Posts Tagged ‘writing fiction’

Two crucial skills for the writing life.

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Each day, we are bombarded by the tasks we must do, by the things we want to accomplish, and by the demands of tasks and people upon our time. There is only so much time, and so often too many things to do. We necessarily must master the skill of multitasking, of doing more than one thing at a time: answering the phone and emails, scheduling meetings and signings, managing children and pets, managing a household, making time for love, tracking our books and our word count.

Writing & publishing have become a multi-skill career, especially for writers, where we must write, have a business plan, set goals, design covers, write a blog, maintain a website, and market our books. Some of us do all of these things, some of us out-source some of it. And most of us do have other demands placed on our time, like family, friends, favorite past-times, other jobs.

And all of this demands that we multitask, and that is necessary. It’s almost a survival skill.

Lost in all of this multitasking, all of this busyness, is the equally crucial skill of … focus. Being able to focus fully, for long periods, is very important. Lost too is perhaps our best work, our richest and most engaging writing, and our real potential as writers. Without focus, our work suffers, our creativity isn’t as great or as deep. The constant interruptions and distractions mean we not only do not get as much done of what is really important for our dreams (writing, for example), but what we do during those crucial hours isn’t of the quality that we could want.

What can we do to more fully apply that skill of mental focus to our work, our writing. On my blog post about writer’s block (filed under Writer’s Life), I recommend using a timer and freeing up the mind from other things that might intrude. It’s kind of like beginning to practice meditation, where other thoughts and distractions must be kept to a minimum, and where mental discipline must be continually exercised. Once you’ve decided that it is more important that you become more deeply focused when you write, then you will probably think of other ways to accomplish this.

Here are some tips on focusing from that previous blogpost:

1) Before ending the day’s writing time, write a few lines of the next scene or a few ideas for that scene, so that it’s easier to pick up at the next session.

2) As you sit there, take the first 10 to 15 minutes to read a section of a book on craft or articles on craft, to switch your mind from the daily grind to writing and craft.

3) Set up your writing time so that all you have to think about is writing. Since you have other pressing things to do in your day, perhaps schedule your day on the evening before, so that when you begin to write, all of those other things are settled, done, and you’re not thinking about all the other things you have to do that day. Instead you’re thinking about and focused on writing. (see No. 5 & 6)

4) Write in a Journal before you begin your writing time, to dump all the things that are bothering you or distracting you. Assign a maximum time for this (5 minutes), otherwise it could take over much of your writing time.

5) Set a timer for the length of time you want to write and then think of nothing else during that time–that is the time you have for writing–until the timer goes off. This allows you to fully focus on your writing, and to set everything else aside for that hour or for whatever time you’ve allocated.

6) When you sit down to write, if other things occur to you that must be done or that are competing with focusing on writing, then quickly create a list of those things you need to do or think about. And then put it aside, so that they’re all written down and will be less likely to distract you.

7) Plan–an outline or variation of one, but at least a general idea of where you’re going with the novel, whether it’s a general statement, a synopsis with the main plot points, or an outline.

And a quote on the subject:  “…when you are completely open, when on all levels you are in complete communication, completely integrated, then there is joy and you begin to create … creativeness is a sense of total self-forgetfulness, when there is no turmoil, when one is wholly unaware of the movement of thought.” — Krishnamurti.

How do you see yourself applying & balancing these skills in your life?

 

 

TOUCH & GO, by Lisa Gardner — Review

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Cast:

Main character, the lovely and talented Libby Denbe.
Her husband, Justin Denbe.
Their beautiful 15-year-old daughter Ashlyn.
Investigator Tessa Leoni.
Wyatt Foster, sexy New Hampshire detective.
Ex-military and Special Forces.
With appearances by D.D. Warren.

Pain has a flavor. The question is, what does it taste like to you.

Boston’s exclusive Back Bay neighborhood, a gorgeous brownstone on a tree-lined street. A great marriage. A family who seemed to be admired and loved by all.

In the first chapter, three masked men attack and abduct them. When investigator Tessa Leoni arrives on the crime scene, the family has vanished without a trace—no witnesses, no ransom demands, no motive. Just a million tiny pieces of Taser confetti. Racing against the clock to locate the family, Tessa and Detective Wyatt team up, with the FBI, to uncover the family’s deepest secrets and a complex web of betrayal and big business. Who did it? Why did they do it? What happened to the family?

This is the truth: Love, safety, family…it’s all touch and go.

