March 26, 2017

Finding the Time to Write When Life Gets in the Way

Whether they have full time jobs, whether they are retired, whether they are stay-at-home parents, finding the time to write is a problem. When writers sit at their computers at their desks at home, others do not understand that they are working. You might be right in the middle of a chase scene. Your hero or heroine is running for their lives or about to get caught doing something dangerous. Perhaps a bomb is about to explode. Your fingers are flying across the keyboard, trying to keep up with the images forming in your head. And then, you hear, “Mom, can I borrow your blue shirt?”

Imagine what that does to a writer’s concentration. Suddenly everything stops. The momentum is lost. Later, when you sit down to that same scene, it may take hours to get back in the rhythm. Sometimes you may never get it back and the scene has to be completely re-written.

  • Leave your home. When I first started writing, I thought it would be wonderful to work at home. I could do the laundry and work at the same time. I could take care of the yard crew and work at the same time. Wrong! What happens is I do the laundry and take care of the yard crew and my writing doesn’t get done. When I leave home, go to a coffee shop or to a quiet office or to the local library, I can write and write. I get more done in a couple of hours than I might in a full day at home.
  • Close your doors. Some people can’t leave home. Perhaps they have a small child or a sick parent or spouse. Close your doors to alert your family, friends, and others (even the dog), that you will be working. I’ve even suggested putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
  • Turn off the pesky distractions on your computer. If you leave home, but continue to get email or text notifications, your writing will not get done. Turn everything off for a few hours. Believe it or not the world will survive.
  • When all else fails, take care of life’s demands. Do everything you can to finish whatever is calling you away from writing, and then settle in to write. Don’t try to mix them together. Constant interruptions will only cause frustrations.

When Books Don’t Seem to End

From the title of this post, you may have thought I’d be writing about books I’ve read. Indeed, there have been many a book where I’ve wondered when will this book end. The author seemed to be toying with us–drawing everything out, teasing, until we toss the book at the nearest wall. But, actually I want to talk about the problem I’m having with my current work in progress.

I can’t seem to figure out the ending. I have all the characters developed and moving right along. There’s a murder and a mystery surrounding it. Things progressed nicely through the early writing of the book. I had a vague notion about who committed the murder and why. But the notion was vague. When I close to the the ending (in that character’s mind), things got murky. Everything seemed to fall apart. The motive for killing, the killer, everything was in a mixed up mess, more tangled than my leash when I walk two dogs.

Here’s what I decided to do.

  1. Keep writing even if I had to go back and change everything. If I could just keep going each day, then my hope was everything would work out.
  2. Don’t try and force what I vaguely thought might happen. In fact, I had to try and keep an open mind. Perhaps the person I thought had committed the murder, didn’t. Perhaps the original motive was something altogether different. In fact, I had to be ready for surprises just like my readers.
  3. Get away from the work. Stop writing and start thinking. Go to that place where my imagination runs free. Let go of everything and see what happens next.

With these three goals in mind, I began again. This time, I wrote and re-wrote. I allowed the characters to play out the scenes even if I realized that scene might have to go or one previously written might be trashed.

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Eureka! Yesterday it all came to me. The loose ends tightened and things started to fall into place. Nonetheless, I’m still working on it. But, today I believe I might really be able to end this book.

If so, what tips do you have for me and for my readers? Share!

Tips for Telling a Good Story

When you share an experience and personalize it, you create interest. Think about the times you’ve sat in big auditoriums, bored out of your mind, as speakers drone on with facts. Suddenly, a new speaker takes the podium and begins with, “When I left my house this morning to come here, something happened to me that made me think about everything you’ve been talking about. I…” You perk up. You sit up straighter in your seat. You lean forward. You actually listen, curious about what happened. As a fiction writer, I can embellish stories—change them a bit to fit what I’m writing.

Although I couldn’t change the facts in nonfiction, I still used story. Here’s how. In both interviewing books, I created examples from real interviews. These examples helped the reader understand my points and also made the learning stickier. In the book about communication, I used dialogue and real cases to make the points. Again, those situations with people—confrontations I’d seen in my career—engaged the readers. Finally in the book on social media, my co-author and I found cases and examples to make our points.

