Monthly Archives: January 2011

RUSH, Relevance and Henry David Thoreau


Be OriginalLast week, as I was driving home from my day job, I set my iPod to shuffle and settled into the flow of traffic. The Moody Blues “Forever Afternoon” was perfect for unwinding, a melodic story within the context of the album and still fresh after 43 years. The next song was BU2B by Rush, a song so new it’s not even on a disk yet by a band that’s been around 43 years. Wow.

I had one of those moments where a snatch of conversation from earlier in the day, the two songs playing adjacent and my own quest to find a place for my writing exploded into one word: relevance. What is the magic elixir that made classic musicians like the Moody Blues, Zeppelin and the Beatles survive the wearing away cynicism of time? How about Rush? Their music catalog is full of timeless songs and still their new music is fresh and …. well, relevant. Trust me; I too feel some days “I’m ahead of the wheel and the next it’s rolling over me”. Really, “It’s just the kind of day to leave myself behind”. See what I mean?

Certain emotions and human experiences remain the same no matter the year or generation. Tapping into that crosses time. Being original, being a leader at what you do will set you apart and make it hard to date your work. Techno pop had its day, but it sure sounds retro these days when I hear A Flock of Seagulls on the radio. The best compliment you get is how great your writing is, not how much your book is like so and so the famous author.

Keep in mind this is hard work. You have to dig deep to be original. However, as you pull in collective human experience, your plot and characters are becoming real, breathing elements for your readers. Your story will take on new turns and layered dimensions. Relevance cements the connection between you and your reader and in ten or twenty years you will still have a connection.

I’m now looking at my current work and thinking about how well I’ve layered my themes and character motivations. Will it be relevant in ten years? Have I created a unique voice for them?

I’m not sure if I could name one book that has stood the test of time for me, there are so many that I love still and go back to on occasion to reread a passage. My favorite passage? That’s easy: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”


Embrace Your Inner Spider


Mystery Plotting is like a spider web, it’s all connected

I’ll admit it, I’m a very loose plotter.  I start a story with a set-up or situation in mind and maybe a character and that’s it.  

Sometimes, as I write, it’s like I’m reading a novel that I’m also writing.  If you’re a writer you’ll know what I mean.  My plot develops as I get to know my characters and watch them react to the situation I’ve created.  It usually takes 20 or more pages before I know where the whole story is going to go and which character will be dominant.  It’s messy and most writing instructors will tell you not to do it.  I can give you a few good reasons why I think its fun and why it works for me.

When I started my last novel (working title “A Wind Beaten Tree”) I knew it would be about art theft and include some underworld types, so I opened with a scene where a thief, Morell, has hidden inside the Musee Moderne and ingeniously stolen several priceless paintings. We quickly find out there is a mole inside the French Gendarme and there are powerful people orchestrating the events.  In the next chapter we meet a woman, Jade, who turns out to be the main character and pretty soon her path of crime is crossing his.  Now I’m having fun.

If I plotted out how I thought this was going to go before writing, then there would’ve been little room for discovery or accidental surprises, like the handsome film actor she cons then recruits or finding out how the man who saved her life 5 years before is connected to the crime head Morell works for, not to mention the missing person’s report in Oklahoma that might be Jade, who by the way has amnesia.  I have coincidences that might just be coincidences and connections that hint at a much bigger story than even our characters know.  If I were to draw it out in the classic brain-storming fashion, I would have a delicate spider web as spun by a spider with a split-personality disorder.

Writing mysteries has its own rules of conduct.  Moving from point A to point B rarely takes a straight line, and my gosh, that would just be boring.

If you’re a traditional plotter, try cutting out a plot point or two and when you get to that part of the story, let your characters decide what they want to do.  You can also try throwing in a random event, such as an unexpected death of a character you hadn’t planned to kill or catastrophe for which they are forced to deal. I’ve discovered this gives me a chance to show character development and strengthen connections or it can even add a key element they need to solve the mystery.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t work out, that gets fixed in the editing process.

Author’s Note: I am deathly afraid of spiders, but the webs in the right light can at times be inspirational;)


Pace Yourself


Plotting is an outline of the action points in your story. Pacing is the speed at which you arrive from point to point. Great plots are undeniably important, but drive your reader too quickly or drag out an event too much and they’ll ditch your masterpiece at the book-swap at Starbucks without a backward glance.

Chances are that because you’re a writer, you’re also a big reader and somewhere in all those years of reading you’ve learned a lot about writing, plotting and pacing without even knowing it.

