Thursday, December 30, 2010

Be It Resolved That . . .

I make New Year’s resolutions every year. Not many. Usually two or three—things like: read more, walk more, give back more. I usually do well with my resolutions. I don’t make them too big, or too dependent on money. I make what I call “gentle resolutions.” The success I have with them feels good and compels me to make new resolutions each year.

But this post isn’t about my resolutions or yours either; it’s about the writing. More specifically, it’s about our characters and what they’ve resolved to do or not do.

I looked up the word resolution and found the meaning: a firm determination. I believe that it’s the firm determinations of our characters, and the challenges to those determinations, that create the most compelling fiction. For an illustrative example, I offer Pookie, a character from the movie New Jack City. (Spoiler alert) Pookie, played by Chris Rock, is a recovering crack addict working undercover in, of all places, a crack house. IMO, the most well-played, dramatic moment in the film is when Pookie sits sweating and shaking in a dimly lit bedroom “staring down” the crack pipe in front of him. By this time in the movie, I’m rooting for Pookie’s recovery. I’d been with him through the tweeks and pukes and misery of his withdrawal and sighed relief at his proud return to being drug free. And then . . . a break in his resolve challenges his firm determination.

The struggle between his strength and weakness could have landed on the cutting room floor. Mario Van Peebles, the director, could have cut to the scene where Pookie is high as a kite, and the audience would have understood exactly what happened. But witnessing the battle is what brings the emotional investment from the audience. Like me, I’m sure other viewers were shouting “Don’t do it, Pookie!” in their minds. And when his addiction won, I’ll bet most of us were sourly disappointed in him and highly concerned for the success of the undercover operation. In fiction, a character’s struggle with his/her firm determination engages readers in much the same way.

What are your main characters resolved to do or not do? What scene will show them at cross purposes with their own determination? My current WIP is a short story about a doctor (sworn to do no harm) who finds herself faced with the dilemma of having to kill for the greater good. I haven’t gotten to that part yet, so I still don’t know if she’ll go through with it. But I can’t wait to write that scene to find out.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope that in 2011, you find success with all of your firm determinations.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Maximise the Power of Your Brain - Tony Buzan MIND MAPPING

I've used mindmaps for years--mostly to manage projects at work. I've also used them to plot scenes or to jumpstart an idea for a new novel.

Want to unlock the magnificent creativity of your brain? Get some colored pens, a sheet of white paper, and create a mindmap of your character. This process will free your imagination to go places in your story that you probably wouldn't have thought of otherwise. (I can almost guarantee that.)

Have fun! Mindmapping is playtime with remarkable results. There is no right or wrong way. Only your way.

Explore your genius!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hitting on Readers: The First Line | Ann Stephens Romance

I have a passion for great first lines in fiction. I must confess, if a book doesn't have a first line that knocks me out, I usually leave it on the shelf at the bookstore.

I have a collection of my favorite first lines and often use that collection in a class I teach called "Great Beginnings." A few of my favorites are:

"I'm naked." Between Lovers. Eric Jerome Dickey

"You better not never tell nobody but God." The Color Purple. Alice Walker

"Everybody cheated, at least everybody Tony Valentine had ever known." Grift Sense. James Swain

"They shoot the white girl first." Paradise. Tony Morrison

Ann sums up the importance of first lines brilliantly on her blog.

Hitting on Readers: The First Line Ann Stephens Romance


Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Artist Date: Hot Shops

Those of you familiar with The Artist’s Way will know what I mean when I say I went on my Artist Date

"The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly "artistic"-- think mischief more than mastery."

This weekend was the Holiday Open House for Hot Shops. Hot Shops is a big warehouse that is home to over 80 artists who have studios there. On the first floor of the warehouse, there are gallery spaces, as well as other display areas where artists exhibit their work. The other two floors hold the studios which range in size from small dens to medium stores.

During the open house, the artists are there and their studios are open. Visitors can go in, see the work, talk to the artists about their work and, of course, purchase the art. This year was the best Hot Shops open house I’ve been to. There was no parking for blocks and the hallways were snug with art and art lovers.

The event featured the expected art types: paintings, sculpture, photography, jewelry, mixed media, ceramics. I was very impressed with the less expected arts like glass blowing, bronze casting, and blacksmithing.

Many of the artists were not only in their studios, but they were working. It was refreshing to be present during the design and birth of someone else’s vision. I kept staring at their faces wondering if my features look that intense when I write.

I’m selfish when it comes to galleries and museums. I go to them for “art appreciation” certainly, but more importantly, I go to them for art inspiration. Art informs my writing. When I see all the ways in which others are creative, it affirms my own creativity and reminds me that there are no boundaries. I’m able to think and write in new ways.

