Category Archives: Writing Craft

REVVING YOUR CHARACTER’S “ENGINE OF DESIRE”

Last month, I attended Amy Hassinger‘s “Revving the Machine of Desire: How to Write a Compelling Novel Opening” at Midwest Writing Center’s annual David R. Collins Writers’ Conference. During the workshop, we talked about using a character’s want or desire to get starting writing our novels. We talked about how it’s important to define the character’s concrete want as well as his or her underlying, fundamental, or more intangible want. 

For example, in my next novel, my main character wants to start a family with her new husband. This is her concrete want. Her underlying want is unconditional love. Some of the students knew their characters’ concrete wants right away but had more trouble defining the underlying wants. 

I was reminded of my website article in December, “Define Your Why to Stay Motivated for Book Marketing,” and thought the method could be used to define a character’s underlying want or desire as well. So, here it is:

To find your character’s underlying want, keep asking why until you can go no further. Start with the concrete want.

In my case, a baby. Why?

Becuase she wants a family different from the one she grew up in. Why?

Because she felt like she needed to be perfect in order to be loved. Why?

She wanted unconditional love. Why?

Well, just because.

When the why seems to be intrinsically motivated or gets down to a basic want for love/affection, control, safety/security, to be right, to figure things out or some other basic, fundamental want, you’ve found it.

If you try this and it works, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment or contact me.

IN THE TRENCHES – DRAFTING WOES

I am still drafting my Taming the Twisted sequel – problem is, I don’t know if I’m on the first draft, or the second, or third, or what. It is going very slow. Maybe you can relate…

This is the least linear book I’ve ever written. I started out writing it from the original novel’s main character’s point of view. Then I realized I was bored with her, so I decided to tell the story from the younger sister, Alice’s, perspective. So I wrote myself a letter as Alice telling the author (me) why I should write her side of the story. This gave me a pretty good outline to use to knock out some words during NaNoWriMo.

Since nothing was in order, early this year, I wrote the scenes I had on notecards, rearranged them into an order that made some sense to me, and then started drafting additional scenes. After readjustments, I think I finally have them in the order in which they need to be, except since the last book ended with the start of the Civil War and the sequel mostly picks up toward the end of it, I have lots of gaps to fill – I’m thinking I’ll have to divide it into two parts or maybe weave more of the during-Civil-War stuff in as more back story.

Just this morning, I finished my most recent read through where I actually wrote additional scenes or simply put notes in: “[Put scene showing XYZ here].” At this point in the draft, the whole thing feels like a huge mess and I’m seriously tempted to scrap it all. Luckily, though, this isn’t my first book, so I remember feeling this way at least somewhat (I think it’s worse this time, though), but I persevered and got the book done in a way that at least was logical to me.

So my writing craft lesson today is this: Have faith!! You will hit speed bumps while writing your story, and it may even seem like such a mess you want to give it all up. But don’t. Just push through and keep going. Have faith that the solutions will come to you.

Can you relate? If so, I’d love to hear about it so please comment.

Writing Craft Book Review – SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder has been on my to-read list for quite a while. I don’t have any particular aspirations to write screenplays, but I know learning about writing from all different viewpoints is helpful, and this one had been recommended to me as a particularly good book.

Save the Cat is entertaining and enlightening. Spoiler Alert: The title comes from the part of the movie where unsympathetic protagonists do something to endear themselves to the audience, such as saving a cat.

What resonated with me the most about this book and that I can most closely apply to my own writing is the idea that I must know what my book is about, including the who, what, when, where, why, and how. It also reinforced the importance of the elevator pitch or very short summary you can spit out in a breath or two when someone asks you what your book is about. 

Save the Cat essentially gives a formula for writing screenplays that may make it to the mainstream movie theaters. I enjoyed reading about the author’s movie genres and found the discussion of beats instructive, though the beats of what I write are different than what you’d find in a movie screenplay.

I would agree with those that recommended Save the Cat as a good book to read regardless of what you’re writing and encourage you to do the same.

Planting Evidence in Mysteries

I touched on this topic when writing about storyboarding a long time ago, but I thought it might be helpful to add more detail, hence this post.

When writing mysteries, you are likely going to have lots of evidence you need to bring into your story. There will likely be evidence that points to the actual criminal, to the someone whom you want readers to wonder about (the decoy), and perhaps to others unrelated to the crime. To keep track of this evidence and make sure they got into my story, I developed a system.

First, I drafted one- or two-line summaries of each of my planned chapters. I then printed them out, cut them apart, and pasted them to a piece of foam core board with enough space to insert small sticky notes between them.

Next, I wrote my bits of evidence on different colored small sticky notes, using one color for the real killer, one color for the decoy, and one for others. Then, I stuck the notes underneath the chapter descriptions into which I wanted to include the evidence.

As I wrote the chapters, I kept the board in front of me to keep on track and make sure I included the evidence I needed. Using the sticky notes allowed me to rearrange them if I changed my mind.