After you’ve celebrated finishing your first draft, let your writer brain have a rest and let your “reader” side step in. I find it’s helpful to read the second draft in a form other than it was written. It gets my brain out of the writer groove and makes the work feel fresh again.

Once you have your pencil in hand, mark where the “reader” side of your brain craves more information and cross through the meandering descriptions that are heavy with the –ly’s. Your reader brain should scream loud at anything that causes it to drift from the story.

As you do this, you’ll see a new shape emerging from your story. It’s like working a clay sculpture, adding flesh to shape hips and lips, then paring off the excess around the eyes to reveal high cheek bones. Your characters will become real, breathing human beings with secrets and motives that they may hide or reveal as needed to keep themselves moving from page to page.

The “reader” part of you knows if the story is moving at the right speed and only with several read-throughs will you know where to add and subtract to maintain tension and keep your audience engaged.

Trust your instincts and remember that it’s fun to leave your reader hanging at the end of a chapter. Curiosity will keep them turning the pages.

One last tip: As you read through your novel/story each time, pick a different character and make sure their every action and word spoken is in line with their interior motive which may or may not be apparent to the other characters yet or even the reader. It will tighten the plot and tension and make the reader go “Ah-ha!” at the end.


Sharpen Your Hook


All writers agree that a sharp hook at the beginning of your story or novel is crucial. How daunting: you have less than 100 words to sculpt your tone, setting, introduce your characters and let the readers know just enough about your story to pique their interest.

So how do the pros do it? Start by picking up a favorite novel, perhaps the new one on your coffee table that you’re dying to read. Open to the first page, read the first paragraph and then close the book.

How many questions can you answer about the story and where it might take you? This is where you use your pen and paper to write out how the author conveyed this to you. I’m sure not all of the information was literal. Word choice plays a major role in setting tone and giving you personality hints to the main character or narrator. Frank Lutz writes, “It’s not what you say, but what they hear.” In this case the reader is “hearing” the nuances that will be carried throughout your story.

For the sake of this exercise I’ve picked “Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures” by Robert K Wittman with John Shiffman. Although this is a non-fiction work, its vivid and specific language shows a mastery from which we can all learn.

“The platinum Rolls-Royce with bulletproof windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings stashed in its armor-plated trunk.” (Only 23 words!)

That’s it. In one sentence, I know this is going to put me inside the sting with Wittman without Hollywood gloss or imposed government vagueness, the players are wealthy and there’s a lot at stake, and the “armor-plated trunk” speaks volumes about the action to come. The second paragraph, which is not much longer, introduces key players and heightens the tension even more for a total of 83 words.

So how does he do this? As I mentioned, he used clear language that puts the reader in the story. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. Do this analysis on several books, preferably by successful authors, and you’ll see how they built interest off the top and then back fill as the story unfolds. Also, letting your readers hear, see, taste, smell and touch the action engages more of their brain which is always a good thing:)

So, how did your favorite author keep you wanting to read past that first page and stay up all night?

Try the test on your hook and see if you can answer these questions:

· Who is telling the story? (Narrator? Main Character? POV?)
· What is the mood of the story? (Dark? Humorous? Mystery? Light? Literary?)
· What do you know about the setting? (Hint: mood and setting build off each other.)

If you can accomplish this in a few sentences, then you have a pretty good hook that will let your readers decide if they want to venture further.

Special thanks to Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman
“Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures”
Crown Publishers, New York 2010


Find Your Writing Niche


It’s just you and a blank screen waiting to make a great story or novel. You’re not writing a report for your boss, a dissertation for your teacher, or fulfilling your client’s business need. It’s just you. How wonderful!

Or is it? You are your toughest client. When faced with writing whatever you want, suddenly the ideas flee like dust motes in a sun beam. How do you reign them back to your fingertips and make a cohesive tale? It’s challenging no matter where you are in your writing career, but even more so when you’re starting out.

In a college creative writing course, my professor had us dissect a story so we could understand how is was constructed. I couldn’t relate to the story and the mechanics were lost on me because they had no relevance to my likes or experiences. Years later, I turned this exercise to a more personal approach and finally had my ah-ha moment (thanks Oprah) and moved from thinking about writing and actually wrote a novel.

1. First I pulled out a legal size notepad and in about 3 minutes, listed every book I had recently read off the top of my head. I included books I loved as well as a few I didn’t care for and didn’t finish. That was column one.

2. Next, I quickly marked whether I liked the book and listed a simple reason as to why. That was column two.

3. column three dug a bit deeper and began to reveal a pattern.