 

They have certain attributes that enable them to convey their experiences with gusto and charm. Nonetheless, if you work hard, you too can become adept at telling stories.

Here are some tips:

1) Make the story personal. Even if it didn’t actually happen to you, tell it as if it did. Describe places and names your audience recognizes.

2) Use examples that fit your audience. You wouldn’t want to tell a story full of scientific information to a group of ninth graders.

3) Don’t get hung up on details. The audience need not know the color of the person’s hair or to whom the person is related. (Unless those details add color to your story). Only share details as needed. Too much detail gets boring.

4) Tell your story with passion and emotion. Use your nonverbal skills to emphasize points. Your voice plays a key role here. A monotone, no matter how good the story, will lull your listeners to sleep.

So, you might ask, “How can I tell a written story with passion?” Indeed, it’s harder when you use words with no visual or vocal cues to tell your story, but you can do it.

Instead of saying, “He went to the store,” say, “He raced to the store as if chased by a swarm of bees.” When one races, we get a verbal picture. Writing gives you a chance to imagine the story in your mind’s eye. Once the image forms, ask yourself, “How can I express that image on paper?”

Here are three tips for writing powerful stories:

  • Use strong verbs. Verbs that show action versus passive verbs or the to-be verb (is, are, was, were).
  • Use strong nouns. Nouns that imply action . Here’s an example. “She’s a dynamo vs. She’s a hard worker.”
  • Learn the art of writing with similes and metaphors. See my previous posts.

 

Writing Boo-Boo’s with Similes and Metaphors

In my last post, I talked about what similes and metaphors were and how writers use them to add power to their writing. What I didn’t discuss was how writers might abuse these two figures of speech. Learning what a simile is and learning how to use them are important. Learning how not to abuse them is equally important.

Let’s look at the biggest boo-boo’s writers make when trying to incorporate similes and metaphors. What I consider the worst mistakes.

Readers love to see a good simile. They recognize it as quality writing at its best. But, if you have three similes or metaphors in one paragraph or even in two paragraphs, the reader gets tired. The writer wants to incorporate these figures of speech for the most important messages, not for every message. Imagine a sentence like this one:

The man ran through the fence like a bulldozer and stumbled over the log as if it were a dead body, falling to his knees as though in prayer.

A bit too much, wouldn’t you say? Three similes in one sentence!

By cliche I mean something everyone has heard before. There’s really nothing terribly wrong with using cliches. And if you’re writing dialogue, it is acceptable usage (People talk in cliches). But, if you can think of a comparison that is different and not cliched, you will create a more powerful metaphor. Here’s an example:

As soon as the man entered the room, he stopped, not wanting to upset the apple cart.

How many times have we heard the expression upset the apple cart. This metaphor has been around since the beginning of time (which by the way is a cliched metaphor).

Sometimes coming up with your own simile or metaphor takes time and thinking, but when you get one that works, wow! It feels wonderful.

Perhaps you’ve heard of mixed metaphors or common images that don’t work together. Here are some examples of mixed metaphors:

He could talk till the cow turned blue

People are dying like hotcakes

His words hit home like my uncle’s Chevy

Notice that 1) A cow can never turn blue 2) People don’t die like hotcakes 2) How can your uncle’s Chevy hit home?

The metaphor must be able to do what it is compared to for example he could talk till the crops died on the vine.

I’ve mentioned just three mistakes. There are probably many more.

Here are some good examples of similes and metaphors:

  • She spoke to me in tones like my mamma when I’d missed dinner.
  • Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector.
  • …Then, like a lone sailor adrift for years on alien seas, he wakes one night to discover familiar constellations overhead.
  • …with rhetorical questions and capital letters and an army of exclamation points.

 

 

Similes, Metaphors, What in the World?

Talented writers know how to do this without overburdening the reader. Many new writers do not understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor nor do they understand how to use these figures of speech. 

Let’s first look at what in the world a simile and a metaphor is and how they may be used to spice up your writing.

Here are a few examples from published works:

His voice sounded raw, like it had been run against a grater

Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift

Michael was a short, fat, somnambulistic little man who looked like a well-boiled prawn

Notice that each comparison has a connecting word. In these examples “like” was used. But you can find many more that use other connecting words.