Do you have any tricks for keeping crime evidence (or other facts you need to incorporate) organized and ensuring you include them in your story? If so, please share them in the comments below.

Do-It-Yourself Writing Retreats

Nahant Marsh
Nahant Marsh, Davenport, Iowa

This post originally appeared on the Book Marketing Tools Blog on October 20, 2016. Go here to read it.

If you’re anything like me, when you read the latest writing magazine edition, you look longingly at the ads promoting retreats to write in beautiful places with beautiful views, wishing you could find the time and money to take one. And if you’re anything like me, you have other obligations monopolizing your time and money, preventing you from enjoying such a retreat.

In August, 2016, I decided to take matters into my own hands to create my own writing retreat. I live in the Quad Cities, a metro consisting of four larger and several small cities and town situated on opposite sides of the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois. I cleared my calendar and set aside two days to get out of my house and write. Granted, you may not live in an area like I do where there is an abundance of inspirational destinations readily available, but I bet if you get creative, you can create your own writing retreat, too.

Look No Further Than Your Own Backyard

Literally. Take your notebook or computer and sit outside in your backyard. It’s great if the weather is pleasant, but huddled under an umbrella in the rain or snow could give you some interesting material, too.

After your backyard (or if you don’t have a backyard), look to your town and region for places to write. Visit museums or historical attractions and write what you observe. I went to the local art museum and plan to take a one-day retreat soon to write at Buffalo Bill Cody’s home and a pioneer village. Even if you don’t have a museum nearby, most locations have some sort of public art or historical marker you can visit.

Most every town also has some sort of park or natural area where you can sit quietly to write. I visited a marsh area on the Mississippi River and took a water taxi to different places along the river (this also gave me a great perspective of Iowa and Illinois from the river). Coffee shops and book stores are also great places to write. You can learn a lot about dialogue and human interaction by eavesdropping at these locations. If you already frequent certain coffee or book shops, look around to try to find new ones to visit.

You can use your writing retreat to work on a certain project or to just be inspired in general. If your latest project takes place in a real setting, go there (it may take more planning if it’s further away), walk the ground, and write what you see, smell, feel, and touch. Even if you haven’t worked out your plot yet, you can put your character in a space and write about how he or she would navigate it.

If you absolutely cannot get out of your home to do a writer’s retreat, you can still create one in your own home. The key is setting aside the time and giving yourself permission to focus only on your writing. Treat it like an actual trip; tell your family your plans (even if they roll their eyes), and make it clear you aren’t to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.

The Rules

Whether you take your retreat at home or away, do your best to minimize or eliminate distractions. Hide your phone, turn it off, or at least put it on “do not disturb” mode. If you enjoy television or playing video games, set a time for your retreat day to be over (I chose 8 p.m.) and stay away from the programs and games until then. If you are not actively writing, use the time to read instead.

Be Ready For Resistance

Each morning when I set out on my do-it-yourself writing retreat, I had to overcome resistance. I felt strange and somewhat guilty for stealing the time away to only focus on my writing, reading, and thoughts. The weather wasn’t ideal when I took my retreat either, though the warm, muggy air was typical for Iowa summer days, so I was really tempted to stay at home where it was cool. Going to the art museum helped me here because I couldn’t use air conditioning as an excuse not to go. Once I got started, I was glad I forced myself to follow my plans. Write down your itinerary and the rules you plan to follow, and if you need to, make a bargain with yourself that you’ll only go for an hour or two; then, if you really want to, you will let yourself quit. It’s your retreat so you can do what you want, but chances are, you’ll want to finish the day.

What tricks or tips do you have for making time for your writing? Please share as a comment below.

Character Development – Write a Letter

pen-paperWithin the last few months, I started writing my sequel to Taming the Twisted, starting off with that book’s character’s, Abigail’s, point-of-view, essentially starting where Taming the original left off. I quickly got bored. About seven pages in, I got the idea of writing the book from one of the other character’s point-of-view, Alice, the younger sister’s.

I started the experiment by copying and pasting all of the scenes from the original book where Alice appeared in a Word document, which I printed.  I tried outlining in the traditional way to try to figure out how Alice could step in to solve the mysteries that would show up in the sequel. That didn’t work at all.

Then I had the thought, What if I write a letter from Alice to me, the author, telling me why I should tell the sequel’s story from her point-of-view? So that’s what I did. I wrote it out long hand with pen and lined notebook paper. I went through Alice’s thoughts, what she did, how she did it, and why telling the story from her perspective was important. I ended up with somewhere around 10 pages filled, front and back.

I’m now using that as my outline during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I type up what I wrote until I get to what feels like it could be a scene, and then I write that scene. It’s allowed me to rack up over 30,000 words before the month’s halfway point. 

I think this method is working so well for me because it allowed me to get into this other character’s head. It also allowed me to simply tell her story without worrying about showing, scene setting, and adequate description. At the end of the month, I’m hoping to have 50,000 words that I can tear apart, rearrange, add to, and fix in the revision process.