When I left, my head was filled with the images of faces I’d seen in the art pieces, faces I’d love to put into stories. I jotted notes about them in my notebook. I especially like Kesha—the little girl whose braids were made of puzzle pieces painted over by the artist. Those with dreds know there’s more than hair locked into those thick, knotted chords. There are lifetimes: passions, sorrows, prayers, tears, devotions, breaths . . . Shoot . . . Where’s my pen?

Paper Fondling

Yesterday my writers group held our Christmas party. We had a potluck and a gift exchange—the kind where everyone picks a gift or “steals” a gift that someone else has. Our theme was to bring something that inspires us. Not surprisingly, several of the gifts were wine, chocolate, or wine & chocolate. There were also several writing journals. One of the journals had a pretty, fern-green, viney print on the cover. But the most interesting part of the journal was the paper inside. The woman who brought it said she picked it because the paper was so smooth.

Of course, the woman who’d chosen the journal opened it and felt the paper. That led to the first, “Oh my gosh . . . “ She slid her fingers across the paper for a few more seconds while the rest of us watched intrigued. This is how it started.

Well, I’m sure you can guess the person next to her had to have a feel. That reaction might have been, “Oh!” but after a while, the responses ran over each other. The proud owner of the smooth paper walked the journal around to each of us so we all could cop a feel.

“Whoo.” “Oh my gosh.” “Wow.” “Oh . . . ”

I’m telling you that paper was like silk. My hand melted against it. The rubbin’ was good.

The perfect word on the right paper is magical. For writers, paper is another tool that we sometimes use to get the story right. I’ve been imagining the kinds of stories I could get right on that smooth paper ever since I felt it. I may have to get one of those journals.

Our paper lust yesterday reminded me that there’s nothing like the validation of like minds. People who understand the unique strangeness of that thing you’re really in to. There’s a special kinship and connectedness that comes from that. It can make your conviction strong and your determination stronger.

Just when you think you’re the weird one, you discover there are others out there just like you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crop Where You Stop

I'm often asked how I find time to write. My usual response is, "I don't find time, I make time." I've done local and national workshops on the topic of "finding time," but this YouTube video by Jan, one of my favorite papercrafters, shows the dedication to "finding time" in action.

Jan's husband is recovering from a serious illness. During his hospital stay, Jan has managed to keep on top of crafting--something that she's passionate about. I connected with Jan's experience because it reminded me that when my mother was in a hospice facility, she would kick me out of her room after about an hour. So, I would go to the lobby of the facility and give my mom the space she wanted by writing on my word processor for a while. Then I would go back in to my mom's room and stay until she kicked me out again. I did this over and over. After the experience, it proved to me that the time we want is there . . . if we really want it.

People come up with reasons (read excuses) for not writing . But maybe, there really aren't that many.

Thanks, Jan for the inspiration!

Writing with Style

When you need the answer to a grammar question, you can type your question into an internet browser and if you’re lucky, you’ll wade through enough sites until you eventually find one that offers the right guidance for you. Perhaps you have a few reputable sites bookmarked specifically for that purpose.

I’m old school. I keep style manuals on hand. Style manuals provide me with grammar and usage guidelines, rules, explanations, and examples. If I ever have questions on capitalization or where the commas go in a compound sentence, I can find the answers easily in one of my books.

Here are the style manuals I use:

Prentice Hall

For quick reference of general situations, this is easy to use.

FranklinCovey Style Guide

This is an expanded reference with more entries and explanations than Prentice Hall. The best thing is many of the examples and explanations are in color, and the guide comes with a CD!

The Gregg Reference Manual

For me, this is the grammar and usage holy grail! It provides examples of any type of grammar situation imaginable. If you have a question about grammar, style, punctuation, and usage . . . the answer is in this book. It’s one of my must haves.

Unless I’m writing a research paper for a class, I avoid MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), and The Chicago Manual of Style. Those things give me flashbacks of all-night typing sessions (and I do mean typing as in: typing on a typewriter), NoDoz, and bad coffee.

If you have a favorite style manual or website, please share it.

“A writer without good grammar is like a cook confused about how to use pots and pans.”
--Kim Louise

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Go With The Flizo

My favorite place to write is in a coffee shop not far from my house. I think I’ve written eight books there. I go there tonight fully expecting to get my Nano 1,666 words on, and when I open the door I notice the place is packed. Not only that, there’s a scraggily guy with a ball cap and a guitar singing just near the front door. Selfishly, I was not happy.

Who are these people invading my creative spot? Since when did my coffee place turn into a nightclub? And the fact that there was nowhere to sit near an outlet ticked me off. I walked up to the counter and the barista says, “The usual?” I told her it depended on whether I could find a place to sit. Just when I was ready to leave, one of the regulars buys my latte. Grateful for his generosity, I decided to stick around and at least take a listen to what interrupted my date with dedication.