Gardner’s brilliant novel is a thriller as thrillers should be written. Tense and highly suspenseful, her latest features a delightfully fresh plot, a variety of unexpected twists and some great surprises. With the search to save this family and a family under immense pressure–this story is also definitely emotionally charged and compelling. Very engaging writing and wonderful, intriguing characters. (Loved the dynamic between Tessa and Wyatt.) Gardner is a suspense maestro. Unputdownable, fast-paced, utterly riveting. And a spectacular conclusion!

Lisa Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of fourteen novels, including the D.D. Warren series: Catch Me, Love You More, Live to Tell, The Neighbor, Hide, and Alone. Her latest book, TOUCH & GO,  comes out February 5th, 2013, bringing back Tessa Leoni, a character who was first introduced in the book, Love You More.

 

Christmas & Character Arc

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

In one of my Twitter posts, I commented that if you believe in grace, then God must have believed in Character arc. That’s probably true. This post is about character, but also about people and how fiction and the real mirror each other.

Regardless, it’s struck me again today how all humans are basically the same, wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you meet. And the same is true for characters in novels. The truth of character and character traits is valid for life and vice versa. We all have the same spectrum of emotions, of agendas or goals, of desires and wants, of ways of thinking that are valid and not so valid. What we are is human, and there’s a lesson or at least food for thought in the way that those same character traits that are assigned to fiction characters are analogous to real people in real life.

One of the keys in real life or real fiction is that we don’t comprehend why the character or person does what they do, without reading the whole novel, and sometimes not even then. How could we? But we can try to understand, both  our similarities and our differences, by applying what we know about ourselves and other people’s stories to any story that we are exposed to–not that this means we will fully comprehend but that we have a better chance of doing so.

What I’m saying is that you take a basic proposed character for a story, and you give that character traits, usually traits that will most effectively resonant with the theme that you want to “illustrate” or give breath to, in your story, from a grouping of possible character traits. Those traits are simply traits, tacked on to the essential character, a cardboard representation of a person, until that stereotype or archetype gets filled out with those good AND bad character traits which make the character more real to us.

Those traits could be anything, from race to religion to hair color to skin color. From occupation to favorite pasttimes to ways of dealing with conflict. Some of those things, like ways of dealing with conflict, are keys to who we are, to the essential person. Some are just window dressing. But it does just come down to the fact the we ARE all the same, regardless of whether we are blonde or red-haired or black or Asian or white or Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

And because we are basically all the same, that means our civilizations and countries and organizations–all are basically the same too. Each has done good and bad. Each has had some kind of Group Think that leads to some kind of wrong-doing or some kind of real and lasting good. Each has similar faults, which is why people can write books that speak of how, in general, this (whatever it is) is how it is, and this is why such and such should be done instead. But each culture or country has done something not so good, each has been guilty of some kind of genicide, of some kind of terrorism, of some kind of greed or irresponsibility–some more, some less, some now, some in the past, and some most likely in the future.

What is good is that we, like the characters in our novels, can grow and change, become more, in order to deal with the obstacles that are presented to us, obstacles to our goals. But we are still essentially the same. Some people like to emphasize the differences, for good and bad. Some like to emphasize the similarities, for good or bad. Some people get caught up in thinking a group is either all bad or that they must be all good…otherwise it’s prejudice, but that’s just another form of prejudice.  No group–or person–is either all bad or all good.

I think we should emphasize and value both our similarities and our differences–as we do with any fictional character, hero, heroine or villain. That’s why we don’t write unsympathetic protagonists, because no one wants to read about them, and because they really don’t exist. Not that we should value badness. But only our perceptions of them exist or change, depending on what we know about them, how they are presented to us–or come presented to us or how those created preconceptions have blinded us sometimes to who people are, either a character or a real person. Our differences are tests, they are our obstacles to our potential–as both ourselves, and our countries and our world, could be thought of as the hero in our story.

Because we have those basic similarities and differences, we are mirrors of each other–all of us. Some recent readings come to mind here, when I think of mirrors. I’ve been reading “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron, that one section about how we have “mirror neurons” that allow us to “experience” what other people experience, either by empathizing or by reading about other people/characters in story. [There is much more to it than that, but you’ll have to read the book.] So perhaps our basic wiring should give us hope, that in writing or reading our stories, especially the ones that most resonate with our most inner selves, we grow in both our understanding of others but also of ourselves, and perhaps that will lead us–all of us–to valuing both our differences and our similarities. It is only in those differences and similarities–what we are–that we will find the way as humans, as a country, as readers and writers and thus, as heroes or heroines in our own stories.