Here’s an example:

The Spellman Files (Lisa Lutz)

Liked-Quirky Characters/Quirky voice

I liked how the author pulled me in by giving some of the story line through the investigation reports Isabel Spellman, the main character would write. Isabel is so ingrained with the private investigator mentality that she has trouble relating to people in any normal sense. This sets her up for unusual and funny situations. I also like the use of San Francisco settings in the story line, having visited SF, I felt right at home with the Spellmans.

Looking over my list, there was a clear pattern of likes and dislikes in my reading material. My original list had a lot of science fiction and a handful of mysteries. Today, the list is a broader, eclectic mix of non-fiction, mystery and literary fiction.

I learned the types of characters that held my interest while reading, personality traits, genres, tone, etc. That’s when I knew what type of novels not only would I enjoy writing, but also exactly the novel I should be writing.

If you tried this exercise, what did you learn? Do you have mostly mysteries like me, or is your list based squarely in a particular ethnic culture which shapes the plot?

Notice the settings of these novels. How are they tied to the character and genre? They can influence the setting, but think about how the setting can influence your characters and your plot.

Now is when the pen hits the page, the fingers to the keyboard and the real excitement starts.

There is a reason best selling authors are best selling authors. If you take the time to understand how they go about writing a successful novel, then you can shape your own writing that will spark passion in your readers.


Pacing


Plotting is an outline of the action points in your story.  Pacing is the speed at which you arrive from point to point.  Great plots are undeniably important, but drive your reader too quickly or drag out an event too much and they’ll ditch your masterpiece at the book-swap at Starbucks without a backward glance.
 
Chances are that because you’re a writer, you’re also a big reader and somewhere in all those years of reading you’ve learned a lot about writing, plotting and pacing without even knowing it. 
 
After you’ve celebrated finishing your first draft, let your writer brain have a rest and let your “reader” side step in.  I find it’s helpful to read the second draft in a form other than it was written.  It gets my brain out of the writer groove and makes the work feel fresh again. 
 
Once you have your pencil in hand, mark where the “reader” side of your brain craves more information and cross through the meandering descriptions that are heavy with the –ly’s.  Your reader brain should scream loud at anything that causes it to drift from the story.
 
As you do this, you’ll see a new shape emerging from your story.  It’s like working a clay sculpture, adding flesh to shape hips and lips, then paring off the excess around the eyes to reveal high cheek bones.  Your characters will become real, breathing human beings with secrets and motives that they may hide or reveal as needed to keep themselves moving from page to page.
 
The “reader” part of you knows if the story is moving at the right speed and only with several read-throughs will you know where to add and subtract to maintain tension and keep your audience engaged.

Trust your instincts and remember that it’s fun to leave your reader hanging at the end of a chapter.  Curiosity will keep them turning the pages.
 
One last tip: As you read through your novel/story each time, pick a different character and make sure their every action and word spoken is in line with their interior motive which may or may not be apparent to the other characters yet or even the reader.  It will tighten the plot and tension and make the reader go “Ah-ha!” at the end.


Sharpen Your Hook


All writers agree that a sharp hook at the beginning of your story or novel is crucial.  How daunting: you have less than 100 words to sculpt your tone, setting, introduce your characters and let the readers know just enough about your story to pique their interest.

So how do the pros do it?  Start by picking up a favorite novel, perhaps the new one on your coffee table that you’re dying to read.  Open to the first page, read the first paragraph and then close the book.

How many questions can you answer about the story and where it might take you?  This is where you use your pen and paper to write out how the author conveyed this to you.  I’m sure not all of the information was literal.  Word choice plays a major role in setting tone and giving you personality hints to the main character or narrator.  Frank Lutz writes, “It’s not what you say, but what they hear.”  In this case the reader is “hearing” the nuances that will be carried throughout your story.

For the sake of this exercise I’ve picked “Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures” by Robert K Wittman with John Shiffman.  Although this is a non-fiction work, its vivid and specific language shows a mastery from which we can all learn.

“The platinum Rolls-Royce with bulletproof windows glided east onto the Palmetto Expressway toward Miami Beach, six stolen paintings stashed in its armor-plated trunk.” (Only 23 words!)

That’s it.  In one sentence, I know this is going to put me inside the sting with Wittman without Hollywood gloss or imposed government vagueness, the players are wealthy and there’s a lot at stake, and the “armor-plated trunk” speaks volumes about the action to come.  The second paragraph, which is not much longer, introduces key players and heightens the tension even more for a total of 83 words.