Turns out, I liked the music. Very new age meets folk with a splash of grunge. It was standing room only in the front, so I stood with my backpack and latte nodding my head to this guy’s adult alternative beat.

Finally, I saw a couple leave from the back and I took a seat, plugged in my laptop and thought about what to write. What came out was an unplanned scene with my main character going to his favorite bar only to find a band there. He hates the band . . . at first until he realizes that the band was in a way “warming up” the women and that it would be easier for him to find a date for the evening.

Okay, I write all that to explore the significance of going with the flow when we write. Of being flexible. The older I get, the easier it is for me to be rigid about things. I don’t want anything to disturb my groove once I get in it. But I wrote a great scene tonight. I took in my surroundings and dumped them right into my story. I was open to something new. I heard some great music. I typed to it. I was inspired by this singer’s ambition to tour and promote himself, and I was challenged to deviate from my plan and create anyway.

That’s what successful writers do . . . they write anyway. Tonight was a surprising success.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Every year, thousands of writers from around the world participate in National Novel Writing Month. The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. There are forums on the site where writers keep each other encouraged, motivated, and help brainstorm and share ideas to help fellow writers create the best work of fiction possible.

I participate every year. I've only gotten to 50,000 words once or twice. The other times, it was still worthwhile. I get a whole lot of writing done in a short period of time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Day Late and a Comma Short

Yesterday was National Punctuation Day.

The official website is In addition to providing information on the day itself, the site gives usage information on each mark.

My favorite punctuation marks are the semicolon (joining two independent clauses) and the em dash (setting apart parenthetical expressions). I like them because they allow me to write in a way that matches the way I speak. I have a tendency to make associations, and my "asides" often come in the middle of my sentences. I'm struck by the fact that these two marks are opposites. Hmmm . . .

In the course of my day job—or when reading the work of aspiring writers—the most common punctuation mistakes I see are:

Commas: Not every pause in a sentence requires a comma.
Misplaced Apostrophe: Don't use an apostrophe when making something plural.

Maybe I'm the only literary weirdo with favorite punctuation marks; maybe I'm not. In any case, Happy Belated National Punctuation Day!

Monday, September 20, 2010

In the Still of the Night

I have a feeling it's going to be a late night. In addition to being a night owl, I just finished a latte with enough espresso to jumpstart three accountants.

Anyway, I'll probably work on my writing or make some tags for my scrapbooking and cardmaking projects. I was looking at my oven about an hour ago. It could use some extra attention. I'll probably take care of that before I go to bed.

All of this got me wondering what my main character does at odd hours. If for some reason he couldn't sleep, would he toss and turn? Does he have one of those "sounds of the ocean" machines on a bedside table? Maybe he'd just turn on the television and watch infomercials. As I type this, I realize that he'd get up and work. He works at home and suddenly I know he doesn't have much of a life outside of his apartment.

What does your character do in the wee hours of the night? What wakes him/her up in the middle of the night? Would she make herself a glass of warm milk? Surf the web? Or how about something unexpected like go for a walk?

Think about how a scene like this could add depth to your character. It could reveal fears and racing thoughts. Imagine the type of people he/she would meet late at night.

Heartland Writers Group: 100 Challenges

100 words per day for 100 days.
I had such a great time when my writers group did this a few years ago. I can't wait to do it again!

Heartland Writers Group: 100 Challenges: "A few years ago HWG held a challenge at the beginning of the year. Write 100 words a day for 100 days! Wednesday September 22, 2010 is the ..."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Refilling the Ink Pot

On Saturday, Psychic Andy was a guest speaker at the Heartland Writer's Group meeting. He talked about his intuition and perception growing up, his journey to accepting his abilities and using them, what it's like to give a reading, differences between ghosts, imprints, and spirits, and many other matters of sensory acuity. He was captivating, and I took 6 pages of notes!

The things he spoke of didn't seem strange to me, nor did they sound fantastical or unlikely. I grew up with a father whose dreams came true. He would tell his dreams to my mom and me and usually within two weeks, what he dreamt would happen. He would be vague sometimes, like the time he said, "Something's going on in Iowa." Then a few days later, parts of Iowa started to flood. The flood lasted for 6 months. Other times, he was more specific. He told me something was wrong with Magic Johnson two days before Magic announced he was HIV positive. He told me that a Nebraska football player who had trouble with law a year before was about to have trouble again. In less than a week, the player (who'd been out of the spotlight for a year) was back in the news--this time for attacking a woman. I can't explain it all, and I can't say that my father was psychic. But what I will say is that breakfast in our home was often interesting.

