Category Archives: Writing Craft

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.

 

Get Your Writing Done – In Months, Not Years

calendar dateThis post originally appeared on the Book Marketing Tools website in October, 2015 (click here to view it).

So you intend to write a book. Many, many people do, but there are just a few who seem to actually get it accomplished. You’re not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling who make enough money off of their books so that writing gets to be their job. You’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed, and a roof to provide.

But, guess what?

There was once a time when Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and a whole host of other well-known, well-paid writers had to do things other than writing to get their bills paid, mouths fed, and roofs provided, too. Just search for their bios and you will find that at one time, they worked other jobs (sometimes crappy ones) before they hit it big with their writing. But, still, they got their books done.

How did they do it?

On those same searches, I’m sure you can find out how Stephen King and J.K. Rowling got their writing done while living a whole other life, too. (I know you can in Stephen King’s On Writing book.) I’m not sure what they are, but I have a method that works for me.

Maybe it can work for you, too.

The key is organization. You need to know where you need to spend your time, where you want to spend your time, and have a way to budget that time.

Get a handle on the project

First, evaluate your project’s scope. What’s involved? How long will it take to complete each task? Make a list of all of the things you need to do to complete your book along with the time you think it will take to complete each task (adding 20% to provide flexibility). Don’t feel like you need to list out every single last detail; feel free to group things. For example, you can have the task of “plan publishing” and allow one month or “beta reading” allowing three months. Then, you need only put “plan beta reading” on your calendar at the appropriate time; then you can do another plan for that set of tasks.

Schedule your to-dos

Next, put your tasks in the order in which they need to be completed, somehow identifying which tasks could be done simultaneously. Now, look at your schedule of other things to which you are obligated – like your outside job, kids’ activities, grocery shopping, etc. – and realistically choose a due date for publication, taking into account all of your obligations. Be realistic and give yourself plenty of time, but not too much time that you feel like you can put off getting started.

Work backwards and note due dates for each of the other items on your to-do list that need to get done in order to get to publication. Using whatever calendar you use, insert those due dates. Along with the completion date, calendar dates to begin the tasks and even intermediate dates (“continue working on x”) if it’s a longer term item.

It works

I used this method to complete my latest novel, Taming the Twisted. When I first started, I wasn’t sure where I was going with it or how long it would take and I had no real timetable because I had other books coming out at the time, so I just committed to writing one hour every week day. When I had about half of it done, knew where I wanted it to go, and decided I wanted to release it in one year, I implemented this system.

After figuring out how many chapters I had left to write, the beta reading and revision steps, publication steps, and marketing planning steps, I worked backwards from my publication date to create my schedule. To get the first draft done in time to do everything else, I decided I could write a chapter each week, which left me plenty of time to finish and have my books in my hands ready to sell at my launch on August 15th.

Get to work

Once you create your plan and schedule your tasks, all you have to do next is make appointments with yourself to complete them. If you get off, don’t beat yourself up; just rework your plan and go from there.

Do you have any methods that have worked for keeping your work on track and moving forward? If so, I’d love to hear about them. Just comment below.

Happy 2016!

champagneAnother year has come and gone. It’s hard to believe that just 16 short years ago at this time, we were wondering why we were all getting our panties so up in bunches over Y2K…

Though I reflect on the previous and make plans for the next year, I’m one of those “no resolution” type people; if I need to start a new habit, I do it whenever I resolve I need to, even if it’s a random Thursday. Of course, with things like eating healthy and exercise, I have to get back on track every year after the holidays. But I don’t necessarily see that as a resolution.

For the past few years, I’ve been participating in a movement to focus on just one word for the year. The first year was confidence, last year was  connection, and this year it’s strengthen. So I thought I’d take this blog post opportunity to talk about how I’ll apply strengthen to writing craft.

Number one is to strengthen my writing schedule. After finishing a book in 2015, marketing it, and doing lots of other projects, I kind of got away from a regular writing habit. If I want to finish my next novel anytime soon, I need to revisit that habit. To do it, I’ve scheduled hour long writing sessions into four days each week in my calendar. At least two of the days, I’ll actually write on my novel and the other two days, plus more when I can manage it, I’ll devote to researching the early 1900s.

What word would you like to focus on in 2016 with regard to your writing craft? Feel free to share in the comment section below.