Notice how the examples above give the reader a more vivid picture of the description. In the first one, the writer could have stoped after his voice sounded raw. We readers would have made different interpretations of what that meant. But, by adding “like it had been run against a grater” gives the reader an actual sound.

In the second example, again the writer could’ve stopped before the simile. But the second part makes me tingle inside. Doesn’t it you? It provides the feeling, the emotion.

And the third example shows not just a short, fat man, but a man who looks like a well-boiled prawn. Can’t you just see that?

Metaphors do much the same thing as similes. They help add power and feeling to the writing.

What is a metaphor? It’s a comparison, like a simile, but without the connector. It says one thing is another that it cannot actually be. It’s a rhetorical comparison that cuts to the chase.

Examples:

Gossip is the foul smell from the Devil’s backside.

The truth in his harsh words was a hammer striking a stone.

A bruise is how the body remembers it’s been wronged.

Note there are no connecting words but there are comparisons. In the first instance gossip is compared to a foul smell. Gossip cannot ever really be the foul smell of the Devil’s backside. That’s not what matters. What matters is that the reader understands the speaker’s belief about gossip. The writer says it in few words but makes a big impact.

The second instance similarly compares two things that aren’t alike: truth and a hammer. Again by using this metaphor, the reader clearly feels those harsh words as if hit by them.

And, finally in the third example bruise is a body’s memory. Very powerful, very rhetorical.

What powerful similes and metaphors have you seen in your reading? Share some!

In my next post, I’ll share how new writers abuse these figures of speech along with some tips for how to incorporate them into your writing.

Can #Writers Break the Rules? You BetCha!

The more seasoned writers get creative with point-of-view without violating the main principles. They use more wordy expressions than I might and they challenge the basic rules we all hear–like not writing prologues. Sometimes there are so many rules we have to adhere to I wonder where the creativity comes in.

Granted some of the rules make sense. It’s important to hook your reader on the first page or two. How you do that might vary. It’s important to maintain consistency with your point-of-view so your reader knows who is telling the story. And, it’s important not to write for yourself but for your reader and their enjoyment. In other words, throwing in information that’s unnecessary just because we enjoy writing about it isn’t such a good idea.

In last week’s blog post titled Unconventional Point-of-View, I shared three instances where writers broke the rules but stayed within the boundaries of good writing. New writers have less opportunity to break rules. It’s hard enough to get published without trying to do someone unconventional. But, once the writer is known and has a following, that’s a different story.

One book that I very much enjoyed but I have friends who didn’t is Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The title ought to tell the reader that this will not be your typical read. Nonetheless, Barbery strays from the rules by giving us quite a bit of philosophical information. The author is a philosopher. Perhaps she couldn’t help herself. I actually liked this because it felt consistent with the characters she developed. But, I have friends who did not and in fact some friends who wouldn’t finish the book. Too bad. Because it’s a very good read!

That’s a risk authors take when they test the rules. Some readers can’t deal with the unconventional.

Writers who test those boundaries risk losing readership.

Nonetheless, if done well, those authors who cause us to stretch our reading styles are the ones who set the pace for new readers. J.K. Rowling did this. She did it in several ways, but one particular rule she broke and enjoyed breaking was writing a “young” adult book in an “adult” language. In other words, she didn’t dumb-down the book because she was writing for young people. Violating this convention probably caused many arguments with her potential publishers. But, look at the result. We have an entire new genre. Young Adult means not simply for teen readers but for adults as well. The books cross over and are appreciated by a wide range readership. Furthermore, the young people are reading and learning new vocabulary.

. If you do, you might be another pacesetter in the world of literature.

 

Unconventional Uses of Point-of-View

In my last post, I talked about how to avoid abusing point-of-view.

I call it cheap writing because the author simply jumps from head to head. It is easy and takes no creativity. When forced to stay in one head or in the head of a particular character throughout a scene or chapter, it’s harder to create a full story. Authors must use creative means to do that. It’s more work, harder and much more enjoyable for the reader.

They do this with a subtle purpose, not just to be different. As long as the method does not distract the reader, it’s perfectly fine to try some of these unconventional techniques.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.