After hearing Psychic Andy, I've decided to invest some page time in exploring my characters' deep intuitions. Not so much strong impulses, but staying a moment with what their raw instincts tell them about a situation and what happens when they have no faith in their own judgment or . . . follow it blindly.

Psychic Andy's talk was in the morning, that afternoon I attended the Downtown Lit Fest. I heard discussions on the future of the book (and the surge of e-publishing) as well as readings from novels and comments from a panel of writers who'd contributed to a fairy tale anthology. The event was held in Kaneko, an open space for art and creativity, and reminded me of how important it is to:

• Refuel the muse

• Be around like-minded people

• Be inspired by other writers

• Learn more about the craft

• Indulge creativity

• See how others are: pushing the envelope, re-imagining the craft, creating in new directions

I'm hesitant to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway, I feel sorry for people who don't "get out." For some writers, all they know about writing is the space in their home where they sit and write. Now, if that process is workin' for ya, cool. But I still wonder how much richer a person's writing would be if they mingled--actually walked around in the world of writing & creativity that exists beyond their fingertips. There's nothing wrong with appreciating a rose for its fragrance and beauty, but if you stand back from the rose for just a moment, you’ll be awed by an entire garden of aroma & splendor just a few short steps away.

Like they say at the Discovery Channel, "Explore Your World."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Writing with the Rain

I never realized how much weather influenced my writing until tonight. I guess I just didn't give it much thought. Tonight, I'm writing while listening to the rain, and what I hear is my main character's voice loud and clear. This guy is really fascinating and had a joy-shredding childhood. So far, he's managed to keep his pain and resentment tamped down until . . .

Wow. Listen to that thunder!

What climate brings the best out of your pen?

Planet SARK

If you ever need inspiration, Sark has plenty. I've been following Sark and reading her books for over 15 years. Her "playbooks" are all handdrawn and created to help readers not only get in touch with their inner child, but let the inner child run, breathe, skip, leap, laugh, and transform their lives.

Check her out: Planet SARK

Friday, August 27, 2010

BAD Antennae!

I had lunch with two friends today. We spent time catching up on our lives at a noisy Buffalo Wild Wings. One of my friends talked at length about a sort of Renaissance she's having in her life. She and her husband may be on the verge of a divorce. In fact, after she told him that she was unhappy and what she thought they could do to have a better marriage, his response was "Well, we should just separate then." According to my friend, her husband had absolutely no interest in doing anything differently. No compromise. No change. If it  meant things had to be different, he wasn't interested.

Now, my friend has been coming into her own in the last six months or so. She looks better, happier, more buoyant. She chalks it up to the fact that she decided after more than a decade of wedded unbliss, she wanted to focus on her own happiness and her own life.

Okay . . . what does this have to do with writing? Well, as a writer, the number one question people ask me is: "Where do you get your ideas?" Today I could say, "From a friend going through a divorce and is suddenly the happiest I've ever known her to be."

When people ask that question, my response is usually that artists always have our antennae up. Ideas come to us from all the experiences we have. This afternoon, while listening to my friend talk non-remorsefully about her situation, I felt a twinge of guilt because a small part of me was creating plot lines and developing characters. By the time I got my "To Go" box, I had an idea for a three-book series and couldn't wait to add it to my idea file.

So . . . what about you? Have you gotten a story idea from an unexpected experience? What was it, and what did you do with your idea?

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez | loudpoet

Really diggin' this dude. He's got some new fashioned ideas on writing.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez loudpoet

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

America's 10 Most Dangerous Jobs - Fisherman (2) -

Talk about manly-man jobs! Here's some ideas for your hero's career.

Or, turn it upside down and put your heroine in one of these jobs.

America's 10 Most Dangerous Jobs - Fisherman (2) -

Let It Marinate

I've been working on a short story for about two weeks now. When I say "working on," I don't mean I've been producing pages of writing. I've been marinating an idea in my mind. I've written about 10 pages of notes and thoughts and feelings about the short story, but nothing concrete.

This is not my traditional process. Usually, when I come up with the idea for a story, it comes together quickly. I see the first scene immediately, have a good idea about who my main character is, and already have goals and obstacles falling out of my ears before I sit down to write.

With this story, I've gotten:
  • premise: a thief and a mark
  • story theme: we are our possessions
  • first line: These things usually start with an introduction.
  • story form: an IOU
So far, my main character is somewhat elusive. Most of the time, my main characters pop into my head fairly well developed. This character MIA is nerve racking. I'm also searching for my main character's greatest fear. I'll be ready to start when the answers to these issues give me goosebumps.

