Friday, July 17, 2015

Fiction Friday: Protecting Your Creative Process

Today I'm guest posting over on 8 Ladies Writing, the blog maintained by my grad school chums from McDaniel.

The topic is: Protecting your creative process.

Pop over and join us if you have time.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Fiction Friday: Confessions of a Contest Judge

Recently, I received a request to help judge a contest for an RWA Chapter. After whoring my way around the contest circuit all winter, I figured it was time to give back, so I signed up to judge three manuscripts.

They were all pretty good. It was clear none of the three authors were newbies to the writing scene.  They all had strong writing and engaging characters. One problem I noticed across all three manuscripts, though, was the lack of clearly-defined goals for the protagonists. In each case the heroine had plenty of trouble--enough bad things were happening to make her life interesting. What she didn't have was a goal.

David Mamet, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and executive producer of the CBS Drama The Unit, wrote the following in a memo to the writing team for The Unit:

Question: What is drama? the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Without a goal, it's impossible to make your story escalate. You can intensify the trouble and make things more irritating for your protagonist, even more dangerous, but if she doesn't have a goal, there's no yardstick against which to measure her progress--or her setbacks. 

The most interesting segments of the Twilight novels are when Bella has something to do other than moon over Edward. When she heads off to Italy to save him from the Volturi, the story really picks up. And because she has a deadline, every obstacle along the way is invested with tension.

Now that I understand this concept, I would never undertake to write a novel where my protagonist didn't have have a clear, time-bound goal. Moreover, the goal needs to be something she needs--not just wants, but needs.

I'm working on plotting out a new novel where the protagonist, an artist, must complete a mural in 30 days or she won't get paid. She currently earns a subsistence living drawing caricatures for tourists in Sedona, AZ, but it's the off-season, and if she doesn't complete this mural, she'll be out on the street. She has a history of not finishing big projects, a deep-rooted character flaw she'll have to overcome--especially since her antagonist is equally determined to keep her from finishing.

What about you? What do you do to create tension in your stories?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Writer's Staycation

The following blog post is a shameless plug for a series of classes being offered by Words Worth Writing Center, this summer, including one I'm teaching.

Words Worth is one of the really great things about Dayton, Ohio. Most of the big corporations have shaken my little town's dust off their wingtips, leaving us with few deep pockets to back the Arts, but somehow we've managed to maintain a thriving Arts community in spite of that. There are galleries to all tastes, a symphony orchestra, an opera company and two dance troupes, including DCDC, one of the most well-regarded African American dance companies in the world. There are several professional theater associations and a whole raft of community theater groups. Even without big corporate money, Dayton's art culture thrives.

Anyway, Darren McGarvey, teacher of English and Drama at Centerville High School and a writer himself, thought it would be a good idea if there was a place in the Dayton area where writers could commune with other scribblers and have opportunities to develop their craft. I've taken several classes there. It was through Words Worth that I met my amazing critique partner, Nicole Amsler.

Anyway, the Writer's Staycation classes are as follows:

A Swift Kick in the Pants 
Instructor: Katrina Kittle  
Whether you’ve been writing a long time or are just starting out, finding (and efficiently using) writing time is nearly every writer’s greatest challenge. This class is full of tips, strategies, and motivation to manage writing time, hold yourself accountable, keep your butt in the chair, and get some words on the page! Several writing prompts for those who are stuck and in need of inspiration will also be given.    

Writing YOUR Story
Instructor: Darren McGarvey 
Ever feel like your life belongs between the covers of a book? This workshop will help generate ideas and teach some of the basic techniques of writing journal entries, personal essays, and memoirs. You’ll leave with a few starts, a number of ideas, and will be ready to put thousands of words on the pages.    

Putting a Little (or a lot) of Mystery in Your Fiction
Instructor: Sharon Short 
Your fiction may well be beautifully written and populated with interesting characters... but is it compelling enough? Mystery writing techniques will help you create suspenseful, compelling, page turning fiction... for any genre of fiction. This workshop, appropriate for mystery writers as well as writers in all other fiction genres, will explore the techniques used to create mystery novels and show how you can apply them to your own work. Writing exercises and prompts will help you discover how to make your story as deliciously page-turning as the very best who-dun-its.    

Queries and Questions About Traditional Publishing
Instructor: Katrina Kittle 
This 2-hour class will give a Traditional Publishing 101 overview, explaining the sometimes complicated and convoluted process of getting a novel published through this route. We will look at how to research agents, how to write a strong query letter, and how to construct a pitch. Participants will look at and critique sample queries and will “rehearse” a pitch for feedback.    

Building a Short Story from the Ground Up
Instructor: Erin Flanagan 

You’ve got great characters and a great idea, but how do you set them both in motion and keep the momentum going? Looking at structure and causation in short stories, we’ll discuss strategies to avoid common pitfalls in a story’s beginning, middle, and the ever-crucial end.

Plotting 101: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict
Instructor: Jeanne Estridge  

You’ve got a fabulous premise and you’re totally in love with your characters, but somehow your story isn’t shaping up to be the riveting tale you envisioned. After reviewing goal, motivation and conflict—the keys to writing compelling fiction—we’ll discuss class members’ works-in-progress and apply the techniques we’ve learned to help each other solve plot problems and ramp up the action.    

More info (like When? Where? and How Much? here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Writer's Wish List

This isn't a list of things like a MacBook Air or Scrivener or a thesaurus, but a list of characteristics that I'm starting to believe are essential for becoming a successful writer.

1) Persistence
Probably the single most important character trait for a writer. You need to be able to persist through writer's block, through dry spells, through self-doubt and family-and-friends' doubt, through rejections and contest losses and sudden and ill-timed changes in what the market wants to read.