Have you every tried writing a letter from your character to yourself? If so, how did it work? I’d love to hear about so feel free to comment in the comment section.

Review of diyMFA by Gabriela Pereira

diyMFA BookI’d previously heard someone mention the do-it-yourself masters-of-fine-arts degree in creative writing during a presentation, so I was thrilled when I came across Gabriela Pereira’s book, diyMFA. I’m also prone to doubts (watch my YouTube video here about how I release them); one of which is that I need an MFA in fiction writing to be successful. Thankfully, after reading diyMFA, I now know that it’s not necessary. Not only that, but with a diy MFA, I can tailor my study to my specific genre, historical fiction.

Gabriela breaks the diy MFA concept down into three categories to concentrate on to varying degrees at varying points in the process: write with focus, read with purpose, and build your community. The book addresses each of these areas, with the bulk concentrating on writing with focus. It gives you insight into traditional MFA components that you can incorporate into your own practice; things like writing every day, having people review your work, and connecting with other writers. I also liked how the book encompasses more than just writing mechanics, providing advice on what to do to help build the platform you’ll need when you publish, all while writing your book. I mistakenly thought that I would have to finish an MFA before I wrote my next book, but with Gabriela’s technique, you write the book while working on the diy MFA.

You can find diyMFA on Amazon here and you can learn more about the program and get lots of other information at DIYMFA.com.

Have you or are you endeavoring to complete your own diy MFA? I’d love to hear how it went or how it’s going. Just comment below. I’ll talk about my diy MFA progress in upcoming writing craft posts.

MY RECENT GYMNASTICS WORKSHOP

Felicia SchneiderhanLast month, I attended Felicia Schneiderhan’s “Advanced Fiction Writing” a/k/a “Gymnastics for Writers” workshop at the Midwest Writing Center‘s David R. Collins Writers’ Conference. The workshop used different techniques over the workshop’s three days to stretch the imagination and get the participants thinking about different ways to write their stories.

The first day, we played with point of view; Felicia first had us write a scene from our story in the 3rd person omniscient point of view. After a few minutes, we had to immediately switch to 3rd person limited, and then to first person, letter format, and finally to a bystander or unreliable narrator.

On day two, we discussed writing form and practiced with writing a scene in “regular” form and then we switched to a story within a story and dream, ending with a form of our choice. I chose the list form, which really helped me to get the scene’s facts down in a “down and dirty” way. This should will make it easier to write the full scene when I get to it.

On the third day, we played with time, writing different scenes at different times with a common thread between them. I chose to focus on surfaces that had been painted over several times. I had the most difficulty wrapping my mind around these ones. My first scene took place in a church at Alice’s (from Taming the Twisted) wedding; the second scene put Abigail (also from Taming) on an excursion boat with her husband, and the final scene took place in Abigail’s parlor when the truth becomes visible (don’t want to include any spoilers).

I enjoyed the workshop and benefited from it immensely. It showed me that being a writer is more than just sitting down at my computer and tapping out my story. Honing the craft requires play and exercise. Do you have any favorite “gymnastic” moves you like to use to help you explore your characters and/or stories? If so, please share as a comment below.

SINGING THE PRAISES OF FREE WRITING

Free writingI’m not sure if it was the first time I was introduced to free writing, but the first time free writing really stuck with me was when I read Natalie Goldberg’s, Wild Mind, in high school. I was struck by the concept of just letting the words dump out onto the page without caring about grammar, punctuation, or even if it was written well. It was so freeing.

When I’ve taught beginning creative writing workshops, I always stress the benefits of free writing. I even talked about how free writing can help marketing professionals create content in a recent PR Network presentation.

You never know what you’re going to bring out when you free write. It may simply just clear out the junk so you can write what you really want to write. Or you might think of your next big idea. Or you could flush out character profiles or plot twists. Or your random words can turn into a poem later. This has happened to me a lot. I thought I was just writing random things that popped into my head, but when I reread it later, I found meaning and a poem.

There are many different ways to free write, but I’ve often had the best results with timed free writing. Set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes or however long you have and keep your hand moving. If you get stuck, write “I don’t know what to write,” or whatever pissings and moanings you can think up. Eventually, your brain will get bored with that and give you something more meaningful.

Another technique I learned from Natalie Goldberg is to set your timer for an additional three to five minutes after the first timer goes off. As she advises will happen, I’m often startled at what comes out in those last few minutes, writing that would be lost if you stopped writing.

In either Wild Mind or Writing Down the Bones (or both), Natalie Goldberg provides some great “rules” for free writing:

  • Keep your hand moving
  • Lose control
  • Be specific
  • Don’t think, just write
  • Don’t worry
  • You are free to write junk
  • Go for the jugular

I try to remember to follow these rules every time I free write random things or on a specific project like a novel. Once I get that first draft of whatever it is down, I know that half the battle is over.

Do you have any free writing tips? Fee free to share them in the comments section.