This is a stubborn story. Like a baby that goes way past the 9-month mark. The good thing is, the longer I mull it over, the better the ideas. Each day gives me new insight into the story. I just write all my insights down, until I've figured out where this story wants to go.

If anyone had asked me before today, I would have said that I'd been finished by now. I only want to write a 30 - 50 page short story. If I write my traditional 10 pages per day, I'd have that in less than a week.
Something tells me this story is going to be different in every way.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Heartland Writers Group: Ask the Publishing Guru: Top 10 Mistakes Authors M...

Heartland Writers Group: Ask the Publishing Guru: Top 10 Mistakes Authors M...: "Ask the Publishing Guru: Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make When Promoting a Book on Facebook"

Something to Chat About

Yesterday my critique group had an online brainstorming session. We used Yahoo Messenger and took turns “talking” about our stories, coming up with plot points, and turning our ideas inside out. It was a free for all, no holds barred, conjuring outside of the box bash.

We like Yahoo Messenger because after each writer has her turn, she can copy and paste all the ideas (verbatim) into a Word document to use later.

There were three of us, but there are five in our group. Yesterday was great, and it’s fabulous when we all get together. One idea triggers another, bounces off another, takes off on another. Even when I’m brainstorming for someone else, ideas for my stories are also popping into my head. I’m sure it’s the same for the others in the group.

We used to meet once a week at a restaurant. Now, we stay home, sign on, and go for it. The internet is so convenient for this type of thing.

If you find yourself on the verge of writers block, or in the midst of a writing dilemma, have an online chat with a couple of writer friends and try trading ideas. You’ll be amazed at how many options you come up with in a short period of time. 

There Are No Rules - How to Ensure 75% of Agents Will Request Your Material

For over 10 years, I've read article after article on "How to Query an Agent." I finally found one that speaks to my sensibilities as a writer.

Forget trying to sell your book, this author says. Just seduce the agent.

I like that approach. Without it, writer's are focused on the wrong things and can get frustrated trying to pack their 400-page novel into one paragraph of a 1-page letter.

Just prove that you're professional, intriguing, and can tell a story. Don't try to dump your story on their desks via query. Make them crave it through the tease.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Heartland Writers Group: Urban Dictionary, August 10: Youtube Attention Spa...

Heartland Writers Group: Urban Dictionary, August 10: Youtube Attention Spa...: "I'm a big fan of Urban Dictionary. Whenever I go to this site to look up a word, I always find 6 or 7 other words that I just have to click ..."

You Mean Every SINGLE Day

At a summer writers’ conference last month, I took a children’s book writing workshop. During the open Q&A portion of the workshop, one of the attendees asked the instructor (who is a published children’s book author) how often she writes. The instructor answered “Every day.”

The attendee, who was a very sweet, slightly overexcited, and a touch underconfident, lady stiffened, blinked and said, “I’m not sure how to hear that.”
 At this point, I know what’s going on. It’s the deer in the headlights look I get when people ask me that question and get the same answer.

The instructor frowned and asked, “What do you mean?” to which the sweet lady responded in a voice undercut with astonishment, “Well, when you say you write every day, do you mean every day?”

Instructor: “Yes.”

Sweet Lady: “Oh. So, you mean every single day.”

Years ago I would have laughed at this. Now, I’m just chafed and confounded. Why is this a surprise to people? Especially if they are aspiring novelists asking this question of a novelist. Most novels are at least 300 – 400 pages long with 100,000 words in them They don’t pop out whole. Oh how I wish they did!

I’ve had similar experiences with other areas of writing, for example:

A young woman who’d recently gotten a degree in journalism that told me she hated college because the instructors were always correcting her work. Huh? I told her to look into self-publishing.

A gentleman said the guidelines of the publisher he was targeting mentioned the house is looking for manuscripts 90k – 120k and wanted to know how many words they will really accept? 70K? 80k? I asked him to tell me about his day job because his future just might live there.

More recently I was on an author panel. One of the questions we got was regarding how polished a manuscript should be when you turn it into an editor. To which we responded in unison “Polished.” The person followed up her question with “Polished, polished?” To which we responded, “Yes!” Undaunted she wanted to know if that meant grammatically correct and free from typos.

One more example and then I’ll let this go:

I was editing an anthology with a friend. In our call for submissions, two of our guidelines clearly stated that we were looking for short stories of 8 – 12 pages and that all submissions had to be within the body of the e-mail. One writer sent an e-mail pleading for us to allow him to send an attachment. He expressed his angst at the error messages he received trying to send his story in the body of the e-mail. Suspicious, I wrote back asking how long his story was. He wrote back . . . 69 pages (after he’d put it in 10 point Times and single spaced it). He was trying SO HARD to get it to the point where it could be sent in the body of the e-mail, but alas . . .