2) A Thick Skin

If you're going to get down in the dumps and quit writing or querying every time you get rejected, or even every time you get rejected after you were given reason to get your hopes up, it's going to take a very long time to get to the finish line. Not everyone is going to like what you write, but don't let that slow you down. Keep writing, Keep submitting. Keep moving forward.

I took a class with local writer Katrina Kittle a while back. In past lives, she was a dancer and an actress. She said those careers, which include a LOT of rejection, were great preparation for being a writer.

Learn to repeat this little mantra: "Not my audience." Just like people don't all like the same food or the same clothes or the same television shows, not everyone likes the same kinds of books. (Some people don't like any books at all, but they're barbarians who would destroy civilization given the chance.) The fact that someone doesn't like your book doesn't mean you're a bad writer, it just means your book is not for them.

3) A clinical eye

In order to get better, you first have to realize you suck. Until you're willing to set aside your ego ("Look at this marvelous thing I've created!") and really see your writing for the flawed exercise it is, you're probably not going to get any better.

4) A love of reading
I frequently hear the following from people who have just learned that I'm a writer: "I've thought about writing a book." I just smile and say, "I think you should." Then afterwards, get back with me and tell me how it went....

The people that fascinate me are the ones who say this but are not themselves readers. How in the world can you expect to create something that you don't know anything about?

Read in the genre you want to write in--it will help you understand the expectations of your prospective readers. Read in genres other than the one you want to write in--it will give you fresh perspective. Read craft books. There are a lot of tricks of the trade that aren't apparent to readers. A few fortunate souls are born instinctively understanding things like point-of-view and plotting, but most of us need to be taught.

4) A love of writing

If you truly want to become a writer, you will spend a lot of time sitting in a chair in a room by yourself. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it will be something in the region of 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Or, to put it another way: your first million words are just practice.

Once you've gathered together these character traits and experiences, we'll talk about that MacBook Air.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Family Friday: An Alternative View of A&F

Abercrombie & Fitch has (deservedly) received a lot of bad press  over the past few years for their exclusiionary practices. This led to their CEO being fired last December. Since then, they've worked hard to replace the corporate culture with one that is more inclusionary.

Even before the transition, though, there was one area where this company led the way in diversity and acceptance in corporate America--the treatment of gay employees.

In the second interview in this video, my daughter-out-law (someday to be my daughter-in-law, God and the Supreme Court willing) explains what this meant to her and her family. The beautiful young woman to her left is my daughter and the adorable little tykes are my grandkids.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Fiction Friday: Making the Most of Your Contest Dollars

Entering your romance novel into contests is a great way to get feedback. If you're polished enough and lucky enough to become a finalist, contests can also get you in front of industry professionals who might be interested in representing or publishing your book.  So far, from the five contests I entered, I've received three requests for full manuscripts. I've also learned that several of the judges wouldn't read my book if I paid them, but that's another story....

Many of the local RWA chapters around the country sponsor contests as fundraisers. I counted 11 upcoming contests on the RWA website in June alone. Most have entry fees in the $25 range.

Since most of us don't have unlimited funds, how do you choose a good one for your work? Here are some questions to ask:

1) Does the contest guarantee feedback, or just a score sheet? Learning that, on a scale of 1-5, an anonymous judge thought your conflict was a 3 may not be all that helpful. Hearing that it wasn't clear that your protagonist had a goal, or that there was no sense of urgency to that goal, is much more useful.

2) Who are the first round judges? Does the chapter set any baseline requirements to qualify as a judge? Are they published authors or romance readers? Either one can provide useful feedback, but it may be different kinds of feedback. Readers can tell you if they love your book or not. Published authors are more likely to be able to tell you why they love your book--or why they don't.

3) Who are the final round judges? In many contests, final round judges are industry professionals. Some contests provide specific names. Others only specify a role--"agent" or "editor." Final round judges may also be librarians, book clubs and booksellers--all lovely people to hear from, but not a step toward getting your manuscript published.

4) If the final round judges are identified industry professionals, do they work for organizations you're interested in partnering with? A lot of us, as we take our first steps toward publication, believe that we'd work with the devil himself to get published, but even if that's true, he's probably not our first choice. It's worth taking time to figure out who your dream agent and editor are. You may not get the partner of your wildest dreams, but if you know what you want, your chances increase.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Fiction Friday: Writing What You Like

"To thine own self be true," Polonius tells children in Hamlet, "and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans't not then be false to any man."

The problem with this advice, of course, is that Polonius is as false a man as exists in all of literature, a conummate politician whose eye is always on the main chance, who's willing to prostitue his daughter if it means winning a bigger role in the government of Denmark.

Still, if you take his advice as it exists on the surface, it's good counsel.

One of the reasons it took me so long to really start writing was that I was embarrassed by what I wanted to write: romance. Tawdry, pulpy, emotionally adolescent romance.

When I told people that, they'd say, "You can do better than that. You're smarter than that."

But when I tried to write other genres, my heart wasn't in it, and my efforts went nowhere. The fact is, I love the sunny optismism of a genre where the promise of happy ever after is implicit. I love stories that feature people who manage to change in fundamental ways that make their lives better.

One of the lovely things about growing older is you come to realize that, regardless of where you graduated in your high school class or how high your SAT scores were, you're actually not that smart. By the time you turn sixty, you have a history that makes it clear you're really just a step up from a pet rock.

To every writer out there who's yet to achieve the lofty status of sexagenarianism, I say: give yourself a bye and just assume you're dumb enough to write whatever takes your fancy.

Live like you're sixty and write what you want.


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