In the book, Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult uses the first person point of view for four different characters. She introduces the characters at the beginning of each chapter with their names. But, the chapter is told from the first person point-of-view. So, when Jenna talks, she says, “I went to the school…” This is a very different approach to what might be more common–use the third person. When alternating points-of-view are told in a story, most authors chose the third person. It was a general understanding that first-person is only used when there’s only one point-of-view. That rule, however, is changing. Why might Jodi Picoult choose this method instead the third person? My guess is she wanted to bring the reader closer to those four characters. She wanted them to feel, hear, see, taste, touch what those characters felt, heard, saw, tasted and touched. And, the method worked.

Another example of a creative use of point of view was adopted in Clare Mackintosh’s book, I let You Go. In this book the author uses the first-person point of view for two characters, the protagonist and the antagonist. She uses the third person for the police. Again this is a very unconventional use of point-of-view, but it clearly adds tension in a suspenseful book. The reader is kept at a distance from the police (where the reader ordinarily feels safest) and is brought in closer when put in the minds of the victim and the perpetrator. When things get the hottest, most scary, Mackintosh has the reader where she wants them, in the mind of the one being pursued. Very clever. And, again it worked.

My last example comes from The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This book is told from the point-of-view of Death. Here we have an omnipresent point-of-view, one of my least favorite, but it’s done in such a creative way that the reader never believes the author is talking to us. Instead, we hear from the characters, in their points of view with the occasional asides from the omnipresent Death. For me, as a reader, it made the difficult times easier to bear. It made telling a harsh story easier to stomach. I can’t imagine how Zusak came up with the idea of telling the story from the point-of-view of Death, and my hunch is the first editors he sent the manuscript to, rejected that method. But, thankfully, he went with his instincts because this is an excellent book told in a masterful manner.

Creating the plot, characters, setting and overall story aren’t the only choices authors must make. How to tell that story is another important choice.

What are some examples of the use of point-of-view that you’ve found to be unconventional but effective? Share those with us!

 

The Messiness of Point of View

It  is distracting and cheapens the writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing what other characters are thinking. There’s just a way to do that correctly. As a reader, I love the way writers are experimenting with point of view and are trying a number of new, previously unorthodox things.

Here’s an example. Years ago when I wrote an early version of the e-Murderer, I thought I’d write the book in the first-person from my protagonist’s point of view. But, at the end of each chapter, I included a third-person point of view from the mind of the killer. Not much, just enough to add creepy suspense.

I did this and sent the book out for consideration. It came back with the note that I must decide to either write in the first person point-of-view or the third. I couldn’t use the format I described above. Reluctantly, I took out those bits from the murderer’s mind. Many edits later, I wished I’d saved them. Those snippets gave me more insight into the mind of the killer. Furthermore, many writers are doing what I’d wanted to do all those years ago. Liane Moriarty, for example, tests the reader’s attention by adding bits at the end of chapters or at the beginning (depending on the book) from different perspectives. The chapter progress, however, moves linearly. Very clever.

  1. Writers must stay in the character’s mind throughout a scene or a chapter. If the writer hops from one character’s head to another from paragraph to paragraph or sentence to sentence, it is unacceptable in today’s writing worlds. Here’s an example of what not to do: He loved to drink red wine while eating, but he sensed her disapproval. Just as he took a sip, she frowned. Why must he always have wine with dinner? she thinks. Notice how we began in his mind and then moved to hers. Anytime a writer does this, he or she is head hopping.

  2. If you write in the first person, you can only allow the reader to hear that character’s thoughts. Furthermore, what is learned in the story can only be detected by the first-person character. In other words, I can’t experience something unless I’m there or I hear it from someone else. The writer, therefore, must think of clever ways to get information to his/her main character.

  3. If you write in the third person, you have the same restrictions as if you were writing in the first person. The difference is, there’s a bit more leeway. The he or she of your story can only think their own thoughts. They can’t jump into someone else’s head. But, it’s easier to go from one character’s head to another in different scenes or chapters. It is in this point-of-view (third person) that I see the most mistakes with head hopping. Here is where the writer must be especially cautious. For example, if you are describing the character’s appearance, you must do it in a way that character thinks. Not what everyone else may think about that character. You cannot say, “She had beautiful hair that shimmered in the sunlight” if you are in that person’s head. You could say, “She hoped her hair might shimmer in the sunlight and attract his attention.”