I wrote back and told him how many times I’ve heard editors say they reject 80% of the manuscripts they receive simply because the writer didn’t follow the guidelines.

These are not isolated incidents. I get this stuff all the time.


What is wrong with these aspiring writers? Seriously. I never had this kind of hesitation about the craft—backing away so acutely from the things that would help me get published. No published authors I know had these kinds of deflections--this need to circumvent the rules or have exceptions made for them. I guess it takes all kinds. You’d think after 10 years in the industry, I’d get used to it.

To all those struggling to learn and follow “the rules,” I wish you lots of luck, tremendous effort, and tenacious pursuit, because that is what it takes.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Top 100 Creative Writing Blogs | Best Colleges Online

Top 100 Creative Writing Blogs Best Colleges Online

Top 10 Blogs for Writers - The 2009/2010 Winners

Top 10 Blogs for Writers - The 2009/2010 Winners

Even the Experts

I mentioned in a previous post that I'm reading The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. I have a first edition, and I must say I'm surprised by the inordinate number of typos in the book. Coming from a highly respected agent and a publisher like Writer's Digest--both behemoths in the publishing industry--the typos are unexpected, refreshing, and ironic. Unexpected for obvious reasons. Refreshing because it goes to show that even the experts can miss the mark. Ironic in that Donald Maass, who seems to want so much from aspiring writers, has fallen short of his own demands.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Punk-Ass Prompts

See, this is what I'm talking about.  Those writing prompts that will never produce anything I'll ever use in a book . . . Ever.

I found this in the Writer's Digest newsletter. It's this week's prompt:

Using as much alliteration as you can (Annie always ate apples) tell a story about your meeting with a group of alien ambassadors.

Most of the time, I enjoy the prompts from Writer's Digest. Even if I was writing a sci fi, I still can't imagine using the writing from this prompt. What is this prompt teaching me to do? What skill or technique is this building in my writing? Seriously, what am I missing?

The first serious writing prompt I encountered was one I heard from Terry McMillian. She was the featured speaker at writers conference I was attending (just before her mega bestseller Waiting to Exhale was published). Anyway, the writing prompt she uses with her students is:

Write about the worst thing that's ever happened to you. Write in-depth. Write until you cry.
Write about the best thing that's ever happened to you. Write in-depth. Write until you laugh.

The revelations, emotions, details, events that come out of that brave writing are things that transcend all writing. This exercise will give you touchpoints and references you can use again and again. If you don't chose to use the writing in that way, maybe it will cleanse you and open you so that you can write the novel you were born to write.

Anyone have a favorite writing prompt? Please share.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I'm Reading

Right now I'm reading The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass and Broken by Megan Hart.

As usual, Donald Maass has put together a book that explores the elements of fiction writing that bestselling fiction has in common. He gives explanations, examples, and then exercises to help you incorporate these elements into your fiction.

Megan Hart's book is an erotic novel a woman who explores her sexuality (or lack thereof) vicariously through others. I'm enjoying the fact that it is erotic fiction with an actual solid and well-layered story and plot. The sexuality heightens the drama of a great tale.

What are you reading?

Blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter, Oh My!

When I conduct writing workshops (see Writing From Scratch), writers often ask about social media. They want to know how much time should they invest in social media and the impact social media has on sales. Although a writer’s participation in Web 2.0 outreach to readers and followers is essential, my inclination is toward the old school perspective that says focus on your work . . . always on the work. Without a finished product (i.e. a novel or two) none of these other things matter much.

What I find is that all too often, writers who haven’t even crossed the threshold of “the sagging middle” (more on the sagging middle in a future post) are caught up in thoughts about promotion (including websites and business cards) before they have something to promote. The energy you spend fretting over which social media you want to use--and how much time you’re going to spend doing it as well as how to balance social media time with writing time--to me is moot until you’ve proven to yourself that you can actually finish a book.

Now, I’m well aware that an online presence is vital these days. Publishers want to make deals with writers who come with a ready-made readership. But what good is that ready-made readership if this readership has nothing to read?

My suggestion in this area is always work on your book. Finish your book. Make it the best book you can possibly write. If you’ve finished one book, start another (as you wait for responses from agents and editors). Have a solid and engaging idea of where you want your writing career to go. Have a plan to get there. When you have a product and a plan, the way in which social media supports your book and fits into your plan becomes evident. Then, you can focus on your viral presence and make it as magnificent as the work you’ve produced.