WRITING’S DIRTY WORDS: FEEDBACK, CRITIQUE

communityDoes the thought of handing your writing over to a writing group to critique make you sweat with fear? Or maybe you’d like to join a writing group but you are nervous about what to say to your group-mates? If you are serious about your writing, you have surely heard that giving and receiving feedback is an important part of the process. It is true that feedback from others helps you to make your writing stronger. But it can be difficult. Letting others read your work, especially if you are not sure about its quality, can be a nerve-wracking experience. And if that’s not enough, when you join a critique group or attend a feedback session, you will be expected to deliver constructive criticism on others’ work as well. You may wonder what you have to offer others when you are still receiving help on your own work. The answer is a lot.

Unless you are in a writing group with Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or some other multi-national best-selling author, everyone in the group is in the same place (and I suspect even the famous authors receive some degree of working feedback). Whether you’ve written one book or six dozen, it is always valuable to know how readers see your writing and to listen to what works and what could be improved. Similarly, if you are interested enough in books and writing to be participating in a writing group, you have plenty to offer. If you follow the following advice, you can help to ensure a more helpful, fulfilling experience.

Giving Feedback

Writing and critique groups follow varying formats for sharing work. Usually, the number of pages will be decided upon in advance depending on the number of participants and the time allotted for the group meeting. Sometimes, they exchange pages via email or hard copy a certain amount of time in advance of the meeting, and sometimes the authors will read their pages to the group at the beginning of the meeting. Manuscripts may also be exchanged so someone else will read your work aloud, which can also be helpful.

If you receive writing ahead of time, read the pages carefully and make notes. It can also help to read it through the first time as a typical reader and then read it through a second time with a more critical eye. Make notes of things you found interesting, unique descriptions, poignant moments, and other passages or elements you enjoyed. Also note any questions you have, areas which were unclear for you, and if you have a suggestion for changing a word or a phrase, jot down the change. If pages are read at the meeting, listen as closely as possible and make the same notes.

When it is your turn to provide feedback, remember the sandwich method. First, point out at least two or three things you found interesting or enjoyable. Next, point out a couple of areas where you had questions, were confused, or that could be improved. For feedback on hard copies received in advance, you can skip over the small, copyediting changes because the writer will be able to see those when they get their pages back. Finally, end your feedback by naming an additional positive aspect or reiterating what you enjoyed.

Another thing to keep in mind while giving feedback is specificity. Avoid saying “it was good,” or “it was bad.” Include what specifically needs improvement or which particular words worked well. If you think an area needs to be better, try to offer suggestions about how it could be made stronger. Remember to be kind, which will be easy if you approach the experience as it should be approached: a group of people with common goals getting together to help each other improve their writing. Keep in mind that just as they are not experts, you are also not an expert. For all you know, what they wrote could be perfect; you are just offering your own opinions and perspectives and they are free to accept the advice or dismiss it.

Getting Feedback

Putting your work out there for others to judge can be a harrowing experience. What if they hate it? As mentioned above, if you cared enough to put it on paper and submit your work for review, there is going to be something good. And if they hate it, that is just that person’s opinion and it doesn’t doom your work for the trashcan; maybe that person just doesn’t know good writing when they see it. Regardless, if you find a caring, positive, help-oriented critique group, even if they did hate it, they will be able to pick some good things out and point out some areas where it may benefit from some changes.

When it’s your turn to get feedback, the most important thing to do is listen and take notes. If your group-mates have specific questions, answer them but don’t elaborate. Plan to have the urge to defend your work, pointing out what you meant, or attempting to correct viewpoints and then plan to bite your tongue, sit on your hands, or do whatever else you have to do to keep yourself from verbalizing those urges. However, while listening, do pay particular attention to passages, phrases, or sentences the readers didn’t understand or misunderstood as well as their questions, because these are like big red flags waving in the air indicating your writing was not clear enough in those areas.

Remember your critique group just wants to help you and, like you (presumably), they are all amateurs. Their opinions count and should be considered, but they are not the final words; If you think about what they say and decide they’re wrong, go with your gut instinct and don’t change it. A caveat, however: if several people say the same thing, consider what they said again a little more carefully before you dismiss them as wrong. And just because everyone says the same thing, it still doesn’t mean they are correct, so, in the end, don’t be afraid to go against the masses if you feel that strongly. Finally, say, “Thank you.” When you get home, read through your notes so they will be clear to you if you won’t be getting around to revisions right away. And then keep writing.

Feedback, giving it and getting it, is an integral part of the writing process. It can be scary, but don’t let that fear stop you from participating. Acknowledge your fear and do it anyway; follow these tips and hopefully doing it anyway will be a little easier.