So this is my Christmas blog. Grace and character arc…birth, beginnings, potential, growth, conflict, resolution. Maybe I’ve said too little about too much or not enough. I certainly haven’t said everything I could say, or everything there is to say. Thoughts?

Interior Book Design — Ebooks

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

I love ebooks. I buy them, borrow them. For my Kindle Fire.

But as a publishing professional, who has some training in interior book design and a love of books, I’ve noticed that ebooks don’t usually have a lot of interior design elements. I’d love to see the art of bookmaking restored, in epublishing. And maybe it will be. I’ve noticed a gradual change from the first ebooks, toward a certain standard, geared toward making the reading experience better, and for navigating through a book. Not that I wouldn’t buy an ebook that is basic in style or presentation. It’s not the wrapping but the substance that counts. It’s the writing, and writing a great book–writing great books–that gets reader to return to an author’s novels again and again.

And of course, there is always the cost consideration–costs for cover design, for formatting, and so on. And now add interior design?

But there is a part of me that would like to see a bit of a renaissance of the art of bookmaking, applied to ebooks. Certainly, there are parts of interior design that aren’t really needed in ebooks. Page numbers, or folios,  for example.

Interior design can add a little style, flavor, beauty and personality to books. An aesthetic appeal. There are typographical ornaments called Dingbats, and Drop caps. Running heads and running feet, chapters openings with design elements, front matter, back matter and epigraphs–all of these things are part of the art of bookmaking.

And certainly, ebooks have their own special interior attributes: links, dictionaries, and so on. I can’t complain–I’m still really appreciating them.

Epublishing is still changing, growing. Cover design still has its place. Maybe interior design will gradually emerge in ebooks too.

 

Story Arc … and I pose a question

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

The Story Arc is the essential or main plot, the external conflict that becomes the focus of the hero or heroine through which all the conflict is played.

The external conflict involves the protagonist’s main goal and the obstacles that must be overcome.  A novel begins by establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, and then moves the action ahead with the Inciting Incident, the escalating conflict and turning points,  the black moment, and concludes with the climax, and resolution.

In my previous blog post about conflict (last week), I wrote that conflict unifies and drives the story.  Without conflict, without a unifying plot of some sort, there is no novel. By definition, a novel must have a plot.

The story arc is set up in Act One, by introducing all the story elements–characters, plot, setting, tone, Inciting Incident, POV. The setup orients the readers and focuses the story line.  The Inciting Incident should happen within the first 3 chapters.

But the setup of the story is not completed when the inciting incident happens. Here I’ll pose my question to readers of this blog: What element that starts with the letter C must be introduced to complete the setup? (I’ll answer the question in a future blog if the Comments don’t provide the answer.)

More about Story Arc: The story arc and suspense are powered by the turning points, obstacles, barriers, reversals and complications.  The suspense, as a function of that external conflict or story arc, should be strong enough to carry the reader through to the end of the book. If the story arc ends too soon, the novel, action and characters would then have no direction, no purpose.–the conflict ends, the suspense ends and you’ve lost the readers.

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I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference, which is October 6th & 7th, with pre-conference workshops on Friday.

Have a wonderful week!!  And a happy and hot August!

Writing Conflict: some shoulds and shouldn’ts

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Conflict is a key ingredient of fiction. Conflict unifies and drives the story.  In fiction, you have some characters, you have a plot… but it is the characters enacting and reacting to the conflict–obstacles, reversals, complications, turning points–that makes up the plot.

Here are some shoulds and shouldn’ts:

Conflict Should be a part of every scene.

Conflict should build on what has happened previously–escalation.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something the protagonist could just walk away from.

The Conflict should involve something where the goals of the protagonist and villain are mutually exclusive–for example, the villain wants to do something and the protagonist wants to prevent whatever that is from happening.  Or the protagonist and the villain both want something or someone but their goals are in direct opposition and only one can achieve the goal–and thus, the conflict. They might want whatever/whoever it is for different reasons, but the objective is the same. But both cannot win.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something that could just be resolved with a conversation.

The conflict should have a sense of immediacy–the readers should feel the action happening as though they were a part of it, as it unfolds. It is partly this sense of immediacy that keeps the reader turning the pages.

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For more on conflict and fiction, I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference in October.

Have a great weekend and week!!

The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: http://bit.ly/zdCMWy on my website www.documentdriven.com.]

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Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?