Like the proverbial chicken and egg, we’re entering a era where writers are asking “What comes first, the book or the blog?” Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as you have both.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Trouble With GMC

Okay, maybe it’s not the trouble with GMC, just my trouble with GMC. As many of you know, in the mass market fiction world, goal, motivation, and conflict (lovingly adored as GMC) rules with an essential hand. If you want to write a good story, it is said, your main characters must have goals, motivations, and conflicts. And these GMCs must have internal and external aspects. Just the thought of this conjures visions of Left Eye from TLC (Jesus rest) when she was on Behind the Music and said, “Get ready to do you math!”

If you’re writing romance as I do and you have a hero and a heroine, and you have an internal and external GMC for each . . . uh, that’s twelve things to keep track of in your story.


I like the “idea” of GMC. For years I completed character boards with Post-it notes working out each of those twelve aspects like a dutiful romance author. All the while, that process didn’t sit quite right with me. I mean seriously . . . 12 things!

If I give my character a white poodle on page 17, I have to make sure that the damned thing isn’t a black cocker spaniel by page 234. It’s just the way my mind works, or rather, doesn’t work. Keeping track of my main character’s internal conflict, while balancing her external goal, all the while amplifying his internal motivation—I mean, just boil me in oil now.

It wasn’t until I read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook that I found something that works for me. Mr. Maass suggested having characters want two things at the same time. This may simply be an alternate route to get to the internal and external goal as well as the internal and external conflict, but to me, it makes more sense. No, not more sense, better sense. Making those two things are mutually-exclusive is an even better way to put it. Use this technique and you’ve eliminated potentially six things from your GMC plotting. And wouldn’t we all love that? Less to worry about when we’re creating our stories.

To those for whom Internal/External GMC works, I salute you. I have plenty of friends who wouldn’t dare write word-one without completing their GMC boards. (The bedrock of my writing principles is: do whatever works.) For others like me, it took a while to find a concept that I can actually use to write better stories. Now that I’ve found what drives me toward my best writing, I’m sticking to it.

How about you? GMC thumbs up, down, or sideways?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conducting Research

When I conduct research, my goal isn’t just facts, figures, and information. I also want to get enough realism so I don’t get slammed by readers who say, “Girl, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” What I seek is experiential research.

I don’t do this with every story, but some of them just talk to me and call out for more than internet searches, a trip to the library, and a SME interview.

In True Devotion, my character Marti is an artist. She does lettering arts and she paints. My characters tend to have occupations that I have some curiosity about. That way, if I take a class—or as in the case of True Devotion—I purchase some paints and a canvas and some brushes, I’ll be stepping into my character’s life as well as expanding my own.

I wrote an historical novel that takes place during slavery. I spent a week in Williamsburg, VA and took a plantation tour. In my book, Ever Wonderful, my character owns a ranch. I spent the weekend at a working ranch, got dirty, and had a ball!

I can often tell when I’m reading a book whether the author has given the MC (main character) an occupation or hobby he/she knows nothing about. If I have a character who is a cop, for me, watching a whole season of Cops would not do it. I’d have to go on at least one community ride along.

Like I said, I don’t do this kind of immersion for every story. There are some stories where this kind of thing might not be feasible. In those cases, I sometimes ask myself why I’m writing the story then—if I can’t authenticate it.

I’ve been working on and off a short story in which the main character draws portraits. At some point, I will take up graphite and canvas and ask my friends to let me draw them. Now, am I an artist? No, at least not in that way. When I’m finished with the portraits, I’ll post pictures of the drawings here for your amusement. They will probably look like the scribbles of a four-year-old. But I will have direct knowledge of how that pencil feels in my hand. The conversation that takes place as I draw. Whether I want the person to just shut up so I can get the mouth right. And a compendium of thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m drawing—probably about light and shadow and the way people’s imperfections have a way of showing up on their faces.

I was in a workshop once and the suggestion came up to dress up like your character . . . then go about your day. I haven’t done that one yet, but knowing me . . . I will.

What do you do to get into your characters, who they are, and what they do?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Scene Rescue 911

This is not about how to take a scene you're currently struggling with and make it sing. Although that is certainly a noble pursuit--one to which most fiction writers are aspiring at this very moment. No, this blog post is about your step-children. The babies you've forsaken for the bigger and better scene. This is about the passage you cut away like an extra thumb vowing some day to return and use it elsewhere.

This writing activity is a seance. A reanimation.

Most of us have scenes that we've cut out of a previous work with hopes of visiting later for other works. Go back to one of those scenes--the further back, the better.

(If you aren't saving your scenes, shame on you! Start right now. Create a document called "Cut Scenes." Don't delete your words permanently.--> remember I said I was lazy<--Save them. They come in handy when you hit character resistance or need some inspiration.)

So, revisit your family. Take a word, a sentence, a sentiment, a name, a description, or a conflict and incorporate it into your current WIP.

