience have a tremendous effect on whether we succeed as writers, we have the power to control it. Next time you think your writing will never be good enough, or that you'll never succeed, stop and ask yourself--who's telling you that? Is it some lingering voice from childhood? Or maybe a teacher? An ex? Get them out of your head! Writing is hard enough without ghosts. Only allow in thoughts that are on your side.

Five Reasons to Toss That Draft

I love to throw scenes away. (crumple, crumple...Yeah!) But I am also meticulous about saving copies of everything and backing up my hard-drive. That's not a contradiction: I have a system. Here are the criteria I use to decide what I take out of my book and what I keep for a rewrite:

1) You dread writing. That scene has painted you into a corner. Now you're stuck, surrounded by wet, sloppy plot, and writing isn't fun anymore.

2) Your characters are acting out of character. It happens. You need one of them to do something to move the plot along, but it isn't what they'd do naturally. You've forced them and it shows.

3) The scene is gorgeous, witty, intelligent and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Admire your handiwork for a few more minutes, then scrap it. Pretty is as pretty does, and if that scene isn't doing anything for your plot, it's ugly.

4) You've rewritten it four times and it still sounds wrong. Give up already!

5)You love it, you love it, you love it---and all your readers hate it. If you've chosen your readers wisely, trust them.

Now what? You're a kind person; you can't just throw your words out on the street. Indeed not. Make a Humane Society for Writing and put them there. I suggest a box. Maybe later, you'll adopt some of those ideas for a different work. Now, go back to your desk with a clean heart.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Dialog isn't conversation," she screamed.

Let's get one thing straight: dialog is not the same thing as conversation in the real world. There are some important similarities:

1) How someone says something is more important than the words themselves. Imagine your partner, a child, a politician, and a used car salesman (oops, I repeated myself!) all saying the words "I'm sorry." (Obviously, this isn't realistic in the last case. Just try.) Very different meanings, aren't they? This is why the little details of behavior--the smirk, the drumming fingers, the averted eyes are so important. We need to know those nonverbal cues.

2) The speaker determines the meaning of the words as much as the words determine the character of the speaker. In other words, when you first present a character, use the dialog to show their character. Later in the book, how the reader feels about the character will determine the meaning of the words. I know that's true for me in real life. Don't you know someone who if they say "Nice day." to you, you assume they're up to something crooked? And if your sweetie says, "Nice day," well, I blush to even consider what you might think!

There are also some big differences between dialog and conversation:

1) Someone is always listening: the reader.
People are, by and large, lousy listeners. We're always thinking about what we're going to say next, what we need to get done or what the other person thinks about us. Readers are waiting for every word. You can use this to your advantage. Characters, because they resemble real people, do not always listen to each other, but the reader always listens. You can put in subtle bits of information that a character might miss for the reader's benefit.

2) Dialog is not just characters talking. It is the writer revealing relationships and information to the reader. While you write, your characters will lapse into small talk. That's natural. But you must prune it down like a topiary. Every word has to have a purpose.

The how and the why of writing fiction

It's easier and harder than you imagine