  4. The omnipresent point-of-view is passed. There was a time when most books were written in the omnipresent point-of-view–that is the author talking to the reader. In today’s writing world, this convention has disappeared. Readers no longer want to hear what the author has to say. Instead, they want the author to show us through the characters.

In my next post, I’ll share some creative uses of point-of-view by some of today’s best authors.

Anyone Can Write Goals–AccomplishingThem Takes a Lot More!

Before I started writing full-time, I was a communication coach. One of the things I did with my clients was to help them establish their goals. What did they want to accomplish? What was holding them back from their dreams? What would it take for them to accomplish their goals. It’s one thing to set goals. It’s quite another thing to achieve those goals.

They tell their friends about new resolutions for the year. The gyms fill up with these good intentions. By February all those people vanish. Where did they go? Why didn’t they maintain their resolutions?

If you ask these people why they slid from their good intentions, they’ll tell you life got in the way. They didn’t anticipate a new job or a new baby or a sick parent or whatever. In truth, the resolution wasn’t really a resolution. It was something they felt they needed to do, but they weren’t really committed to it.

If so, here are some things you can do to make the goals happen.

  • Set your goals with clear outcomes. If your goal is to lose weight, I’d ask you to tell me how much weight and by when. Your goal then becomes: I want to lose five pounds by the first of February. That’s a clear goals with an outcome.
  • Once you set the goal, visualize actually achieving it. Imagine getting there and how that will feel. For example, if you set a goal to remodel your kitchen, imagine that new kitchen. Try out the new cabinets. Walk on the newly refurbished floors. Then, record your feelings. How did that newly remodeled kitchen make you feel?
  • Ask yourself what might stand in your way of reaching your goals. What obstacles might you encounter along the way? Once you know what those barriers are, you’ll be more likely to scale over them. For example if one barrier to weekly posts on your blog is that you don’t know what you’d post about every week, then write out a list of topics that will carry you through the first several weeks or months.
  • Find a buddy or partner to hold you accountable for your goals. If you try to do it alone, you may not ever get there. If your goal is to go to the gym once a week until March, find a friend with a similar goal. If your goal is to write a chapter a week in your new novel, ask a friend to regularly check to see how you’ve done.

Anyone can list goals and set resolutions. Accomplishing those goals is quite another thing.

Next year at this time, you’ll feel successful and ready for the next leap.

What suggestions do you have to help people accomplish their New Year’s resolutions?

What Are Your Writing Goals for 2017?

As each day passes us by, we often wonder what we’ve accomplished from day to day. Many of us are simply trying to stay above water. Keep all the pieces in place–whether it’s that demanding job with ridiculous deadlines or food on the table and kids delivered to soccer games. Those of us who are also writers, worry about the words we’ve put on paper. Have we accomplished any more than an outline? How can we squeeze in our writing goals among the many demands facing us from day to day?

Let’s not let that happen when 2018 dawns (right around the corner, I might add). When my niece told me she wanted to go to nursing school, she said, “But, it will take me so long. I’ll be thirty by the time I’m finished.” My response to her, “You’ll be thirty anyway. You may as well be thirty and a nurse than thirty without realizing your dream.”

Sometimes, we become discouraged because we have such a long road ahead. As a novel writer, I know all about long roads. If I wrote short stories, that would be different.

To accomplish the goal of writing that novel, we must say, “Do I want to face the next year still saying I want to write a novel? or Do I want to face that year saying I did it?” The new year will come anyway.

Here are my goals for 2017:

  1. Finish the current manuscript I’m working on which is the third installment in the Jenna Scali series. The working title is A Painting to Die for. My goal is to get a clean, completed copy to my publisher by the end of January and to see it published by the fall of 2017.
  2. Finish my current work-in-progress. It’s a stand-alone mystery, working title Five Cans of Crazy. Complete the first draft by the end of February and prepare it to send to my beta readers by the first week in March. See it published by January 2018.
  3. By fall of 2017, draft another installment (perhaps the last) in the Jenna Scali series.
  4. Go to one major writers conference during the year.

There you have it. Now, that I’ve written them down, I have no excuses.

Let’s hear them.