Let me know how it goes.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Keeping It Together

When I start a new a new novel, I go to Office Depot or Office Max (whichever is having the best sale at the time) and I buy three things:

• 2-inch, D-ring binder with pockets

• Paper portfolio that’s 3-hole punched

• Notebook (spiral or non) that’s 3-hole punched

When I start working on a story, I write all my ideas, bits of dialogue, plot points, and random character thoughts in my notebook. I keep the notebook with me at all times. Concerts, business meetings, crop parties. Yes, I’ve even taken it to the bathroom with me—hey, I get some of my best ideas in there!

Anyway, I don’t write anything on any extraneous pieces of paper. Those things: post-its, receipts, deposit slips, and the like can get easily lost, and then there goes my brilliant idea. So, I write everything in one place. Now, you can get notebooks with dividers. So if you want to separate you ideas by subject, such as backstory, plot, subplot, you could. I’m organized, but I’m not that organized. That kind of fine tuning is counter intuitive to my creative process—which is best described as . . . free flowing (read messy).

I use the portfolio to keep track of any loose papers. Photos from magazines of people that represent my characters. Pamphlets, booklets, from research I’ve done on the topic. News articles of events that I might talk about in my story. Things people send me. It’s amazing how when I tell people what my story’s about, sometimes I get things from friends and colleagues on that topic. And because I forget my notebook sometimes and I’m forced to write on the backs of napkins and weird slips of paper, the portfolio gives me a place to put them. If my portfolio gets too fat, I use the pockets in the binder as overflow.

Finally, I printout a copy of my manuscript when it’s ready to edit. (Yes, I do old school edits on paper.) I three-hole punch it and work on the edits. It’s also nice to have my manuscript printed out for those times when I’m writing about a character with ties to a previous book. I can quickly flip to whatever section I need to review from the previous novel and get the information I need to make the new story that I’m working on consistent.

So, that’s how I keep it together.

What’s your technique?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More Pens!

Here are some of my favorite pens from my collection.

Check out

for some great pens!

A Pen By Any Other Brand . . .

would definitely not write as sweetly!
I've had a thing for pens for about 15 years. Ten years ago I put my dollars where my fascination was and bought my first "nice" pen. Levenger True Writer. Since then, I've fed my pen jones, My friends and family have been good to me on birthdays and special occasions.

I've discovered that when I write with them, something wonderful happens . . . I write better. My handwriting, my poems, short stories, and fiction. My muse knows there's something special in my hand and does not disappoint. If I'm working on my computer and get stuck on a scene, I take out one of my pens, grab and pad of paper and push through it.

Some of the pens in my collection aren't that expensive (like the $16 tan and black one or the $10 black and white one that lights up). Some of them just have fantastic weight and feel so damned good in my hand, I can't help but write something I'm proud of.

When I was on tour with my novel The Glory of Love, I was using my orange pen. Since I bought it, I've forgotten the make of it. However, a guy that came up to purchase a book for his wife knew exactly what type it was. Make, model, type of ink cartridge. It's always cool to meet a fellow pen aficionado!

I bought my red True Writer when I sighed my first book contract. I bought the Sheaffer Balance fountain pen when my first book Destiny's Song came out. For raw creativity, there's nothing, nothing like a good pen.

If This Pen Could Talk

I’m revising a short story right now. The story is about the aftermath of a shooting that takes place on a college campus. I wrote the story during a weekend workshop titled SUDDENLY FICTION during the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I attend the festival almost every year, and it’s the best writing I do every 365 days or so. With choices of over 200 workshops every summer, I’ve had my share of workshops that were less than great.

However, this year I chose wisely. As a self-defined writing exercise junkie, I revel in the opportunity to enhance my writing skills and use my pen in new ways by doing exercises designed to hone specific skills. The one I enjoyed most from the Suddenly Fiction workshop was where our instructor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, suggested that we write from a perspective different/opposite from our own. For example: imagine being pro-life and being chosen to lead a discussion on the merits of pro-choice. I can’t describe how liberating this was. Suddenly (as the workshop title implied) I wrote freely in a way that allowed me to create a character I’m utterly fascinated with.

And now, the contrast. I’m a lazy writer. If I’m producing creative writing . . . pages or scenens in the 1,000s of words, those pages better fit somehow into my WIP (work in progress). I’m not at all into the "stare at the orange and describe it in minute detail” kind of writing exercises unless I’m writing about a character who is obsessed with oranges and that description will become part of my manuscript.

So for those of you with a similar mind, I’m writing this blog. My goal is to share my ventures into creative writing that have enhance my writing and make me excited about all those words. In doing so, my hope is that you stumble across something you can use to stay excited about your writing.

I’m going to say what my pen would say if it could talk. I hope you’ll join me here often and do the same.