So how does he do this?  As I mentioned, he used clear language that puts the reader in the story. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it.  Do this analysis on several books, preferably by successful authors, and you’ll see how they built interest off the top and then back fill as the story unfolds.  Also, letting your readers hear, see, taste, smell and touch the action engages more of their brain which is always a good thing:)

So, how did your favorite author keep you wanting to read past that first page and stay up all night?

Try the test on your hook and see if you can answer these questions:

·         Who is telling the story? (Narrator? Main Character? POV?)
·         What is the mood of the story?  (Dark?  Humorous? Mystery? Light? Literary?)
·         What do you know about the setting? (Hint: mood and setting build off each other.)

If you can accomplish this in a few sentences, then you have a pretty good hook that will let your readers decide if they want to venture further.

Special thanks to Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman
“Priceless: How I Went Undercover To Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures”
Crown Publishers, New York 2010


Social Media Hierarchy of Needs – Best Practices for ROI Success


Fantastic Article from Tom Pisello.  Shift your thinking, click here.


Writing goals for 2011: Write, Read, Blog, Market, Publish


2011 is starting out great. 
 
Last week I Tweeted a promo code for a free download of “Perfect Copy”.  Less than 24-hours later, as I rang in the New Year, 30 copies had been downloaded and the web site had been accessed over 100 times in a single day.  As a new indie author, this was a huge confidence boost.  Downloads continue to be strong and I now have my first review on Goodreads.com thanks to CheckedOut.  (The free download will continue through February 28th at http://smashwords.com/b/23208 coupon code UX85k.)
 
This will be a busy year full of marketing, writing and learning the ins and outs of eBook publishing.  I have two new books in the works to publish this year, plus a brand new nanowrimo for which to prepare.
 
I’m starting off January with a series of blogs about my writing process.  If you are starting out or stuck, maybe these tips will get you writing with me.

Everyone is welcome to comment, share their work, tips or ideas.  I think something amazing happens when you get a group of smart creatives together.
 
Here is the first entry; the next post will be Friday January 7th.

Finding Your Writing Niche

It’s just you and a blank screen waiting to make a great story or novel. You’re not writing a report for your boss, a dissertation for your teacher, or fulfilling your client’s business need.  It’s just you.  How wonderful!

Or is it?  You are your toughest client.  When faced with writing whatever you want, suddenly the ideas flee like dust motes in a sun beam.  How do you reign them back to your fingertips and make a cohesive tale?  It’s challenging no matter where you are in your writing career, but even more so when you’re starting out.

In a college creative writing course, my professor had us dissect a story so we could understand how is was constructed.  I couldn’t relate to the story and the mechanics were lost on me because they had no relevance to my likes or experiences.  Years later, I turned this exercise to a more personal approach and finally had my ah-ha moment (thanks Oprah) and moved from thinking about writing and actually wrote a novel.

1. First I pulled out a legal size notepad and in about 3 minutes, listed every book I had recently read off the top of my head.  I included books I loved as well as a few I didn’t care for and didn’t finish.  That was column one.

2. Next, I quickly marked whether I liked the book and listed a simple reason as to why. That was column two.

3. column three dug a bit deeper and began to reveal a pattern.

Here’s an example:

The Spellman Files (Lisa Lutz)

Liked-Quirky Characters/Quirky voice

I liked how the author pulled me in by giving some of the story line through the investigation reports Isabel Spellman, the main character would write.  Isabel is so ingrained with the private investigator mentality that she has trouble relating to people in any normal sense.  This sets her up for unusual and funny situations.  I also like the use of San Francisco settings in the story line, having visited SF, I felt right at home with the Spellmans.

Looking over my list, there was a clear pattern of likes and dislikes in my reading material.  My original list had a lot of science fiction and a handful of mysteries.  Today, the list is a broader, eclectic mix of non-fiction, mystery and literary fiction.

I learned the types of characters that held my interest while reading, personality traits, genres, tone, etc.  That’s when I knew what type of novels not only would I enjoy writing, but also exactly the novel I should be writing.

If you tried this exercise, what did you learn? Do you have mostly mysteries like me, or is your list based squarely in a particular ethnic culture which shapes the plot?

Notice the settings of these novels.  How are they tied to the character and genre?  They can influence the setting, but think about how the setting can influence your characters and your plot.

Now is when the pen hits the page, the fingers to the keyboard and the real excitement starts.

There is a reason best selling authors are best selling authors.  If you take the time to understand how they go about writing a successful novel, then you can shape your own writing that will spark passion in your readers.


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